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The readings for this morning can be found here:
“O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!”
In the name of the Living God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
It was 49 years ago, almost to the day, back in my hometown of Odessa. It was my birthday, and my parents had given me a Gilbert chemistry set. (To this day, I still don’t know what they were thinking about.) And in that chemistry set was the formula for a certain explosive. But the chemicals were in little tiny plastic vials, and I knew I couldn’t do much with that. So I strolled down to the drugstore with my birthday money and I bought a pound of each of the ingredients of this compound.
Then I walked into our kitchen and asked my mother if I could borrow one of her pots. When she asked what for, I answered: “a science experiment.” She beamed with pride as she handed me a copper-bottomed Revere ware pot. The effort to further my education was working. And I mixed the three chemicals together, and made a long fuse, and placed the pot underneath my tree house and sought shelter behind our home.
Later that afternoon, after the fire trucks left, my father asked me, “Son, I just want to know what was on your mind?” And I tried to keep from crying as I told him that I didn’t know that it would work. Now, my father was a man with a great capacity for wrath. And he visibly shook as he tried to control himself and gave me a bit of advice, advice that he would repeat several times during my life. He said, “James, the process of elimination is no way to live your life.”
Now, I was not in open revolt against my father…not yet. That would come years later, during the years my parents would refer to as “the intifada.” But I’m sure my father understood how David felt when his son took up arms against him.
You know, sometimes, I hear people say that what’s wrong with this country, or this time, or this world is that we need to return to old-fashioned biblical family values. And I wonder whether they’re thinking about King David, and about his family, or exactly what they have on their minds.
But before we get to the text for this morning, it’s worth thinking about the back-story concerning King David. David was a young man when God called him out to succeed Saul, the first king of Israel. He was a shepherd, a good looking boy. He was a poet and a musician, and a fierce warrior who killed a giant named Goliath. He was the pride of the land and a just king who united the people of Israel. And when things were good, they were very good until….until they weren’t good anymore.
You may recall that later on David committed adultery with a woman named Bathsheba, and then a whole bunch of trouble began. Bathsheba’s husband was a man named Uriah, one of David’s soldiers. And when Bathsheba got pregnant, you’ll remember that David sent Uriah into battle to be sure that he’d be killed so David could take Bathsheba for his wife.
I think one of the things we learn from this story is that sin works a little like the science of forensics, particularly bullet wounds. As the bullet enters the body, the wound is often small and sometimes almost imperceptible. But as it travels through our lives, it tears through bone and tissue and flattens, and the exit wound is often much, much larger. Sin works like that: we cannot imagine the consequences for ourselves or for those we love. It was like that with David.
So God sent his prophet Nathan to have a chat with David. And Nathan told him the consequences of what he’d done. Nathan said, “the sword shall never depart from your house, for you have despised me, and have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife. Thus says the Lord: I will raise up trouble against you from within your own house….”
Now that doesn’t end the family troubles for David. Not by a long shot. You see, his oldest son was a boy named Amnon. Amnon raped his half-sister, a girl named Tamar. Her brother, Absalom, was David’s favorite son. But when David did nothing to punish Amnon, Absalom took matters into his own hands. He apparently believed in that old proverb that revenge is a dish best served cold, and he brooded and waited two years before setting a trap and having his servants kill Amnon at a feast.
And after a few years in exile, and a few more years of a cold silence, Absalom lead a revolt against his father, against the King, against God’s chosen servant. So, as far as family values go, neither Paris Hilton, the Kennedys, the Jackson family, nor the Kardashians had anything on King David. Or, as Elvis Costello said, “There’s no such thing as an original sin.”
The text this morning begins as David’s armies are prepared to smash the armies of his son, Absalom. And we hear tenderness in David’s voice as he asks his generals to deal gently with the man, Absalom. Now, notice that at this point, David calls him “the man” rather than “my son.” I suspect David felt a little conflict between his competing roles as king and father. I suspect that some of us here may have felt that conflict between our roles as father and salesman, or mother and doctor, or mother and priest. My friend Rabbi David Wolpe has observed that many times during this story of David and his son, we find not so much a lack of love as a refusal to love. Often David seems frozen, monstrous in his distance from his sons and daughters. He has riven an icy separation between himself and his children.
And as the battle progresses, we find Absalom in a wooded area, in a forest, riding on a mule. And his head gets caught in the trees, and the text tells us that he was left hanging between heaven and earth. Hanging between heaven and earth. And every time I read that passage, I think of another son (this time, an obedient son) who also hung between heaven and earth. That son, our Lord Jesus, hung there not because of his rebellion, but because of ours.
And then, despite David’s plea to the contrary, his soldiers surround Absalom and kill him. And when David hears of his son’s death, a death he had no small part in, he cries, “Oh my son, Absalom. Would that I could have died in your place.” Now, David had a complicated relationship with his favorite son. He sort of vacillated between spoiling him rotten and raking him over the coals. And the Bible tells us that Absalom was a beautiful boy, that he was “without blemish.” If we read scripture carefully, we’ll note that great beauty is almost always a bellwether of great trouble.
You see, in one sense, I think we’re all Absalom. We’re all ungrateful children, all rebellious children. And in another sense, we’re all David. We’re all paralyzed by the consequences of our sins, watching them uncoil like snakes before us. We’re all frozen and withholding forgiveness, all demanding retribution rather than rushing toward reconciliation. This isn’t just the story of David and Absalom: this is our story.
And David cries that if could have suffered these consequences instead of his son, he would gladly have done so. And there’s something deeply heartbreaking about that moment, when David should be celebrating his victory as king but is instead forced to confront his failure as a father, and as a man. I suspect every parent has felt that heartache. But David is telling us that he would have done this boy’s dying for him. But we know that even David, even a King, can’t do that.
Only the living God can do that, dying for us, his son dying in our place so that we would live and have abundant life. It is that God who shows us a way out of rebellion, who rushes toward us in reconciliation. It is that God who calls us to “be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another.” It is that God who calls to us, “Come to me.” It is that God who promises us that if we eat the bread of life, we will live forever. It is that God who invites us to this table. So take, and eat. Amen.
James R. Dennis, O.P.
© 2015 James R. Dennis
The full readings for this Sunday can be found here:
Jesus and his disciples went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching– with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee. Mark 1:21-28.
“I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their own people; I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet, who shall speak to them…”
In the name of the Living God, Father Son and Holy Spirit.
Well, good morning, good morning. And welcome, as we join the Church and find ourselves in the holy season of Epiphany, which our Orthodox brothers and sisters call the Feast of Lights. We celebrate that a great light has come into the world in the revelation of God the Son in the person of Jesus, the Christ. We’ll come back to that in just a moment.
Several years ago, my father passed away. And after the funeral my family gathered for a meal, and when you have that many members of the Dennis family gathered together there is only one choice for the menu: barbeque. Well, I’m sitting there with my aunts and my uncles and my cousins and a big old plate of brisket and sausage, sitting across the table from my no-good brother, Patrick. My younger brother, Patrick. And I have not yet gotten a single bite of brisket, not a single pinto bean, into my mouth when Patrick looked right at me and said, “You know now that Dad is gone, I’m in charge. You know that, right?” Well, I responded to my brother with words that appear nowhere in Scripture.
But, to some extent, I think a couple of our readings today compel us to ask the same question that my brother’s comment raised: Who’s in charge around here?
In the first passage, we hear Moses announcing that God will send the prophets to the Hebrews. It’s worth setting the scene here. This takes place as the Hebrew people are about to enter Israel. They have left their bondage in Egypt, wandered in the wilderness for a very long time, and are on the brink of coming home, to a land of milk and honey, to the place that God had promised to them.
It’s hard to overstate the importance of Moses to the Hebrew people. He had shown them a path to freedom, acted as the instrument of justice, shown them the power of God, and stood by them when they had fallen short of God’s intentions. And somehow, on this long journey, he had forged this mixed multitude into a nation, a people. And you’ll remember that when God had something to say to them, the Jewish people said, “No, Moses, you go on up there and find out what He’s got to say and then come down here and tell us.”
And so, I’m sure it troubled them, it filled them with anxiety, when they learned Moses wasn’t coming with them, that he wouldn’t ever come down that mountain. If Moses would not be acting as the messenger of God, who would? Who’s in charge around here? Because the only thing more frightening than knowing what God wants, the only thing more frightening than hearing the voice of Yahweh, is not hearing it. And so, we come to this passage in the book of Deuteronomy.
God assures the Jewish people that they will know His word through the prophets. And, just like today, there were a lot of voices competing for the attention of God’s people, and some of them were “false prophets.” But we know something about the prophets sent from God. First, they will be raised up from among their own people. The voice of God arises in community, but it’s God’s word, and not our own that we should be listening for. The voice of God tells us to choose life, and not death. It often comes, not in the fire or the whirlwind, but in a still, small voice stirring from within us. This word breaks into our history and shapes history according to the will of God.
You may remember, a couple of weeks ago, we heard the story of Samuel in the Temple, hearing a voice in the night. And because he was a young boy, and because the word of the Lord was “rare in those days,” he didn’t know whose voice he heard, but Eli did.
Like the Jewish people standing at the threshold of a new land, we are called to test the many voices we hear, to listen to whether they bring life, because the Word which was in the beginning always speaks to us of new life with the Father. And like the Hebrews, the best way for us to hear the voice of God is to listen for it.
And for us, that prophet who speaks God’s word, well, we’ve always understood that as Jesus, which brings us to the Gospel today.
In today’s Gospel reading, we find Jesus teaching at the synagogue in Capernaum. Mark offers this story as the beginning point of Jesus’ public ministry. And Mark notes that, unlike the scribes, the people find that Jesus teaches with authority. And what was that authority? I think Jesus’ teaching rang true, not simply because He spoke the truth, but because he was the Truth. In Jesus, there was no separation between what he taught and the life He lived. In him, Israel found the prophet that God promised to raise up from among them.
And then, we come to this strange story of a man there in the synagogue, a man with an unclean spirit. Now, in this passage, as in much of Mark’s Gospel, one of the important themes is about recognizing Jesus. Many of the people who should know him don’t, and many of those who we wouldn’t expect to recognize him do.
In Mark’s Gospel, lots of people are trying to figure out exactly who Jesus is: his family, the religious authorities of the time, the political authorities, his disciples. But this spirit knows: he is the Holy One of God.
And this man with the unclean spirit, shouts out “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” What have you to do with us, indeed? I think it may be one of the most important questions in Scripture, one which we should ask ourselves several times a day. “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?”
We all know about those unclean spirits. We have seen the demonic forces of alcoholism and addiction shatter lives and tear families apart. We watched as the demonic forces had a field day in Cambodia, Rwanda and Bosnia. We have heard the unclean spirit of greed and craving whispering to us, spreading fear, telling us we may not have enough. We have seen the sex trade reduce God’s children and their bodies to the trinkets of commerce. We have perhaps felt within our lives the demons of rage, or the demons of deception and mendacity, or the unclean spirit of pride. And in each of those instances, the unclean spirit says, “Jesus doesn’t have anything to do with this. This is between you and me.”
You know, when we talk about these events, we say that such people are “possessed.” But I’m not sure we shouldn’t use the word “dispossessed.” Because there comes a point in the struggle with those unclean spirits when there just doesn’t seem to be any room in there anymore for the people we knew, when there’s no room in there for any sort of humanity.
I saw my father struggle for control of his life when alcohol evicted him from himself. And it was only in the last few years of his life, after a long struggle with that unclean spirit, that he began to understand again who he was and what mattered to him. And I have known other folks who lost that struggle, who never regained possession of themselves. And it wasn’t because they were morally inferior, or that they lacked courage. They just never found a way to wrestle back control of their lives.
You see, those unclean spirits always deny the supremacy of God in the world. They take over, and they tell us the lie that they are in charge of our lives now. That way lies madness, and they would rob us of sharing in God’s dreams for the world. They always deny God’s capacity to redeem any life, any situation. They always speak in a voice of dark hopelessness and despair and the lie is that they are somehow in charge.
And I’m here to promise you: that that voice is a liar. The voice that would lock us in a cage of fear and separate us from the Light of the World is the voice of a false prophet. I think it was love that helped my father overcome his demons, and it was the love of Christ that cast out those unclean spirits in Capernaum. The message of Jesus today remains a message of liberation from the unclean spirits that would tear our lives apart. You see, I’ve read this book, all the way to the end, and just like that day in Capernaum, God’s love wins. Always. Love always wins.
James R. Dennis, O.P.
© 2015 James R. Dennis
The readings for Trinity Sunday can be found here:
God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.
In the name of the living God, Father Son and Holy Spirit.
You know, I’ve been doing that, and saying that, for a long, long time. I was probably one or two years old, back in Ector County, when my mother and father taught me to make the sign of the cross and to say, “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” And in my family, you didn’t just do it several times during church. We did it at every meal and every night as we said our evening prayers. I’m not sure my parents knew exactly what they were doing as we followed that practice. You see, not only were they reminding us of our baptismal vows constantly, but they were also inviting us into that great mystery we call The Trinity.
And I remember when I was around six or seven, sitting in the pews there at Holy Redeemer in Odessa, a little burr headed boy in short pants. And we got to that point in the Creed when we said, “We believe in one God.” And I thought to myself, One God. The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. One plus one plus one equals One. And I scratched my little head. One plus one plus one equals One.
And years later, when I went to the University of Texas, my parents were surprised that I studied philosophy and poetry rather than engineering. And I thought to myself, really? Because for years, they had been preparing me to become accustomed to mystery, to make my home there, to abide there.
And when the poets of the Hebrew people confronted the great mystery of how we got here, the mystery of creation, they wrote that God spoke the universe into being. He spoke light and he spoke darkness. He spoke time into being. He spoke us into being as well. Genesis records, “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.'” Now, it’s worth noting that as God speaks humanity into being, Scripture records the Creator referring to himself in the plural, “according to our likeness.” We’ll circle back to that idea in just a bit.
And our modern poets, we call them physicists, have been studying some very old light, echoes from the dawn of the universe. They tell us that when time began, in its first trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second, the universe began to expand to something that was about the size of a marble.All the stars, all the planets, the entire time space continuum, began to expand from a white-hot mass about the size of your fingertip. When I think of that, I’m reminded of something Martin Luther once said. He said, “God is nothing but glowing love, and a burning oven full of love.” And that simmering cauldron of love exploded in creation.
Curiously, our scientists also tell us there are about as many atoms in your eyeball as there are stars in the universe. And we confess that God made all these things, visible and invisible — the God who creates, and redeems and forgives and comforts and sustains.
Love, even God’s love, does not exist in a vacuum. Love always arises in relationship, in community. We call that The Trinity.
Now theologians, they tell us that God created everything from nothing. In the Latin, they say ex nihilo. It’s impossible to imagine that: we don’t have a frame of reference for it. When I try to think of it, the closest I can get is the story of Beethoven, having gone deaf, creating symphonies when there was no longer any music for him to hear. But this was something much, much more — infinitely more. And while God didn’t create from any raw material, anything physical, I think he called the universe into being out of His love.
Divine love was the stuff out of which creation sprang into being. Divine love, which overflowed out of the Father, into the life of Son, who breathed out the Spirit onto the disciples and still breathes it into us. It was love that lit the fires of trillions and trillions of stars, love that crawled up that hill called Golgotha, and it was love that broke through the separation of our many languages on Pentecost.
As a friend of mine observed, we will not encounter the living God in doctrine, explanations or analysis. The Trinity is too wild, too beautiful, too expansive, and too intimate for that. God will not be contained in our thoughts or our language. Rather, we encounter the living God in unspeakable moments of awe and joy and wonder. One of the most profound thinkers I know of, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, said “To be spiritual is to be amazed.” To confess our faith is to commit, not to any kind of understanding, but to an “endless pilgrimage of the heart.”
And when the book of Genesis records that we are made in the image of God, I think it means that we are made for love. Jesus told us as much, that we were made to love God with all our heart and all our mind and all of our strength, and to love each other as much as we love ourselves.
That’s why Saint Paul said to live in peace and greet each other with a holy kiss, because we are a holy people made from holy love and made to love. Because everyone we encounter, well, they were made in the image of God as well, even the gossips and the soreheads. Thus, C.S. Lewis observed that aside from the blessed Sacrament, there’s nothing more holy in this church today than the person sitting next to you in the pews.
We, all of us, were made for union with God. We came from God, and we’ll go back where we came from. We were made for union with the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit — the God who is both a plurality and a unity.
Now if the Father lives, and has always lived, in communion, in community, and if we were made in God’s image, that means that we were also made to live in community. Our lives, our salvation, must be worked out together. And that’s why, just two weeks ago, we heard Jesus praying that we would be one, just as He and the Father are one. Just as our Jewish brothers and sisters prayed, “Hear, oh Israel, the Lord your God is one.” And just as we confess that “We believe in one God.”
We work out our salvation together, and the church acts like the church, when our caring for each other pours out, and God is revealed in this community. Our churches can be, must be, windows through which the world can see God’s love spilling out everywhere — down Pecan Street, through Travis Park, up and down Highway 281, reaching out into our homes and our workplaces, our hospitals and yes, even our prisons.
We were baptized into a community, to share in the life of the Trinity, marked as Christ’s own. And we aren’t called upon to love only our fellow believers, but to live our lives so that the whole world says, “See how they love.”
So, how do we get there, how do we achieve this union with God? Well, Jesus offered us a real good starting place. In a few minutes we’ll be invited up to the table, to take the life of Christ into us. He told us, “Take, eat.” And somehow, when we do, the life of Christ, the love of the Father, and the comfort of the Spirit begin to take hold in us. And that’s what C.S. Lewis called The Deep Magic. Somehow, we begin to make our home in that wonderful mystery of the Trinity, to abide with God. And then, we find that Jesus is with us, even to the end of the age.
© 2014 James R. Dennis
They said to him, ‘Who are you?’ Jesus said to them, ‘Why do I speak to you at all?*26I have much to say about you and much to condemn; but the one who sent me is true, and I declare to the world what I have heard from him.’27They did not understand that he was speaking to them about the Father.28So Jesus said, ‘When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will realize that I am he,* and that I do nothing on my own, but I speak these things as the Father instructed me.29And the one who sent me is with me; he has not left me alone, for I always do what is pleasing to him.’30As he was saying these things, many believed in him.
Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, ‘If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples;32and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.’ John 8:25-32.
In the name of the Living God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Good morning. It’s good to be with you as we celebrate the feast of St. Gregory of Nanzianzus. He was born in modern-day Turkey around the time the Nicene Creed was written , and died in 389. At a time when the church was still struggling with the nature of Christ and the Trinity, he was an eloquent preacher and a deep thinker , earning him the nickname “The Theologian.” While the church still strove to understand the idea that Jesus could be fully human and fully divine, Gregory wrote this:
As man he was baptized, but he absolved sins as God; he needed no purifying rites himself—his purpose was to hallow water. . . . He hungered—yet he fed thousands. He is indeed “living, heavenly bread.” He thirsted—yet he exclaimed: “Whosoever thirsts, let him come to me and drink.” Indeed he promised that believers would become fountains. He was tired—yet he is the “rest” of the weary and the burdened. . . . He weeps, yet he puts an end to weeping. He asks where Lazarus is laid—he was man; yet he raises Lazarus—he was God. . . . .He is weakened, wounded—yet he cures every disease and every weakness. He is brought up to the tree and nailed to it—yet by the tree of life he restores us. He surrenders his life, yet he has power to take it again. . . . Yes, the veil is rent, for things of heaven are being revealed, rocks split, and dead men have an earlier awakening. He dies, but he brings life into death and by his death destroys death. He is buried, yet he rises again. He goes down to Hades, yet he leads souls up, ascends to heaven, and will come to judge quick and dead.
So, Gregory spent a good deal of time struggling with those who would attempt to distinguish between Jesus and the Father, and those who would attempt to separate Jesus from his humanity. And so we come to today’s Gospel passage. We hear Jesus trying to answer the question, “Who are you?” It may be the most important question we can answer for ourselves. Jesus answers, “‘the one who sent me is true, and I declare to the world what I have heard from him. They did not understand that he was speaking to them about the Father. So Jesus said, ‘When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will realize that I am he.'” Somehow, in the cross, Jesus reveals his divinity: in his mortality, he shows us that death has no more hold on him, or us. The Christ assures us that there isn’t any separation between the Son and the Father, telling us that “the one who sent me is with me; he has not left me alone.” In that same 8th chapter of John’s gospel, Jesus says, “If you knew me, you would know my Father.”
Again, like our friend Gregory, Jesus teaches us that there’s no distinction between the life of the Father and the life revealed to us in the life of Christ. The divine unity of the Trinity cannot be carved up. That’s why in just a few moments we’ll all profess that we believe in One God.
Now for most of us, we really don’t confront very often those who would separate Jesus from the Father or the Spirit. But there are plenty of places, people and things we encounter that would separate Christ—from us. Our work, our hobbies, our distractions, even our families, can get between us and a life in Christ if we’re not careful. They conspire to keep us from the life we were meant for, a life shared with the Father, the Son and the Spirit.
But when we come to know Jesus, when we fall in love with the One God, we’ll find the truth. And we’ll find the freedom to be the people of God, the people we were meant to be. Amen.
James R. Dennis, O.P.
© 2014 James R. Dennis
Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die. The crowd answered him, “We have heard from the law that the Messiah remains forever. How can you say that the Son of Man must be lifted up? Who is this Son of Man?” Jesus said to them, “The light is with you for a little longer. Walk while you have the light, so that the darkness may not overtake you. If you walk in the darkness, you do not know where you are going. While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of light.” After Jesus said this, he departed and hid from them. John 12:30-36.
As a child, I always dreaded that moment in the evening when my mother turned off the light. I was firmly convinced of monsters and the idea that they had particular sway during the night-time hours. (Up until the age of around eight, my chosen career path was “vampire killer.”) Years later, I decided that while there are certainly monsters in the world, we make our own evil. Now, I’ve come full circle and have accepted that there really is something out there called evil, and that evil is a spiritual reality.
In this passage from John’s Gospel, Jesus encourages us to walk in the light “so that the darkness may not overtake you.” Once overtaken by darkness, we struggle to see where we’re going. We take the wrong path; we get lost. Jesus tells us that “the light is with you for a little longer.” Deep into this journey through Holy Week, we get the feeling that we are walking at dusk, as the light is fading.
This passage resonates with the opening of John’s Gospel, which described the life of Jesus as the light of all people. “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.” John 1:9. If we believe in this light, we become children of God, or “children of light.” John seems to suggest that living into our Christian life will work a fundamental change in our spiritual DNA. As we travel through these scriptural pilgrimages during Holy Week, we should remember that Jesus calls us to become children of the light, reflecting the light of Christ into all the dark places of the world.
Jesus does not suggest that His followers will not experience the darkness. Good Friday teaches us that’s just not the case. Christianity does not operate as some sort of good luck charm or talisman against the darkness. Jesus’ assures us of something quite different. He tells us that the darkness will not “overcome” those who walk with Him. Once again, that’s got to be good news.
God watch over thee and me,
James R. Dennis, O.P.
© 2012 James R. Dennis
Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” When the great crowd of the Jews learned that he was there, they came not only because of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well, since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus. John 12:1-11.
Perhaps Mary of Bethany shows us the only authentic response to Holy Week: she responds with an extravagant love. At a dinner for the Lord, she acted out of lavish charity and kindness toward Jesus. She anointed him for his death, filling the house with this remarkable and extravagant fragrance. (Scholars report that this perfume would have cost the yearly wages of a laborer.) I think St. John meant to remind us that following Jesus might sometimes require that we forego counting the cost of loving God.
Mary’s extravagance carries with it the sort of sensuality that would have made the other guests, and almost any good Jew, more than a little uncomfortable. She anointed Jesus’ feet and wiped them dry with her hair. No respectable Jewish woman would have behaved this way. Social custom would have limited this sort of affectionate behavior to a woman’s husband or perhaps her family, and even then, only in private. Mary’s conduct reflects a profoundly intimate relationship.
In anointing Jesus, Mary prefigures the preparation of His body for burial. But although Jesus awaited His death with his friends, the presence of Mary’s brother (Lazarus) reveals that death holds no finality here. Mary anoints Jesus for his burial while he is still living. Lazarus, who was dead, has joined them for dinner. We encounter here the intersection of death and life, woven together in a story of reckless mercy, in the context of having a meal together. St. John teaches us that death will have its say, but not the last word.
John juxtaposes Mary’s remarkable fidelity with Judas’ treason. Similarly, he contrasts the beauty of the perfume’s scent and this deeply affectionate moment with the ugly brutality of the impending crucifixion in which hatred seems to win the day. St. John tells us these events took place six days before the Passover. The timetable echoes with the days of creation, and through his Passion Jesus makes “all things new again”. Jesus renews all creation through the his death on the Cross, a death by which love conquers fear, hatred and death itself.
James R. Dennis, O.P.
© 2012 James R. Dennis
The next day the great crowd that had come to the festival heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord– the King of Israel!” Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it; as it is written: “Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion. Look, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt!” His disciples did not understand these things at first; but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written of him and had been done to him. John 12:12-16.
Once Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, the chief priests and the Pharisees ordered anyone who knew of Jesus’ location to reveal it so that they could arrest him. John 11:57. So when Jesus entered into Jerusalem amid all this acclamation, He was already in trouble. In response to this, He acted provocatively, subversively, and prophetically. The crowd carried palm branches, perhaps echoing the crowd’s exultation at Simon driving the pagans out of Jerusalem as described in 1 Maccabees 13:49-52. Historically, the people of God carried palms to celebrate a military victory.
The crowd greeted Jesus with one of the psalms of ascent, saying “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” Psalm 118:26. They proclaimed Jesus as the Messiah, during the festival of the Passover (a celebration of the liberation of God’s chosen people).
As Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan have suggested, Pilate may have entered the city at about the same time, traveling with a legion of combat-hardened Roman soldiers. Jesus arrived from the east; Pilate approached Jerusalem from the west. Entering on an ass rather than in a military procession, Jesus may even have intentionally mocked the fanfare of Pilate’s entry into the city. One didn’t need to be a scholar or a theologian to see trouble coming.
Typical of John’s sense of irony, the crowds announce Jesus as the King of Israel. While they are right, they don’t understand what they’re saying. For all the wrong reasons, they proclaim the beginning of a new kingdom. Ultimately, they will decide that Jesus isn’t the Messiah, or at least that he’s the wrong kind of Messiah. Jesus signals the nature of his kingdom by riding in on an ass, a humble mount, in sharp contrast with the Roman war horses and chariots.
We have this remarkable image, then, of two parades. On Palm Sunday, Jesus rides into Jerusalem amid shouts of adulation and triumph. (You can almost hear the whispers in the crowd: “Now we’ll show those Romans who’s boss.”) The crowd shouts “Hosanna”, which probably best translates as “we pray, save us!” Nothing about this procession would have amused the Romans as the city of Jerusalem swelled to about four times its usual population.
By Friday, Jesus will march in another parade, carrying shame on his back, stumbling toward Golgotha. While the crowd praises Jesus as their Messiah, only a few days later his cross will bear sign mockingly describing Him as The King of the Jews. Hindsight and God’s grace alone will permit the disciples to make sense of these two processions. At the time, their meaning was lost in the din of the crowd’s shouts and jeers.
James R. Dennis, O.P.
© 2012 James R. Dennis
But when a man with all his resolution rises up from his sins and turns wholly away from them, our faithful God then acts as if he had never fallen into sins. For all his sins, God will not allow him for one moment to suffer. Were they as many as all men have ever committed, God will never allow him to suffer for this. With this man God can use all the simple tenderness that he has ever shown toward created beings. If he now finds the man ready to be different, he will have no regard for what he used to be. God is a God of the present. Meister Eckhart, Counsels on Discernment (Counsel 12).
My Dominican brother, Meister Eckhart, lived from around 1260 to about 1327. A teacher, a preacher, a mystic and a theologian, he wrote on the subjects of metaphysics and spiritual psychology. Along with St. Bede the Venerable and St. Anselm, he serves as an icon of the intellectual spirit of the medieval period. Like many who challenged the Church to think in fresh ways, he paid a heavy price for his ideas. The Franciscan-led Inquisition charged Eckhart with heresy, although he apparently died before the verdict.
In this passage, Meister Eckhart writes about the stunning nature of God’s forgiveness, offering us an appropriate Lenten reflection. Most of us are accustomed to thinking of forgiveness the way it works in the world. The forgiveness of our brothers and sisters is often reluctant, half-hearted, and incomplete. Eckhart assures us that God’s forgiveness operates immediately and without reservation.
We often struggle with this notion, just as we strain against the idea of the “good thief” who was crucified alongside Jesus. Jesus assured him, “Truly, I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” Luke 23: 43. There’s something about this last-minute conversion that we really struggle with. After an entire lifetime mired in sin, as death approaches, the notion that one can turn things around upsets our sense of fairness.
The parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32) and the workers in the vineyard (Matt 20:1-16) similarly challenge our notion of equity. Like the elder brother in the story of the prodigal, this just doesn’t seem right to us. As Eckhart points out, however, God will not refuse those who repent with all their resolution. Our instinct tells us there’s got to be some penalty for all that history of sin and disobedience. Meister Eckhart answers that God is just not interested in “all that history.”
Mother Teresa said, “We need lots of love to forgive, and we need lots of humility to forget. It is not complete forgiveness unless we forget also. As long as we cannot forget we really have not forgiven fully.” We pray for God to forgive us as we forgive those who’ve harmed us. As we live into the Christian life, we encounter in God’s kingdom something much richer and more loving than fairness or justice. We find mercy and grace. If we will only place our feet in this water, the river of forgiveness will sweep us away.
Most of us will find this notion of complete forgiveness terribly challenging. We struggle to let go of past wrongs and insults. We strain to share the grace of the present moment. It’s not an easy way; it’s the way of the Cross.
Lord, have mercy on me, a poor sinner.
James R. Dennis, O.P.
© 2012 James R. Dennis
Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.
“Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say– `Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die. John 12: 20-33.
In today’s passage from John’s Gospel, we feel the imminent approach of the Passion, as though the gravitational forces surrounding the Cross were drawing Christ to them. Just as these Greeks (who may have been Gentiles or may have been Hellenized Jews) come seeking after Jesus, Christ announces that His ministry is coming to its fruition. It’s a terribly strange notion of fruition, however, because Jesus teaches his disciples that while he will be “glorified”, His glorification will entail His death. Jesus compares Himself to a grain of wheat, a self-description consistent with his earlier announcement: “I am the bread of life.” John 6:35.
While the world struggles to see Jesus in his glory, Jesus teaches that death isn’t the end of the story. Placing this story in context, Jesus hinted at this teaching earlier. We should recall that just one chapter earlier, Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. We already have a sense, therefore, that Jesus’ ministry will entail a redefinition of “dying”. This new understanding will entail the notion that surrendering our autonomy (serving Jesus rather than ourselves) and involves following Jesus even following Him through death’s door.
Jesus does not face these facts lightly, admitting that this prospect troubles His soul. I suspect it shook Him to his core, just as it should trouble us. Despite these terrible struggles, Jesus knows that the reason for the Incarnation lies within this hour, within these events. God then announces His intention to use these horrific events for the glory of His name and kingdom. As is so often the case in John’s Gospel, however, the people misunderstand and think it’s just the thunder, or maybe an angel.
Once again, John plays upon the double-meaning of the notion of Jesus being “lifted up”. This time, the phrase carries with it the double meaning of Jesus lifted up on the cross, and his ascension into heaven. Again, this passage recalls Moses lifting up the bronze serpents in the wilderness, healing those who look upon it. Jesus says that when He is lifted up from the earth, He will draw all people to Himself.
Now, we begin to get a sense of the remarkable gravitational pull of Jesus and the cross, drawing all of mankind into their vortex. In that gravitational maelstrom, we will encounter the unbearable weight of the cross, which even Christ could not carry alone. Within that vortex, we find love, hatred, beauty and pain, humanity, and God.
In the 26th verse of this passage, Jesus tells his followers, “Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am there will be my servant also.” This passage echoes with the name God offers Moses as the name of the divine. Ex. 3:14 (“I Am Who I Am”). Following Jesus requires presence, but offers the gift of the presence of the Father.
If, like those first century Greeks, we “wish to see Jesus”, this is no time to cover our eyes. It’s happening now; “the hour has come”. Jesus views these events as God’s judgment on the world, which will bring about the expulsion of our Ancient Enemy. (In the Greek, the word for that judgment is krisis, from which we derive our word “crisis”.) Jesus came for this time, and those who follow Him must go through this Passion with Christ.
James R. Dennis, O.P.
© 2012 James R. Dennis