Homilies and Poems

I am a Catholic Deacon and a Professor of English at Oregon State University. I've created this BLOG as a way of sharing my Sunday homilies, for anyone who would like copies, as well as some of my poetry. I'm also very glad to continue the conversation, over email or in person. Just click on "profile" and then onto my email address. Peace be with you and the Lord be with you. Also visit me at my website.

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Location: Corvallis, Oregon

Friday, March 25, 2005

Let It Come (Homily)

March 25, 2005
Good Friday

Most of us wear a crucifix, and there’s probably one on the wall at home, maybe one hanging from our rear view mirror. There are crucifixes all over our lives.

And yet sometimes I think we should be wearing circles instead. Little gold or silver rings. Because a circle is closed. A circle is turned in on itself. Or we should be walking around with just one beam of the cross, like a club to hit people over the head with.

There certainly shouldn’t be a body on our crosses. No flesh and blood.

Because when Jesus is nailed to the cross, today, at this hour, he spreads his arms wide, he stretches them out as far as he can, he is entirely and completely open, and we hardly ever are. We are hunched over. We are turning away. We are making a fist.

Jesus is opening his arms.

*

We read the Passion and we hear it every year--we hear it twice, once on Palm Sunday, from one of the Synoptic Gospels, and once now, on Good Friday, from John. We think we know it, and yet do we?

Jesus doesn’t attack the people who are torturing him today, he doesn’t attack the disciples for their lack of faith, he doesn’t line up all the good people on one side and all the bad people on the other. He opens his arms. He spreads his arms wide. He accepts what is happening to him, he gives into it, so completely he almost seems passive, almost weak, and in a profound way he is. He is God dying. He is all power spending itself. He is absolute weakness, absolute nonviolence. When he is struck, he doesn’t strike back. When he is judged, he doesn’t judge in return. He is silent, in fact. In the end he is absolutely silent. He’s not debating. He’s not caught up in theological argument, trying to score points and be right. “What is truth?” Pilate asks, and Jesus himself, who is the truth, who is the way, the truth, and the life, Jesus himself doesn’t say a word when that’s all we ever seem to be doing.

All we ever seem to do is argue and fight. All we ever seem to do is talk--I’m so tired of hearing the word “truth”--we’ve used the word “truth” so often lately and in such sinful ways I think we shouldn’t use it anymore. We are always talking to dominate, we are always using language as a form of violence, and when the words fail we start using our bodies and our tanks and our planes. And judgment? Condemnation? That’s what we do best: label people and blame people and decide they’re not nearly good enough.

*

Jesus is radically nonjudgmental, Jesus is radically nonviolent, Jesus is radically nonverbal--his arms are open wide--and he is unafraid: unafraid of suffering, unafraid of death. He doesn’t try to avoid it, he doesn’t try to get around it, as we always are.

It’s true that in the garden at Gethsemane he asks for the cup to pass if that is the will of the Father--he sweats and weeps--he sweats blood in Luke’s account--but that’s the version of the Passion in the Synoptics. John doesn’t talk about the agony in the garden, doesn’t emphasize the suffering of Jesus in that way. The Jesus of John is calm and tranquil and triumphant--he doesn’t cry out from the cross, “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”--and in any event, in all four of the gospels Jesus does the will of the Father, freely. He plunges into the darkness, he takes the leap into nothingness, completely.

Not us. We’re always trying to explain suffering away. We’re always just looking at the bright side. We’re always trying to keep things simple. And in the night, when we wake up and it hits us--we are mortal, too, we are temporary--we’re so terrified of the truth that we push it away again. We take a pill and go back to sleep.

*

We are all weak. We are all afraid. Each of us here brings a sadness, a grief, a fear. And it hunches us over, it pulls us into ourselves. It’s so hard to spread out our arms. It’s so hard to let go, to welcome what we cannot change, to embrace the world the way it really is.

But that’s what Good Friday challenges us to do: to actually be Christians. Not to look away. Not to pretend.

And it doesn’t just challenge us to do these things, it gives us the grace to do these things. It doesn’t just indict us, it empowers us. We can’t do it alone. We are none of us clear enough and grounded enough and strong enough to open our arms and accept those nails. But because Jesus did, because of what happened at three o’clock long ago and is happening again, there is another power that comes, there is another love, there is another hope. The open arms of Jesus are also an embrace, as a mother embraces her child. What the cross embodies isn’t just the acceptance of death but its reversal, not just nothingness but an astounding compassion. Whatever our private sorrow at this moment, whatever our silent grief, it is now taken up and listened to and known. It is now made meaningful. That’s why we can escape from our little circles, because God has first broken in. We can spread out our arms as Jesus spread out his because the Father is present after all, the Father is really here, in all his mastery and his tenderness, even in the depths of our suffering and maybe even especially there.

Whatever your private sorrow right now, whatever grief you bring, don’t turn away from it. Don’t expect it to disappear. It’s real. You have to endure it, as Christ did, and does. There is no resurrection without the crucifixion, however hard we try. The world is far more complicated than our rosy pictures of it. But let us all take energy and confidence and good humor from this tranquil and triumphant Jesus of the Gospel of John, the Jesus who is so radically open, so completely and absolutely accepting of what is happening to him, who doesn’t judge, who doesn’t fight.

Because he knows. He believes.

Somehow, in some way we can never understand, all this matters, all this means something, all this will come to good. It will work out. It will end. It will lead us to the kingdom, and we are already there.

Open wide your arms.

Let it happen. Let it come.

Sunday, March 13, 2005

What Heaven Looks Like (Homily)

March 13, 2005
Fifth Sunday of Lent
Ezekiel 37:12-14; Romans 8:8-11; John 11:1-45

I have a friend, a wonderful man, who came to see me a few weeks ago. He’s been retired for a long time, he’s getting older, and he’s thinking about death and the afterlife. He’s not Catholic, but he wanted to know: what does the Church teach about heaven and hell? What will happen to him when he dies?

I was really honored that he would ask me, but I was taken aback, too. I didn’t know what to say at first. What my friend had been doing was going through the Bible, taking out passages, and trying to line them all up. His background is in science and he was treating the Bible like it’s science, too. He wanted to make it into a system. And the Bible just doesn’t work that way, as the three passages from today make clear. All three are about the resurrection and the afterlife, but they don’t line up and they don’t settle any of the questions that my friend wanted settled.

The ancient Jews, for example, didn’t believe in an afterlife until very late, almost until the time of Jesus. For centuries their faith didn’t depend at all on the idea of heaven and hell. What Ezekiel is talking about in the Old Testament for today is the resurrection of the whole nation of Israel on this earth, the raising of all the Jewish dead so that a new Israel can take its rightful place in the world. He’s not referring to eternal life the way we think of it.

The reading from Paul for today contains what I take to be a powerful argument for the existence of an afterlife: “if the Spirit of the one who raises Jesus from the dead dwells in you, the one who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also.” In other words, if God is God and God loves us now, why would he ever stop? I think that’s such a beautiful idea. But there’s nothing in it about clouds and harps or flames and pitchforks, nothing about the geography or physics of the afterlife. It’s in popular art and literature--in Dante, for example, in The Divine Comedy--that we find all the horrible and glorious imagery. But that’s Dante, not the Bible. And Dante didn’t think his poem was literally true anymore than Tolkien believed that there really were Hobbits.

The great story of the raising of Lazarus contains one of the most famous statements of all about eternal life. “I am the resurrection and the life,” Jesus says. “Whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” What a magnificent passage! And yet there’s no quantifying here: this many sins rules you out, this many people get in. There’s nothing here to explain the nature of our risen body or what happens to us between the time of our death and the end of the world. There’s no system here, just faith. There’s no science here, there’s story, because that’s what the raising of Lazarus is, a story. It’s a true story--there’s never been a story that’s truer--but it’s a story nonetheless, with all the literary artistry of Dante and Tolkien. Mary falling at the feet of Jesus, Jesus weeping, Lazarus stumbling out of the tomb--whoever this is, he can really write. But why, for example, should Lazarus be raised and not others? What about all the other people Jesus loved? The story doesn’t say, and it doesn’t have to say, and we’re wrong to expect it to, because what stories do is evoke the mystery. The great ones always have what the Catholic theologian David Tracy calls an “excess of meaning.” This one isn’t just about the afterlife but about this life. This one isn’t just about literal tombs but about the tombs of our ambition and addiction and greed, and whatever else it is calling us to, it is calling us to die to our old selves and to rise to a new freedom and charity.

The Catechism says something very similar. It is wonderfully and precisely vague. The best way to understand Heaven and Hell, it says, is in terms of relationship. Heaven is to be in communion with God, Hell is to be apart from him, in this life as in the next, and Purgatory should be understood in just the same way. As Pope John Paul has recently put it, “Purgatory does not indicate a place, but a condition of existence.”

There’s an email going around the internet about a group of several hundred Christians in Asia who attended mass on Christmas, retreated into the hills, and so escaped the Tsunami. All praise that these Christians were saved, but the email implies they were saved because they were Christian, they were saved because they went to mass, as if God plays favorites, as if God can be bribed, as if faith isn’t faith but magic, a system of rituals and moral behavior in which we can make God appear and make God do things simply by drawing a circle in the sand and chanting three times. That’s completely wrong. That answers questions that the Bible never answers, and it answers them with a narrowness and a selfishness that the Bible is always, always arguing against. Like the raising of Lazarus, all the great stories of the Bible draw us deeper and deeper into a love that only be experienced, only lived.

I quoted this in my last homily but I have to quote it again. It’s so important. “Remember these are mysteries,” Flannery O’Connor says, “and that if they were such that we could understand them, they wouldn’t be worth understanding. A God you understood would be less than yourself.”

Now, I can just hear some of you thinking: oh, here’s another Chris homily. Here’s what he’s always saying, that life is a mystery and we have to be nice each other. And you’re right. I am always saying that. I really only have one or two ideas, and I just keep preaching them over and over.

And here’s the punch line I always get to. Here’s what my conclusion always is: that the fact of mystery is a cause for celebration. We may not know what heaven looks like and we may not know what kind of bodies we will have there and we may not be able to reconcile the contradictions in scripture, but in the end that couldn’t matter less because in the end we will all be swept up in the mercy and tenderness and patience of God. Yes, there is an afterlife, and it will be wonderful, and this life is wonderful, too.

And when I stuttered and stammered something like this to my elderly friend, my worried friend, his face lit up. We’d been sitting and talking for a while and finally he let out this sigh of relief. He didn’t really want to be in charge of the universe. He didn’t really want to be responsible for fully comprehending the nature of the afterlife.

All we know about Lazarus is how much Jesus loved him--that he wept for him, that he gave himself away for him--and that’s all we need to know. That’s enough and more than enough, and it’s true for us, too. Jesus is standing before our tombs. He is raising up his arms. There is in our lives a love so deep that not even our pettiness or our foolishness or even death itself can ever put an end to it.