This spring we’ve watched as a pair of morning doves built a nest on the outdoor crucifix located in our cloister garden. Nestled on the shoulder of the crucified Jesus, the mother sat motionless on her eggs for days and days. At last the chicks emerged.
I had the extraordinary good fortune to be watching the nest this past Monday evening. The two chicks are now adolescents, about 2/3 the size of their adult parents and darker in coloring. They were sitting side by side in the nest, eagerly looking out on the world. Their mother appeared and, standing on the head of the crucified Jesus, she fed them. Then she flew off and perched nearby where she could keep a close eye on them.
You could tell there was something happening. The young birds began rocking back and forth in the nest, as if working up their courage to leave the warmth and security of the nest. Finally, one of them took the leap. It flapped wildly around the cloister, unable to control its flight, banging into the walls and ceiling until it finally fell stunned to the floor. The second one readied itself for its first flight, rocking in the nest before finally launching its body into the air. Like the first, it flapped wildly about, crashing into the ceiling and walls, and then landing on the floor. It waited for a bit, then took off again, this time successfully navigating its way through the arches and out into the garden.
Poet and author Elizabeth Barrett Browning is probably best known for the words she wrote in a letter to her future husband: “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.” Her father, Edward, was a controlling man who forbid any of his twelve children to marry, and when Elizabeth defied her father’s wishes to marry Robert Browning, her father never spoke to her again.
Elizabeth wrote weekly letters to her father in the hope that they might be reconciled, but for ten years there was no response. Then one day, after a decade of silence, a box arrived in the mail from her father. Her excitement quickly turned to anguish, however, when she opened it and found that it contained all of her letters – unopened. Edward Barrett’s heart was so hardened towards his daughter that he didn’t open a single one of the hundreds of letters she wrote to him.
Unforgiveness does that. It hardens the heart. It magnifies the perceived offense to the point where we can no longer appreciate a person’s value because all we see is how they have grieved us. If forgiveness is one of the most powerful forces for redemption in the Christian faith, unforgiveness is one of the most powerful forces for destruction. In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus gives us a parable that speaks to us about forgiveness and unforgiveness.[i]
All of us have secrets: secret thoughts, secret feelings, secret fears, hopes and desires. All of us know more about ourselves than we care to share with others. We allow others to think we have pure hearts, but we know that we harbor impure thoughts. We hope others will notice how unselfish we are, yet we know that selfishness still resides in us. We want people to see us as strong and courageous, but we know that often we are weak and afraid.
We live with secrets, all of us. We’re sometimes shocked when we learn something about a person that we never would have guessed, something that had been hidden from us. But the truth is that we will never fully know even the closest of our friends and companions. We are mysteries to each other, like icebergs of which we can see only the tip. And we are mysteries to ourselves. We will never fully understand why we think and act in the ways we do. Only God knows the secrets of our hearts.
Jesus often exposed the secrets of others. He perceived the hypocrisy of the Pharisees. He discerned the true motives of the crowds that followed him. He saw into the hearts of his disciples. He knows our secrets. He knows that what we do on the outside does not always match up with what is going on within us. We may appear to be seeking God and trying to do what is right, and yet inwardly we are preoccupied with the impression we are making on other people. We may give the appearance of serving God, but it may not actually be God’s approval that we are seeking, or God’s purposes that we are trying to advance.
Do you remember what it feels like to be at the threshold of something new in your life?
Imagine you are a student preparing to go off to college. It’s new and exciting and full of possibilities – (what courses shall I take? will I meet someone and fall in love? will I make lifelong friends? how will these years shape my future?) You’re excited, but it’s also a bit daunting because you can’t fully imagine the challenges ahead (will I get along with my roommate? will I experience heartbreak or disappointments? will I fail?)
Or imagine a young couple awaiting the birth of their first child. They’re thrilled, of course, but they’re also wondering, “What will it be like to be responsible for this tiny human being? Will we be good parents?” They anticipate the joys and possibilities of parenthood, but they also know it won’t be easy, and there is at least a possibility that it won’t as go well as they hope it will.
I reckon that most people, reading this story for the first time, would find it quite strange. It certainly is unusual, and describes a scene most of us would never have imagined. We would likely attribute the man’s condition to severe mental illness or trauma, rather than suspecting demons at work. Casting out demons – and sending them into a herd of swine – would be a very odd cure in our minds, and probably not one that we could imagine or recommend. The story is odd, but let’s take a closer look at it to see what insights it might provide.
The gospel writers recorded the miracles of Jesus as evidence of his divine nature, and this story certainly reveals his amazing power. But one thing that sets it apart from other miracle stories is that it takes place in the country of the Gerasenes, and it involves people who were not Jews, as Jesus was. It is remarkable that Jesus would deliberately cross over the Sea of Galilee to reach this place and bring himself in contact with a person who was ritually impure, to say nothing of being possessed by evil spirits. But Jesus, as we know, had a habit of setting aside the religious laws and practices of his day in order to show compassion – which is what he does here.
We are just two days past the Feast of Christmas on which we celebrate the coming of Jesus Christ into the world as a tiny babe in Bethlehem. The familiar stories bring comfort and hope: the young girl and her husband searching for a safe place for the birth to take place, the shepherds in their fields surprised by choirs of angels in the heavens; the wise men guided by a mysterious star. Each story bears a promise, a promise from God.
To Mary God’s messenger proclaimed a son, to be named Jesus, which means “savior.” He would be great, the Son of the Most High, and would receive from God the throne of his ancestor David. He would reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there would be no end. (Luke 1:31-33)
To the shepherds the angel announced “good news of great joy for all the people,” namely that the child born this day in the city of David would be “a Savior… the Messiah, the Lord.” “Glory to God in the highest heaven,” the choir of angels sang, “and on earth peace among those whom he favors.” (Luke 2:8-14)
So where are we now?
We have come, at last, to the end of one of the most bitterly contested national elections this country has ever seen. For many of us, finally naming a winner doesn’t bring the resolution we hoped it would; it feels like we’re all on the losing side in this contest. We are like two battered and weary fighters standing in the middle of the ring, faces bruised and bleeding, bent over with exhaustion, waiting for the referee to raise the arm of one of us. Our country is as divided as ever. Our political leaders are locked in seemingly irresolveable conflict that limits their effectiveness at home and diminishes our influence abroad. We are facing the largest public health crisis the world has ever known, with the numbers of new cases soaring to unprecedented heights in half of our states. We’re tired – of this pandemic, its restrictions, and all the pain and loss it has brought. We’re weary – of this toxic political deadlock, of the vilifying that characterizes election campaigns, of the threat of violence and lawsuits, of the seeming intractability of systemic racism, and of so much more.
What message of hope can the Church possibly offer?
Our answer begins with a reminder of who we are. We are human beings, created in the image of God, knowing ourselves to be loved by God in all our diversity. We are people who belong to God, who have been invited to live in a relationship with love with our Creator, who have been forgiven and redeemed by Christ, and who can reflect God’s glory in the world. The prophet tells us that God has called us by name, and we are precious and honored in God’s sight: every one of us. There is not a single human being that God does not love.
In his Spiritual Exercises, Saint Ignatius proposes a prayer exercise to help us consider “the call of Christ.” He asks us to imagine a charismatic leader, chosen by God and revered by all, who calls people to join a movement to end poverty and disease, and to do away with ignorance, oppression, and slavery – in short, to address the evils which beset humankind. The invitation comes with a warning: whoever chooses to follow must imitate this leader, by laboring in the day and watching by night, so that afterwards they may share in the victory just as they have shared in the work. Ignatius imagines that, in spite of the sacrifices, most people would want to follow a good and kind leader with so noble a purpose.
Dear Friends in Christ,
It is very possible that you are feeling exhausted and discouraged in the midst of the many crises we are facing now; especially here in the United States. The deadly Covid-19 virus continues to claim thousands of lives, with failed businesses, massive unemployment and school closings following in its wake. Unrest continues in our cities in response to ongoing attacks on people of color. Our deeply ingrained racism is being exposed again and again in every sphere of life: in education, health care, housing, employment, fair treatment under the law, access to food… Wild fires in California and hurricanes in Louisiana remind us of the high cost of environmental destruction and global warming, which we have failed to adequately address. Partisan politics has paralyzed our government and put the upcoming election at risk.
How can we respond creatively and courageously to such immense challenges? When we’re exhausted from the battle, how do we resist the temptation to simply give up and stop caring? What do we, as people of faith, have to offer our neighbors and colleagues in such demanding times? We are called to be people of hope, whose trust in God gives them the resilience to pick themselves up when they’ve fallen or been pushed down, and to continue to answer the call. We must be like sturdy trees, able to stand their ground in the face of violent winds because their roots reach deep into the soil from which comes their food and their strength.
We can find courage to fight on in the examples of those who have gone before us. I’ve been reflecting recently on the words and wisdom of Corrie ten Boom (1892-1983), a Dutch Christian woman who, with her father and sister, helped Jews escape the Nazis during World War II by hiding them in their home. The three were arrested and sent to the Nazi concentration camp at Ravensbrück ,where Corrie’s father and sister subsequently died. Corrie survived the terrible ordeal and went on to author The Hiding Place, which recounts the story of her family’s efforts and how she found hope in God while she was imprisoned at the concentration camp. Countless Christians have been inspired by her story. I recall some of her memorable quotes: “There is no pit so deep that God is not deeper still;” “Now I know in my experience that Jesus’ light is stronger than the biggest darkness;” “Love is larger than the walls that shut it in;” and this one, which has spoken to me recently, “Never be afraid to trust an unknown future to a known God.”
These are uncertain times, surely, and none of us knows – or can ever know – what the future will bring: not only in our lives but in the lives of our children and grandchildren, our country and our world. We face so many challenges, so many unknowns, and there is so much at stake. But we are not the first human beings to face daunting challenges, nor will we be the last. We fight on – for justice, for peace, for the welfare of all people, for the health and safety of all creation – working as if all depended upon us (which it does), while praying as urgently and persistently as if all depended upon God (which it does).
May God bless and keep you in these troubled times, and nourish and strengthen you for the fight.
Br. David Vryhof, SSJE
Jeremiah is sent by God to the potter’s house, where he learns an important lesson. The image of the potter fashioning a vessel on his potter’s wheel would have been very familiar to Jeremiah’s audience. It is familiar territory for us, too, since the shaping vessels of clay by hand on a potter’s wheel is still done in much the same way today.
What does Jeremiah notice as he observes the potter at work?
He notices first the clay. As he watched the potter shape and mold the clay, Jeremiah knew that he was looking at a picture of himself, and of every person, and of every nation. We are the clay, fashioned into useful vessels by God, the potter. Jeremiah isn’t the only prophet to draw on this image: Isaiah and Zechariah also use it, as does Paul in his letter to the Romans. Jeremiah watched as the clay was fashioned into a vessel. Then, some imperfection in the clay spoiled it in the potter’s hand and the potter crushed it and began the process again.