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Saint Martha and you and me

Today the Catholic Church remembers and celebrates Saint Martha.

You’ll recall that Martha was the one who was out in the kitchen slaving away on the hard work of hospitality while her sister Mary sat listening to Jesus’ words (a revolutionary place for a woman in that day).  We all likely have our own mental picture of Martha striding from kitchen to living room to ask Jesus to correct the situation by insisting that Mary share some of that burden.  But alas, the part of Jesus’ response given directly to Martha seems to say only, “My dear friend, you are worried about so much.  Don’t.  Be calm.  Let it be.”

At the time these words may have been less than comforting as she returned to domestic chores alone (unless Mary voluntarily came in to help, not impossible according to the Gospel text).

But, as today’s memorial evidences, the Christian community nonetheless considers and holds up Martha, the complainer, the one who did not sit at the feet of Jesus but rather kept the rolling pin busy in the galley, to be a saint.  Just as much as her sister.  Just as truly as her brother Lazarus, whom Jesus would one day restore to life from death – at Martha’s request.

I celebrate Jesus’ willingness – beyond the limits of his time – to allow Mary to come close and to stay with him, hearing him, and I suppose conversing with him.  I celebrate this because I celebrate all that Mary’s sisters down through the centuries have given to the church in their shared insights into the person of Jesus; insights shared with a child at bedtime or with a classroom of students in a graduate course in theology.  I celebrate Mary’s choice because I value highly the life of prayer, and the magnificent witness in this and in most Christian centuries, of the men and women who live a contemplative life whether in monastic communities or in the midst of family and business life.

However, today I am heartened by the holiness of Martha, the activist, the practical person, the one who says in effect, “Look there’s stuff to be done here, and who the (fill in the blank as you please) is going to do it if we all just sit around?”

On this day of Martha I consider recent words of theologian Stanley Hauerwas of Duke University, author of a recent memoir, Hannah’s Child.  His words in a recent web interview with the Jesuit weekly, America, I find compelling. (The link is posted on my Facebook page,  Hauerwas, born a Methodist, long a Catholic, now an Anglican, always a disciple of Jesus Christ, addresses at one point the decline over the past several decades now of the mainline Christian churches.  Hauerwas raises the possibility, and I now express this in my words, that the woes facing the churches may be evidence of the firmly loving hand of God, the Father of Jesus, knocking at the door of our hardened hearts, indeed of the church’s hardened heart.  This Hand may be knocking in order to knock over, to start again.

This is a startling proposal to those committed to the church.  To many will come to mind the promise heard in Jesus’ scriptural words that Satan will never prevail against/over the church.  That is a promise to count on.

But consider this.  Is the God who brought the church to be, and Who brings the church to be in every generation, not free to do as He wills?  If the church as we know it were to fail completely, say over the next century, falling apart into a million pieces, would this mean that Christ’s promise was not to be kept?  Might it not mean instead that the sovereignly free God who created, then sent the flood, then began again with Noah and friends, might be re-creating the church in a way that none of us can fully see?

If this were to occur in some form or other, in some series of painful events or another, the renewed church that emerged from 22nd or 23rd century ashes, would it not be the church?  Would it not be based on the Gospel of Christ, gather people in prayer, celebrate rituals that serve as particular channels of grace into human lives, have a discernable structure and a structure of leadership?  Could it not be, as truly as anything we have seen since Abraham’s covenant with God, the work of God?  “See,” the Scriptures say, “I am doing something new.  Do you not perceive it?”

Mary and the crucified Jesus

That something new, as all things new, is less than likely to be entirely comfortable to us who have grown accustomed to the established.

Stanley Hauerwas raises the possibility that the pain and diminution the churches have already known might be God insisting that we take seriously the divine Will that there is one church and that we are called constantly to work for Christian unity, and to really believe it is possible and that we can see it and live it.  And if we won’t do so, well God might just do some radical surgery.  And the scalpel may already be in play.

On this memorial of Holy Martha, consider, in the light of the challenges facing the churches, what are you and I being called to do?  What specific actions, uniquely as individuals and together as communities, are we being called to undertake?

With Mary we are privileged to hear the voice and the words of Jesus.  With Martha, we are called to action.  And with their brother Lazarus, we are called to life, even if we as church look as if we are totally dead and buried.

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There was a little shaking of the ground in southern California yesterday and a 3.7 magnitude quake today in Washington, DC. Meantime, on the human side, between transition in my own life and the number of people I talk to each day, there’s a whole of shaking going on inside people from hour to hour.
All of which reminds me of a line I once heard (and have repeated since, as I think it makes a vitally important point): When everything in world and life are shaking like leaves and you appeal to God to stop the tumult, don’t be surprised to find on at least some occasions that it is precisely God who is doing the shaking.
Look to God only for stability and comfort, and you’re likely to get a big surprise.

Posted in Images, Words!

Farewells & the Work of the C21 Center

My C21 Director’s blog entry for today, July 15, 2010.  Also found on the Church in the 21st Century Center website currently (

Dear Friends,

I am writing in the middle of this midsummer afternoon to let you know about some endings approaching here at the Church in the 21st Century Center.

Even as we are working diligently here to frame the upcoming year’s series and prepare for the publication of the fall issue of C21 Resources, we also have books being packed in cartons, farewell celebrations taking place, and interviews for successors underway.

Before summer ends both Alanna Valdez, exemplary administrative assistant at the C21 Center, and myself will be leaving our labors here.  As in any transition, though these are self-chosen, there is a bittersweet taste.  It has been a pleasure to work here with Alanna and with assistant director Karen Kiefer (who will remain!) and with those who preceded them.  I hope, and indeed believe, that we have been able to gather wise voices, gifted minds, and open hearts to address significant matters which the Church takes seriously in order to not only survive in a difficult time, but to grow healthier and stronger.

The work of the C21 Center, thanks to the commitment of Boston College to the good of the Church, will go on.  I hope within a short time to be able to introduce you to my successor.  As I prepare to empty my desk, I am convinced that the resources the Center is gathering from year to year will not only remain, but grow in value as time passes.  We are leaving a trail through the forest of these times in the pages of C21 Resources, in the books we continue to publish, and in the vast array of past lectures, conferences and panel discussions continuously available to anyone anywhere with access to the internet.  As I’ve often urged: use these resources in every way you can imagine and share their availability with others.  Share them with believers who seek deeper understanding, with those looking for something to believe in, with the discouraged, and with those who seek to find a voice for their hope.

A final word: in Christian terms, both the individual and the community are of great importance.  Were it not for the development of the Christian theology of the first centuries after Christ, the world would not have the concept of the person that we value so highly.  Were it not for the sense of the assembly that is so fundamental to the experience and definition of Church, modern society would be in danger of losing entirely the certainty that we ultimately belong to one another in the sight of God.

I say this only to note that you as individuals, interested and committed, and the local communities of which you are members, stand as beacons of hope for the Church today, as always.  Though the challenges of the third millennium thus far have been heavy, the Church is called as always to share the light of Jesus Christ and still possesses the Spirit to do so.

With gratitude,

John McGinty

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Good Times

The farewell gathering at BC yesterday for Alanna, C21’s administrative assistant, and myself, was a wonderful moment.  Bittersweet, but wonderful. A good number of the very good people with whom the C21 Center collaborates at BC were present.  The President of the university, Father William Leahy, SJ, was there and spoke.  Bob Newton, special assistant to the president and chair of the C21 Steering Committee, served as master of ceremonies.  There was iced tea and lemonade, a huge cake and other goodies, and a general good spirit.

I would say that the air was light with a sense of thanksgiving.  I love that. I certainly felt it in myself, and I heard it in the voices of the others who spoke.  There is no better foundation for mutuality and a sense of bondedness than this: to be grateful to and for one another.

Boston College seen, as soon I will, from a distance