With tears

penitentsThis is one of my favorite Ash Wednesday homilies, which I share as we initiate Lent this year. There was a student who took offense at it and stopped worshiping with us.  He thought I was advocating that we initiate an Order of Penitents, which is described here in its ancient context.  I wasn’t and I think that was clear.  And, yet, there was something wonderful and loving – and real – about that, and maybe something genuine about his reaction.  It’s important to note that the penitent, the bishop – and probably several others – approached this ordeal with tears. To be honest, I’m surprised by how long this homily is, but I don’t recall anyone leaving the community because of that.  May we all allow ourselves to realize the blessings of Lent.

A long time ago, about 2,000 years ago, to be somewhat precise, give or take a few hundred years, early Christians gathered on the day to initiate Lent and among those gathered were people known as penitents.

These people had publicly acknowledged their sin and now they sought to be publicly reconciled with God and with the Church. During the second to fourth centuries, these penitents would arrive on Ash Wednesday barefoot, in drab clothes, and they were instructed to keep their heads down.

There’s an ancient text that describes the ritual that ensued. The bishop would process from his chair with servers carrying a cross and candles, accompanied by the choir and other priests, and they would go to the middle of the church. The penitents would then come to the bishop and, according to the ancient instruction, lie prostrate in prayer before the bishop and the assembly. The instruction adds that the penitents should do all of this “with tears.” The bishop placed ashes on the foreheads of the penitents, saying: “Remember you are dust and to dust you will return. Do penance that you might have eternal life.”

The bishop then gave the penitents a special garment and placed the garments over their heads one by one, offering assurances of God’s mercy. The penitents would then prostrate themselves on the floor while the entire assembly surrounded them chanting a penitential psalm. Finally the bishop prayed for the penitents and then took their hands, one by one, and led them from the church. When they were all outside, the bishop said to them “with tears”: “Behold you are expelled today from Holy Mother Church because of your sins.”

But, all was not lost. Hardly. He urged them to hold fast to the promise of God’s mercy and to be busy with fasting, prayer, giving alms and doing good works. They were told to return on Holy Thursday and not to presume to attempt entry until then. Finally, the doors were closed and the assembly returned to the celebration of Mass.

It was, as you might imagine, a very intense, dramatic and understandably emotional ritual and ordeal. But, this was not a lurid spectacle, this was not about gossiping or finger-pointing or humiliation. That was a ritual of brutal honesty with obvious indications of encouragement and love.

It was called the Order of Penitents and this ritual died out in the fourth century, not because it was humiliating, not because it was excessive, not because of its obvious emphasis upon sin. Rather, it disappeared for practical reasons — the church was simply getting too big, too many people, too many sinners; communities were becoming too large to properly tend to the needs of their penitents. It also disappeared because the church increasingly came to privatize sin, to acknowledge and confess it in private as a matter between the penitent and God, and the priest.

Primarily the Order of Penitents died away — the sending of people out of the church on Ash Wednesday — because there also came to be a realization that we are all penitents; our sins may be of varying degrees and consequences, but we have all sinned.
I think it’s hard for us to get beyond what our 21st century sensibilities bring to the experience. It’s maybe impossible for us to get beyond what we perceive as the embarrassment, the personal trauma of this ancient ritual of penitents. But it was not that.

First of all, the people were not “called out” on their sin, as a few people in our church presume to do today — identifying certain peoples’ sins and accompanying punishments. The penitents stepped forward on their own, recognizing the seriousness of their offenses, realizing that what they’d done, the lives they were living, were detrimental not just to themselves, but to their entire community with which they shared life and love. To stand before that community, the love and prayer and support of that community — to stand before that community in the presence of God seemed not only sensible but desirable, necessary.

The church may have come to the realization that we are all penitents, that we are all sinners, that we are all in need of healing and mercy. But we might each realize that more profoundly if we experienced something as intense, dramatic and brutally honest as what transpired in ancient churches on Ash Wednesdays of the past.

The closest we come, I think, in any of our rituals to that experience is what we do today, when we are marked with ashes, when we are reminded of our very earthly origins and endings, when a black cross marks the spot where we were claimed for Christ at baptism, when we acknowledge are sin by virtue of an admonition to turn from sin, to be faithful to the gospel. In the ancient Order of Penitents, the door was not closed and then the penitents forgotten for 40 days. Remember the tearful encouragement of the bishop to them to pray, to fast, to give alms, to do good works. Members of the community gathered with them, to help them pray, to help them re-direct their lives, to remind them of God’s love. And members of the community, with more tears to be sure, welcomed the penitents back among them as they gathered to begin the Triduum on Holy Thursday. As we cannot comprehend the humiliation of Lent’s beginning, we cannot begin to understand the joy of Lent’s conclusion.

It’s rather like that for us, the penitents of our day; that we don’t leave here on Ash Wednesday and then just disappear. We are given the same encouragement to pray, to fast, to give alms, to do good works. We gather as a community of penitents every Lord’s Day for Mass to praise God. The community comes together during this season to pray the Stations of the Cross, the Rosary, to celebrate the sacrament of Reconciliation. We do all of us this not out of fear or humiliation or regret, but as rituals and actions of repentance, of hope, of faith.

In our shared Lenten journey as penitents, may we realize the healing power of gathering with the people of God and receiving the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist on Sunday, may we celebrate the healing grace of Christ in the sacrament of reconciliation, may we come to the end of Lent, to Triduum, to Holy Thursday, with the realization that we are still penitents, still imperfect, but renewed, refocused and more determined to abide by our answer to turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel of Jesus. TL

Before, then and now

white-house-fogIt’s been foggy all day here in central Minnesota, my temporary home, which kind of matches my disposition. However, I’d prefer to be in a fog than a funk. The foggy weather has limited outdoor distractions and compelled me to catch-up on some long-overdue magazine reading. This afternoon I crawled through October, November and December, which meant reading about the election before, during and after. Some was terribly dated, too much woefully off target, but much of it still interesting.

Here are a few highlights from America, the Jesuit’s national Catholic magazine:

BEFORE: First is an essay by Elizabeth Dias, a religion writer for Time magazine. I’ve read several commentaries regarding the “spirituality of Donald Trump,” but I’ve found most of them lacking. If you go to the section of this article subtitled “The Prosperity Preachers,” I think we get the best assessment of what makes the new President click when it comes to belief and God. Which only enhances my confusion as to how this fits with all the prayers we’ve heard in Washington the past two days for justice, equality and blessing of the poor.

THEN: Shortly after the election, Jesuit Jim McDermott, in “Our Election, Our President” used an amusing story to convey a harsh and complicated reality.

NOW: Finally, America‘s editors responded on Friday to the disconcerting “America First” angle of the President’s inaugural address. You’ll also find a link to Pope Francis’ congratulatory and homiletic message to President Trump.

The reading is intersting and the insights profound, but, alas, it is still foggy.  TL

Movie of history haunted by today

selmaWhile the movie “Selma,” which I watched tonight, portrays a movement of courage and determination of more than 50 years ago, it is haunted by modern-day attitudes and events.

As Martin Luther King Jr. and others marched from Selma to Montgomery, white counter-protestors shouted hateful epitaphs and waved Confederate flags, the same flag that remains for many in the South of symbol of rebellion and pride. For others, then, it is cause for consternation at best and fear at worst. A portion of the Mississippi state flag still features the “stars and bars.”

Most problematic is the legislation at the heart of the movie, the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which cleared the way for African Americans and other voters to participate in the electoral process without exclusionary and arbitrary procedures. A 2013 Supreme Court decision essentially gutted major provisions of the law pertaining to states that had long been in violation of or indifferent to election procedures. Congress, despite the urging of President Obama and legislators from both parties, never reinforced the legislation. As President Obama said at a 2015 event marking the Act’s 50th anniversary, significant threats to voter participation remain. “If, in fact, those practices, those trends, those tendencies are allowed to continue unanswered,” the President said, “then over time the hard-won battles of 50 years ago erode, and our democracy erodes. And that means that the decisions that are made in the corridors of power all across this country begin to reflect the interests of the few, instead of the interests of the many.”

And, finally, there in the movie was John Lewis crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge with Dr. King. A member of Congress from Georgia since 1987, Lewis was in the news this week when he announced he would boycott the inauguration of President Trump. This is the same John Lewis who organized student Civil Rights proponents and endured beatings and serious head injuries in the attempt. The John Lewis who President-elect Trump described in a Tweet as “All talk, talk, talk – no action or results. Sad!” Lewis’ rationale and claims for sitting out the inauguration are definitely debatable, but “all talk”? “no action”? John Lewis? Really?

All of which is to say, there may have been a victory in the battle portrayed in the movie, but there are reasons to be on guard when it comes to laws that limit who can vote, when, where and how. And not just in the South.  TL

Taking off the wrapper

candy-caneAt our most recent Spirit Breakfast Cafe a boy from the parish came over to where I was eating. “Fr. Tom, this is for you,” he said, handing me a candy cane. I thanked him and said I was going to save it until after all the Christmas Masses were done, then I could really enjoy it, really savor it.

He said, with just a hint of something sinister, “Do you want to know a secret?” Of course everyone likes a good secret, especially one about candy canes, so I asked him to share his secret. “Well, just so you know,” he said, “it lasts a lot longer if you leave the wrapper on and suck on it that way.” But, I protested, you wouldn’t be able to taste the peppermint. To which he replied, “Come on, Fr. Tom, you kind of know how it tastes anyway.”

I wonder if buried in that child’s logic and creativity, there isn’t something slightly true about how we approach Christmas; about how we anticipate it, lionize it, maybe even how we protect what we celebrate: this divine Incarnation, this wonder of God becoming human, this mystery of heaven touching earth.

We kind of know what it’s about – what it tastes like. We like the sentimentality, the music, the stories, the TV specials, the decorations, the memorable moments, the special foods. But in a way that’s all wrapping. None of that brings us much closer to the nitty gritty of what it means for God to be born among us. The wrapping – the stuff we associate with Christmas, the sentimentality — might very well distract us, prevent us, protect us from the more demanding aspect of Christmas, the reality of Christmas.

The sentimentality might prevent us, protect us from considering the challenge, the necessary risk that comes if we dig deeper to consider and come to understand whether it matters, why it matters, what difference it makes that God became human, that God became one of us.

The sentimentality might prevent us, protect us from considering the real questions: Does it matter in anyway in my living, day to day – in our living, day to day – that heaven touched earth, that God touched us, that God is among us.

The sentimentality might even distort our consideration of this story we hear each year, allowing us to wrap it with a rosy hue; allowing it to become just another comforting, smile-inducing, sentimental holiday tale — a churchy version of It’s a Wonderful Life or How the Grinch Stole Christmas or A Christmas Carol. All of those stories have a rather harsh, dark dimension if we look closely, but nothing to compare with our story. Despite what we may see in most of our nativity scenes, there is nothing placid or peaceful about our story.

It’s story of a grueling journey dictated by an oppressive regime, presuming to count people who didn’t count, who didn’t matter in the least. A young woman, a man – confused, frightened, exhausted, albeit remarkably faithful and determined – left to seek shelter and give birth in the squalor of a barn. Ultimately, left running as refugees, the ruthless foreshadowing of the trauma to come; the wood of the manger always leading to the wood of the cross, the wonder of the Incarnation to the glory of the Resurrection.

We do ourselves a disservice if we allow that story to be distorted; if we allow gentle carols and warm lights delude us of its stone cold reality.

We do ourselves a disservice if we allow all the trappings of this holy night protect us from exploring the challenge and the promise, the possibility and the wonder of what’s inside the wrapper.

We do ourselves a disservice if we fail to celebrate the potential of God becoming human, of drawing us back to a better way, guiding us toward a different way of being. The potential of a God who we cannot confine to the cradle or the cross or the grave, who we strive to recognize and regard in the most unlikely places, in the most unlikely people.

We do ourselves, and our world, a disservice if we fail to remove the wrapping of Christmas, getting into the depths of what this is about. Because in God becoming human we realize the sacredness of our own humanity, the sacredness of all humanity. In taking off the wrapper, getting into the depths of this mystery, we realize that we matter to God, that all creation matters to God. And once we’ve tasted that, once we begin to tackle that remarkable awareness, how can our lives, day to day, be the same, how can life in any manner be the same, how can the world not change?

On his way out of Mass Christmas morning during which I shared the story of our encounter in the homily that’s become this posting, the boy shouted, “Enjoy the candy cane, Father.” And I’m going to take off the wrapper. TL

A campaign Christmas parable

parable
It’s taken me a while to get this column posted here, and its message might seem rather naïve after a certain video and the ensuing chaos.  I’m also prompted to post it, despite the delay, after watching a video that’s made the rounds of social media featuring a priest preaching on a recent Sunday about the election.  He speaks with amazing certainty and trust as he clearly demands advocacy for one party and one presidential candidate over the other.  His grasp of Catholic moral teaching may be accurate, although I think there is plenty of room for quibbling among reasonably minded people.  His grasp on U.S. political reality couldn’t be more fragile.  We can’t know the outcome of what I propose here, but pondering what I put forth in relation to the two candidates seems far more constructive than suggesting definitive conclusions based on little more than whim and wish.

If the gospel of a recent Sunday (Luke 16.19-31) was proclaimed on Christmas Eve, we’d probably be pretty confused, if not a bit annoyed. Christmas is all about crowded inns, sleepy shepherds and swaddling clothes, not the torment of sores, hunger, a fiery netherworld and a great chasm. Of course Christmas is more about Jesus than all of the other Nativity story details and characters, which gives some credence to a Christmas parable about an indifferent rich man and the beggar lying at his door. It’s another of those parables that gets to the heart of the Christian message, which ultimately is the Christmas message: Calling attention to what we see and pretend not to see, what we do or don’t do, what we presume is the duty of others.

A 19th century English writer saw in this parable from Luke’s gospel the perfect inspiration for a Christmas story he composed about a rich man named Ebenezer Scrooge. In Charles Dickens’ telling, the rich man didn’t cry out to Abraham, but rather he encounters three ghosts who reveal for him the horrors of his ways while he was still living, offering Scrooge an opportunity for redemption. Dickens the social commentator recognized that three spirited figures might catch the attention of not only his story’s central character, but also a society that had become inured to the preponderance and intensity of poverty.

The lesson of Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” should not be restricted to Christmas. Indeed the recent re-telling of the parable couldn’t have come at a more opportune time, coming as it does during the Year of Mercy – again, another remarkable Lucan parable that gets to the nitty-gritty of being merciful! – and in the midst of our presidential election campaign. Forget about telling this parable on Christmas Eve, what if the moderator had begun the first debate of presidential candidates, which followed our hearing this story in church, and asking the candidates to give their response: What does this parable of Jesus mean to our country today? What personal message do you find in this lesson? What should this compel from you and from us? I know the two candidates pretty well; I’ve been following them both, in their various guises, for a long time, but I have no idea how they would have responded. And yet I can’t think of questions and answers that would be more consequential to this campaign and how a follower of Jesus might decide to vote.

Ideally, one of them might have spoken to a reality that even Dickens didn’t get at with sufficient precision: This can’t be about taking care of one person. Sure, purchasing a goose for Tiny Tim and his family is nice, but Scrooge also needed to use his wealth and influence to push for reforms that would create a more level playing field, a more equitable system in which the beggar at his door is lifted up by a pursuit of justice rather than incidental charity. Ideally, the candidates might have proposed what we as a society should do in the short term to address the plight of the Lazaruses of our day, but, even more importantly, what must be done to keep the Lazaruses and Tiny Tims of 2016 from falling to such depths.

Certainly this parable conveys lessons of attentiveness and generosity, but that doesn’t get us very far, only to the next Lazarus and the next one and the next one after that. I have to think Jesus had bigger ideas in mind, and it would be encouraging to hear that our presidential candidates did too.  TL

 

Words ring hollow — again

votive candles
Last Sunday morning I didn’t say anything about the terrorist attack at an Orlando nightclub. I’d convinced myself that I just didn’t know enough as to what happened, but I knew from the first reports that what occurred was vile and gruesome, not to mention horribly routine and predictable.

I didn’t say anything because I didn’t know what to say. What happened early that morning has become so commonplace that words just don’t work anymore. That’s problematic for TV anchors, presidents and preachers because people look to them, to us, for some words of encouragement, words that make sense of such horror, words that might guide us in a better direction. We try to put things in perspective without seeming overly pious or simplistic, and of course we shouldn’t be too political. However, that becomes more challenging with each terror attack, with each slaughter of innocent, unsuspecting people who are essentially just like us.

But still plenty of words are expressed, just as I guess I’m doing now. Words about tolerance and solidarity, about avoiding sweeping indictments of entire religious or ethnic groups, about how this time things will be different, which we fear is probably not true. Those words and expressions ring more and more hollow for me with each tragic incident. Of course we’ll Pray for Orlando, the generic slogan of this attack; for the victims and those who grieve the violent loss of loved ones. We say again that love will conquer hate, that we won’t give in, that we’ll stand against intolerance and terror and fear. The U.S. Senate will have its obligatory moment of silence, flags will be lowered, church bells will ring, the names of the victims will be proclaimed, memorial services will be held. And then what?

There have been a few differences this time, none of them particularly encouraging. Coming as this does in the midst of a remarkably curious presidential campaign, claims true and false were almost immediately being tossed around. Nothing, it seems, is off limits when it comes to bashing an opponent, putting oneself first, gaining a political advantage. The plethora of words, too many ill-chosen, only proved to exacerbate the horror.

My personal moment of consternation came at the gym two days after the attack. Three guys were talking about how the country was going to hell and about how more of these things were going to happen. You know in Arizona, one of them observed, everyone walks around with guns on their hips. That’s what we all should do, said another. It’s the only way we’ll be safe. The third man seemed to concur. First of all, I hope that’s not how things are in Arizona. More to the point, I shudder to think of life in such a place; I know it’s not where I’d want to be. Of course I didn’t say anything. It wasn’t really my place, I wasn’t part of the conversation. And I really didn’t have the words I thought would matter.  TL

 

Ali’s battles

Ali autograph
I do not question the significance of Mohammad Ali, but nor do I have any particularly sentimental or insightful observations to share at his passing. My only real memory of anything having to do with him is that I bet with somebody in my class, probably fourth grade, on the Ali-Frazier Fight of the Century in 1971; I bet on Frazier and of course won. While I have nothing profound to share, my friend Juli Buehler posted the following item on Facebook, which I’d like to share. The photo of Ali’s autograph was also posted on Facebook by my friend Fr. Tom Krieg. Notice the word at the bottom. TL

Ali!  Like so many greats we know him by one name. 

It seems his entire life he was fighting. Yes as an athlete. But those “out of the ring opponents” of his time often landed more blows, than the opponents in the ring. 
It might be nice to think those “out of the ring opponents” are behind us. That the Ali of today would not face the challenges of race, religion and societal stereotypes.
I wonder though … when we look around and see and hear the angry words of hate that swirl around us on social media, is the world now so very different?

Ali was athletic and artistic; undeterred by anyone. Remember, he lived with Parkinson’s for almost half his life. As he aged, disease stole his athleticism and his artistry of words. His final gift was to live on undeterred.

I wonder though, what he would have to say about the swirling words of hate we see and hear. Would he be silent? Should we?
– Juli Buehler