Sunday, September 14, 2014

I Hate This Cross

Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross

Cycle A

I have just made a beautiful cross for a Catholic church remodeling project I am doing in Malibu, California. It is made of solid black walnut, and is in the shape of a modified Maltese cross, you know, the one with the flared out ends. I chose the wood for it carefully to accentuate the grain. There is even an intricate burl on the lower portion. I put a hand rubbed finish on it to make it look warm and smooth. It truly is a beautiful cross.

I hate this cross.

I hate it because of what I have to do to it next. This cross is to serve as the main sanctuary crucifix in the church, and so it has to be changed from a cross into a crucifix. I have to attach the corpus, or carved figure of Christ, to the cross. That’s what makes it a crucifix. And I have to do it by actually nailing the corpus to the wood of the cross. I have done this several times before with other crosses, and each time I get a feeling of anxiety while doing it. I hate to nail Jesus to the cross.

You may have heard that during the filming of the movie, The Passion of the Christ, Mel Gibson actually held the nails in place as they were being driven into Jesus’ hands, signifying that his sins, and ours, are what affix Jesus to his cross. It is a humbling thought. Every time I nail the hands and feet of the corpus to the cross I think, “What kind of a God do I have? What kind of a God would suffer so much just for me, so that I have the possibility of being with him forever in heaven, even though it is my sins that put him on that cross?”

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son,
so that everyone who believes in him might not perish
but might have eternal life.

The cross has always been the central focus of the church, from the earliest days. The passion narratives were the first stories told by the Christians. When they told the story of the Christ they didn’t start with his birth. In fact, only two of the gospels even mention Jesus’ birth. They started with his passion and death. From early on the Church recognized the significance of Jesus’ death, and they honored it.

I hate this cross because it is too beautiful.

We have sanitized the cross. The cross of Calvary was an ugly thing. Rough and coarse and covered in blood. The crosses we see today are so beautiful we wear them as jewelry. They have lost meaning for most people. Even non-Christians and gang bangers wear them because they like the look of them. But usually the jewelry we wear are crosses, not crucifixes. We wear our crosses on the outside of our clothing. We wear our crucifixes under our clothing, next to our hearts. Why?

Are we afraid to show the world the true nature of our belief? Are we still scandalized by the horror of the truth of our Savior’s suffering? Without the cross there is no Christianity. Some Christians try to remove the cross from their theology. They talk of abundance and prosperity and how loving God will give you all the good things in life. They don’t want to face the reality of the suffering God, because they don’t want to face the reality of their own suffering. It’s almost like the embarrassing secret in the family that everyone knows but nobody talks about.

We hate the cross because of what it calls us to do. Jesus said that if we are to be his disciples we must pick up our crosses every day and follow him. He did not ask us to do anything he himself was not willing to do. If we are to follow the Master we must follow him in everything.

Jesus hated the cross, too. He didn’t want to carry it. He didn’t want to be nailed to it. He didn’t want to die on it. He didn’t want to suffer so much physical pain. He didn’t want to suffer the pain of taking all our sins upon himself. But he did. He asked that the cup be taken from him if that were his Father’s will. But when he realized that the Father wanted him to suffer upon the cross, he accepted that decision and embraced it.

Rather, he emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
coming in human likeness;
and found human in appearance,
he humbled himself,
becoming obedient to death,
even death on a cross.

We don’t go looking for our crosses, either. They just are. The cross is a fact of life, brought upon by the sinfulness of the world. We will have to take up our crosses every day whether we want to or not. The key to Jesus’ statement is not that we will have to take up our crosses but that we are to follow him after doing so. Jesus didn’t want to take up his cross, but he knew that he would have to, and so he made it worthwhile to do so. The cross to Jesus was not a sign of defeat but of victory. The resurrection gave worth to the cross. The hope of our own resurrection gives worth to our crosses.

It’s important that our images are crucifixes, not crosses. We Catholics have bodies on our crosses, because the importance of the cross is not the cross itself but the person on it. We do not shy away from Jesus’ death. We honor it. Jesus didn’t shy away from his own death. And he was glorified because of that. We know that if Jesus had not died on that cross we would not be saved. No matter how horrible that death was, it still had the greatest meaning for all humanity.

The genius of God’s plan of salvation for us is that he has taken the very thing that is the result of our failure – suffering and death – and has turned it into the vehicle of our greatest victory. Jesus was lifted up physically on that cross on Calvary, and because of that he was lifted up in exaltation in heaven. Why not us? If Jesus expects us to follow him on his way of the cross why wouldn’t he also want us to share in his exaltation?

Archbishop Fulten Sheen said that all people are born in order to live. Only one man, Jesus, was born to die. We have a beginning and our purpose is life. Jesus’ purpose was to die, and everything he did in his life led to his death.

And that is why we have a feast of the exaltation of the holy cross. Because without the cross there could be no resurrection. Without death there can be no life. The humiliation of the cross is actually the glory of Christ. If Jesus had not died on the cross he would not have been exalted. Without the cross we will not be exalted, either. And so we honor the cross and what it symbolizes, what it reminds us of. It shows us that ultimately, God wins. Ultimately, we win. A worthless piece of wood has become the sign of our own worthiness.

The cross is the ultimate sign of our obedience to the will of the Father. It was Jesus’ ultimate gift to the Father. And it is Jesus’ ultimate gift to us. In the cross we are truly one with Jesus as he is one with the Father. In the cross is the sign of our own unity with God. We adore you, O Christ, and we praise you, because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world.

And that’s why I love this cross.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Taming the Whirlwind

19th Sunday of Ordinary Time
Cycle A

It’s all around us. It comes at us from all sides and permeates all areas of our lives. It shakes us and buffets us and causes us great anxiety. It’s the thing we worry about the most and the thing that keeps us up at night. It affects all our relationships both positively and negatively. And it’s the thing that can keep us away from God, if we let it. It’s the whirlwind.

The whirlwind is our daily lives. It’s the stuff of our existence these days. It’s the meetings and reports, the emails and texts and phone calls and tweets and Facebook. It’s the kid’s homework and dry cleaning and figuring out what’s for dinner. It’s not necessarily a bad thing. It just is. We live within it and it lives within us. We need to live within it because that’s how our lives get done. But it is the immediate, the now. Oftentimes is what we reflexively do without much thought. But it’s not big-picture stuff. It’s not reflective or deep. For that we have to step out of the whirlwind for a time.

The whirlwind prepares us to meet God. It makes us ready to let go completely and reach out to God to save us. Elijah went and stood at the mouth of the cave. Peter stepped out of the boat.

Elijah is worried today. He has just run away to Mt. Horeb, escaping from the king who he thinks is trying to kill him. You see, Elijah has been saying some very politically incorrect things about the king lately, and the king has a way of killing off prophets who don’t please him. In fact, he has threatened to do just that to Elijah, so he has run off into the desert to hide. But he has forgotten to bring any food with him, so he lays down in the desert under a broom tree and asks God to let him die. Instead, God sends an angel to him with food and water. After eating and drinking, Elijah then has enough strength to travel forty days and forty nights to Mt. Horeb. Once there, he hides in a cave. And worries.

He worries that the people won’t listen to him. He worries that he will be killed if he is found. He worries about having enough to eat and drink. He worries about what might be living in the back of the cave. But most of all, he worries about what God might ask him to do. As he cowers there, the word of God comes to him and tells him, “What are you doing here? Go outside and wait for me.”

Elijah goes out and waits, worrying about what God will send his way. Will it be an earthquake, shaking him from his safe perch and forcing him to go and shake up the kingdom some more? Will it be fire, a burning deep within him that cannot be contained, that consumes him and compels him to speak the word of God? Will it be a driving wind, blowing him around helplessly before it, forcing him to give up control of his life to the Lord? Elijah looks for the Lord in the whirlwind, but he’s not there.

Then a tiny whispering sound is heard. It says, “Come Outside”.

Peter is worried today. For a while now he has been wondering just who this person Jesus is. He sees the miracles, hears the teachings, yet he just isn’t sure. Peter is worried about a lot of things. He has left behind his family and his business. How will they survive without him? People in Capernaum are laughing at him, running off after some teacher like a fool. Doesn’t he know he isn’t a child anymore? He has responsibilities. And Peter is unsure of himself. He always seems to be running off at the mouth, saying the wrong thing. Just the other day Jesus called him Satan, when all he was trying to do was show his concern for Jesus. He was so ashamed that he hung back in the crowd, embarrassed to even look Jesus in the eye.

It’s almost like this storm on the lake. Peter feels out of control. He feels buffeted by the winds and the waves of daily life that seem to be against him. But then the Word of God comes to him also, just like Elijah, and says to him, “Come”. Not what he wants to hear. Peter wants to cower in the safety of the boat, not venture out upon the very waters that threaten him. He worries that they will engulf him, and you know what, they do. He starts to sink. I guess that 1 percent caught up with him.

Then a tiny whispering sound is heard. “Don’t Worry.” And he is saved.

What do you do when you are worried? How do you handle the anxieties and uncertainties of the whirlwind? Do you run away and hide in your cave? Do you cower in your boat? Is everything blown out of proportion? Is everything an earthquake, or fire, or a driving wind to you? Where do you find peace?

We need to step out of the whirlwind in order to re-root ourselves in what is truly important. We need a firm foundation in the Lord in order to handle the whirlwind. And to do so we must find silence. Elijah found the Lord in the quiet. Jesus went off into the desert in solitude to pray. The apostles recognized Jesus as truly the Son of God only after he had quieted the storm.

Jesus can quiet the whirlwind.

But it’s we who have to get out of the boat. Jesus says “Come” and we have to step out in faith. The most effective way to quiet the whirlwind is through prayer. Many of us exercise regularly, or try to. We know that in order to be effective, we must exercise on a defined schedule at a specific time and place. And it requires self -discipline. It’s the same with prayer.

I think we tend to think of prayer as something we do, not something we experience. We talk too much when we pray, probably because we may be uncomfortable with it. Prayer is more a state of being than an action. And it requires silence.

How many of you have a place in your home where you pray? Maybe it’s in your bedroom or den, in your favorite chair. My prayer room is my den, with my comfy recliner, surrounded by pictures of my family and closest friends. I have a relic of St. Padre Pio that my father gave me. A bird feeder is right outside the window. I have found that the quietest time in our house is early in the morning, before the busyness of the day begins. And so years ago I started getting up about a half hour before anyone else, pour myself a cup of coffee, and retreat into my prayer den for a few minutes of quiet.

Sometimes I pray the liturgy of the hours, sometimes I say a rosary, and sometimes I just sit there and say “Good morning, Lord.” And then I just look at Him and He looks at me. For me, that’s enough of a daily grounding before I hit the whirlwind. Or it hits me.

The best part of regular prayer is you can’t do it wrong. You will look in many places for God. You will try to find him in the whirlwind. But the best place to find him is here, in your heart. If you start looking for Him within, soon you will recognize him more in your relationships, in your work, in your everyday life.

And that’s how you tame the whirlwind.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Point of View

Feast of the Transfiguration


It really depends upon your point of view, doesn’t it?

Have you ever had your life changed because you suddenly saw things a bit differently? Many times we get caught up in the ordinary of our everyday lives and miss the truth of what’s going on around us.

Steven Covey of Franklin Covey fame and author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People tells of an experience he had on a New York subway one Sunday morning. He says that people were sitting quietly. Some were reading newspapers, some were dozing, others were simply contemplating with their eyes closed. It was a rather peaceful, calm scene. At one stop a man and his children entered the car. The children were soon yelling back and forth, throwing things, even grabbing people’s newspapers. It was all very disturbing and yet the father just sat there next to him and did nothing. It was not difficult to feel irritated. Steve could not believe the man could be so insensitive as to let his children run wild and do nothing about it. It was easy to see that everyone else in the car was annoyed as well. So finally, with what he thought was admirable restraint and patience, Steve said to the man, “Sir, your children are really disturbing a lot of people. I wonder if you couldn’t control them a little bit more?” The man lifted his gaze as if coming out of a dream and said, “Oh, you’re right. I guess I should do something about it. We just came from the hospital where their mother died about an hour ago. I don’t know what to think and I guess they don’t know how to handle it either.”

Steven says, “Can you imagine what I felt at that moment? Suddenly I saw things differently. Because I saw differently, I felt differently. I behaved differently. My irritation vanished. I didn’t have to worry about controlling my attitude or my behavior. My heart was filled with this man’s pain. Feelings of compassion and sympathy flowed freely. ‘Your wife just died? Oh, I’m so sorry! Can you tell me about it? What can I do to help?’”

That was Steven Covey’s moment of transfiguration, a moment of revelation that sustained him in a difficult situation. Peter, James and John had the vision of Jesus’ transfiguration to sustain them during the difficult times to come. The next time Jesus took the three of them off with him by themselves was in the Garden of Gethsemanie. But what about us? After all, we could put up with an awful lot if we had a remembered moment of glory to sustain us, a clear indication of who Jesus really is, some sign that when it was all over, everything would be all right. What’s our transfiguration moment?

To be transformed is to be changed. To be transfigured is to see things differently, as they really are. Peter couldn’t see clearly up there on the mountain. But over time, with a lot of prayer, pondering, suffering and preaching the good news, he came to see Jesus for who he really is. Jesus didn’t change. Peter’s understanding did. Because he saw differently, he felt differently, and because he felt differently, he behaved differently.

And how Peter had changed from the time of this gospel account until he wrote his letters decades later! In the gospel, he’s really scared. He falls down to the ground in fear, and says some pretty silly things. He didn’t really know what to say, he didn’t understand what was happening before him.

The Peter we hear in his second letter is very different. Gone is the simple fisherman from Capernaum. Gone is the rough man unsure of himself. He is calm, confident, and collected. He is no longer the frightened disciple, he has become the leader. He has been bringing others to knowledge of Jesus, and he is reassuring them that his message is true. Something happened to him, and James and John as well, after they saw Jesus differently, after they saw him for who he truly is, that changed the very direction of their lives.

And if you thought it scared Peter to see Jesus as he really was, how do you think it made him feel as he himself was transfigured? It can be frightening to learn who you really are, who you are called to be for the world. Peter had come to know what it means to be truly human. To be truly human is to be like God. And Peter saw what that God was doing. He was teaching, preaching, working tirelessly to bring the gospel to the people. Desperate to have his children truly know him for who he was. He was putting his life on the line daily, and he finally lost that life in a horrible way.

Is that what was in store for Peter if he lived out his true humanity? Is that what’s in store for all of us? Peter didn’t know. But he, James and John had a decision to make. They could take their newfound knowledge of Jesus and continue to follow him, or they could go away, back to their livelihoods. Or worse yet, they could drift off to the fringes of his followers, simply tagging along without taking on any of the responsibilities of discipleship.

On a more ordinary note, Steven Covey also had a choice to make that Sunday morning. He could have hid in his embarrassment and just sat there and said nothing, done nothing. He could have gone on with his life without reaching out to a family in pain, but he chose to try to comfort them instead. We don’t know how the story ends, what happened to that man and his children, whether they were able to cope with their loss. But we do know that that incident changed Steve Covey so much so that he remembers it and recounts it over and over again. It transfigured him.

We all have the same decision to make. Sooner or later we’ll be hit with the realization of who Jesus really is in our lives, and we’ll have to decide what to do next. That realization might be found in a passage of scripture, it may be found here at Mass, or during a serious illness or family crisis. It may be a simple acceptance that grows out of many years of quietly walking with the Lord. But our lives will transfigured. And we can either continue in our old ways of living, we can drift off to the fringes of the community without taking on the added responsibilities that discipleship brings, or we can embrace those responsibilities and reach out to others as the Master did.