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

Thursday, April 23, 2009

What the Church Really Teaches About the Resurrection (homily)

Third Sunday of Easter
Luke 24:35-48

If the Resurrection is just this weird thing that happened a long time ago, I don’t care about it. If the Resurrection is just this spooky, sort of supernatural thing involving this one man in the first century, what’s the point?

But the Resurrection isn’t just that. It’s far more profound and real than that.

You know, there are a lot of stupid versions of Christianity out there in the world, silly oversimplifications. Why do Catholics pray to Mary? Well, we don’t really do that. Why do Catholics think that the Pope is better than Jesus? Well, we don’t really think that. There are a lot of people who were raised Catholic but who heard things that are not true. I’m getting this a lot lately. I grew up Catholic, one of my students said, and so I was taught to read the Bible literally. Well, actually, Catholics don’t read the Bible literally, or they’re not supposed to. The other day another student told me that she was taught by a nun that Native Americans are going to hell. Well, no. Maybe my student was just hearing things in a childish way-- mishearing them--maybe it’s time for her to grow up and start thinking like an adult. But if she really was taught this, the teacher was wrong. It’s not what the Church teaches.

It’s the same with the Resurrection. I think too often people don’t know how beautiful and profound the Catechism really is. The Church is always celebrating the mystery, not reducing it.

I want to just quote you a fairly long passage from the Catechism. I’ve quoted it before, but it’s really beautiful and important. If you’re interested, you can find it on my blog --the address is under my name in the Bulletin.

“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, his passing over to another life, perceptible to the senses. Although the Resurrection was an historical event that could be verified by the sign of the empty tomb . . . still it remains at the very heart of the mystery of faith as something that transcends and surpasses history (647).”

Let me try to unpack this a little. There are three important things here and throughout what the Catechism teaches about the Resurrection.

First, the Resurrection was more than a physical event, more than a mere resuscitation. Jesus isn’t Lazarus. After Lazarus was raised people knew who he was, and they could touch him, too, anytime they wanted. Jesus can also be touched, sometimes, as he is touched in today’s gospel. He is not a ghost, he is not a hallucination. But there are also times when Jesus can’t be touched, when he comes through walls, as he does here in this story, or when he vanishes, when he just disappears, as he does in the great story of the travelers to Emmaus, right before this in Luke. And even when Jesus is present in some kind of discernible way, it’s really significant that people don’t always recognize him, even people who knew him in his former life. You have to be open to seeing him. You have to have imagination and receptivity and faith.

Second, the Resurrection is not just a single event. It didn’t just happen once. The Church is open to the idea that the gospel accounts are a kind of literary shorthand for a realization and a joy and a faith that took several generations to unfold and that is still unfolding. As the great Catholic scripture scholar Luke Timothy Johnson puts it, the Resurrection of Jesus was not “simply a matter of visions and appearances to selected individuals. . . . The experience cannot be confined to such sporadic events.” In fact, here’s another quotation from Johnson, another slightly longer passage I’ve also quoted before and that I want just to make available to you, because it’s so useful and good:

“The Resurrection faith that gave birth to Christianity was rooted in a complex combination of experience and conviction. The experience was that of transforming, transcendent, personal power, a power that altered not only the consciousness but the very status of those experiencing it.”

Something happened inside the early Christians, something profound. You can see it in the record of their courage and their joy, even in the face of great persecution, and you can see it still, in us, on our good days, at our best moments.

That’s the third and final point: that the Resurrection is not just outer but inner, not just something that happened long ago but something that is happening now, inside of all of us. The scholars don’t have to dig up the tombs. They just have to come here. They just have to come to Church. Because we are the body of Christ, we are the Resurrection, we are the living proof of it, no matter how weak and partial and stumbling our faith often is. We’re here. And we’re here because in some way we have felt joy. We’re here because in some way at some point in our lives we have been moved, we have been given the peace that Jesus gives his frightened disciples today in Luke.

This is what the Churches teaches about the Resurrection. That it’s not just a symbol, it’s not just an idea. That it’s far more profound, far more real than that. And that it’s far more profound than the merely physical, too, far more real than the merely scientific, the merely historical, the merely measurable.

I’ve said this before and I want to say it again. Just as the cross is a lens, the Resurrection is a lens. The Resurrection is a kind of logic. A kind of discipline.

If we’ve lost our job, if we’ve lost our marriage, if we’ve lost our hope, yes, that suffering if real and we have to go through it. But there’s more. That’s not all there is. There is also joy, there is also faith, there is also reason for happiness, and we have to hold ourselves to that, discipline ourselves to that: not be downhearted, even now, not be devastated, even when life devastates us. Why are we anxious, finally? Why are we sad? On what have we staked our hope and desire? On what are we counting?

If we feel lost, if we feel ignored by God, we have to think again. God isn’t ignoring us, we’re ignoring him. We’re looking in all the wrong places. If we doubt the Resurrection, if we doubt the source of the disciples’ first joy, we have to think again. We have look again, and in a new way. The Resurrection is going on all around us, in the beauty of the spring, in the gift of our friends, in the smallest, simplest moments, the moments we overlook and discount because they’re not big enough for us, not good enough. But no. These little moments are enough. They are beautiful and real and important, and they are here and they are all that’s here, just the present moment, just the present, and that’s everything, that’s the whole universe, that’s the whole cosmos, that’s Jesus Christ himself coming through the walls of our merely empirical minds, if only we will let him, if only we will surrender our stupid versions of things, if only we will die to our small and petty selves. He is risen. He is here. He is now.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Windfall (poem)

Windfall
for Franz, on his 80th Birthday

After the storm the forest is still the forest.
The scars are openings. Light shines
through them, above the tangle of fallen trees.

Dazed at first, the old man and old woman
resume their puttering, in the house
by the pond. They wake in the morning

and move among their books, then go out
to study the windfall. The puzzle of it.
The pattern. They know they still have time.

Every stand is different: matchsticks
on the hillside, riprap by the stream;
above the chaos, the great spruce and the fir.

In youth we think that youth is ours.
We think that it defines us. But it doesn’t.
It passes away, and who we really are remains.

For a moment I don’t even fear
the coming of age. The sagging of faces,
the gnarling of hands. After the storm,

in the house by the pond, I think, no.
Maybe everything that was promised is true.
Maybe we are all being transformed.

God is Dead (homily)

Good Friday 2009

God is dead.

Nietzsche announced this in the nineteenth century, but God really died long before that, on Golgotha, and he has died again today.

God is dead. His body is right here. It is hanging on this cross.

The CEO in the Sky is dead. The Great Policeman is dead. The Unwavering Judge is dead. The God we love because he gives us what we want. The God we resent because he doesn’t. That God is dead. He has given himself away. He has emptied himself out.

He has surrendered all his power and surrendered all his potency and so we can’t blame him anymore. For hunger and poverty and war. For all the injustice and suffering in the world. Because God isn’t remote anymore. He isn’t invulnerable anymore. He has a body, an ordinary, fragile body, and now that body has been tortured and beaten and hung up before us. God is no longer above all suffering. He has entered into it.

***

The God of our language is dead, the God of our words, the God of our own convenient and comforting slogans, the God we think we can understand and control, the God we think we can use to judge other people. That God is dead.

The God who favors one football team over another, one political party over another, one country over another, one kind of person over another.

That God is dead. He is dead and gone. We can no longer pray to him.

Do you know that Hell is mentioned only nine times in the Bible? And six of those are in Matthew. And no one in the Bible is ever said to have been sent to Hell by name, no one, not even Judas. All those stories are admonitory. They’re warnings. They’re efforts to call us to conversion. The Church has never taught that anyone by name has been sent to Hell, ever. For all we know there may be a Hell and there may be no one in it.

So that God is dead.

***

Jean Luc Marion is a contemporary Catholic theologian, from France, who has written a book called God Without Being. What he means by that is that God is so great and God is so good that even our basic philosophical categories like “being,” like “nonbeing,” like “life” and “death,” don’t apply to him.

That God is dead. The God of philosophy. The God of theology.

Of course we don’t know what we’re talking about, St. Augustine says. If we knew what we were talking about, it wouldn’t be God.

***

The old God is dead, the false God is dead, the God merely of power and might, and because of that, we, too, can die. We can die to all our false ideas and all our false selves. The self that desires money. The self that wants to look good. The self that wants to be righteous. The self that expects easy answers. The self that fears change.

Everything has been stripped away, or should have been.

There’s a new video game about to come out, based on Dante’s Inferno--you can find the trailer on YouTube--but Dante isn’t a suffering, middle-aged man, the way he is in the poem. No, he’s a buff, righteous warrior with a giant sword made of bone, and the woman doesn’t save him, he saves the woman, diving into the pit and beating the hell out of all the demons he meets. At one point he takes out a big, metal cross and wham, flattens a devil with it. Wipes him out. The cross as weapon.

Which is too often how we all use the cross. Too often we turn the faith into a video game. Too often we dumb the faith down, as if for fifteen year old boys. We see it from the perspective of a child, a selfish, adolescent child.

But that self in us has died, or should have, with this beautiful, tender man, this grown up man, in his suffering. This beautiful man, hanging before us. That kind of violence isn’t necessary anymore, or it shouldn’t be, in word or in fact. All that has been stripped away, all that has been rooted out, all our stupidity, all our nonsense, all our pettiness, so that something far subtler and more beautiful can come into being. A gentler self. A more giving self. A more creative self. A more responsible self. A humbler self.

***

Today the world has come to an end. And good riddance. It was the wrong world.
Tomorrow the new world comes into being. The new kingdom. The kingdom not of our own righteousness but of spontaneity and being in the moment, of entering in, of touching, of holding, of witnessing, of collaborating, of blessing and embracing, of listening, of seeing.

***

But this is the sacred moment. This is the astonishing moment. This is the moment no one could have expected or prepared for, the moment that doesn’t make sense, the moment that rewrites the whole universe, top to bottom. The resurrection is easy. We get that. We know God can do that. What we didn’t expect, what we couldn’t possibly have bargained for, is that God would do nothing. That God would allow himself to be nailed. That God would allow himself to be hung. That God would allow himself to be spat on and looked at and questioned and killed.

God is dead and we rejoice. God is dead and we pray in thanksgiving.

This is the moment. This is what makes everything possible. This is what we have never understood and never will understand. Today, in God’s dying, and in ours, our true life becomes possible. Our life with Him.

Our life with this beautiful, broken man. This beautiful, broken God.

Friday, April 03, 2009

The Big Story (homily)

April 5, 2009
Palm Sunday

The Passion is the Big Story, the Story that contains every other story, and all of us are somewhere in it, are one of the characters in it, depending on where we are in our lives. We keep shifting around, moving up and down the arc of the plot.

Sometimes we feel the joy of our faith. We’re confident. Faith is beautiful. We know we have it. It’s in us. And so everything is like the triumphal entry into Jerusalem. We’re singing and we’re waving palms.

People think that this is the only feeling you’re supposed to have when you believe in God, that faith is always a matter of joy, so when joy disappears or isn’t possible, faith is discredited, undermined.

But of course that’s wrong. The life of faith is a life and so it’s complicated. It’s up and down. It’s mixed. Sometimes we’re doubting and sad. Sometimes we’re afraid. We’re anxious. Our life is like the moment of the trial of Jesus when everything goes wrong and falls apart, and that’s a sacred moment, too. The Bible embraces that desolation and says it’s holy. It’s part of the story. When we feel that way, as all do, we haven’t lost the faith. We’re experiencing a different part of it. We’re entering into a new dimension of it. But Jesus is there, too. Jesus is always there.

It’s like the Passion as the Great Story is a graph, a time line, a big sort of outline, and we can chart every part of our selves and our experience at some point on the line.

We are made fun of. We feel physical pain. We start to die.

Sometimes we are Judas and we sell Jesus out. We laugh at a joke we shouldn’t laugh at, we gossip when we shouldn’t gossip, we don’t explain our faith or stand up for our faith. Even just in our own minds we give it up, we sell it, we let it go in exchange for whatever the thirty pieces of silver might represent in our lives: the approval of others, maybe, professional prestige, social status.

Sometimes we are Peter. We profess our faith and then deny it, under pressure. We can’t handle it. We don’t have the courage or the staying power.

The only difference between Judas and Peter is that Peter repents. They both betray Jesus, as we do, everyday. But Peter repents, he starts over and tries again, he is forgiven, and that’s part of the Story, too, maybe the heart of the Story, that we are always starting over, that underneath all these ups and downs there is a grace that saves us and sustains us and makes all things meaningful.

We think our lives don’t make sense. We think things are random. But they’re not. There’s a deep structure, a pattern, and that pattern is this story, the Story, the Passion. We can locate ourselves here. We can find our way, and it is a way, a way that makes sense and has meaning, even if in the particular moment it doesn’t seem that there’s any peace or order in sight.

Because the Passion leads to the Resurrection. Outside this story there is the rising. Not just the hope but the fulfillment of the Hope. J. R. R. Tolkien said that the Gospel was the biggest fairy tale there ever was, not because it isn’t true but because it is true. There’s a catch in the breath when we read a fairy tale or see a version of it on the screen when out of the worst suffering we can think of, at the darkest moment, the hero wins through, somehow the catastrophe is averted, somehow the hero lives and triumphs, is returned to wholeness. We get tears in our eyes. We’re crying in the theater. We hope that no one is looking. But it’s OK. We shouldn’t be embarrassed, because in that instant we are in contact with the truth, we glimpse it, it has touched us. Because in the gospel, in this story of the passion, every story that has ever been told, every turn, every happy ending, is verified and validated and taken up and revealed as absolutely true, the fairy tale as not a fairy tale but a fact. All shall be well. All manner of things shall be well, even now, even here, through the grace and the beauty and the strength and finesse and creativity and silence and courage of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Story and the Author of the Story, the Hero and Plot, the Narrator, the Reader, the Word, the One.