Sunday's Gospel: Jesus Loved a Good Paradox

The following is republished with permission from my column in Catechist magazine. For subscription information, visit catechist.com.

This Sunday’s reading from John’s Gospel (click here to read John 12:20-33) prepares us for the imminent death of Jesus. We hear Jesus’ own words of dread (“I am troubled now”), but above all, we hear hints of the glory to come.

The Gospel’s message about Jesus’ death is conveyed in several paradoxes. (A paradox is a meaningful combination of two seemingly opposite truths.) The first paradox Jesus uses is from nature: “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit.” Jesus’ death, painful as it will be, will bear fruit. Death, which seems like an absolute end, will do something. It will produce.

Another paradox encourages the disciple of Jesus to espouse the same attitude of self-giving: “Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will preserve it for eternal life.” Of course, Jesus does not literally want us to hate our lives. The powerful language is meant to convey the reality that Jesus is about to live out. It is only in willingly giving ourselves up that we actually preserve our lives. It is only in willingly giving ourselves up that we follow Jesus and remain with him.

The greatest paradox of all is the fact that in death Jesus is glorified. One might think of death as a defeat or an end, especially a violent death such as the one Jesus will face. But Jesus is clear: In his death, he will be glorified! Because of this perspective, the Passion Narrative (the story of Jesus’ suffering and death) in John’s Gospel has traditionally been called the “Book of Glory.”

This is an essential reminder as Holy Week approaches. It will not be a week of doom and gloom. It is a week of glory!

PRAYER: Lord Jesus, you are ready to lay down your life like a grain of wheat that falls to the ground and dies. May I be there with you, to witness your glory and imitate you so that I also may bear fruit.

 Frantisek Burant, Drypoint. Courtesy  Sacred Art Pilgrim .

Frantisek Burant, Drypoint. Courtesy Sacred Art Pilgrim.

Why We Love Our Ashes

Anyone who has worked in a Catholic parish knows what to expect on and around Ash Wednesday: telephone calls at all hours, strangers randomly showing up for ashes, folks leaving after receiving their ashes but before receiving the Eucharist. Among the “regulars,” there’s a lot of eye-rolling and head-shaking, and an overwhelming desire to figure out why, on this day, getting ashes is the single-minded compulsion of every Catholic on the planet.

But what if this yearly “ash mania” isn’t just a mindless impulse? What if there is something deep and sacred behind it? Could it be that what drives even non-practicing Catholics to participate in this yearly ritual is that deep down it captures the essence of their Catholic faith and what they love about it? Could it be that this day of fasting and abstinence, this solemn inauguration of the Lenten season, has also become a day to celebrate our Catholic roots?

It seems that if we could get to the bottom of the compulsion to “get ashes,” we might find what people are really looking for, what drives and excites them, what is at the heart of the faith for many of our brothers and sisters. So here are just a few ideas about why we Catholics love our ashes.

Catholic Identity and Catholic Pride. Those who make it to an early morning Mass on Ash Wednesday get highest marks on “Catholic pride.” If you get to wear your ashes to work, or to school, or to the grocery store, you get to enjoy strange looks from those who do not know what’s going on and approving looks from those who do. Along the way someone will undoubtedly tell you that your forehead is dirty, and you will enjoy saying, “No it isn’t. I’m Catholic.” 

That smudge of ashes marks us as belonging to a group, a very special group, and it simply feels good to belong. This is not an exclusive group by any means; it is not a “secret club” or an elite members-only organization. It is an ancient conglomeration of all types. On Ash Wednesday, it is edifying to look around and see all those types. Our communal, dirty foreheads are a gentle way that we remind the world who we are. And we find that it feels good to be counter-cultural, together.

Sin and Death are Real. Catholics used to be accused of dwelling too much on sin (“Catholic guilt”) and death (“Why the crucifix? Don’t you know he’s risen?”). We’ve lightened up a bit, but we do still insist on reality: we are sinners, we do suffer, and we will die. On Ash Wednesday, we wear a visible sign of these realities – ashes symbolize both our sorrow for sin (“Repent, and believe in the Gospel”) and the recognition of our own mortality (“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return”). 

These might seem like depressing realities – why would we want to spend a day with sin and death on our foreheads? Because we know that the first step in diagnosing and remedying these conditions is to reveal and identify them. To hide them or never talk about them would be like hiding symptoms from our doctors and never being cured. If I am a sinner, I need a savior. If I am going to die, I need a miracle. Our faith offers us both. We do not proclaim our sinfulness for the sake of a guilty conscience, or our mortality for the sake of feeling sad. Rather we proclaim them so we might share in the antidote; we proclaim them for the sake of the savior and the miracle he can work in our lives. With this sign we proclaim the wise words of Christ: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick” (Lk. 5:31).

The Power of Touch. Allowing another person to mark us with the sign of ashes is a very personal thing. We are inviting someone else into our “personal space” and allowing them to mark us with a sign that makes us visibly vulnerable. Just as when we have our feet washed or share in a sincere sign of peace, we are momentarily bonded with the person opposite us, the person who draws near and touches us with sacred purpose. 

Although we are being marked with a sign of sin and death, the touch we receive is healing. It is a human touch that represents the healing ministry of Christ and his Church. Catholics are born into or later embrace this sacramental perspective. We see and experience deeper realities in our physical world – bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ, water becomes a transforming wash. In this very Catholic way of looking at things, we don’t just get a smudge of ash from a stranger and go on with our lives. No, we stand before one who is both a fellow sinner and a mediator between human and divine realities; we allow ourselves to receive the healing touch of one who is also marked with ash, who also needs a savior, whose way of marking us somehow communicates understanding, hope, and the redemption we desire. The human touch that marks us with ashes is an experience of both human and divine love. Who wouldn’t show up for that?

The Satisfaction of Making an Effort. Why are Catholics willing to make phone calls, alter their plans, scramble kids’ schedules, or even duck out of work to get their ashes on Ash Wednesday? Perhaps it feels good to make an effort to either satisfy a perceived obligation or to do something we know is good for us. Sure, there are other obligations that Catholics may be lax about, but perhaps it’s the once-a-year nature of Ash Wednesday that motivates. Sunday Mass? That obligation is easy to push off: “I can always make it next week.” But Ash Wednesday? It’s only once a year: “I have to make it happen.”

Now perhaps this reason is not as deep or noble as the others, but it does touch on a natural human desire to participate in our own spiritual formation and growth. We instinctively know that although we are utterly dependent on the grace and mercy of God, there are some things we can and should do to foster our participation in that grace and mercy. Sitting at home watching television does not generally bring us closer to Christ. Perhaps Ash Wednesday serves as a wake-up call in terms of our priorities. How to keep that call coming every day is a much more challenging task.

Being Part of Something Ancient. There is something ancient about ashes. Even though the ashes we receive may be “fresh,” the symbolism goes way, way back. From ancient times, ashes have symbolized mourning and penance. We occasionally come across colorful old accounts in Scripture of prophets or penitents covering themselves in “sackcloth and ashes” (Esther 4:3; Job 42:6). 

Even those who receive ashes without knowing this background at least know that it is a very old Catholic custom. In a Church that has “updated” in many ways in the past fifty years, our ashes remain the same. We are connected with years and centuries past in a ritual that calls us back even as it prods us forward. This is Catholicism at its best, embracing and inviting others to participate in a beauty “ever ancient, ever new" (St. Augustine, Confessions).

Almost a Year’s Worth of Spiritual Connections. The fact that the ashes applied to our heads on Ash Wednesday come from the palms of the previous year’s Palm Sunday (though admittedly some parishes have now dropped this tradition and purchase their ashes from a supply catalog!) adds another layer of symbolism to the ash ritual. Even if we are not thinking about this symbolism as we go to receive our ashes, it still lies somewhere in the back of our minds, part of that collective Catholic consciousness.

On Palm Sunday of the previous Lent, we waved those palms in joyful welcome, in jubilant recognition of the entry of Christ into Jerusalem. We waved them in celebration, but also with the weight of knowing what would happen in Jerusalem, and knowing how we, the crowds, would turn on him. Those palms went home with us as reminders of the joy and sorrow of Holy Week, of the mission of Christ who suffered for us, and of our own role in that suffering. And now, on Ash Wednesday, the palms have returned, they have been burned, and their ashes are applied to our own bodies as another sign – a continuing sign of the joy and sorrow of the penitent. In these ashes we have almost a year’s worth of spiritual connections – from Palm Sunday to Ash Wednesday, from Lent past to Lent present.

The Beauty of a Simple Ritual. We may as well admit that as much as Catholics love a good liturgy, we also like to know when things will start and finish (Sunday Mass is one hour, weekday Mass is half an hour, the rosary is a quarter of an hour), and we truly appreciate the occasional brief ritual. I’ll admit short confession lines and brief homilies are a few of my favorite things. 

I remember one year our family had been hit with some kind of virus, and on Ash Wednesday we were struggling to recover. We had read in the parish bulletin that ashes would be out in the church for those who could not attend a service. We stopped by, curious and a bit sheepish. Inside, a few people were praying, and it was very quiet. Several crystal dishes containing ashes were on a table at the front of the church, with brief instructions about what to say and how to apply the ashes. As we marked one another’s foreheads, it did feel unusual. But the moment was also profound in its simplicity, and the familiar words, as we said them to each another, sounded different. They sank into my mind in a new way. That year, the ritual was uncommonly brief, but it still hit home. While I’m not advocating this experience as the norm, sometimes a simple ritual has surprising impact – without time for our minds to wander or grow complacent, its power has a fighting chance to change us.

Why We Love Our Catholic Faith. Maybe at the heart of this list, we find not only what we love about ashes and what we love about Lent, but what we love about Catholicism itself: a strong identity that creates a sense of belonging, the power of the Cross and the touch of a mediator, a realistic sense of sin and death, an awareness that we have to work hard right along with God’s transforming grace, the holiness of old things, the connectedness of all truths, and sometimes, that good-old-fashioned Catholic satisfaction in following the because-it’s-good-for-you rules handed down by our beloved Church.

So if you work at a parish and you don’t think you can take one more phone call, or if you see your neighbors “ashed up” but you never even knew they were Catholic, or if the person in the pew next to you heads for the door before the Eucharistic Prayer, try to call to mind the power of ashes. On this day, we share a bond, a visible bond. On this day, we are so very proud to be Catholic.

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This piece was originally published in St. Anthony Messenger magazine, February 2016.

 Eli with ashes, 2013.

Eli with ashes, 2013.

Lent Ideas and Announcements

Lent is less than a month away!

An Idea for Making Your Lent Meaningful

This Lent, how can we better follow Jesus’ command to love one another? Be thinking about one particular person or cause that you want to “build up” this Lent. Perhaps there is someone in your life that needs prayer support, companionship, or encouragement. Maybe there is a cause such as homelessness or human trafficking that you have always wanted to engage with but never took the time. Choose a person or a cause and give yourself over to serving this Lent. Daily, committed prayer coupled with some concrete action can ground your Lenten experience and benefit the people in need around you. “Everything should be done for building up” (1 Cor. 14:26).
 

Two Lenten Programs

For those of you in Connecticut, I hope you can join me at one or both of the following programs:

Lent Retreat: In the Garden with Jesus. Come away for a prayerful Lent Retreat as we enter the Garden of Gethsemane with Jesus and experience an extraordinary moment of human struggle. What lessons can we draw from Jesus’ struggle in the garden? Can we stay awake with him this Lent? Our retreat day will consist of a close reading of the Gospel accounts of this story, meditations on the Agony in the Garden, and time for quiet reflection. The day will end with an optional Holy Hour from 3:00-4:00 p.m. Lunch will be provided. Sat., Feb. 24 (snow date is Mar. 24). 9:30-3:00 p.m. Caritas Christi Center, 295 Benham St., Hamden, CT. $60 is requested by the Caritas Christi Center by Feb. 10. To register, call Sr. Jeanne Marie at 203-281-2569, or register online by clicking here.

One-Night Lenten Mission: At the Foot of the Cross. All are welcome to join us in beautiful Mount Sacred Heart Chapel on the property of the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus for a prayerful evening of music and reflection. Meditations will be offered by Amy Ekeh, Sr. Virginia Herbers, ASCJ, and Deacon Art Miller. Music will be provided by the St. Ann Choir of Milford under the direction of Peter DeMarco.  Pray, reflect and sing with us as we stand together at the foot of the Cross! A free will offering will benefit the ministries of the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Wed., March 7, 7:00 p.m., 295 Benham St., Hamden, CT. For more information, visit amyekeh.com/lent.
 

Something to Read Alone or in a Group

If you’re looking for a short Lent book to read alone or with a group of friends or parishioners, I hope my new book (Lent: Season of Transformation) might fit the bill! It provides commentary, reflection, prayers and questions, all centered around three Bible passages.

To look inside the book and find out more: amazon.com.

To buy in bulk if purchasing 6 or more copies: litpress.org.
 

And Finally….

….if you subscribe to Liguorian magazine, my article on Popular Devotions is in January’s issue. I was especially interested in Pope Francis’ respect for what he calls “the people’s mysticism” and the way popular devotions can build up communities and even evangelize. I took the photo on page 17 at Enders Island, Mystic, CT – with my phone!

Liguorian, January 2018.

Being Right and the End of Wisdom

Happy New Year, all! The reflection below came straight from my heart in 2017, and it found a home in Little Rock Scripture Study's monthly newsletter Little Rock Connections. It is republished here with permission. I hope you will recognize within it your own wisdom, earned by years or given by grace, and that you will enjoy its fruits in 2018!

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Bell bottoms, encyclopedias, cursive, dinosaurs. Things that aren’t around much anymore. 

Will we soon add “wisdom” to this nostalgic list?

Wisdom is the fruitful combination of experience, knowledge and good judgment. It is a dynamic thing; wise people are dynamic. They learn, grow, adapt, change their minds, take forward and backward steps. Wise people are interesting. They have something valuable. It is sometimes a gift but more often hard-earned.

Emerging from experience and learning, wisdom is an inherently slow-growing thing. But have we lost patience for its cultivation? Has our tolerance for the fluidity of wisdom dried up in hopes of something solid and firmly defined? Has it become more admirable to be right than to be wise? Is it better to “come on strong” than to come on…thoughtful?  Is it more admirable to “stick to your guns” than to muddle your way through that cloudy, sticky, murky, stubborn, ever-present but oft-denied gray area? That gray area is life.

We like black and white; we crave clarity; we devour rules. We want to be right, and we like people who are right. Increasingly, we like people who are right quickly. Slow and deliberate seems out of pace. Changing one’s mind is weakness.

But what did the ancients think? Biblical wisdom is not first and foremost about being right. It is an approach to life – how to navigate the intersection of spiritual and secular, how to get along with people, how to make decisions, how to respond to the problems we encounter every day. Wisdom values work, relationships and dialogue. It points one toward the fruitful paths of life. Wisdom includes knowledge, and a wise person is often “right,” but wisdom is much more. 

The wisdom tradition endorses a viewpoint found throughout all of scripture: human beings are not perfect, but they are remarkable. Where they are lacking, they can change and be better. They are not often “one or the other.” They are more often “both and.” Human beings – and their endeavors – are redeemable.

Wisdom, then, is not cut-and-dried, right or wrong. It is not simple and one-note. It seeks a “breadth of understanding” (1 Kgs. 4:29) and acknowledges that human understanding is a process, and often a slow one (even Jesus, we are told, grew in wisdom). A major contribution of the wisdom book of Proverbs is the assertion that wisdom is learned, and learning requires guidance, and guidance requires humility. This natural humility of the learner, the disciple, is a fading virtue in a world that increasingly heaps skepticism on the possibility that “the other” may have something to teach us. When this humility is absent, very little real learning takes place – even less understanding, and certainly no wisdom. Proverbs offered this warning centuries ago: the one who refuses counsel, guidance and instruction will face the consequences of a simple, static, stagnant life.

There is an ebb and flow to wisdom that mirrors the natural flux of life and relationships. Indeed, the ancients believed that we are supposed to learn and grow and change. The only thing we were meant to be entrenched in is the natural human rhythm of transformation fueled by dynamic concepts like searching, repenting, returning, proclaiming, trusting and abiding. 

A lovely passage from the deuterocanonical book of Wisdom declares that wisdom “renews all things; in every generation she passes into holy souls and makes them friends of God, and prophets” (7:27). Friends of God and prophets.  Surely we could use more of these. Then we must choose a slower, more thoughtful, more receptive, more conversant, humbler, subtler, more nuanced way. Yes, this way of wisdom offers a gentle antidote to our excesses of speed, activity, polarization and bluster, in a human community at risk of losing its grip on intimacy, reflection, quiet, intrapersonal intelligence and interpersonal relationships. If wisdom was the architect of creation (Prov. 8:30), might we benefit from utilizing her blueprint? 

Our world does not have a King Solomon, or a King Arthur, or a single person of legendary wisdom. We only have each other, and the biblical promise that those who seek wisdom can find her, and that those who have found her have found a treasure. Being right can be helpful, but being wise is life-giving. It heals and begets in a way that being right never could. An echo of the iconic Tree of Life, whose roots run from front to back of our ancient books, wisdom bears many kinds of fruit, and her leaves are for the healing of the nations (Prov. 3:18; Rev. 22:2).

tree of life.jpg

Sunday's Gospel: Who Is the Advocate?

The following is republished with permission from my column in Catechist magazine. For subscription information, visit catechist.com.

May 21, Sixth Sunday of Easter, Gospel Reading: John 14:15-21

In this week’s Gospel reading, Jesus’ “Farewell Discourse” (John 14–16) continues. In this short excerpt of the discourse, Jesus assures his disciples that, although he will be leaving them soon, he will remain with them. But how?

Jesus tells his followers that if they keep his commandments, the Father will send them “another Advocate.” The Greek word translated here as “advocate” is parakletos, a word that typically refers to an advocate or mediator (but is sometimes translated as “comforter”). Jesus already serves as a mediator between God and his followers, but now he is speaking of sending another mediator, one he identifies as “the Spirit of truth.”

It is clear that the Spirit is distinct from Jesus, and yet the Spirit allows Jesus to continue to be with his followers, to be revealed to them, and even to love them. Thus Jesus can say that even though the world will no longer be able to see him, his disciples will. This is the power of the presence of the Spirit of truth.

As if this were not enough to boggle the minds of the disciples, Jesus adds this mysterious nugget: “I am in my Father and you are in me and I in you.” The unity of Jesus with his Father is an oft-repeated theme in John’s Gospel. But now Jesus draws his disciples into this wonderful communion. It may seem that a mediator is no longer necessary if we are “in Jesus” and he is “in the Father.” Perhaps Jesus is saying that it is precisely this revealing Spirit of truth that makes this intimacy with the Father and Son possible.

We may not understand everything Jesus is saying in his Farewell Discourse, even in this small piece of it. But one message is clear: Although we cannot see Jesus with our eyes, he remains with us. He urges us to believe it.

ASK YOURSELF: Do I feel the presence of Jesus? Or is it something I must accept on faith?

ASK YOUR STUDENTS: Do you think the disciples were ever confused by Jesus’ words? Do you think they came to understand some of his teachings after he died and rose from the dead? Why? How?

PRAY: Spirit of truth, mediate for me, comfort me, and reveal Jesus to me.

LIVE THE GOSPEL: The Holy Spirit is described by Jesus as a paraclete — a mediator, an advocate, or a comforter. How can you be a mediator or an advocate for someone this week? How can you mediate the presence of Jesus by supporting or comforting someone?

 In this lovely image by Charles Plessard (goache on paper), the Holy Spirit descends upon Jesus as he is baptized by John the Baptist. Illustrations of the baptism of Jesus allow an artistic expression of the intimacy between Jesus, the Father and the Spirit that we read about in this passage from John's Gospel. Image courtesy  Sacred Art Pilgrim .

In this lovely image by Charles Plessard (goache on paper), the Holy Spirit descends upon Jesus as he is baptized by John the Baptist. Illustrations of the baptism of Jesus allow an artistic expression of the intimacy between Jesus, the Father and the Spirit that we read about in this passage from John's Gospel. Image courtesy Sacred Art Pilgrim.