In the Letter to the Hebrews, we are given an exalted view of what it means to be a human being. The author quotes the sublime Psalm 8:
Who are we that you should be mindful of us. . .? Who is any one of us, that you should care for us, each uniquely? Yet you have made us little less than the angels, and crowned us with glory and honor.
How does God care for us? In a highly focused way. What makes God “God” is an unimaginable intentionality of love for each and every creature, and for each of us. We could say that God’s love is given, not generically, like the rain, but uniquely, like a mother’s love, to each creature. It is Love that sustains us in being. It is as though each creature, each person, each one of us were the only recipient of God’s loving care. And we human beings have been given the gift of aspiring toward that kind of love, to love each person, each part of creation, intentionally and with a sense of wonder.
We can speak, then, of a unique place for the human within God’s creation. For we are not only the intersection of matter and spirit with the capacity to love with intentionality, but we have the reflective capacity to see that, to stand in awe and wonder over this gift. We further have the power to question, as does the Psalmist: Who are we, that you have made us this way? Why do we exist at all, having been drawn out of nothingness by your love? In wonderment, gratitude, and questioning, we discover that from this capacity to love springs forth the capacity to pray: to praise, to adore, to sing and give thanks—intentionally, and with all our being. This is a gift given to no other creature under heaven.
But . . .
In the face of this, so much tragedy, death, sin. Darkness seems to prevail. The gift has been occluded. Day after day after day takes up the story. To be human is also to feel unmoored from God, and God from us. On the one hand, we know God’s love and stand in awe before it; on the other, we are ever waiting for it, as though it had not yet come. It is at times ungraspable, unbelievable. In our daily lives we come to feel like Estragon waiting for Godot—a Godot who never arrives.
Little less than gods? With God’s mercy, this is perhaps one way of trying to express the conundrum of being human. Yet, as the Psalmist elsewhere says (139:6), “All of this is too much for me.” We are left with a gaping openness toward the unanswerable, waiting for God—the God who nevertheless has already offered his love. How do we hold all this together in our mortal state? unfinished…
What can I say? Even their name elicits joy. When I was a kid, my Mom had them planted in the long brick planter on the front of the house. Same glorious color, too. And they’re always a surprise in the middle of January (as are Narcissus). Spring is just around the corner, and I’m ready for it! December was unbearably dark and thankfully the days are gradually lengthening. The squirrels are showing up again, too. Good signs.
The following is the slightly edited text of a homily given at Mission Santa Clara on Sunday, January 6, 2019, the feast of the Epiphany. The Epiphany, or manifestation of God to all peoples, is symbolized by the well-known story of the visit of the Magi to the stable. The Magi are represented as coming from a far-off land, the ultimate exotic outsiders.
Before we close out the Christmas season, we return to the manger. Charming as the story of the Magi may be, it is in fact an odd, even comical, scene. We are back at that same stable, a rustic and dirt poor refuge where the Savior has been born. The shepherds are there, but they were not styled then as the gentle pastoral types we see in manger scenes; they were considered in their own time to be socially marginal yahoos. One commentator compared them to members of a motorcycle gang—threatening and to be avoided. And they were presumably not regular synagogue attendees. Onto this scene, in the boondocks of Bethlehem, arrive the three astrologers, sumptuously clothed, laden with precious gifts. Together with the oxen, donkeys, and the rest, we have a menagerie to entertain the newborn king.
It was “outsiders” not of the Jewish people who first recognized that a “king”—more specific to the Jewish imagination, a Messiah—had been born. These outsiders were in possession of an insight that it would take some time for even Jesus’ own disciples to see and accept. And the people of Jerusalem would persist in perceiving Jesus simply as a country rustic, an irritating rabbi imposter. Yet it was non-Jews who would recognize that in this helpless baby, born in a stable, God had come to save not some, or even many, but all, without distinction. As Paul reminds us: “the Gentiles”—outsiders—“are coheirs, members of the same body, and copartners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (Eph 3:5–6).
It is the outsider, and the outsider in us, the Gentile in us, that God summons to the stable, to come inside, to enter into the ambit of God’s love. There is no judgment here, but only inclusion of and co-partnership with the outsider. This serves as a model of what the church must become. As Pope Francis recently wrote to the US bishops:
The Church. . .bears in her heart and soul the sacred mission of being a place of encounter and welcome not only for her members but for all humanity. It is part of her identity and mission to work tirelessly for all [and to] contribute to unity between individuals and peoples. . .without distinction. For “there does not exist among you Jew or Greek, slave or freeman, male or female. All are on in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28).
What a radical view of reality, for any time, but especially for a time like ours, when rather than imagining ourselves as one in our humanity, we have divided ourselves into tribes, parties, and generations: Boomers vs. Millennials, progressives vs. reactionaries, liberal vs. conservative Catholics, straight and gay, citizens or aliens—marking ourselves off from others and building walls between us. This is the age of identity, a preoccupation that arises when the world seems difficult to map and people feel fearful, fragile, or flung at sea. We turn then, perhaps naturally enough, to what we think we know most intimately—ourselves, our group, and fortify ourselves in an identity essentialism that easily functions as an ideology.
Yet we can delude ourselves by delimiting ourselves within one or even multiple identities. We can paper over the multi-layered complexity of human experience, of our own hidden and interior selves—a complexity that resists sharp demarcation or boundary. And, worse, when we claim identities in a group or tribal way, we can be drawn into impasse, demonization of the other, and dismissal of certain people (the way shepherds were dismissed as ruffians) or writing off whole generations as either too old or too young. The worst outcomes of identity absolutism are truly dreadful, as we have seen on the worldwide political stage and in the tragedies of war and genocide.
There is of course validity to acknowledging our distinctiveness. We may come from a home infused with a culture—be it Italian, Irish, Mexican, Filipino or Vietnamese—where language, food, religion, customs, and family systems are distinctive. This is a good thing. Yet there are some identities, or locales of human experience, such as those of women, of LGBTQ people, and of African-American people, that need to be vigorously asserted within the life of a church that is still exclusionary and inscribes some forms of exclusion in doctrine (namely, the exclusion of women from ordination, and the deficient language about gay sexuality in the Catechism that has led to exclusionary practices). But in seeking an ideal church, we need to keep in mind that in Jesus’ view of the world, there are to be no identities at war with one another, and this must be pressed. Those whom I or we or some might consider to be outsiders are not only to be included, but they are to become co-heirs, co-partners. We are to learn from them and from one another.
This is very difficult for us to grasp and accept, because it threatens the boundaries set by any claim to self-certain identity. It is a little bit scary. Yet it lies at the core of God’s revelation in Jesus. To be a Christian is to live in a fundamental openness to the other, even the radically different, for God may be at work there, and that other may indeed see God in a way that we do not, as did the Magi. This possibility that God is present in the “alien” other is the foundation of Pope Francis’s urging that Catholics not build walls, but welcome refugees, for they are among the outsiders, the “Gentiles” of our time. It is also the foundation for an openness to and embrace of those, like the shepherds, whose very presence might unsettle the comfortable.
Jesus’ deepest identity lay not in his Jewishness, gender or politics. It lay in his intimacy with the mystery of God, whom he called Father. This intimacy anchored him and captured his imagination like a star in the vast heavens. It freed him to transcend boundaries and to welcome the outsider. This began at his birth. The great star that hovered over the stable in Bethlehem was awaiting his gaze. That star remains a reminder today that God’s love is offered to all people, inviting all, without exception, into God’s family, and that our deepest “identity” lies in intimacy with God—an intimacy that frees us and finally dissolves the need for any identity. This is the intimacy that the Magi sought, and which they found, alongside the shepherds, in the poverty of the manger. May it be so for us.
For further reading, the pope’s letter can be found at http://whispersintheloggia.blogspot.com. It is well worth a read. For a reconsideration of the notion of identity in our time, see Kwame Anthony Appiah, The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity (New York: Liveright, 2018).
Yes, the light is shining in the darkness. There is hope. May we see that light this season, and in the year to come—a light that shines in and through the love of friends, the care we give and receive, the ways we try to better the world.
And, yes, there is darkness. We might pray this Christmas that the light of which John speaks may shine on this world, and work a softening of hardened and fearful hearts. May that softening lead the way to stability and safe harbor for migrants and refugees, dignified housing and care for the homeless, an end to the madness of gun violence, true peace where there is war, and an end to regimes of cruelty and discrimination, especially against children, women, and the vulnerable, as well as people of every origin, race and state of life. May that same light illumine the inner recesses of the Catholic Church so that every form of evil can be uprooted. And may it help lead us back to some semblance of calm after a bleak period in our national political life. In all these things, may we one day be able to say, with joy, that “the people walking in darkness have seen a great light” (Isaiah 9:1).
In the midst of so much darkness, we sometimes miss seeing the good. For life really is so grand and wonderful, far beyond telling, and there are so many ways to plunge into it, to relish it. At times we can only express its plenitude in the language of art, music and poetry, and occasionally, in the metaphors of theology. What an inconceivable gift is given us in the gift of human life itself: to know the ecstasy of being a creature endowed with the capacity for reflection and contemplation, a magnificent combination of mind and body, the possibility of giving and receiving love, openness to the infinite Mystery, the capacity to question—and all of this given in freedom. How is it that we could we ever squander any of that? May the light shine in our hearts and heal us where we need healing, and restore to us the hope and joy that we need in order to engage life to the full.
In my own life, the light is shining in and through the love and prayers I have received from you during this time of challenge, and in the care so generously given by the medical team at Stanford. I could not be more blessed, nor more grateful to you all. That shining light helps me live most days in active hope—not hope for a cure, but hope as living anticipation of God. And that leads to a joy that has helped in coping with any discouragement or temptation toward fear. What greater gifts than these?
May you find moments of peace these days, and in the days to come, when we recall the birth of the One who is light come into the world.
“Let it be done to me according to your Word.” (Luke 1:38)
These days we tend to weigh our worth by how much we are accomplishing. We needn’t be a high-level executive, over-achieving college student, or Silicon Valley techie to know this. It is also true of parents busy juggling work and kids, and even older people looking back over their lives sometimes wondering what they have to show for themselves. Even if we do not have overweening ambitions, most of us are prone toward looking at what we have not done, creating bucket lists of things to do before we die. All those things to do, places to see, projects to finish—and only so much time! The race is on.
Today’s Gospel is a summons to hit the pause button. For what we find in this precious moment in the life of Mary is not a rush of activity, certainly not an accomplishment in any ordinary sense. Rather, there is a quiet moment, a passive moment. Mary, strong and active and courageous a woman though she was, and destined to know both the joys and the tragic struggles of life, knew also what it meant not to act solely on her own, but to let herself be acted upon, graced, by God.
There is a difference between Mary’s passive moment, and mere passivity. Passivity is the surrender of our agency to a more powerful person or force; in passivity we yield our freedom. But a passive moment is different: it is an expression of our freedom. It is a motion. Just as every breathing forth is preceded by the passive inhalation, a breathing in, so every free, active motion is preceded by a free passive motion, Mary’s fiat—be it done to me according to your word—is her breathing in, a “yes” expressed as a passive motion, undertaken by a human being quite capable of moral agency in her own right. Out of her freedom, she allows God to speak, and she listens. In this passive moment of quietude, she takes in what is being said to her, and she ponders it so as to accept it. She lets God in.
This yin-yang motion between the passive and the active starts in the womb, where, through our mothers, we undergo a prolonged passive “moment” before birth, and concludes in our death, another passive moment. The saintly former Jesuit Superior General, Pedro Arrupe, offered the following words upon his own prolonged passive moment, following a debilitating stroke that would lead to his death:
More than ever I find myself in the hands of God. This is what I have wanted all my life from my youth. But now there is a difference; the initiative is entirely with God. It is indeed a profound spiritual experience to know and feel myself so totally in God’s hands.
—these words, from a man of extraordinary life activity, but who, in his wisdom, knew that the end was a moment of complete surrender—a passive motion.
As the festival of the Nativity draws near, and the quiet of winter envelops us, may we remind ourselves of the importance, the final real value, of the passive moments that can lead to profound inner peace, freedom, and, as in the case of Mary, even unimagined good.
The following is taken from a homily given earlier this week.It is based the Advent readings from Isaiah 35, Psalm 85, and the Lukan Gospel which describes a paralyzed man lowered from the roof by his friends so that he can meet Jesus. That mass was also the occasion to remember the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Thomas Merton, the remarkable Trappist monk who still inspires us.
The prophet Isaiah speaks to the people of Israel who are in exile from Jerusalem, having been uprooted from their homeland and sent to Babylon—not unlike the Rohingya people of today who have been forced out of Myanmar, or other immigrants and exiles.He gives them a vision of a world the captives can scarcely imagine, a world where they will be freed from their misery and return to Jerusalem, singing with joy as they move along what Isaiah calls the “holy road” being paved for them. Rather than impasse and frustration, setback and fear, there would now be the promise of home, where kindness, justice, and truthfulness would reign—just the opposite of what they were experiencing in the world they were inhabiting—a world of cruelty, injustice, and lies.But they had to overcome their fears, and trust that they would see an end to their nightmare, despite all apparent odds.
Trust also abounds in this Gospel reading. Those who trust in Jesuscontrive to lower the man through the roof so that he might encounter Jesus face to face.They believed deeply and acted eagerly to help the lame man.Jesus saw that and loved them, offering them the gift of shalom, freedom from their sins.And it is easy to imagine the man lowered through the roof, trusting the help and strength of his friends, and the stability of the roof itself—hopeful for a solution to his predicament.
Trust is one of the hardest things for any or us to muster, for it means giving up the urge to have control over events, over our lives, and even our bodies.It means having the humility to accept the help that comes our way, of letting ourselves be lowered from the roof. The ultimate trust is not the faith that God will heal us, but is that trust required to surrender our lives to God, ultimately in our dying and death: of letting go completely. That degree of trust is extremely difficult to accept, for we want to hold on; we want to be in control. But, in the end, we must let go and allow God to be with us.
On this commemoration of Thomas Merton, one of his well-known prayers seems particularly fitting:
My Lord God,
I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
nor do I really know myself,
and the fact that I think I am following your will
does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you
does in fact please you.
And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road,
though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore will I trust you always though
I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.
I will not fear, for you are ever with me,
and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.
The past couple of days have been beautiful here—good walking weather. Yesterday, I espied this dandelion in the grass: And today, suddenly there appeared two new lemons—the first to appear on Mom’s old bush (transplanted from Sacramento) since December 2016. These are the little things (miracles) that lift us from the Winter doldrums.
For those of you who might have been wondering, Mr. Cactus Head says hello. He is doing just fine. His table is newly surrounded by red and white cyclamen for Christmas (not shown here), as well as violas and the usual other stuff, such as the red bougainvillea on the fence in back, and the shamrocks and succulents on his table. Those bare branches in the background belong to an old bonsai ginkgo tree from Palo Alto. Note his purple crown– in a few months it will be sprouting brilliant magenta flowers. He’s happy.
The following is taken from a brief homily given at the noon Mass at Santa Clara Mission on Tuesday, November 27. This is the week between the end of the liturgical year (last Sunday) and the start of Advent, this coming Sunday– a season of hope. The church continues, however, to offer readings from the Book of Revelation and apocalyptic passages from the gospels. “Apocalypse,” by the way, means “unveiling”-— and it is helpful to ponder what may be unveiled, or disclosed, in the darker moments of our lives, and of the age in which we live.
In these days leading up to Advent, we continue to be treated to explosive imagery, now in the gospels themselves. Each of the Synoptic gospels has a “little apocalypse,” giving us a sense of the outlook of people in the wake of the Roman siege of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD. These little apocalypses disclose the panic and fear that people were feeling at the time—perhaps not unlike the fear people today feel in the wake of mass shootings, megafires, hurricanes, climate change, ecological devastation, the resurgence of anti-Semitism and racism, the worldwide surging of refugees seeking safe haven from violence and death, the implosion of institutions and the moral instability of our elected leaders. And each of us has our own “little apocalypses”— life-changing tragedies, losses, or impossibilities with which we must somehow cope. In the Gospel today, the memory of Jesus is set within the context of such a wide amphitheater of suffering and fear. Yet he counsels: Do not be terrified; do not be afraid. I am here; God remains present in the midst of all of this.
What this means is that we have good reason to enter into the present historical moment in a spirit of courage, even of hope. And we can face our own “apocalypses” with courage, too. Yes we must always work against the forces of evil and falsehood in our midst; Jesus warns against false leaders who would manipulate fear with their lies (and of this we have ample evidence; there are Herods in every generation). But, Jesus points out, the real sense of crisis we experience does not point to the end of the world in a literal sense—only to the end of the world as we know it. For, in the eyes of a hope-filled faith, these crisis points, these signs, are oblique harbingers of a “new heaven and a new earth” (Rev 21) that God is already bringing about, even though we cannot always see this happening because of our creaturely myopia and fear of change. Yet we have the assurance that nothing whatsoever, no form of suffering and not even death itself, can stand between us and the love of God in Jesus Christ (Rom 8). Love is the one thing that remains and upon which we can build a future.
In times of fear, then, and even in the face of death, we are not alone. We can move forward in courage on a road paved by hope.
It seems fitting that this last week of the liturgical year features readings from the Apocalypse (aka Revelation), replete as it is with images of a world gone awry and a final conflagration.
The other day someone wondered out loud to me whether we were not in the midst of the end times. I could understand her wonderment. The events to which we awaken each morning, one tragedy cascading upon another, are enough to overwhelm the most stout-hearted.Here in California, the earth itself seems to have revolted.And we are, each of us, continually faced with new personal challenges, some with the challenge simply to survive in a heartless world.It is easy—too easy—to succumb to the view that everything is winding down into a dystopian morass.
But I found myself answering my friend’s quandary by saying, “I do not believe in end times.”Yes, of course, I can imagine that one day the cosmos as we know it will sputter to a close, although there is plenty of philosophical warrant to suggest that what we call creation transcends time and is endowed with an eternality dependent on God.And, yes, it is obvious that in the course of human history, moral and natural catastrophes have happened due to human agency, and that we have fallen into massive darkness. I can imagine that there was a temptation among some of the Jews in Hitler’s camps to wonder about the end times, too.
What I meant by saying that I do not believe in “end times” was that I do not believe that human life in history, no matter how dark, leads to an end that we can actually mark or clearly know.Life is too turgid for that, too chaotic and unpredictable.It therefore makes no real sense to conclude that we really know what’s going on.
The expanse of evil and of suffering is such that we cannot finally make sense of it or pin reasons to its existence.Creation is chaotic, and the human factor makes it even more so.To try to make clear sense of how a “good God” can be reconciled with this fact is well-nigh futile, for God eludes such categories.While we cannot accept the darkness of the human heart when it triumphs in sin, we do have to accept the ultimate mystery of evil as something we cannot solve by inserting it into a box labeled “the end times.”
The only sure “end time” is the moment of death, which will visit each of us sooner or later.Death marks the end of time, indeed the end of the world as we know it.But death in and of itself, is not an apocalyptic event. It may occur within what seem to be end times, and it may come violently; but it is in itself, on a creaturely level, a natural event, the way that we fall more deeply into the ambit of God’s embrace—even if that death comes as an affront to life and to God.As I said to my friend, we human beings are called to live in a hope deeper than the certainties of despair.
And people do.The outpouring of revulsion over what has happened to us as a people in the wake of yet another shooting; pathos over the tragedies people endure by dint of climate-induced natural disasters; the empathy we can feel for one another as we suffer; the love we miraculously share despite all odds; the prayers we offer from our hearts—these are all signs of a hope that shines through the falling embers and that will one day light the entire sky again.
Far from end times, these signs of hope point to new beginnings, new life. The Book of Revelation, with all those awful images, concludes on such a hopeful note:
Now the dwelling of God is with human beings, and he will live with them. God will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. He who was seated on the throne said, “Look: I am making all things new.”