Saturday, September 27, 2008

The Imitation of Christ

(26th Sunday in Ordinary Time, A)

In the second reading today, we hear the beautiful first part of the second chapter of Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Here Paul records a hymn to the Incarnation of God in Jesus Christ. In Christ, God “empties himself” in the perfect act of sublime humility. We heard this same hymn two weeks ago on the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, but today we get the fuller passage that includes Paul’s set up and interpretation of what the humility of the Incarnation of the Son of God can mean for us.

 We’re used to the idea that Jesus reveals God. In his humble birth, his preaching, his miracles, and most of all in his sorrowful Passion and glorious Resurrection, Jesus reveals to us the personality of the unseen and mysterious Source and Ground of all being we call God the Father. Most of the faith and practice of our religion is based on this, and rightly so.

 But it’s also good for us to look at the other side of the Revelation of God in Jesus Christ. For Jesus Christ—truly God and truly human—reveals not only God the Father but our humanity as well. The life and death of Jesus shows us God’s idea of what our human life is meant to be about; it’s as if you were to ask God, ‘How should I live? How can I be happy and be a better person?’ By way of an answer the Eternal Word of God borrows our humanity from our Blessed Mother and becomes one of us, in order to show us how to be human.

This is why it is so important for us as Christians to pay attention to the person of Jesus Christ as he comes to us in the Gospels. By noticing how he relates to and treats people, he models for us the way to be happy and peace in our relationships with each other. By meditating on his suffering, death, and Resurrection we learn how to let go of ourselves and come to true freedom and happiness.

The classic spiritual strategy of the imitatio Christi, the ‘imitation of Christ’ is so powerful because to model ourselves on Jesus is to make ourselves over according to God’s will and desire for true and perfect humanity. This is what Paul recommends to us in the second reading when he invites us to “participation in the Spirit” by being of “the same mind…united in heart, thinking one thing.” The word which we translate “participation” in Paul’s Greek is koinonia, the word the New Testament uses frequently for communion. It’s the same as the greeting of the priest at the beginning of Mass, “the fellowship—the communicatio—of the Holy Spirit be with you.”

The Holy Communion we celebrate and receive here at Mass is meant to make us into what we receive. By this fellowship with Christ, by our communion in his Body and Blood, our humanity, our lives, are taken up into his divine humanity. This will empower us to become like Christ, indeed to become alteri Christi, “other Christs” in the classic spiritual language. Here at Mass we celebrate God’s revelation—in Christ—of what it means to be a human being, to be called to that perfect humility that lets go of self in order to take the form of servants to one another. In the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, the communion of God with us in Christ, we are invited to do just as he did: to let our bodies become the Body of Christ and to let our hearts become homes for his Precious Blood. Then we find the true humanity of giving ourselves away for the sake of each other.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Workers In The Vineyard

(25th Sunday in Ordinary Time, A)

The parable we hear in the gospel today recalls a common image from the whole of the Sacred Scriptures: the people of God, or indeed the whole world, as God’s vineyard. The parable imagines God as the landowner, the world as the vineyard in need of care and cultivation, and us as those whom God hires to do the work.

 So what does this tell us about the kingdom of God, since Jesus tells us that this is what the kingdom is like? First, we know that the kingdom of God requires work; it has to be cultivated and cared for in this world just like the vineyard in the parable. Remember a couple of months ago when we heard the parable of the sower, and we had the image of God as the one who scatters the seeds of the kingdom of God over the earth? Well today’s parable is in part the continuation of that image; the seeds of the kingdom now require our care in they are to grow and flourish.

 We also see in the parable that each of us arrives in the kingdom of God when we are invited—“hired” in the image of the parable—by God. Notice in this the image of God as the one who comes to us, inviting us into the vineyard where we will be given the mission, duty, and privilege of giving ourselves for the cultivation of the kingdom. In the parable the landowner goes out to hire workers several times during the day. We might take this in two ways.

 First, it represents the whole history of salvation, how God, some 130 generations ago first called the family of Abraham to be God’s own people. Then God called the family of Jacob whom God names Israel who became God’s special possession, the Israelites, some of whom later came to be called the Jews after their return from exile in Babylon. Finally, in these last days, God has called all people, through the divine humanity of Christ, to share in the promises made to Abraham, to Jacob, and to David.

 On the other hand, we can look at how the landowner goes out to hire workers at the various times of day as an image of our own individual lives. It’s how at certain special moments of our lives we may feel the presence of God more intensely when God is calling us to a deeper prayer or to doing something that God’s kingdom may require in a special way at that moment. In any case the image of God in the parable is of a God who comes to us, who speaks spiritually to the heart and mind of each, and who is an inviting God, always offering to grace us with the chance to work for his kingdom at the different points of our lives.

 The parable also assures us that if we allow ourselves to be “hired” by God, and if we work diligently to cultivate his kingdom on earth, we will paid a just wage. We will receive our reward from God. But here we come to what is perhaps the most challenging part of the parable. When those who had only worked for only an hour received the full daily wage, the ones who had worked all day thought that they would be getting more. It’s only fair, right? Well, God’s justice is not always the same as our idea of justice. As God says through the prophet Isaiah in the first reading today, “my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways.” This is the generous God who gives the same reward to each one who accepted his invitation to work for the kingdom, regardless of how much work he actually did.

 Perhaps those who had worked harder in the vineyard had a right to grumble, but note that nobody gets ripped off. Everyone receives the wage they were justly entitled to; it’s just that some received more than they deserved. To me, I think that’s where most of us are before God.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

His Descent Is Our Ascent

(Exaltation of the Holy Cross)

Today we celebrate a contradiction, a paradox. Indeed, it’s the contradiction and paradox which is at the heart of our faith, at the heart of Christianity. It’s right there in the title of the solemnity we celebrate today: The Exaltation of the Cross. We exalt the Cross, meaning that we lift it high and make the Cross of Christ something we look up to. But what is this Cross which we exalt? It is one of the cruelest and humiliating means of execution known to the ancient world. It’s a sign of us human beings at our worst, at our least human, at our most evil.

So what does it mean to say that we exalt, that we lift up and venerate this sign of ourselves at our worst? Let us attend to the Sacred Scriptures we hear today. As Paul says in the great hymn of the letter to the Philippians, the Son of God, the Eternal Word, “emptied himself” of all that it should mean to be God, and “took the form of a slave, coming in human likeness.” In Jesus Christ we see God descending, letting go of all divine prerogative, and entering into the deepest and most horrible consequences of sin—the violence of us human beings torturing, humiliating, and killing one another.

This is the meaning of the Cross: God identifying with us in the pain and torment we have brought upon ourselves with our sins, even to the point of feeling ourselves alienated from God altogether: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me.” Behold the Cross and see God himself taking on the suffering that we earn for ourselves with our sins and violence against one another. This is an almost indescribable love and kindness, that the all-powerful God should empty himself and take on the burdens of our faults. But that’s the overwhelming Love we call God, a Love that is literally just dying to save us from ourselves.

The good news is that this descent of God becomes our ascent out of the prison of selfishness and sin and into the new life of grace. Just as the Israelites were able to look up to the serpent in the desert and be healed, so we, if we turn our gaze to the Cross, God will reveal to us the path to new life.

That’s the secret. We have to look up to the descent of God. For God descends into our suffering and pain in order to rob it of its power from the inside. Jesus Christ, though he was able to die in the humanity he borrowed from us, could never die in his divine nature. And so he bursts forth from death, taking his transformed humanity with him, into the New Life we call the Resurrection.

Let us look up the humility of God, for God’s humiliation is our exaltation. Let us turn the gaze of our hearts and minds upward to the Cross of Christ, for the descent of God is the ascent of our humanity into freedom from violence and sin.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

The Forgiving Body of Christ

(23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, A)

At first glance the gospel passage we hear today might seem like a simple procedure for dealing with trouble in the Christian community. Jesus advises us to take a step-by-step approach in dealing with someone who is trapped in a sin that is hurting the unity or the holiness of the Body of Christ.

Let’s notice, though, Jesus’ astonishing statement at the end of gospel. Do you remember a couple of weeks ago when we heard St. Peter’s great confession of faith, and how Jesus gave him the “keys to the kingdom of heaven,” so that whatever he bound on earth would be bound on earth and whatever he loosed on earth would be loosed in heaven? Well in today’s gospel we hear Jesus giving that same authority to all of his disciples. Consider what this means: the forgiveness of God is in our hands! When we forgive someone, we forgive them not just with our forgiveness but with the forgiveness of God himself. “Whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

Why should this be, that God has handed over to us the power to dispense his own forgiveness to each other? It is because we are the Body of Christ. As St. Paul writes in the letter to the Philippians, God “emptied himself” into the human life of Jesus Christ, so that in Christ we see the full revelation of God on our human terms. And where is this revelation of God now, for us? It is right here. Jesus Christ, who died on the Cross for us, is risen into the new life of the Living Bread and Precious Blood of the Eucharist we celebrate each Sunday. We who receive this Holy Communion with the humanity of Christ, become what we receive. We become the Body of Christ, risen from the dead.

So if we are the Body of Christ, what does the Body of Christ do? First of all it preaches the Kingdom of God, and so this is our primary vocation as Christians. Second, the Body of Christ allows itself to be broken for the salvation of the world. And so we who are Christians allow the suffering of the world around us to break our hearts, that we might learn compassion for all. Finally, as we hear in the gospel today, as the Body of Christ, the forgiveness of God is on our hands. “Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

We are all well acquainted with our sins. As the old saying goes, a clean conscience is a sign of a bad memory. We all know what it’s like to long for the healing forgiveness of God. Indeed the whole world longs for this forgiveness, for the forgiving of one another from the heart is the only thing that will stop this world’s endless cycles of violence. So if we have ever longed for God’s forgiveness, let us fulfill the injunction to love our neighbor as ourselves, and give God’s forgiveness to each other. It is ours to give, as the living Body of Christ, the revelation of God in the world. To forgive is to heal, to stop the cycles of violence and sin that hurt everyone. To forgive is to love perfectly. To stop the reproduction of violence and sin is to take up the Cross and fulfill our vocation as Christ’s risen Body. It is the love that is the fullest expression of the Mystery we call “God.”