The months-long suspension of in-person worship required in response to the coronavirus pandemic continues to be a disorienting experience for church-folk throughout the world. Added to the need for physical distancing in nearly every aspect of daily life, some experience the interruption of regular religious assembly and fellowship as a painful loss. Though alleviated to some degree by the use of technological capabilities for online gathering, the inability to partake of the sacraments is a profound grief for many. In the disruption of accustomed, habitual practices, the temptation to turn inward in despair and inertia is great.
But now our world languishes and groans in the midst of disease and death and the exposure of long-standing hatred, prejudices, injustices and inequities, all the result of human sin. Christians must relinquish self-concern and fear and give themselves, individually and corporately, to steadfast witness of our Creator’s goodness and love.
In his Letter to the Romans, Paul points us to our baptismal death to sin as the source of new and abundant life in Christ, both for ourselves and for the world which Jesus came to save. “You also must consider yourselves dead to dead to sin and alive to God in Jesus Christ our Lord.” [Romans 6:11]
By our union with Christ in the baptismal mystery of his dying and rising we find our unity and meaning in life as his disciples. The Baptismal Covenant which we profess together in the Apostles’ Creed points to the present and eternal reality of our oneness with God, with one another, and with the whole Creation. Our re-birth in Holy Baptism through water and the anointing Spirit has marked us “as Christ’s own for ever”, a new creation reflecting the glory of God in our very being. Through three renunciations of evil and sin, and through three pledges to “turn” to the obedience of our Lord and Savior’s grace and love, we have been given power to be God’s children and messengers of the Good News of God in Christ now.
Two interrelated organic concepts emerged from the community’s year of “Renewing Our Foundations”: generational shift and lifelong formation. These topics attracted my interest early on in our discussions as it dawned on me that I am now, after 36 years in the SSJE, both part of the longtime and older generations of the Society! Now in the midst of the disease, death, loss, grief, economic uncertainty, and vulnerability of so many brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic, I find that the future orientation of these concepts sets in relief hope for what is to follow the present crisis and for the building of a new world for all generations – both present and yet to be.
The Martyrs of Uganda, 1886
‘in a very little while,
the one who is coming will come and will not delay;
but my righteous one will live by faith.
My soul takes no pleasure in anyone who shrinks back.’”
[Hebrews 10:37-38 (cf. Habakkuk 2:3-4)]
In the community’s ‘Renewal of Our Foundations’ work this year, the most revealing discovery for me, was to learn of our founder’s deep conviction that the Society’s witness and mission was taking place in the ‘end times’. I do not think that Fr. Benson believed this in the fanatical manner of millenarian, end of the world predicters. Rather I would say that Fr. Benson’s end times theology arose from his unwavering faith in the victory over sin and death accomplished in Christ Jesus. For Richard Meux Benson, I believe, the abiding presence of the incarnate, crucified and risen Jesus in the outpoured Holy Spirit of God was ‘the’ reality, continually active in every age of history. He saw each historic era as an end time, a humanly constructed ‘world’ which would abruptly change as it was confronted by the kingdom of God in the followers of Jesus’s self-offering way of love. For Benson the urgency of the Society’s witness to a ‘world which is passing away’ was paramount.
On this day in 1886, thirty-two young Anglican and Roman Catholic men were burned to death for their refusal to renounce their Christian faith at the order of the king of Buganda. Their deaths signaled the beginnings of the end for the world as it was then perceived.
The Gifts of Time and Space
It is increasing difficult for those of us immersed in consumerist, technological Western culture to perceive the givens of space and time as positive gifts. In an ever more complex, fragmented, information-saturated world, our sense of the sacred, the set-apart, or the holy endures constant challenge. We are tempted to identify “space” as signifying confinement and “time” as a scarcity. Constrained, stressful living spaces and work places, as well as modes of travel – all experienced in a milieu of diminishing available time – hamper our pursuit of wellbeing and meaning.
I want to invite you to consider these words from chapter 6, “The Spirit of Poverty” in The Rule of SSJE, which offer us a different truth and a renewed vision of hope: “When God made room for the existence of space and time and shaped a world filled with glory, this act of creation was one of pure self-emptying.”
This image of God “making room” invites us to the humble reception of space and time as open and free gifts of the creating God. Proclaimed afresh as the context of God’s imparting of being to the entire natural world – animate and inanimate creatures alike – space and time enter again the realm of sacred significance. Here is our awed acknowledgement of the mystery of existence itself: only in space (Cosmic and terrestrial), and in time (Eternal and chronological), are being and materiality manifested and known. Birth, growth, development, decay, death, re-birth, renewal, transformation, and new life are only possible through the interdependent, divine gifts of space and time. Together, these two form the matrix for human creaturely-ness in God’s image and likeness, and for our place within a wider glory. Through the created gifts of space and time, God consecrates sacred places, material and spiritual, and sets apart holy lives in the “now” and in the “always” – a wondrous whole.
From its infancy, humankind has shaped meaning through its divinely-guided embrace of space and time, “making room” (and making meaning) in the hallowing of places and occasions. Inspired human intuition and insight have perceived holy spaces in the midst of nature. Prehistoric standing stones and stone circles were set up as framing devices for particular locales in which people had encountered the immanence of the divine. High hills, commanding mountains and grassy rises; springs and streams of flowing water, great rivers and swelling oceans; vast canyons, deep-cut caverns, and caves beneath the earth came to be revered as meeting places with divinity and portals into transcendence. The dome of the sky, the spectacle of the starlit heavens, the blazing sun, cool moon, and circling planets, provoked humankind to awe and wonder, and to the desire to know what and Who is beyond the ordinary (and behind these extraordinary sights).
A developing religious instinct sparked the desire for set-apart, permanent places of sacrifice and prayer, spaces in which the ineffable beauty of the divine could be reflected. Temples and sanctuaries, oracular and healing shrines, and houses of prayer, were constructed in the anciently-honored liminal spaces of the natural world, employing and adorned with the very stuff of the created world.
So also, humanity wakened to an awareness of the mystery of time, its dimensions of finitude and infinity, its qualities experienced both linearly and cyclically. The round of nature’s seasons; the daily, nightly, monthly, and annual journey of celestial bodies; times of planting, harvest and fields lying fallow; the inevitable and unending process of birth and death became the impetus for religious festivals, personal and social rites of passage, as well as prayer and meditation practices.
Another aspect of the “making room” image in the SSJE Rule asks us to contemplate the paradoxical nature of God’s gifts: the realm of existence flows from and has its origin in the self-emptying or “poverty” of God. God whose being knows no bounds, no beginning, no end – the God of space and time – is the One whose essence is sacrificial self-offering and loving relationship. The eternal union of the Holy Trinity, in mutuality and complementarity, is the living source and sublime pattern for all communities of living creatures. The Rule goes on to recall God’s making room in sharing our creaturely existence in space and time through Jesus, the Eternally-begotten One through whom we are drawn to experience and live God’s nature as our very own. Space and time are revealed as effectual signs (sacraments) of the fullness of life in Christ. They are the divine means through which creation enters into the “mutual self-giving and receiving” of God: Creator, Christ, and Spirit. God is forever making room in human hearts by pouring into them the fullness of God’s own self-offering divinity.
The ultimate locus and temporality of God’s making room is the community of worship, remembrance, and transformation which followers of Jesus have come to call “Church.” For Church is a sacrament of the divine gifts of space and time, as they are realized in the birth, life, ministry, death, resurrection, and glorification of Jesus – in the here and the now. Church is the incarnation of Christ’s mystical Body. In Church, every person, place, and era becomes the locus and occasion for sacred space and sacred time. Church is the place of gathering to be in relationship with God and with one another in God, the place to live in God’s eternal now (Kairos) in every moment of existence. Through the Word proclaimed and preached, the sharing of the sacramental mysteries of Baptism and of Christ’s Body and Blood, and our participation in God’s own desire to draw the whole world to divine Love, Church does indeed matter, for it is itself a mediator of sacred space and time.
God is ever making room. God is still creating – even amidst our present chaos and stress – a fullness of existence within a fullness of time beyond human imagining, when “All shall be well and, all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well” (Dame Julian of Norwich, 14th century).
In the first creation story told in the Book of Genesis, God’s spirit broods over the waters of chaos and speaks the universe into being, “Let there be light” — the first day of God’s creating work. Over a succession of five days, God continues creating — dry land, the dome of the heavens, winged birds, earthly creatures, and humankind — and blessing everything that God has brought into being, pronouncing it all “very good.”
Then comes the seventh day: “And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done.” After much creative labor, God takes “a day off,” simply to enjoy the fruits of this work and delight in all that creativity. “So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation.”
Though enshrined in the Hebrew Scriptures as the Sabbath – a weekly day of rest – the rhythm of activity and leisure, creation and recreation, remains as countercultural in our present moment as it was in the world of our ancestors in faith. We live in a culture of doing, driven by a mindset that has accustomed many of us to deriving our sense of self from what we do, finding worth only in our work and its tangible gains. Small wonder then that, as a culture, we feel compelled to work almost constantly!
Yet relentless work distances us ever further, not only from the mystery we call ‘God’ — the One who rested on the seventh day — but also from the persons we are created to be, ever reflecting God’s image and likeness. In a chapter of our Rule of Life entitled “Rest and Recreation,” we recognize “the hallowing of rest and the keeping of sabbath” as “an essential element in our covenant with God.” Similarly, Chapter 29, on “Retreat” reminds of the “opportunity to experience the intimacy we have with God in our union with Christ,” as we rest in retreat, and allow “exercise and gentle recreative activities in solitude [to] help us be open to the Spirit.”
Lest, however, we turn taking leisure into yet another task, we do well to remember also Jesus’ parable of the good and trustworthy servant, who is commended, on the completion of much work, “Well done ... now enter into the joy of your master.” These words signal for me a mysterious truth: rest and joy are linked. They are complementary graces; they reveal to us the stream of divine love always running beneath the surface of our lives.
As we grow into who we are made to be, God stirs in us what I would call a vocation as “priests of leisure.” Leisure time can be as sacred as prayer: both invite us to pause and reflect on all the gifts we have received — and, even more importantly, the gift that we ourselves are. Resting from our labors as God did, we rejoice with God, who from the beginning has delighted in us.
Growing up on Nantucket Island, I had some very memorable encounters with God as I spent leisure time outdoors. On long solitary bike rides to the seashore, freshwater ponds, and saltwater marshes or walking on the autumn moors, simply gazing on the created beauty around me, I felt pervaded by a strong sense of peace, connectedness and gratitude. I came to recognize these re-creation times as acts of worship, complementary to the profound experience of liturgy in church.
Perhaps it was this rhythm that drew me to monastic life, for it still holds true for me today. In our community, we schedule annual times of vacation as well as retreat; and over the years, I’ve come to experience these two forms of leisure as occupying a single continuum. How often have I struggled to “work” my intentional time of retreat, only to find that the very gifts of reflection and connection I desired were graciously given to me during an itinerary-less vacation!
The title of Thomas Green, S.J.’s introduction to Ignatian retreats, A Vacation with the Lord, serves to remind me of the wisdom of Jesus’ promise in the Gospel according to Matthew, “Come to me…and I will give you rest and refresh your souls.” And I find it to be valid whether I’m headed to a retreat center or a vacation spot.
Our times of leisure need not be lengthy to be transformative. We can take up the “priesthood of leisure” during a week’s vacation, a weekly day of rest, or even an afternoon break. However long you have, risk appearing foolish and being playful with the time. As a culture, we are often as serious about recreation as we are about work. Playfulness puts us back in touch with our bodies and feeling selves, so that we’re not constantly analyzing with the mind, but simply experiencing in wonder. Play can restore in us the integrity of how God has made us —mind, body, and spirit.
The Book of Genesis preserves two folkloric creation stories, each illuminating the other’s vision of God. I find the second story pleasingly playful. In this rather anthropomorphic telling, God is portrayed as childlike, in the “cosmic sandbox,” forming humanity out the mud and breathing life into the “earth-being.” God created the universe to play in and companions for sharing the divine delight.
Whenever your life gives opportunity for leisure, dare to be spontaneous, even silly. Play a round of miniature golf and don’t mind if you lose. Take a vacation from analyzing and striving. Join in a raucous pillow fight! Literally or figuratively, work a lump of clay or take a handful of sand and make like God: breathe some life into it. And then, be sure to sit back and simply delight in all that you have done and all that you are — just as God does.
Br. Jonathan Maury
“Go forth with this message,” says Jesus, “the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Observing Hebrew reticence in speaking the name of God, these disciples are to speak of the longed-for mercy, justice and compassion of God’s already present and gracious reign. In their own persons, the twelve are to do as Jesus has already done: “Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.”
In taking up this mission with Jesus, the twelve are called to radical dependence on the provision of God.
Acts 3:12-19, I John 3:1-7, Luke 24:36b-48
“Jesus stood among the disciples and said to them, ‘[Shalom], Peace be with you…”
And in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering.” Luke 24:36b, 41
Likely everyone wondered what it was that had taken place in Jerusalem over those days… so certainly the band of men and women who had followed the prophet Jesus from Galilee wondered – and were afraid. What meaning could be made of their beloved Master’s execution on the eve of the Passover Sabbath? And now, what to make of the mysterious reports of what some had experienced early on the first day of the week?
The final chapter of Luke’s gospel openly and unapologetically speaks of the startling and terrifying – and ultimately life-transforming – experience of the gathered disciples. “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see!” (v. 38-39a) The One whom they saw die on Friday stands among them again.
This is not the spirit or ghost they at first had feared – both in seeing and in being known by their companions that they were seeing. No, it is One who proclaims himself to “have flesh and bones, as you see that I have.” It is the One who asks with a touch of humor, “Have you anything here to eat?”
Isaiah 50:4-9a John 13:21-32
In his The Gospel of John: A Commentary, scholar Frederick Dale Bruner headlines this day’s gospel reading as “Jesus’ Foot-washing Warning: (with the subtitle) Let Yourselves Beware of Yourselves.” Or, as Rudolf Bultmann puts it, “The consciousness of belonging to the body of disciples must not seduce any of them into the illusion of security.”[i] And, I would say that, a false sense of security from harm without is usually paired with such a sense within: a false certainty of our own steadfastness and loyalty, under any conditions. This passage from John, in the context of Holy Week, will not allow us to dodge a confrontation with the power of evil in humanity.
The gospels do not provide us with a clear explanation for Judas’ act in “handing over” Jesus to the authorities. And most of the answers we try to extrapolate from the evangelist’s words say a good deal more about us and our need to distance ourselves from the possibility of acting as Judas did.
It seems that the end is already present in the beginning.
Jesus commences his public ministry just as John the Baptist is arrested. Before we even perceive this John as the one coming in the spirit of Elijah, his witness to Jesus’ coming hastens his murder by the powers of this world. Now the one whose appearance John foretold is walking among us, proclaiming as he goes, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near!” Mark tells us that Jesus is not simply announcing the time. Rather, it is Jesus himself who fulfills the time, both in his words and in his full humanity. For this is the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. In him the coming time is always now—the present.
But how can Mark’s Jesus preach that the time is fulfilled when the world’s history continues with disaster upon disaster, injustice upon injustice, violence upon violence, hatred upon hatred, and greed upon greed? If the time is already fulfilled, then what are we to make of the redemption, much of which is clearly yet to come?
Yet Jesus, who still walks among us, doesn’t set about explaining or making excuses for God. Rather, Jesus calls upon people, using an imperative, to respond to his declaration, “Repent, and believe in the good news!” Jesus walks among those of his own day, and continues to walk among us in our own. Jesus invites us to assume our full identity, new each day, even those of us who have begun to experience his call in our lives.
Wisdom 6:12-16 / Matthew 25:1-13
So which am I? Foolish or wise? Am I ready to join in the marriage feast, to go into the banquet hall? Or am I unprepared, not even knowing the day or the hour? Is my lamp made ready with fresh supplies of oil to give light for the Bridegroom when he comes? Or will I be locked out by my own failure to know what is needed and to have it at hand? Are my mind and my heart open to the Wisdom of God who invites me? Or am I isolated in a foolishness of thinking myself to be awake, yet still living in the darkness of self-concern and complacency? Wise or foolish…which are you?
Jesus challenged his hearers with this question of wisdom and foolishness earlier in the Gospel according to Matthew. Indeed, he concludes the Sermon on the Mount with the parable of a wise and of foolish man, each building a house. (Matt. 7:24-27) The wise man builds on rock so that the house can withstand rain and wind and flooding. “Everyone who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like this one,” says Jesus. But “great will be the fall” of the house which the foolish man builds on sand, unready for the inevitable storms which human life brings, both literally and figuratively.