Saturday, April 23, 2011

Some Reflections on my first Easter Vigil as a pastor

I've been waiting for the moment when I start to feel like I belong here. Things are starting to seem "normal" here instead of like everything is constantly changing.

This Easter Vigil was very special for me. It was the first time I celebrated it as a pastor. I'd done my best to avoid celebrating it before because I said that the pastor should always be the one to bring people into the church. I was able to sit and listen to all the wonderful Old Testament readings (We did five) and I chanted probably 75% of the prayers (including Eucharistic Prayer I) and I managed to use incense and not spill the coals (unlike Holy Thursday!).

Probably the time that just hit me was when my butt hit the chair after communion for a few moments of reflection/thanksgiving. The choir started singing Regina Coeli Latare and I thought to myself: Rejoice, O Church for he who Mary bore has truly risen. Alleluia.

He is Risen. He is truly risen.

Allow hope to overcome fear

My dear Friends in Christ

Grace and Peace to you in our Risen Savior as we gather here for the Easter Vigil. The case is often made that, as Catholics, we never read the Bible. Well, you can’t say that about this mass. We seem to have covered almost the entire Bible tonight. As I was praying over the readings, I couldn’t hope but notice a theme. God continually drives out fear with hope. We heard in the first reading how he made the earth and gave us a special role in it with a dominion proper to men and women. It’s not until the next chapter with the story of Adam and Eve that fear enters the world through sin. This was the fear that Abraham overcame when he travelled three days into the wilderness to slaughter his son, Isaac. God ultimately spared the Son of Abraham. And because of his obedience to the unfair request of God, Abraham is told that his name will be a blessing to many nations, and it is to anyone who calls themselves Jew, Christian, or Muslim. Yes, God spared the son of Abraham in hope and did not spare his own son to put an end to fear and start a new beginning of hope to all the nations through Jesus.

It was fear that caused the Moses and the Israelites to question whether God would save them from the oncoming Egyptian force. Yet, God had their back by sending his angel to protect them so that the Egyptians could not get close. Then he opened a way through the waters of the Red Sea so that only His people could pass, not the Egyptians. He used the waters of the Red Sea to point to the hopeful waters of Baptism, which drive out the fear of death.

This is what St. Paul was talking about in his letter to the Romans. Baptism is, for us, an entrance into the resurrected life of Jesus. He has died for us and we enter into his death in the waters of Baptism. He died for us so that we may no longer be a slave to sin. To me, the ultimate symbol of hope overcoming fear is in the gospel. There is an earthquake because the Angel of the Lord has moved the rock that blocked the way to the tomb of Jesus. The Angel, who appears in dazzling white, scares the guards so much that they become like dead men. Fear can be paralyzing like that sometimes. Yet, the women who have faith can see through the tumult of an earthquake, the hope that lies behind it. They hear the hopeful words of the Angel that he is risen. They ran fearful but overjoyed to the disciples. The fear is natural but Jesus had to get rid of it so that they could be completely hopeful witnesses so he, likewise, appears to them to drive out any vestige of fear they may have.

At our 13 hours, Fr. Hertges talked about how hope drives out fear. I kept thinking of all the things in this world that so easily deflate the kind of pithy hope that most people have. Internationally, the United States is in a four front war in the Middle East. There have been so many natural disasters; earthquakes, tsunamis, tornados, etc. that it’s hard to keep up with it all. Gas prices keep going higher and higher and the economy keeps getting worse and worse and, to be honest, I’m not sure any politician has the selflessness, let alone the intelligence, to be able to deal with it. Our church’s struggle with sexual abuse has diminished our voice on moral matters to the extent that it seems to be ignored by everyone. And, still, there’s hope. In the face of all this tumult, the angel of the Lord looks at each of us and says, “Do not be afraid!” God has conquered sin and death. Jesus is raised from the dead. Alleluia! Alleluia!

We are to be like the women in the gospel today and announce the Good News of Jesus’ resurrection to the whole world. Like the women, we are undoubtedly afraid to do so because we may be spurned, mocked, and ridiculed. Allow Jesus, who comes to us tonight in bread and wine, to open your heart to his call to evangelization. Go tell your brothers and sisters to go to church, here they will see him. Here they will find hope to overcome fear. Here they will die with Christ so as to rise with him.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Reflections on the Good Friday Service

Before Lent began, I met with the Forest City Ministerial Association to talk about the things ministerial associations normally talk about; pray together, work on a communal charitable effort, and get to know each other so we don't demonize each other. I found out that we do an ecumenical Good Friday service and they asked for a speaker. No one spoke of the worst things that can happen to a "helper" personality like mine. I volunteered and then completely forgot that I had volunteered until I was reminded LAST WEEK! Yikes! Thankfully, the other minister they had paired with me had put great thought into it and had an entire service in mine. He even brought his own musicians along.

I wore my cassock and sat nervously next to the only other minister wearing a clergy collar. We sang hymns and heard John 19:1-30 and then I stepped forward to preach. Now, in the past three days, I've had two absolute train wrecks happen. First, in the middle of the chrism mass, I had to leave because over being overheated. Then, at the end of Holy Thursday mass, I spilled a coal from the censor and nearly started myself and the church on fire. So, I wondered what was next.

Nothing was next. I preached. No one was hurt. I had great compliments. And the people said, "Amen."

...Hell trembles in fear.

Dearly Beloved in Christ

Grace and Peace to you in God, our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit as we come together from our various Christian Communities to remember the events Good Friday. I’d like to begin my reflection today by quoting an ancient reflection typically read on Holy Saturday. I think it’s just as applicable today as it is tomorrow.

“Something strange is happening--- there is a great silence on earth today, a great silence and stillness. The whole earth keeps silence because the King is asleep. The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and He has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began. God has died in the flesh, and hell trembles with fear.”

The Gospel of John’s account of the death of our Lord offers some incredibly beautiful insights for us to reflect upon in this Good Friday celebration. Despite the fact that Pilate believes he is in control, it becomes clear that he is not. The question that comes to mind as he is trying to decide how to treat Jesus is who is in charge? Is it God? Is It Caesar? Is it the devil? At different points throughout John 19, it seems like any one of these three are in fact in charge. When Pilate indicates that he is willing to release Jesus, the Jewish leaders proclaim fidelity to Caesar. Indeed, it seems that Pilate most fears that, by releasing Jesus, he may be releasing a competitor for his bosses’ job. Jesus focuses him back where he belongs and reminds him, “You would have no power over me at all if it had not been given you from above; that is why the man who handed me over to you has the greater guilt.” In some ways, Jesus is expunging Pilate of the guilt of passing sentence by saying that there is one who has committed a worse sin by handing him over to be crucified. Who is Jesus condemning here? Who handed him over? Judas merely handed him over to the Jews, who have not authority to crucify. He had no idea what his actions did. Plus, he has already gone to his death and is at the mercy of the Father. Some have suggested that this a reference to the High Priest, Caiaphas. I’d like to suggest that there is something deeper happening here.

In trying to decide what to do with Jesus’ clothes, there is one garment that is left undivided. This was done, as John the Evangelist said, to fulfill sacred scripture, Psalm 22, “Many dogs surround me; a pack of evildoers closes in on me. So wasted are my hands and feet that I can count all my bones. They stare at me and gloat; they divide my garments among them; for my clothing they cast lots.” Yet, John the Evangelist sees in this action a symbolism for the need for Christians to be united. That’s why it is so fitting that we would gather together on Good Friday to remember the death of Our Lord and to pray for greater unity among all Christians, that we may be one as Father, Son, and Spirit are One. From now on, Jesus will seek to make sure that there is greater unity among the people all the way until he breathes his last. From the cross, he makes sure that his elderly mother is cared for by his apostle, John.

At the end, he breathes a phrase that could sound, in most Bibles, like utter frustration, “It is finished.” Jesus has suffered enough. He is ready to stop fulfilling prophecy, to stop fighting, and give up his Spirit. It sounds like a cancer patient who has fought bravely against the illness giving into the inevitable. Jesus can do no more so it’s time to stop fighting.

If we were to believe that, we couldn’t be more wrong. Jesus isn’t, in frustration, throwing up his hands. He is saying that everything is in place now, everything is complete, everything has been fulfilled. In this statement, we finally get an answer as to who is really in charge and who is really the one who handed him over. The devil, in hell, thought he had pulled off the perfect coup, as he had done in the garden. Just as he had convinced Adam and Eve to commit the first sin, to clothe themselves with garments of shame, and to be thrown out the garden, so he now thinks that he has clothed the king of Glory in the shame of death on the cross, with the mocking clothes of a King on his body. Yet, now all is set for the conquering of death in the resurrection, the folly of the garden overcome by the glorious death of the cross. It is finished, it is fulfilled…and hell trembles in fear.