Thursday, May 04, 2017

3EA: Holding on to the certainty of the resurrection amidst the conversations and debates of our lives

          Peace be with you. Yesterday, I had the opportunity to celebrate the 50th Anniversary Mass of my Aunt and Uncle in Perry, Iowa. It was an honor to do that, not only because of the milestone of being with great people who have faithfully lived the sacrament of matrimony for fifty years but because the church my Aunt and Uncle attend, St. Patrick’s Church in Perry, is the same one my Grandma and Grandpa Schott attended and my Great Grandma and Grampa Haberer attended. There have been untold numbers of family baptisms, confirmations, first communions, confessions, and weddings in this sacred space. I generally don’t get nervous about celebrating Mass anymore but I was shaking at this one. Still there was something comforting as well. I told the congregation that, on top of the family members present, it felt like I was praying with generations and generations of family there.
          Today’s gospel tells the well-known story of the encounter of two of the disciples with Jesus on the road to Emmaus. Even though it’s probably one of the most recounted resurrection stories in the New Testament, there’s something about it that makes it very unusual. In most accounts of the resurrection, the particular gospel writer seems to go to great lengths to mention details that prove Jesus’ “bodiliness”. For instance, in the Gospel of Matthew, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary fall down and hold on to the feet of Jesus. And, right after this story of the Road to Emmaus, Luke tells of Jesus appearing to the disciples and eating fish with them. One of the main reasons for these “bodily” details was to prove the reality of the resurrection. Jesus did not come back as an angel or a ghost or a purely spiritual presence. Nor was the resurrection simply a result of nostalgic story-telling, sort of like if someone yesterday had shared a memory about Grandma and Grandpa volunteering at their parish. I may feel closer to them through knowledge of their actions but hearing the story doesn’t make them bodily present in such a way that I can touch them or eat and drink with them. The only way that the gospel stories of Jesus resurrection make any sense is if, as St. Peter said in the first reading, Jesus was not “abandoned to the depths of the netherworld nor did his flesh see corruption.”
That’s, in some way, what makes the story of the Road to Emmaus so strange. On Easter Sunday, two of Jesus’s disciples are walking back to a relatively unknown suburb of Jerusalem called Emmaus, probably after observing the Passover sacrifice and Sabbath rest. They approach an unknown stranger walking in the same direction and, as hospitality would have demanded, they invite him to walk with them. It says that their eyes are prevented from recognizing him. But why? Possibly because of grief and feelings of disappointment, as is evidenced by their statement that “we were hoping that he would be the one to redeem Israel…” They go on, as would have been typical of the time, to completely discount the stories of the women who were witnesses of the angel and the empty tomb in a kind of first-century way of “mansplaining” away what their hearts, minds and eyes were foolishly unable or unwilling to see.
          The story reaches its confusing climax as the disciples reach their house, invite in this stranger and ask him to act as a rabbi blessing their meal. Using the same verbs that he used to describe the feeding of the 5000 and the last supper, Luke recounts that Jesus “took the bread, said the blessing, broke it and gave it to them. With that their eyes were opened and they recognized him but he vanished from their sight.” Wait, what? Just when they could have fallen on the ground in prostration and grabbed onto his feet or just at the point that the Lord could have eaten the bread that was in his hands and given the it to his disciples to eat, he disappears. Why didn’t the Lord wait just a few seconds for something more bodily to happen then simply lifting some blessed pita bread off the table as proof that he was really resurrected?
          Part of it is connected to chapter 3 of the Old Testament Book of Genesis. When Adam and Eve ate from the three of knowledge, it says that their eyes were opened and they recognized, in shame, that they were naked. Jesus is the reversal of the shame of Adam as he humbly accepted even death on the cross. The disciples’ eyes are opened to the reversal of this shame in the breaking of the bread. Yet, I’m also convinced that the messiness of this story points to a credibility of the witness. If there was a larger agenda driving each of these stories in such a way that they are not reliable, then it would have eliminated contradictory details like this. Instead, they remain, pointing to the reliability of the description of the event. The resurrection stories are not P.R. tales of fancy. They are actual stories of encounter with the risen Jesus, as it said in the second reading, “revealed in the final time for you who through him believe in God who raised him from the dead and gave him glory…”

I’d also like to highlight another possible reason why Jesus disappeared at the exact moment that his disciples recognized him, one that may drop this into the lap of we, his modern disciples. One way of thinking about it is that God refuses to be addictive. Faith, hope, and love, the three theological virtues infused in our being by God, may make us feel like “our hearts are burning within us” but they pale in comparison to the euphoria of drugs, alcohol, money, and power. When we have an experience of God, especially in the blessed sacrament, it can feel very fleeting and transitory and probably even of uncertain origin. We may recognize, in reflecting on the experience, that our hearts were burning within us, but that experience too will pass. The wisdom of this experience is in the sharing. The disciples had to share this experience with others. They ran 8 miles in the middle of the night to share their real experience of the risen Lord with the other disciples. They became his witnesses. Today’s world needs witnesses to the hope of the resurrection, not just from the professional church ministers but from all who respond “Amen” to their encounter with Christ in the breaking of the bread. How is God calling you to be his witness if your daily life?

Monday, April 17, 2017

The bodily resurrection of Jesus


Peace be with you. We have experienced the triumphant return of the word “Alleluia!” In today’s celebration. It’s been missing for the entirety of Lent as a way of preparing us for this celebration. Alleluia is derived from two Hebrew words; “hallel” meaning to praise, and “YaH”, which is the beginning of the name of God in the Old Testament revealed to Moses on Mount Sinai. So, we may ask, what makes this day so special that we celebrate using an ancient foreign language? I was taught in seminary that the most solemn celebrations are those in which we are least likely to change. This makes sense when you consider that this celebration marks the central mystery for Christians, the holiest of holy days. Jesus is risen! He is truly risen.

However, recently, I was reading an article on the BBC website that said that a quarter of all British Christians do not believe in the resurrection at all. It went onto to say that almost forty percent of all Christians believe that the resurrection was a purely spiritual reality and didn’t involve his body. Now, I know that this was a survey of the British people, who tend to be less religious than Americans, but I would guess that Americans wouldn’t be entirely different than our British brothers and sisters, especially considering the fact that the account we just heard, both from the Gospel of Matthew and the Acts of the Apostles seems to take great pains in trying to explain why it was a physical, bodily resurrection.

St. Matthew explains this using an internal and an external dynamic. Internally, Mary Magdalen and the other Mary arrive at the tomb at dawn. Suddenly, there is an angel whose appearance causes an earthquake which, as one of my commentaries said, symbolizes that the bodily resurrection has repercussions that shake the very foundation of the world. Still, when the women peer into the tomb, they find it empty, with the only assurance of the resurrection being the word of an angel. Their reaction seems comical and contradictory. St. Matthew says, “…they went away quickly from the tomb, fearful yet overjoyed,” How can you be afraid and joyful at the same time? Well, I know I was fearful yet overjoyed on June 22, 2002 as I walked from the rectory to the Cathedral for my ordination. I was fearful because I wondered why the church would choose a sinner like me to be a priest and yet I was overjoyed because God looked at my weakness and still called me. I would imagine brides and grooms know what it’s like to feel fearful and yet overjoyed on their wedding day. And I know that parents feel this when their child takes his first few stumbling steps worrying that he will flat on his face but overjoyed at seeing the development to the next stage of life. For Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, an empty tomb and the word of an angel provoked a kind of internal faith that Jesus had been raised. For others, it would have provoked skepticism about someone stealing his body but for these women it was a moment of faith.

Yet, Jesus isn’t satisfied with a purely spiritual, internal experience of faith for his first witnesses. As they are walking along the trail, Jesus appears to them in such a way that they are able to fall down and hold on to his feet. They couldn’t have done that with a ghost or a spirit, let alone with the angel they had just met who, despite being able to scare the heck of out a group of Roman soldiers guarding Jesus’ tomb, is purely spiritual in nature and, thus, immaterial. Jesus is physical because he has had a physical, bodily resurrection. This is further corroborated in the first reading during the speech by St. Peter when he identified Jesus as, “This man God raised on the third day and granted that he be visible, not to all the people, but to us, the witnesses chosen by God in advance, who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.” Again, ghosts, spirits, and angels don’t need to eat and drink but those of us with a body do. For this reason, Psalm 23 talks about heaven like it is a great banquet with God as a host, the kind of banquet that will put even the best Easter dinner to shame.

Believe it or not, this eucharist is a foreshadowing of that great banquet in heaven and our participation in the paschal mystery, the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus. And, it’s good for us on this Easter Sunday to reflect on its internal and external ramifications for our life. Internally, are we praying daily to get into a relationship with God? At the chrism Mass this past Tuesday, the Archbishop reminded his priests of the importance of praying in front of the blessed sacrament to internalize what we eat and drink at Sunday. Pray to have the faith of Mary Magdalene and the other Mary to see common bread and wine as the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Jesus. Read the readings before Mass to prepare and set aside all that distracts you. Yet, it also should have an outward expression of encountering Jesus. One of the best ways we do that is by coming to Mass weekly and participating with your fellow worshippers in the prayers at mass. Also, if you’re aware of a serious sin, to make use of the sacrament of reconciliation to physically prepare for Mass.

Both our internal and external preparation for Mass should send us out convicted to be Jesus’ witnesses to this world so badly in need of the hope given to us in the bodily resurrection of Jesus. Today we proclaim a full-throated “Alleluia” as witnesses internally and externally to the bodily resurrection of Jesus. Alleluia! He is risen.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Good Friday ecumenical Service

John 19:28-29.
28. After this, aware that everything was now finished, in order that the scripture might be fulfilled, Jesus said, “I thirst.”
29 There was a vessel filled with common wine.* So they put a sponge soaked in wine on a sprig of hyssop and put it up to his mouth.

Friends, peace be with you. Thank you to Pastor Chuck for inviting me to participate in this Good Friday reflection on the last seven words of Christ. My name is Fr. Dennis Miller and I am the chaplain of Loras College and Clarke University.
The fifth word, on which I will reflect with you, is “I thirst”, which is a translation of the Greek word “dispao”, used 17 times in the New Testament, including the story of the woman at the well in the fourth chapter of this gospel, the gospel of John. I believe that is a deliberate connection done by the gospel writer and I will explain that fuller in just a moment.
The Hebrew, Old Testament word that is the equivalent is “same” or “sama”, used a total of 23 times beginning in Exodus 17 when, at Meribah and Massah, the Israelites clamored against the Lord and his servant, Moses, for water. They thirsted in the desert and God provided for them water from a rock, which Moses struck with his staff. When I looked at other connections to the Hebrew word “sama” I found that if you simply add a “d” to the end, making it “samad”, the word means “joined in worship” or “yoked”. Which sort of makes sense in the normal way we think of thirsting. We thirst for God together as members of the body of Christ. That’s why almost all Christians believe that the first thing one does in order to call yourself a Christian is to be baptized in water, a kind of spiritual refreshment. And, indeed, in the gospel of John chapter 2, Jesus recognized the thirst that people had at a wedding in Cana and fulfilled that thirst by turning water into wine. You may remember that there was a certain reluctance in Jesus to perform this miracle, possibly in part because, especially in the Gospel of John, Jesus does not want to be seen as just another magical miracle worker. He is something different in the core of his being. He is the one who can fulfill the thirsty soul, not one who will water his followers like cattle yoked together in worship.
We thirst for Christ, yes. But today we hear that Jesus thirsts. He expresses this same sentiment to the Samaritan Woman in John chapter 4 verse 7. “Give me a drink”. This simple request marks the beginning of a profound experience of conversion for this foreigner to the Jewish faith. Jesus thirsted, but not for her water. He thirsted for her faith. And today, from the cross, Jesus turns to us and says, “I thirst”. He thirsts for us to know him as the living water who is greater than the Old Testament patriarchs and prophets. He thirsts for us to turn to him with our hurts and sins and to seek his healing and forgiveness. He thirsts for us to come to worship the Father in Spirit and in Truth. He thirsts for us to come to know him as a brother and as a Messiah, as most high God and as a friend who knows us better than we know ourselves.
A reflection attributed to Saint Teresa of Calucutta reflected on this by saying, “God thirsts for you. Yes, that is the only way to even begin to describe God’s love for you: GOD THIRSTS FOR YOU. He thirsts to love you and to be loved by you – that is how precious you are to him. GOD THIRSTS FOR YOU. Come to him and he will fill your heart and heal your wounds. God will make you a new creation and give you peace, even in all your trials. GOD THIRSTS FOR YOU. You must never doubt God’s mercy, God’s acceptance of you, God’s desire to forgive, His longing to bless you and live his life in you. GOD THIRSTS FOR YOU. If you feel unimportant in the eyes of the world, that matters not at all. For God, there is no one any more important in the entire world than you. GOD THIRSTS FOR YOU. Open to HIM, come to HIM, thirst for HIM, give your life to the Lord and he will prove to you how important you are to his Heart. GOD THIRSTS FOR YOU.