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Living and Dying

I find myself thinking powerfully tonight about mortality. Or at least, to say it more clearly, I find thoughts about life and death present powerfully to mind. I am thinking of loved ones, among family and friends, who have reached their 80’s, who find some things harder to do now in everyday life, whose abilities are changing. They are still filled with life, with emotion, with desire, with hopes and dreams along with many memories and regrets. Most of their days on this earth are behind them. I’ve lived a good number of those days with them. It is difficult to think of life without their company, their presence, their voices, the reassurance of their hands.

I know how to think of those difficult days to come because of other deeply loved ones who have already in times past left this world. I know how they are still missed. I know how irreplaceable they have proven to be. I know how their loss is true loss, though I believe as well that they live in God, that we are still joined, and will be again.

I think of my own mortality as well. I marvel at how infrequently I’ve considered that incontrovertible fact over the years. I don’t know what to do with the thought. It is simply there. Just real. This is the Easter season and I think of resurrection. I believe it. I revel in it. But it does not directly touch these musings on mortality and loss. Somehow the two stand apart, related but distinct.

One thing born again here is deep gratitude for life, and for sharing it with others, and for being related to other persons in all the ways – by blood and love and shared adventure and memory – that one can be. Life is so good. And love is so good.

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Second Sunday of Easter: Learning to See

Grace Church Brooklyn Heights
Second Sunday of Easter
April 15, 2012

One summer Thursday afternoon, it was either in 1967 or 68, my grandmother gathered the four friends who regularly came to her house to play cards on that day every week. They were serious card players so there was never much conversation once the games began. There was always a pause during which a light snack was served: ham, and celery, tea, and whatnot. That was the first time I heard that word as child: whatnot. It covered anything else that might be there in addition to the usual.

This particular gathering was going to be anything but usual. Following their break for sustenance the game resumed and the next hand was dealt. The five earnest women around the table began in silence to look over the hand they had been dealt and to assess their strategy for the next several minutes.

Just then Lillian, one of the regulars, without uttering a sound collapsed forward, her head hitting the table and her cards gently released from her hands. The other women rose, surrounded her, spoke her name, and sought to rouse her. There was no response. My grandmother got on the phone, cleared off the party-line, and died that era’s version of 911: 0.

Within minutes the fire department had arrived, come in, assessed the situation and determined that Lillian was dead. There and then, in the middle of the usual Thursday afternoon cardgame at McGinty’s, her earthly life had suddenly come to an end. Her body was prepared and covered on a gurney, and removed from the house.

Warning: this is where the story gets weird and Irish, like something from James Joyce or Flannery O’Connor. But I know this part is true, because I had been alerted at our house on the next street by sirens and lights and all that excitement. I arrived at my grandparents’ house as the ladies resumed their places at table, now with one open seat, picked up their cards, hesitated and paused. And Nana said, “Would one of you mind playing Lillian’s hand? That way we won’t have to deal again.”


For me this story, which I have never been able to forget, provides an invitation to a vital reflection about seeing truly, recognizing what is really there – and what isn’t. According to the 20th chapter of John’s Gospel, the apostle Thomas was on the road when Jesus came through locked doors to visit the ones he loved and bring living gifts of peace and forgiveness on the evening of Easter Sunday. When Thomas arrived back, let in carefully through those same doors, he was unable to recognize, to sense, to see the gifts of mercy and peace which the risen Jesus had left in his wake. Thomas saw only the absence he had seen when he went out: the absence of Jesus, their friend and teacher and center. If there was a new look in the eyes of his compatriots, a new vigor in their voices as they told him what had occurred in his absence, it was all lost on Thomas. He couldn’t see what was there in front of him. For him, it just wasn’t there.

Scripture calls Thomas, the Twin, among the apostles. Over the centuries, folks have speculated where his twin might have been, about why that person – male or female – doesn’t register at all on the rolls of those who moved through the land with Jesus, or at least interacted with him during his ministry. The most helpful response to that question that I have ever heard – and you may have heard this as well – is that if I want to find Thomas’ twin, I need to find a mirror. You and I are the twins of Thomas. Many times over our lifetimes. We are his twins in that we see only what we see, and the ‘more’ that often gleams around us in God’s world is lost on us. I fail to see the Christ alive in the ex-convict, struggling to rebuild a life with difficulty, who comes to see me. I fail to see the hope that burns in the eyes of the homeless man who is determined to find a way to a place of his own, somehow. I fail to see the love that unites a family in financial struggle, or to see the faith that knits them even more closely together as they move through uncertain times. I fail to see the fullness of what a community like this at Grace means not only to those who gather here in prayer, but what it means in real terms to children in Honduras, homeowners in upstate New York and New Orleans, to hungry families in Park Slope, or to hundreds of members of 12-step groups who have met here over the decades.

A week later – today – Thomas was present. For him this was anything but a ‘low’ Sunday. This was a Sunday of personal revelation in the midst of the beloved community, a Sunday of seeing, clearly, what (who) was there already: the Christ, alive and life-giving. Just as importantly, Thomas was able to see what was not there. Where the hands and feet of Jesus had been whole, there now were holes. Where his side had been intact, there was the track of the spear that had entered there. Even risen from the dead, even transformed into the new and lasting life that we cannot begin to comprehend, Jesus’ wounds remained, and remain to this moment. So Thomas saw emptiness and scars where there had been fullness and wholeness. This recognition of what was not there, what was gone, was as important in bringing him to know in whose presence he stood as anything he saw present and recognized again.

That moment moved Thomas into that sub-group of humanity who are able to say together into the world the first words of the first letter of John as a statement not of faith, but of lived experience: “We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life – this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it . . . .”

And we, Thomas’ twins, we can have that same experience in faith, in our own lifetimes. We can begin to see in a new way, to recognize both what is really here, and what really is not – and the importance of each. We can begin, in this season of life and light, to begin to see anew in our lives what my grandmother called ‘whatnot’ as she served a little snack to her guests each week. Whatnot could be an extra meat, something sweet, something unexpected, an old favorite, or something never tasted before. But whatnot, seemingly incidental, could become the most important part of the afternoon together. The day Lillian died at that dining room table, everything changed. Yes, someone could play the hand she left behind, but beyond that was her absence, a new configuration of that group of friends, and the looming reality that they eventually would gather no more. My grandmother and her friends were forcibly invited that summer afternoon to appreciate what and who they saw around them, and who they no longer saw. They were invited to see in new fashion their own need and desire and dream for resurrection life. They were invited as Thomas was on this Sunday, and as we are today, to see Jesus still present and living among us, and empowering us to become a new humanity, belonging to one another, caring for one another, really seeing one another and the wounds we all carry.

John P. McGinty

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“It is finished.”

Grace Church Brooklyn Heights
Good Friday
April 6, 2012

“Jesus said, ‘It is finished.'” These are the words of chapter 19, verse 30 of John’s Gospel.

“It is finished.”

What is finished? This is a question for us who gather here in prayer on Good Friday.

What is finished? And in the finishing, what has been gained and what has been lost?

The Christ of Saint John’s Gospel who speaks those final words has revealed himself throughout the Passion we have [heard/sung] today as in-charge, knowing what is facing him, and choosing it all freely, in strength.

He comes forward in the garden to face his betrayer and the soldiers and police. He makes himself known to them without hesitation, and makes sure that those with him in the garden will remain free and unharmed.

He faces the authority of Annas and Caiphas and Pilate one after the other through a long night of interrogation, without fear. He knew that Judas would betray him. He knew that Peter would deny his discipleship. He knew the disciples would desert him. He engages with the Roman governor only to the measure he himself decides, and beyond that, recognizes nothing of Pilate’s threats. He stands before the public, accepts the sentence of death by crucifixion without flinching.

He carries his own cross to Golgotha according to John.
There is no Simon of Cyrene here. There is only Jesus the Christ, serene in spirit in the midst of betrayal, trial, condemnation, torture; and finally, before the instrument of execution.

From the cross, as he is dying, he actively works to assure that his mother will be cared for, and that the disciple he loves will have a mother’s love.

And, according to John, it is almost as if Jesus chooses the moment of his death itself. He calls for wine to ease his thirst. He receives it, and then he says,
“It is finished; tetelestai.”

All is done.
It is completed.
It is fulfilled.
Consummatum est.

What is finished?

Jesus’ suffering?

His life?

The days and nights of his voice being heard as he taught in the synagogues and public places?

The miracles of healing that he had brought about?

The hope his disciples and friends had placed in him?

The threat Jesus posed to the establishment of his time and place?

The innocence of his disciples before the power of the world?

The mission Jesus received from the Father?


Yes, in some sense all of these are done, completed, fulfilled, finished. Jesus has reached an end: “They made his grave with the wicked . . . although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth.” (Is 53:9)

The Son of God has gone to his death. Jesus of Nazareth is dead. “Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered.” (Heb 5:8). And now, it is finished.

Here, now, this Good Friday, we are allowed and invited to rest in this moment, as bleak as it seems. There is a temptation to push on past this moment, to turn our backs on the cross and the dead body lying heavy upon it, and to look resolutely forward through tomorrow’s hours of silence to Sunday, and to the revolutionary news we know awaits us there.

But this is precisely a temptation, this Friday’s temptation. The long tradition of those who have believed and prayed before us through the millennia bids us pause,
to rest in this moment,
to allow the gaze of our hearts to remain on the face of Christ on the cross,
on his outstretched arms,
on the blood and water that flow from his side.
Like lovers of anyone who has only just died, we are bid to remain in this place, to honor the irreplaceable weight of this moment. Of this sacred moment. We are called . . .
to mourn.
“Were you there?” asks the familiar hymn. We are called, yes, to be here.

It is finished.

As true as is that catalogue of all that is completed on Calvary, there is more. What is finished and done is any chance that you or I or anyone near or far can escape diminishment, pain, and death by human effort alone. And, what is gone is the despair that there is no escape from death, or that we face it absolutely alone.

In the telling of his Last Supper on Thursday evening, we hear Jesus say of the broken bread, “This is my body.” This next day, his body lies broken on the cross as bread for the world. The love of God, God’s big love, has died for us today. The love of God has died remembering us today. The love of God has died, quite simply, for us. For us and for our salvation.

What is finished then is any human dying that does not touch the very center and depth of the heart of God. Every death touches the core of God. “The death of his loved ones is precious to the Lord”.

Young Trayvon Martin of Sanford, Florida;
twelve thousand Syrians who longed for freedom and peace; thirty-two Tibetan monks who have immolated themselves in the last year thirsting for their own land;
three thousand dead in ethnic violence in South Sudan;
twelve students and one teacher taken by violence thirteen years ago at Columbine,
and seven students taken this past week at Oikos University;
the 2,996 who died in the attacks of September 11, 2001;
all the deaths of loved ones that we have experienced down through our years;
and the fear or dread or loathing we may know at the thought of our own ultimate going forth from this life.

None of these are multiple, nameless deaths of unknown men and women. Each one of these is the death of a person –
a sister or brother,
a son,
a daughter,
a parent,
a lover,
a provider,
a best friend,
a man of hope,
a woman of vision –
known and loved by God.

Every one of these is the death of Christ. In every one of these abides the love of God that dared to freely die on Calvary.

What is finished on the cross of Christ today is any death that would not matter, that would not be of ultimate significance to the heart of God; any death that does not shake the world and remake the universe in ways beyond our human sight.
There is no such death.

As the eyes of each one are closed;
as every last breath is taken, Jesus is there.
He is in that last fleeting light.
He is in that final exhalation.
In him, our death becomes the revelation of God’s own love.

Since Jesus,
or rather,
in Jesus,
to be human
is to be carried by,
conformed with, and
linked to the divine
in ways that mark life, and transform death.

Resting in the desolation of this day then, we can find its goodness by remaining
long enough,
and still enough,
and quiet enough
to come to know that the scene on Calvary, its stark reality, assures us that though we will die, we will not die alone;
that though we are sinners, we need not suffer the pain of our sin; that though we fail to love, we always and forever are loved.

What is finished today is the possibility of a human life untouched at last by God’s own glory.

What begins today, shared by God and us, is a hope that cannot die.

John P. McGinty

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A gift

a gift

it was a gift given more than twenty years back
a penance given at confession’s end, pray this
he said: free me in the ways i need to be freed.
i took it and left, i prayed it that day
and left it there as that present became long past

free me in the ways i need to be freed
two decades later last saturday seated
in a different church city time expectation
it just popped up for the first time since:
free me in the ways i need to be freed.

i prayed it again and somewhere
deep or high in the beyond-sight
beyond-sound beyond god’s voice
announced: rouse the army let’s go
it’s not more than three or four days

in a lifetime i get invited to work with
this crazy-ass disciple at the roots where
it really counts where something matters
at the point that possibilities are born and
embraced; free him the sucker said

in the ways he needs to be freed, this
i cannot resist, unfurl the wings cage
the devil raise the sun and alert the Son
we are going to cut through the crap
and make a man real.

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