Good Friday 2015. Contending in Love.

At midnight on April 15 two years ago, as a new day began, my phone rang. I had heard since that afternoon about the bombings that took place at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, about the people wounded, about the deaths, about the fear. Now a friend called to tell me that the boy killed there by the second bomb was Martin Richard of Dorchester in his eighth year of life. I had known Martin’s Mom, Denise, since she was thirteen years old herself and had had the honor of witnessing her marriage to Bill, when they committed their lives to one another “for better or worse.” I had been at their home and brought Christmas gifts for Martin and his brother and sister, Henry and Jane. Now I came fully awake and cried for the end of this boy’s beautiful life in such terrible circumstance and for the suffering of his loved ones.

Three and a half decades earlier, and more than 2000 miles distant, in the Cathedral of San Salvador, Archbishop Oscar Romero had preached from the pulpit there in an atmosphere of fear, mistrust, and anxiety in a time of struggle and terror. That struggle and terror would ultimately claim his own life violently during a celebration of the Eucharist. Romero called upon his hearers in these words:

We have never preached violence,

                         except the violence of love,

                        which left Christ nailed to a cross,

                                    the violence that we must each do to ourselves

                                    to overcome our selfishness

                                    and such cruel inequalities among us.

                        The violence we preach is not the violence of the sword,

                                    the violence of hatred.

                        It is the violence of love,

                                    of brotherhood,

                        the violence that wills to beat weapons

                        into sickles for work.

Crucifixion of Christ I think it is true enough that although violence and suffering and death occur moment by moment on this circling world inescapably, and although oftentimes their victims are the innocent, it is difficult for us, whether as individuals or as a people, to squarely face these realities. It is painful for us to look suffering in the face, to confront violence, and to admit that even now at the sunset of each day it looks as if death has the upper hand in its contest with life.

But there are times that armed conflicts enter the homes of noncombatants directly and the lives of families are changed forever. There are times when aircraft fall to the ground, even occasions when learning the reason why is worse than not knowing. There are the everyday sufferings of children hungering to the point of death for food that is available, but not to them. There is the violence done to persons and communities because of what they believe and hold sacred. All of these have likely occurred since we began this stark and beautiful liturgy of Good Friday.

As we read the text of the Song of the Suffering Servant in the prophecy of Isaiah, servants of God were being despised and rejected, stricken and afflicted around the globe. As the words of Psalm 22 sounded among us, somewhere, perhaps near, a person’s living prayer was: “O my God, I cry in the daytime, but you do not answer; by night as well, but I find no rest.” Like Jesus, the High Priest of the Letter to the Hebrews, at this moment in ways we do not want to witness, there are those learning obedience through what they suffer. What they suffer innocently. What they suffer, often in our estimation, inexplicably. As we heard in striking song the story of Jesus’ Passion according to John, as we heard him willingly go to the cross, he who had said earlier in the Gospel, “I give my life freely. No one takes it from me. I give it up and I have the power to take it up again,” some in our human family were suffering violence too, unwillingly, and their lives have been taken. You will hear about them, perhaps even their names, if you attend to the news as this day ends.

Sometimes, though we would wish to, we cannot escape all this, as when a midnight phone rings to tell you your friend’s young son has been killed. And sometimes, if we dare to pray the full reality of this Good Friday, we as a believing people are brought into direct contact with the violence of execution, with the suffering of the innocent Christ, with the death of the Son of God.

Two thousand years have sought to domesticate this death, to look too soon beyond it, to reduce the cross to a mere decoration, to a harmless piece of jewelry. But when we dare to pray the Church’s prayer together as we do now, there is no escape. And this is always true, all the days of every year, if we have ears to hear. How often have God’s people gathered around this table in this building and heard these words addressed to God:

Holy and gracious Father: In your infinite love you made us for yourself; and, when we had fallen into sin and become subject to evil and death, you, in your mercy, sent Jesus Christ, your only and eternal Son, to share our human nature, to live and die as one of us, to reconcile us to you, the God and Father of us all. He stretched out his arms upon the cross, and offered himself in obedience to your will, a perfect sacrifice for the whole world.

‘To live and die as one of us . . . Christ stretched out his body on the cross, to offer himself . . . .’

What happened in Gethsemane, in the home of Caiphas in the middle of the night, at the palace of Pilate early on the day of preparation for Passover, and above all on the hill at Golgotha: these are the very moments, the only ones, that can give us the strength to recognize suffering, to confront violence, to enter even into death.

It is Pilate, the Roman governor, in the midst of this swirling day of conflict and decision around Jesus of Nazareth who raises a central question: “What is truth?” He may have asked it sincerely. He may have asked it in derision. But it is there, at the center of the passion of the Christ according to John.

The 18th and 19th chapters of John’s Gospel give us a report on the trial of the Christ that led to his suffering and death. But seen through the lens of Pilate’s question, it is he the Governor, and the Jewish High Priests, the disciples of Jesus, and the Empire and the world that are, rather, on trial. The judgment to be given is this: is there truth in them? Where was truth found on that day, and on this one?

Pilate recognizes the truth of Jesus’ innocence of crime. But evenso he agrees to condemn him to crucifixion, to ignore the truth he sees. The Chief Priests, in order to reach their goal of getting rid of the troublemaker from Nazareth, stand in a public place in the presence of their own and proclaim, “We have no king but Caesar.” They deny the truth given them by God, truth they proclaimed every day in their prayer.

Where is truth found? What does truth sound like and what does truth do?

Simon Peter, the Rock, three times is asked if he is one of the disciples of Jesus. He replies, again and again, “I am not.” He does not deny knowing Jesus. He denies following him. He denies being in relationship with him. He denies the truth he has found and followed in Christ.

Where is truth on that day of suffering and violence and death, and on this day of the same?

When Judas comes with a band of soldiers and weapons and noise to arrest Jesus in the garden, it is Jesus who asks whom they have come after. They respond, “Jesus of Nazareth,” and he affirms, “I am he.” Or as it can directly be translated from the Greek in which the Gospel is written, “I am/Ego eimi.” In words that lead as the crow flies straight from the words spoken by God to Moses in the third chapter of the book of Exodus when God reveals his identity to his messenger: “Tell them that ‘I AM’ has sent you to them.”

Twice in the garden Jesus affirms the truth that is in him, the truth that he is: “I am he.” “I am.” Here, at the beginning of this tale that leads to death on the cross, the truth is revealed as personal, as living, as standing among the people in Jesus Christ.

He had already said in his teaching:

I AM the bread of life;

I AM the light of the world;

I AM the gate, the Good Shepherd of the sheep;

I AM the resurrection and the life;

I AM the way, the truth, and the life;

I AM the true vine.

On this Good Friday, Jesus affirms again the truth of his identity, as we have heard in the Scriptures:

I am God’s suffering servant, despised and rejected;

I am the lamb of God, led to the slaughter;

I am an offering for sin;

I am the righteous one;

I am a worm and no man;

I am the one who delights in the Lord;

I am the one who gives praise to the Lord even in suffering;

I am the great High Priest;

I am the obedient Son, made the source of salvation;

I am handed over as a criminal;

I am the witness to God’s truth;

I am King of the Jews;

I am Son of God;

I am the Crucified;

I am the one who places disciple and mother into one another’s care;

I am thirsty;

I am giver of the Spirit;

I am emptied of life and of all.

On this day truth is found in Jesus Christ, in his words and in his actions. In action he accepts suffering “for the sake of us and our salvation,” as the creeds say. He allows the violence of the world, begotten by sin, to deal him a deathblow. He takes in all the violence of a brutal, murderous, and powerful world. He accepts it into himself, knowing that it will end his life, because he knows as well that this offering marks the end of the power of sin, of the triumph of violence. In this death, the truth is, death dies.

As our fellow believer Peter Chrysologus wrote in the 5th century:

By allowing himself to be taken captive, he overpowered his opponent;

by submitting he overcame him;

by his own execution he penalized his enemy,

and by dying he opened the door to the conquest of death for his whole flock.

So here is the truth, and from this day forward it is no secret:

in Jesus Christ, gone in freedom to death on the cross,

violence becomes weakness;

suffering becomes strength;

and death surrenders to life.

The violence of love and of brotherhood, as Romero would have it, overcomes the violence of hatred. The beating of the weapons of war into farm implements begins. We will not live to see the completion of that transformation in the world around us, anymore than Romero, or Martin Richard, or any of the sisters and brothers who have gone before us did. But if we dare to look closely enough, if we dare to seek out suffering to see it, if we dare to look violence in the eyes, if we dare to track down death to question it, we will witness that work of transformation that was begun on the cross still real and ongoing today.

But can I, can you, can we have the strength to pursue suffering, to throw out a dragnet for violence, to actually hunt death down (rather than running for our lives)? That is the question that truth leaves us at the foot of the cross this afternoon. It is a question well-phrased deep in the text of Johann Sebastian Bach’s rendering of the Passion of Christ according to John:

My heart, while the whole world
suffers as Jesus suffers,
the sun is clothed in mourning,
the veil is torn, the rocks split,
the earth quakes, graves gape open,
because they behold the creator grow cold in death, 
for your part, what will you do?

Was willst du deines Ortes tun?

“For your part, what will you do?”

Will you speak and live the truth? Will the I AM of Jesus the Christ inform and shape who I am and who we become? Will the truth of the cross of Christ transform our perception of violence and suffering and death? Will you stand with the Oscar Romero’s of the world, cost be damned? Will we be willing to hold Martin Richard, fallen on a Boston street, as many eons as it takes to meet, oppose, and repel the suffering of the innocent?

This Friday is made holy and good only by the truth of who God is revealed to be in Jesus Christ. God is one who suffers with the least among us. God is the one who dares allow violence to do its upmost. God is the one who contends directly with death in public. God is the one who invites us right now into this divine contest.

For our part, what will we do?

 

 

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Measuring True

“Let us not measure the church by the number of its members or by its material buildings. 

The church has built many houses of worship, many cemeteries, many buildings that have been taken from her. They have been stolen and turned into libraries and barracks and markets and other things.

That doesn’t matter.

The material walls here will be left behind in history. What matters is you, the people, your hearts. God’s grace giving you God’s truth and life.

Don’t measure yourselves by your numbers. Measure yourselves by the sincerity of heart with which you follow the truth and light of our divine redeemer.”  

 

~ Archbishop Oscar Romero

12.19.1977

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Word

Before he spoke I saw

every possible future

in the visitor’s light

including that which would be

the way.

There was no ‘Hail”

(though I love the prayer),

no “Fiat” spoken,

though it was that my whole being cried out;

all this was later translation, rendering and rendition

of what in the instant was a singular breathing

a transparent passage

a Communication heart to heart:

he knew

I understood

and the whole was new.

Or,

perhaps

“Hail” there was, and “blessed” too, and “Fiat” as well, and

it is only in recalling that it is all condensed

to the absolute

core.

In any event, it was.

Word.

(J. McGinty, Annunciation 2015)

The Annunciation, Henry Ossawa Tanner (1898)

The Annunciation,
Henry Ossawa Tanner (1898)

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Winter Retreat 2015 (Day 3 PM) – Through Stone Walls

Thomas Merton says things, in the collection of personal prayers culled from his journals and writings, in ways no one else really could.

Here are a few that have sustained and marveled me these days:

“What I wear is pants. What I do is live. How I pray is breathe.”
[Day of a Stranger]

“In one sense we are always traveling, and traveling as if we did not know where we were going. In another sense we have already arrived. We cannot arrive at the perfect possession of God in this life, and that is why we are traveling and in darkness. But we already possess Him by grace, and therefore, in that sense, we have arrived and are dwelling in the light. But oh! How far have I to go to find You in Whom I have already arrived!”

“My God . . . You have contradicted everything. You have left me in no-man’s land. You have got me walking up and down all day under those trees, saying to me over and over again: ‘Solitude, solitude.’ And You have turned around and thrown the whole world in my lap. You have told me, ‘Leave all things and follow me,’ and then You have tied half of New York to my foot like a ball and chain. You have got me kneeling behind that pillar with my mind making a noise like a bank. Is that contemplation?”

“I will travel to You, Lord, through a thousand blind alleys. You want to bring me to You through stone walls.”

“O my God, I don’t care about anything; all I know is that I want to love You. I want my will to disappear in Your will. I want to be one spirit with You. I want to become all Your desires and thoughts. I want to live in the middle of Your Trinity and praise You with the flames of Your own praise. O my God, knowing all this, why do You leave me alone in my selfishness and in my vanity and pride, instead of drawing me into the midst of Your love? My God, do not delay any longer to make me a saint and to make me one with You, and do not delay to live in me. And if it requires sacrifice, You will give me the courage to make all sacrifices. You will consume me in Your own immense love. So do not be afraid of my weakness, O God, because You can do everything. I believe in Your love above all things. I have forgotten everything else (that is, I want to). I live for Your love, if You will only make me live so.”

“I am content that these journal pages show me to be what I am: noisy, full of the racket of imperfections and passions and the wide open wounds left by sin, full of faults and envies and miseries, full of my own intolerable emptiness. ‘Domine Deus Meus in te confido; non confundar in aeternum.’ Lord, My God, in You I trust. Let me not be put to shame forever.”

“You know my soul. You know all that needs to be done there. Do it in Your own way. Draw me to You, O my God. Fill me with Pure Love of You alone. Make me never go aside from the way of Your Love. Show me clearly that way and never let me depart from it: that will be enough. I leave everything in Your hands. You will guide me without error and without danger and I will love You all the way. I will belong to You. I will not be afraid of anything for I shall remain in Your hands and never leave You.”

“If You allow people to praise me, I shall not worry. If You let them blame me, I shall worry even less. If You send me work, I shall embrace it with joy. It will be rest to me because it is Your will. If You send me rest, I will rest in You. Only save me from myself. Save me from my own, private, poisonous urge to change everything, to act without reason, to move for movement’s sake, to unsettle everything that You have ordained. Let me rest in Your will and be silent. Then the light of Your joy will warm my life. Its fire will burn in my heart and shine for Your glory. This is what I live for. Amen, amen.”

“My God, I pray better to You by breathing. I pray better to You by walking than by talking.”

“O God, teach me to be satisfied with my own helplessness in the spiritual life. Teach me to be content with Your grace that comes to me in darkness and that works things I cannot see. Teach me to be happy that I can depend on You. To depend on You should be enough for an eternity of joy. To depend on You by itself ought to be infinitely greater than any joy which my own intellectual appetite could desire.”

“The things I thought were so important—because of the effort I put into them—have turned out to be of small value. The things I never thought about, the things I was never able either to measure or to expect, they were the things that mattered. But in this darkness I would not be able to say, for certain, what it was that mattered. That, perhaps, is part of Your unanswerable question!”

“‘Deus meus clamabo per diem, et non exaudies; et nocte, et non ad insipientiam mihi.’ My God, I cry out by day but You do not hear me; at night, but You give me no relief! Do You remember the place by the stream? Do You remember the top of the Vineyard Knob that time in autumn when the train was in the valley? Do You remember McGinty’s hollow? Do You remember the thinly wooded hillside behind Hanekamp’s place? Do You remember the time of the forest fire? Do You know what has become of the little poplars we planted in the spring? Do You observe the valley where I marked the trees?”

“There is no leaf that is not in Your care. There is no cry that was not heard by You before it was uttered. There is no water in the shales that was not hidden there by Your wisdom. There is no concealed spring that was not concealed by You. There is no glen for a lone house that was not planned by You for a lone house. There is no man for that acre of woods that was not made by You for that acre of woods. But there is a greater comfort in the substance of silence than in the answer to a question. Eternity is in the present. Eternity is in the palm of the hand. Eternity is a seed of fire whose sudden roots break barriers that keep my heart from being an abyss.”

There are more as well. They are collected in “Dialogues With Silence.” Every one of these speaks to me powerfully with a truth that is deeper than anything that appears from day to day on our screens, in our papers, and certainly in most of my conversations (thanks to me!).

The last I quoted contains the line that I – odd teen that I was ! – chose for my quote (we each had to provide a favorite quote) senior year of high school for the yearbook: “. . . there is greater comfort in the substance of silence than in the answer to a question.” It is thought-provoking, these years later, to see those words again in their original context.

Everything is in its place, Now. As God desires it. Eternity is already here. Silence is already more than all the noise the world creates from nano-second to nano-second. Many practical-minded folk would dispute these things. They are looking with other eyes I suspect. What Merton saw looks like truth to me; looks like the only truth that could possibly set each passing moment in its own place, Whether it brings joy or sorrow, victory or disaster, it is the moment God designed and gleams like a diamond in the perfect setting.

IMG_0806

(Photo from geograph.ie)

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Down to the Shore, in good company

“I Go Down To The Shore”

I go down to the shore in the morning
and depending on the hour the waves
are rolling in or moving out,
and I say, oh, I am miserable,
what shall—
what should I do? And the sea says
in its lovely voice:
Excuse me, I have work to do.”

― Mary Oliver, A Thousand Mornings

My two invisible but very real companions overt these few days of quiet prayer are Mary Oliver and Thomas Merton. Both of them, I must begin by saying, are still very much alive in the only ways that ultimately count. I love this poem from Oliver’s 2012 collection, A Thousand Mornings. It so much helps me to set in context my own inner unease, unrest, ongoing imbroglio. I can think – perhaps we all can? – that the world is circling anxiously at a given moment around the truth that I am tired, or dissatisfied, or confused, or worn out, or under extreme duress. Any or all of these might at a given time be quite true of me. But Oliver’s shared insight, looking at the tide coming in and going out, is perfect. What is significant to me, in me, today, is at its most significant one absolutely invisible slice of the stress of the human and created world. And the things that go on, like the tide, will go on with or without me. They may not need even my cooperation. And finally whether or not I get out of the way will hardly matter. Be I there or not, the waters will roll in and roll out again.

This is a saving truth for me to see and feel this week. Whenever I arrange to take a few days retreat, I do so almost always not in a proactive manner, but because there is somewhere in me a sense of needing it. But that inchoate sense only reveals itself more fully after arrival into the quiet. I never know, until I arrive at the place that gives me permission to know, that I am as tightly wound as the silage in the west of Ireland sealed airtight in plastic and awaiting its further usefulness dotted around the fields at the end of the growing season, or as the big boats at the marinas wrapped up the same way to survive the winter weather and wait for the spring and calmer waters. I am often, by the time I head for a place like this, as wound tightly as they are.

Further, I am usually also more tired than I knew, more deeply weary and worn.

These things reveal themselves after my arrival at the kind of place that is built to really ask, “how are you?” in a way that almost nothing in daily life does. This is grace and potential release, certainly. But Mary Oliver’s words above remind me also, in a deeper fashion, that however I am, I feel, i tire, I hope or despair – all this is only one infinitesimal slice of all that is.

So . . . relax, Just let it go. Just let it melt away (unlike the snows outside these walls). Because it will melt away. It will go. Here is the Heart and the Hands (to be entirely anthropo-centered) that can and will absorb it all, place it in loving context, and issue the invitation to a renewed day.

(Winter Retreat, day 3, morning)

IMG_0805

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From Thomas Merton, “Dialogues With Silence”

O little forests, meekly
Touch the snow with low branches!!
O covered stones
Hide the house of growth!

Secret
Vegetal words,
Unlettered water, Daily zero.

Pray undistracted
Curled tree
Carved in steel!—
Buried zenith!

Fire, turn inward
To your weak fort,
To a burly infant spot
A house of nothing.

O peace, bless this mad place:
Silence, love this growth.

O silence, golden zero
Unsetting sun

Love winter when the plant says nothing.

~ Thomas Merton, “Dialogues With Silence,”
p. 183

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Just As I Am

Words: Charlotte Elliott (1789-1871)
Music: Wordsworth, William Batchelder Bradbury (1816-1868)

Hymal 1982, #693

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