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PASSION SUNDAY PARADOX
Palm Sunday of the Passion of Jesus Christ 2021
The newly released movie “Flannery” reminds the viewer how the famous Catholic novelist Flannery O’Connor used paradox in her writings. She often employed grotesque imagery such as physical deformity to gain the attention of the reader and reveal her own constructive thoughts on issues such as suffering, racism and socioeconomic disparities. The protagonists in her writings included “outsiders, prophets and sinners seeking truth and redemption,” people like you and me.
Today is Palm Sunday when some Christians recall the Passion of Jesus of Nazareth. It is a paradoxical portrait of the incarnate God called to free humanity from sin and damnation. The story is compelling because it interlaces jubilation and death, suffering and hope. The same messianic hero who entered Jerusalem to the applause of Jews and non-Jews alike is, at once, the suffering servant who encounters torture and execution.
The story has endured for centuries because we are intrigued by two acknowledged but contradictory assumptions — Jesus dying at the hands of humanity to save humanity. Did he die to save us from ourselves and the collective sinfulness we are responsible for? Does this mean we, ourselves, are complicit in the passion and death of Jesus? Living in the midst of paradox  is characteristic of life in America. How do we respond to prevailing incongruities in this society?
We have plenty of grain in our silos but food insecurity is uncontrolled. Equal rights and voting rights are part of our Constitution but whole classes of citizens are deprived of these entitlements. The economy helps wealthy people get wealthier but unemployment numbers are on the rise. Lady Liberty says “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free ….” but worn out immigration laws and hate crimes stymie the ambitions of anyone who is not white or for whom English is not a first language.
This week is a festival of religious traditions for Jews, Christians and Hindus. These occasions help us recall our own mission, purpose, meaning, and identity. At their Seder meals Jews focus on the Passover narrative (Haggadah) to remember their ancestors’ interminable journey from slavery to freedom. Jews identify with this event that empowers them to continue the struggle for liberation from all forms of oppression.
For Christians our emphasis is on the passion and death of an innocent man who by his actions and words brought health to sick people, kindness to outcasts, and forgiveness to sinners. The Easter event gives people energy to carry out these acts of mercy today in the face of viruses, prejudices, war, hunger, homelessness and domestic violence.
For Hindus the feast of Holi celebrates the arrival of spring, the end of winter, the blossoming of love. The sources say it is a festive day to meet others, play and laugh, forget and forgive, and repair broken relationships.
All three of these holidays fit well together as interfaith agents of memory, restitution, and action. The holy week story is not only about Jesus. It is also about humanity at large — our lives, good works, and bad deeds. It is about our experiences of suffering, dying and rising up again. How do we embrace this story as our own?
Think of the characters in the passion narrative who stood by Jesus during his final days. “These supporters offer us models for how we should live as Christian witnesses.”  Our relationships with God and one another are linked. One is weak without the other. Think of the disciples who abandoned Jesus. The connections we make are not only with family members and like minded friends. How we associate with others who are different from us is also important if this Holy Week is to have any meaning in the modern world.
Jesus lived to be in solidarity with all people no matter who they were. Like Oscar Romero and Martin Luther King Jr. that itinerant Jew died as a public figure who believed that the world could be a better place for all people. He did his part to make the realm of the Creator God a reality on earth. It is that same Spirit of Christ that impels us to act knowing that every choice we make has some kind of a cost.
 Irony, on the other hand, is the use of words to express something other than their literal intention.
 Jaime L. Waters, scripture scholar at DePaul University
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DEALING WITH REALITY
The Fifth Sunday of Lent - Year B
No matter how much I flew while working as a liturgical designer I was never comfortable with turbulence. I had no control over it and just had to sit back, tighten the belt and ride it out. A pilot once described it as “mere bumps in the road.” Right. I spoke about my uneasiness with turbulent skies during one of my project meetings. A Catholic sister on the staff said to me, “just think of it as God rocking you safely in his [sic] arms.”
In commenting on this week’s biblical texts, Mary McGlone wrote, “It seems that our life is one continual process of becoming our true selves; we are molded by our responses to events over which we have varying degrees of control.”
In today’s gospel (John 12:20-33), we read about the time Jesus of Nazareth confronts his forthcoming death, something he had no control over. He must have been thinking, “Is there anyway out of this mess or is this what I am meant to do … to challenge the injustices all around?”
Jesus had to find a way to cope with the reality that the authorities wanted to get rid of him. He had to dig deep into his own being to recall that his purpose in life was to free up people from all oppression. The same is true for us. Learning to accept both the good and the bad in life is linked to how we view ourselves and our purpose in life. God uses everyday ordeals to test our tenacity, our faith, our moral fiber.
Jesus was arriving in Jerusalem for Passover. A huge crowd of Jews and non-Jews was there to greet him. God’s plan for peace and justice is designed for all creatures of God and not just a few. Jesus’ ambition was to reveal the presence of the Creator God through a witness of kindness, gratitude, and blessing. But why did he have to die?
According to Greek scholar Alicia Myers, “For [the evangelist] John, Jesus’ mission is indeed this in-gathering of the world, but it will come about only through his death and resurrection … Jesus reminded us, she wrote, “we cannot avoid darkness and death, but instead, must trust that God will bring about life.”
Perhaps, in his final days, Jesus was more accepting of the divine plan that he would be the One to claim victory over sin. Although he questioned God while suffocating on the cross (“Why have you abandoned me?”) Jesus ultimately accepted the reality that his spirit, his life on earth was over. John’s gospel says that Jesus admitted to some of his closest followers, a “grain of wheat must die in order to produce much fruit.”
As we deal with realities in our own lives how are we to continue the work started by Jesus but not fully finished? The first reading from Jeremiah 31:31-34 offers a key word — obedience. Jeremiah pointed out in this “Oracle of Salvation” that God will establish a new covenant with Judah and Israel. It will be unlike the Mosaic one that fell apart because of the people’s collective disobedience.
The new deal would require a transformation on the part of the people. They were invited to enter into a new long lasting relationship with God that included being obedient to the commandments. In turn God would bring them safely home to the promised land, free of subjugation. Do we know God well enough to trust that God is “rocking us safely in God’s arms” especially in turbulent times?
The second reading from Paul (Hebrews 5:7-9) explains the word “obedient.” Although Jesus had a difficult time in accepting the reality in front of him he had to learn how to accept his destiny. Suffering and dying was something he had to endure for the sake of others. Jesus was obedient to that “divine” expectation.
Plenty is expected of us today. And, although we cannot control everything that happens to us or others, we are summoned to deal with countless realities in front of us. One example among many is fresh in our minds. In 2019 the Department of Justice reported there were 7,314 hate crime incidents in the United States involving 8,559 offenses. Further, the Southern Poverty Law Center reported there were 838 domestic hate groups in this country in 2020. Bias-based hate crime continues to plague us, the most recent one being the murders in Georgia.
As spring dawns upon us we continue the Lenten journey with renewed hope. We still have time to grasp the realities of our own time and to find ways to accept our responsibilities, actions that are necessary and even urgent. We are expected to protect all of God’s creatures regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religion, or social status. Attention is needed particularly towards those who are visibly and invisibly vulnerable. They are waiting to be acknowledged and met with acts of love, generosity, and kindness.
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Fourth Sunday of Advent B
Last fall, on Gaudete Sunday, I asked what is there to be joyful about during the pandemic. Today is Laetare Sunday on the Catholic liturgical calendar. Laetare also means “rejoice.” This time, with warmer weather and more daylight in our hemisphere, our moods are shifting just a bit. More adults are “fully” vaccinated, COVID-19 cases are down, venues are slowly reopening, some of our kids are playing sports and others are making their way back to the classroom.
Originally, Laetare Sunday offered some respite from the rigors of Lenten penances. I am not sure we can relax yet. We are still bedeviled by suffering and sorrow due to the pandemic. Thousands of Americans are out of work, the food distribution centers are feeding hungry households, too many people of color have not been vaccinated, and women, especially single moms, are bearing the brunt of all these hardships. Prayer alone will not help them.
In the Anglican tradition today is called “Mothering Sunday” (Gal 4:27). It began as a time to honor mothers and, later, affectionately, mother nature, mother of God, and mother of us all. The biblical reason for the commemoration is found in today’s Introit (a hymn at the start of liturgy) that describes motherhood as a metaphor for Jerusalem, the shining city on a hill in the promised land. It reads:
“Rejoice, O Jerusalem; and gather round, all you who love her; rejoice in gladness, after having been in sorrow; exult and be replenished with the consolation flowing from her motherly bosom.”
Mothering is essential during difficult times. However, new research tells us that demotherization is affecting households everywhere. This socio-political term describes how the traditional roles of families and motherhood are changing. The research addresses gender inequalities in nations where income inequity continues to grow. Instead of entire families pitching in to help one another, care giving has fallen on the shoulders of women in spite of help from government agencies. Women in low income families suffer most of all.
Like Mothering Sunday the month of March honors the history of women and girls who have built, shaped, and improved this nation. (I am writing this on Harriet Tubman Day.) This year we are mindful of how women in general and mothers in particular are carrying extra responsibilities exacerbated by the pandemic. They work, shop, cook, clean, home school and try to take care of themselves all at the same time.
In his season of lent there are particular emphases on suffering. A line in today’s gospel (John 3:14-21) provides the traditional explanation for Jesus’s suffering and death. God gave up Jesus “so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.” How does this actually happen since there is little evidence that the world is on its way to salvation? According to Alicia D. Myers Jesus’ dying on the cross is not about defeat and despair, but as “the place of life, the sign of God’s profound love for creation.”
Paul nudges his non-Jewish readers to take action in today’s letter to the Ephesians (2:4-10), which was written before the gospel of John, which was also written in Ephesus. Paul’s missive helps us focus on the season of Lent as a contemporary time for renewing our covenant with God and one another. The text reads: “We are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus for the good works that God has prepared in advance.”
If the cross paradoxically stands for sorrow and death at the same time it represents life and hope then there is still work to be done. A lot of mothering is required. Second Testament scholar, Marilyn Salmon, wrote: “Opportunities stretch from our doorstep around the globe.” They require, in her words, that we “move outside our comfort zone to make a public confession of our faith.”
Women have been mothering, caring for others, in every society throughout human history. In church circles they have served many roles without formal anointing or gratitude. Mothers of us all, these women nurse us with joy and happiness even in the midst of sorrow and suffering.
In her poem “Kindness” Naomi Shihab Nye casts wisdom on how the gift of kindness wards off sorrow.
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore ….
Laetare Sunday is a day of restrained rejoicing inspired by the contributions of all the women mothering those of us who, like them, know sorrow. We join them with this hope: In the end “it is only kindness that makes sense anymore.”
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SPIRITUAL TEMPLES NEEDED
Third Sunday of Lent B 2021
In the Hebrew Bible it is written that the Israelites carried the Ark of the Covenant with them as they journeyed to the promised land. It reminded them of their agreement with God. If they kept the commandments (Ex 20:1-17) God would stand by them against all enemies.
In time, the Israelites constructed a Temple for the purpose of prayer, praise and sacrifice. The Ark of the Covenant was permanently housed there. After Nebuchadnezzar, king of the Babylonians, destroyed that First Temple the Israelites built a second one. Later Herod would rebuild and enlarge it. John’s gospel for today (John 2:13-25) was written decades after the Romans destroyed that Second Temple in 70 CE.
By the time of the Second Temple many Jews were scattered from Asia Minor to Europe. They were still obliged to make a pilgrimage to the Temple Mount to offer sacrifice and purify themselves in the Temple baths in preparation for Passover. Some brought their own animals for sacrifice. Others would buy them from local merchants. The area was teeming with activity like any marketplace overwhelmed by huge crowds.
Free lance journalist Tia Ghose reported that Jerusalem was a bustling metropolis at the time [of Passover] and “the city's economic heart was the Holy Temple, the only place where Israelites could sacrifice animals as offerings to God.” Apparently, archeological discoveries of dumping grounds outside Jerusalem suggest that slaughtering these animals was a big business. Passover was good for Jerusalem’s economy so why did Jesus create such bedlam in the Temple precincts?
Jesus observed and interpreted the corruption and greed surrounding the feast of Passover as emblematic of the degradation of the Temple and its precinct. An angry Jesus protested and, in a reference to his body, shouted, “destroy this temple and I will build it up in three days!” Jesus thus signaled an end to the old order of law and worship. The new emphasis would be on the Body of Christ.
In the words of Mary McGlone “driving corruption from the temple was just the surface of Jesus' message that day.” What really annoyed the authorities was Jesus’ prophetic proclamation that “he, a human being, was the new temple … that encounters with genuine humanity offers an experience of the real presence of God.” Greek scholar Alicia Myers adds: “Jesus Christ is the location of God’s glory rather than the temple building in which he stands.” This statement also reminds us that our church buildings are not dwelling places for God. God’s presence is a spirited radiance shining within us.
What then causes us to be outraged? What cultural-socio-political-religious structures need to be torn down today to make space for reconstructing societies and religions? Some are familiar: the growing gap between wealthy and poor people, child abuse and human trafficking, white supremacy, racism, sexism, outdated immigration laws, restrictions on voting rights,  climate change denial, and on the religious page, a resurgence of clericalism in church ministries.
On the world stage Pope Francis is doing his part to dismantle injustices and corruption. His visit to Iraq was a historically and politically difficult mission. He went there to encourage Christians who have been devastated by mass killings and ongoing religious oppression. He spoke with empathy in the Syriac Cathedral of Our Lady of Salvation in Baghdad where 48 martyrs were executed in 2010.
The pope’s visit was ladened with symbolism and a global message about working for peace in the Middle East. He aimed to give hope to the people urging them to regain their dignity, their human rights. He focused on healing the relations between Christians and Muslims that are still severely strained.
Papal trips help shape the world view of the Roman Catholic Church. Pope Francis has a far reaching vision for a safer, kinder, egalitarian world and wants his church to be an example. While we are grateful for this perspective, we wait for what also is necessary in a church based on human dignity.
The Catholic church can be a model only when all of its members, women and men alike, are seen as equal partners and leaders in worship, mission and administration. This collegial vision is stymied by outdated doctrines, the limits placed on women just because they are women, patriarchal clerics and a traditionalist minded laity. Many have lost sight of the primal Christian commandment to treat one another equally.
Our covenant relationship with God and each other matters. We are summoned to be the temples of the holy Spirit God, living stones witnessing to the mission and message of Jesus. (1 Peter 2:4-5) As avowed members of this mystical cohort we embody and mirror God’s glory with gratitude. As spiritual temples we become mindful of ourselves and others. Then we are inspired to take action for the common good.
We cannot impatiently take off our masks while the SARS CoV-2 virus is still with us. We also cannot cover up our radiance during times that are both troubling and promising. Our enduring commandment is demanding, necessary, and simple: love one another.
1. Today March 7th is the anniversary of Bloody Sunday. In 1965, 600 marchers protesting for voting rights were attacked and brutally beaten on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, Selma, AL. The Voting Rights Act became law on August 6, 1965.