Obedience 101

Ages ago as a teen, I used to read one of those advice columns that every newspaper has. I think I ended the practice when I read a letter from a teen and its response. They went something like this:

Teen:
Dear Smart Adult: I’m so tired of having to jump to every order my parents give me: clean your room; do your homework; pick up your clothes; go to bed! I can’t wait until I’m 21 and married so I’ll be the one giving orders to my kids and making them obey ME!!! (Signed) Sick and tired

Smart Adult:
Dear Sick and tired: I’m really sorry for your troubles, but what makes you think that just turning 21 will forever release you from the need to obey? Here are some of the examples where you’ll find that strict obedience will always be required: your boss at work (providing you haven’t yet been fired for not following the rules); the local, state and federal tax collectors (unless you’ve ended up in jail for non-payment); your spouse who may have the audacity to expect you to get out of bed and to work on time so you can support your disobedient children . . . and so forth.

This was the kiss of death. I would never be in charge of anything or anybody! Now you know why I never forgot this incident from my youth. What Ms. Know-it-all said was that Obedience is an ever-present reality. The only change is in who’s giving the orders. I’d soon find out that I’m not in charge of anything, much less anybody. (More about that, God willing, in another post.)

I also remember my teachers, members of a religious order, telling us that the vow of obedience was the most difficult of the three they were required to make. Obedience required leaving their ego behind and adhering strictly to the judgment of another person. Moreover, the superior might be lacking in the personal qualities that make obedience easy, such as being (a) older/wiser; (b) better educated/smarter; (c) gentle and tactful.

St. Benedict makes obedience the very foundation of his Rule as he writes in the Prologue:

Listen carefully, my child, to your master’s precepts, and incline the ear of your heart (Prov. 4:20).

In these few words he tells us not only to obey (“listen”), but to go more deeply into the heart level. But whom do we lay Oblates, living outside of a monastic community, obey?

10-commandmentsObviously we must first start with The Law, specifically the Ten Commandments and the Commandments of the Church. Most of us feel we’re quite all right in that department until we’re told by Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:20-22), to go beyond the letter of the law:

I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter into the kingdom of heaven. You have heard that it was said to your ancestors, “You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment.” But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment.

Jesus did not stop even there. He gave us his own person to imitate as he saved the most important commandment for the last. At the Last Supper he washed the feet of his disciples, showing them that their first duty as a disciple is to serve others. Perhaps because Jesus knew he didn’t have enough time to unravel the mysteries regarding the question of law and obedience, he created one single new commandment, one which is the clearest and the most difficult of all: Love one another as I have loved you.

How did Christ love us? He served, consoled, healed and forgave. He repeatedly referred to how he obeyed the Father. He could hear the Father through his intense prayer and his constant willingness to obey. Whatever the Father revealed to him in prayer, Jesus heard and understood. What he learned, he taught and also modeled. In his final act of obedience to the divine mission, he laid down his life for us.

There is so much more to say about the virtue of Obedience, especially as to how it relates to hearing the Lord. I welcome your thoughts, and pray that we can continue this discussion together.

Here I am, Lord: I come to do your will!

The Word Was Made Flesh

Rejoice!

 

I’ve been struggling to write about the first sentence of John’s Gospel. I started by pointing out how extraordinarily different it is from the other three. Matthew, Mark and Luke all talk about Jesus’ human origins – wonderful, of course. Matthew lists the genealogy so we know that Jesus was indeed descended from King David. Mark recounts the very start of Jesus’ earthly mission as he’s baptized. And of course Luke gives us the most familiar narrative of Jesus’ humble birth in a stable.

But John, that Eagle, soars over these “merely” earthy origins, bypassing them to place Jesus in the very center of the Trinity, creating and enlightening the universe before time!

As I was trying to write  this, the academician in me crept out. It went in different directions – all related to Jesus’ amazing beginning – which was not really a beginning because it was outside of time. Because we, on the other hand, are very much creatures of time. I had opened the proverbial can of worms. How does one wrap one’s head around something that is absolutely impossible to experience? All words fail.

Then I realized: no, one Word does not fail.

           In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 

I heard that Word repeated in John’s sentence, and I heard it like a bell ringing three times, once for each person in the Trinity!

 Now I knew I was in trouble, because how do we understand the Trinity? A great mind such as Augustine’s tried to comprehend this inscrutable doctrine. And if God, as Trinity, is so impossible to understand, why do we so insist on it, in our Creed, in our Christian faith?

 Then came the answer: through the Word, the very Wisdom of God. Seeing us in this dark place and time, having pity on us, this great and inscrutable God humbled himself to become human. And the Word was made flesh . . .

 As if this were not enough, the Word, now humanized (so to speak), this Word dwelt among us. Lived with us. Felt like us. Learned as we learn. Hurt as we hurt. Enjoyed as we enjoy. Spoke with words of forgiveness, mercy and unconditional love! The Word spoke the Father and the Holy Spirit. The Son was sent, not as royal ambassador, but as a servant to teach us, to meet evil forces head on for us, to know rejection and exclusion, to welcome us and let each of us know how lovable we are. Who else would do this, but an infinitely loving God?

 And again, as if this were not enough, St. Paul tells us (in his letter to the Colossians) that the mystery of God’s love, hidden for ages, is now ready to be revealed, because Jesus Christ has taught it to us. He lives not only with us but in us. The mystery is little by little revealed in us as the indwelling Christ teaches us to love as he, God, loves.

 Though John tells us the brutally sad truth that his own did not accept him, he does not leave us without hope.

To those who did accept him he gave power to become children of God, to those who believe in his name, who were born not by natural generation nor by human choice nor by a man’s decision but of God.

How lovely that we truly have reason to rejoice on this Gaudete (“Rejoice”) Sunday! Let this be our joyful and continuing Advent prayer:   Thanks be to God for the Incarnate Word.
+     +     +    +     +     +    +     +     +    +     +     +    +     +     +     + 

Click on the arrow below to hear Fauré’s choral work, Cantique – To the Word Incarnate

 

I Am the Light of the World

the-light-of-the-world

It’s Advent, and as I write this a few days before the second Sunday, I rejoice to see a pewter sky. Yes, I know most of us prefer a convincing blue that lets us feel that all’s right with the world. But in Advent it’s different. Advent is the season of hope. Overcast, no; pewter, yes.

I am drawn to ponder the readings from this weekday Mass, and other passages from Old and New testaments, dealing with light and blindness.

Out of gloom and darkness, the eyes of the blind shall see. (Isaiah 29:18)

Is Isaiah saying that  that even  the blind will be able to see in our dark world, such is the radiance of the Messiah?  If only we could remember from within our gloom that . . .

The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. (John 1:9)

Jesus invites us into his light: “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12)

The greater the troubles, the more dazzling the rescue. Advent’s hope seems especially apt for the world’s problems these days – which are certainly no worse than what humanity has been facing for eons. Advent reminds us that Christ’s teachings are his the life-giving light that offers us our only true peace.

In the Gospel, two blind men come to Jesus to be cured. “Do you believe that I can do this?” he asks. So which is it that will heal us: the strength of our faith, or the power of Christ ?

It  it is neither by the one nor the other, but by our working in cooperation with the graces Christ offers.

Patience. Faith. Trust. These are the virtues, the qualities of soul  available to us during this season. Advent ushers in true Joy as we long for Christ to visit and remain in our darkened world.  He wants to cure our blindness and fill every event of our life with the brilliance of his Light.

The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom should I fear? . . .
Wait for the Lord with courage; be stouthearted, and wait for the Lord. (Ps. 27:1, 14)

 

An Unlikely Saint

Though it wasn’t planned that way, I find it particularly apt that the Gospel story of Zacchaeus should have been scheduled close to the celebration of All Saints.

Luke tells us that Jesus was on the road. Jericho was not a stopping point; he had only intended to pass through. Nonetheless, he had attracted a large crowd of residents – among them one of the most hated: the chief tax collector, Zacchaeus. An unexplained curiosity possessed Zacchaeus to try to see this Man of miracles.

Being “short in stature” like Zacchaeus, I know how it is to try to see anything of a parade. Impossible! No one would want to clear a path for this despised man. They would sooner trample over him than make a space for him to see the miracle-worker.

So Zacchaeus improvised.

A grove of sycamore trees was slightly off the path. Since sycamores in that part of the world are rather small, Zacchaeus was able to climb up quite easily to a branch which would give him a good view of the whole event.zacchaeus

The crowd approaches. How does Jesus happen to spot Zacchaeus? My version is that someone in the crowd eyed him perched on a branch and, thinking he looked quite ridiculous, mockingly pointed him out to others in the throng. What thoughts might have entered Zacchaeus’ mind? A rush of shame, possibly, that here he was – wealthy beyond anyone else in this motley crew, but despised and rejected, made out to be a total fool in the presence of this renowned Person.

Instead of joining in the mob’s disdain, Jesus looks up. (Jesus always looks up and beyond our earthbound view.) Jesus calls to Zacchaeus and boldly invites himself to spend the night at this sinner’s home.

Everyone else, the “good” people who do everything right, they’re all irate that this liar, cheat and extortionist, should be the one to be honored. Was this Galilean really a prophet? Then he wouldn’t have wanted to enter the home of a sinner — or would he?

Zacchaeus joyfully scrambles down, instantly converted to full atonement and gratitude. Zacchaeus, like you and me, has been invited to holiness. It’s totally unexpected, totally undeserved. Unlike the righteous many, Jesus does not refer to Zacchaeus as a sinner but as someone lost. Mercy flows so easily, so happily, from Jesus, and into the unlikeliest of persons!

And so does Christ view us. He calls us to his level. He boldly invites himself to enter our home, to be one with us. Once we have enjoyed his companionship, other associations or attachments that lead us away from him are cheerfully abandoned. How can they compare?

This Gospel is the story of all the other saints besides Zacchaeus who are celebrated this week. They all started out as sinners.

Where do I see myself in this picture?

 

My Yoke Is Easy

It was one of those blue days that some of us get. Being overtired certainly was a contributing factor, having overextended myself the day before. (When will I learn that enough is enough?)

Still, it was much too early to go to bed, and the available reading material just couldn’t rouse my interest, much less my energy. Normally when I feel this way, I’d like to have someone around who could commiserate with me, comfort me. The grace was that I decided to put in a call to my friend who had been suffering from sinusitis. Common sense would have told me that she’d certainly not be in the mood to listen to my griping nor to console me. Which is what made this idea a Grace, and not just a whim.

As we conversed, I experienced a new liveliness forming within me. Not that we were talking about anything “important;” just your usual “hi, what’s happening?” kind of trivia. By the time we hung up, I was surprised by how energized I felt. The blues were disappearing, and out of the blue came these lines from Matthew 11:28:

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.

The amazing thing is that Christ does not offer to take away our labor or the burden, which is what we usually ask him to do. Instead, he invites us to take on something additional: his yoke. I could see the connection to what Christ was telling me, and what the Holy Spirit inspired me to do: imitate Christ, take your friend’s troubles upon yourself. Instead of becoming more gloomy, your mood will lighten and you will feel comforted.

The yoke is the perfect metaphor for what Christ is teaching us here. It is designed to spread the weight between two animals, usually oxen or even mules. Jesus, both gentle and humble, willingly stoops to our level – and even lower – to join us in carrying our burdens.

 Instead of being an added burden, Christ’s yoke is “easy” and “light.” Christ offers us this counter-intuitive solution that we are likely to miss unless we’re open to his voice.

And so it was with the solution I was offered: seek out someone who is in a situation similar to yours, someone who feels burdened and tired. As we offer support to another for the love of Christ, Christ lightens our burdens.

yoke 2