How many times have I heard this passage from the gospel, sighed and thought, you’re right, Jesus. I just need a nap. I just need to recharge my batteries and I’ll be set. But that recharge inevitably diminishes and I’m back to weary. What’s really needed is a power adaptor, a way to plug into the source of power directly.
A friend of mine keeps string cheese and granola bars in her purse at all times because she gets hangry. She knows that if she gets to a certain point, her energy will fail and that combination of hunger and anger will drop her into worse than a catatonic state. It can become a frantic cry for relief like a young child having a meltdown at the park.
Jesus’ invitation is not simply to cease activity but he says, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me.” In part, Jesus is sharing our burden, yoked together with us. And he is teaching us how to bear the load because there is the work of love to be done.
Do you remember the first rumblings about this Covid-19 virus you heard back in early 2020? What did it sound like to you when you started to hear warnings about a troublesome outbreak in a country far away? Depending on your profession, your news sources, your general level of awareness it probably took a while before the full reality set it. Even now mystery surrounds its origins and sadly there is no shortage of suspicion, blame, and contradictory information. Such is often the case with a prophetic voice. Dire warnings and croakings of doom are seldom heeded without hesitation and all too frequently caution is ignored until someone is directly impacted.
This has been true since the time of the prophet Amos, through to the time of John the Baptizer and, and continues to this very day. Why is it so hard to heed the prophet’s cry?
It reminds me a bit of earthquakes. I had been living in Los Angeles for a year before I encountered my first one. That day I was helping some friends fill up one of those big moving and storage pods. It had been a long day and near the end I hopped up on the pile to jam a few more things in the back corners. Then I felt my friends shaking the pod back and forth. Hey guys knock it off and help me. “It’s an earthquake, Todd.” Yeah, cute, stop making the earthquake and hand me another box. They were native Angelenos and knew exactly what was going on. A guy from Colorado like me had a hard time understanding what was happening. It didn’t compute to me that the actual ground was shaking. I still had my doubts until they started making calls to family saying, did you feel it? Yeah, we’re safe… I saw the news reports later in the day and I finally believed.
Is anything too wonderful for God? It’s a worthy question. How are you disposed to answer? Is anything too wonderful for God?
It’s hard for me to give an unqualified response. Is anything too wonderful for God? No, but…
There are ways that I am inclined to protect my hopes and expectations from disappointment. Ways that I may choose to limit God’s ability so that God conform to the pattern I have ostensibly observed. Perhaps I’m like Sarah in that regard. Laughing in the face of an irrational proposition. After a long life had taken its natural course, Sarah was aware of the typical pattern of women ceasing to bear children after a certain point. She had not been able to conceive while she was in child-bearing years, let alone now that the time had passed. We might excuse her laughter but her mysterious interlocutor didn’t. With a childlike simplicity he challenges her settled assumptions. Is anything too wonderful for God?
The centurion in our gospel passage today also had a life of experience that had inclined him in a particular direction toward the wonderful acts of God. But his posture of faith and trust was such that it amazed even Jesus. After so frequently being doubted, challenged and question for a sign, for proof of his power and authority, Jesus seems to be refreshingly shocked that some pagan Roman occupier was willing to approach with open expectations and trust. “You mean, you’re willing to just believe?” And more than that, the Centurion doesn’t even want to micro-manage Jesus into doing it his way, dragging him to his servant’s bedside, making sure that Jesus uses the right gestures, the perfect phrases, maybe a dramatic shout to ensure that the servant is healed. Rather, he simply trusts that Jesus has the authority to accomplish his request.
2 Corinthians 4:1-6
One of my favorite places on the playground at school was the swing set. Today, I still enjoy the gentle sway of the swinging bench in the cloister garden. But, back then, I was interested in a more high-octane version of swinging. I loved to push faster and higher to see how high I could get. I tried on several occasions to swing all the way over the bar and have always been disappointed that physics just weren’t on my side in that endeavor.
As much fun as the swinging itself was, I also discovered the excitement of the dismount. You could just let yourself come to a gradual stop, or drag your feet on the ground to slow things down quicker. Or, you could time it just right and jump! The thrill of being propelled into the air and landing what felt like several yards away was such a rush! But it took a fairly careful calculation to get it just right. Too soon and I’d skid to a halt and faceplant in the gravel, which happened. Too late and I’d just kind of fall straight down and crumple to the ground, which also happened. The best was when I was when I found that sweet spot and launched in a graceful arc and touched down like an eagle. I had to be ready, I had to have momentum, and I had to have the courage to make the leap.
We remember two apostles today, by definition two who were “sent.” We know a few things about Philip and James, we know less… James was the son of Alphaeus and he is always listed among the twelve. Tradition has distinguished him from James the Great, the son of Zebedee, and it’s unclear if he is the same James as in the book of Acts, son of Clopas, the so-called brother of Jesus. But, his relics arrived from the East in Rome at the same time at St. Philips and so they have been joined in remembrance.
Martyrs of the 20th and 21st Centuries
1 Peter 4:12-19
As recently as 2015, the extremist group ISIS produced a video to terrify the world. Dressed and hooded in black, the militants marched a group of 21 Coptic Christians dressed in orange, prison-style jumpsuits along a beach in Libya. The horrifying scene concluded with the cruel beheading of all 21 Christians. It shocked and horrified the world to see such a brazen act of violence not only perpetrated but promulgated to a global audience. One of the men was from either Ghana or Chad, the other 20 who had been kidnapped were poor immigrants from rural Egypt who were willing to risk the instability of Libya to escape the poverty and religious persecution of their homeland.
Such are the martyrs we remember today. It was a gruesome event and without the anesthetizing gloss of centuries it stands out like a raw wound on the Body of Christ in our own time. We remember these martyrs and others of the recent century. 3 million Armenian Christians martyred in genocide during the first world war. A million Orthodox killed by the Soviet regime in the 1920’s and 30’s. Countless other hidden martyrs vanish in parts of the world to which the western media is indifferent or blocked. Among groups who track the numbers of Christian martyrs in the world there seems to be agreement that there have been more Christians killed for their faith in the second millennium of Christianity than the first. These horrors are not history, they are news.
Why remember such horrors? The memory is fresh, it almost seems unnecessary. Remembering in order to prevent horrors of martyrdom hardly seems to be working either. Remembering so as to seek out a violent death like theirs would be pathological.
Exodus 12:1-4, (5-10), 11-14
1 Corinthians 11:23-26
John 13:1-17, 31b-35
Psalm 116:1, 10-17
It seems like we’re so far from where this whole thing started. So far from those days beside the lake tending the nets. So far from that invitation to come and see. But the decisive moments we mark this night go back much further even than that.
In a wonderous and mysterious way this night has been present to God from the very beginning when the Word was with God, and the Word was God. This night and the days of this Holy Triduum usher us into the fullness of God’s time in which these pivotal actions are always wholly present. We return to make this remembrance; to do more than flip the pages of a scrapbook and recall fond memories, but to truly re-member, to re-present Jesus here, to encounter the real and living presence of Christ.
We timebound creatures are forgetful and eternal God holds all time in hand. As our lives continue their meandering way we are given these precious gifts by which to return and to dwell in the love of God.
or Psalm 119:9-16
We are in the deep end of Lent now, the far side of the wilderness. The forty-day path of prayer, fasting, and acts of mercy, is drawing ever closer to the cross. It’s like the last few miles of a marathon; the last set of finals before the end of term; the last month of a pregnancy; all yearning and aching to end well but not quite there yet. Too far to go back, and so we continue to strain forward. There are so many ways that life in the world in general these days has been like a long journey. You would be forgiven for feeling a little or even very weary. But, take heart, because there is hope on the horizon although, it may not be readily apparent.
The Jesus whom we encounter in this 12th Chapter of John has also set his face toward Jerusalem and the completion of the race marked out for him. In fact, Jesus is more aware of this unravelling than most. When Philip and Andrew go to tell Jesus about a whole new group of people that want to see him you can feel a sense of eagerness and enthusiasm at beginning to know Jesus. His fame is spreading. “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified!”
Oh, but glory looks different than fame and notoriety, which is why Jesus immediately begins to explain what it means for him to be glorified. It’s like a grain of wheat that falls to the earth and dies so that it may bear much fruit. Without descent and death, there can be no new life. Without transformation and conversion, it’s just a lone grain of wheat, small and ineffectual. Without being broken open, it remains closed and unto itself.
Cognitively we know that seeds produce plants. But, it’s a hidden process that takes place in the darkness of soil and isn’t immediately apparent to the eye. Planting a seed in the hope of new growth takes trust and patience. Experienced gardeners and farmers grow in that trust but planting is never without risk. What if the seed doesn’t grow? What if something goes wrong and it’s all for naught? That waiting in the dark can be terrifying when a crop is badly needed.
These days of sowing the seeds of renunciation and penitence can feel exhausting when spiritual fruit is hard to see and only the darkness, fear, and pain of death are near. Our rule of life describes the nature of this kind dying, “Hardships, renunciations, losses, bereavements, frustrations, and risks are all ways in which death is at work in advance preparing us for the self-surrender of bodily death. Through them we practice the final letting go of dying, so that it will be less strange and terrifying to us.” (Ch. 48, Holy Death)
At this point in our Lenten journey, Christ points to a glimpse of the glory we await because seeing is part and parcel of God’s glory. The root words in Greek and Hebrew that are ascribed to God both take on the meaning of visible splendor, power on display. Glory is outward. Jesus is the visible image of the invisible God and displays God’s power in his life. The death he was willing to die, like a grain of wheat falling to the earth, has produced great fruit for us to see.
I can still recall the wonder of the childhood experiments where we would place little beans against the side of a clear plastic cup lined with just some wet paper towel. It seemed like overnight we would come back to find that the outer casing had cracked open and little shoots were coming out, top and bottom. Before long, that original little bean was hardly recognizable as the plant grew right before our eyes. It was quick and gratifying to young attention spans and it gave me the visual confirmation of the process that typically goes on in secret in the soil. I could see with my own eyes how the death of that seed produced new life.
But the stakes are higher with a human life. The fear and uncertainty of death are magnified. And they get personal when Jesus tells us to follow him into a death like his. Thanks be to God, Jesus was willing to feel this, and to make it evident. “Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour.”
Faced with death, and the ignominious death of the cross, Jesus goes to great lengths to encourage us along. “Father, glorify your name.” Show them what I have seen! And like, thunder the voice replies, I have glorified it and I will glorify it again. The signs and wonders of Jesus were all God’s visible splendor. The work of the cross is God’s power on display. “When I am lifted up, I will draw all people to myself.”
Christ was lifted up in his obedience to the Father as the letter to the Hebrews says. His obedience and submission to the Father has become the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him. As Jesus calls us to follow him, to serve him, to lose our life like him, we are inexorably drawn to him like a strong magnet. Pulled inwardly to remain with him.
And we have seen this glory.
Who in your life has drawn you to Jesus?
Can you see them? Name them?
Do they know what fruit has been born of their dying to self?
They may not know it just as we may not know who is being drawn to Christ because of us.
The good news is that is has happened, it is happening, and it shall happen.
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such hostility against himself from sinners, so that you may not grow weary or lose heart. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.” (Hebrews 12:1-3)
Take heart, dearly beloved of God. The path we walk with Christ will lead us all the way to through death until our baptism is complete. “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain” Unless we lose our life in this world we cannot keep it to everlasting life. Unless the bread is broken it cannot be given. Bind yourself to Christ in his passion. Pray for the consolations of Christ in this home stretch of our pilgrimage. Be nourished by the prayer, Anima Christi, in poetic translation by John Henry Newman:
Soul of Christ, be my sanctification;
Body of Christ, be my salvation;
Blood of Christ, fill all my veins;
Water of Christ’s side, wash out my stains;
Passion of Christ, my comfort be;
O good Jesus, listen to me;
In Thy wounds I fain would hide;
Ne’er to be parted from Thy side;
Guard me, should the foe assail me;
Call me when my life shall fail me;
Bid me come to Thee above,
With Thy saints to sing Thy love,
World without end.
Thomas Aquinas spent a lot of his early life in castles. The kinds of castles that wealthy, powerful Italian families constructed as a defense in the interminable skirmishes between city-states. Big, stone buildings, often at the tops of hills.
As a younger son, his family intended for him to follow his uncle’s footsteps to a monastery and as an abbott, no less. Monte Cassino, the old, imposing Benedictine monastery heavy with hundreds of years of tradition, wealth, and influence was the intention.
But Thomas had different ideas. He wanted to join a little upstart order founded only a handful of years before. The Dominicans were no place for their precious son, so his family arranged for his brothers to kidnap him on the way to join up and bring him home where he was imprisoned in family castles for another year. More castles, more fortresses.
Of course, Thomas would go on to be noted as a singularly gifted doctor of the Church, perhaps next to St. Augustine the main architect of ecclesiastical doctrine in the West. Doctrine. It’s a heavy sounding word. Like the stones of those castles he spent so much time in. Doctrine. And his writing can often seem like one stone stacked firmly on another. The structure of his Summa Theologica, with Questions like “Whether the Eucharist is the greatest of the Sacraments” followed by objections, his own response, then orderly responses to each objection. They stack and build with precision.
2 Esdras 2:42-48
A person’s spiritual life is formed by all manner of processes working in intricate, entangled ways. Some aspects of formation are a process of addition, being given new material, things like absorbing scripture and prayer, words that give meaning to our experience, rituals that structure the intangible, ineffable things of God.
And, there are also elements of formation that are a process of subtraction, letting go of those things which are not life-giving, relinquishing attempts to control what we cannot, saying yes to the things of God often means saying no to the things of this world, pride, greed, exploitation and the like. Some erosion is important to wear away what cannot, what should not endure.
And then there comes a point of resistance, where what is firm persists and what is fleeting falls away, there in that creative tension we are found in Christ. In the midst of these formative processes we grow in stature and the likeness of Christ. Much like the fascinating rock features of the American Southwest. The Arches of Moab, Utah, Devil’s Tower in Arizona, the Kissing Camels of the Garden of the Gods in Colorado. Each were formed by various metamorphic and compaction processes beneath the surface of the earth until the softer surrounding rock was worn away through the erosive properties of wind and water. What remains are the stunning results of competing forces working over great lengths of time.
What a Christmas it’s been! It has certainly been unlike any that I’ve known before. But, isn’t that the way with Christmas? This season of the heart seems to surprise as often as not.
It was a surprise to the Grinch when it came without ribbons, it came without tags, it came without packages, boxes or bags. Well, in Whoville they say, the Grinch’s small heart grew three sizes that day.
The Ghosts of Christmas may be haunting, cajoling, and fearful but they may inspire in us a reaction like Ebenezer Scrooge’s, “I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach.”
The surprising lessons of Christmas have so much to teach a willing heart. Even today, there is a joyful mystery before us in the gospel of Luke. It’s a particular treasure, this story, unique to Luke’s gospel and the only glimpse of Jesus we see between the events of his birth and his baptism. Introducing the gospel, the author makes clear the intent, “I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you…so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed.”