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No Room For Skepticism
Second Sunday of Easter 2022 -Year C
Mercy Sunday & Orthodox Easter
This month of April is full of religious celebrations. As Western Christians continue Eastertide, the Eastern Orthodox Church is beginning its Holy Week. Jews are completing Passover and Muslims are in the holy month of Ramadan. Buddhists, Baha’is, Sikhs, Jains and Hindus are preparing for their holy days.
This inter-religious confluence is a rare and remarkable opportunity to appreciate the similarities in major religious groups. The Associated Press journalist Luis Andres Henao reported that many faiths are “sharing meals and rituals” as they discuss “how to help curb climate change, fight religious intolerance and assist people fleeing Ukraine, Afghanistan and other nations during the global refugee crisis.”
What the world needs now is overarching spiritual movement that embraces the teachings of all faith traditions. It would mend the divisions between religions and, hopefully, nation states.
For example, Orthodox patriarchs in Russia and Ukraine are at odds with one another over Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Kirill, Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow, has caused a schism in the global Orthodox religion as he continues to support Putin’s War.
Will a common belief in Jesus’ resurrection soothe wounds and stop the ruthless invasion of Ukraine where Christians are killing Christians? Where is the belief that Easter is a call to celebrate life not death?
John’s gospel (20:19-31) is the only one that records how Thomas doubted that Jesus was raised from among the dead. However, he needed physical proof. Perhaps others in that room, including Jesus’ mother, had their own doubts about what happened to Jesus. We do not know.
Did they think they were seeing a ghost? Reginald Fuller wrote that the “Greek word ‘appeared’ used by [the apostle] Paul to describe Jesus’ visits after his crucifixion was the same word used elsewhere [in the Bible] for visionary experiences.”
The second reading (Acts 5:12-16), written by Luke about 50-60 years after Christ’s post-resurrection appearances, testifies that many signs and wonders were performed by the apostles. The text implies that those who joined the early Christian movement were responding to the needs of others and that they possessed a desire to accept the responsibilities that comes with membership in the church.
Psalm (118:2-4, 13-15, 22-24) reminds us “God’s mercy endures forever” but also warns us that working for justice is not easy and that activists will be rejected. Those who continued the mission of Jesus were undaunted by threats against them and continued their work.
Not every Christian today is responding in the same way to this biblical summons to work for peace. According to the Pew Research Center only sixty-three percent identify as Christians compared to 75% just ten years ago. Also, roughly one-fourth of the U.S. population views Christianity skeptically in varying degrees.
The overwhelming majority of Americans do believe in God. And, while some also believe there was a historical Jesus, and can accept his value system, they are skeptical about his divinity and certainly his resurrection. This attitude has had an impact on memberships in many Christian communities that reportedly are dwindling in number.
Some sources say skepticism is an ancient Hellenistic philosophy that focuses on what should be believed. The modern skeptic relies on knowledge before believing. According to the philosopher Alan Watts many people believe someone or something only if it fits into their preconceptions, however true or false.
Faith, on the other hand, has no expectations and is the virtuous foundation for most religious practices. However, there is now evidence that some people do not possess unconditional openness to what is true.
How can we avoid skepticism? We live in an age when fear, mistrust and suspicion have evolved into a cultural past time. People do not trust politicians, religious leaders or educators and many do not believe in themselves. Yet, there is a common bond among Christians and other faith traditions and what they hold to be true — that the lives of all people matter and should be treated equally with respect and dignity.
Pope Francis said in his Easter address: “May the conflict in Europe also make us more concerned about other situations of conflict, suffering and sorrow, situations that affect all too many areas of our world, situations that we cannot overlook and do not want to forget.” He concluded: “Peace is possible; peace is a duty; peace is everyone’s primary responsibility!”
Easter, then, is about new beginnings, turning experiences of fear, uncertainty and doubt into kernels of truth for ourselves and others. There is no room for skepticism.
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Not All Is As It Seems
The Holy Triduum 2022 Year C
Just before this Holy Week I watched and listened to the French pianist Hélène Grimaud play Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20 in D Minor.  According to the program Notes, Mozart did not write many works in minor tonalities, but those that he did were particularly impactful.
Grimaud said they “provide a glimpse behind the mask of jollity [cheerfulness] that surrounds many of his famous works.” The Notes added: “this particular concerto is a symbolic representation of an encounter with fate, where drama and tragedy meet, and an apt reminder that not all is as it seems.”
During this Christian Holy Week we track the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth and explore more deeply why his story of victory over evil is still so compelling. The three-act drama of the Triduum reveals that, as a human family, not all is as it seems. Beneath whatever cheeriness [jollity] we might enjoy, we are hurting inside.
Christians maintain that Jesus of Nazareth “died to save us from our sins.” But, the endless sinful clash between good and evil continues to damage dreams of happiness and peace. Greg Boyle SJ offered a positive way to deal with sin. He wrote Jesus is “calling us to joy.” 
In this light, the words of ethicist Reinhold Niebuhr’s prayer is a moral summons that can help remove the masks that cover up jubilation: “God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things that should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.” 
The days of Holy Week are clarion calls to change what should be changed. That’s what Jesus set out to do. It is easy to think that the Triduum is just about the final days of the Jewish prophet from Galilee. It bluntly reminds us that sorrow and joy in the world are inseparable and it is our responsibility to make things better. What can be gained by his death is our concern.
The first act, Holy Thursday, is about relationships. Aware of his imminent death Jesus got together with close friends for a simple supper. He surprised everyone as he washed their feet. Then at table, knowing he was about to die, he explained the symbolism of the unleavened bread of affliction and freedom (see Deuteronomy 16:3). He did the same with the cup of redemption (see Jeremiah 31:32). Jesus identified with the bread as his fractured body and the wine as his spewed blood. He invited the women and men in the room to carry on his mission in his memory.
The liturgy of the eucharist is a powerful reminder that Christians are united in a unique relationship not only with Christ but with each other. We leave the liturgy nourished by word and sacrament to feed those who are hungry for liberty, to wash and heal their bodies, to mend the hearts and minds wounded by war and other injustices.
Behind the celebration of Easter is the gruesome second act, Good Friday. Jesus died an excruciating death on a wooden crossbeam. During liturgy worshipers take turns carrying a large cross to show that all Christians are called to reveal the meaning of the cross to the world.
Other groups mark the way of the cross in city streets stopping at various stations — court houses, shelters, super markets, jails, banks, food pantries. The presence of the cross is a reminder that not that not all is as it seems. Not all people enjoy even basic equities; chances to advance.
The cross Jesus died on is a tree of life, a cue that working for justice can bear good fruit. The continual presence of a cross in many houses of worship reminds us of our weighty responsibility to move forward, advancing the human rights of all. In the words of Pope Francis: “may we not let ourselves be robbed of the hope of a new humanity, of new heavens and a new earth.”
The climatic act in the holy week, Easter Sunday, celebrates the raising of Jesus from the dead. It provides impetus to repair a distressed world. Biblical interpreter Walter Brueggemann called the resurrection “the ultimate energizing for the new future … for the disinherited.”
Like those who first saw the empty tomb we are buoyed up by the constancy of the soul of the Human One that did not die. That Spirit continues to live on in those who embrace his ministry. Easter is not about one person being raised up from the dead. It is a raising up of all people with a fresh ray of joy and hope because not all is as it seems.
1. With the Camerata Salzburg at Elbphilharmonie, Hamburg
2. Boyle, Gregory. The Whole Language: The Power of Extravagant Tenderness (NY: Avid Reader Press, 2021) 184
3. The original 1932 quote reads “… things that should be changed” rather than “…things that can be changed.”
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Doing the Best We Can
Palm Sunday and the Passion of Jesus of Nazareth 2022 Year C
Musician Elizabeth Conant wondered why the affable and talented Foo Fighters drummer Taylor Hawkins overdosed on drugs. She wrote: “We need to trust that no one is having an easy time of it; this is a hard planet. Human beings are all doing the best they can, just to get through.”
As we Christians begin another holy week we are challenged to embrace the stories of passion and death as if they were our own. Think of the many people around the world who are suffering and dying because of discrimination, starvation and brutal war crimes — Bulgarians, Haitians, Syrians, Ukrainians, and countless others. They do the best they can “just to get through” but, in every situation they need help from others.
Today’s gospel texts are incongruous. First, Jesus of Nazareth arrives in Jerusalem to much applause and fanfare! At long last he was the Coming One who was to save Jews and others living in a distant outpost of the Roman Empire. (Luke 19:28-40) Then the story of his triumphant entry turns ugly as it details the journey of the prophetic Jewish Nazarene to his execution on a cross. (Luke 22: 14-23:56)
Did Jesus ever second guess his mission? Did he think to himself, while riding that donkey, with a feigned smile on his lips, nodding to the prostrating crowd, “God, what am I doing here? Wasn’t there an easier way to carry out this mission?”
Jesus did not finish what he set out to do — bring about peace and justice for everyone. Critics say Jesus failed in his mission. Social activists say we are charged to carry on his task. What role does failure play in the ways we can improve the way we behave in life?
The second testament depicts Jesus as an enigmatic and compassionate person determined to help people who hunger for dignity; he took a lot of risks to do so. Like many prophets in the Hebrew Bible Jesus protested publicly against the status quo. He criticized civic and religious leaders for their hard hearted crimes.
Jesus raised an awareness of the injustices that prevailed in his time. His speeches and actions annoyed elite power holders. They accused him of making trouble and for posing as a king (although he never claimed to be one). He was executed because he was a political activist.
Today’s passage from Second Isaiah 50: 4-7 gives us some background for understanding Jesus’ behavior. It is the third of four suffering servant poems. It lists the qualities of a true servant. One of those characteristics is to be mindful; to pay attention to one’s calling. 
Jesus did what he was supposed to do and it required much sacrifice. Not only did he follow the expectations of his empyrean Father, he also listened to the cries of the people around him and he took action.
In the Bible Jesus is called the Human One. A Jew throughout his life, he never abandoned his humanity. This side of Jesus makes it possible to identify with his life and the good he did; his suffering and his death.
Many people today are forsaken even as they hope for brighter days. Volodymyr Zelensky feels abandoned by some Western countries as well as greedy banking and oil industry executives. But, he continues to take risks to keep Ukrainians free from death and autocracy. Like other Ukrainians he is doing all he can do.
The same is true of the Romani, the Uyghurs, Guatemalans, Afghans, and others living on the edges of society. Millions are doing their best to survive in refugee camps. Others wait anxiously to cross borders into hospitable territories like those waiting to enter the United States.
In his letter to the Philippians (2:6-11) Paul was concerned about whether his listeners would embrace a Christ-like way of living for others. It would require listening to them and finding ways to help.
During this holy week we ponder not just the passion and death of the prophetic Jew we call the anointed One and savior. We recommit ourselves to a Christian lifestyle, making sacrifices and taking risks to help others so they can live without the fear of abandonment. None of us can do this alone but we try to do the best we can.
We can volunteer at food banks and protest at rallies. We can also do other things that matter. Acts of generosity, kindness and compassion, a smile, a hug can make a huge difference in the lives of people who live among us, who are deserted and vulnerable. This is a hard time for all human beings. Many of our brothers and sisters near and far need help.
1. “Attention is the Beginning of Devotion” in Devotions: Selected Poems of Mary Oliver (NY: Penguin Books) 2017
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Yesterday Today Tomorrow
Fifth Sunday of Lent 2022 Year C
If you are looking for something to cast light on a dreary period of history you might find it in the discovery of Earendel. Astronomers say they are looking at Earendel as it existed 13 billion years ago! It was a bright blue super giant star that emerged 900 million years after the Big Bang. Earendel’s luminosity just reached earth and provides a new appreciation for our place in a vast cosmos. 
Will the dawning of this star affect the way we understand what matters most in our mortal lives? Amidst global troubles imagine if secular and religious leaders got together to talk about Earendel. They could marvel at its distant brilliance. More importantly they could talk honestly and humbly about strategies for living peacefully on this tiny planet.
Holding such a meeting to heal the world will take some doing. Diplomatic relationships are stymied because of nationalistic geo-political policies. Voting rights are violated to protect the privileges of powerful castes. Russia, China, Turkey, Israel and other countries have invaded neighboring sovereignties. Sadly, factional warfare is waged globally with and without weaponry.
Earendel’s light linked yesterday and today. Time will tell what tomorrow may bring. We tell time because of the way stars and planets like ours engage in a cosmic dance. Although it is long gone the brightness of Earendel shows the relationship between time and space. It beckons interdependence with our environment and each other.
We are challenged to take notice because there is work for us to do. The prophet Isaiah (43:16-21) reported what God said to the Israelites who suffered greatly — do not dwell on the past because I am doing something new. It is springing forth. Can’t you see it?
Imagining a new world order is hard to achieve given the way we view time. We abide by linear chronological time (minute to minute, day to day, century to century). The biblical sense of God’s time, on the other hand, is not one dimensional. Mindful that we live in a grace-filled time inspires us to bring about the peace that defines God’s kin-dom on earth. Undertaking this task means we see ourselves as inhabitants of this great planet and citizens of a celestial sphere.
But there are many earthly obstacles in the way. COVID-19, inflation, war, political extremists, dishonesty, and fake news have disengaged us and clouded our perceptions. How can we appreciate what we have in the midst of mistrust and fear? How do we move forward?
Professor of Old Testament Amanda Benckhuysen writes that Lent is a time to “come face to face with the mess we as humans have made of our relationships and of this world … [it is] when we recognize how profoundly broken and how incapable of fixing ourselves we are. For it is in this place of helplessness and disorientation that hope emerges.”
That’s what Jesus did when asked to judge the woman charged with infidelity. (John 8:1-11) He altered preconceived notions of justice. Jesus’s response stunned the accusers by daring them to throw the first stone at her. The late biblical scholar Gail R. O’Day explained that “Jesus treats the woman as the social and human equal of the scribes and Pharisees.” What stops us from advocating a second chance and equal rights for all people?
Jesus linked the past with the present and the future. He shunned the old law of punishment. Instead of judging the woman Jesus urged her to respect her own life. He looked to the future and gave her hope.
Psalm 126:1-6 reminds us: “God has done great things for us; we are filled with joy.” But, not everyone is singing this tune these days. We must rise up like the biblical stars of yesteryear to work for justice today so others can live with dignity and without shame tomorrow.
Hope keeps people moving forward even when there is fear of what the future may hold. Ukrainians are showing us what hope is and how they expect to shine again as a free country.
Earendel is an Old English word meaning rising light. Lent is an old Germanic word for spring, a time of renewed growth and new beginnings. The stories about passion, death and resurrection still inspire us during this Lenten and Easter season. Hearing them again we strive to improve our lives and bring new life to others. There is always still time to do so.
1. Our galaxy, the Milky Way, contains at least 100 billion stars, and the observable universe contains at least 100 billion galaxies.