Wonderful in Our Eyes!

This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad. Alleluia.
The stone which the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone.
By the LORD has this been done;
it is wonderful in our eyes.
This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad. Alleluia.

Around One Table

Holy Thursday commemorates the institution of the Eucharist and offers a fitting occasion to honor the ministerial priesthood. The following poem by John Kinsella eloquently expresses core asceticism of that vocation.

In the Rite of Christian Baptism we were all anointed with chrism as priest, prophet and king. All the baptized are called to offer prayer, give expression to the Word and to roles of servant-leadership.

Today, all the baptized find a place around one table…

for priests in these difficult times

the day you were called
to break bread for a living
was the day you were called
to be broken.

the days you spent bending over bread
are spent around a mystery of fraction.

if you are indeed broken,
you need to gather up each other’s fragments gently,
and remember how, again through you,
He feeds so many with so little.

–  John Kinsella
(from commonweal 2-9-96)


We are all guilty.  Yes, we craft sophisticated excuses and feign innocence.  We dance in self-defense.  Excuses abound.  Denial and rationalizations flurry forth.  At its most painful, nothing hurts more than betrayal in relationship.

On this Wednesday in Holy Week we presented with the figure of Judas Iscariot.  We know well his selfishness, smallness and fate.  He betrayed his friend for a bag of silver.  We do well to sit with his story, his truth, our story.

Don’t flee the poignancy of his betrayal.  But it is not his alone. Virtually all of Jesus’ friends and companions betray him, abandon him.  We are given the image of only a few women, John the Beloved Disciple and his mother who hang with Jesus to the end.

At least Judas knew his motivations and followed through with his intentions. Perhaps the more reprehensible betrayal was delivered by Peter.  Not only did he flee, he adamantly denied that he even knew the man.  Imagine the pain!

The issue is not whether or not we betray Jesus.  The issue is what we do next.  Judas despaired!  Peter ultimately professes his love.

Wednesday in Holy Week places us precisely in this “moment”, challenges us with our “truth”, presents us with our own story.  Our journey continues…

Getting What We Need

We don’t always get what we want or expect! Generally, we get what we need.

I anticipated a typical Holy Week attending Triduum liturgies at church with an eye to our family gathering Sunday afternoon. That shifted last weekend with news of yet another death in my family which refocused attention to all this week holds.

Most people know today as Tax Day. To me April 15 was always the day on which the only Grandpa I ever knew died on his 75th birthday. I was hit by a car on that same day and was not able to join the rest of the family at his funeral (actually this 5 year-old welcomed the attention and notoriety). Later a sister-in-law who shared this birthday joined the family. Today I am en route to her wake this evening and her funeral tomorrow.

It’s quite an intense week… April 12 was the birthday of another sister-in-law who, who I knew since I was 5 years-old, who died at age 62. Tomorrow is the anniversary of my Grandma Wieseler’s death – our beloved matriarch who transformed her ride on the “orphan train” at age 7 into a maternal love for an expansive family that still displays her photo in our family rooms. April 20, Easter this year, is the 21 anniversary of my Dad’s death.

Grief is in the air as I embark on a “way of the cross” I did not request or anticipate.

My friend Susan Stable offers wise counsel on her blog today [link]. She recalls Ignatius of Loyola’s invitation in his Spiritual Exercises. During Holy Week we are to be with Christ in his suffering, to extend compassion, attend to emotions evoked by a loved one en route to his death. To the extent we are willing and able we are, as Susan quotes, to follow Jesus in “his choices, his anguish, his truth, his desires, his aloneness, his sense of the absence of God.”

So I am en route, traveling. Last evening I indulged a rare opportunity to share a meal with a nephew and his great family in Sioux Falls. As the evening waned, the three kids peeled off leaving Dean and me the space to tell stories and share memories. I will be staying with a sister in Omaha – another rare opportunity holding more stories, memories.   Having gathered for Joyce’s funeral earlier in the day, I’ve made plans to attend the baseball game of a 7 year-old grand-nephew. Denny in one I don’t know well and, as a middle child, I too easily overlook.

Holy Thursday will be in my family’s hometown with a brother I have not seen since the last family funeral nearly two years ago. On Good Friday morning I will go to my parents’ grave in that town’s cemetery to say a simple prayer. Lyrics I stumbled upon last weekend echoing still, “there are things you cannot hold but the heart carries”.

I did not anticipate or ask for the events of this week. Life teaches us to trust that we are given what we need. Later, not now, I will look forward to the drive home this weekend, celebrating Easter in the familiar embrace of my church and Minnesota family.

For now I am en route – attending as best I am able to the grief, the compassion, the pain, the love, the journey, the companionship that is Holy Week.

Lyrics cited are from Amberstone by Sarah Thomsen.

Passing Over

Passover begins with sundown this evening. I wish all my Jewish friends a very joyous season of grace and blessing. Sadly, I have to admit that anti-Semitism poisons our world even today. I grew up in a church that perniciously tolerated the charge that the Jews killed Jesus. My own parents spoke in a disparaging manner grounded in caricatures and bigotry. Freeing myself from such ignorance and prejudice will take a lifetime.

We have help and hope. Holy Week is a time of conversion and transformation. Perhaps a place to start is with the note left by John Paul II at the Western Wall in Jerusalem on March 12, 2000. It can be read as both a message to the Jewish people as well as a heartfelt prayer:

“We are deeply saddened by the behavior of those who in the course of history have caused these children of yours to suffer, and asking your forgiveness we wish to commit ourselves to genuine brotherhood with the people of the Covenant.”

John Paul was also the first pope known to have made an official papal visit to a synagogue when he visited the Great Synagogue of Rome on 13 April 1986. There he spoke of the Jews as “our elder brothers.”

On November 17, 1980 the pope addressed the Jews of Berlin in a manner that certainly challenges the mindset of most Christians. In it, John Paul II asserted that God’s “Old Covenant” with the Jewish people was never revoked. He called on the Catholic Church to abandon its mission to proselytize the Jews. The “Old Covenant” is a valid, full and enduring source of salvation for the Jewish people.

Admittedly, this is hard for most of us to get our heads around. Many Christian denominations assert that baptism is a prerequisite of salvation. John Paul’s teaching challenges this attitude as deficient. If nothing else, Holy Week attests to a God who is faithful… a God who is bigger and better, whose love is more expansive and enduring than we can contain.

In grateful acknowledgement of a God who always takes the initiative with us, perhaps we Christians can join our “elder brothers and sisters” in praying the Kiddush opening the Passover Seder:

“Blessed are You, Adonai our God, King of the Universe, who chose us from all peoples and exalted us from all tongues, and sanctified us with His commandments. And You gave to us, Lord our God, with love appointed times for gladness, festivals and times for joy, the day of this festival of Matzah, the time of our freedom, a holy convocation, a memorial of the exodus from Egypt. For you chose us and sanctified us from all the nations and the festivals of your holiness in gladness and in joy you gave us a heritage. Blessed are You, Adonai, who sanctifies Israel and the seasons.”

Yes, Blessed are You, our God, God of all creation! All is yours and all creation gives you praise and thanksgiving for you are faithful. Free us once again from all that holds us in bondage and prevents us from being your Holy People. Blessed are you, our God, God of Covenant fidelity, God of all creation!

Fragrance of Palms

Each year I was caught off guard, then delighted, when Mom and Dad hauled us off to church and we got something special which we could actually take home. Although we weren’t allowed to play with the palms, we were encouraged in the whimsical craft of weaving intricate braids. Scraps were transformed into miniature crosses.

Our best handiwork would adorn the crucifix which hung in our living room or atop the ornate gold frame encasing the Our Lady of Perpetual Help icon which my maternal grandparents received as a wedding gift in 1895. That crucifix and icon are two of my most precious possessions today holding places of honor in our home.

I recall being awestruck upon learning that the dusty dry palms of the previous year were burned to provide the ashes for Ash Wednesday. That was another favorite day because, like Palm Sunday, we got a “freebie” in the form of an exotic smudge on our faces. Like incense, the distinctive fragrance of palm and ash still transport me to the realm of the Holy.

Growing up with the liturgical fanfare of St. Cecilia Cathedral prepared me well for the rarefied studies at the Weston School of Theology in Cambridge, MA. Much time and energy were expended on the proper form of gathering a worshipping community out-of-doors for festive procession into church with palms waving overhead. We were instructed in the art of eliciting the effusive emotions appropriate for welcoming royalty. Liturgical rubrics were given full throttle with roles carefully orchestrated – much like most wedding ceremonies today.

Nothing – absolutely nothing – prepared me for the first Palm Sunday liturgy at which I presided. Freshly transplanted from the environs of Harvard Square, I found myself atop Cuny Table on the Pine Ridge Reservation in western South Dakota. A typical Sunday had me making a 100 mile loop for services at three “mission” churches – first Porcupine, then Red Shirt and finally Cuny Table. Anywhere from three to twelve people would be present for each service.

This particular Sunday I carried a bundle of moist palms along with all the usual supplies needed for Eucharist. As I had done at the two previous sites, I unlocked the church and set up for my third Mass of the morning. Someone else dutifully came the evening before to light the propane heater so our gathering space would be warm. This morning was fresh, crisp and bright. Perched near the edge of Cuny Table we were treated to breath-taking views of the Badlands that became easy to take for granted.

The white Gothic church worthy of Grant Woods stood like a sentinel amid the brown stubble pasture nearly barren from winter grazing. We stalwart eight fumbled with logistical practicalities but we made it happen! We’d begin our prayer outdoors and solemnly process just as others were doing in Cambridge, MA or Omaha’s Cathedral. These proud Lakota Catholics held strong to the faith of Red Cloud. As the one presiding, my unique obligation was protecting the palms from grazing cattle – they did yield their pasture to us one hour each week and we were in possession of the greenest plant they’d seen in nine months!

Each of the twenty years since, the sight and smell of palms transports me back to that very grace-filled moment on Cuny Table. More than esoteric discussions in Boston classrooms, the faith of these stalwart descendents of Red Cloud taught me what is important about Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem:

If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit,if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death– even death on a cross! (Phil 2:1-8)

As if perched atop Cuny Table, our Gothic churches need to hover the edges and peripheries of our winter-barren world. All creation is hungry for what people of humble faith have to offer. Our palms are not intended for some Victorian braid propped behind ancient symbols. Fresh, we wave them today in sober jubilation – aware of the sacred journey we commence.

Life As It Should Be

Scooter season has finally returned to Minneapolis! My Kymco People 150 was polished, serviced and filled with gas when I retrieved it from storage at the Scooterville dealership yesterday. (Yes, that’s really the name.) Riding home felt like one of those “Ah, life as it should be!” kind of moments.

Although a ride to Scooterville had been offered, I deliberately wanted to take the bus. Yes, I love my “bike” for the sheer enjoyment riding provides.  But a big motivation is cost savings and energy conservation. So, why use the extra fossil fuels when a bus is going in that direction anyway! Besides, every time I ride a city bus it has proven to be a very enlightening reintroduction to the city on which we live. Yesterday did not disappoint.

You may have noticed that four presidents gathered in Austin, TX this week to mark the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Civil Rights Act. This towering achievement of the Johnson administration ended legal racial segregation in public places. Again, it prohibited legal segregation by race in public places. The force of law can protect certain rights and proscribe some behaviors. It cannot change human hearts.

Charles M. Blow observes a really tragic fact. “Now we are facing another, worsening kind of segregation, one not codified but cultural: We are self-sorting, not only along racial lines but also along educational and income ones, particularly in our big cities. … Our cities are increasingly becoming vast outposts of homogeneity and advantage, arching ever upward, interspersed by deserts of despair, all of which produces in them some of the highest levels of income inequality ever seen in this country.” [link]

Blow cites a report by Stanford researchers: “The proportion of families living in affluent neighborhoods more than doubled from 7 percent in 1970 to 15 percent in 2009. Likewise, the proportion of families in poor neighborhoods doubled from 8 percent to 18 percent over the same period.”

According to a study published last year in the journal Education and Urban Society, “Students are more racially segregated in schools today than they were in the late 1960s and prior to the enforcement of court-ordered desegregation in school districts across the country.”

Riding the bus confirmed Blow’s contention: We need to see people other than ourselves in order to empathize. If we don’t live around others we do ourselves and our society damage because our ability to relate becomes impaired. It’s easy to demonize, or simply dismiss, people you don’t know or see. It’s in this context that we can keep having inane conversations about the “habits” and “culture” of the poor and “inner city” citizens. It’s nearly impossible to commiserate with the unseen and unknown.

Yes, I ride my scooter because it’s fun, saves me money and lessening my consumption of fossil fuels makes me feels socially responsible. Picking up my scooter yesterday taught me another lesson: I need to get off my scooter from time to time and ride the bus if I am truly to see the world in which we live!

I am inclined to suggest that we dispense with the overly ritualized washing of feet on Holy Thursday or the sanitized “reverencing” of the cross on Good Friday. Instead of going to church, ride a bus across town sometime this “holy” week. Sit for one hour with a community as much our own as our self-sorted congregations.  Get beyond “the law” and our domesticated “public” liturgies.

Whose face do we see?

What Really Matters

God must find us very tedious at times! Yesterday I overheard a media report speculating whether an image reflected in a rain drop was truly an apparition of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Oh, for God’s sake – literally! I also find pious fascination, bordering on obsession, with items such as the Shroud of Turin to be a distraction and pointless. All we are given in Scripture is an empty tomb – no witnesses to the “big event”!  We are given faith-filled encounters of people who experienced one who was dead to now be alive! That’s where we must look as well – to our own intimate encounter with the Risen One.

There is some buzz these days about the authenticity of a papyrus fragment suggesting that Jesus may have been married. The “evidence” comes from the discovery of a document from somewhere between the 4th and 8th centuries in which Jesus is quoted as referring to “my wife.” Oh, for God’s sake! Does it really matter? Preoccupation with such questions – important and necessary as they are from a scholarly perspective – is a distraction from what we really should be about during Holy Week. Ultimately, Jesus’ marital status doesn’t really matter to the faith we proclaim!

I am convinced that the overwhelming evidence combined with 2000 years of tradition and the near universal consensus of biblical scholars makes clear that Jesus was not married. Fr. James Martin, SJ offers a cogent defense for this position in the current issue of America magazine. I highly recommend it for its clarity, balance and brevity [link]. 

I hope never to be paranoid, often catch myself being cynical, but invite the charge of being skeptical. Do you see more than coincidence in the big media splash given to this “old news” – from at least 2012 – at the very beginning of Holy Week? I’m not suggesting anything sinister! It’s likely just good PR to hype the report when it will get the most coverage. Would you agree that this “news” would be received differently if it had been released during the week leading up to the Fourth of July!

Rather than pointing a finger at “faithless media” or blaming secularists waging “culture wars” we should really direct that finger at ourselves. Use the media report as an occasion to reflect upon and potentially deepen our faith — in what really matters!  Especially this week… Where do we look for evidence of the resurrection? …to an empty tomb? …to the testimony of others? …to physical evidence? Do we look for it in the past? …in other people’s stories? If so, we are bound to be disappointed. We are so easily distracted by trivia and non-essentials.

Yes, we have the testimony of others. However, these are only intended to lead us to an immediate and intimate encounter with the Risen One precisely where we are most in need of a savior… here, now, today! Don’t be distracted.

The “big event” doesn’t happen in an empty tomb outside Jerusalem!