One of My Favorite Easter Moments

PeterJohnTombI preached and presided at all the Triduum masses this weekend for the Visitation Sisters and their neighbors in Brooklyn.  Since their house was a place of limited technological sophistication, my homilies were given with mostly just some notes scratched down on paper, the old-fashioned way.  I’ll try to post some of my reflections later, but in the meantime, here’s part of my Easter message from today.

I’ve told this story before,but it’s always good for me to remember that one of my favorite Easter moments came during what was probably my most difficult year as a Jesuit.

Each year when Easter rolls around, I remember Mayo Kikel.

Mayo was one of the first teachers I met when I visited Jesuit High in Tampa the Spring prior to starting work there in 2002. She impressed me with her conviction that God wanted her there. She could easily have worked at a school closer to where she lived, but instead she made the extra long trek to our school each day. I have only met a few teachers like her, so convinced that they were fulfilling a mission. When I began work at the school the next Fall, she quickly became one of my favorite colleagues.

This made it all the more difficult when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. We were already to chip in and fill in for her wherever needed. But, amazingly, even after she started the cancer treatments, she never missed a single day of work. It was what she lived for. And though it left her with little energy to do much else, she came back day after day. None of us would have faulted her for taking a day off, much less complaining, but she rarely did.

As Easter approached, she came to ask me a favor. I was the Director of Campus Ministry and was in charge of the program for our once-a-week morning convocations, when the whole school gathered in the chapel to begin the day. She told me how good the boys at the school had been to her, and she wanted to use the convocation just before the Easter break to thank them. What she wanted to do, she explained, was to sing a song, an Easter song. Now this was not without its risks. Such an endeavor at a school of some 650 boys was just as likely to invite ridicule, as it was reverence. We talked about this, but she was determined. So we made plans.

When the day came, I stood up at the podium and said, “Mrs. Kikel has told me how wonderful you all have been to her during her illness, and she asked if she could do something to thank you.” The music began.

The song she sang was told from the perspective of Peter, beginning with a Peter all too aware of how he had failed Jesus. And, now that Jesus was dead, there would be no opportunity to make amends. Then it took up where our Easter Gospel reading began, with Mary come to announce that Jesus had been taken from the tomb. Peter runs to the tomb, John running up ahead. They find the burial cloths set aside, and Jesus missing, and they begin to realize what has happened. In the song Peter exclaims, “He’s alive!” “He’s alive!” “He’s alive and I’m forgiven. Heaven’s gates are open wide!” “He’s alive!” “He’s alive!” The song built until Mayo sang out the final, “He’s aaaalive!” And then something happened which even now when I think about it inspires tears. Immediately and without hesitation, every boy in that chapel stood up and applauded.

We speak a lot in our Jesuit boys’ schools about being “men for others,” and I have yet to see a better example of that than I did on that day. When we speak about Easter, we speak about everything being made new because of what Jesus did for us, and because God raised him from the dead. Things were made new for me that day. No matter what they did after that day, I could never quite see those boys in the same way again. They had stepped up when it was most important. And I can never think of Easter without thinking of Mayo Kikel who because of her humility, faith and courage was able to inspire such a moment.

Mayo beat the cancer, but was stricken just a couple years later with a rare disease which took her from us. But I will never forget her. Few people in my life have exemplified as well as her what Easter is all about.

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Forgetting the Women

Today’s first reading tells the story of Susanna, from the book of Daniel.  Two old men corner Susanna as she was walking through the garden, and demand sex from her.  Should she refuse, they tell her, they will publicly accuse her of having sex with another man—not her husband—and she will face a penalty of death.  Susanna chooses to take her chances with their false accusations, rather than submit to their demands.  She will almost certainly die, but prays to God for deliverance.  God sends Daniel to rescue her, and expose the men’s lies.  The men are then delivered to the same fate that they would have visited upon the innocent Susanna-death.

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I couldn’t help but think, given the coverage of the rape trial in Steubenville, OH, what the reaction would be should the priest presiding at mass choose to preach about what a shame it was that the old men suffered as they did, with no thought to what they had done to Susanna.  That, essentially, was the perspective adopted by news agencies such as CNN in their coverage of the verdict in the Steubenville trial.  It was all about how the lives of the two young men found guilty were being ruined by this verdict, and the punishment that went with it.  There was almost no mention of the victim of the rape, and nothing in the way of sympathy for her suffering, how her life had been ruined.  And, while I certainly cannot be without sympathy for the dire consequences these men’s actions have led to, the lack of any sympathy expressed for their victim was more than disturbing.

I did not have the opportunity to preach today, but I would have felt myself remiss had I not made that connection, and I hope that some priests today had the courage to do so.

Indeed, when the story of Susanna comes up and the readings, as well as the story of the woman caught in adultery in yesterday’s Gospel, I can’t help but remember an “angry mass” that I experienced in my first year of priesthood, when both readings came at the same mass.  I wrote about it then:

As I considered what to say in my homily this morning, I realized that there was no way around it–today’s readings definitely had something to say about injustice against women. To avoid the issue, as some might have, seemed to me to be ignoring the elephant in the room. Today’s readings clearly had something to say to use about gender justice, and the injustice perpetrated against women by abuse of power and sinful double standards. That’s what I spoke about in my homily. I admitted that I myself haven’t exactly been the best advocate of gender justice, and have been known to roll my eyes at academic discussions of the evils of patriarchy, but that it was clear in these two readings that gender justice is something we are meant to be concerned about. We are called, like Daniel, not to stand idly be but to speak up when we see injustice being perpetrated against women. And, we are challenged by Jesus to examine the ways in which our own attitudes and opinions ignore such abuses of power, and conform to sinful double standards. And while we can often point to more egregious examples of injustice and violence against women in other countries, that shouldn’t prevent us from recognizing that there is plenty happening here, right in our own communities.

Honestly, this was a bit out of my comfort zone, and so I was pretty nervous. I wasn’t sure how people would react. I was pleased with the homily, though it took a lot out of me. And, as I reflected for a few moments afterward, I was confident that what I had said indeed reflected God’s concern.

And that was why I was so appalled and angered by the prayers of the faithful! Now, they come from a book which the parish bought, so no one there is to blame, but I couldn’t believe that after I had said all that, the first prayer was for “our bishops, priests, and deacons.” And it only got worse. There was not a single mention of women, never mind injustice against women. I wanted to scream! Instead, I did the more genteel thing, and added my own prayer at the end for women who are victims of sexual abuse and violence. I wonder if I should have said something more, but I always want to be careful not to distract people from the liturgy of the Eucharist (and I’d already said quite a bit). And, hey, I’m saying something more now.

But I was distracted, and I wondered if people noticed that I was angered by how the prayers had indeed managed to ignore the elephant in the room. I couldn’t help but wonder if that was a deliberate omission, and whether the people who wrote the prayers had considered how out of sync that first prayer was likely to be with many a homily today. Sometimes at mass I’m taken by how well the prayers, usually written independently of me, fit with the subject of my homily. And sometimes when they don’t, I wonder if I missed something. But today was the first time that I felt the prayers didn’t seem to get it at all; that it wasn’t me who missed something . . .

These news reports coming out of Steubenville certainly missed something, and they should be ashamed.

Meet the Author

Recently, I appeared on Radio Maria’s “Meet the Author” program.  

The host, Ken Huck, and I spoke about living a spiritual life in contemporary times, my book Already There, and briefly about my new book, Saint Ignatius Loyola–The Spiritual Writings.

You can listen to the interview here.

Jesus, the Easter Bunny, and My Friend, the Atheist

So, while I wasn’t looking, a friend of mine has become a somewhat notable neo-atheist (I’m not sure if it’s fair to call him that, but that’s how he’s being perceived, at least).  He’s a philosopher, and we both met while teaching philosophy, and sharing an office.  We live on opposite coasts now, so I don’t see him very much.  I don’t think he was exactly a believer when we were in the same city (New Orleans), but his ideas have certainly gotten more radical—and more public—since then.  He’s always been a provocative teacher, and that’s one of the things that I like about him.  I like that he challenges students to make reasonable arguments.  After all, in many ways that’s what philosophy is all about.  And I know from my own teaching how hard it can be to get students to risk making any argument sometimes!

From what he’s been saying lately, it seems he’s coming down quite hard on students who make arguments based on faith (though precisely what he means by faith, I can’t be sure).  I don’t object to that.  I have done the same myself, not in a dismissive way, but in a way that I hope helps them make more coherent arguments.  After all, Christianity has long held that faith and reason are by no means incompatible.  I suspect my friend would agree (or at least he would have in the past).  What I fear, though, is that those who listen to him will get the impression that this is not the case.  And that is a disservice to them.  The Letter to the Hebrews says that faith is “the substance of things hoped for.”  Do we really want to rob people of hope, in the name of truth?  And, can I really rid my life of what might be called “reason informed by faith”?  It would certainly make life more difficult.

I would have to stop introducing my parents as my mother and father, since I have never seen a DNA test proving that I’m even related to them.  Barring that, I can only offer faith-based arguments that they are, indeed, my biological parents.  Indeed, I might need to go so far as the philosopher David Hume to contend that I really have no way of knowing, despite the fact that it has always been my experience, that if I drop something heavy it will fall down instead of up.  For isn’t there a “faith” involved in assuming things simply because we have never experienced things otherwise?  Yes, we might find ourselves escaping Plato’s cave one day and finding that things are far different than we ever thought.  But does that mean that I should live my life in constant anxiety that my experience of it may not be what it seems to be?

But one might object.  That after all is “trust,” not faith.  A rose by any other name?  And, besides, what is objectionable is not that kind of faith (if you want to call it that), but religious faith.  How is it different, as my friend put it in a recent talk, than believing in the Easter Bunny?  Well, for one thing, I know now that the things the Easter Bunny was once credited with doing were actually being done by the people I call my parents.  But were they?  Why should I believe that what they have told me is true, and that they are not just trying to protect me from the reality that there is indeed an Easter Bunny?  But I have never seen the Easter Bunny, and I have seen and learned to trust those who claim to be my parents, so the truth of their assertion is at least more probable.

But here’s where they’ve got me!  Since I have never seen God, isn’t he just as ridiculous a notion as the Easter Bunny.  Well, it depends again whether you are willing to trust what people have told you.  I come from a tradition that descends from the historical encounter of a people called Israel with a real God.  I come from a tradition that believes that God also entered history in another way in the person of Jesus Christ, a human person who lived, whom other people experienced, who died, and who, according to their accounts, visited some of those very same people after his death and rising from the dead.  I have to take their word for it.  I also have to take the word of the millions of people who have also experienced God in a variety of ways over the centuries.  Sure, some of them were probably crazy.  But even crazy people can argue from experience.  I may be one of them.

But I don’t just have to take their word for it.  I have experienced God for myself.  Anyone can say that I’m just making it all up, that I’m delusional.  Certainly, if there is no God, I have made a joke of my life.  I can say that.  But, interestingly, I’m pretty sure that’s something my friend would never say to me, or even believe of me.  He has experienced the concrete effect that my belief in God has on who I am, what I do and why I do it.  He knows that much of my life is based on reason, informed by faith, and that some of my life rests on faith alone.  He objects to what a lot of “faithful” people do—and so do I.  But that doesn’t make faith objectionable to me, it just means that people can mistaken conclusions based on faith, as they can commensurately so based on reason.  And life is a mixture of mistakes and successes based on both.

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It’s Holy Week.  And this week that is the story we remember.  A story of mistakes and successes, of friendship and betrayal, and a love that expresses itself in a way that is both reasonable and which transcends reason.  It’s a story that we know really happened—people experienced it, history records it.  Yet it is also a story that for those of us who believe, who have faith in Jesus Christ, happened once and for all time.  It is no less real today than it was on the historical date that it happened.  And it demands something of us that is not reasonable.  It demands that we give our lives to over to the mission and the person of Jesus Christ—completely.  In doing this, we do not ignore the fact that people have and continue to do hateful things in the name of Jesus Christ (which is one of the atheists’ favorite bludgeons), or that peopledo amazing, loving and heroic things also in the name of Jesus Christ.  Or that people do both, without believing in Jesus or God.  They can be as heroic or fallible as those of us who do have faith.

I’m not offended by the offense they take at my faith.  I am, however, concerned that in championing the truth, they might, even if unwittingly, take people’s hope away.  Especially because I suspect that, ultimately, they are looking for “the substance of things hoped for” too.  Their substance is just different than mine.  Mine is Jesus Christ, who I have experienced, and who calls me, guides me, lives in me and loves through me.  Theirs is, well, I’m not sure.  Hope in Jesus may be as ridiculous to some as the Easter Bunny, but it is everything to me, and the community of faith to which I belong.  It’s just how we roll . . . (if we can say for sure that anything, in fact, rolls.)

Listen, Jesus Doesn’t Have To Be Nice

At the beginning of one semester as we were going over the requirements for my course, one of my students said excitedly to me, “you’re a Jesuit, that means you have to be nice.”  I immediately took the opportunity to relieve him, and the entire class of this notion, explaining that there was nothing in my job description as a teacher or as a Jesuit that required me to be nice, fair and just perhaps, but not “nice.”  If they didn’t believe me then, I think a number of them changed their mind when they got their first paper back!

Many of us, though perhaps we don’t come right out and say it, often approach Jesus in the same way, “You’re Jesus, so you have to be nice!”  And many people persist in this idea, even though it seems that we have plenty of evidence to the contrary.  Jesus wasn’t very nice to the Pharisees, and he’s not being particularly nice in our Gospel reading today.  In fact, if anything he appears to be cruel, and downright unreasonable.

Nevertheless, I think we have to avoid the temptation to dismiss this Gospel story by saying something like, “I don’t believe in that Jesus.”  If we only listened to the stories of Jesus in which we liked Jesus, or thought he was being nice, we would have to throw out or ignore a good portion of the Gospel.  But I think we can—and should—ask the question, “Why is Jesus being so unreasonable?”

It hardly seems fair the way he’s treating these people, turning his back on them, claiming he never knew them, and telling them to go away!  After all, the evidence seems to be in their favor.  They say, and we have no reason to believe they are lying: We have prophesied in your name, we have driven out demons in your name, we have done mighty deeds in your name.  We might expect Jesus to say “thank you,” not “depart from me, you evildoers.”  Why is Jesus being so unreasonable?

What seems to be the problem is that Jesus’ standard of judgment in this case is not simply concerned with what they have done, or even in whose name, but why they have done it.  Jesus is challenging the “all I have to do is be a good person” approach to life.  He is trying to cure us of the approach to life in which we really expect little of ourselves, because we are confident that in the end, Jesus will be nice to us.  Just because God is a God of love, compassion and mercy, he might be saying, doesn’t mean that God doesn’t expect much of us.  We make a mistake if we think that our life with God comes with such low expectations.

What was expected of the people that Jesus rejects?  And what is expected of us?  Jesus makes this pretty clear: that we do God’s will.  It’s not enough to just do things, even if they seem to be good things.  As Christians, we are held to a higher standard because we love God and because God loves us.  And it’s important that we listen to what Jesus is saying today, because he is explaining that following God’s will isn’t about simply “doing,” but is first about “listening.”  Those who follow God’s will, he explains, are those who “listen to these words of mine, and act on them.”  Jesus’ problem with those that have come to him is not with what they have done so much as it is the fact, as his parable suggests, that what they have done has no foundation.  They have not listened to the voice of God telling them what to do.  It may be that God did not want them to prophesy, cast out demons, or do mighty deeds.  It may be that this was someone else’s job, that God had something else in mind for them, but they never asked, and didn’t listen.

Jesus is warning against the life of “just being a good person,” a life in which we are relatively nice to others, mostly stay out of trouble, but more or less just do what we want, confident that the nice Jesus won’t hold our mistakes against us.  He is also warning against a life in which we do all kinds of “flashy” God stuff like prophesying and casting out demons without ever paying attention to what God really wants for our lives.  We can live our lives doing the kind of things God might want us to do.  Or we can instead listen to what God is asking us to do.  The challenge, of course, is that the God we are now paying attention to is going to expect a lot more of us than the God we were just counting on being nice to us in the end.  But, why, anyway, would we want to follow a God with such low expectations?

Instead, each of us needs to answer Jesus’ call today to listen and to act.  To listen to the voice of God which may be inviting us to do something extraordinary, or even, to the disappointment of some, something quite ordinary.  To risk doing great things for God, and in doing so, sometimes failing quite spectacularly, as many of the disciples did before us.  To make us of the unique gifts, talents and quirks which God has given us, and which God desires us to use for God’s glory and the good of others.

To do this we must all take the opportunity, like the one we have today in our worship, to stop our doing and start listening to what God’s desires are for our lives.  If we listen for God’s will, we will see that what God invites us to do is to become most fully what God intends us to be, as we deepen our relationship with God.  When we discover the confidence that what we are doing is not just something God might like, but something God wills, our lives are transformed.  We become more accustomed to hearing God’s voice guiding us in times of trial and decision, hope and joy.  And though our lives don’t become free of mistakes or sin, we won’t find ourselves in the end hoping for a Jesus we don’t really know to be nice to us, but we’ll be looking forward to belonging more completely to the God we’ve been listening to for so long.

Giving God What He Needs?

I’ve been meaning to post this, from my homily on last week’s readings.  So, I thought I’d get to it, before I preach this week’s homily!

I am fascinated by the movie genre you might call the “apocalyptic thriller.”  Movies about prophecies & the end times, often involving angels or babies that will save the world, or destroy it.  I like to watch them partly because, more often than not, they are interestingly bad.  But I am also always curious about what they have to say about God.

My latest foray into this genre was just this week, when I sat down to watch last year’s contribution to the genre, Legion.  It’s really more supernatural action movie than apocalyptic thriller, with Michael the Archangel two-fisting machine guns, and even shouldering a missile launcher, all to defend the human race against, not demons, but all the other angels.  Michael has gone rogue because God has decided, as he did once before, that humankind has become so corrupt they must be destroyed.  So, Michael, and a small band of humans take on God’s legions from a truck stop in the middle of the Nevada desert.

The movie never contends, however, with the one fatal flaw in its theology.  If you remember the story of Noah and the flood, you’ll remember that after it was all over, God made a promise.  God promised that he would never destroy the human race again.  Thus, the God we see in Legion is not the God we see in today’s readings.  Today’s readings, rather, seek to remind us that our God is a God who keeps his promises.  Our God is a God who never forgets us, who never abandons us, and cares for us like he does all creation.  Unlike the God that Legion’s Michael rightly rebels against, our God is a God who is trustworthy, who keeps his promises.

In Legion, Michael becomes a surrogate for the real God, and his main goal is to find a way to remind God of who God is, the one who loves and cares for human beings, not the one who destroys them.  As Michael explains, when his brother angel Gabriel tries to stop him from disobeying God, “you’re going to give God what he asks for, I’m going to give God what he needs. “ And, again, we see Michael playing surrogate for the real God, our God who doesn’t always give us what we ask for, but who does provide for our needs.

In the second reading, Saint Paul reminds us that we too are meant to be like God, but not to remind God who he is, but to remind ourselves who we are.  We are reflections of God.  We are the servants of Christ and the stewards of God’s mysteries.  And how will people know this?  Because they will see that we are like God in being trustworthy.  Because we keep our promises.

We all have made, and do make promises to God.  If you were baptized, received first communion and were confirmed, you made a promise to be part of this community.  When you came here today, you made a promise to worship God.  When you recite the Creed after this homily, you will have made a promise to believe.

I don’t think it is simply a coincidence that we describe people who seem well-suited for something as “promising,” or of someone who has talent in some area as showing great “promise.”  The implication is that the very fact that you have certain gifts or talents means that you are meant to use them.  Indeed, I think that Saint Paul stresses the importance of trustworthiness so much because he saw that Jesus, and he himself, and all of us are meant to be partners with God in keeping God’s promises.  It’s hard to believe that God will take care of everyone’s needs unless we know that there are people we can trust to help us.  And it’s much easier for us to believe that God wants to take care of us and others, when we see the unique gifts and talents, as well as the gifts of compassion and mercy, which God gives to each of us, so that we can fulfill our promise, and God’s promises.

If we are meant to be the stewards of God’s mysteries, then it seems obvious that we are called to be agents of God’s care and compassion in the world.  In doing so, we overcome the darker angels, and show people not the end of the world, but a world more like God intends it—a world free of fear and anxiety, and filled with hope and promise.

Which Team Are You On?

My homily for today, based on 1 Corinthians 3:1-9, and Luke 4:38-44:

These days, people are asking: Do you belong to team Edward or team Jacob?

Evidently, among some of the early Christians in Corinth, the question was: Do you belong to team Apollos, or team Paul?  What Paul is saying in his letter to the Corinthians today is that it cannot be either (though who knows what he would think about Edward or Jacob).

Yet, this conviction is easier said than done.  We all want to be popular or—at least—accepted by a certain group.  We are all drawn to be part of that group of people who really get it.  Sometimes the draw to such a group or its leader can seem impossible to resist.

So can the attraction to be that leader.  Even those of us who think little of ourselves can find that, because we strive to do what God has called us to, others might wish to build a cult of personality around us.

This is the temptation and attraction that Jesus in today’s Gospel seems to find so easy to resist.  The people beg him not to go.  They like him.  They like what he does.  They want to keep him around.  And I expect that like us, Jesus at least felt a little pull to remain where people knew him and liked him, rather than set off for unknown places and uncertain receptions.  Yet he is firm in his resolve that he is called to proclaim the good news of the Kingdom to all, and not to settle comfortably in a place where he finds acceptance.

And, indeed, Paul says, the people who really get it are those who will not stay so comfortably in one place rather than another.  If we really get it we realize that it’s not a matter of Jesuits versus Dominicans, or social justice Catholics versus pro-life Catholics, or any such opposition.  Paul challenges the divided Corinthians to realize that we are all in this together.  We are called, for the sake of the entire Christian community, to, like Jesus, look beyond and even leave our comfort zone.  We are called like Paul not to let others prefer one brand of Christianity to another.  Because there is only one brand.

There is only one team.  There is only team Christ.  And it is when we allow ourselves to forego adulation or comfort and to venture into the unknown that we realize our desperate need to trust first in Christ, and Christ alone.