Do This in Memory of Me

For several months now I’ve been helping out at the local Anglican parish; their priest retired and a new one has yet to be found. This means that a couple of times a month I lead Morning Prayer/Service of the Word and get to preach. My involvement has the blessing of both local Anglican and Catholic Bishops. Today, Holy Thursday, was the first time I found myself leading this most sacred service. The following is the homily I preached.

Maundy Thursday
Exodus 12:1–14; Psalm 116:1, 10-17; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26; John 13:1-17

The events of this last day in Jesus’ life have all the features of a modern crime drama of the worst kind. Jesus is having one more dinner with friends; he speaks some last words to them, and he gives them several means to remember him by. There are calls for keeping awake, struggles with sleep, cries of agony from Jesus’ heart. Finally there will be betrayal, violence, absence. It is a night of sweetness and of division, of coming together and of ripping apart.

What we associate most often with this day, this night, and which we remember most fondly, is the story of the last supper, of Jesus instructing his disciples to “remember me.” Maundy Thursday is generally regarded as the occasion on which our Lord instituted the Holy Eucharist. We heard tonight Paul’s account from his letter to the Corinthians; it is the earliest written record of this monumental event, an event that has become the source and summit of our Christian faith. The three synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke, record the final meal Jesus ate with his disciples. Take and eat, he said; take and drink. Every time you do this, remember me. We know the words as intimately as our own inner thoughts.

But we are here tonight, this holy night, on this anniversary of the “first” Eucharist, and we are without Eucharist. Or are we?

When we celebrate the Eucharist and proclaim Jesus’ words to “do this in remembrance of me,” the bread and wine are taken, blessed, broken and shared. We break the bread. Breaking bread is a practice steeped in tradition, going back deep into Jewish history. Breaking bread is mentioned throughout scripture in connection with ordinary meals, ritual meals and the miracle meals of Jesus. The breaking of the bread is undoubtedly an important aspect of Jesus’ witness among us, yet it is absent from the Gospel of John, which we read this day. Why?

In John’s gospel we get a different take on things. John tells of a meal, too, but his focus is more of the show and tell kind. In John’s gospel, there is a different kind of breaking, a different sort of nourishment. For John, Jesus is the sacrificial figure,  but the emphasis here is not on the action of the Eucharist, but on the action which follows the sacred meal. When Jesus washes feet, he is offering  nourishment that is both the same and different than the Eucharist by itself: “This is what Eucharist is meant to look like: wash one another’s feet, serve one another in love, do not lord it over one another. I am setting you an example, so do likewise.”

When Jesus lowers himself, taking water bowl and towel to perform this humble gesture of charity, he is giving life to the words: “Do this in remembrance of me.” The love of Jesus, the love of God, the love of neighbour, is more than breaking bread in church. It is emptying ourselves in love, humility and generosity in order to be filled with the spirit of God, that generous spirit expressed in concrete service to our neighbours, especially those most in need. Jesus’ words in John’s Gospel are particularly relevant for us here at St. Andrew’s today. In this time without a resident priest, Christ nevertheless calls us all to continue remembering him in our actions and our dealings with one another.CupBlessing

Just as Jesus’ body was broken for us on the cross, and we remember this in the breaking of the bread in Eucharist, Jesus summons us to offer our lives over and over again in service and sacrifice, extending love and compassion and mercy without reserve. In the washing of feet, Jesus illustrated powerfully the other face of Eucharist: radical love given in service to one another.

We too may protest like Peter did at first. After all, what would we do if Jesus showed up in our homes and started washing the dishes, washing the floor, and maybe even cleaning the toilets? What would our response be? “No! Please go sit on the couch and relax. I will bring you something to eat. Don’t do that!”

Peter has the same resistance, which maybe all of us would have, as Jesus kneels down at our feet. Maybe a very natural resistance even to having our feet washed. Peter resisted, because his picture of Jesus was “up there” and people “up there” don’t do things “down there.”

Now I get that, I get where Peter’s coming from. Do you? Normal, natural reaction to an unexpected action. What is more surprising, though, is the reaction of Jesus. “If I cannot wash your feet, you shall have no more part with me.” Strong words, powerful words. “If I cannot wash your feet, you cannot share in the Kingdom. The Kingdom will no longer be part of your heritage. You are no longer my disciple.” Or, to put it more bluntly, “If I cannot wash your feet, there is the door!”

Poor Peter. I can just hear him muttering – cool it man. Didn’t know this foot-washing was such a big deal for you. Understandably, Peter panics. “Well then, not only my feet, my head and my hands!” You see, he is a loyal person and he wants to do things right but he’s getting confused because Jesus is not acting the way Peter thinks he should be acting. He couldn’t imagine that Jesus was going to make such a big deal about washing his dirty and calloused feet. It’s as if Jesus is saying to Peter, “If I cannot show that I want to be your servant, then you are no longer my friend. Because you must understand that leadership means service in love, turning upside down everything you’ve ever known.”

Jesus turns the old conventions on their heads. And he wants to communicate this by touching our bodies through the washing of our feet. So Peter had his reasons for objecting, understandable reasons. What could possibly be our reasons for hesitating to have our feet washed by Jesus? Maybe because it goes so much against the grain of how we’ve decided things should be in life. Maybe because we’re uncomfortable with being touched and washed by someone else … Allow me to share a story about that:

You may remember the news last month about Jean Vanier. He received the Templeton Prize for his work with the mentally challenged in l’Arche. Jean often recalls his work with a severely handicapped young man named Eric. Before coming to l’Arche, Eric had spent 12 years in the psychiatric hospital. He was blind, he was deaf, he couldn’t walk, and he couldn’t feed himself. Eric lived in deep and constant anguish – a tormented young man who wanted to die. In the psychiatric hospital the nurses avoided him because he wasn’t fun or gratifying, he could do nothing.

The only way to communicate with Eric was through touch. Jean speaks about the privilege he felt in giving Eric his bath every morning. Slowly, as loving hands washed his body day after day after day, week after week, month after month, Eric began to experience God’s love for him, a love that told him he was beautiful and lovable, a love that moved him from a desire to die to a desire to live.

That’s the power of divine touch through our bodies. We are to touch one another reverently, with a deep respect and tenderness. Our hands, and not just our voices, can be holy vessels of love, the love of Jesus. The Word became flesh, so that our flesh may become the sacred Word. Our flesh, through the power of the Holy Spirit, can reveal to people their value – that they are cherished and loved by God.

And still we might hesitate. Maybe our pride prevents us from offering our naked feet to be washed by our sister or brother in Christ. What if those naked, smelly and dirty feet betray our naked spirit, wounded and distressed and fearful as that spirit can be?

Life has a way of breaking us, each one of us, sometimes in a million pieces. Life has a way of breaking our trust and courage. God knows this all too well, and God has come to our aid. Jesus’ life was broken in the most brutal way imaginable. That same Jesus, on the night before he died, gives us one another and summons us: love one another and reach out in love to one another. I am giving you an example tonight, that you also should do as I have done to you. This mutual serving in love can restore all your brokenness.

And so, yes, we’re invited into a vulnerable place with one another. We’re invited to touch bodies, to wash feet. We’re invited to let ourselves be touched, be ministered to. That’s always a vulnerable moment. But remember the one who is extending this invitation: Jesus our own Lord and Saviour, the one who came to serve not to be served, the one who became one with us in our bodies, the One who laid down his life for our salvation. And so, yes, the central message this night, intimately connects and reaches far beyond the breaking of bread, even beyond celebrating the Eucharist. Washing one another’s feet is the Eucharist in action. So, I ask again: are we without Eucharist this evening?

As we prepare to enter this sacred action of washing feet let it be an expression of our love and commitment to Christ. Let our washing of feet be a celebration of the meaning of Eucharist, expressed in our desire to love one another, especially in the vulnerable and painful places of our lives. This mandatum is Christ’s mandate for this day, which makes this Thursday a Maundy Thursday. AMEN

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One Billion Rising with the woman caught in adultery

 Some thoughts on John 8:1—11

A while back the following email arrived in my inbox: It’s the same story all over the world — abusive, violent men are in charge of making the laws intended to protect women. When a 23-year-old student was brutally gang-raped on a bus in Delhi, citizen protests caught fire across the country and the world erupted in outrage. India commissioned an official review, but the government brazenly says it will ignore the review’s recommendation that politicians charged with rape or similar violence against women must step down. The 260 Indian politicians accused of such offences are fighting tooth and nail, and so far they are winning. Violent and abusive men often use their power to obstruct reforms that would protect women.

In India a woman is raped every 22 minutes – the most recent one being a horrendous gang rape of an elderly nun. In Pakistan girls lose their lives simply because of going to school. An Italian priest complained recently about the way women were dressing and “upsetting” men. Lest we think this is only happening “over there:” on average, every six days a woman in Canada is killed by her intimate partner, and not just aboriginal women. Killed.  Every year nearly half a million women 15 years and up report being sexually assaulted – in Canada. Is that why bastions of maleness everywhere still balk at the thought of a woman in power, a woman making decisions, a woman in the pulpit or behind the altar?

Sometimes I wish the Word of God would not unleash its power today. I’d like that Holy Word to be a precious relic of the past, beautiful words from an ancient time that fit comfortably into our feel-good church. I did not particularly want to write on this Gospel, lest I be accused of subjective interpretation according to “my agenda” (remember, a man of the cloth interprets “objectively”). But the woman in John 8 needs a voice today, a compelling collective voice.

I ask myself, is any interpretation arising from only one gender perspective not a flat and sinful denial of both the full equality and difference between male and female? So how can I not engage this Gospel which features a woman – I am a woman in a church where men do most of the interpreting, decision-making and preaching. How can I not engage this Gospel as a woman, given the continuing silencing of women’s voices and injustices women suffer around the globe? Indeed how can I not knowing full well how much of the ancient problem is far from ancient?

The irony about Scripture is that it is ever ancient ever new. The account in John’s Gospel of the woman caught in adultery is sadly relevant today. After all, “she” is caught – where is the man, and why was he not “caught?” Can you commit adultery alone? Who says it was adultery and not rape? What is the deal with men’s violence against women anyways? What is with scapegoating women for the sinful desires and acts of men? I have never heard a Catholic homily on this Gospel which dares to raise such questions, questions hidden in plain view in John’s Gospel narrative.

As tragic as the number of women being assaulted or abused in the world, is the hypocrisy of religious leaders, especially the ones who justify hypocrisy in the name of God’s Son, a man of peace and equality who befriended women, even entrusted to women the great news of His resurrection, sending them as apostles to tell the men – who, at first hearing and cowering in fear, did not believe them. The same hierarchy that brought shame upon the Vatican for recycling clergy child molesters, a scandal that continues to rock the church in many countries, assumed a moral high ground in disciplining and “correcting” the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, a group of women who have put their lives on the line by taking the social justice agenda of the Second Vatican Council to many of the poorest areas in the world where few dare to tread.

That same ecclesial hierarchy, the men “in power,” forecloses any honest exploration on the question of women’s ordination because “The mission of the woman in the church is to convince the male that power is not the most important in the church, not even sacramental power,” said Fr. Wojciech Giertych, Pope Benedict XVI’s personal theologian in an interview . “What is most important is the encounter with the living God through faith and charity. So women don’t need the priesthood,” he said. Apparently it’s a greater crime to discuss ordaining women than to sexually abuse a child and subsequently conceal the evidence. Never mind that every woman has the biological capacity to transform ordinary food and drink into another holy body and blood, a profoundly priestly and Eucharistic act in the name of the God of Life. And we wonder why Catholics are leaving the Church, especially women.

“What has not been assumed, has not been redeemed,” said Thomas Aquinas. Jesus’ external reality was male, but his internal reality strikes me as profoundly female, integrating fully within himself male and female. How can it be anything else? Isn’t that incarnation in its radiant and radical fullness? But as long as the external male resemblance trumps the internal female one, we are limping as a Church, complicit in discrediting the Incarnation itself.

Meanwhile this Jesus, the Word made flesh, keeps writing in the sand, saying nothing, until, “Let anyone among you who is without sin, be the first to throw a stone at her.” And once again Jesus bends down and writes on the ground. … They went away, one by one, beginning with the elders until Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. How long do we need to wait until our leaders, beginning with the elders, put down their accusing reports and ecclesial hammers, and look inside their own storehouse of sins and short-sightedness, whitewashed by claims of infallibility and “unbroken” tradition? Pope Francis has been re-opening windows in a few stuffy church parlors and a fresh spiritual breeze is indeed blowing. However, the women are still waiting on a liberating word, as painful questions keep stirring our hearts all over the globe.

One in three women on the planet will be silenced, raped or beaten in her lifetime, including figuratively in the name of religion. All over the world women still carry the burden of guilt for such crimes, placed there by men in secular and religious power. The woman in John’s Gospel stands for the one billion women silenced, violated and falsely accused still today. Jesus sets her free to become a symbol for women rising from the ashes of sin, their own and those inflicted upon them, and from the shackles of social and ecclesial constraints, placed there by men in power, scarring their very souls: “Go, and sin no more.”

The good news is that all over the world women are rising up, responding to a new chance to a new life given to them by men like Jesus who are honest enough to recognize their own complicity in women’s suffering. Rise up, until one billion women and men will be dancing their way into freedom – a revolution of the heart in the name of the One who made men and women equally in the divine image and likeness. “I am about to do a new thing,” says the prophet Isaiah, “now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”

Good news: Catholic Bishops Conference in India is the first in the world to create and implement a Gender Policy in the Catholic Church. A certain irony in this: from the country most in the news about violence against women now emerges a most courageous new act from men in power. Click on the following links for more information:
CBCI Gender Policy
Bombay Archdiocese first to implement

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Fight, Flight or … Embrace?

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can,
and wisdom to know the
difference.
(Serenity Prayer, Twelve Step Movement)

When it comes to dealing with suffering, injustice and oppression, there are three long, winding, well-trodden paths in Christian spirituality and praxis; each one grounded firmly in the Gospel message of Jesus, yet each in a certain tension with the other two.

One is marked by kenosis, self-emptying, and embracing the cross of suffering and pain for the greater good of one’s soul and that of others – see Philippians 2:6-11. The other is marked by denouncing injustice and oppression, working – with God’s blessing – to set prisoners free, to liberate those exploited and violated by the sins of brothers and sisters far and near – see Luke 4:36-46 and Matthew 25:36-46. Alongside these two is a third one: if the injustice and oppression suffered is too damaging to our very being we may, if possible, remove ourselves from the situation – see Matthew 10:11-15.

How can we accept the things we cannot change and pray for courage to change the things we can? When illness or disaster upsets our lives, do we feel powerless and paralyzed, or do we try to accept our lot with some grace and courage? When another’s behaviour puts our safety and physical well-being at serious risk, do we change what we can and remove ourselves? When our neighbours struggle to put food on the table, do we feel compelled to reach out and share our resources, to change what we can? Do we also encourage our neighbour to seek further help, or will we have the wisdom to know that our advice would be unappreciated?

Jesus unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
19to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’ (Luke 4:17-18)

While Jesus turned over the money changers’ tables in the Temple, he did not flinch or try to run when condemned to death. While he said that the poor will always be with us, he did identify with the least of those in need. While Jesus advised not to push when we or our message are not received, he himself walked to his own death precisely because he and his message were rejected.

Certain forms of injustice are universally condemned; countless individuals work to alleviate hunger and poverty, violence and unemployment for millions of people around the globe. However, many situations are not clear-cut.  A person feels put down at work. He is ignored; he lacks praise and encouragement. Is he to endure this as his cross or is this a sign that it’s time to find another job? Would we still tell a woman to stay with her abusive husband and work to make it better? That advice has created generations of permanently soul-wounded women and children.

St. Augustine of Hippo is quoted as having said: “Pray as if everything depends on God, and act as if everything depends on you.” Contemporary schools in psychology, sociology and psychiatry place great value in being your true self, standing in your truth, and being integrated both inside and out.

What if outside circumstances make this goal nigh impossible to achieve? How do we know whether to work to make a situation better, to accept that change is impossible so instead use the situation to grow a deeper spiritual maturity, or to shake the dust off our feet and go elsewhere in order to come to full bloom?

Some perceive situations of injustice and willful ignorance within the Church; this can inflict a deep permanent wound in a person or even in an entire parish. What response most reflects God’s will – fight and protest, run and seek other spiritual wells from which to drink, or embrace the pain as one’s cross, hopefully leading to deeper union with the crucified Lord?

How does one define ecclesial injustice anyway? If a parish is deprived of the Eucharist on a regular basis (the only “right” Catholics have), does that constitute injustice? Is it an injustice when girls cannot be altar servers? If a pastor runs a parish like a military boot camp, does that constitute injustice? If women feel treated in inferior ways, does that constitute injustice? Is it an injustice when a gay couple is refused the church’s blessing on their union? If a married man or a woman feel called to ordained ministry but the church refuses them, does that constitute an injustice? Is injustice a subjective or objective experience?

Probably one of the most vexing examples lies in the gender disparity in the church. It is an undisputed fact that women’s fundamental human experiences – her wisdom and her ways of knowing, perceiving and living – are structurally invisible in church governance and teaching. While women form the bulk of the volunteer workforce in every parish around the globe, women’s voices and perspectives – theological, liturgical and spiritual – are simply not in the room when church leaders hammer out ecclesial documents on subjects which are binding for all Catholics, both women and men. A growing chorus of voices is denouncing this omission as a grave injustice, an insult to God’s image and likeness in women, Pope Francis included. Others, regarding this as part of the way God ordered male and female functions, perceive no injustice whatsoever.

Same situation, two diametrically opposed interpretations. The one group feels compelled by conscience to fight in rectifying the perceived wrong while the other group, equally in conscience, calls for submission to God’s way of ordering male/female functions and relations. Both groups are faith-filled Catholics who love the Church; both can support their basic positions from Scripture.

Which way to God’s will? What type of liberation did Jesus bring? Can liberation be defined objectively, outside of the particular circumstances of those who experience oppression and injustice? Do those who experience injustice have the prerogative to define what actions, behaviours and choices bring liberation? And if yes, what to make of liberating choices which challenge Church teaching?

If there is to be a liberating movement in Christ’s message regarding gender roles and relations, this movement needs to lead to fullness of life for both women and men. If Jesus came to redeem fallen humanity then now in Jesus “there is no Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 3:28)

In order to activate such a liberating movement each follower of Christ may well choose a different path: fight to rectify a wrong, leave for greener pastures, or embrace the cross and graft one’s pain to the crucified Lord.  If we look at the Scriptures, we might see that Jesus may validate each of these choices, provided he guide us: “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life.” (John 14:6)

Living one day at a time;
enjoying one moment at a time;
accepting hardships as the pathway to peace.
Taking, as he did, this sinful world
as it is, not as I would have it;
Trusting that he will make all things right
if I surrender to his will;
That I may be reasonably happy in this life
and supremely happy with him
forever in the next.
Amen.
~ Reinhold Niebuhr

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Looking Within

An examination of conscience is a way of holding ourselves accountable before God and each other for the many ways we miss the mark of excellence in life, being honest about the evil we participate in and the good we fail to do. In such an examination we take time to scan our motives, thoughts, and actions to detect our loyalty to or betrayal of the priorities of the reign of God. Twelve-Step programs do this in Step 4 — making a searching and fearless inventory of one’s life. It’s a healthy and necessary discipline for anyone who desires to develop their fullest human potential, to grow ever more fully into the person s/he is created to become, whether the motivation is religious or not.

The delicate and difficult part in this process involves what we hold as our guide for accountability. For centuries the blueprint for good conduct was the list of Ten Commandments, until Jesus proposed a very different set of guidelines with the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1- 13). In this season of Lenten observance, with its annual focus on penitence and confession, it continues to amaze me that the Beatitudes, or any of Jesus’ instructions for that matter, are not resorted to in most churches as the standard by which to examine our conscience.

As early as A.D. 150 in a document written by the Shepherd of Hermas, the Beatitudes were accepted as the positive norm of morality for Christians, stressing the ideals of their founder and avoiding the “do nots” of the Decalogue.

What follows is an examination of conscience and consciousness based on the Beatitudes, something I shared with parishioners when I worked in pastoral ministry. If we truly believe that the teachings of Jesus have practical applicability in the world in which we live and breathe, we will find enough power in our fidelity to these counsels to renew the face of the earth.

1. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
Do I fear being poor, in spirit or otherwise, and prefer to be rich in money, brains, or influence?
Is my desire for poverty of spirit congruent with my lifestyle?
How does the Word of God guide and ground my lifestyle; am I willing to heed God’s Word when it criticizes my lifestyle choices?
Do I cling to my own ideas, opinions and judgments, sometimes to the point of idolatry?
Do I contribute my time, talent and money to the poor of the world?
Do I make it my business to examine the causes of poverty in our world and work to eradicate unjust systems?

2. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”
Do I grieve over loneliness, despair, guilt and rejection in the lives of others?
Am I willing to admit my own despondencies and need for comfort?
How do I actively extend consolation and healing, or do I blandly encourage people to “have courage,” while avoiding getting too involved?
What am I doing to dry the tears of those who suffer war and poverty, hunger and injustice, illness and loss?

3. “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”
Do I see any value in meekness or nonviolence?
Do I cringe at the thought of being called meek?
How do I use nonviolence as a way to fight evil with good; do I choose to live that way?
How much are intimidation and force affect my own relationships and dealings with people?
Do I work for nonviolent social change?
How do I foster a non-violent and cooperative spirit in my children?

4. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.”
How do I respond to important current events that are manifestations of injustice?
Are my energies and passions focused on Christ, or are they scattered, disordered, divided?
How do I honestly try to improve the quality of life around me?
How do I try to improve the environment, racial relations, care for the unborn, sexual equality, the lives of the poor and destitute?
What is my commitment to eradicate injustice within my family, my school or workplace, my church, my community, my world?
When does fear keep me silent when I should speak out against prejudice, injustice and violence?

5. “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.”
Do I operate on a double standard of expecting mercy without extending it myself?
Do I prefer the strict law and order approach, or that of mercy, tenderness and compassion?
Are there places and people/relationships who/which are suffering because of me and my unforgiving attitude?
Am I devoid of a merciful spirit toward those I call “enemy”?
What is my attitude toward capital punishment, ex-convicts, sex offenders?

6. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”
Am I trusting and trustworthy?
Do I value living without pretense and suspicion, or am I constantly fearful that someone will take advantage of me?
Am I open and honest about who I am and what I do?
Do I deflect attention and honour due to God and claim these things for myself?
Have I been untrue to myself, even a little, for advancement, money or good opinion?
Have I failed to take time for prayer, solitude, reflection?

7. “Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called children of God.”
Am I eager for reconciliation, or do I antagonize and yearn for revenge?
Do I think apologizing is a sign of weakness?
How do I build bridges of reconciliation in family and community arguments?
Do I enjoy watching violence in films, television and sports?
Have I studied peace and taken initiatives to stop violence and war?
Have I read, and do I support, the many official church statements against the arms race, nuclear weapons, war?
Do I see the Christian vocation as one of peacemaker?
Is my presence a source of peace to those around me?

8. “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.”
Do I criticize or ridicule those who suffer for their beliefs?
Am I embarrassed to step out of the mainstream to stand up for a principle?
Who are my heroes? Are there any among them who gave their lives without vengeance for what is true? Would I do the same?
Do I worship security and fear costly discipleship?
Have I called myself Christian without making my life a witness to the teachings of Jesus?
Have I openly supported those who defend justice and give their lives for peace?

9. “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven.”
Do I live confident of the promises of Jesus? Or do I surrender to pessimism and anxiety?
Do I perceive the paradoxical victory in the cross of Jesus that breaks through power structures and conquers in peace and love?
Have I become cynical rather than hopeful?

What else do I need to bring before God in search of divine mercy?

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Barriers and Boundaries

Inspired by the 2015 CBC Canada Reads theme:
CBC_BreakBarriers

Barriers and boundaries
unjust and necessary, demeaning and holy;
which is which I ask gleaning and boldly.

When do barriers need to be broken
and when are boundaries not to be token?

Barriers obstructing,
boundaries fostering;
do barriers always demean
where boundaries protect,
or do barriers also protect
where boundaries defect?
Do barriers serve a noble purpose
where boundaries fail to pose?
While barriers can pose as boundaries
belittling and dehumanizing,
boundaries can pose as barriers
honouring, carrying and concealing.

Barriers feed on fear
while boundaries thrive on being near.
Boundaries open discovery, health and trust
where barriers parade in threat, stealth and disgust.
Barriers build great hiding places
where boundaries reflect open faces.
Boundaries encourage respect and honour,
a precious anointing by a kiss from the Holy,
where barriers inflict and disguise,
an insidious curse not worth the glory.

Boundaries bounce like a smiley wave
dancing a circle of safety and trust.
Prickly barriers block, resistant to change,
keeping out the new and unknown is a must.

And if you’re confused ’bout boundaries and barriers
track the energy stirred in your heart
and you will know which one is doing its part 🙂
Boundaries4

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I must speak again

Fair is fair. When my Church fumbles and betrays the Gospel of Jesus, I weep and speak. When my Church surprises by proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus in delightful new ways, I rejoice and must also speak. Yes, something surprising and delightful occurred on March 8 at the occasion of International Women’s Day. Last month’s conference on women (see “I must speak” earlier) was not only secretive (or so it appeared) but also painfully contributed to women’s sense of ecclesial invisibility and voiceless place in the household of God. The fact that the February conference at the Vatican was closed to the public, was attended mostly by ordained celibate men yet was entitled Women’s Cultures: Equality and Difference, merely added insult to injury — or again, so it seemed. It certainly fed suspicions for subsequent Vatican conversations about women.

But you just never know what’s cooking behind those ancient walls. The March 8 event entitled Voices of Faith presented the opposite: from the heart of the Vatican, online live-streaming technology enabled the world to see and hear powerful women sharing deeply moving accounts of their work with some of the most vulnerable and forgotten people on the planet (the video is now posted here). Moreover, conference organizers took some bold new steps, making me wonder if I was dreaming :). But the news reports in subsequent days told me no, I wasn’t dreaming. I cannot describe events more succinctly than Joshua McElwee and Sr. Christine Schenk did over at National Catholic Reporter, and Gerard O’Connell in America Magazine.

There were several “firsts” in the Vatican on March 8: one of these was that a woman, Kerry Robinson (photo above), shared the homily with Archbishop Anil Couto. British theologian Tina Beattie, herself one of the four-member panel which discussed women’s leadership roles in the church as part of the event, shared these words: (Kerry) spoke with eloquence and passion about Jesus turning over the tables of the moneylenders. He shows us, she said, that anger too can be holy, it can be of God. We are called to reverence those things that are precious to God — and what is more precious than human beings? — and to feel holy anger when human dignity is violated and people are exploited. Several people said it was one of the best homilies they had ever heard. The first part was a rich affirmation of women’s gifts and struggles by Archbishop Anil Couto, and again its content was unprecedented in its insight and inclusivity. The full text of Kerry’s homily can be found here.

To outsiders it must look ridiculous and even delusional to place so much hope and dreams on an itsy bitsy step like the Voices of Faith event. The world outside the Vatican moves at lightning speed with its social changes and technological advances, while inside the Vatican time and change is still measured and lived in centuries. So many times when I hear of others leaving the Church because it becomes too painful to stay, I too wonder if it will ever be my turn to pack the ecclesial bags. But something quite the opposite keeps happening: every time I consciously ground my life in Christ’s saving grace, new energy is released and surprising, life-giving ministry opportunities present themselves, making my spirit soar once again. Being a Catholic woman, exercising ministry in a non-ordained capacity, continues to be an intense, stirring dance between liberation and confinement.

Jesus1This Catholic Church is my spiritual home, despite all its shortcomings and violations of the very Gospel message it keeps proclaiming. This Church is the keeper of a “dangerous” memory — the memory of God’s great Restorer and Equalizer Jesus of Nazareth who came to announce God’s reign of justice, peace and mercy. This Jesus, God in the flesh, who came to bring life to the full for all God’s people, came to us in a male body, yes. But the human qualities and characteristics God placed in him bear an uncanny resemblance to what recent Popes, Francis included, have been calling the “feminine genius” — generous and gentle, compassionate and passionate, merciful and meek, healing and serving, patient and peace-bringing, reconciling and uniting.

The Christian tradition, and the Catholic tradition within that, is so much more than what the world perceives it to be. The memory of Jesus as liberator, rejecting all forms of hierarchy and domination, continues to stir and challenge, even in the bosom of a highly patriarchal and institutional church that bears his name. This “dangerous” memory will not cease to disturb until all, both in and outside the Church, share equal respect, opportunities and freedom to grow into God’s image and likeness, our birthright: The glory of God is a human being fully alive (St. Irenaeus).

Every time the Church acts in ways that activate this “dangerous” memory of Jesus something new is born in the world. Scripture is clear, Jesus is clear: women occupy an equal place with men in God’s economy. Jesus’ life-death-resurrection redeemed us from sin and death, and restored the original unity between male and female, a unity lost through the Fall. While men have enjoyed leadership in the Church for most of history, the “dangerous” memory of women’s witness is being retrieved and reclaimed by women everywhere today. For a succinct overview of women’s role in early Christian history, visit The Junia Project website.

ElizabethMaryWomen were the first evangelizers (Mary & Elizabeth), women were the first to learn Jesus’ true identity as Messiah (woman at the well, Mary and Martha), women were the first witnesses to the resurrection, women were the only faithful disciples to remain with Jesus at the cross (okay, along with John), women lead the first Christian communities in their homes.

Women, like Christ, bleed without dying; women, like Christ in the Eucharist, transform ordinary food and drink into new life through the biological process of pregnancy and childbirth. Women, like Christ, nurture life at great sacrifice. Women, like Christ, welcome home the wayward, bind up the wounded, advocate for the voiceless, heal the broken-hearted, bring liberty to captives. Whoever decided women could not act in persona Christi, it certainly wasn’t Jesus the Christ.

As far as I know, nowhere in the New Testament are the twelve disciples chosen by Jesus referred to as priests. I don’t think Jesus ordained anyone at the last supper; ordination as we know it today came much later in Christian history.  I also see the last supper as a culmination of all the times he ate with sinners, women and tax collectors; “Do this in memory of me” was a command of our Lord given to remember him in the breaking of the bread with the entire Christian community.

As Jesus embodied so eloquently, qualities and virtues are not gender-bound. Gifts and charisms are not gender-bound: all gifts are distributed to serve the needs of the community. Subsequently, God calls according to gifts and charisms, not according to gender. As Kate Wallace expresses so well as she begins her reflection Life as a Woman in the Church:

I grew up learning about youFeminism1
I saw you in the love shared
by everyone around me
I heard about you in the sermons
and sang about you in the songs
I read about you and thought about you

And so I came to you, and you met me
You loved and cared for me
You grew me and taught me
You fashioned me and called me

And I took what you had given me
and went back to the place
I had first heard about you
I was filled with anticipation –
what would they have me do?
You had given me so many gifts …

Pope leads encounter with young people outside basilica in AssisiSadly, too many gifts of women have gone unused and untapped, undeveloped and unblessed. We are all the poorer for it. While the Voices of Faith event was going on inside the heart of the Vatican, Pope Francis was visiting a parish somewhere in Rome, a parish marked by poverty, unemployment and drugs. But that same morning, at his weekly Angelus, he had delivered his message for International Women’s Day: “A greeting to all women! To all the women who work every day to build a more human and welcoming society. And a fraternal thank you to those who in a thousand ways bear witness to the Gospel and work in the Church. This is for us an opportunity to reaffirm the importance and the necessity of their presence in life. A world where women are marginalized is a barren world, because women not only bring life, but they also give us the ability to see beyond – they see beyond themselves – and they transmit to us the ability to understand the world through different eyes, to hear things with more creative, more patient, more tender hearts.”

Thank you, Holy Father, for your kind words. It is regrettable that you were not present at this unique Voices of Faith event right in your own house. Your visit to the troubled parish was certainly equally important.  Next year, though, pleasePopeFrancisWomen1 clear your calendar and make an effort to listen to the very women whose gifts you praised so eloquently on International Women’s Day. For a church where women are marginalized is a barren church.

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To die for?

Recently I lead a retreat on the question “What is Truth?” Echoing Pilate’s perennial question to an accused Jesus, we began by exploring the layers of truth in the award-winning, and made into a movie, novel Life of Pi by Yann Martel.

life-of-pi-poster2Religious belief is one of the most fascinating themes in Life of Pi. Throughout the novel, Pi’s beliefs mature. His introduction to religion comes through befriending his mentors who are a Catholic priest, a Jewish Rabbi and a Muslim Imam. He willingly joins each religion through their various initiation rituals and catechetical instructions. Pi is equally comfortable praying in a church, a mosque or a synagogue. One of the most amusing scenes in the story is the chance encounter on the street between Pi and his three mentors, each “claiming” Pi as their own. However, only when he is on his forced journey at sea, does Pi realize that he truly believes in God. His faith is tested in a way that it was not tested earlier in his life.

Earlier in the novel, Pi notes that religion puts many people off today because they believe it constrains their freedom. He criticizes such people for not realizing that ‘freedom’ outside of safety and comfort, status and order can be incredibly frightening. Pi learns that the stakes at sea are much higher, when there is less order and no comforts of any kind; every day he faces life or death situations. It is his religious faith that gets him through, which is an implicit rebuke to those who believe faith limits freedom.

It is often said that faith grows our best and most enduring qualities in times of trial and hardship. Pi seems to experience exactly that on the open seas; many will resonate with this insight. Faith can deepen in times of suffering. It doesn’t justify the suffering, however — never. And the potential to grow through suffering is only that — a potential. God honours our human freedom like none other. We have to choose the growing. There is good reason why Jesus asked regularly, ‘do you want to be well?’ I am reminded of an especially painful experience when a close friend gently said: “I’m not denying your pain — it is real, it is justified and deserves to be honoured. Take all the time you need to grieve. Just remember that God is eagerly waiting to teach you many things through this hardship.” And so, when I was ready to slow down my weeping and wailing, I asked God to teach me — I willed it. And God did, in ways that far surpassed my expectations and hopes.

Pi’s insights into freedom and his faith development really got me thinking about today’s so-called “secular” culture and Christian faith, including my own. His discovery of false and true freedom helped me understand why our western culture seems so much less inclined to embrace a religious faith, whether traditional or even contemporary. So many of us live comfortable lives cushioned  by material goods and job security (although that’s eroding more and more), by a long-established social order and a taken-for-granted freedom of expression. Who needs religion?

While not necessarily so, such a question could arise from an adolescent-type arrogance. Our so-called post-modern culture not only questions the need for traditional religion, but looks bolstered by a sense of freedom that seems more centered on self than on others and the common good. Interestingly, Pope Francis’ instructions for this year’s Lenten season echo a similar concern: ““Usually when we are healthy and comfortable, we forget about others; we are unconcerned with their problems, their suffering, and the injustices they endure. Our heart grows cold.” Before we dismiss the need and value of religion, humility and caution would be well-advised lest we risk falling into an outright denial of our origin and daily sustenance of life: if God would ever stop loving us we would cease to exist.

My own parents embraced this idea that religion was obsolete, but for slightly different reasons. Having grown up themselves in a rather restrictive form of Catholicism as well as in poverty and hardship, they wanted nothing more than to “free” themselves from both these yokes — understandably so. As a result, both of them opted for a non-religious funeral. When I began to immerse myself more deeply into a traditional Catholicism, all they could see was a going “backwards” (their word, not mine) into a thing of the past. Sad, really, as their example of love, service and sacrifice laid strong spiritual foundations for me, but they could not see that.

Have our spiritual needs really changed that much from our ancestors? Is our freedom to “do what we want when we want and with whom we want” an authentic freedom? Or are we suffering a massive dose of collective delusion, lulled asleep by affluence, blissfully sinking into amnesia about the fact that our deepest needs and hungers remain spiritual in nature? Who is really free — those who have everything but still feel empty, or those who have nothing yet burst with joy, generosity and hospitality and those who can sing even as they meet death? Just asking.

A lot of horrific things continue to happen in the world in the name of religion. No rationalization can ever justify that. However, sometimes true inner freedom is on full global display as a fruit of religion. That is what I saw and heard when the 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians were beheaded in Libya last month. Martyred for their faith in Jesus, their witness was immediately elevated to sainthood (incidentally, more Christians have been killed for their faith in the past century than in all previous centuries combined).

The icon above, currently circulating in cyberspace, was written within weeks of their brutal murder by the artist Tony Rezk (Read the artist’s own blog entry here and an interview with him here). It depicts the new martyrs receiving the crown of glory in heaven. Some will consider this image incomprehensible and even outrageous; others see in these 21 Christians a powerful illustration of authentic freedom. I have not watched the beheading-video, and I will not, but I have heard that the sound on the video was praying: “Ya yesua irhammi — Jesus, have mercy on me.”

No matter our feelings about religion, we can honour these 21 new martyrs by showing a personal interest in their stories, by letting our hearts be moved by the unspeakable sorrow of their families. And while we’re at it, may their brutal, innocent death bear fruit in our stopping to reflect: in what or whom is my sense of freedom and faith grounded? Is my freedom a freedom from or a freedom for, born of God and serving my neighbour in need? Is my own faith strong enough to hold me steady in the trials and storms of life, encouraging me to choose life and growth in the midst of the painful seasons of my existence? What or who am I willing, freely, to die for?life of pi4

“If you stumble over believability, what are you living for? Love is hard to believe, ask any lover. Life is hard to believe, ask any scientist. God is hard to believe, ask any believer. What is your problem with hard to believe?” (Life of Pi, Yann Martel, 2001)

“Life is so beautiful that death has fallen in love with it, a jealous, possessive love that grabs at what it can. But life leaps over oblivion lightly, losing only a thing or two of no importance, and gloom is but the passing shadow of a cloud…”  (Life of Pi, Yann Martel, 2001)

For a Lenten reflection related to the above content, read Margery Eagan’s column here.

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