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.


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.

The Fatal Tree

Programmed to send me papal news alerts, my smartphone recently notified me that Pope Francis had approved a new translation for a significant part of the Our Father. Our English translation prays: “. . . and lead us not into temptation.” This is not consistent, says the Pope,  with what Jesus taught us about his Father. Pope Francis has changed that phrase to “. . . and do not let us fall into temptation.”

Thanks be to God for having sent us Jesus so that we could soar above the God of Genesis, the God of tests, threats, and even second guessing as in the following passage:

Yahweh God caused to spring up from the soil every kind of tree, enticing to look at and good to eat, with the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the middle of the garden. . . Yahweh God gave the man this admonition, “You may eat indeed of all the trees in the garden. But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you are not to eat, for on the day you eat of it you shall most surely die.

This narration unfortunately presents us with a Divinity who is deliberately setting up his first humans for a fall. One more example of how scripture, though divinely inspired, cannot be literally true in the light of what Jesus taught us about the nature of God.

First, the forbidden tree is designed to be like all the others: enticing and nutritious. Second, the Divinity places it right in the middle of the garden where Adam (and later, Eve) can’t help but run into it at every turn. Third, why would the Divinity allow the serpent into what was supposed to be an ideal garden?

Last and most puzzling is that having created humans in his image, Divinity endowed them with intelligence, along with its handmaidens, imagination and curiosity. Wouldn’t it be a good thing to know the difference between good and evil so we could choose appropriately?

Good and evil, right and wrong. This dualistic thinking, according to Richard Rohr, OFM, has produced untold miseries among humans. In a recent meditation from his blog, Father Rohr writes:

The dualistic mind, upon which most of us were taught to rely, is simply incapable of the task of creating unity. It automatically divides reality into binary opposites . . .
“Really good” thinking then becomes devising a strong argument for our side’s superiority versus another country, race, group, political party, or religion. It seems we must have our other!  (Center for Action and Contemplation, June 2, 2019)

Back to the creation story, what does the Lord say to himself at the end of each day’s creation?
               God saw that it was good.

Everything that God made he saw as good. If God made it, there was no way it could be bad. Could evil be in the eye of the beholder?

After centuries of spiritual evolution, we still ponder the issue of evil in our world. Here are strong statements from three holy Christians, giving us an insightful perspective about the coexistence of good and evil.

Julian of Norwich, Revelations
We are securely protected through love, in joy and sorrow, by the goodness of God. . . . All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.

St. Paul, Romans 8:28
We know that all things work together unto good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.

Thérèse of Lisieux
Everything is a grace!

To hear them, it sounds as if they are unaware of the real presence of evil. Rather, what they’re saying is, “Yes, evil exists. But that doesn’t mean that it must triumph! These three saints know how to confront evil, certain as they are of God’s faithful and loving providence.

True, we have shut ourselves out of Eden, this good place, where ignorance had truly been bliss. In our pride, we claim to possess the secret of the good. In the arrogance of our presumed knowledge, we set ourselves up as the Supreme Judge of what is right and what is wrong. Mostly, we find ourselves in the right and others in the wrong. No longer is everything good.

Thus was division, dis-unity, born. From division came wars, oppression, and even a divinity who takes sides as we pray for enemies to be slaughtered and for ourselves to be given the means to slaughter them. We have made for ourselves a god who has our same  biases.

In the Beatitudes, however, Jesus teaches us how we can transcend a variety of negatives and use them as keys to the kingdom of God. The poor will be given the kingdom . . . the meek will inherit the earth . . . the merciful (forgiving) will receive mercy.

Can evil be transformed into good? Hardly. Can we escape evil? Not while on this planet.

Instead, by allowing God to nurture his presence in us, we are enabled to find greater intimacy with God, even in the presence of evil. Accepting God’s grace which is his life in us, all things – even evils – can truly work together unto good.

What might have been a fatal error, in Christ has become a happy fault.

Van Gogh Rediscovered

Having seen the film, “Lust for Life,” several years ago, I had some familiarity with the life of Vincent Van Gogh. It’s a compelling story and I confess to knowing only the broad strokes (so to speak), the main events of his life. Otherwise, I’ve had only the most elementary appreciation of his style of painting.

As a young adult and son of a minister, Van Gogh made a few tries at different vocations. For a while, his middle-class family financially supported him in these trials. A significant one was his working as a lay preacher, ministering to the very poor miners and peasants of Belgium. Following literally the Gospel, he chose to live in the same squalid conditions of the people he served, illustrated in this somber painting, “The Potato Eaters.”

Ecclesiastical leaders, however, were not pleased, feeling that this life style demeaned his clerical status.

Vincent was rejected from the program. Even at this early part of his life, his father thought he was a lunatic and wanted to put him in an asylum.

Fast-forward to find online a four-part series on his life. Vincent is telling his brother Théo that he now intends to devote his life to painting. Théo angrily asks why Vincent is living once again in the poorest of conditions. “I can understand why you did this as a minister of the Gospel, but now it’s just absurd!” Vincent tries to explain that painting is truly his vocation.

“God is here,” he shouts. “God is everywhere, except in the church and in my bloody family!”

Théo walks away quite defeated, but nevertheless goes on to support his older brother for many years, both financially and emotionally.

What has drawn me to write about Van Gogh this week is his very Ignatian statement about finding God in all things. For me, this explains the vivid character of his art, especially as created in the famous painting, “Starry Night.”Stars are believed to be so steady, so unchanging, that mariners could set their position and destination by them.  But in Van Gogh’s painting they are full of life, energy, movement. This was how Vincent could paint the unpaintable truth that God is the source of all life — not just on our puny planet, but throughout the whole universe.

Once again we discover the creative intuition of an artist. I’m convinced that such artists are given to us to provide an unending stream of  visions of the divine Creator. We cannot yet see the Creator face-to-face, but as in a glass, darkly, as St. Paul reminds us.  “Just show us the Father,” St. Philip asks Jesus, “that will be enough for us.”

Jesus replies, “Who sees me sees the Father.”

All of us, either through art or prayer, have been given the invitation and ability to show others the Father in ourselves; to see him in the created universe and in one another.

Breakfast on the Shore

Third Sunday of Easter. John 21:1-19

Peter and the other Apostles are at the Sea of Tiberias (aka the Sea of Galilee). They are restless, at sixes and sevens without their beloved Master, those wonderful, exciting days with him, soaking up the glory of his presence, his teaching, his miracles.

The risen Christ has appeared to them and to many others, but on a temporary basis only. Time is lying heavy on their empty hands. The glory days are over. What can life have in store for them any more? What will become of them, who have known intimacy with this holy, brilliant, strong and loving man? Are they now to be reduced to virtually nothing?

For nothing of value can come from them without their Lord. He had sent them out on missions of teaching and miracles, having given them the authority to expel evil spirits and to perform acts of healing for those in need. No more, it seems.

Peter, full of pent-up, frustrated energy, announces: “I’m going fishing!” Recognizing his leadership, the other men fall in line: “We’re coming with you.” At last! Something productive to do!

That is, potentially productive, for in fact they never catch even a single smelt all throughout the night.

Dawn breaks. A man is seen standing on the shore. A friendly voice calls out to them: “Children, have you caught anything to eat?” Of course not.

The stranger says, “Cast your net over the right side of the boat and you’ll find something.”

Really? The typical fishing boat of that era was only about two and a half yards wide. (And by the way, this is also the same kind of boat Peter and Andrew, James and John were in when Jesus first called them to become “fishers of people.”

What could be so different between one side of the boat and the other? There is nothing on one side, and seven feet in the other direction is going to be teeming with fish? But instead of laughing at such an absurd suggestion, the men do what is suggested. Voilà! The net is close to breaking from a catch of 153 (they counted them!) fish.

What symbolism! By themselves, the Apostles are restless and unproductive. Besides, all that energy uselessly expended has left them empty and hungry. John, who loved the Lord and whom Jesus loved, is the first one to recognize the voice of his Master.

Why does Peter jump into the sea? Surely the boat can cover those 100 yards to the shore more quickly than a man swimming. But that’s how Peter is: impetuous, competitive, charging ahead, needing to be first.

Arriving at the shore, they find that their Lord-servant has already prepared for them a freshly cooked breakfast of bread and fish. Another example of his tender care.

One would think that the risen Christ might have shown himself to his followers surrounded by brilliant lights, choirs of angels, heavenly hosts — in short, like the vision described by John in today’s reading from Revelation: Jesus, finally receiving all the honor due him.

Not yet. His way of revealing himself while still on earth, is quiet and unexpected: coming into the upper room; walking and chatting with two disappointed disciples; preparing breakfast for his tired and dejected friends.

For now, the ordinary. Splendor will come later.