Peace Be With You

Sunday of Divine Mercy
Lectionary 43

Three times Christ said to his disciples, “Peace be with you.” Yet, peace seemed so elusive. Despite having seen Christ’s miracles, despite now being witnesses to his resurrection, the disciples were not at peace. We might want to attribute that lack of peace to simple fear, fear of the significant change that is happening in their lives, fear of what Jesus was calling them to. Or perhaps they lacked peace because they had abandoned Jesus and now did not believe strongly enough. But I don’t think any of those reasons are correct. I believe the disciples lack peace because they abandoned their mission; they had ceased to be who they were always meant to be.
God creates each one of us with a plan in mind. We each have a particular role, a unique and essential place in the Kingdom of God. That is, in the very fabric of who we are is a mission, a mission that satisfies our deepest desires because it is the fullest possible expression of our created nature. To be at peace, to know happiness, is to discover that mission and live it out. We are only at peace when we are confident we are on the right track when we are fully expressing our inner selves and moving towards our given destiny.
That is why Christ had to say to the disciples three times, “Peace be with you.” They had abandoned not only Christ himself, but their mission to spread the good news. Because they had given up on their mission, because the disciples had given up on what they were created to be, they had, in a sense, abandoned themselves, and were now listlessly floating in a sea of uncertainty.
So Christ not only says to them, “Peace be with you,” but three times he reminds them of their mission, he tells them of where they will find that peace. The first time he shows them his wounds, the next time he says, “As the father has sent me, so I send you,” and finally, he says, “See my hands and believe.” He calls them back to the fulfillment of their lives, to embrace the people God created them to be.
The same is true for all of us. We all have a mission. We all have a unique place in this world and in the Kingdom created just for us. And we will only be happy, we will only know true peace, the peace that Christ offers, when we find it and when we are moving towards it. So in those moments in which we find ourselves, like the disciples, floating aimlessly. Let us not be afraid of drowning in that ocean of uncertainty and doubt. Instead, let us turn to Christ, let us turn to the one who created us, and we will hear him say, “Peace be with you,” and he will show us the way to happiness, the way to everlasting peace.

Only An Empty Tomb

Easter Sunday
Lectionary 42

An Empty Tomb

At first, it seems so strange that on Easter Sunday, the day above all other days to celebrate the Resurrection, the mandatory Gospel reading, chosen by the Church, doesn’t show us the Resurrected Jesus. There are many places in the gospels where the disciples see the resurrected Lord, and even touch him and so verify the truth. But the Church chose none of those for Easter Sunday. She only offers us an empty tomb. Perhaps that is on purpose. In a sense, the empty tomb reflects our reality. It is the very nature of the Christian life. We don’t see the risen Lord. We don’t see God. We can’t physically touch him, or audibly hear him. And that is a great difficulty for us.

When the disciples saw the burial cloths, in their fear and desperation, all they could say, was “Where is he?” We all understand that feeling. We have all had those moments when we didn’t understand, and the only thing we could say was, “Where is he? Where are you, God?” Silence is always the answer to that question. As the great prophet Elijah learned, God is in that quiet. The silence is his answer. It is the silence, the remembrance, of an empty tomb.

And it is our invitation to make a choice. Do we walk away forlorn at the vanity of the tomb? Or do we have the courage to believe? Do we have the courage to see the emptiness as evidence of our hope and say that Jesus is risen? The moment we have faith, everything changes, just as it did for the disciples. No longer do death, sin, and evil have a hold on this universe. The Resurrection reveals them for what they indeed are, an illusion, the long and gloomy shadow of a counterfeit reality. Life, love, and peace are the authentic reality, and they are eternal. The Resurrection of Christ reveals a pristine and perfect existence, a new creation which shimmers with the light of God.

And so it gives us hope, hope that all things and all people may be taken up into that new world. It provides us with the confidence we need to establish that world now. No evil, no power, no hatred, can remain forever. They will all collapse before the feet of our risen king, and everything will be made new. So we must push on. In our darkest days, and our most joyous moments, we must push ever forward, transforming this world bit by bit, allowing the light of God, the glory of the Resurrection into it until every shadow has given way to actuality, and every falsehood has surrendered to the truth.

Jesus is risen. And so must we be.

The Significance of Jesus

What is the significance of Jesus in the Gospel of John? The gospel’s scene of Mary anointing Jesus’ feet and Judas objecting raises this critical question.

Monday of Holy Week
Lectionary 257

Significance of Jesus

What is the significance of Jesus in the Gospel of John? That is, what is the role and purpose of Jesus? The gospel’s scene of Mary anointing the feet of Jesus and Judas objecting raises this important question and highlights two possible responses.[1] What seems like a tense disagreement about money and propriety, reveals a deeper underlying disagreement. Mary and Judas have opposing views about who Jesus is and his role in the world. If we can bracket our knowledge of the outcome of the Gospel of John and read it with fresh eyes, then this is a shocking scene. Mary and Judas are both close to Jesus. They are both, seemingly, his friends and belong to his earliest disciples. This means they have witnessed similar events. Mary and Judas know the power of Jesus and his teachings. Nonetheless, they have come to divergent opinions on who Jesus is.

Judas and Jesus

Judas is the treasurer for the wandering band of Jesus’ disciples. Despite Jesus’ repeated warnings concerning money, this was surely a prestigious position. A movement cannot succeed without money and money cannot last without good administration. Ignoring the editorial hindsight inserted into the gospel, this implies Judas was a trusted and respected figure. Jesus, and his followers, believed Judas to be the best candidate for treasurer. Given that Matthew was a tax collector, Judas must have had amazing credentials. Surely he had had experience managing finances, whether professionally or in another movement. Given the above, we would expect Judas has the best understanding of the significance of Jesus. Unless we are contrarians, our natural inclination is to hold experts and professionals as more credible than amateurs and people of unknown origins. However, the gospel subverts our natural expectations. Not only does the author of the Gospel of John outright state Judas was a thief, but it demonstrates his failures in the encounter with Mary. Judas cannot bring himself to recognize the events that are about to occur. His mind is trapped in worldly thinking and so he misses the significance of Mary’s actions. In his effort to denounce her “waste,” Judas is rebuked by Jesus. Judas’ failure to penetrate the mystery of Jesus is revealed and Judas’ charter is laid bare to all.

Mary, the Wise Disciple

Unlike the presumed qualification of Judas, Mary seems to have little going for her. We know she is friends with Jesus, but we are given no insight into her origins or daily life. Mary is a hidden and lowly figure. From a natural perspective, we expect nothing from her. She is like any random person on the street. While we might genuinely care what such a person thinks, we will not place much stock in it or take their thoughts into serious consideration. Again, the gospel subverts our expectations. Mary, despite her lowliness, is the most insightful of Jesus’ followers. She alone seems to recognize the significance of Jesus. In anointing him, Mary not only foreshadows the coming days but makes their inevitability and importance apparent. The disciples are easily distracted and routinely misunderstand Jesus. They draw ever nearer to the passion and death of Jesus but continue to remain clueless. Mary’s actions reveal, in an extravagant fashion, the very near passion of Jesus. His death must be confronted face to face. It is not a reality that can be avoided. Mary also reveals, by privileging love of Jesus above the poor, the reality of Jesus. Who should be shown honor even above the poor and marginalized? God alone may legitimately be loved this much.

Signifiance of Jesus Reconsidered

It is clear Judas’ understanding of the significance of Jesus is to be rejected. Judas completely misunderstood Jesus. However, the understanding of Mary is not the definitive and full truth of who Jesus is. As much wisdom as is seen in her actions, the Gospel of John does not allow the significance of Jesus to be contained in a book. Jesus is too great to be circumscribed. To know and understand him, one must enter into a relationship with Jesus. Only through this experiential relationship and an open heart can one realize the full significance of Jesus.

[1] Moloney, Francis J., The Gospel of John, ed. Daniel J. Harrington, vol. 4, Sacra Pagina Series (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1998), 349.

The Works of Your Father

Wednesday of the Fifth Week of Lent
Lectionary 253

Truth and Freedom

Jesus is supposedly speaking to the Jews who believe in him. However, this does not play out as expected. Jesus assures his followers they will know the truth, and the truth will give freedom. The freedom he references is not mere physical freedom, i.e., he is not promising to remove the Romans from Judea. Jesus promises spiritual and psychological freedom. Whoever follows Jesus will escape slavery to sin and base desires. Such a person will be lifted into the divine life and given God’s perspective of history. The follower of Jesus will not be subject to the powers of this world, just as Jesus was not subject to Pilate. Jesus retained his freedom even under threat, and eventual realization, of torture. He was always free to follow the good and live in the truth. Jesus did not have to fear; he only had to remain in the truth. This is what Jesus offers to his followers.

We Are Already Free

The Jews respond to Jesus by claiming they are already free. As children of the LORD's they believe they already possess the freedom of which Jesus speaks. However, Jesus points out they have deluded themselves. They cling to the names Abraham, Moses, and LORD, but they do not submit themselves to the change in life those names demand. They continue to sin. Jesus pointedly asserts, whoever sins is a slave. Sin, as a deprivation of the good, takes away freedom. It damages the image of God within the human person. In no sense can this be considered freedom. Freedom demands the wholeness of the human person and the ability to live in truth and do good. The Jews, to whom Jesus spoke, did not understand freedom. Their interpretations and traditions blinded them to who Jesus was and the truth of his statements.

Works of Your Father

The argument between the Jews and Jesus continues will little progress. Again and again, the Jews claim to be children of Abraham, Moses, or the LORD. Jesus forcefully demonstrates they are wrong. The Jews have confused physical descent with authentic spiritual descent. The heart of Jesus’ claim is that he is the true messenger of God. God is not present in the fallen world in a comprehensible manner. The world, for the Gospel of John, is darkness. Whatever is of the world is too far removed from God to give access to him. The only way for the world to know God is for God to send a messenger. That is who Jesus claims to be. He is the one who has been in the presence of the Father, who has seen the Father face to face. Therefore he alone can reveal the Father. Abraham and Moses knew the world was dark and, they sought the emissary of God who could reveal the Father. To be a descendent of them would mean acting in imitation of them. They would have rejoiced to see Jesus and gain true knowledge of the Father. The Jews, however, reject Jesus and therefore reject the Father. Instead, they submit themselves to the father of this world, Satan. That is what Jesus means when he says, “You are doing the works of your father.” The Jews respond by referencing Jesus’ unusual birth and the absence of a human father. Jesus seemingly ignores the insult and lays out clearly his message: to love God is to love me because the Father sent me. Jesus never speaks from his own desires, but only says what the Father tells him. Jesus is the way. He is the only way because only he has seen the Father. Jesus’ words to the Jews are as relevant today as when he spoke them. The world has revealed its darkness evermore. To have light and truth is to listen to Jesus. There is no other option.

The Bronze Serpent – The Transformation of Evil

Tuesday of the Fifth Week of Lent
Lectionary 252

Weary and Agitated

The people wandering in the desert are weary and agitated. The Book of Numbers describes them as qāṣēr, which the NRSV translates to “impatient.” This word, however, means so much more. Literally, it is more often used to mean “to shorten or diminish.” A humorous, though apt, example is found in Isaiah 28:20, where the author speaks of a bed that is too short to stretch out in. This image, of a short bed, describes the situation of the Hebrew people. They have been wandering for a long time looking for rest. Much like sleeping in a cramped space, they can’t get comfortable. They try this way and that, moving around, and adjusting the blankets; nothing works. So they become agitated. They complain against God and Moses. Their complaint is relatable and deeply expressive of the human condition. Couldn’t we have died just as easily in the land of Egypt? At least we had food there. It is hard not to laugh and sympathize. However, it reveals a lack of faith and hope in divine providence. The LORD has recently released them from 400 years of slavery and misery. They miraculously escaped the clutches of Egypt with many signs and wonders, yet still, they doubt. This, as is often the case in the Hebrew Bible, does not sit well with the LORD.

Fiery Serpents

In response to the complaints of the Hebrews, the LORD sends a plague of poinsonus serpents, as the NRSV translates Numbers 21:6. Some translations choose fiery serpents, which is preferable. The NRSV, to its credit, notes the alternative in a footnote. Fiery is preferable because the Hebrew word is seraphim. It is the same word used to describe a class of the angels, the highest rank of angels according to varied traditions. The seraphim were thought of as beings of fire, see Ginzberg’s Legends of the Jews for examples. Fire is the most rarefied of the four basic elements; it is the most like spirit. It is also a consuming and dynamic reality. A being of fire is a being of power and dynamism. It is like God in many ways. Therefore the serpahim which attack the Hebrews should be seen as spiritual, not natural, creatures. Hence preferring the translation fiery over poinsonus.

The Punishment is the Medicine

After punishing the Hebrews, God issues an unusual command to Moses: make a serpent and place it on a pole. This is shocking given the numerous aniconic statements of the Hebrew Bible. The Hebrews should never create graven images and look to them for salvation. Yet, it is the LORD who commands it. The bronze serpent was surely a frightening and bizarre image. It likely would have taken the form of a fiery dragon. Merely looking upon this image brought healing. Why? Why would a bronze image of the creature which is inflicting suffering on the Hebrews be a source of healing? The answer to this question is the central theme of the scriptures. God is not bound by the evil of human choice. The misuse of human freedom does not frustrate the LORD's will. Rather, the God of Israel transforms evil into good. He repurposes or redirects the evil so that it gives rise to good. The Hebrews were punished because of their lack of faith, but the punishment gave them faith. In suffering under the terror of the seraphim the Hebrews were reminded of their need for the LORD. They were confronted by the inherent dependence they have upon him. Which is to say, through their sufferings, they return to the LORD. The bronze seraph is a physical embodiment of the spiritual reality. It is the sign that their punishment is true medicine. In the ancient world, medicine was expected to make one ill. It harmed so that healing could be brought about. In a sense, it took away all those elements which stood in the way of healing. The seraphim function similarly for the Hebrews. Their selfish desires, impatience, and weaknesses are burned away and their fidelity and dependence upon the LORD is revealed.

The Cross, the True Bronze Serpent

This scene from the Book of Numbers is picked up in John 3:14-15. Jesus has become the new bronze serpent. To gaze upon Jesus crucified is to have life. Even though the Gospel of John explicitly references the bronze serpent, the parallels are not on the surface. Humanity was not punished by God with crucifixion, so looking at a crucifix for healing makes no sense. There is a deeper image here. In the Garden of Eden, it was a snake, a seraph, who tempted Adam and Eve. According to many traditions and legends, Satan belongs to the order of seraphim. He is placed among the highest-ranking of the angels. It is by his free choice that humanity is tempted into the misery of sin and death. When Adam and Eve voluntarily submitted themselves to the serpent, they chose death for the cosmos. In the crucifixion of Jesus, this choice is transformed. Death, the punishment of humanity, becomes the means to salvation. God, in the humanity of Jesus, submits to death and so makes it into the passage into life. Jesus on the cross is the true and everlasting bronze serpent. To gaze upon Christ crucified is to take in the medicine of immortality. It is to behold the greatest work of God which makes Satan’s and humanity’s sin into salvation.

Let Us Pray

God of limitless power, our sins are not a barrier to your love. You can transform every evil into our good. Pour out on us your mercy, lift us up from the misery of sin and death, and let us behold your love, our medicine, in Jesus crucified. Per eundem dominum…