One day I was in one of those giant supermarkets. The produce department opened out before me like a football field; within it, a vast bin overflowed with tomatoes. I started picking through them, then realized this activity was a waste of time, as they were all identical, all perfect. Each sphere had a thick, tough pink skin, without dent, spot or mark, all the same size; I knew they’d be relatively tasteless.  

My mind flashed to earlier days, to shelves lined with rows of deep red, thin-skinned tomatoes. These did require selection because some would be bruised or split, sizes varied from tiny to huge, and each was a juicy tasty treat of which its contemporary counterpart offers but a faint memory.

These tomato changes, it occurred to me, are like what’s happening to us: we’re expected to look, smell and feel the same as one another, to have tough skins that never bruise or break, and to be easily gathered, stored and marketed in large quantities. We’ve been standardized; normalized; uniformized.

Uniformizing, toughening people up and making them tasteless aren’t hallmarks of Christianity. At least they oughtn’t to be.

Christian community is where we find the Lord in one another

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Third Sunday of Easter (Year A) May 8 (Acts 2:14, 22-28; Psalm 16; 1 Peter 1:17-21; Luke 24:13-35)

Many people fear the light and run from the presence of God that calls for change. Strangely, religious people are not an exception and at times the worst offenders. Every new glimmer of hope and light has been opposed, resisted and feared from the beginning of time until today. People continue to persecute and kill those who challenge humanity to move beyond fear and blindness.

The truth is rarely pleasant and change is difficult. In the case of Jesus, human sin — fear, rigidity, jealousy and suspicion — did their best to destroy Jesus and everything He stood for. All of this was despite authenticating signs and wonders; in fact, these probably increased the level of fear. Peter does not pull any punches in his speech to the crowd. But something that is of God cannot be silenced or killed for truth has a power all of its own. By raising Jesus from the dead God vindicated all that Jesus said and did. Death cannot hold Him — not now or ever again.

Things do not change very much. We still are not noticeably open to people who challenge our perceptions, prejudices and ways of thinking nor do we treat them with much kindness or respect. It is far easier to condemn the ideas of others than to engage in dialogue. After all, there is the terrible possibility that they may be right! We dare not read a passage like the one above with any sense of smugness or superiority. We must always ask the honest question: would we have behaved any differently?

Some look at history and see nothing but a chaotic mass of events without direction or meaning. The author of 1 Peter sees something else: from the very beginning of time Christ was destined to redeem humanity. There has never been a moment in the history of the world in which God was not at work in some way on our behalf. But our author asks: in view of the blood and effort that has redeemed us can we justify a lacklustre or half-hearted response? We should exercise careful and grateful stewardship of the life that we have been granted.

Often we can amass a pile of facts but lack understanding and the ability to see the big picture. In a teasing cat-and-mouse game on the road to Emmaus with the two disciples, an incognito Jesus questions them about the things that have happened in Jerusalem. The broken-hearted and disappointed disciples had witnessed the words and deeds of Jesus but they had unfortunately also been present for His judicial murder. Their bitter story ends with the account of the empty tomb related to them by the women and the fact that the empty tomb had been verified. But in spite of all this there was an absence of understanding and faith on their part. Debates about the existence of God or the truth of Christianity have a rather dismal success rate — they appeal to “facts” and “proofs” but deeper layers of the mind and heart need to be engaged.

The disciples were struggling with suffering — and they have a lot of good company. It is the oldest philosophical and religious question in the world. An even greater difficulty is faced in trying to reconcile suffering with God or God’s representatives. How could God’s anointed one suffer? The passion and death of Jesus was the stumbling block for the first generation of Christians. A rather exasperated Jesus carefully unravels the hidden mystery of redemption in the Scriptures. His suffering is not a fluke or accident but is part of the divine plan — the same one mentioned in the second reading. It is only at the moment of the breaking and distribution of the bread that their eyes were opened and they recognized Jesus — who promptly vanished from their sight.

This gives us an insight into how the early Christians read, interpreted and appropriated the Hebrew Bible — it was the key to understanding the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. But it was also in the breaking of the bread — the communal meal and prayer — that they encountered Jesus and experienced His guiding presence. Authentic Christian community is more than socializing. It is a place of acceptance, mutuality and trust and where we encounter the Lord in Scripture, prayer and one another.

We all share in the divine life

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Second Sunday of Easter (Year A) May 1 (Acts 2:42-47; Psalm 118; 1 Peter 1:3-9; John 20:19-31)

What fuels the negative forces at work in our world? Human competition, greed, fear and selfishness do the job quite well without blaming Satan or some other sinister force for our troubles. It doesn’t really matter if we are competing for oil, trade, power, military strength, economic advantage or even God. When we are convinced that there is not enough for everyone and that we feel threatened or fearful the “fun” begins — the game of trying to do others out of what we want for ourselves.

This deadly game usually ends in blood and tears. Luke’s depiction of the ideal Christian community challenges this dreary inevitability and offers us a luminous path out of the darkness. This first generation of disciples began to renounce the cause of so much human misery — the notion of personal wealth and property especially at the expense of others. This practice of the radical common life was not common — the Dead Sea Scroll community was a noted exception. But the first Christians were convinced that this was the pattern of the new age that was being born in their time. It was the pattern of a community in which the need for competition or jealousy would be lessened and no one would be humiliated or denied the basics of life.

The Passion according to John

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Each year on Good Friday the Passion of Jesus Christ according to John is read aloud in our churches. John’s Gospel, as we know, was written later than the other Gospels, perhaps some 70 years after Jesus died, and those years gave John plenty of time to reflect upon Jesus’ death and highlight a number of aspects that are not as evident in the other Gospels. What are those special aspects?

The bulk of John’s account focuses on Jesus’ trial and the eventual judgment that He be put to death. But it is ingeniously written. John writes up the trial of Jesus in such a way that, while Jesus is the one being tried, everyone else is on trial except Jesus. Pilate is on trial, the Jewish authorities are on trial, Jesus’ apostles and disciples are on trial, the crowds watching are on trial, and we who are hearing the story. Jesus, alone, is not on trial, even as His trial is judging everyone else. Hence when Pilate asks Jesus: What is truth? Jesus’ silence puts Pilate on trial by throwing Pilate back on his own silence, the truth of himself. It’s the same for the rest of us.

We are one with the divine

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Easter Sunday (Year A) April 24 (Acts 10:34, 37-43; Psalm 118; Colossians 3:1-4; John 20:1-18)

What was Cornelius the centurion expecting to hear? Although a foreigner, a pagan and an officer in the hated Roman army, he was a thoughtful and just man, giving alms and offering prayers to the God of the people whom he was governing. That prayer was heard — in a vision, a dazzling figure stood before him and commanded him to ask that Peter come to his house. He has no idea who Peter is or what he is going to say. Peter simply relates the story about Jesus that is travelling through Judea: divine anointing with the Spirit, compassionate deeds of power, betrayal and death. But that is not all: God vindicated Jesus by raising Him from the dead, thereby affirming His teaching and deeds. He has transcended death and some of His followers are witnesses.

At this point Cornelius might say, “Fine — great story and a great man, but what does that have to do with me?” The answer is stark and simple. Jesus now stands astride history itself as the judge of the living and the dead but with the desire to grant forgiveness to those who believe in Him.

The unquiet frontiers

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Few books have garnered as much respect during the past five years as has Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age. That respect is well-deserved. Given secularity’s convoluted history, there isn’t any one, normative study that traces out its evolution; but, if there was, Taylor’s analysis might apply for the distinction.

Few scholars bring so wide and deep a scholarship to the area of history and faith. Taylor confesses that he is a man of faith, but strives insofar as this is possible for anyone, believer or agnostic, to not let his own beliefs colour his research. Few, even those critical of the book, accuse him of that. He is generally objective, reporting what happened without either trumpeting or bemoaning it.

And what he traces out is the big story of how we moved historically from a culture and a consciousness within which it was virtually impossible not to believe in God to today, where belief in God is merely one option among others and often not the dominant one. Until the full-flowering of modernity we lived with what Taylor calls a “porous” rather than a “buffered” consciousness. A porous consciousness is more naturally mystical. A buffered consciousness is what Karl Rahner had in mind when he said we would soon reach a time when someone would either be a mystic or a non-believer.

The Roots of Forgiveness

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In one of James Carroll's early novels, he offers this poignant image: A young man is in the delivery room watching his wife give birth to their baby. The delivery is a difficult one and she is in danger of dying. As he stands watching, he is deeply conflicted: He loves his wife, is holding her hand, and is frantically praying that she not die. Yet the impending birth of their child and the danger of his wife's death conspire to make him acutely aware that, deep in his heart, he has not forgiven her for once being unfaithful to him. He has expressed his forgiveness to her but he realizes now, at this moment of extreme crisis, that in his heart he still has not been able to let go of the hurt and that he has not truly forgiven her.

As his wife hovers between life and death, he sees in her face a great tension, a struggle to give birth to someone even as she desperately struggles not to die. Her agony accentuates the deeper lines in her face and he sees there a dual struggle, to give birth and to not die.

Seeing this, he is able to forgive her in his heart. What moves him is not simple pity but an empathy born of special insight. His wife's struggle to give birth, while wrestling to stay alive, highlighted by the agony of her situation, is like a light shining on her whole life helping to explain everything, including her infidelity.

Jesus’ mission bears witness to God’s Kingdom

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Passion Sunday (Year A) April 17 (Isaiah 50:4-7; Psalm 22; Philippians 2:6-11; Matthew 26:14-27:66)

When people find meaning in their suffering they can endure almost anything. This was the insight of the great philosopher and psychologist Viktor Frankl, the author of Man’s Search for Meaning and how right he was.

The enigmatic suffering servant figure of Isaiah is a case in point for his suffering had the highest meaning. We do not know who he was or even if he was a particular individual but we do know that he suffered much abuse in the course of his ministry. This is not some sort of masochistic suffering for its own sake nor does it excuse injustice and cruelty. But one thing is clear: he is able to undergo such suffering and abuse because he knows that he is bearing the divine teaching within him and that he is fulfilling God’s mission. As long as he is continually renewed and instructed within he is able to remain focused with a laser-like intensity and purpose. Whatever is received from God is for the sake of others — our teacher continually gives hope and encouragement to the weary and discouraged. This is the model of the great men and women in history who have given their lives over to the advancement of humanity and have often paid a big price. There is so much today that is worth striving and suffering for — we need only listen to the voice of the spirit within us for guidance.

Loving our enemies

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Lorenzo Rosebaugh, an Oblate colleague shot to death in Guatemala two years ago, used to share at Oblate gatherings some advice that Daniel Berrigan once gave him. Lorenzo, contemplating an act of civil disobedience to protest the Vietnam war, was told by Berrigan: If you can't do this without becoming bitter, then don't do it! Do it only if you can do it with a mellow heart! Do it only if you can be sure you won't end up hating those who arrest you!

That's hard to do; but, in the end, it's the ultimate challenge, namely, to not hate those who oppose us, to not hate our enemies, to continue to have gracious and forgiving hearts in the face of misunderstanding, bitter opposition, jealousy, anger, hatred, positive mistreatment, and even the threat of death.

And to be a disciple of Jesus means that, at some point, we will be hated. We will make enemies. It happened to Jesus and he assured us that it will happen to us.

Toward Jerusalem

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Christ we set our face towards Jerusalem (Luke 9:51). We must enter into the twin questions of death and sin.

We’re surrounded by them all the time. Lent asks us to turn to them, not by way of giving up, nor to fight or overcome them, but simply to be with Christ who set His face towards both.  

Every day we face death, often unaware. This unawareness is a gift, because we mostly aren’t ready to face the vastness; God doesn’t ask us to stand always at the edge of the abyss. Rather, He showers us with life, in the flesh, and encourages us to grow strong in this. Still, we receive the gift of life amidst death.  

We gain life by living in the Spirit

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Fifth Sunday of Lent (Year A) April 10 (Ezekiel 37:12-14; Psalm 130; Romans 8:8-11; John 11:1-45)

Death is our greatest fear. People have stood in the presence of death from the primal origins of humans up until the present. They are filled with both dread and wonder — what happens after death? Where does the individual go? Does he or she live again or continue to live in another place? Prehistoric people buried their dead reverently with flowers and grave goods and all human cultures since have surrounded death with memorials, rituals and awe.

The sting of death is even more painful when it is unjust and unfair — especially when visited upon whole communities of people. It can seem like the light of life is snuffed out forever. In the sixth century BC, Ezekiel dealt with these feelings that he shared with his fellow Israelites. Israel lay in ruins with her population either dead or in exile. The temple was destroyed and its worship silenced. Would Israel continue? Was this the end of the line? Ezekiel’s vision (vv.4-6) assures the Israelites of two important things. First of all, God is faithful and has not abandoned them — they are still His chosen people. Secondly, God is the author and giver of life. By human standards, Israel is finished, but by God’s standards, Israel’s life has barely begun. Just as the graphic and somewhat macabre image of bones coming to life signifies a return from destruction and death, so it will be for Israel. God will raise her from the ashes of destruction and defeat and breathe life into her.