What do you do after spending precious, quality time with the persons you admire most in life, who have accompanied you and taught you incredible things about what it means to be family, community?
That’s what it was like for the followers of Jesus when he ascended from their midst. Suddenly, they were left in charge. I’m reminded of the countless time that I have heard, “Don’t just stand there, do something.” Usually, it’s when someone is in trouble and no one seems to know what to do.
What must it have felt like to be left in charge? Jesus told his followers to proclaim the Good News to every creature. And he told them to expect to see the signs—the healing of the sick, the casting out of demons, and speaking in tongues. Were these intended for that time only? Jesus is clear about that. He says “Go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature.” And Mark, the evangelist, tells us that they went forth and preached everywhere. The Lord continued to work with and through them to accomplish the signs–demons driven out, new languages spoken, incredible healings.
How do we keep from standing there looking at the sky? At every Mass, we are sent forth on mission. Go forth and live the Gospel! Go forth and spread the Good News! Preach always, with your lives!
The Eucharist empowers us, strengthens us for the task, puts us on fire for the mission. After being fed in mind, body, and spirit by the Eucharistic celebration, we SING our way out of the church. The words to our recessional remind us, prod us and keep us from just standing there. We go out with the strength of our community as disciples of Jesus.
Complete Joy and Love
We are an Easter people! Just a reminder that six weeks after Easter, we are still celebrating with joy. The psalm we pray this weekend reminds us “Sing joyfully to the Lord, all you lands; break into song; sing praise.”
As Easter people, what are we singing about? Where is our joy? What are we joyful about?
In John’s Gospel, Jesus says: “I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and your joy might be complete. This is my commandment: love one another as I love you.” Complete joy comes from loving one another the way Jesus would!
In our day, it is quite a challenge to truly love those who are different from us. The differences include people who look different, who come from another culture or country, or hold different political or religious beliefs. In our day, almost everything around us fuels that divisiveness. It becomes harder and harder to see what we have in common, to love as Jesus did.
So we pray to God to help us to love one another with God’s heart of love and forgiveness. And we also ACT! We make efforts to know the “other” in our world. One way to do that is to spend time with someone of another culture, race or economic status. Sharing conversation and work promotes peace, understanding and the love Jesus commands. Fr. Greg Boyle of Homeboy Industries says we should quit looking at differences and start identifying “samenesses.”
It isn’t easy to love everyone. Yet the challenge remains. The command remains. Our friendship and relationship with God depend on it. When we sing “We Belong to You” we recognize the love relationship between God and the Christian community. That is the same kind of genuine and self-giving love Jesus lived.
Just as in last week’s Gospel of the vine and the branches, we are chosen by God and appointed to go and bear fruit that will remain. Love endures. Love remains if we work for it. If we work for it, we tear down walls, we walk across the bridge to the world of the other, we enter the unknown and that which we fear. We cross boundaries that are holding us back from the love that completes our joy.
So when Jesus says, “I am the vine, you are the branches,” what does that mean for us? What does it mean for us as individuals in our faith community, our parish? What does it mean for us as a parish? How are we connected? Where do we belong? How do we grow? What fruit do we bear?
Much of new growth comes about through a process of pruning, of cutting back and making room for the new. What is it that needs pruning in my life? What do I need to cut off or cut back in order to be more connected to God? What in my life is unhealthy or even spiritually toxic that keeps me from being the person that God intends for me to be? It could be whatever keeps me from praying, from celebrating sacraments, from active involvement with my community in the parish. It could be all the things and activities in my life that occupy so much of my time that I neglect my spouse, my family, and even care of myself.
The vine and the branches are all about belonging, about connection, about growth. Sometimes just cutting back the old, tired growth isn’t enough. We need to find “healthy, vibrant” growth and GRAFT it. Where do I find opportunities to spruce up my spiritual life? Could it be a retreat? Joining an SCC? Participating in Adult Faith Formation or a Bible Study? Becoming a sponsor for RCIA?
Growth is about change. At times some of our old practices are no longer useful and we need to update. Some of the people who have served in our church with great love and faithfulness yearn for replacements in their ministries. They are ready to make room for new participants, new leaders, new ways of doing things.
In all of life, we would do well to consider what needs to be pruned, what needs to change. Can we honestly say to God, prune away? What do we need to stop doing in order to make room for the new? What is the fruit we are expecting from the new growth? Do we trust God enough to yield wholeheartedly to what must die in us in order for us to enjoy new life and to bear good fruit?
The Vulnerable Sheep
Why is Jesus walking around with a sheep cradled between his neck and back? I’ve always been curious about this depiction. I am more used to Jesus cradling a small sheep in his lap, a very loving, cuddly kind of cradling a baby lamb. Most of us probably prefer that image. Meanwhile, I am stuck on this image and my neck hurts just thinking about that sheep making me uncomfortable. I can barely stand a collar around my neck!
And then there are Pope Francis’ words reminding us that any good shepherd should “smell like the sheep.” Another discomfort! I know what cows and pigs smell like. I must admit sheep smells have not been in my experience!
And then I remember a reflection once offered by a wise Sister companion of mine. She said that a shepherd often can spot the sheep that is going to be the “ring leader for mischief” or the recalcitrant one. This is the sheep that will start a revolt, or at least cause great consternation and suffering for the shepherd and the rest of the sheep.
That same shepherd who can identify the one needing attention, also knows from experience what the sheep needs in order to “hear the voice” of the shepherd. Sometimes we have a hard time recognizing the voice of someone who wishes us well, while challenging us to be all that God wants us to be.
In order to recognize the voice, the sheep must be close, must be carried, must become dependent on the shepherd. In order to accomplish that the shepherd breaks a leg of the sheep and begins to carry it. The sheep becomes vulnerable.
Perhaps we also need the Good Shepherd to carry us in our vulnerability. All of us experience some kind of “brokenness.” Some heals readily. Others need God’s attention. Jesus reminds us of God’s love and care for us, even when the suffering is intolerable. And for us, following Jesus means that we must stand with, we must act for the good of all, especially those in most need, the most vulnerable among us.
Who are the shepherds in your life? Who is leading, guiding, protecting and nurturing you? How do hurt and suffering contribute to our capacity to hear God’s voice in the midst of it?
“The two disciples recounted what had taken place on the way, and how Jesus was made known to them in the breaking of the bread.” Do these words of the Gospel sound familiar? Do they remind you of what takes place at Mass each weekend?
Try to pay attention in a new way, asking to be made aware of how the Scripture readings, the prayers of the priest, including the Eucharistic prayer, and the words of the songs we sing recount the ways that Jesus shows us the way. Listen for all the times during the Mass that we ask for forgiveness, for mercy and true repentance.
The highlight of the Mass, of course, is the presence of Jesus in the breaking of the bread. Listen carefully to the words of our Communion song. As we walk in procession, within and with our community, we celebrate our belief and we express our gratitude. We realize that we are the Body of Christ, receiving the Body of Christ.
Marty Haugen reminds us in the lyrics to “We Remember”: “We remember how you loved us to your death, and still we celebrate, for you are with us here; And we believe that we will see you when you come, in your glory, Lord, we remember, we celebrate, we believe.”
Why and when do we hide behind closed doors? We know that Jesus’ disciples hid after his death. They went into hiding, disappointed and afraid. We go into hiding too, don’t we? Perhaps it is because we have so much to do, expectations of others are so high, we are having trouble with priorities—and on it goes. We close doors, we doubt that our faith is enough, we doubt that others will be there for us, we doubt other people’s motives—and on it goes. We hide behind closed doors, and we close doors.
In the Gospel reading this weekend, Jesus begins every encounter with the words, “Peace be with you.” This is Jesus’ invitation to give up the fear and to spend time with him. “Peace be with you” might be just the disarming welcome that helps us to overcome whatever is closing the doors to new encounters.
So let’s try it! For the next few days (or weeks), try using the words “peace be with you.” Use it as a greeting. Use it as a prayer. Try not to be so busy. Take time for Mass on Sunday with the community. Encourage others, pray more, and name other things that take us out of hiding, into the Light of Christ! See what happens when we come out from behind closed doors.
“Do you realize what I have done for you?” Jesus asks at the Last Supper. The next three days provide us with an opportunity to reflect not only on foot washing, but also on where it is that our feet take us. The foot washing we experience is a beautiful expression of “service” and willingness to include and to respect the dignity of every person. Pope Francis models that each Holy Thursday when he intentionally seeks persons “least likely” to have a Pope wash their feet. Could we do the same?
Good Friday takes us on foot to The Way of the Cross. If we walk that journey with Jesus, we understand, perhaps in new ways, what Jesus has done for us. In our reflections on this day, we might ask ourselves what are we willing to sacrifice for the good of another? Where do our feet take us when we accept that everyone, no exceptions, are our neighbors?
And finally the Easter Sunday readings have the wonderful, excited, sometimes overwhelming understanding of the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise to be with us always. He appears first to the women outside the tomb and they RUN to tell the others. The feet of those who follow Jesus get worn out, calloused and often are dirty.
As we celebrate the Paschal Mystery, the institution of the Holy Eucharist (a meal that we get to celebrate at every Mass), the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus, let’s be mindful of our feet and where they take us. We choose the path; we choose our companions. We choose to follow Jesus. And that means that what Jesus has done for us is what we are called to do for others.
Of Women, Perfume and Tears
Imagine the scene: A woman, an alabaster jar of perfumed oil, the anointing of Jesus by the woman who anticipates the anointing of Jesus’ body. She is criticized by those around her. She continues her acts of love and attention, caring for and valuing what she could do for Jesus. He speaks for her. He defends her. He affirms her. “She has done what she could.”
Jesus’ words are powerful! “Let her alone. Why do you make trouble for her? She has done a good thing for me…Amen, I say to you, wherever the gospel is proclaimed to the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.”
An unnamed woman ministers to Jesus right before preparations for the Passover meal. In the end, Jesus is buried in a tomb under the watchful eyes of two women. When everyone else ran, thinking all was defeated by the death of Jesus, they stayed. No wonder then, that Jesus first appeared to a woman who was watchful and caring, once more.
“She has done what she could…and what she has done will be told in memory of her.” Wherever the gospel is proclaimed, throughout the whole world! Imagine all that is told in memory of her.
What does it mean for us to embrace Jesus as the Lord of our lives? What parts of ourselves are waiting for us to surrender, to lavish on Jesus!
Death and New Life
“Unless” is such a powerful word. Think of how we use it on a daily basis. Often it is a condition for something else to happen. For example, unless the weather changes, I will be there. Unless you clean your room, no video games. Unless you lose the weight, your knee will keep hurting.
Jesus uses the same word unless to describe what needs to die in order for new life to occur. “…unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat, but if it dies, it produces much fruit.”
All of us experience “death” experiences throughout our lives. Even Shakespeare said, “Gone are my salad days, when I was green.” We all know that one refers to the death of youth! If you make a list of “deaths” they might include the loss of a job, the end of a relationship, missing a promotion, the end of singleness when you get married, the birth of a child that changes your focus entirely. We can probably name lots of “deaths” be they little or big! Can we also identify the “fruit”—the new life that comes from those deaths?
In order for the seed to become all that God intends it to be, the seed has to give up something of what it was. The same is true for us. In order to be all that God intends us to be, something in us dies or changes too.
Our practice of charity—doing good for others—is often a dying to self. We give up our time to be there for someone else. We put others before ourselves.
We do that in parish life too when we give our time, talent and treasure to keep our parish the hospitable, welcoming, and generous parish it is. Sometimes we let some things die in our traditions and customs to make room for new life.
What can die in us for the sake of new life? What will make that happen? Who will help us?
Coming to the Light
Which do you prefer? Light or darkness? Do you ever choose to be in total darkness? I loved living on a farm, away from all the city lights. I am also old enough not to have experienced lights on many of the devices we use in homes today. It is very difficult to get my house totally dark today. So I am one of those persons who loves to drive out to some place where I can see the light of the stars at night. There is something about being able to distinguish darkness and light!
Light and darkness is a great metaphor for reflection in Lent. Have you ever preferred darkness to light? Some people pout, cling to depression, hold on to anger rather than embrace the light of grace. Some people lament all the evil that is going on in the world. They can name the suffering loudly and clearly. They can grumble about all that is wrong with family, church, country, and world. To stay there is to choose darkness.
Evil is a darkness that makes us mute, not able to speak, paralyzed with fear and a lack of faith. We shut down with a sense of powerlessness. Evil also makes us obstinate or stubborn in our mistakes and wrong views. We can become overly critical and lose any sense of reason.
And evil overcomes when it undermines our unity with emphasis on what irritates us and uses differences as an excuse for failing to see the light.
What does it mean then to come to the light? We use expressions like “Enlighten me!” Can you “shed some light on this”? At ACTS retreats we sing “Light of the world, shine on me!” over and over again.
Essentially, for me it means to ask what did Jesus do? How did Jesus turn darkness into light? It wasn’t easy. Love, mercy, compassion, healing, and ultimately the largest sacrifice of all—suffering and death—because “God so loved the world that he gave His only begotten Son.”
Jesus’ sight—his paying attention—led him to heal many who lived in darkness. He gave voice to changing unjust practices and laws. He cured those who were paralyzed by illness and social stigma. He poured light on so many social sins of his day. He spoke and he acted.
Where do we see light? How do we cast light in the darkness we encounter today? How and when do we seek God’s grace?
Try making a chart listing examples of darkness in one column. Then do the same for light. May courage, faith, resistance, resilience, and God’s grace be with us! May our works be clearly seen as done in God!