Thursday, April 17, 2014

Holy Thursday - The Initiation

Christianity is a revolutionary religion. It turns everything upside down, reversing the values and expectations of a sinful world. Throughout his life and ministry, Jesus tried to inaugurate people into this new world that he called the Kingdom of God. 

The nature of this Kingdom became especially apparent as Jesus gathered with his disciples in the upper room, a place of heightened awareness. There he did something extraordinary. 

Jesus took off his outer garments, tied a towel around his waist, poured water in a basin, and washed the feet of his disciples. He performed an act that was so humble, so lowly, that it was considered beneath the dignity even of a slave. 

We catch the novelty and shock of it in Peter's response: "Master, are you going to wash my feet?" This is just too much for him; it is such a violation of the world that he had come to accept, a world in which masters were masters, slaves were slaves, where the dignified and important were waited upon while the lowly did the serving. In that world there was a clear demarcation between up and down, worthy and unworthy, clean and unclean. 

Jesus is putting his followers through a sort of initiation rite. Unless they pass this test, unless they begin to see the world in a new way, they will not get into the Kingdom. And this is why Jesus says to Peter, "Unless I wash you, you will have no inheritance with me." 


In the vision of the old world, one's life comes to its high point at a moment of honor, praise, glory, or recognition, at a moment when one's distinction and superiority over others is most evident. The old world is predicated on the great divisions between master and slave, superior and subordinate, rich and poor, powerful and powerless, included and excluded. Most of our energy goes into maintaining these distinctions, or trying to get from one side to the other, or keeping certain people on the far side of the divide. 

But in the vision of the Kingdom of God, the climactic moment comes when one is the lowliest servant of the other: yes, even despised, reviled, spat upon, and handed over to death. It is only when we have passed through this startling initiation that we are ready for the full manifestation of the Kingdom. 

"You call me 'teacher' and 'master' and rightly so," Jesus says, "for indeed I am. If I therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another's feet." 

"Love is not a feeling. It's an act of the will, and it's a great act of dispossession."

- Father Robert Barron  

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Lent Day 43 - The Path of Dispossession

They are some of the harshest, most shocking words that Jesus speaks in the Gospels: "Anyone of you who does not renounce all his possessions cannot be my disciple." 

Why do these words sound so counter-intuitive? Because ever since we were children, the culture has drilled the reverse into us. You're not happy because you don't have all the things you want to have. You will be happy only when you have so much money, or so big a house, or so much respect. You might not be happy now, but some day you might be if you acquire the right things. 

And what follows from this? Life becomes a constant quest to get, to attain possessions. Remember the foolish rich man from Jesus' parable, the one who filled his barns with all his possessions. Because he had no more room, he decided to tear his barns down and build bigger ones. Jesus calls him a fool because--and I want you to repeat this to yourself as you read it--you have everything you need right now, right in front of you, to be happy. 

I know it's completely counter-intuitive. We say, "No, that's not right at all; I'm very unhappy, but I'm trying to become happy, and I know I will be a lot happier when I get (fill in the blank)." But I want you to repeat this in your mind: "If I say, 'I'll be happy when,' I won't be happy when." 

What makes us truly happy? Forgetting our ego and its needs and desires, opening our eyes, minds, and hearts, and letting reality in. What makes us happy is always right in front of us, because what makes us happy is love, willing the good of the other. 

Next time you're unhappy, here's what you do: you love. When you're feeling miserable, write a note to someone who is lonely; make cookies for your kids; visit the nursing home; donate some money to a charity; sign up to help with an after-school program; say a prayer for someone who's in trouble. 

Love is not a feeling. It's an act of the will, and it's a great act of dispossession. This is the wonderfully liberating path of holiness that Jesus wants us to walk. He wants joy for us. But the path to joy is the path of detaching ourselves from getting and acquiring. 

- Father Robert Barron  

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Lent Day 42 - Flowers in the Desert

We began these daily Lent reflections by noting how Lent takes us into a spiritual desert. Biblical people knew all about the desert: Abraham has to cross it to get to the promised land; Moses and the Israelite people have to go through it to get home; Joseph is sent into Egypt and prison before he is ready for his mission; John the Baptist is a voice crying in the desert; Paul goes into the desert of Arabia after meeting the Lord on the road to Damascus. Even Jesus himself spends forty days and nights in the desert before commencing his ministry--the template on which Lent is based. 

What does the desert symbolize? A number of things: confrontation with our own sin so as to see our dark side; a deep realization of our dependency upon God; an ordering of our priorities in life; a simplification, a getting back to basics. It means any and all of these things. 

However, the desert also symbolizes waiting in anticipation. Desert wanderers are compelled to wait, in a time and place where very little life seems to be on offer, in hope of better things to come. 

And it's precisely in such hopeful deserts that flowers bloom. Moses becomes a great leader; Abraham is the father of many nations; Joseph becomes the savior of his people; John the Baptist is the forerunner of the Messiah; Paul is the apostle to the Gentiles-all of this flowering was made possible by the desert. 


So as we near the end of Lent, the end of our desert waiting, and move toward the Holy Triduum, let's prepare for new flowers to bloom.  

"As we near the end of Lent, the end of our desert waiting, let's prepare for new flowers to bloom."

- Father Robert Barron  

Monday, April 14, 2014

Lent Day 41 - Prayer and Action

The fruit of prayer in the Biblical tradition is action on behalf of the world. We are, essentially, a mission religion. Even the highest moments of mystical union are meant to conduce to doing God's work in the world, to becoming a conduit of the divine grace. 

We have mystics, poets, contemplatives galore in our tradition--just think of Bernard, John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila, Meister Eckhart, Thomas Merton--but they all see the essential link between prayer and action. 

This is why Peter's line is so important at the Transfiguration: "Master, it is good that we are here; let us make three tents, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah." As Luke, the author, points out immediately, "But he did not know what he was saying." The point of prayer is not to stay on the mountain. It is not to cling to mystical experience, however wonderful. It is to become radiant with the divine light so as to share it with the world. 

And this is why, at the Transfiguration, the voice from the cloud identified Jesus and specified, "Listen to him." In other words, don't just admire him; don't simply worship him. Do what he tells you. Authentic prayer always leads to active discipleship.

"Authentic prayer always leads to active discipleship."

- Father Robert Barron  

Lent Day 40 - The Revolutionary Message of Palm Sunday

The texts that Christians typically read on Palm Sunday have become so familiar that we probably don't sense their revolutionary power. But no first-century Jew would have missed the excitement and danger implicit in the coded language of the accounts describing Jesus' entry into Jerusalem just a few days before his death. 

In Mark's Gospel we hear that Jesus and his disciples "drew near to Jerusalem, to Bethpage and Bethany on the Mount of Olives." A bit of trivial geographical detail, we might be tempted to conclude. But about five hundred years before Jesus' time, the prophet Ezekiel had relayed a vision of the "Shekinah" (the glory) of Yahweh leaving the temple, due to its corruption. However, Ezekiel also prophesied that one day the glory of God would return to the temple, and precisely from the same direction in which it had left: from the east (Ez. 43: 1-2). As the people saw Jesus approaching Jerusalem from the east, they would have remembered Ezekiel's vision and would have begun to entertain the wild but thrilling idea that perhaps this Jesus was, in person, the glory of Yahweh returning to his dwelling place on earth. He was the new and definitive temple, the meeting-place of heaven and earth. 

And there is even more to see in the drama. As the rabbi from Nazareth entered Jerusalem on a donkey, no one could have missed the reference to a passage in the book of the prophet Zechariah: "Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey" (Zech. 9:9). A thousand years before the time of Jesus, David had taken possession of Jerusalem, dancing before the Ark of the Covenant. David's son Solomon built the great temple in David's city in order to house the Ark, and for that brief, shining moment, Israel was ruled by righteous kings. But then Solomon himself and a whole slew of his descendants fell into corruption. The people began to long for the return of the king, for the appearance of the true David, the one who would deal with the enemies of the nation and rule as king of the world. The Biblical authors expected Yahweh to become king, precisely through a son of David, who would enter the holy city, not as a conquering hero, riding a stately Arabian charger, but as a humble figure, riding a young donkey. Could anyone have missed that this was exactly what they were seeing on Palm Sunday? 

Jesus was not only the glory of Yahweh returning to his temple; he was also the new David, indeed Yahweh himself, reclaiming his city and preparing to deal with the enemies of Israel. And this is why Pontius Pilate, placing over the cross a sign in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew announcing that this crucified Jesus is King of the Jews, became, despite himself, the first great evangelist! 

So the message delivered on Palm Sunday, in the wonderfully coded and ironic language of the Gospel writers, continues to resonate: heaven and earth have come together; God is victorious; Jesus is Lord.  

"Heaven and earth have come together; God is victorious; Jesus is Lord."

- Father Robert Barron  

Lent Day 39 - Suffering Love

When a prisoner escaped from Auschwitz in the summer of 1942, the Nazi soldiers imposed their penalty. They took all of the prisoners from the escapee's barracks and lined them up, and then at random chose a man to be put to death in retaliation. When the man broke down in tears, protesting that he was the father of young children, a quiet bespectacled man stepped forward and said, "I am a Catholic priest; I have no family. I would like to die in this man's place." 

Pope John Paul II later canonized that priest, Saint Maximilian Kolbe. With brutal clarity, Kolbe allows us to see the relationship between suffering willingly accepted and salvation. He was consciously participating in the act of his Master, making up, in Paul's language, what is still lacking in the suffering of Christ. 

We see a similar example in Saint Francis. Among the many stories told about the joyful saint, one of the most affecting is that concerning his encounter with a leprous man. Young Francis had a particular revulsion for leprosy. Whenever he saw someone suffering from that disease, he would run in the opposite direction. One day, Francis saw a leper approaching, and he sensed the familiar apprehension and disgust. But then he decided, under the inspiration of the Gospel, to embrace the man, to kiss him, and to give him alms. Filled with joy, he made his way up the road. But when he turned around he discovered the man had disappeared. Once again, suffering was the concrete expression of love. 

When a mother stays up all night, depriving herself of sleep, in order to care for a sick child, she is following this same example, suffering so that some of his suffering might be alleviated. When a person willingly bears an insult, and refuses to fight back or return insult for insult, he is suffering for the sake of love. 

We shouldn't be surprised when we are called upon to suffer in this world. We have been given the privilege of carrying on Christ's work in just this way.  

"We shouldn't be surprised when we are called upon to suffer in this world."

- Father Robert Barron  

Video: Pope Francis Palm Sunday Procession & Mass

Watch the full Papal Procession & Mass for Palm Sunday at St. Peter's.  
Click the image below.