Archive for Jesus

Thirsting for Lent

Posted in America Magazine with tags , , , , , , , , on March 10, 2014 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

Front image_drinking-waterThis column originally appeared in the March 17, 2014 issue of America magazine with the title “Thirsting for Lent.”

Prayer, fasting, and almsgiving—this Lenten trinity of practices has long been the foundation of our penitential season as we prepare for Holy Week and Easter. Many people will adopt new methods of prayer, engage in the spiritual practice of fasting and offer time and resources in the form of almsgiving. Each of these helps us to focus our attention on what we might otherwise overlook and challenges us to, as one option for the distribution of ashes puts it, “repent and believe in the Gospel” in increasingly attentive ways.

Even with Lent now underway, some people might still be looking for a way to connect better to their faith beyond the usual tradition of “giving something up.” I suggest that this year we might benefit from focusing our attention on something totally different, something often taken for granted: water.

With the short phrase “I thirst” (Jn 19:28) counted among the traditional seven last words of Jesus from the cross and proclaimed in the Passion account on Good Friday, it seems that we already have a reason to reconsider water as part of our Lenten practice of repenting and believing in the Gospel.

Too often this phrase has become “overly spiritualized.” It is perhaps too easy, too quick and neat to read this line symbolically as a reference to the waters of eternal life. There is a temptation here for us to ignore the real and powerful human suffering that comes with someone dying of dehydration and experiencing real, life-ending thirst. To over-spiritualize the Gospel and overlook the real suffering of human beings is a problem because the waters of eternal life may mean little for those who die waiting for the waters of basic earthly life.

In his book Seven Last Words, Timothy Radcliffe, O.P., the former master general of the Dominican Order, makes the keen observation that “because our bodies are 98 percent water,” we might better view “dehydration [as] the seeping away of our very being, our substance. We feel that we ourselves are evaporating.” To die from lack of water is perhaps one of the most dehumanizing ways for a life to end. And yet, millions of people face this threat every day.

Often people in the United States are shielded from the harsh truth that most of the world’s population does not have access to clean drinking water. This same insulated population, especially those in city and suburban locations, regularly uses clean water to flush toilets, wash cars, clean sidewalks and water lawns. That said, the recent droughts in California, as well as the Elk River chemical spill in West Virginia that left more than 300,000 residents without drinkable water, have made more people in this country aware of how precarious life can be without the guarantee of clean water.

Beyond our borders the situation is much worse. While we regularly accept the commodification of water in the form of plastic bottles purchased at grocery stores or the use of filtration systems to enhance the taste of our already potable supply, the business of water has become a justice issue for those who cannot afford to satiate the whetted appetites businesspeople have for profit. It raises the question: Is clean water a basic human right or a product for sale?

Christiana Peppard, an assistant professor of theology, science and ethics at Fordham University, treats this question in her new book, Just Water: Theology, Ethics, and the Global Water Crisis. Treated as an overlooked subject for Christian ethics and social justice, water, Peppard notes, is really a right-to-life issue, because “fresh water is interwoven with the most pressing realities that populations and regions will face in the twenty-first century, from agriculture to climate change to political stability, and more.” When we take clean water for granted, both humanity and the rest of creation suffer.

Jesus’ cry “I thirst” continues to echo in the lives of those hanging on the crosses of poverty and oppression. This Lent perhaps we can commit ourselves to rethinking the role of water in our lives, paying special attention to how we use and abuse it. In turn, we might reconsider our practices and discover ways we can become better sisters and brothers to one another and the planet.

Daniel P. Horan, O.F.M., is the author of several books, including The Last Words of Jesus: A Meditation on Love and Suffering (2013).

Photo: Stock

Fr. James Martin’s Book on Jesus: A Great Read

Posted in Book Review with tags , , , , , , , on March 9, 2014 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

Jesus-a-Pilgrimage-203x300The book has already hit two bestseller marks on Amazon.com: it’s a #1 in the categories of ‘Catholicism’ and ‘Jesus, Gospel, and Acts.’ And the book hasn’t yet been released. It is scheduled for March 11, but I was fortunate enough to get an advance copy to read just in time for the first week of Lent.

Fr. James Martin, SJ’s latest, Jesus: A Pilgrimage (HarperOne 2014), lives up to the expectations set by his already existing library of well-written, deeply engaging, entertaining, and inspiring books. Having written on themes including his own vocation story, his experience ministering in Africa, his work with a theatre company (where he became close to the late actor Philip Seymour Hoffman), the role of the saints in his life, the place of joy and humor in the spiritual life, among others, Martin returns to the source of Christianity to examine Jesus of Nazareth from a deeply personal perspective and with in typically approachable style.

There are three intersecting threads that are neatly woven together throughout the book. The first is Martin’s personal experience of visiting the Holy Land while on pilgrimage. The story of his own journey to the land of the Gospels is itself an entertaining one, marked as it is by his own resistance to such a trip and the fortuitous encouragement and friendship that eventually made it all possible. He is able to describe, not just the scenery of the Palestinian landscape, but add stories and details that help bring the modern experience of this ancient land alive.

The second thread is the careful scholarship that informs so much of this book. While Martin admits upfront that he is not a scholar nor a professional theologian, he has done his homework and the thirty pages of endnotes are but one sign to illustrate that. The number of notes is not so much the scholarly signal, but the sources and material that he relies upon, which is reflected in both the content and the notes. The book, as it happens, is dedicated to his former professor, fellow Jesuit brother, and recently deceased New Testament scholar Daniel Harrington, SJ, who was no doubt proud of his brother and former student (Harrington also blurbed to book before embracing Sister Death). Martin relies not just on Harrington, but the work of other important scholars too including Raymond Brown, Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, Gerhard Lohfink, Elizabeth Johnson, John Meier, John Dominic Crossan, E.P. Sanders, Amy Jill-Levine, and so many others. While certainly not adding to the scholarly research, Martin does what few of the academic luminaries he engages can do: make some of the latest research accessible to a very broad audience.

The third thread is Martin’s approachable, personal, humorous, and insightful writing style. Those familiar with his other books will recognize immediately the familiar form his prose takes. While I have enjoyed reading many of Martin’s earlier books, especially his last Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor, and Laughter are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life (2012), I don’t think I’ve liked any of them quite as much as his My Life With the Saints (2006) until Jesus: A Pilgrimage. Like My Life With the Saints, this new book has the overlapping appeal of addressing a subject that is important and relevant to so many reader (i.e., Jesus), while also infusing the subject with the life of it’s author. This is, perhaps, the most appealing aspect of the book as a whole. It answers the question: What else could possibly be said about Jesus of Nazareth? Jim Martin’s experience of this one called the Christ is what can be said and hasn’t been said before.

This last point is something Martin addresses early on in Jesus: A Pilgrimage:

…after I explained that the book would focus only on specific Gospel passages, one friend asked sensibly, “What can you say that hasn’t been said?” “Well,” I said, “I’ll write about the Jesus whom I’ve met in my life. This is a Jesus who hasn’t been written about before.” It may be similar to hearing a friend tell you something unexpected about a mutual friend. “I never knew that about him,” you might say wonderingly. Seeing a friend through another pair of eyes can help you appreciate a person more. You may end up understanding your friend in an entirely new way. So I would like to invite you to meet the Jesus you already may know, but in a new way. Or, if you don’t know much about Jesus, I would like to introduce him to you. Overall, I would like to introduce you to the Jesus I know, and love, the person at the center of my life.

And he does.

Following a generally Gospel-based chronology, Martin leads the reader on a pilgrimage through the assumed historical timeline of Jesus’s earthly life and ministry, selecting (as he stated he would) certain key passages upon which to reflect most fully. Even a book just a bit over 500 pages cannot cover everything (the New Testament scholar John Meier has been working for more than two decades on his multi-volume series on the Historical Jesus titled A Marginal Jew, each volume of which weighs in at more than Martin’s singular project on the subject).

Each of the chapters bears the trifold mark highlighted above of pilgrimage, a foundation of sound scholarship, and approachable writing. As someone who is an “academic,” I admit that I approach reading books about theology and scripture aimed at popular audiences with caution and hesitation. It’s just too easy for the seemingly arcane and esoteric, but important, details about this or that doctrine or this or that historical event or this or that word in Greek to become confused in translation. This is something I myself have struggled with in writing books like my latest The Last Words of Jesus: A Meditation on Love and Suffering (2013). It is not easy to find the right combination, yet Martin certainly has here.

One of the subjects that comes across as a central Christian tension — indeed a real tension about which most Christians might not always be aware — is that between the so-called “Jesus of history” and the “Christ of faith.” Martin explains early on in the book how he will address this tension throughout the book:

Moreover, Jesus is always fully human and fully divine. That is, Jesus is not human during one event and divine in another, no matter how it might seem in any particular episode of his life. He is divine when he is sawing a plank of wood, and he is human when he is raising Lazarus from the dead.

It is the Catholic “both/and” view that holds the tension up as both a reality and struggle, yet affirms the central doctrinal claim of the Incarnation. The materials that Martin brings into dialogue with the various Gospel passages explored throughout the book helps the readers to appreciate both dimensions of this Jesus called the Christ.

This review could go on and on with additional details and descriptions of passages throughout the book, but I suppose the ultimate message I have to offer is that this book is definitely worth reading and for a whole variety of audiences. For those who might not have an academic background in theology or scripture, this book would serve to offer a richer context for Gospel passages frequently encountered in the Liturgy and in private study, but often misunderstood. Martin gives helpful, yet non-intimidating, exegetical references along the way. I could imagine this being a great book for parish faith-sharing groups (although the book does lack in-chapter reflection questions). For those who have more (or a lot) of academic background in theology or scripture, this book would serve as a grounded yet lighthearted and personal refresher, living up to Martin’s goal to offer another view of a mutual friend.

While there are many underlined passages in my copy, I have to say that one of my favorite has little do with Jesus per se, but with a passing reference Martin makes to when Ignatius Loyola made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land only to be kicked out by the Franciscans, who have been the guardians of the sites for centuries, because they didn’t think it safe for Ignatius to be there. It seems especially funny in an age when the Bishop of Rome is a Jesuit who took the name Francis.

Photo: HarperOne

Fulfilling the Law: Bottom Lines and ‘Pieces of Flair’

Posted in Homilies, Scripture with tags , , , , , , , on February 16, 2014 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

bottom-line-freight-costs-savingsThe reading from the Gospel according to Matthew this Sunday (Matt 5:17-20) is, in addition to being one of those lengthy pericopes that lead to the young and old alike grumbling about “when will this Gospel end so I can sit down,” a very important text that is also oftentimes misread and misunderstood. The key to understanding the multiple antitheses that are presented by Jesus is found at the very beginning of the Gospel today: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come to to abolish but to fulfill.”

The recently deceased Jesuit scripture scholar, Daniel Harrington, keenly draws out attention to the misreading of this passage that Jesus warns against. Too many see a dichotomy or a distancing of the Christian instruction from the Old Testament law here, yet such a reading flies in the face of Jesus’s own explanation. This is not about how wrong the Jewish people had it and how right the Christian community will get it, quite the opposite. This is about God’s self-disclosive love that follows on the heels of last week’s Salt of the Earth, Light of the World discourse. To be salt and light means to love in the way that Jesus has loved and to do that means to hold an aspirational view of peace, justice, love, and relationship.

What I mean by this is rather than looking at the (biblical) law as a “bottom line” in the spirit of American jurisprudence in which transgressions or violations of the law are marked by the lowest common denominator — you’re a good Christian, until you cross this particular line and then it’s a sin!  – Jesus is advocating for a different vision, one that reflects God’s desire and plan for full human living that is seen in a hopeful way. I liken this to an “open roof,” aiming upward, rather than limiting one’s sense of sin and right relationship with a ceiling or focusing downward on the “bottom line” of the behavior most minimally acceptable.

Each of these themes that Jesus discusses — murder and anger, adultery and lust, divorce, oaths, reactions to evil, loving enemies — are themes that everybody encounters. How easy would it be, with a “bottom line” approach, to say to oneself: “I am a good person, I haven’t killed anybody, therefore I’m not ‘liable to judgement!’” Yet, Jesus is making the point that we are all sinners and fail to live up to what it is God intends for us.

Sure, it is very unlikely that you or I will murder anybody, but how often do we hold anger toward another, feed our lust for vengeance after we’ve been hurt or wronged, desire ill for another, and so forth? My guess is: pretty regularly!

If we take the roof of our limited expectations off the house of our own making, and stop looking down to make sure we’re standing above the floor of lowest expectations, we realize that God is inviting us to be more and better. There are plenty of ways that we can grow in our faith and in the practice of our relationships, but are we just content to maintain the minimum or are we willing to aspire to something more, something more like God’s will rather than ours, something more like the fulfillment that Jesus is talking about today?

I’m reminded of the scenes in the popular cult film Office Space when Jennifer Aniston’s character, a woman who works at a generic chain restaurant the likes of TGI Fridays, gets into some heated discussions with her supervisor about how many “pieces of flair” she should have on her waitress uniform (see clip below). Pieces of flair are buttons, pins, and various other “fun” items that are attached to the uniform and by which one’s ostensible enthusiasm for and commitment to providing quality service. The non sequitur and absurdity of “pieces of flair” notwithstanding, the attitude that Jennifer Aniston’s character has in this scene comically illustrates this “bottom line” approach, looking down at what one must do and be instead of what one should aspire to do and be.

Jesus is dealing with us, the Jennifer Aniston characters, who want to be told what the minimal requirements are to be “in the good” with God. Jesus challenges our presuppositions in this way, forcing us to come to terms with the fact that we are capable of so much more than the “bottom line.” We should all aspire to be more Christ-like in our living and loving. We should want as many pieces of flair as our particular circumstances allow, not because it’s required, but because we are enthusiastic about God’s will and proclaiming the Kingdom of God with our words and deeds (and flair)!

Photo: File

Authority, Authenticity, and Leadership

Posted in Pope Francis, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on January 14, 2014 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

JP-VATICAN-1-superJumboThe combination of recent reports of Pope Francis’s decisions in addressing Vatican leadership crises at the curia and today’s Gospel taken from Mark 1:21-28 about Jesus’s ability to speak as one “with authority,” has me thinking about what it means to be a Christian today and to do so with authority.

Today’s Gospel begins:

Jesus came to Capernaum with his followers,
and on the sabbath he entered the synagogue and taught.
The people were astonished at his teaching,
for he taught them as one having authority and not as the scribes.

The scribes, those who were something like our modern-day Canon lawyers or perhaps even some ecclesiastical bureaucrats, spoke with an authority that came from interpretations of the law and the exercise of power in a traditional way. Jesus was often critical of those in positions of religious leadership because he saw certain inauthenticity in their words and deeds (think of the admonition about bowls clean on the outside but dirty within).

Jesus comes onto the scene and the people were “astonished at his teaching” not because he was some sort of brilliant legal expert or politically well-connected or had some impressive credentials. His teaching shocked hearers because it bore an authority rooted in an authentic embrace of God’s will demonstrated by both word and deed. His ministry of healing, of forgiveness, of love, of reconciliation, of mission — this is what conveyed an authority novel to those used to the old forms of religious leadership.

Nearly two-millennia later, Pope Francis appears on the scene. The Bishop of Rome has captured the attention of the whole world, teaching and acting “as one having authority” and not as those who have typically been in similar positions of leadership.

Pope Francis is, to be clear, not Jesus. He is a priest and a bishop, like so many others. However, what distinguishes him is the way in which he can convey a sense of authenticity in his words and deeds that demonstrates a leadership and authority more akin to Jesus’s than to that of the typical curial bureaucrat or ladder-climbing cleric. And he’s not only teaching with words, but acting with this astonishing authority.

Today the New York Times reported:

To some degree, Francis, 77, is simply bringing in his own team and equipping it to carry out his stated mission of creating a more inclusive and relevant church that is more sensitive to the needs of local parishes and the poor. But he is also breaking up the rival blocs of Italians with entrenched influence in the Roman Curia, the bureaucracy that runs the church. He is increasing financial transparency in the murky Vatican Bank and upending the career ladder that many prelates have spent their lives climbing.

The response has been striking, eliciting for me an image of what the pharisees and scribes must have felt when Jesus was exposing the hypocrisy and inauthenticity of so many of them. The Times article continues with a comment about the way in which some of Pope Francis’s decisions to restructure the curia and refocus the attitude and mission of its staffers has been received.

Interviews with cardinals, bishops, priests, Vatican officials, Italian politicians, diplomats and analysts indicate that the mood inside the Vatican ranges from adulation to uncertainty to deep anxiety, even a touch of paranoia. Several people say they fear Francis is going department by department looking for heads to roll. Others whisper about six mysterious Jesuit spies who act as the pope’s eyes and ears on the Vatican grounds. Mostly, once-powerful officials feel out of the loop.

“It’s awkward,” said one senior Vatican official, who, like many others, insisted on anonymity for fear of retribution from Francis. “Many are saying, what are we doing this for?” He said some officials had stopped showing up for meetings. “It’s like frustrated teenagers closing the door and putting their headphones on.”

It will be interesting to see how this will reckoning will proceed. It didn’t, as history and our faith tradition knows so well, end well for Jesus of Nazareth. It is my hope and prayer that those whose selfish ambition and political aspirations are increasingly spurned don’t follow suit. Pope Francis continues to astonish me with the authority of his words and deeds in the most positive and hopeful ways. May we continue to hear the Spirit who calls us to return to our faith, to the Gospel, to the authority of Jesus that heals rather than breaks, that is inclusive rather than exclusive, and that reveals the merciful and compassionate face of God rather than the selfish ambition of individuals.

Photo: NYT

Creation, Love, and the Mercy of God

Posted in Scripture, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , on November 3, 2013 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

earth-spaceThe season of Ordinary Time is winding down as we head into the new Liturgical Year in just a few weeks. Our readings over these last few Sundays have been shifting from the explicit instructions about Christian discipleship, what Jesus expects of the those who follow him, to more eschatological or “end time” themes. This Sunday we see that a little more clearly than we have so far, and it will become more stark as we head to the solemnity of Christ the King at the end of the month.

At first it might be difficult to uncover the connection or eschatological themes of these readings. The Book of Wisdom (Wis 11:22-12:2), from which we have our First Reading, centers on God’s act of creation and the Creator’s relationship to all that exists. This selection opens with an acknowledgment that the whole universe — put even more so each of us — is really no-thing when compared to God’s vastness and incomprehensibility. We are like a drop of dew or a speck of dust, deserving no attention or owed no honor. Yet, God loves us anyway. More to the point, our very existence is in fact a sign and promise of that Divine love.

Before the LORD the whole universe is as a grain from a balance
or a drop of morning dew come down upon the earth.
But you have mercy on all, because you can do all things;
and you overlook people’s sins that they may repent.
For you love all things that are
and loathe nothing that you have made;
for what you hated, you would not have fashioned.
And how could a thing remain, unless you willed it;
or be preserved, had it not been called forth by you?

If we doubt God’s love and mercy, just look at all that remains in existence when it could be otherwise, or nothing-wise. Indeed, “how could a thing remain” unless God willed it?

Although our lack of faithfulness to God, demonstrated in the millennia-old narratives of Sacred Scripture and experienced in our daily lives, should suggest that we be treated like a drop of dew or a speck of dust, God (thankfully) does not think or act as we do. While we are quick to dismiss others and ourselves, God loves “all things that are and loathe nothing that you have made.”

So what is so “end-timey” or eschatological about this? Isn’t this about creation about the beginning?

Yes. But one thing that Christians often overlook is the truth that creation and salvation are one in the same. We can distinguish between the act of God’s creation and the goal or telos of that creation (which is salvation understood as all returning back to the Creator), they are inseparable: you cannot think about creation without God’s loving intention for it to be glorified and brought to completion, nor can you think about salvation without conceiving of God’s original desire for all that exists.

God is not an unjust judge. God is not even a just judge according to human standards (think of last week’s parable). God is a lover and a forgiver, one whose intention is always to draw near to the creation that is loved into existence and to bestow mercy and forgiveness upon it. This is echoed in the closing verses of today’s First Reading, reminding us again of what’s to come: love and mercy for the creation that God is head-over-heels in love with.

But you spare all things, because they are yours,
O LORD and lover of souls,
for your imperishable spirit is in all things!
Therefore you rebuke offenders little by little,
warn them and remind them of the sins they are committing,
that they may abandon their wickedness and believe in you, O LORD!

The Gospel today bears an unexpected connection to these themes. The calling of Zacchaeus from the tree is usually viewed through the lens of sin and forgiveness, a demonstration of the mercy of God. This, of course, is true. But there’s also something curious going on here in Jesus’s response to the “grumbling” crowd:

And Jesus said to him,
“Today salvation has come to this house
because this man too is a descendant of Abraham.
For the Son of Man has come to seek
and to save what was lost.”

This man, who is both a professed sinner and an outsider, is also “a descendant of Abraham.” Jesus is referring here to what the Jewish establishment in his time would have regarded as an exclusive right and a closed community — you’re either in or your out, Jew or Greek, circumcised or not!

Yet, Jesus is reminding us what is hinted at slightly in the First Reading from Wisdom. All of creation, each and every aspect of what exists, is loved into existence and maintained in existence by God. God loathes none of it and no one.

Salvation is not about being “saved” in some simplistic, in or out, Jew or Greek kind of way. Salvation is about “saving what was lost” in terms of the scattered community of creation. Salvation is about the completion of God’s desire for all creation in the beginning, our cosmic return to God. We members of the human family are all descendants of Abraham, brothers and sisters to each other. But we are also brothers and sisters to the rest of the created order and our goal of salvation remains the goal of all God’s creation (as we also see in Romans 8): the Return to God.

Photo: Stock

Jesus Was Not Such A ‘Nice Guy’

Posted in Homilies, Scripture, Social Justice, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , on August 18, 2013 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

jesus-painting_1280_x_1024Jesus was not such a “nice guy.”

This might be difficult to accept at first glance, because the image of Jesus we have today has been so sanitized and packaged as to make wearing a precious-metal cross around one’s neck or identifying oneself as a Christian in public is not a particularly uncommon (nor unpopular) thing to do today, especially in places like the United States. But who is this Jesus that is so immediately attractive, so easy to follow, so much like our own imagining? And, then, who is this Jesus that we hear about in today’s Gospel, who claims to have come to bring division rather than the establishment of peace (Luke 12: 49-53)?

There are at least two reasons we might understand that Jesus was not entirely a “nice guy.” The first is that the Romans, despite anachronistic misunderstandings of their behavior and outlook, did not typically go around crucifying “nice guys.” Yes, while Jesus was without a doubt an innocent man who happened to be crucified, we should not forget that there was a reason that he drew attention to himself and it wasn’t for saying kind things about the way the status quo was maintained. More on that in a second.

The second reason that we can reasonably assume Jesus was not such a “nice guy” is that he tells us as much in today’s Gospel selection from Luke (and we hear it echoed in the synoptic Gospel of Matthew with an even-more disturbing emphasis on not-nice-guyness in terms of Jesus’s claim to bring “the sword”).

It can be difficult to get beyond the seemingly violent message that Jesus appears to convey in his exhortation to his disciples. We might hear in Jesus’s admittance that he didn’t come to “establish peace on the earth” something of an advocation for violence. But that’s not really what is going on.

Likewise, it might seem that Jesus does not respect “family values” (isn’t that an interesting read) in suggesting that those who follow him and live life according the Good News he announces will find themselves among divided families and communities. But that’s not really what is going on.

What is going on is a straightforward, albeit counterintuitive, admission of the risk, challenge, and reality of authentic Christian living that centers on following the Word of God and becoming a prophetic in one’s time and place!

In other words, we are called, like Jesus was, to not be “nice guys” (and “gals,” for those who aren’t Millennials and use “guys” in an inclusive manner).

Jesus did indeed come to bring peace, but it was — as we hear elsewhere in Sacred Scripture — a “peace the world cannot give” (John 14:27). The peace that Jesus is talking about here, the “peace” that he did not come to establish, is the kind of peace that we might talk about when we express a desire to maintain the status quo or wish “not to ‘rock the boat.’” It is a kind of “keeping the peace” that eschews “tough love,” or a “challenging voice,” or the “hard truth.” It is a kind of “establishing a peace” that exists according to the wisdom of the world and not the foolishness of God, and rests in the reason of human injustice and not within the Reign of God.

Jesus was crucified, in part, because he did not come to preach a word that kept things the way they were, but instead was sent to proclaim the in-breaking of God’s Reign, which is about the establishment of justice and not the earthly status quo of injustice and violence. In other words, Jesus was not sent to be a “nice guy,” because nice guys don’t rock the boat nor do they upset people by challenging the way things are. And, oh, how Jesus upset certain people who had so much to lose because they had gained all — power, wealth, status, etc. — at the expense of others!

As those who bear the name of Christ and claim to be his disciples, we are called to not be “nice guys” like him. We are not to keep the peace of things as they are, but to open our eyes to the plight of the poor and forgotten, the underserved and abused, the marginalized and those suffering at the hands of others’ greed. And this might mean that we face divided families and communities, unsettling those who are not able or willing to hear the Gospel.

This is not an entirely new concept. It dates back to the Hebrew Prophets, such as Jeremiah, who we hear about in our First Reading. Jeremiah, a reluctant prophet who at first resisted God’s call to preach the truth of God’s justice and peace, is threatened with death by the king. His proclaiming the truth of the world as it really is in contradistinction to the way God intended the world to be is a threat to those in power, who benefit from the oppression of others and the maintaining of the status quo.

Like Jeremiah, we too might be reluctant to take on this mission, but like him and Jesus we have been called by God to do just that, to surrender our desire to be “nice guys” who “keep the peace” of the way things are. Instead, we are meant — by virtue of our baptismal vocation — to preach the Kingdom of God in word and deed, risking greatly.

But how can we do this?

It is certainly not easy, which is why in our Second Reading the author of the Letter to the Hebrews reminds us of the “Great Cloud of Witnesses” we have to provide models and guides for us. This is a way of talking about the Communion of Saints, those who have gone before us and remain connected to us in spirit. They support us as we continue to persevere and “run the race” of Christian living, a marathon to be sure, a journey that is tiring but one that is the most authentic way of being ourselves.

The question we are left with this weekend is to discern what it means to be a Christian. Do we take the risk of being the prophet who speaks the hard truth and does the right thing, or do we prefer to not “rock the boat” and establish an earthly peace that maintains the status quo of violence and injustice?

Photo: Stock

You Have to Make a Choice

Posted in Homilies, Scripture, Uncategorized with tags , , , , on June 30, 2013 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

crossroads1This Sunday’s readings lay out one very simple fact about the spiritual life: You have to make a choice!

Each of our readings offer us little and big illustrations and guidance when it comes to what it means to hear, respond to, and follow God’s call to live our lives most authentically as believers and those who profess to bear the name Christ. This Sunday of choices comes to us in a threefold package: the choice of Elisha, the choice of Jesus, and the choice that confronts each of us.

In the first reading from the First Book of Kings, we hear proclaimed the story of prophetic succession. God has decided that it was time for — in this case, quite literally — Elijah to pass the mantle to a new representative of the Lord and it was to be Elisha, a farmer who happened to be out in the fields doing his ordinary work. It would be like the prophet showing up at your office in the John Hancock Building here in Boston and saying, while you’re in the middle of a meeting or working on a project, “it is time — God has called you, come and follow me!”

Elisha had very little time to make a choice. God’s call demands something of urgency. We see this in our First Reading and in today’s Gospel. This is something we don’t usually associate with God or ultimate choices. We like to believe “we have plenty of time” or “I’ll worry about that later,” but the truth is that God is here and now calling us to be who we are… do we listen? Do we take God seriously?

Elisha asks for time to say goodbye to his family and, while Elijah disappointedly allows it, it is clear that this is a sign that perhaps the would-be prophet’s resolve is less-than solid. It seems to be a sign of hesitation, but Elisha does come around and destroys his entire livelihood — burning his farming equipment, cooking his work animals, and feeding those in his past life. A metaphor for what is called of us — breaking the bonds of our previous way of living, while not harming those others in our past.

The second choice to be made comes in the terms of Jesus of Nazareth in today’s Gospel from Luke (9:51-62). The first lines of this Gospel passage make all the difference, first lines that we generally breeze through or look over because we “want to get to the ‘good stuff’” of the narrative. Yet, the choice is made succinctly and briefly: “When the days for Jesus’ being taken up were fulfilled, he resolutely determined to journey to Jerusalem.”

Jesus, Luke tells us, formally makes the choice to go forward with what God is calling him to do, despite his anxiety, fear, worried state of mind, and so on. Despite his doubts: Jesus was fully human as he was divine, and there is — as we recall in the Garden the night before he died — doubt and fear. But he trusts in God.

From this point onward in Luke’s Gospel, until Jesus arrives in Jerusalem, every time we have a passage with a saying of Jesus, a miracle, and encounter, and so forth, the refrain “As he was heading to Jerusalem” in some shape or form will echoed. He has made his choice and the choice has made all the difference.

This is where we come in. Like Elijah in the first reading, Jesus’s choice to follow God’s call for him leaves him with the need to select successors, those who will continue to proclaim the in-breaking of God’s Kingdom in word and deed. What happens between him and his disciples and the would-be disciples lays out for us what it means to respond to the call of God in following Christ. And it’s not always easy.

The primary question that we are confronted with, it would seem, is the same question that confronts the brother disciples — James and John — and the unnamed would-be disciples: What do we use to inform our choice?

In the first instance, James and John still seem to have it in their mind that the Messiah is all about worldly power and strength — calling down “fire from heaven” to smite those who dissed Jesus was what they thought was their proper role. Jesus rebukes them, reminds them that this is not what being his follower is about. Elsewhere, he makes it clear that it’s about being the least, the last, the servant of all, not a powerful wonder-worker or a mighty king.

In the second instance, Jesus is approached by those who do indeed hear the call of God in their lives, recognize what it means to experience God in Jesus, and want to follow him. But they have their feet in two worlds. In Paul’s Letter to the Galatians we hear about the two possible influences of how we make decisions: the desires of the Spirit and the desires of the “Flesh.” Oftentimes this latter desire is reduced to some sort of lustful, physical meaning, but it is broader than that. In this case we could consider Paul’s admonition to mean we must look to the Spirit in choosing to respond to God’s call because the worldly influences will not help us, they might even pull us away.

This is why Jesus is so stern with the would-be disciples. These two have very legitimate reasons to hesitate, to wait, to doubt. Burying one’s parent is a duty of the child and a social responsibility, no small task. Yet, we can anticipate Jesus growing weary of the slippery slope of excuses — “let the dead bury the dead” signals that this is such a radical life, such a new life, it is categorically different from that of the world and those concerns need to be put into perspective. Saying goodbye to one’s family is likewise a legitimate, but ultimately worldly concern in this matter — where is the resolve, where is the commitment, where is the choice?

The final line of the Gospel seems the harshest, but that’s because we misunderstand it. Those would-be disciples who hesitate, are primarily guided by the worldly concerns, and so on are “not fit for the kingdom of God.” We far-too-often moralize this and make it into something about who is the elite, who gets in and who doesn’t in the kingdom of God. That is not the point. It is descriptive and “fit” here in the Greek has more to do with attitude and disposition than it does with whether someone meets an external threshold. Think of the use of “fit” in terms of “if so and so is fit for this or that career” or “does so and so have the right attitude, disposition, skills for it.”

Those who, as Paul points out, are more concerned with worldly things than with the resolve to follow God, trust God, no matter what, those people simply don’t have the right attitude to be a disciple of Christ. The question we are faced with today is, in light of the choice that God places before us, do we need an attitude adjustment?

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Who Do We Say That We Are?

Posted in Homilies, Scripture with tags , , , , , , , , on June 23, 2013 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

Jesus-and-disciplesWhat is the meaning of today’s readings from scripture? On the one hand, there appears to be a clear confession of faith in the Gospel when Peter, speaking on behalf of Jesus’s followers, proclaims that Jesus of Nazareth is “The Christ of God” in response to the question, “Who do you say that I am?”

Yet, this is not simply a one-way street. The confession that Jesus of Nazareth is the Christ, the anointed one of God, cannot happen without at the same time our confessing something about who we say that we are. Most simply put, proclaiming that Jesus is the Christ carries with it certain aspects of what it means to be a Christian and what it means to be a human person.

What we have in today’s readings is a pattern or something of a guide for understanding who Christ is, while at the same time understanding who we are.

First, we cannot overlook that the whole exchange between Jesus and his disciples begins with prayer. Luke’s Gospel always has Jesus praying before some major event, revelation, or disclosure. Think of the desert before the proclamation of the reading from Isaiah, think of the garden before the Passion, think of the praying he does before the disciples ask him how they should pray, and so on. To be able to ask the question: “Who do you say that I am?” which is the desire to be known by our true identities, just as Jesus sought to be known by his followers, begins with a spirit of prayer.

We are under so much pressure today to conform our lives to the images that arise from others, focusing on “who do others say that I am,” rather than looking deep within to ask: Who does God say that I am? The starting place for that search for the true self begins with prayer.

Second, we cannot overlook the absolute necessity of relationship in this confession of faith. Peter and the other disciples were able to proclaim Jesus the Christ because they knew him, not just knew about him. We, too, are called to know Christ, to live a life of prayer that draws us every more closely to the one who already knows who we are and calls us to know God in return. So often we think we “know Jesus” — the question is often posed in evangelization moments, “Do you know Jesus?” — yet, this is often phrased in such a way as to really suggest knowledge about Jesus rather than a deep relationship with God that exceeds knowledge about the bible, facts about the church, and so on.

Third, in proclaiming Jesus as the Christ, we are also proclaiming something about ourselves. We who bear the name Christ – Christians — have our identity with Him. This is what Jesus says to us at the end of the Gospel today.

Then he said to all,
“If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself
and take up his cross daily and follow me.
For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it,
but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.”

To proclaim Jesus as the Christ means that we call to mind the self-offering love of Christ, that toward which we strive to live, that after which we have been shaped and changed in baptism.

That we are members of the Body of Christ by virtue of our baptism means that our identity is not simply “Who others say that we are” but, as St. Paul says in the Letter to the Galatians, we are children of God, brothers and sisters to one another, and heirs to the Reign that is truly the peaceable kingdom. Paul explains:

Brothers and sisters:
Through faith you are all children of God in Christ Jesus.
For all of you who were baptized into Christ
have clothed yourselves with Christ.
There is neither Jew nor Greek,
there is neither slave nor free person,
there is not male and female;
for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
And if you belong to Christ,
then you are Abraham’s descendant,
heirs according to the promise.

It isn’t always easy to live up to our identity as children of God, brothers and sisters of Christ and one another. It is difficult and challenging and tiring at times. But to proclaim that Jesus is the Christ calls us to flip the coin and look on the other side to see the perennial question: “Who do you say that you are?”

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Between Faith and Belief is Christian Life

Posted in Homilies, Scripture with tags , , , , , , on April 7, 2013 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

the-holy-bibleIt can be difficult to distinguish between what is meant by faith and belief. For some, such a distinction doesn’t exist; to “have faith” means to “believe in X,Y,or Z.” Yet, for others (and I would put myself in this camp) there is an important distinction that must be made, while recognizing that they are interrelated aspects of our lives. Faith does not require the same sort of thing that belief does. And that thing is cognitive, conceptual, thematic, reflexive, explicit, propositional awareness, understanding, or assent related to a claim about Christianity.

We can see this in a more practical way when we pause to consider how we use the two terms in everyday usage. For example, to say that “I have faith that things will work out” suggests that the how or in what way a situation might be resolved doesn’t come to the fore. But to talk about like, “I believe that this thing will happen,” requires a particular object of  consideration.

Faith is much more than belief.

Faith is the grounding of our very selves in the love and existence of God that oftentimes escapes conceptual reflection and concrete expression. It is about the relationship or experience of an encounter with God in our lives and in our world. It is what provides, as Karl Rahner might put it, the very condition for the possibility of belief — the fiducial context out of which our doctrines, scripture, and shared expression of that experience arises.

Just because someone cannot or will not “believe” in something, does not mean that the same person doesn’t intrinsically and in a very profound way have faith.

Perhaps there is no better example of this dynamic of human existence in relationship to God playing out than in our Gospel for this Sunday — the famous encounter (or initial lack thereof) between the Risen Lord and Thomas, called Didymus, and more popularly called “the doubter!”

Thomas’s doubt shouldn’t, I believe, be mistaken for a lack of faith.

Why? Thomas’s faith — that experience of God in Jesus Christ that led him to transform his life (metanoia) in following in the footsteps of the Nazarene — is what brought him to the moment when the question of belief and unbelief arose. I have no doubt that Thomas was well aware of the mystery of God’s action in the world and in his life in particular, but that doesn’t mean that he had an easy time making sense or conceptualizing or understanding what was happening in the everyday, categorical experience of his quotidian life. On the contrary, the author of the Gospel of John tells us that he, like the other disciples, were rather confused, uncertain, and deathly afraid (literally — they feared the same fate as Jesus). He was, like so many women and men — really, like all women and men, unsure of what to believe.

The story traditionally paints Thomas as something of a loser, a “bad guy,” a holdout. But, I think he’s the most genuine figure for which any modern disciple could hope. He is us, and because we are losers or holdouts or weak in faith. On the contrary, the experience of Thomas reveals that just because we have faith in the God who is love, who is our ground, who sustains us and, like we read in Exodus 3:15-17 in the theophany to Moses, is the God who is concerned about us and cares for us, does not mean that our belief in all aspects of our tradition will come easily and that we will always understand what is happening in our lives with clarity.

The end of the Gospel account from John reads:

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples
that are not written in this book.
But these are written that you may come to believe
that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God,
and that through this belief you may have life in his name.

The author of this Gospel seems to make it clear that the purpose of the concretized, historical medium of kerygma or early experience and proclamation of the Christ event, is to serve as a means for Christians who would come after to believe. It presupposes the faith that is intrinsic to each of us by virtue of our being loved into existence by God and, therefore, seeks to help us make sense of what our lives are about, what it is we are supposed to do, and to understand better who God is.

That is the whole point of God becoming a human person in Jesus of Nazareth, something that God planed and desired from all eternity: to enter into an ever-more intimate relationship with all of humanity and creation. That is the point of John 1:18 when the author, at the end of the prologue, explains that the purpose of the Gospel that follows is to present what it means for the Son to reveal (exegete or express) the Father.  That is the point of the Good News (Gospel), to lead our faith to belief, to give an account of what it means to bear the name Christ and to make sense of the faith that is already always present, even if we choose to ignore it.

Thomas isn’t such a bad guy, he’s just very real and extraordinarily normal. He helps show us that what brings us to God through Christ is the faith that is an expression of our a priori relationship with our creator, and that it is then the purpose of the Christian community to encourage one another so that we may then “come to believe” and, then, “through this belief you may have life in his name.”

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Can You Handle the Truth That Will Set You Free?

Posted in Scripture, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , on March 20, 2013 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

boy_reading_bibleJesus says: “If you remain in my word, you will truly be my disciples ,and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31). But, as if fulfilling the prophecy of Jack Nicholson’s character in the film  A Few Good Men, those who hear Jesus seem quite incapable of “handling the truth.”

The question of Pilate lingers in the background of Jesus’s curious line: quid veritas est? What is this truth about which Jesus is speaking, according to which one who would be his disciple would be set free? It seems that Jesus, in true Johannine form, is both rather straightforward and curiously deceptive about what precisely he means.

To have a better sense of this idea of truth (he aletheia) as it is used in this case. Scholars, in good academic style, are divided on how exactly Jesus is using this notion here. The most plausible referent, however, is very likely the revelation of God in the very person Jesus of Nazareth. His life, words, and deeds as exhibited throughout John’s Gospel — otherwise described as the book of these “signs” — bespeak a truth that cannot be intuited from one’s own experience. Rather, the truth that sets the disciple free is the very “word” of Christ, which in Hebrew (dabar) denotes not just what one says, but action, event, and dynamism as well. In this sense, the opening of John’s Gospel makes more sense than it ordinarily might to our Hellenistic ears: the Word became flesh. The Word acts.

Knowing the dabar of Jesus is to know the fullest revelation of God (see John 1:18 in which we are told at the end of the prologue that “no one has ever seen the Father, but the son reveals Him”), which is both the content of the message and the transformative power of the action.

To know the truth that sets one free is to embrace the relationality of God’s intention for all of humankind. Jesus tries to express this in his dialogue with, interestingly enough, “those who had believed in him” (tous pepisteukotas autq Ioudaious), the group of people he is addressing in this passage. But, like so many who today profess to believe in him or, as the PEW Research polls continually tells us, admit to having had professed belief in him, the audience of Jesus’s time misses the point.

“Oh, I know what it means to follow the Law and to do what God instructed us through Abraham,” they reply. But Jesus tries to get across that something entirely new is unfolding here. What they take to be the instructions according to Abraham their father in faith is, Jesus seems to claim, actually their own misinterpretations and a straying away from what it is that God reveals to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and so on. He says, “If you were Abraham’s children, you would be doing the works of Abraham” (John 8:39). Instead, if even sincerely, they are doing the works of their own liking, not those revealed by God to their ancestors.

And how true is that for Christians today? We collectively claim, “Oh, we are disciples of Jesus and we do his works!” But do we?

Those who bear the name Christ and call themselves Christian should indeed do his works according to his word (dabar), but so often mistake their own social, cultural, and personal desires for the word of God. This is how self-identified Christians can commit all sorts of hatred, discrimination, and violence. This is how women and men who bear the name “Christ” can judge and exclude, seek wealth and ignore the poor, advance their own power while marginalizing those who already have no voice. This, however, is not the truth about which Jesus speaks.

Jesus’s truth, the truth of the word of God, is a truth of radical relationship and self-sacrificial love (agape). It is a love of neighbor and stranger and enemy that is peace that “the world” cannot give that, as Paul says, is foolishness and stupidity to the world, but is the heart of who God is and who we are called to be. It is a truth that can set us free by unveiling and then removing the strictures we place on ourselves and others in our self-serving actions and attitudes. It is a truth that is not so much easily understood as challengingly lived out.

Photo: Stock
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