Tag Archives: Lent

Losing Our Lives


The full readings for today can be found here.

“For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

In the name of the Living God: Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer.

It’s an odd passage, our Gospel for this morning. And you know, it’s not unambiguously “good news.” So, it’s probably worth setting the scene for today’s reading.

The eighth chapter of Mark’s Gospel is pretty much bursting out–full of a lot of that Jesus stuff. Jesus feeds the four thousand, argues with the Pharisees, and restores sight to a blind man at Bethsaida. And, after all this, he asks the disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And more importantly, “Who do you say that I am?” It’s a marvelous question. Who is Jesus? More importantly, who is Jesus to me? What has he got to do with my life? That question alone merits 40 days worth of contemplation.

In response to Jesus’ question, Peter offers an answer and it’s stunning. Peter: who is always full of enthusiasm if not wisdom. Peter: the kid in class who raises his hand regardless of whether he knows the answer or not. I love Peter. He is hopelessly earnest although a bit clumsy. This gives me hope. He and I are so much alike. Well, except for that sainthood thing. And I’m working on that.

Peter answers that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, the son of the living God. And that gets us to the Gospel this morning, which is where everything begins to go haywire. Because while the disciples, and all of Israel, was waiting for a certain kind of Messiah, Jesus was busy being a different kind of Messiah. They were looking for a king, a godly king to be sure, but mostly the kind of king who would get rid of all those Romans around there. They were looking for someone to raise up a guerilla army and take back their country, to liberate them like Moses did, to fight for them like David did. They were looking for someone to make Israel great again. They were looking for someone to beat up the bullies who were beating up on them. And Jesus had no intention of doing that.

Jesus teaches his disciples about the cross—a cross that will ultimately stand at the center of the universe, binding it all together in an act of blessing and filling the world with his eucharist. Through the cross, Jesus will transform his life and ours into union and communion with God. The cross, this instrument of torture and shame, will become so bound up with our notion of blessing and hope and salvation that we can no longer separate them.

Jesus tells his disciples, “This Messiah thing isn’t what you think at all.” He tells them the Messiah will be rejected, will suffer, and be killed. Now, that’s not the worst part. Because then, Jesus tells them, if you want to be my followers, you have to deny yourselves and take up my cross and follow me. Let me rephrase that, Jesus tells us, you and me, that we have to pick up that cross.

So, I’m wondering, what exactly does your cross look like? What are the nails that bind you to that cross?

I’ll tell you a story about picking up the cross, and it’s a story that makes me proud, and it’s a story that makes me ashamed. It’s mostly a story about my baby brother, Sean Michael, and he’s been on my mind a lot lately because this week was the anniversary of his death.

You see, many years ago, out in West Texas, my mother lay in her home dying of cancer. And there came a time when the morphine just wasn’t working very well. And my mother, you see, she couldn’t stand to be touched at all. She would scream like the demons of hell were tormenting her. Well, the time came when my mother needed to be bathed, and her dressing needed to be changed. And I, well, I just couldn’t do it. I could not watch her suffer—this woman who taught me to walk, to read, to think for myself. I just couldn’t bear to hear my mother scream or cry; I couldn’t bear to see her in pain.

But my brother Sean could, and did. He would gently bathe her and change her dressing, while I remained outside. My baby brother, Sean Michael, picked up that cross and I did not. And I was ashamed of myself, but I was proud to call this strong, brave man my brother. And I want to suggest to you that the nails that bound my brother to that cross were the same nails that bound Jesus to his. They were not made of iron; they were made of love. You see, love is the only thing that ever really binds us to the cross.

Now, since that time, I have encountered other crosses. And some of them, I have been able to pick up and carry for a while. I think that’s how the Christian life works: we learn much more from our failures than from our successes. And slowly, bit by bit, we are changed. Bit by bit, the stuff in our lives that isn’t Jesus begins to fade away until more and more of the divine part of us begins to shine through.

And that’s the fundamental purpose of Lent: bit by bit, we are changed; we become more Christlike. Through grace, we grow in faith, we learn to deny ourselves and pick up the cross. We learn to give up our false selves, in order to save our true lives, the lives God meant for us to live. We learn to surrender our selfishness, until our true humanity shines through and we recover the Christ within us.

And that’s my prayer for you, and that’s my prayer for me. Amen.

James R. Dennis, O.P. © 2018

The Prophet Amos: Speaking Truth to Power

This is what the Lord God showed me: the Lord was standing beside a wall built with a plumb line, with a plumb line in his hand. And the LORD said to me, “Amos, what do you see?” And I said, “A plumb line.” Then the Lord said,

“See, I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people Israel; I  will  never again pass them by; the high places of Isaac shall be made desolate,
      and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste,
      and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword.”

Then Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, sent to King Jeroboam of Israel, saying, “Amos has conspired against you in the very center of the house of Israel; the land is not able to bear all his words. For thus Amos has said,

`Jeroboam shall die by the sword,
      and Israel must go into exile
      away from his land.'”

And Amaziah said to Amos, “O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there, and prophesy there; but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.”

Then Amos answered Amaziah, “I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees, and the LORD took me from following the flock, and the LORD said to me, `Go, prophesy to my people Israel.'”  Amos 7:7-15.

One of today’s Old Testament readings in the Lectionary comes from the Book of the Prophet Amos.  Amos came from the southern kingdom of Judah, and began his prophetic work  around 750 B.C.  (A few years later, the Northern Kingdom would fall to the Assyrians in 722 B.C.)

During this time, under the rule of Jeroboam II, the Northern Kingdom enjoyed great power and wealth.  As is so often the case during such times, they neglected the poor and the downtrodden. They divorced their religious observance divorced from their sense of social justice and ethics. Although Amos came from Judah, he directed most of his prophetic message at the Northern Kingdom of Israel.

In this passage, God tells Amos that He will measure the people of Israel according to a plumb line.  (The plumb line was an ancient engineering device, using a string, a weight and the force of gravity to determine whether a wall was straight.)  Never a popular strategy, Amos brought the message of God’s disapproval.  He announces the destruction of the Kingdom, the death of the king, and the desolation of their high places. In an apparent reference to the Passover (the meta-narrative of God’s salvation of the Jewish people), Amos reports that God will never pass by them again.

The priest Amaziah reports Amos’ dire warnings to the king.  Rejecting Amos’ message, Amaziah apparently assumes Amos is a professional prophet, and tells him to go back home.  The priest directs Amos to return to the southern kingdom and prophesy there, but Amos continues to proclaim his message of God’s disfavor with the king and the priestly caste.

Amos answers that he does not come from a line of prophets, rather, he makes his living as a shepherd and from agriculture.  Thus, as opposed to the sanctioned, professional prophets of his day (who suggested that Israel’s prosperity was a sign of God’s blessing), Amos claims prophetic authenticity.  Amos claims legitimacy through his status as an outsider.  His message comes from God, rather than from the recognized human authority.

I wonder sometimes how willing we are today to have God’s plumb line held up to our country, or our churches.  Would we be willing to listen to the prophetic voice, or like Amaziah would we tell him to go preach someplace else?  Are we so addicted to the smooth and pleasing words of blessing that we cannot listen to God’s call for things to change?

It’s worth considering the notion that today’s religious authorities may be too closely allied with power.  As Amaziah told Amos while shooing him away, “This is the king’s sanctuary and a temple of the kingdom.”  Those words should terrify us, as we look at the perhaps too easy alliance between empire and ecclesia.  I worry that too many of our churches have “Do Not Disturb” signs on their doors. Rather than cathedrals of conversion, have we erected sanctuaries of the status quo? Amos reminds us that God comes to comfort those who are disturbed, and to disturb those who are comfortable.

Shabbat Shalom,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

What is Truth?

The Gospel reading for today, St. John’s Passion narrative (John 18:1-19:42) can be found here.

 Within St. John’s Gospel, the trial of Jesus looks a little like the Tower of Babel.  Jesus and Pilate really aren’t speaking the same language, leaving Pilate with the haunting question, “What is truth?”  While Pilate doesn’t know it, he’s about to hang the Truth up on a tree, like a scarecrow.  Rather than seeking understanding, Pilate’s question actually constitutes a desperate sort of evasion.  As Archbishop Rowan Williams has observed, “We constantly try to start from somewhere other than where we are.”  Whatever Pilate wanted to know, it didn’t have much to do with the Truth.

Within this trial, Jesus tells Pilate, “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”  This passage echoes with Jesus’ earlier claim:  “My sheep hear my voice.  I know them, and they follow me.  I give them eternal life, and they will never perish.”  John 10:27-28.  Good Friday, then, operates not so much as a historical marker as a beacon in the darkness, calling out for us to remember, to belong to the truth and listen to Christ’s voice.

The crowd then makes a monstrous barter, condemning Jesus and allowing Barabbas to go free.  I sometimes wonder what Barabbas did with the balance of his life, how he spent his remaining years.  Did this “bandit” come to comprehend what had happened?  I also wonder whether we, like Barabbas, understand that Jesus’ death means that we can live, and will never perish?

Pilate then has Jesus whipped, and Jesus returns before the crowd in a purple robe and a crown of thorns.  While Caesar wore a laurel wreath, we wince at the idea of this twisted symbol of Jesus’ kingdom.  After a Roman scourging, Pilate mocks Jesus and the crowd, telling them “Here is the man!”  (Ecce homo!).  The suggestion that this broken, frail, bloody person could be a king was laughable.  The soldiers mocked Christ by calling him “The King of the Jews.”  As usual, John places words of deep truth within the mouths of those who don’t understand what they’re saying.

The trial results in Jesus’ inevitable condemnation, and He carries his own cross to the Place of the Skull (Golgotha).  Even in this final hour, the world mocks Jesus under a sign bitterly describing Him as the King of the Jews. Jesus says “I am thirsty” and is given a sponge soaked in sour wine.  Here,we encounter St. John at his most ironic, at his most paradoxical understanding.  In this moment of shame, unbearable pain, and within this passion, God reveals His glory.  When Jesus spoke of being glorified, somehow, this is the moment He meant.

Jesus tells his mother that the beloved disciple is now her son; he tells His beloved follower that Mary is now his mother.  Just as He had done in life, in death, Jesus re-defines the nature of “family”.  Squarely confronting His own mortality, Jesus establishes a new notion of kinship (into which we all are adopted).

Finally, after a day filled with countless agonies, Jesus announces “It is finished.”  Through the life and death of Jesus, God’s glory has been fully made clear.  Somehow, this broken, pathetic figure wearing a crown of nettles manifests “glory.”  Nailed to the cross, we find glory in the intersection of divinity and humanity, the intersection of light and darkness, the intersection of life and death.

God has shown us the final consequences of our brokenness  and of our hatred.  Through it all, He has managed to reveal divine love despite everything we could do to avoid it.  His capacity to love and forgive always infinitely surpasses our capacity to wound, our capacity to destroy, and our capacity to distance ourselves from the Living God.

Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a poor sinner,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

He Loved Them to the End

Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” Jesus said to him, “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you.” For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, “Not all of you are clean.”

After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord–and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.

Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, `Where I am going, you cannot come.’ I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” John 13:1-17, 31b-35.

In the Lectionary reading for today, we feel the reverberation of Mary of Bethany’s act of devotion from Monday’s reading.    In many respects, today’s Gospel contains the adhesive which bonds all of the events of, and the readings for, Holy Week together.  St. John reports that Jesus knew that the hour of his death had come; this passage records how chose to spend his last hours with his friends.  “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.”

In washing the disciple’s feet, Jesus assumed the role of a servant, of a slave.  Reluctant to have his Rabbi assume this role, Peter protested.  Jesus assured Peter, however, that this way was the path to sharing in the life of Christ.  He teaches them that serving each other offers a great blessing.  Jesus teaches, “For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.”

In a terribly poignant moment, Jesus calls his disciples “little children” and tells them his time with them has grown very short.  Jesus then offers them the great commandment:  to love each other as He has loved us.  We love each other because He loved us first, and showed us how to do it.  I’ve come to believe, the more time I spend in John’s Gospel, that there’s really only one sin:  the failure to love.

I have often heard church leaders talk about a “path to discipleship”, and I suppose that’s a useful discussion in some sense.  But Jesus says that there’s only one true marker of his disciples:  they love each other, reflecting Christ’s love.  Jesus paints a portrait of divine vulnerability, reflecting a God who entered into human history, subjected Himself to shame, and poured Himself out to show us how to live.  This moment in John’s Gospel, in which God acts like a slave, constitutes a critical moment of God’s self-revelation.  “This,” Jesus tells us, “this is what the Kingdom looks like.”

Love serves as the glue which binds the readings for Holy Week together.  Love rode into Jerusalem on a donkey.  Love filled the house with a fragrant oil.  Love lights the way so that the darkness will not overcome us.  Love surrounds us in a great cloud of witnesses.  And tomorrow, Love will be hoisted on a Cross.

Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

A Cloud of Witnesses

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.

Consider him who endured such hostility against himself from sinners, so that you may not grow weary or lose heart.  Heb. 12:1-3.

The Lectionary offers us this reading for Holy Week, and I thought we might reflect on it for a bit.  While we often think of it in the context of All Saints Day, it strikes me as terribly appropriate as a Holy Week reflection.  Certainly, our Lenten task consists of laying aside those burdens and separations that “cling so closely” to us.  We know that these weights, these sins, entangle us and swarm around us.  Lent offers us a chance to loosen those bonds.

The Epistle to the Hebrews reminds us that we are surrounded by a “great cloud of witnesses”.  It’s a remarkable and deeply poetic choice of words.  Often, we think of these witnesses as the great saints of the Church.  I’m inclined to think, however, also of those  who were present during those remarkable days of Jesus’ earthly ministry.  Jesus touched a remarkably diverse group of people. From the wedding guests at Cana to the blind man at the pool of Siloam to Lazarus of Bethany to the Roman centurion who cried out “Surely, this man was the son of God!”: they all bore witness to the redemptive power of the Lord.

And yet, this “pioneer and perfecter of our faith” , this Beloved Son of God, would cry out in agony from the Cross.  He would wonder, quoting the Psalms, why the Father had deserted Him.  He would wonder how He could feel so desperately alone.  Somehow, His mother and a few of his friends bore witness to this horror.  They offered to God that precious gift, the ministry of presence.  I’m wondering whether we can bear to watch, whether we will join into that cloud of witnesses during this Holy Week.  I’m wondering whether we can endure the Cross.

God watch over thee and me,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

While You Have the Light

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

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.

Pax Christi,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

 © 2012 James R. Dennis