Jesus Was a Radical Feminist: Homily for 13th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Bleeding Woman

Sunday’s Readings: Wisdom 1:13-16, 2:23-24; Ps. 30:2, 4-6, 11-13; 2Cor. 8:7, 9, 13-16; Mk. 5:21-43

My wife, Peggy, is a radical feminist. As director of the Women and Gender Studies Program at Berea College in Kentucky, she has always been so.

Whenever we discuss world issues, my tendency is to trace their roots to capitalism. Peggy’s is to find their origins in patriarchy. Capitalism itself, she says, is founded on patriarchy. Until we realize that and address the influence of patriarchy, nothing can really change.

She goes on. Ironically, patriarchy has men making decisions for women on issues that impact females much more directly than males – matters such as contraception, maternity leave, funding for childcare, abortion, wage disparity between men and women, the Equal Rights Amendment, and wages for housework. All of that, she adds, has to change.

I find Peggy’s logic and criticism compelling. This morning’s gospel reading indicates that Jesus would too.

In fact, the gospels in general show Jesus himself to be a radical feminist. In addressing specifically female issues, he favored women who spoke for themselves and courageously exercised their own initiative. Jesus even praised women who disobeyed laws aimed against them precisely as women. He ended up preferring the disobedient ones to females who were passive captives of the religious patriarchy. To repeat: we find an example of such radical feminism on the part of Jesus in today’s reading from the Mark’s gospel.

First of all, consider Mark’s literary strategy. In today’s reading he creates a “literary sandwich” – a “story within a story.” The device focuses on two kinds of females within the Jewish faith of Jesus’ day. In fact, Mark’s gospel is liberally sprinkled with doublets like the one just described. When they appear, both stories are meant to play off one another and illuminate each other.

In today’s doublet, we find two women. One is just entering puberty at the age of 12; the other has had a menstrual problem for the entire life span of the adolescent girl. (Today we’d call her condition a kind of menorrhagia.) So, to begin with the number 12 is centralized. It’s a literary “marker” suggesting that the narrative has something to do with the twelve tribes of Israel – and in the early church, with the apostolic leadership of “the twelve.” The connection with Israel is confirmed by the fact that the 12-year old in the story is the daughter of a synagogue official. As a man in a patriarchal culture, he can approach Jesus directly and speak for his daughter.

The other woman in the doublet has no man to speak for her; she has to approach Jesus covertly and on her own. She comes from the opposite end of the socio-economic spectrum from the 12-year old daughter of the synagogue leader. The older woman is without honor. She is poor and penniless. Her menstrual problem has rendered her sterile, and so she’s considered technically dead by her faith community.

Her condition has also excluded her from the synagogue. In the eyes of community leaders like Jairus, the petitioning father in the story, she is “unclean.” (Remember that according to Jewish law, all women were considered unclean during their monthly period. So, the woman in today’s drama is exceedingly unclean. She and all menstruating women were not to be touched.)

All of that means that Jairus as a synagogue leader is in effect the patriarchal oppressor of the second woman. On top of that, the older woman in the story has been humiliated, exploited, and impoverished by the male medical profession which has been ineffective in addressing her condition.

In other words, the second woman is the victim of a misogynist religious system which, by the way, saw the blood of animals as valuable and pleasing in God’s eyes, but the blood of women as repulsively unclean.

Nonetheless, it is the bleeding woman who turns out to be the hero of the story. Her faith is so strong that she believes a mere touch of Jesus’ garment will suffice to restore her to life, and that her action won’t even be noticed. So, she reaches out and touches the Master. Doing so was extremely bold and highly disobedient to Jewish law, since her touch would have rendered Jesus himself unclean. She refuses to believe that.

Instead of being made unclean by the woman’s touch, Jesus’ being responds by exuding healing power, apparently without his even being aware. The woman is cured. Jesus asks, “Who touched me?” The disciples object, “What do you mean? Everybody’s touching you,” they say.

Finally, the unclean woman is identified. Jesus praises her faith and (significantly!) calls her “daughter.” (What we therefore end up finding in this literary doublet are two Jewish “daughters” – yet another point of comparison.)

While Jesus is attending to the bleeding woman, the first daughter in the story apparently dies. Jesus insists on seeing her anyhow. When he observes that she is merely asleep, the bystanders laugh him to scorn. But Jesus is right. When he speaks to her in Aramaic, the girl awakens and is hungry. Mark records Jesus’ actual words. The Master says, “Talitha Kumi,” i.e. “Wake up!” Everyone is astonished, and Jesus has to remind them to feed her.

What does all the comparison mean? The doublet represented in today’s Gospel addresses issues that couldn’t be more female – more feminist. The message here is that bold and active women unafraid of disobeying the religious patriarchy will save our world from death. It will awaken us from our death-like slumber.
“Believe and act like the bleeding woman” is the message of today’s Gospel. “Otherwise our world will be for all practical purposes dead.”

Could this possibly mean that feminist faith like that of the hero in today’s Gospel will ultimately be our salvation from patriarchy? Is our reading calling us to a world led by women rather than the elderly, white, out-of-touch men who overwhelmingly claim hold elective office?

My Peggy would say yes.

Today’s Gospel, she would say, suggests that it’s time for men to stop telling women how to be women – to stop pronouncing on issues of female sexuality whether it be menstruation, abortion, contraception, same-sex attractions, or whether women are called by God to the priesthood.

Correspondingly, it’s time for women to disobey such male pronouncements, and to exercise leadership in accord with their common sense – in accord with women’s ways of knowing. Only that will save our world which is currently sick unto death.

Talitha Kumi! It’s time to wake up.

Jeff Sessions as Mullah: His Christianist Version of Sharia Law

immigrant mothers

Last Wednesday and Thursday were the most theological days I can remember.

It all revolved around the Trump administration’s practice of separating children from their immigrant parents, including tearing nursing infants from the breasts of their mothers and the attendant prospect of “baby jails.”

To begin with, the Roman Catholic Bishops’ Conference condemned such policy as clearly immoral.

Even evangelical Trump supporter, Franklin Graham, called the Trump policy “disgraceful.”

In response, Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, offered his best imitation of the Islamic theocrats his type loves to vilify. Instead of invoking U.S. law, the Constitution, or legal and historical precedent, the nation’s leading law enforcement agent decided to justify Trump policy theologically. He claimed that the apostle Paul would endorse it, since the program comes from government, which Sessions declared enjoys ipso facto divine authority.

Sharia Law, anyone?

More specifically, the AG referenced Romans 13. He said, “I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13 to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order.”

The next day, Mr. Trump’s press secretary, Sarah Sanders followed suit averring that “It is very biblical to enforce the law.”

Such theological debate invites refutation.

The first response is that Paul obviously could not have meant that all government legislation reflects the will of God. That would mean not only that the U.S. slave system was divinely approved, but that the decrees of Genghis Kahn, Hitler, and Stalin enjoyed divine approbation.

Even closer to home, the Sessions interpretation of Romans 13 would mean that Jesus himself, Paul, and all the great Christian martyrs – not to mention religiously-motivated champions of civil disobedience like Martin King and Mohandas Gandhi – were all condemned by God.

On the contrary, all of them (including Gandhi), drew inspiration from the example of biblical prophets who made a point of disobeying laws which routinely claimed divine origin.

In fact, Jesus’ defense for breaking the most inviolable law of his time, the Sabbath Law, was that law’s very purpose was to serve human beings. Laws contradicting such humanitarian purpose, he implied, have no authority at all.

So, what, then, did Paul intend by his words, “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God”?

Try this:
• Authority means the power or right to give orders, make decisions, and enforce obedience.
• All such power comes from God and God’s law.
• Government legislation reflecting God’s law must be obeyed.
• Obviously, all other laws must be disobeyed.
• According to Jesus’ teachings, God’s law is to treat others as you would like to be treated with special care for the poor, widows, orphans, and immigrants.

In the end, the great Dr. William Barber II, the dynamic animator of the contemporary Poor People’s Campaign gave the best response to the self-serving absurdity and hypocrisy of Mullah Sessions’ invocation of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Barber called their interpretations “heresy” and said:

“First of all, (they’re) misinterpreting that text. Paul actually was arrested by the government, because Christians challenged the government. That’s one of the reasons Paul ends up getting killed. . . Second of all, the Bible is clear, from the Old Testament to the New Testament, that one of God’s primary concerns is that we care for the stranger, that we do not rob children of their rights, and mothers of their children, that we welcome the stranger and make sure that the stranger, the immigrant, the undocumented person, is treated like a brother or sister. You cannot find anywhere where Jesus or the prophets would say anything like what Sessions said.”

Today it’s immigrants. One wonders about the next victims of Sessions’ Christian counterpart of Sharia Law. Beware!

How the Eucharist Transforms Us (Not Bread) into the Body of Christ

One Loaf

This Sunday Catholics celebrate the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ. Before the Second Vatican Council (1962-’65), it was called Corpus Christi (Latin for “the Body of Christ”).

It’s a day when restorationist priests will preach “Catholic” fundamentalist and literalist notions of Jesus’ “Real Presence” in the “Blessed Sacrament” that even St. Augustine rejected way back in the 4th century. He wrote: “Can Christ’s limbs be digested? Of course, not!”

Most thinking Catholics have come to similar conclusions. But rather than see the beautiful symbolism of the Eucharist’s shared bread, many of them have simply rejected the ideas of “Holy Sacrifice” and “Real Presence” as childhood fantasies akin to belief in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy.

To my mind, that’s tragic. That’s because such rejection represents a dismissal of Jesus’ insightful and salvific teaching about the unity of all creation. In an era of constant global war, that teaching is needed more than ever. It’s contained in the Master’s words, “This is my body . . . this is my blood . . . Do this in remembrance of me?”

Let me explain.

To begin with, according to contemporary historical theologians like Hans Kung, the Great Reformers of the 16th century had it right: The Eucharist of the early church was no sacrifice. It was a commemoration of “The Lord’s Supper.” The phrase however does not refer to “The Last Supper” alone. Instead it references all the meals Jesus shared with friends as he made meal-sharing rather than Temple sacrifice the center of his reform movement, from the wedding feast at Cana (JN2:1-12), through his feeding of 5000 (MK 6:31-44) and then of 4000 (MK 8: 1-9), through his supper at the Pharisee’s home (LK 7:36-50), and with the tax collector Zacchaeus (LK 19:1-10), through the Last Supper (MK 14:12-26), and Emmaus (LK 24:13-35), and his post-resurrection breakfast with his apostles (JN 21:12). Jesus treated shared meals as an anticipatory here-and-now experience of God’s Kingdom.

But why? What’s the connection between breaking bread together and the “salvation” Jesus offers? Think about it like this:

Besides being a prophet, Jesus was a mystic. Like all mystics, he taught the unity of all life.

“Salvation” is the realization of that unity. In fact, if we might sum up the central insight of the great spiritual masters and avatars down through the ages, it would be ALL LIFE IS ONE. That was Jesus’ fundamental teaching as well.

That was something even uneducated fishermen could grasp. It’s a teaching accessible to any child: All of us are sons (and daughters) of God just as Jesus was. Differences between us are only apparent. In the final analysis, THERE IS REALLY ONLY ONE OF US HERE. In a sense, then we are all Jesus. The Christ-Self (or Krishna-Self or Buddha-Self) is our True Self. God has only one Son and it is us. When we use violence against Muslims and immigrants, we are attacking no one but ourselves. What we do to and for others we literally do to and for ourselves.

That’s a profound teaching. It’s easy to grasp, but extremely difficult to live out.

Buddhists sometimes express this same insight in terms of waves on the ocean. In some sense, they say, human beings are like those waves which appear to be individual and identifiable as such. Like us, if they had consciousness, the waves might easily forget that they are part of an infinitely larger reality. Their amnesia would lead to great anxiety about the prospect of ceasing to be. They might even see other waves as competitors or enemies. However, recollection that they are really one with the ocean and all its waves would remove that anxiety. It would enable “individual” waves to relax into their unity with the ocean, their larger, more powerful Self. All competition, defensiveness, and individuality would then become meaningless.

Something similar happens to humans, Buddhist masters tell us, when we realize our unity with our True Self which is identical with the True Self of every other human being. In the light of that realization, all fear, defensiveness and violence melt away. We are saved from our own self-destructiveness.

Similarly, Buddhists use the imagery of the sun. As its individual beams pass through clouds, they might get the idea that they are individuals somehow separate from their source and from other sunbeams which (again) they might see as competitors or enemies. But all of that is illusory. All light-shafts from the sun are really manifestations emanating from the same source. It’s like that with human beings too. To repeat: our individuality is only apparent. THERE IS REALLY ONLY ONE OF US HERE.

In his own down-to-earth way, Jesus expressed the same classic mystical insight not in terms of waves or sunbeams, but of bread. Human beings are like a loaf of bread, he taught. The loaf is made up of many grains, but each grain is part of the one loaf. Recognizing the loaf’s unity, then breaking it up, and consuming those morsels together is a powerful reminder that all of life — all of us – are really one. In a sense, that conscious act of eating a single loaf strengthens awareness of the unity that otherwise might go unnoticed and uncelebrated.

Paul took Jesus’ insight a step further. In his writings (the earliest we have in the New Testament) he identifies Christ as the True Self uniting us all. Our True Self is the Christ within. In other words, what Jesus called “the one loaf” Paul referred to as the one Body of Christ.

All of Jesus’ followers, the apostle taught, make up that body.

Evidently, the early church conflated Jesus’ insight with Paul’s. So, their liturgies identified Jesus’ One Loaf image with Paul’s Body of Christ metaphor. In this way, the loaf of bread becomes the body of Christ. Jesus is thus presented as blessing a single loaf, breaking it up, and saying, “Take and eat. This is my body.”

And there’s more – the remembrance part of Jesus’ “words of institution.” They are connected with Paul’s teaching about “The Mystical Body of Christ.” His instruction is found in I COR: 12-12-27:

“12 There is one body, but it has many parts. But all its many parts make up one body. It is the same with Christ. 13 We were all baptized by one Holy Spirit. And so, we are formed into one body. It didn’t matter whether we were Jews or Gentiles, slaves or free people. We were all given the same Spirit to drink. 14 So the body is not made up of just one part. It has many parts. . .
You are the body of Christ. Each one of you is a part of it.”

Here it’s easy to see the beauty of Paul’s image. We are all members of Christ’s body (Paul’s fundamental metaphor for that human-unity insight I explained). As individual members, we each have our functions – as eye, ear, nose, foot, or private parts. However, the fact that we live separately can lead us to forget that we are all members of the same body. So, it helps to RE-MEMBER ourselves occasionally – to symbolically bring our separate members together. That’s what “re-membering” means in this context. That’s what the Eucharist is: an occasion for getting ourselves together – for recalling that we are the way Christ lives and works in the world today.

In the final analysis, that’s the meaning of Jesus’ injunction: “Do this to RE-MEMBER me. And then afterwards – as a re-membered Christ, act together as I would.”

Do you see how rich, how poetic, how complex and mysterious all of that is – ocean waves, sunbeams, bread, Christ’s body, re-membering?

It’s powerful. The Eucharist is a meal where the many and separate members of Christ’s body are re-membered so they might subsequently act in a concerted way in imitation of Christ.

That’s why it’s important to recover and make apparent the table fellowship character of The Lord’s Supper. It is not a Jewish or Roman sacrifice; it is a shared meal.

The world our grandchildren will inherit needs everything symbolized by all of that. The Eucharist is not childish fantasy. It’s a counter-cultural challenge to our era’s individualism, ethnocentrism, and perpetual war.

Keep that in mind this Sunday, when your priest lectures you on “the real presence.” The real presence is us.

With Dr. King, We Must ‘Break the Silence’

Worse than ISIS

Readings for Third Sunday of Easter: Acts 3: 15, 17-18; PS 4: 2, 4, 7-9; I JN 2: 1-5A; LK 34: 24-32; LK 24: 35-48

With so much talk of war these days, it’s time to follow the example of Dr. Martin Luther King and once again break silence about our country’s evil character. Yes: it’s character is evil! We’re a war-mongering country, a terrorist country. As King said 51 years ago this month, we’re “the world’s greatest purveyor of violence.”

It’s time to face up to the fact that the United States has been taken over by Christianists far more violent than the Islamists we excoriate. To wit: “we” stand ready to risk all-out nuclear war with Russia. “Our” reason? An alleged chemical weapons attack by Bashar al-Assad, the president of Syria. Our indisputable proof? None at all! It’s Iraq all over again!

And the hell of it is that to these Christian extremists, nuclear holocaust – the destruction of the planet – is acceptable, even desirable, because it will assure the Second Coming of the very Jesus who is presented in today’s Gospel selection as the great bringer of peace.

Just to be clear: No Muslims threaten the world with equivalent religious extremism.

(BTW If you think that statements like the above are unfair, because not all — not even the majority — of Christians hold such beliefs, think about how Muslims feel, when the views of their extremists are similarly universalized.)

In their zealotry, the fundamentalists in Washington somehow ignore the fact that the first words of the risen Jesus repeated in today’s Gospel (as they were in last week’s reading), are “Peace be with you.” They ignore the Jesus who was completely non-violent. He preached the Golden Rule. He said we should love our enemies. He accepted his own death rather than defend himself, his friends, or family. He died praying for his enemies.

Moreover, the Christianists in Washington are completely hypocritical. In the name of the international law, they’re outraged by the “dozens” perhaps killed in the alleged Syrian chemical weapons attacks. Meanwhile, they’ve killed more than a million Iraqis in a completely illegal war. Daily, they assassinate suspected terrorists, including American citizens, with death squads now mechanized as drones.

Meanwhile in Yemen, the poorest country in the Middle East, and in clear violation of international restrictions and the U.S. Constitution, those same Christian extremists have caused the deaths of thousands and threaten the lives of millions.

More specifically, since 2014, they have been responsible for the deaths of 10,000 and for the injury of 40,000 more. They’ve caused a devastating cholera epidemic and a famine that the UN describes as “the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.”

It’s all been the result of a U.S.-supported Saudi bombing campaign that directly targets hospitals, water supply sources, and sewage treatment plants – all prohibited be international law. In the process, the U.S. supplies those medieval Saudi kings with weapons, targeting information, and airborne refueling services. Pure terrorism!

Face it: our crimes in Yemen represent a far, far worse violation of international law than the alleged chemical weapons attack in Syria.

Yes: today, King’s words ring truer than ever. We continue to be “The world’s greatest purveyor of violence!” We’re a terrorist nation.

And how do the Christianists get around Jesus’ clear words? Typically, they spiritualize today’s Gospel greeting. “Peace be with you.” They say it refers to the interior peace that passes understanding.

How reminiscent of the Nazis who went to Mass, meditated and enjoyed “inner peace” on Sundays, while for the rest of the week they stoked ovens where they incinerated communists, socialists, blacks, homosexuals, and Jews!

Inner peace is fine. However, reality in the belly of the beast suggests that such spiritualizing is out-of-place. We need to be reminded that inner tranquility is impossible for citizens of a rogue nation. None of us should enjoy inner peace today.

Rather than giving us comfort, pastors should be telling us that there can be no interior peace for terrorist Christian fundamentalists. They — our nation’s officials — are traitors to the Risen Christ!

Focusing on a utopian interior peace and denouncing transgressions of international law while butchering children across the globe is simply obscene.

It’s time for all of us to face up to the facts. It’s time to join the martyred Dr. King in breaking our silence!

Scrap Thomas’ Denialism Before It’s Too Late: We’re in a Situation Worse than Nazi Germany

Hitler bishops

Readings for 1st Sunday after Easter: ACTS 4:32-35; PS 118L 2-4, 13-15, 22-24; 1JN 5: 1-6; JN 20: 19-31

Last Sunday, which was both Easter and April Fools’ Day, I published my monthly column in the Lexington Herald-Leader. It pulled no punches. As a matter of fact, I was surprised that the Leader’s editors decided to print it.

My column contrasted the fact that fully 70-75% of Americans claim to be followers of Christ. They say they believe in Jesus’ resurrection – in the triumph of life over death. And yet, as a culture, we remain necrophobic, necrophilic, and entirely denying the direction of history announced in Jesus’ resurrection.

On the one hand, we’re overwhelmingly afraid of death. Despite the words of our national anthem, ours is not the home of the brave. Quite the opposite. Even our police officers are granted unrestricted license to kill if they simply allege, “I feared for my life.” Evidently, they’re all dreadful necrophobes.

On the other hand, we Americans love death and killing. The movies we patronize are about almost nothing else. Our constant solution to almost any problem you care to name is “Arm them!” “Fight them!” “Kill them!” “Nuke ’em!”

Yet, face it: Jesus could endorse none of that. He was completely non-violent and courageous in facing death. Along with every spiritual genius I can think of, he said we should treat others exactly the way we would want to be treated – because they are us. In effect, he taught that killing another person amounts to suicide.

So, Jesus refused to take up arms to save himself, his friends, or his family. If you live by the sword, he promised, you will die by that same instrument. Jesus prayed for his executioners. He said we should love our enemies, not kill them.

As a collective faith community, Christians are sadly in denial about the clear political meaning of those facts. No follower of Jesus should ever take up arms. The irony is that accepting that reality alone has the power to save our species and planet.

My column went further. Echoing Noam Chomsky, it alleged that the U.S. has been taken over by the most dangerous organization in the history of the world – viz. by the Republican Party. Despite its Christian pretensions, its positions on climate change and nuclear war make it worse, I said, than the forces of Attila the Hun, worse than ISIS, the Taliban, or Hitler’s Nazis.

The Republicans and supporting conservative Democrats place greed for money over the lives of our children and grandchildren. How dare they! Who gave those greedy few the authority to decide for 7 billion people? Why aren’t we all up in arms – precisely in Jesus’ name?

Usually when I publish such thoughts in the Leader, readers’ responses are quite vehemently negative. But do you know what happened this time? Not a single negative comment. Instead I received a whole series of supportive e-mails and word-of-mouth comments completely agreeing with my sentiments.

“You really let it all hang out there, Mike,” was a typical remark, “but I agree with every word you wrote.”

What can that mean, I wonder. If so many of us believe that our country has been taken over by forces more insidious than Hitler’s, and if Jesus is who his words and actions say he is, how can we stand by idly and watch it happen? Are we, the people, about to rebel? Are we approaching a tipping point? Have we gone beyond the denial that is no longer tenable?

Such questions are relevant in the light of the Gospel reading for this First Sunday after Easter. It’s about a man in denial about Jesus’ identity. The man meets the risen Christ (the champion of life over death), recognizes God in him, and changes profoundly as a result.

Of course, I’m referring to the original doubting Thomas. His nickname was “the twin” perhaps because he’s our twin in cowardice and hopefully in faith. Recall his story. Pray that it can be ours as well. If not, our “Christian”-dominated culture is beyond redemption.

The disciples are there in the Upper Room where they had so recently broken bread with Yeshua the night before he died. And they are all afraid. John says they are afraid of “the Jews.” However, it seems, like us, they fear death more than anything else. They dread it because they are convinced that death spells the end of everything they hold dear – their ego-selves, families, friends, culture, and their small pleasures. Besides that, they are afraid of the pain that will accompany arrest – the isolation cells, the beatings, torture, the unending pain, and the final blow that will bring it all to a close. Surely, they were questioning their stupidity in following that failed radical from Galilee.

So, they lock the doors, huddle together and turn in on themselves.

Nevertheless, the very fears of the disciples and recent experience make them rehearse the events of their past few days. They recall the details: how Yeshua so bravely faced up to death and refused to divulge their names even after undergoing “the third degree” – beatings followed by the dreaded thorn crown, and finally by crucifixion. All the while, he remained silent refusing to name the names his Roman interrogators were looking for. He died protecting his friends. Yeshua was brave and loyal.

His students are overwhelmingly grateful for such a Teacher. . .

Then suddenly, the tortured one materializes there in their midst. Locks and fears were powerless to keep him out. They all see him. They speak with him. He addresses their fears directly. “Peace be with you,” he repeats three times. Yeshua eats with them just as he had the previous week. Suddenly his friends realize that death was not the end for the Teacher. He makes them understand that it is not the end for them either – nor for anyone else who risks life and limb for the kingdom of God. No doubt everyone present is overwhelmed with relief and intense joy.

“Too bad Thomas is missing this,” they must have said to one another.

Later on, Thomas arrives – our fraternal double in fear and disbelief. His absence remains unexplained. Something had evidently called him away when the others evoked Jesus’ presence by their prayer, recollections, and sharing of bread and wine. Like us, he hasn’t met the risen Lord.

“Jesus is alive,” they tell our twin. “He’s alive in the realm of God. He took us all with him to that space for just a moment, and it was wonderful. Too bad you missed it, Thomas. None of the rules of this world apply where Yeshua took us. It was just like it was before he died. Don’t you remember? Yeshua brought us to a realm full of life and joy. Fear no longer seems as reasonable as it once did. He was here with us!”

However, Thomas remains unmoved. Like so many of us, he’s is a literalist, a downer. He’s an empiricist looking for the certainty of physical proof. Thomas is also a fatalist; he evidently believes that what you see is what you get. And for him there has been no indication that life can be any different from what his senses have always told him. Life is tragic. Death is stronger than life; it ends everything. And that means that Yeshua is gone forever. Who could be so naïve as to deny that?

Our twin in unfaith protests, “In the absence of physical proof to the contrary, I simply cannot bring myself to share your faith that another way of life is possible. And make no mistake: Yeshua’s enemies haven’t yet completed their bloody work. They’re after us too.”

Can’t you see Thomas glancing nervously behind him? “Are you sure those doors are locked?”

Then lightning strikes again. Yeshua suddenly materializes a second time in the same place. Locks and bolts, fear and terror – death itself – again prove powerless before him.

Yeshua is smiling. “Thomas, I missed you,” he says. “Look at my wounds. It’s me!”

Thomas’ face is bright red. Everyone’s looking at him. “My God, it is you,” he blurts out. “I’m so sorry I doubted.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Yeshua assures. “You’re only human, and I know what that’s like, believe me. I too knew overwhelming doubt. Faith is hard. On death row, my senses told me that my Abba had abandoned me too. I almost gave up hope. It’s like I’m your twin.

“But then I decided to surrender. And I’m happy I did. My heart goes out to you, Thomas. My heart goes out to all doubters. I’ve been there.

“However, it’s those who can commit themselves to God’s promised future in the absence of physical proof that truly amaze and delight me. Imagine trusting life’s goodness and an unseen future characterized by non-violence! Imagine trusting my word that much, when I almost caved in myself? That’s what I really admire!

“My prayer for you, Thomas, and for everyone else is that you’ll someday experience the joy that kind of faith brings. Working for God’s peace – for fullness of life for everyone – even in the face of contrary evidence – that’s what faith is all about. May it be yours.”

My point in writing that Easter Sunday article was something similar.

If 70-75% of us truly followed Jesus and left behind both our necrophobia and necrophilia, we’d get out in the streets and bring down the arrogant impostors who have seized power in this country. None of them would be able to resist such numbers in revolt.

Pray that Thomas’ transformation and faith might be ours as well, and that a tipping point has been reached or is on the way. The future of our world literally depends on it.

We need to overcome the faithless denial our love of violence and death suggests. That’s the call of today’s Gospel.

The Unschooled Prophet Shouts Down the Learned Rabbi (a one-minute Sunday reflection)

Readings for the Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Truth to Power

He strides into the synagogue
Stinking whores, beggars and bandits creeping behind.

The presiding rabbi knows why he’s there.
He’s come to disrupt his Holy Mass.
“I know who you are: The Holy One of God”
The robed demon screams in terror.

“You hypocrite!”
The prophet shouts back.
“You know nothing of holiness,
Be gone!”

The devil slinks out, tail between legs
To await another day
Leaving the intruder to teach the enthralled masses.

They all wonder:
“Where did he learn to speak like that?
This workman with calloused hands and patched robes
Unschooled like us.

Truth to power
Maybe we can do the same.”

Yes, maybe we can do the same!

Towards Christmas in the Spirit of Thomas Merton

Merton

Readings for Third Sunday in Advent: IS 61:1-2A, 10-11; LK 1: 46-50; 53-54; I THES 5: 16-24; JN 1: 6-8, 19-28.

Three years ago, I had an important spiritual experience that’s relevant to today’s liturgy of the word. I had the privilege of visiting the hermitage of St. Thomas Merton, the great Trappist mystic. (See my reflections here.)

It all happened in New Haven, Kentucky, just down the road from the Maker’s Mark distillery – far from any great urban centers and nearer to places with names like Bardstown, Paint Lick, and Gravel Switch. The experience inspired counter-cultural thoughts about Christmas. It made me struggle with the question (still unresolved for me): is it possible to once and for all break with this annual orgy of consumerism so counter to the gospel’s commitment to the poor?

At Fr. Louis’ Gethsemane, twenty of us sat in a circle in his living room absorbing the Life Force that still hovers over his simple cinderblock cabin. Trappist Brother Paul, the convener of the Merton Study Group responsible for the event, marvelously channeled “Louie’s” spirit by reading Brother Paul’s own poetic reflection on Matthew’s words, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.”

Paul’s thoughts connected nicely not only with Merton, but with this morning’s readings for this third Sunday of Advent. There, John the Baptizer, his predecessor Isaiah, and Jesus’ own mother Mary reiterate the essential connection between Jesus’ gospel and standing in solidarity with the poor not only in spirit, but in actual fact. As Christmas approaches, the sentiments of the Baptizer, Isaiah and Mary suggest counter-cultural ways of commemorating the birth of the prophet from Nazareth.  I wish I and my family were strong enough to entertain them seriously.

For me those culturally eccentric suggestions began emerging when in the course of his remarks, Brother Paul recalled Sister Emily Dickinson’s words that reflect the mystical dimension of Matthew’s (and presumably Jesus’) understanding of both spiritual and physical poverty. As for the former, Brother Paul defined spiritual poverty as the emptiness reflected in Monk Dickinson’s words,

“I am nobody.

Who are you?

Are you nobody too?

. . . How dreary to be somebody.”

Those words almost paraphrase what John the Baptist says in today’s Gospel selection. When asked who he is, the one identified by Jesus as the greatest man who ever lived (MT 11:11) says in effect, I am a poor man in Emily Dickinson’s sense. I’m a nobody – merely a voice out of nowhere. I am “a voice crying out in the wilderness.”  Only an empty vessel can be filled with the Holy Spirit.

So forget about me, John says, and focus on the one who is to come. His words will set you on fire that will sear everything in you that is not of the Spirit Jesus embodies – everything that separates you from your brothers and sisters, especially material wealth. That kind of self-denial and openness to Jesus’ Holy Spirit is the very definition of Matthew’s spiritual poverty.

And the specific message of the One to come?  (And here’s where material poverty enters the picture.)  Jesus announces the Divine Spirit’s preferential option for the actually poor and its rejection of the materially rich. That bias towards the actually poor is reflected in today’s first reading. As remembered by Luke in Jesus’ preview of his own career, the words of the prophet Isaiah read:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (LK 4: 16-22)

Here Jesus’ focus is real poverty and people subject to captivity and oppression.

As for the Holy Spirit’s rejection of the rich, that is clearly stated in the revolutionary poem attributed to Jesus’ mother and read today as our responsorial hymn. Mary describes her understanding of God with the following words:

“The Mighty One . . . has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”

These are truly revolutionary words about dissolving the ideological mind-sets that unify the rich (“the thoughts of their hearts”), about overthrowing the powers that be (removing them from their thrones), about ending hunger, and rejecting wealth on principle.

The class consciousness reflected in this categorical rejection the rich as such reminds us that in the eyes of Jesus’ mother and (the record shows) of her son, there is something intrinsically wrong with any wealth that differentiates rich from poor. This implies that for Mary and Jesus, poverty is not the opposite of wealth.  Rather, the opposite of wealth is God’s justice – a new order possible in this here and now, in this “year of the Lord’s favor,” as Jesus puts it. There, the rich will be necessarily unseated and the poor will have their fill.

If all of this is true – if God’s salvation means eliminating differences between rich and poor – what are we to do in this world of income gaps, torture, racism and militarized police?  The question is particularly apt at this Christmas season. And Thomas Merton’s monastic spirit along with the testimony of his ascetic counterpart, John the Baptizer, implies answers.  It suggests that at the Christmas season we might do well to:

  • Generally withdraw our allegiance from the cultures of New York and Los Angeles and in spirit draw closer to Paint Lick, Gravel Switch – and Merton’s Gethsemane.
  • Consciously simplify our Christmas celebration this year.
  • On the feast commemorating the birth of a homeless child whose mother saw so clearly the opposition between wealth and justice, imitate John’s simple vestment (and that of the Trappists) by giving our gifts of clothes not to the already well-attired, but to the poor.
  • Imagine what would happen if we took those gifts so carefully wrapped and placed beneath our tree and simply gave them away unopened and at random to poor people and their children as we meet them on the street.
  • In the spirit of John the Baptizer, located far from Jerusalem’s temple, boycott church this Christmas, especially if your community (after distributing its de rigueur Christmas baskets) ignores Mary’s summons to social revolution in favor of “Christmas as usual.”
  • Instead make up our own liturgy (around the Christmas tree) to replace the normal orgy of material gift-exchange.
  • Boycott entirely this year’s “white Christmas” and (in the light of the Black Lives Matter movement) celebrate Kwanzaa instead – telling our children why this year is different.
  • Make a Christmas resolution to at last get serious about changing our lives in 2018 by beginning (or intensifying) the regular practice of prayer (or meditation) in the spirit of John the Baptist, Jesus, his mother and Thomas Merton.
  • Realize that inevitably the cultivation of spiritual emptiness (“nobodiness”) resulting from such regular spiritual practice will lead us to serve others in a way that will address the seemingly intractable problems of poverty (both spiritual and material), hunger, captivity and oppression.

I’m not suggesting that any of this would be easy. Going counter-cultural, especially around an event like Christmas, involves a certain self-emptying. It involves detaching from cultural expectations (not to mention those of our children and other family members). In some sense, it means becoming nobody in front of those who expect us to do what everyone else is doing. In other words, going counter-cultural at Christmas conflicts with what Sister Emily calls our dreary attempts to be somebody.

In fact, the cultural pressures are so strong, that it might be impossible for most of us to withdraw cold-turkey from Christmas as we’ve known it. Still, if we desire to be change agents like John the Baptist, Isaiah, Mary, Jesus and Thomas Merton, we’ve got to start somewhere.

I’m still trying to inch towards something like I’ve just described. Do you have any suggestions that can help me move more quickly?