Who Is This Man?

All through our liturgical year, starting with Advent, marching through Christmas with shepherds and magi — the ignorant and the erudite — we finally arrive at this grim time in his history, witnessing and feeling the last sufferings of Jesus Christ.

Who is this Man who, in three short years, boldly claimed what he could do for us? Even though he described the forgiving and caring nature of God, he did not cringe from boldly assertive “I” phrases such as —

I am the Good Shepherd
I am the vine; you are the branches
I am the bread of life
When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to myself.

Bold teachings, but gently delivered, as Isaiah wrote: A bruised reed he will not break (42:3). The ones he reached out to were the suffering, the ones the higher-ups didn’t care about. Those referred to as the “remnant,” the useless left-overs of society, he approached with loving compassion and new hope.

John the Baptist, seen by many as a holy man, was nearly as bold as the One he announced, as he cried out:

Behold the Lamb of God who has taken away the sin of the world.

These words are so often spoken and heard that they float almost unnoticed through our minds. The sacrificial “Lamb of God” phrase is easy to grasp, but I, for one, struggled with those words about “taking away sin.” A language problem for sure, because for me, “taking away” meant removing. Would that it were so! Obviously, sin is still with us, alive and thriving. This is where Jesus gives us the vision of God’s limitless compassion and how we are its beneficiaries.

Sins forgiven are sins taken away.

If all of us were to practice what Jesus the Christ taught on this earth,  we would surely have entered the Kingdom of God, forgiven for any of our sins, for all of our unloving behaviors. Totally human, Jesus demonstrated perfect holiness by forgiving the cruelty and injustice of his judges and executioners. Such is the holiness we are invited to share with him and our heavenly Father. This is the divinisation spoken of by Saints Athanasius and Augustine. Recall what Jesus said in defense of his status as son of God: Don’t your scriptures say, “You are gods”? (John 10:34)

No wonder legal-minded “spiritual” leaders of his day worried about this Jesus person. They must have thought, “Where will we be if we let him get away with these egotistical pronouncements? Where will we be If he lets these sinners loose, if he lets these polluted people run rampant over our old, time-tested law that’s been holding us together for centuries? Our old dependable law will melt into oblivion. We’ll be lost! How bold, how revolutionary, to teach something so extravagantly new! To sit with sinners, to mingle in friendship with the unclean!”

Oh yes, this was indeed a revolution, an unthinkably dangerous way of treating the riff-raff. Of all things! The playing field would be leveled!

And so we find ourselves this week at the climax of Christ’s Passion in its twofold sense: on fire to draw others into the Kingdom of God; acceptance of suffering to legitimize his message. The command Jesus heard from the Father, and obeyed, has been spoken to us. We too can join Christ as heirs of God.

The way is simple in the sense of uncomplicated, yet accessible even to the un-schooled. Jesus entered the Holy City of Jerusalem as a poor man would, not on a silk-covered chair transported by slaves, and not upon a horse, the symbol of worldly power, wealth, and oppression.

Just days ago we witnessed the near destruction of one of our most cherished cathedrals, Notre Dame of Paris.

What timing! How can we not be reminded of Christ’s audacious claim: Destroy this temple and in three days I will restore it!

When St. Francis of Assisi heard a call to “restore the church,” in his simplicity he thought of the local church building needing repairs. It didn’t take long for him to realize the call was for him to model a return to the humble truths of the Gospel.

Yet even after two thousand years, we are far from practicing what Christ taught, even though he gave his life to prove it, and even though he was resurrected in order to continue his teachings through the many disciples to come.

God is the only One of kingly status. He does not need or ask for palaces, elaborate clothing, elaborate gifts, or complicated directives that only scrupulous, punctilious minds can explain, much less follow.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of God.
Blessed are the meek, the merciful, the ones who mourn, who make peace, who yearn for justice.
My yoke is easy, my burden is light.
Love one another as I have loved you.
Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away. (Matthew 24:35)

Salvador Dali

A Touch of Genius

Or, Finding God in Mozart

My new classical music station of choice is WQXR-FM out of New York City. No, this isn’t a paid commercial. I just want to express my appreciation for having this great channel. I even like their style of fundraising and proved it by making a donation! They were playing Mozart at the time, and were offering donors a couple of CDs with the “best of Mozart.” I don’t know how you’d go about selecting M’s best — it’s all so spectacular!

As you may know by now, if you’re a reader of my blogs, sometimes a thought jumps into my head and prompts other ideas to germinate. I consider this a blessing. It keeps my brain from atrophy (I hope) and invites insights and even clarifications  that I might not have had if I had just lolled around with only the one thought.

This time, what popped into my head was the 1984 Oscar winner for best film: Amadeus.

Peter Schaffer, author, capitalized on a rumor that had been floated when Mozart died at the young age of 35. The rumor was that the envious court appointed composer, Antonio Salieri, had caused Mozart’s death. The truth is that Salieri was a highly respected composer and teacher. Beethoven, Schubert and Liszt were among the most famous of his pupils, and they had dedicated compositions to Salieri. Pretty good recommendation, I’d say!

On the other hand, Mozart’s wild manners and foul mouth are well documented. Clearly, Schaffer used this situation as a device to explore the true nature of Genius.

There’s a wonderful scene at the beginning of the movie that shows Mozart horsing around (sorry, no other word for it) with his beloved fiancée Costanza, and using very coarse language. Salieri is disgusted to witness this highly improper behavior when suddenly, from the other room, are heard voices of wind instruments breathing out heavenly strains of music: one of Mozart’s Serenades.

Salieri is baffled. How can this uncouth boy create such glorious music when he, Salieri, who has dedicated his life and talent to God, can produce only hackneyed phrases? Has God no respect for his efforts? How can he favor this unworthy brat over me, a sober hardworking craftsman?

Playwright Schaffer named his play well, using only Mozart’s middle name, Amadeus, which means God loves. Indeed, God loves anyone and everyone for his own reasons, whether or not they’re reasonable to us.

Schaffer made good use of this alleged enmity between the two composers and the unfounded hoax surrounding Mozart’s death. He illustrated an important point about Genius which is this: Genius does not require moral Goodness in those whom Genius chooses to visit. Not all poets and artists, sculptors and musicians were models of virtue. But their lack of virtue or even good manners, never kept the spirit of Genius from entering what we earthlings might consider very foul homes.

I see this same paradox in what Jesus tells Nicodemus about the need to be re-born in the Spirit (John 3). To be born “of the flesh” is merely to follow the dry mandates of the law. Someone like Salieri might be well versed in the rules of harmony and composition, but may lack that special spark, the spark we call “divine inspiration.”

To be born of the Spirit means going beyond our hollow, dry, legalistic approach to God. Our model of divine inspiration is none other than Jesus the Christ. Yes, God has now given us Jesus to rely on; Jesus, The One who has come down from heaven and therefore knows first hand what is heavenly. Jesus taught of being born of the Spirit and even gave his life to prove the authenticity of this teaching.

We are, for now, on the outside looking in, and may not yet be able to know whom the Holy Spirit decides to visit, or why. The Spirit does not require our permission to visit those we consider worthy. Nor does the Spirit need to obey us when we want to exclude those we judge unworthy. The Spirit is like the wind that “blows where it wills. . . you can hear the sound it makes, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes; so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

That’s why Jesus’ teachings, parables, etc., so often feature  “losers” coming out on top, over the ones we’d consider “worthy.” For example:

  • The Good Samaritan who was a despised foreigner.
  • The laborer who was paid for a full day’s work in the vineyard, though he’d only put in a couple of hours.
  • The Prodigal Son, versus the “faithful” son who stayed home to work the farm.
  • Zacchaeus, who had cheated taxpayers but is now rewarded to have Jesus stay with him, just because he climbed a tree to see him!

Typically, we’re not good judges of character, especially as to who “deserves” to enter the Kingdom of God. On one occasion Jesus bluntly told Peter, “You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.” (Matthew 16:23).

We don’t get to barter or bargain with the Almighty; there’s no quid pro quo.

Most of us have no idea what humility is, much less Genius or holiness, even though Jesus modeled these for us so thoroughly.

So tell me, when was the last time you heard a composition by Salieri on your radio?Mozart at 6, in court dress.
Link to a scene from the movie Amadeus:

Ash Wednesday

Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still.
         T. S. Eliot, “Ash Wednesday”

A few weeks ago the Mass readings were taken from Genesis. It told the familiar creation story, ending with what was to have been the crown of creation: Adam and Eve. Then came the problems: disobedience, expulsion from paradise, and punishment. Husband, wife and heirs would have their labors increased and intensified.

Imagine my chagrin to read this new translation in my missal:

          You are dirt, and to dirt you shall return.

Given the context of “dirt” for modern American-English speakers, I was quite put off by a translation which comes across as a profound insult. For this “dirt,” our human flesh, is after all the same material that Jesus Christ took upon himself to become one with us. Without his humanity we would not be able to join in his sacred divinity. We could not become children of his heavenly Father. The Spirit could never find traction in us.

When we begin our Lent this week, reminded of our mortality by ashes in the form of a cross on our forehead, we will be called to a sincere conversion of life and the certain mercy of God, now possible because of Christ coming to us in full humanity.

Rend your hearts, not your garments. Return to the Lord your God, for he is  gracious and merciful, slow to anger, rich in kindness, and relenting in punishment.      (Joel 2:12-13)

Many of us still think of Lent as a time of giving up “stuff” such as chocolate or other treats. What God asks us to give up is the hard heart that separates us from the will of God, from the love of Christ, and from love for one another.

I pray for the strength to give up the sharp response.
I pray to give up the desire to have all the answers.
I pray that Christ will give me the grace to follow him in all the events of my life.

You do not ask for sacrifice and offerings,
but an open ear.

You do not ask for holocaust and victim.

Instead, here am I!                (Psalm 40:7-8a)
                                        +          +          +

Teach us to care:
Teach us to seek first and with all our hearts the Kingdom of Heaven.

. . .and not to care:
Teach us to know that God alone is in control of my life.

Teach us to sit still:
Teach us to let go of all anxiety, in total trust.

Each Lenten season offers a chance like none other in our lifetime. St. Paul urges us to seize this opportunity now, to accept God’s mercy now and to pass it on to others.

Behold, now is a very acceptable time; now is the day of salvation!     (2 Corinthians 6:2)

(This post first appeared on Ash Wednesday, 2017)


Who Am I?

Birthdays are times for special introspection. Who am I? How did I get to be where I am? Where do I go from here? This weekend also marks the publication of my 100th post, so it seems that something a bit different is needed.

A few years ago at the end of a day of recollection, the facilitator directed us to answer a basic question, “Who Am I?” At first, this seemed an impossible task: to simply discover in the few minutes allowed, and then to uncover what represented my very self. What resulted was this flood of thoughts that came from some place that I knew I could trust.

+     +     +

Who Am I?

I am a paradox.
An orphan among many.
The little sister: sometimes cherished, sometimes taunted.
Gifted, but skeptical of her gifts.
Bold, outgoing, but dreamer and loner as well.
Intrepid but solitary traveler through the mountains and valleys of emotion,
Clinging to ideals, wary of love.
Looking for the secret of pleasing others
(isn’t that what we’re supposed to do?),
But finding only more that’s needed.
Successes were plentiful,
But seemed to come so easily that their value was

I am a seeker of love: why should that be difficult?
I am a Pisces – reeled in by a fisherman,
Helped to adapt to a dryland existence,
the terra firma of a practical life,
morphing from the dreamer to a different life
of confident success.
But too soon thrown back into the water.

The ocean that was God nearly swallowed me up.
The water changed into wine:
I was inebriated.
All the past came together, like filings drawn by a magnet into an uncoordinated whole,
Like a school of fish into the net.

One by one,
The parts have become distinct, not by my hand,
but sorted out by that great warm hand
That knows exactly where each part fits.

No need to struggle;
No need to need.
I am buoyant in this water.
I don’t need to know how to swim.
I needn’t gasp when my head is submerged,
Because I am held up.

His Breath fills me.
I float without struggling.

Jesus Prayed

A Meditation

Rising very early before dawn, he left and went off to a deserted place, where he prayed.
(Mark 1:35)

At a recent session with my spiritual director, I shared one more troubling issue. “Have you taken it to prayer?” she asked, certainly not for the first (or last!) time.

This question caused me to wonder once again about the different ways of praying and my reasons for praying. It also served as an invitation to learn what the Gospel could teach me about Jesus praying, especially as illustrated by the quotation from Mark at the head of this post. As usual, one question led to another.

When Jesus awoke “long before dawn” and went out to pray by himself, what was that like? What did he say? What did he feel, see, hear? Did he give himself over to the Holy Spirit? How? In his humanity, when did he realize that others who saw him saw the Father?

The fact that the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus when he joined the crowd at the Jordan makes me wonder if he knew (humanly speaking) that his baptism would be the start of his mission.

He certainly had been living the life of a deeply devout Jew. Remember, he had been a spiritually precocious 12-year-old! Growing up in the religious atmosphere of his parents’ home, he must have pondered and prayed constantly.

Then, like countless others, Jesus heard of John attracting crowds of people who flocked to him to be baptized.  Jesus must have sensed that the time was ripe for him and his teachings; that something special, something different – even revolutionary – was stirring in the land. His soul had been to such deep places through his prayer that he had a growing awareness of the world’s readiness for the Messiah. He obviously also knew that he needed to model holiness for the crowd at the Jordan, and everywhere thereafter.

He knew he needed to give an example of humility, of true humanity (for as God he knew, better than the rest of us, how to be more human than we did!). John, for his part, living an ascetic and spiritual life in the wild, was given the grace to recognize and proclaim this man as none other than the Messiah.

Jesus had traveled all the way from Nazareth to follow his unique destiny at this moment in the world’s history. John could recognize the ardor of this Man, because he recognized and felt it in himself. These two men were indeed soul mates, brothers under the skin. This was their most important relationship, their spiritual kinship, deeper than blood cousins. 

So in spite of the protests from John, Jesus allowed himself to be counted among the sinful to be washed, though he was always without sin. It was Jesus’ mission to cleanse the masses, the rubble, from their sins — real or as imagined by fearful minds, or as thrust upon them by legalistic leaders.

What happiness for him to invite these timorous souls to the banquet of forgiveness! This was indeed the fruit of his prayer, that our sins were to weigh us down no longer.

Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened
and I will give you rest.
Take my yoke upon you and learn from me,
for I am meek and humble of heart;
and you will find rest for your souls.
For my yoke is easy,
and my burden light.

(Matthew 11:28-30)