Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Mass in the Tomb

In 2006 I was chaplain for a pilgrimage to the Holy Land that was organized by Mater Dei Tours.  There are many memories that I carried away.  I've been reading Jesuit Fr. Jim Martin's recently published book "Jesus: A Pilgrimage" and it has brought back some of those memories which my mind's hard-drive had misplaced.  I'm looking forward to getting near the end of the book where I'm sure Fr. Martin will write about the tomb of Jesus and his resurrection. That remains one of my most vivid memories.  And it's one that has been on my mind a lot this Easter.

One morning our group of 45 or so pilgrims got up early and went to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.  We had visited it the day before and were returning for something special: Mass in the tomb of Jesus. Today the tomb consists of a small cave-like chapel in the middle of a large church. You have to bend down to get through the doorway and only three or four people at a time can fit in the chapel.  Our group and several passersby gathered in chairs outside the tomb and we celebrated the first part of the Mass, the Liturgy of the Word. Then, for the second part, the Liturgy of the Eucharist, I entered the tomb and prepared the gifts of bread and wine on a stone slab which served as the altar. Tradition has it that this is where the body of Jesus was laid after it was taken down from the cross, anointed, and placed in the tomb. I prayed the Eucharist Prayer and after the Consecration it happened.

Part of the Eucharistic Prayer includes prayers for the deceased. Out of the blue, as I prayed those prayers, I thought of my deceased mother, father, and sister. And the thought occurred to me: here I am remembering them at the very place where Jesus rose from the dead.  That thought brought me profound peace and joy.  I finished the Eucharistic Prayer and exited the tomb to invite the congregation to pray the Our Father.  Later, people said couldn't believe the radiance that shone on my face.

My face has lost the radiance of that moment, but the memory lingers and continues to bring a smile to my face.  As it should.  Christ is risen!  He is risen indeed!  And so shall we! 

Thursday, April 10, 2014

A Circumcised Heart

The sign of God's covenant with Abraham and his descendants was circumcision. God told Abraham: "my covenant shall be in your flesh as an everlasting pact" (Genesis 17: 13).  But this circumcision of the flesh did not guarantee that people would have the power to be faithful to the covenant.  So God called for a new circumcision--of the heart.

Speaking to the people, after they had failed time and again to be true to the covenant, God said: "Circumcise your hearts, therefore, and be no longer stiff-necked" (Deuteronomy 10: 16). And in what is known as the last words of Moses, we hear: "The Lord, your God, will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants, that you may love the Lord, your God, with all your heart and all your soul, and so may live" (Deuteronomy 30: 6).  The prophets picked up this same promise: "For the sake of the Lord, be circumcised, remove the foreskins of your hearts..." (Jeremiah 4: 4).

The new covenant that God made with humanity when Jesus came was sealed in the flesh. The heart of Jesus was "circumcised" when it was pierced as he hung on the cross. From this open heart came the water and blood representing the sacramental life of the Church. Water (Baptism) takes away sin. Blood (Eucharist) gives a new heart. 

When we receive the Eucharist--the Body and Blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ--we receive the Sacred Heart pierced  (circumcised) for us.  This new heart is joined to our hearts, transforming them and making it possible for us to live the new covenant of love that Jesus sealed in his flesh.  With circumcised hearts and one with the Heart of Jesus, we can now love God and neighbor as Jesus did. 

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

The Mounted Serpent

It was in the form of a serpent that the evil spirit entered into the garden of innocence and tempted the first human beings.  Thus it should be no surprise that serpents came to afflict the Israelites who had complained against God and Moses (see Numbers 21: 4-9). The serpents were a consequence of turning from God. But what is surprising is that an image of this evil, the serpent, became the source of healing. God told Moses to make an image of the serpent and to fix it on a pole. Anyone who had been bitten by the serpent would find healing by looking upon the mounted serpent.

Even more surprising, Jesus uses this image of the serpent to refer to himself. He told Nicodemus that "just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life" (John 3: 14-15).  How is it that Jesus uses this image of evil for himself?

St. Paul helps us understand this.  He wrote: "Christ ransomed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written, 'Cursed be everyone who hangs on a tree'" (Galatians 3: 13).  He also wrote: "For our sake God made him to be sin who did not know sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him" (2 Corinthians 5: 21).  Christ "became sin" and in that way became the source of healing and new life. He identified himself totally with sinful humanity and took upon himself the sins of the world.

He also took upon himself the consequences of sin.  Again, St. Paul: "And even when you were dead in transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, he brought you to life along with him, having forgiven us all our transgressions; obliterating the bond against us, which was opposed to us, he also removed it from our midst, nailing it to the cross..." (Colossians 2: 13-14).  Jesus took upon himself the judgment, the result of sin, and allowed it to be nailed into his own body on the cross.  He made reparation, repairing the damaging consequences of sin, by offering himself on the cross. 

In another place in John's gospel, Jesus refers to his being lifted up. He said: "When you lift up the Son of Man, then you will realize that I AM..." (8: 28).  How is it that people will realize that Jesus, when he is lifted up on the cross, mounted like the serpent, a curse and sin, is God, I AM?  Because God is love (1 John 4: 8, 16).  What proves love? What is the greatest sign of love? What proves that Jesus is Divine Love itself?

St. Paul answers: "For Christ, while we were still helpless, yet died at the appointed time for the ungodly. Indeed, only with difficulty does one die for a just person, though perhaps for a good person one might even find courage to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us" (Romans 5: 6-8).

Christ continues to give proof of his love when he is lifted up at Mass. At every Sacrifice of the Mass he makes present his life-giving death on the cross.  Our faith is that Jesus is God and that he is present in the lifting up at Mass.  His Body and Blood, lifted up, overcome sin and death. The serpent is defeated. 

Sunday, April 6, 2014

The Sacred Heart's Sadness and Anger

One way in which we practice devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus is to prayerfully enter into the movements of Jesus’ Heart as we find them in the gospels.  The gospel for the Fifth Sunday of Lent, Year A (John 11: 1-45), shows us that both sadness and anger moved the Heart of Jesus.

Jesus planned to raise his good friend Lazarus from the tomb.  This is why he delayed in going to Bethany rather than responding as soon as the message of Lazarus’ illness had come to him.  This is why he told his disciples, “This illness is not to end in death….” 

Yet, though he knows he is going to raise Lazarus from the dead, he cries. Verse 35 is said to be the shortest verse in the Bible: “And Jesus wept.”  Why does he weep when he knows he is going to raise Lazarus?  The Heart of Jesus, filled with compassion, shares the sorrow of Mary and Martha and the many others who were grieving over the death of Lazarus.  His Heart is moved by the sadness he sees.  His Heart shares in that sadness.

But his Heart is moved in another way as well.  Twice, in verses 33 and 38, it says that Jesus was “perturbed.”  One dictionary defines “perturbed” this way: “to be greatly disturbed in mind, disquieted.”  I have always used the word when speaking of anger.  One who is perturbed is angry. 

The Scripture scholar Fr. Raymond Brown thinks that this is what moved Jesus’ Heart here.  In his Anchor Bible commentary on this passage, he writes that there is difficulty in translating the Greek word here, but that it is possible “that Jesus was indignant or angry.”  Why?   One reason could be at the lack of faith of the disciples and other mourners, but I think there was a deeper reason. I think he was angry at death and the cause of death—sin.  It is as though Jesus is thinking to himself: “It didn’t have to be this way! You were not made for death but for life. It’s because of sin that you have this pain and sorrow.” 

It is good for us to enter into the Heart of Jesus and to share in its movements.  The compassion we find there leads us to share in human sadness and also to get angry at what causes it.  This anger should then move us to “right the wrongs” that we find in the world and especially within ourselves.  We ought to be angry, not at ourselves, but at sin.  The Lord sees us with a compassionate Heart, heals us with his mercy, and then calls us to fight sin.