Passion Sunday

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I am the resurrection and the life, says the Lord;
whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will never die.

It is still cold, and snowy. It also is Passion Sunday, the fifth Sunday of Lent. The season is almost over and last week’s rose (pink) vestments gave hint of that. The mood shifts from somber to a joyful anticipation. The light or weather suggests the same. The cold occasionally gives way to warmth. The snow shifts to rain, and darkness is being replaced by daylight. There are a couple more weeks before I can replace my fast with a feast, or at least I get back the little things I have given up. It’s all good news.

Even the readings of Sunday have a morbid optimism. They are dark readings in that they deal with death, but there is a bright side too. The first reading is one Tim Burton would have been fond of. It involves graves and bodies rising from the dead. That director is famous for his morbid and offbeat animated imagery of the dead. Beetlejuice comes to mind. I am confident Tim would have a field day with the raising of Lazarus too. I wonder how many can identify with his style, is the director that far off from most people’s concepts of these readings?

The first reading, with the rising of the bodies from the grave  Ez 37:12-14 has more to the story than is told in the little snippet of the daily reading. The graveyard is not simply a town cemetery, it is more a battlefield graveyard. Those bodies are people lost in battle. They are people who died with a conviction, they fought and died with a purpose. They have a similarity to Arlington or Gettysburg. They died with a cause, they fought for the God of Israel. That God is telling the remnant people that those did not die in vain. The cause that they fought for will prove to be victorious, and in that context they will rise again. Mr. Burton got his ideas from somewhere.

The Raising of Lazarus contains some similar elements. Jn 11:1-45  For one it tells that Jesus prepared his disciples for His Resurrection. The account also tells that Jesus challenged the view of life and death that those present had. One interesting detail is that Thomas and all of his doubts is present at this event. Skepticism was present and it is recorded, that is an important part of the story. They had their doubts, and this was something difficult for the audience to accept.

When John documents this occurrence he makes a point of describing Lazarus as truly and completely dead. First Jesus waits to make His journey to the grave. Second, Lazarus is in the grave for four days. Third, the stench is mentioned. The unanimous decision by all involved is Lazarus is D-E-A-D.

One of the details, the four days, requires an explanation. In that timeframe it was believed that a person’s soul had hovered about the corpse for three days. By the fourth day that soul would have left for a distant place in the stars. That is one of the concepts Jesus challenges. Jesus dies not separate death from life in the extreme way the ancients did. With Him the soul is not distant and unapproachable. Jesus allows death, and all it constrains, to be conquered. He battles some cultural barriers, and those had a huge effect in those who were left behind. Jesus liberated the dead, and in doing so also liberated their loved ones. In giving life to Lazarus, Jesus also gives life to Martha and Mary. In bringing Lazarus back to life, Jesus requires that people participate. He asks that the stone be removed from the grave, they must move it themselves. They object of the stench. Thank of that smell. Smells are something you know is present even if they are not visible. In the temple and in churches they often signify Gods presence, I am thinking of incense. I also think of the custom of opening a window in a room where someone has died. Not to remove a stench, but to set them free.

The final thing Jesus does is ask that they unbind Lazarus, remove the cloths that bind his hands and feet. Poetically he is shackled by death , and everything that was attached to that state in life. All that constrained Lazarus had to be removed for him to enjoy the fullness of life. Those barriers affected Martha and Mary as much as they affected Lazarus. They had to participate in bringing Lazarus back from the dead. This will become important at Easter.. .

Lets add a little more:

While this gospel account deals with a lot of the perceptions of life and death in ancient civilizations (Jewish, Roman, Greek, and others) there is also some relevance for this season of Lent. In ancient cultures people were very attuned to both the death of the body and the soul, and they were independent of one another. A body could live while its soul died, a soul could live while the body died, both body and soul could live, and both could also die.  Which is of these choices is relevant today? Lent is not a season about the after-life, it is about this life. Relevant today is the soul that is endangered, souls die because of sin. While all sin taxes the soul, mortal sin is what kills a soul. The good-news from the gospel account of Lazarus is that like him, souls can be brought back to life. They can be rejuvenated, and that is at least one goal of the Lenten traditions of prayer, fast, and almsgiving. They are to strengthen the soul. Like during the raising of Lazarus they are tangible actions we can take to rejuvenate a sunken soul. There is one other that is of supreme importance, that does not simply rejuvenate but brings a soul back from death. Confession, the binding and loosening of sin. It is what brings a soul back to life through the forgiveness of sin.

With the Lord there is mercy and fullness of redemption.

Francis of Paola

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“At the age of fifteen, Francis (of Paola) left his  home at Paula in Calabria to live as a hermit in a cave by the sea-coast.” Here his religious order takes form. (Here is a side story: In ancient times Calabria was referred to as Italy, it is the  first locality to be called  that name. It is located at modern Italy’s southern end.) For brief background leading up to life in a cave: His parents were devout Christians with a devotion to  St. Francis of Assisi. They had prayed for that saints intercession so that the infant Francis of Paola might be cured of an eye infection. Their son, as a child, wore the Habit of the Franciscan friars ( the little-habit). With that habit his eyes were immediately cured. Jesus cured the sight of many.

Now back to the cave by the seashore. Over time some “disciples” gathered around him. In 1436, and partially because of those followers,  he founded his own Franciscan order the “Minims.” Religious orders are approved by the pope,, and they must submit a rule for the order. Popes often rewrite those rules. Their original name was Hermits of Saint Francis of Assisi, hermits not monks, priests, or friars. Francis was a contemplative that eventually was called to active ministry. The Minims observed a perpetual Lent, and never touched meat, fish, eggs, or milk. That was their fourth vow, their addition to the rule of Assisi. It gave their order character. One interesting point about Francis is that the hermit was never ordained a priest. Many legends are associated with this saint. He can be researched, must I type everything? Do your homework ! He was Prophet, miracle worker, and said to have the ability to read minds. He is the patron saint of sailors. If one word is to be associated with him it is Charitas. They wore black wool robes. They started in southern Italy, many moved north and were found in Germany. There they were called Paulaner.

Franciscan’s were big in the time of the hermit of Saint Francis, and they had become much larger than the Saint from Assisi ever intended them to be.  They were popular. Francis of Assisi wanted his order to counter corruption and false devotion, the one from Paola wanted to do the same. They were contemplative. Is there a conflict or contrast here? They were Minims in the times of Kings. They were little people in the time of some very Big People, and one has to be around “Big People” to fully understand that. They were the counter-revolution and they took the world by surprise.

Interesting is how Francis (OM) order had changed, much in the same way his northern mentors (OFM) was changed at the request of the pope. Their intent was for an order that revolved around a small group of devotees, the pope’s intent was for an order that would change Europe. In looking at these medieval saints, it is often important to look at their period in history. It’s important to remember bureaucratic Churches, corrupt clergy, and powerful Kingdom’s. It is important to look at all of the Big people these little saints did battle with. Their was reason for their retreat from Society, and for the popes putting them back in the fight. They were a contrast, and what contrasts with today? On one hand there is Francis original devotion, that of a contemplative hermit. On the other is the Popes desire to create large orders. Francis of Payola was loyal to the chair of Peter. Francis also lived a long life, I wonder if he came full circle and ended at that cave by the seashore? If my memory serves me correctly, the one from Assisi ended up at the same grotto he started from. Both orders exist today, but the Order Minim is a fragment of what it once was. Hermits I here are on the rise. The Church the friar hermit served was at its height during the saints lives, today it is on the decline. What is the message of Francis of Paola today?

a lesson in Christ

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What struck me last Sunday was a similarity between the two sets of readings, the raising f Lazarus and Jesus defense of the woman condemned Jn 8:1-11 to stoning by the Pharisee’s. In both readings a common thread is that Jesus killed death. His argument to let the one without sin cars the first stone, defeated that woman’s death sentence. The raising of Lazarus also defeats his death. The raising of Lazarus  Jn 11:1-45 certainly prepares those early Christians for Christ’s resurrection. The defense of the woman helps define His message.

So much needed to be done to prepare the disciples for Easter, just as these readings prepare people today. If the defense of the woman prepared the disciples about Christ’s mission, the readings of yesterday and today prepare the disciples to understand Christ’s divinity. Here Jesus clearly defines himself as the Son of God, a divine Son doing the mission of His Father. If the Pharisees reject that message, the disciples had to be left confused. To the Pharisees when Jesus declares himself Son of God, they hear blasphemy. Their culture was one God, yet they were surrounded by cultures that had many Gods? Was that what they had heard, yet another god? Could they understand the faithfulness that Jesus had to the Father. Did they understand His faithfulness to the word of God was so strong, that He was The Word? Difficult for the Pharisees to understand, and they reject Him. Yet His faithfulness is to the God of Abraham, the God of the Covenant. He is delivering their Gods (the Pharisees) message to them. What of the Gentiles?

So Jesus said to them,
“When you lift up the Son of Man,
then you will realize that I AM,
and that I do nothing on my own,
but I say only what the Father taught me.
The one who sent me is with me.

Son of God was something they were familiar with. Jesus confronts and challenges their gods. Gods plural. Son of God was carved in stones and cast onto coins. Caesar the famous Emperor of the powerful empire was declared divine. He was a God, mighty and powerful and with his own message, his own testament. Augustus, then the son of god. Mighty emperors and rulers were gods. Divine. This is Jesus challenge, a David against Goliath. The Word of God confronts an empire, the gospel of good news challenges the law proclaimed by divine emperors.

Jesus said to those Jews who believed in him,
“If you remain in my word, you will truly be my disciples,
and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
They answered him, “We are descendants of Abraham
and have never been enslaved to anyone.
How can you say, ‘You will become free’?”

Then there are the Apostles and disciples, what did they expect of the messiah? Certainly they thought of David, a mighty king and warrior. They knew the Zealots that raged battle against occupiers. They knew the solders of Rome, their adversaries. They knew how men led people into a kingdom, but did they know Gods plan? Did they yet understand the Jesus of the Nativity? How would they understand the Jesus of Easter? They needed to be taught before they could begin to comprehend the mystery of Easter, and that is the lesson.

Saturday before Palm Sunday

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Writing has slowed down much over the past few weeks because simply many times one does not have much to say, or even one simply lacks the ability to put thoughts into words. Today’s readings, the readings before palm Sunday, describe God separating the chosen people from their sins and their surroundings. The gospel follows a similar theme. It describes those that went to Mary after hearing of her Son’s works, and those who went to the Pharisees for the same reason. It is a theme of separation, of separation from God and of Gods desire to be united with his people. It also speaks of the division of nations. The reason the Pharisees attack Jesus is out of the fear that He will destroy their nation.

My mind wanders at this point to the history of the ancient Hebrews, a band of nomads traveling through out the earthly kingdoms of their day, and a band of nomads who eventually become enslaved by one of those powerful earthly kingdoms. In reminiscing about the ancient Hebrews, I think first of the ancient kingdoms around them. The pharaohs and their pyramids, and all of the great architecture of the day. There is the gold and the idols those civilizations fashioned from them, there is their complicated and ritualized set of beliefs. There are their artistic, and scientific achievements, their is their culture, their armies, and the simple size of these many kingdoms of the region. Imagery of that time reveals a large, flourishing , and spectacular society of that time complete with the pageantry of royalty. Their kings and queens were their gods. Then there is the ancient Hebrew.

The ancient Hebrew, the traveling worker. Poor and without a kingdom, a servant. They are a small band of nomadic tribes traveling throughout all of those kingdoms of the Pharaohs and their like. With them is the first separation. They are travelers, and poor, and do not bow down to the kings and queens. As a chosen people their numbers are small, and their physical attributes are as unassuming as their numbers. They are people living in tents amongst those dwelling in castles. Poor, proud , joyful people of the covenant. Then they become enslaved.

In Egypt they slave to build an earthly kingdom that is not their own. If they were impoverished before, they are oppressed now. They are  a minority, looked down upon by  royalty, overworked and under fed. Again they are separated, though this time they are imprisoned. In their enslavement  I can see the violence committed against them, and I  wonder  about their thoughts  regarding their oppressor. The good news is they gain  freedom from their captors under the leadership of Moses. The bad news is that they bear the  scars of enslavement and oppression. Those scars can become inflamed, and infected, and lead to the death of sin if left unattended. Those ancient Hebrews might have  separated from their captors, but now they carry the baggage of that captivity. They are separated, but not truly free. I wonder how many  people are stuck in this phase of a journey?

Journey now to tomorrows celebration, palm Sunday where Christ is hailed as the majesty of a new kingdom. His entry is into Jerusalem, the seat of the kingdom founded under the guidance of Moses. It is the seat of a kingdom promised when those Hebrews were led from Egypt, a kingdom of their own; but how much of that new kingdom contained the scars carried from Egypt? Certainly the people were delivered from a land of slavery, but did they really enter into the peace, and fullness of Gods promise? How easy is it for them, the ancient Hebrew, to forget oppression? How easy is it for an oppressed people today to do the same? There are a lot of people wandering about today carrying burdens of oppression and mistreatment; how easy is it for them, or for anyone, to let go of burdens tossed upon us? As Jesus enters into that city, his disciples see Him as leading them into their new kingdom just as Moses did for the generations before. How many though are willing to follow the Christ into that new kingdom, and leave their baggage and burdens behind?