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

Saturday, April 14, 2007

The Reality of the Resurrection (homily)

April 15, 2007
Second Sunday of Easter
John 20:19-31

Today’s gospel makes it clear again how mysterious the resurrection is, how hard to pin down. It’s real, it’s absolutely real, but its reality is of a kind entirely beyond us.

Jesus has a body in all these post-resurrection stories, a body that people like Thomas can touch, a body that eats. He’s not a ghost or a vision and he’s not just an idea in the minds of the disciples. The gospel writers know the difference between dreams and reality, and they’re telling us, this was real.

But the resurrected body that Jesus has can walk through walls. He comes and he goes. He appears and vanishes. And often when he appears, people don’t recognize him at first. This is said over and over again, in Luke, for example, how Jesus falls in walking with some of his own disciples and they don’t know who he is, not for hours. Later in John they see him on the shore and talk to him at a distance, but it’s only after hauling up a big catch of fish that one of them figures it out. It’s the Lord.

Whatever else the resurrection is, it must have something to do with our own perceptions, with our own openness. It must have something to do with faith.

And it’s clear from the post-resurrection accounts, in all the gospels, that the resurrection extends outward in time, happening again and again, that it’s not an isolated event and not a single event and that it has to do with storytelling and community and the celebration of the Eucharist--the disciples know him in the breaking of the bread, Luke says, in the Emmaus story. While the resurrection is not just an interior experience, it’s also that. The resurrection is what we experience when we experience joy and hope and the feeling that we’re loved beyond all expectation, which we all do, now and then. That’s the resurrection, too, not just some weird thing that happened 2000 years ago.

Jesus will come down to the level of Thomas, out of compassion, to the level of the scientific, the merely physical. He will allow Thomas to feel his wounds. But Jesus makes it absolutely clear that the reality and hope of the resurrection extends far beyond this. “Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed,” he says, and that’s us, that’s here, that’s now. We all live in the space of this not-seeing, at least of this not- seeing-directly, and we are blessed, too. The resurrection is real for us, too, every bit as real as it is for Thomas.

The Catechism puts it very powerfully and beautifully, and what it says is worth quoting at length:

“No one was an eyewitness to Christ’s Resurrection and no evangelist describes it. No one can say how it came about physically. Still less was its innermost essence perceptible to the senses. Although the Resurrection was an historical event that could be verified by the sign of the empty tomb and by the reality of the apostles’ encounters with the risen Christ, still it remains at the very heart of the mystery of faith as something that transcends and surpasses history.”

Lazarus was raised from the dead, but he couldn’t walk through walls. Everyone knew who he was when they saw him. Lazarus was raised from the dead, but he didn’t gather a people unto himself. It’s not him we feel in our hearts.

Or compare how Mel Gibson depicts the resurrection at the end of the Passion of the Christ with how the gospels describe it. In the movie the burial clothes sort of collapse--Gibson actually describes what the gospels won’t--and then there’s Jesus, healthy and strong and completely recognizable. Everyone in the theater knows who he is. But the gospels build in all these levels and layers, in all the post-resurrection accounts, all these different observers and storytellers, and not everyone gets it, not everyone understands.

I’m not saying that the resurrection is ambiguous. I’m saying it’s mysterious. I’m not saying it isn’t real. I’m saying that it’s real beyond all imagining.

And I think that this has real consequences for our everyday lives.

It means, for one thing, that we can stop worrying about all the doubting biblical scholars and all those documentaries on the Discovery channel about the bones of Jesus or the teeth of Jesus or the toe nails of Jesus. It’s all irrelevant. We can have absolute confidence in the fact of the resurrection because the kind of fact that it is is far greater than all these ridiculous things.

But even more than that. Here’s another passage I want to quote, from Pope John Paul, because I think it says exactly what the implications of all this are for us day to day. This matters. It applies. As believers we have absolute faith, the Pope says,

“but without underestimating the problems we face. We are certainly not seduced by the naïve expectation that, faced with the challenges of our time, we shall find some magic formula. No, we shall not be saved by a formula but by a Person, and the assurance which he gives us: I am with you.”

I love this.

Our lives are messy and complicated and whatever truths we experience are fleeting, and it helps just to be told this, to be told that this is the way it is, that we’re not missing anything, that we’re right in the middle of it and that we just have to accept it, with humility. Surrender to it. Jump into it. The nature of the resurrection as the gospels describe it is exactly like our lives: complicated.

And yet at the same time we are given reason for a tremendous hope. The disciples in all these stories may be confused, but they’re filled with peace, too, filled with joy. Their hearts are burning. They don’t understand the resurrection, they don’t really get it, but it doesn’t matter, because the fact is that it transforms them, the fact is it that gives them courage, the fact is that in some way they can’t pin down but just know is true there is a love and a goodness that triumphs over everything in life and triumphs even over death.

Hope. In the midst of heartache, hope. In the midst of struggle, hope. In the midst of illness, loneliness, emptiness, hope. Wait for joy. Because it will come, as it came to the disciples, in the very center and at the very source of their confusion.

That’s exactly how they knew that they weren’t making this up: because they couldn’t explain it, because they couldn’t grasp it, this joy, this love that was stealing into them. It had to come from somewhere else. It had to. And it did.

A God we could understand, Flannery O’Connor said, would be less than ourselves. He wouldn’t be worth understanding.

Believe everything. And most of all, believe in the now, in the burning of your hearts right this moment.

In the midst of all this mystery, in the midst of all that we can’t control and manipulate and understand, hope. Hope because there’s something that we can’t control. Hope because there’s something at work here we don’t understand.

I say it again, hope in him still. Because he lives.

Our Pilgrimage (homily)

April 6, 2007
Good Friday

Last week, at the shrine in Chalma, in central Mexico, I saw a statute of Jesus with a velvet cloak. He had fallen to his knees, the cross over his shoulder. He was very bloody. Life-sized. But what really struck me was the way the fabric hung down from his body. The Mexicans dress their statues of Jesus and Mary and the saints, with actual clothes--they are a very visual, a very tactile culture--and something about that purple fabric and the gold hem at the bottom and the gold sash at the waist made Jesus come alive for me, made his suffering on the way to the cross seem real and three dimensional, not just an idea.

At a retreat center outside of San Miguel de Allende, I saw 2,000 Mexican men all together, poor men and peasant men, sleeping on the floor and eating from plastic bowls and wearing large crosses around their necks, tied with rope. They were doing the spiritual exercises for a week, these men from all over Mexico, and their piety and their need was so great you could feel it. The smell was overwhelming, of beans, of sweat.
In the cafeteria, a young boy kissed Barb’s hand.


This was on the pilgrimage that 33 of us took to Mexico, over Spring Break, to visit the shrines and to pray together.

Our final destination was the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe outside of Mexico City, the second most visited shrine in the world, built where Our Lady is said to have appeared 500 years ago to a Mexican peasant named Juan Diego. Father Lucas celebrated mass there, in a little chapel on the second floor, the famous image directly behind him, and I served as his deacon.

Who would have thought it? Me, Chris Anderson, deaconing at the basilica, Our Lady right over my shoulder?


Jesus has a body and it’s our body. Jesus has hands and they are our hands. Jesus has eyes and they are our eyes. They see what we see.

When I hold up the host and say “Body of Christ,” I am calling you by name.


*

Not that every minute of the pilgrimage was a spiritual high. Of course not. Some of us got sick on the bus. I did. All of us had little rumblings in our stomachs. Some us didn’t have an experience at the shrine. We were cranky that day. It didn’t hit us. But that’s an experience, too, of emptiness, of desolation, maybe. This is from God, this is also his gift, the gift of our lives, of sorrow as well as joy, and today we are reminded that this sorrow has been made meaningful, has been redeemed, through the love and the sacrifice of a peasant man who had a body in a desert country 2000 years ago, a man who lived then and who lives now.


You know how it is when you’re on a trip. You have to hold your bladder. You don’t always get your second cup of coffee. You have to endure strangeness. But there’s a point to this, an end, and the end is the deeper, more intense experience that these small sacrifices open up for us, the new sights and sounds and smells. The experience of fellowship. Of community.

That’s what Good Friday is about, but far more so, unimaginably more so.


I think of that retreat center and of the mats on the floor and of the eyes of those sweaty men, of their poverty, their extreme poverty, and in the midst of that, their desire, their desire for God, for Christ, for that which we so deeply desire ourselves.

I think of this vault that Father Lucas and I passed as we went up the back way to get ready for mass at the basilica. There was this huge metal door with digital displays above it and in the center a giant metal wheel, like on a bank vault or some secret room at the CIA.

What is that, I asked? It’s the entrance to the image, Fr. Lucas said. It’s the way to the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

The actual image.

*

I don’t know what happened on that hill in Mexico 500 years ago, but I know what was happening last week. People were praying. People were walking on their knees across the stones. And we were, too, in our way, the 33 of us in our group, each of us according to our own character and circumstances and the disposition of our hearts. We were a community of faith sharing in a living tradition.

Juan Diego, they say, is reflected in Mary’s eyes. And so are we.

As she is reflected in ours.


And more importantly, there’s a cross above the image, a magnificent cross, thirty feet high, but not just one, really. It’s a cross made of many crosses, one stacked on top of the other, each a little smaller and a little closer to the congregation, as if Christ is expanding outward from that one historical moment through all the moments since, towards us, towards now.


I believe that something happened on that hill in Mexico because I believe that something happens on every hill and in every place. I believe that that place is holy because I believe that my kitchen is holy and my backyard is holy and that your kitchen is holy, too, and your Subaru, your office.

This is why we go on pilgrimage: to come back home and see what was always true, what was always there.


And we are all on pilgrimage. We are always on pilgrimage. And today we think in particular of our suffering, of our sadness, of our limits and limitations, and we think, yes, there was a man once and there is a man now, and through the power that is in him all suffering has been made to mean something, all suffering has been made real and concrete and taken up into a story so beautiful we can’t even imagine it. And so our suffering is not just suffering. Our poverty is not just poverty. It is a means to an end and that end is sweetness and that end is beauty and that end is a tenderness and a love we don’t deserve but have in unending abundance.

Am I not your mother? Do I not shelter you in the shadow of my mantle?

Is this not my son?