Yes, Mom

Posted on July 25, Feast of St. James

I can just hear Zebedee and wife in heated discussion.

Z: “Those sons of yours just took off, left me and the guys in the middle of the day. No thought of cleaning up after fishing all night (getting nothing, of course) or helping us mend the nets. Me, me, me — that’s all they think of! They won’t amount to a hill of beans!

W: “Yes, Zeb, but just think. They’re part of the group that’s following this new prophet. As one of his chosen, they’re going to be way ahead of the guys that work for you — no offense. They’re going to be like Elijah — maybe even higher.”

Z: “Sure, you’ve put all those fancy ideas in their heads, those good-for-nothings!”

But as we all know, Mother knows best. She’ll show them! She’ll go straight to the top; she knows how capable her wonderful children are and will do anything to ensure their success. Their father is never satisfied. James and John never do anything right in his eyes! And so . . .

The mother of the sons of Zebedee approached Jesus with her sons and did him homage, wishing to ask him for something. He said to her, “What do you wish?”
She answered him, “Command that these two sons of mine [now they’re only hers] sit, one at your right and the other at your left, in your Kingdom.” (Mt. 20:20-28)

Mark tells this same story with one major difference. It’s James and John who make the request, not their mother. (10:35) Matthew’s version is the Gospel for today’s feast of St. James.

Being a mother whose sons –and daughter– bask in the sunshine of near perfection, I prefer Matthew’s version. The typical Jewish (Irish, Italian, Polish, etc., etc.) mother knows no timidity when it comes to her children. Maybe Zeb-Wife had heard the story of how Jesus’ mother Mary had intervened at that wedding in Cana. If she hadn’t let him know about the wine running low, Jesus would have had no idea that anything was amiss. 

Jesus politely rejected the Zeb-wife-mother’s request. As usual, it provided an important teaching moment about how his followers must not strive for places of honor but for opportunities to serve.

But after all, isn’t it true that James and John did get to enjoy special stature among the twelve? Why do you think that was? They, with Peter, witnessed the Transfiguration. This same trio accompanied Jesus deep into the Garden of Olives. Of course they couldn’t give him any feeling of support, falling asleep at once after the full supper. Not a good beginning for their apostolate.

I wonder how things stood between Zebedee and Wife later on. I like to think that Wife was gracious enough not to make it an “I-told-you-so” ending, and that Zeb was gracious enough not to dwell on their sons’ martyrdom. 

The celibate mystic, Julian of Norwich radically spoke of Christ as Mother:

“So Jesus Christ who sets good against evil is our real Mother. We owe our being to him–and this is the essence of motherhood! –and all the delightful, loving protection which ever follows. God is as really our Mother as he is our Father.“ (Chapter 59)

I do think that parenting is best done as a duet: men’s strength balanced with tenderness; women’s unconditional love balanced with discipline.


Inebriate me!

This line comes from an ancient poem, Anima Christi: Soul of Christ, sanctify me. It continues,

Body of Christ, save me.
Blood of Christ, inebriate me.

We are celebrating the feast of the Body and Blood of Christ, ironically without the ability to receive the sacrament. We are, in a way, exiled. Soon (but not soon enough) we’ll once again be permitted to enter a sacred space to receive this sacrament.

It caused something of an uproar in a huge crowd when Jesus forcefully insisted on the necessity of “eating [his] body and drinking [his]  blood” in order to find eternal life. “This is a hard saying! Who can accept it?” So said many who had been seriously considering following the teachings of this person. Now many walked away.

According to a recent survey, fewer than ten percent of people who consider themselves Catholic, believe in the real presence of Christ in the Bread and Wine, consecrated during Mass. Most see it as “symbolic.”

If it is indeed such a hard saying, how is it that the nearly 90% of self-styled Catholics still want to receive what we consider a Sacrament? On this feast, I feel compelled to ponder this conundrum.  There is something beyond symbolic here.

Even after I “left” the Church, why was the Sacrament so important to me? In the several months of going through the annulment process, why was receiving Communion again so important? Why had I felt so shut out? Well, because I had been.

Did I miss being in a building where others were able to go to the front of the altar and consume a small piece of bread with a small sip of wine? How could I be so eager for a mere symbol? 

I had been taught St. Thomas Aquinas’ explanation about substance and accident, about how, after consecration, the essence or substance of that bread was no longer “breadness” but the Body of Christ; the essence of the wine was not wine-ness but the Blood of Christ. 

That theology didn’t really matter to me (even if I could understand it!). I simply knew I wanted to once again receive and embrace the friendship of Jesus Christ in a tangible way. Somehow the ancient philosophical explanation didn’t really matter. I knew – as have so many others – I knew that I would be re-connected with Christ when I would once again be allowed to receive that Bread and Wine.

I think that must be why Pope Francis said the Eucharist is not a reward, or a kind of prize that we get for good behavior. Rather, it is food for the journey. It is even more potent than the manna given to the refugees in the desert. We cannot survive, spiritually, without that intimate and real connection with Christ.

Bread: the staff of life. Impossible to survive without this humble sustenance.
Wine, satisfying our thirst for joy. Christ’s first miracle was to transform water (not even drinking water) into wine so that the feast could continue.
Inebriate me! To think that we’ve been destined for joy even during  this poor human existence. Come to me, all you who are burdened and I will refresh you!

The wine that we are offered is meant to fill us with a passionate desire for the joy of living in God’s kingdom. And not only us, but that others, seeing our joy, might be drawn to learn about, to love and to follow the Gospel.

Such were the first Christian preachers on Pentecost. Foreigners heard them in their own language and were “all astounded and bewildered, and said one to another, “What does this mean?” But others said, scoffing, “They have had too much new wine.” (Acts 2:12-13)

Jesus asked his friends, “Do you also want to leave?”
Peter had the right answer: Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life!

“I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst.”   (John 6:35)

Pentecost: Vision Restored

Isn’t it amazing that, except when Jesus came to them in the upper room, the disciples were unable to recognize Jesus after his Resurrection?

Mary Magdalene, the first one to see him near the tomb, didn’t know him until he broke through her tears to call her name.

The disciples on the way to Emmaus walked with him, talked and listened to him, yet he remained a stranger until he stayed to eat with them. Then they realized how their hearts had burned within them to hear how he described the Messiah.

When the apostles went to the Sea of Galilee to meet the Lord as he had directed, they didn’t recognize him on the shore until he allowed them to make a miraculous catch of fish. 

Luke opens his post-Gospel Acts by telling of Jesus’ farewell. As he ascends into heaven, “a cloud took him from their sight.

In his account of the last judgment, Matthew describes Christ’s followers as unaware even of having kept his commands: Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? (Mt. 25:37)

Veils. Clouds. Except for those visits in the upper room, the disciples’ eyes remained veiled. Their Master remained hidden by a cloud. Did they remember what their Master had told them before his arrest? That it was necessary that he leave them; that he would not leave them orphans but would send them an Advocate, a defender, a power that would enable them to spread the news of the Kingdom.

So they (and we) were given the Spirit as they crouched fearfully in that upper room. The Spirit arrived like a powerful wind, as tongues of fire, images of powerfully persuasive speech to win the hearts and minds of people the world over. 

Yet even with the Spirit as guide, God remains a mystery for the greatest of minds. Though the human intellect finds a cloud concealing his full essence, the Spirit gives us a more certain way to approach the “throne of grace.”  This is through the fire of God’s infinite love as exemplified by Christ and as we practice it today.

The saints understood why Jesus insisted on withdrawing (physically) from us: that we might understand the need to seek him, to look for Him everywhere. 

Mother Teresa saw him in the “disguise” of the poor and the dying. 

St. Francis saw him in the beauty of the natural world. 

St. Ignatius Loyola saw him in everything, even in the everyday events of life.  

The Lord answers our desire to see, but often in ways we couldn’t have predicted. Such super-vision is the gift of the Holy Spirit, the gift to us from the Father and the Son, and it is available to all who merely ask for it. 

I tell you, ask and you will receive… Everyone who seeks, finds. . . Who among you would hand his child a snake when he asks for a fish? . . . If you then, who are wicked know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the Father in heaven give the holy Spirit to those who ask him? (Luke 11:9-13)

After three years of intimate friendship with Jesus, the Apostles had to bear the sorrow of his absence. For the last several weeks, complying with the rules surrounding the pandemic, we have had to bear the absence of our Sacramental Lord. Being without Communion has perhaps had the good effect of showing us how empty we are without its consoling presence.

Thus, like the Apostles, for our spirit to grow, we need to learn how to rely on the invisible Holy Spirit. Even St. Paul, blinded as he zealously sought the persecution of Jesus’ followers, — even he was changed, his life turned upside-down. He wrote to the Corinthians how the gift of the Spirit in Christ changed his life forever, and how it can change ours: 

Whenever a person turns to the Lord the veil is removed. . . All of us, gazing with unveiled face on the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory as from the Lord who is the Spirit. (2 Cor. 3:15b – 18)

Continually desiring and receiving the Spirit brings us closer to our divinisation, the end for which we’ve been created.

Pentecost celebrates the first arrival of the Holy Spirit in our lives, but even better — the Spirit’s unfailing presence within Christians, giving them voices of fire and passion as we also teach and model the Gospel of Christ. We ask the Spirit to come, even though through the life, death and teachings of Christ, the Spirit is already here in us. The seed is there. Through a continuing awareness of God’s presence within us, we are transformed into other Christs, present in this world and participating in his work of salvation.

The Angels Are Silent

Gaudete! Rejoice!
     This is the mood and message of the third Sunday of Advent. This moment of joy within the dreary weeks of waiting is like the first kick of the infant in the womb. Hah! There is life there after all!
     The Scripture readings take us closer to the brilliant reality of Christ’s presence among us. Angels galore!
      Gabriel comes to Mary with an invitation which Mary accepts as a gentle command.
     Gabriel comes to Joseph to let him in on the secret and to detail his role as protector of the Holy One and His Mother.
     A whole legion of angels cover the freezing shepherds with triumphant sounds to guide them to the unlikely birthplace of the King and Messiah.
     Both Old and New Testaments tell of Angels who act in a way similar to the prophets’: they deliver messages from God as to miraculous events or appearances.
     Why don’t we hear from Angels anymore? Why are they silent?
     Psalm 8 tells us that we’ve been made “a little less than the Angels.” The Letter to the Hebrews repeats this, saying that now, after years of silence, Someone infinitely higher than the Angels has been given to us. This is God’s own Son, Jesus Christ.
     Yet this great Person made such a silent entrance into our world as the child of ordinary parents, residing in a small town famous for absolutely nothing. It’s as if the Christmas story needed to be announced once and for all amid spectacular angelic fireworks, for the Savior’s  life in the world would be hidden and without any of the trappings of royalty or power.
      Once out in the world as an adult with a mission, Jesus continued to insist on silence: Tell no one of this miracle, or Tell the vision to no one, etc. Why the secrecy?
      I have a theory. Jesus planned his mission as a continuation through his followers, ordinary men and women, and not through Angels. Those who believed in the validity of Christ’s teachings would be the ones to teach the treasures of the Gospel — not necessarily with words but by their deeds. Jesus’ message had to be accessible to both teachers and the taught. Christ’s  presence and example needed to be lowly, thus maintaining a truer imitation of his actions and his gentle (but firm) commands.
     St. Angela of Foligno, fourteenth century mystic, writes:
See how Christ gave Himself as an example. He said: “Learn from me. I am gentle. My soul is humble. You’ll find rest for your hearts here.” Pay attention to what Christ didn’t say. He didn’t say, “Learn to fast from Me” or “Learn from me how to perform great miracles,” although He did these things well. . .
The point is that Christ made humility and gentleness the foundation for every other virtue. Nothing else matters. Not integrity, not fasting, not poverty, not shabby clothing, not years of good works, not the accomplishment of miracles — none of these is important without a humble heart.
     The splendidly orchestrated Christmas messages of the Angels were possibly their last hurrah. Without Christ, we might have thought that holiness required great deeds, the mastery of complicated theological dogmas, perhaps even martyrdom. Surely miracles.
Jesus’ miracles were born of his compassion, not to have people marvel at quasi-magical powers. He had already learned that from his desert temptation.
     No, now is the time for quiet. No more brilliance. No more forcing. No more threats of separation. No more need for virtually impossible deeds that only superhuman angels could perform.
Now is humanity’s time, the time for gently whispered invitations, and for our
quiet, humble  and joy-filled responses.

Light in Darkness

John of the Cross at Christmas

Advent is the time of year we see many references to darkness v. light, symbolic of the battle between evil and good, with light (Christ) overcoming darkness (despair).

We’re instinctively uncomfortable with darkness as a time of peril. We need light to know where we are and where we need to go, symbolic of our fateful search for understanding and knowledge, as in Eden’s tree of knowledge. This is why I love to turn to the well-known poem of St. John of the Cross (feast: Dec. 14), known as “The Dark Night.”

This phrase, “dark night,” is commonly used to describe a period of interior darkness representing fear, confusion, a sense of abandonment, and near despair. Not so for John of the Cross, as becomes clear by a careful reading and translation of even the first stanza alone.

En una noche oscura . . . Oscura, Obscure, denotes something hidden but not necessarily absent. He is not going to roam listlessly. He has a goal in mind.

Con ansias en amor inflamada . . . on fire with cravings for love. The Soul’s only motive is love. It is eagerly embracing this adventure, since it is fueled by love, not by fear and certainly not by despair. His mood is certain, his step is strong.

!Oh, dichosa ventura! O happy destiny! The Soul’s expectation is certainly not dreaded but deeply desired, since it is Love that calls him. 

Salì sin ser notada . . . I went out, unnoticed. He has not been ousted. No: the loving Soul willingly and eagerly leaves the familiar which has not succeeded in satisfying its cravings. Here is an opportunity to do something different: to leave the old life behind in such a quiet way that no one can see any difference or notice anything extraordinary in the lover’s behavior. The lover seems the same on the outside. Who could guess what is experienced within?

Estando ya mi casa sosegada . . . While my household is asleep. All around me are unaware. What the Soul is leaving is only bland, colorless, unfulfilling, in comparison to what he is seeking.

In darkness, there is no distinction between one thing and another. A landscape that seemed to be known and understood in the daytime is now clouded in mystery and unknowing. But because love is the final goal and reward, the Soul presses on, welcoming the darkness which brings peace and understanding of a different nature – perhaps even a strangely new sense of freedom.

The poem ends on a note of ecstatic bliss:

I abandoned and forgot myself,
Laying my face on my Beloved;
All things ceased; I went out from myself,
Leaving my cares
Forgotten among the lilies.