Tuesday, November 21, 2017

The Truth

Dear Friends,

There was a long Old Testament history of awaiting the king of the Jews. The waiting continued into the New Testament as seen in all four Gospel accounts. The question of the expected King’s coming is brought to the fore when Pilate asks Jesus “Are you the king of the Jews?” In John’s Gospel, Jesus and Pilate have a particularly sharp and extended interchange about the meaning of Jesus’ kingship. When Pilate asks Jesus if he is the awaited king, Jesus responds: “my kingdom does not belong to this world.” Pilate pounces: “Then you are a king.” Jesus replies: “You say that…For this was I born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to me.” There it is. Jesus’ kingship is rooted in and brings forth truth.

We could talk about the feast of Christ the King using the passages given in the lectionary for this cycle, but because we live in a time when truth-telling is a challenge in our country, it seemed appropriate to talk about Jesus and the truth he came to bring. In our everyday world, there is illusion and there is truth. Illusion in our day has a partner called fake news. Truth is confounded by the political and cultural front.

Soon, we will be caught up in the illusion of Christmas: the perfectly decorated home, the Christmas meal that rivals the best of Food Network chefs, and all those gathered around the table are polite and engaged. Not quite our experience is it? In fact, at its deepest level, Christmas is the beginning of Christ’s presence in our world which helps us see through the illusions that the myth-makers create. The disciples of Christ strive to be truth-tellers and truth-seekers.

We sometimes nibble around the edges of the truths and commitments of life. Sexual predators, and sometimes seemingly happily married men and women cast an eye around for someone else to attract. We are tempted to cheat at work, at school. We lead ourselves to believe that lying gets us off the hook or that, in the face of some responsibilities, “if I don’t want to I don’t have to.”

Jesus says to Pilate and to us: “if you belong to the truth, you will listen to my voice.” In order to listen to the voice of Jesus, we have to still the many voices that clamor for our attention, who offer their own versions of truth. Humanly speaking, it hurts when we don’t live the truth or tell the truth to someone we love. It can make our bodies ache. Moreover, we send mixed messages which can be confusing for the other person and our relationship can weaken or collapse.

People know when things get muddled, when we don’t abide in truth with love. They can’t be fooled. The most important day in our life may be when we tell the truth and live with its consequences.

Going back to Pilate, his name has been known to us for over 2000 years – associated as he is with the trial and death of Jesus. Pilate’s best gift to us is his question, which needs to become our question: What is truth? What is Jesus’ truth? What is our own truth as disciples of the Lord?

Good question for ourselves and for our church to end one liturgical year and begin another next week.

~Sister Joan Sobala

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Giving Thanks

Dear Friends,

You and I have Thanksgiving on our minds this week: plans, memories and expectations about who we will be with and what that will be like.

One difference between a shallow and heartfelt anticipation of Thanksgiving depends on what we find ourselves grateful for, and the essential place of God in our gratitude. We have been told and may believe that God is the giver of all good gifts, but at a practical everyday level, we prefer to say, with our culture “mine and no one else’s.” It is simply hard to conceive that nothing is ours by right – not our talents, our so-called entitlements, our education, our family. I hope that when we encounter others we do say “They too are gifted.” For, so they are, to the glory of God, and the benefit of us all.

Here’s an exercise that I am going to do this week, and I invite you to do likewise. Print off this blog and for the list below, name people you know, personally or by reputation, world figures and people of history who fit these categories for which we can give thanks to this week:
  • Creators of beauty 
  • People who empower others to grow 
  • Teachers of wisdom 
  • Memory keepers 
  • Questioners of things taken for granted 
  • Seekers of justice and peace 
  • God revealers 
  • Harvesters of food and goodness 
  • People who make us laugh 
  • Installers of foundations 
  • Consensus builders 
  • Interpreters of history 
  • Givers of legacies in society, church and family 
  • Meaning makers 
  • Reconcilers 
  • Animators of delight in all good things 
  • Celebrators of God’s creation 
  • Those who offer vision and hope 
  • Those who accompany us in faith and mission 
  • Those who create or enhance sacred spaces 
  • Those who reveal the contradictions in our public and cultural life 

Remember the man whom Jesus cures of demons in Mark 5. 1 – 20? Once cured, the man wanted to follow Jesus, but Jesus tells him to go home! Go home to your family and friends and neighbors. Make it clear to them how much God has done for you.

Soon, it will be time to gather perhaps for Mass, meals, football, long walks, card games, conversations and relaxation. Figure out ways to have a short or long sharing of all the good gifts, especially the people with whom we have been graced. Share in some way, like the man Jesus cured, how much good God has done for you. Most especially, throughout the day, let there be a whisper of new realizations of gratitude to God in our hearts.

~Sister Joan Sobala

Friday, November 10, 2017

"That They May Be One in Us"

Dear Friends,

A friend recently loaned me Jodi Picoult’s latest book, Small Great Things. It’s the story of Ruth Walker, a licensed labor and delivery nurse and Turk Bauer, a skinhead whose son dies in the hospital shortly after birth. Turk blames Ruth and a court case ensues in which Ruth is tried for murder. The significant part of the book for me is the daily, sometimes subconscious, racism that pervades the culture as seen in many of the characters in the book. Racism lives in America today.

While Small Great Things ends with a degree of resurrection, not all stories of racism end that way. Hatred has reared its ugly head in Charlottesville, Charleston, Dallas, New York and other cities. The list goes on. Do we feel hopeless in the face of the American tragedy of racism or do we take small great steps at a personal level to examine and root our racism in ourselves and our environment?

Cardinal Donald Woerl of Washington, D.C. recently released a pastoral letter to his archdiocese that’s good for all of us to read. He notes that “without a change in the basic attitude of the human heart, we will never move to a level of oneness that accepts each other for who we are and the likeness we share as images of God” – a contemporary way of expressing Jesus’ own words “That they may be one in us.”

Pope Francis continues by urging us to “combine our efforts in promoting a culture of encounter, respect, understanding and mutual forgiveness.”

The work is ours, but how do we do it? How about gathering some people together for a reading of Small Great Things, with an emphasis on seeing into the characters what we ourselves have said, done, ignored, encouraged? If not this book, surf the web and find a video to view and discuss, or go to a talk or a workshop that gets at the heart of the fact that hatred destroys the hater as well as the hated one. Exploring racism together helps keep us on point. 

The work of overcoming racism at a personal level requires the awareness and compassion of all of us who live in a self-centered culture. The current phrase is that “we need to get out of our comfort zone.” Only then, do truth and unity have a chance to ripen in us.

When faced with the world’s most awful problems, I often think of the symbol of the Easter candle from which our baptismal candle was lighted. It is by that candle – the Light of Christ – that we see into ourselves and around ourselves. Stand next to that candle in your imagination, close your eyes and be in the Godspace where you can see the procession of people coming to that candle. They are black, red, yellow, brown and white skinned. They come from Mongolia, sub-Saharan Africa and the Bronx. They stand at the borders of countries and at the edge of slums in Chicago and Sao Paulo. If God is for them, how can we be against them?

~Sister Joan Sobala

Friday, November 3, 2017

Crossing the Threshold

Dear Friends,

I want us to think about death, yet death is the most ignored reality in our thinking, shoved into some box in the attic of our minds. We ignore it – yet death is never far from our consciousness and a frequent experience in our lives.

We experience the death of childhood dreams, the death of innocence when we first become aware of evil and the hurt we inflict on others. We experience the death of expectation, the departure of friends, the wind-up of our working days. All sorts of death.

We nod at the death of world figures and multitudes of anonymous people whose deaths take up three seconds on the news. Death plays a daily role in the movies, in books and on TV. Death surrounds us. Then comes the day when we are told yes, you have cancer; yes, illness will sap your energies and limit your future. Or we are in an accident that was a millisecond from taking our life.

We do get fearful when death draws close – our own or that of loved ones. Then some of us dare to reach out for faith and try to wrap it around us:
                If God is for us, who can be against us?
                If we have died with Christ, we believe we shall also live with him.
                Christ has conquered death. Of whom shall I be afraid?
After Lazarus died and Jesus finally got there, Jesus told Martha “Whoever lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” Martha replied on behalf of us all, “Yes, Lord. I do believe.”

If we let it, the Word flows over us in our fears, washing them away, so we dare to sing: “Shepherd me, O God, beyond my wants, beyond my fears from death into life.”

A friend of mine lost her husband two years ago. Since then grief has been the lens through which she has viewed daily life, although she hid it well. On the phone the other day, she said “Last night I talked with God about how I am living. Then I stopped talking and listened to God. God said. Live!”

Yes, live. We’ve just passed All Souls Day, the feast of the tenacity of life. The ones who have gone on before us are both with God and with us still. As one of our loved ones dies, both they and we cross a threshold – they to eternal life with God, we to life without their daily, tangible presence. At what threshold am I now standing? What am I leaving? Where am I about to enter? “Crossing a threshold is always a challenge. It calls for courage, and a sense of trust in whatever is emerging” (John O’Donohue).

In these days when death asks for our attention, will we trust God enough to believe in life, given and exchanged for new life?

~Sister Joan Sobala

Friday, October 27, 2017

The Light Within Us

Dear Friends,

I am glad to live with Sister Melissa Gernon, the second grade teacher at Nazareth Elementary School. I watch her often, evenings, as she prepares for the next day or the next week or the next season. Melissa is avid about helping seven-year-olds make the connection between the things they love and enjoy in life and the God who holds them close. So in my personal Halloween file now, I have a cut out pumpkin that one of her children colored. On the back it says:

Being a Christian is like being a pumpkin.
God picks you from the patch, brings you in, washes all the dirt off of you.
God opens you up and scoops out all the yucky stuff, including the seeds of doubt, hate, greed, etc.
Then God carves you a new smiling face and puts His light inside you
To shine for all the world to see.

How much we need the light is a matter of fact. In these days when nights are getting longer, we find people stringing up “winter lights.” We used to call them Christmas lights, but the need to light up the darkness presses us to string up our outdoor lights long before the Christmas season is upon us.

The word “dark” is more and more often used to describe the times in which we live. We know we need light to find our way through the darkness that threatens us spiritually, culturally and morally. But where do we find it and can we trust it? In the saints of our world. They are God’s beacon through the darkness.

Paul, the lead character in Michael Malone’s short story “First Lady” is mulling over saints as he sips his Guinness: “...saints are people the light shines through. Not just the famous saints…but the everyday saints around us in the world. Light shines through them and illuminates what they see. The light goes right through to what they love so that we can see its beauty. They don’t get that way because they’re looking to…”

Saints are not self-centered people who muster up light to impress others. No. Saints illumine the world, because they live common lives and do common things with uncommon generosity. They practice a little restraint and a little courage. Saints take God more seriously and themselves less so. They care for others and treat them with dignity. Saints take hope by the hand and never let it go.

When each of us was baptized, our own baptismal candle was lighted from the Pascal Candle, which is the premier Easter Vigil symbol of Christ’s Resurrection. With that light, we saw enough to make choices that would be important for our lives. With that light, we help illuminate the lives of others. With that light, we have come to this day. The light of Christ will never waver. Never go out.

Why should we fear the darkness? The light that guides us is within us, pumpkins that we are.

~Sister Joan Sobala

Monday, October 23, 2017

Being Mary

Dear Friends,

The closing of the 100th anniversary of the Apparitions of Mary to the children at Fatima was observed on October 13, 2017 at Fatima and in many places around the world. Our Lady of Fatima has touched the lives of many. The National Shrine of Our Lady of Fatima was built in Lewiston, NY in 1954. Many people go there to pray, seeking solace, strength, hope through the intercession of Mary.

In countries on every continent, people have created shrines to Mary – at last count, some 350 of them. A Marian shrine is a place of apparition, or a miracle ascribed to Mary or a site which is centered in a historically strong Marian devotion. Remarkably, these shrines have helped communities and individuals stay strong in challenging times.

There isn’t a time in the history of the Church when Mary has not been honored. In a fresco in the Catacombs of St. Agnes, Mary stands between Peter and Paul as a symbol of the Church. She was proclaimed the Mother of God at the Council of Ephesus in 431. And over the centuries, for women, Mary has been the model of motherhood, midwife in labor, intercessor.

But the story of Mary and her place in Catholic life has many dimensions. Men throughout history have found their call to serve God through Mary. Ignatius of Loyola, for example, prayed through the night at Monserrat, a Spanish shrine from 888 AD. Women In our day and age, have begun to probe the New Testament to see the humanity of Mary, and to see her as friend and sister as well as mother and model. Women have searched for the Mary of the Gospel, and found her to be, not mighty and miraculous, but humble, faithful to God, to Jesus, and to Joseph. She was brave enough to question the angel before giving her assent to God. Once, she and Joseph were refugees from Herod, and had to deal with a lost child. We find her alert to the needs of people around her, as she brought to Jesus’ attention that the wedding table at Cana was running out of wine. Before she bore Jesus, Mary has faith that he was indeed the Son of God. She was a public witness, standing beneath His cross. She gathered with the fearful disciples before Pentecost. Then, she and the Holy Spirit met for a second life-giving experience in wind and fire.

The late Sally Cunneen, American writer and publisher, once wrote: “Whatever our problems and differences are today, we are able to see Mary as a human being who reminds us that our ordinary life, with its joys, challenges, suffering and death, is precisely the life her son took on. Hence, we can live with new hope in the belief that all these ordinary things are meaningful and open to the holy.”

As I age, I think particularly of Mary after the Resurrection. She was old, by the standards of her day. She has no family, but only these disciples of her Son. Even with them, her work isn’t done. She accompanied them in those first turbulent decades in the community of believers.

In ways the Holy Spirit reveals, we are called upon to imitate Mary by using our gifts on behalf of the many who belong to Mary’s Son.

~Sister Joan Sobala

Friday, October 13, 2017

All Are Invited

Dear Friends,

A current practice among engaged couples is to send out postcards announcing their coming nuptials some months before the event. An FYI, but not a new concept.

In ancient times, kings also announced the approximate time for a family member’s wedding banquet weeks or months in advance. The exact details of the banquet were given at a later date. To say yes to the advance invitation and no to the more proximate invitation was considered an insult.

In the Gospel for the 28th Sunday of Ordinary Time, which we celebrate today, those who heard his story knew what Jesus was talking about, namely, the sacredness of a wedding invitation. Sacred. As usual, though, Jesus’ story featured a twist and had a second deeper meaning (Matthew 22.1-14).

The audience for whom Jesus intended his parable was the Jewish Community of his day. Ages before, they had accepted God’s invitation to be his chosen people – his special guests at the banquet of the Kingdom of God. Isaiah describes the preparations of God for that mountaintop banquet in today’s first reading. In it, we find the tender presence of God and the total satisfaction and delight of the people at the banquet. (Isaiah 25. 6-10a)

But later, when Jesus came to announce the banquet of God was at hand, some of the Jewish rejected the proximate invitation to the joy of that table.

In the parable, one invited guest decides to work his farm instead of coming to the banquet and another chooses to attend to business. These would-be guests didn’t go off drunk. They didn’t perform criminal acts or forget the date. They simply did not value the invitation or take it seriously. They chose something else. God was not a priority in their life.

There’s a second, startling thing about this story. The king, having been refused by one potential set of guests, sends his messengers out to the highways and byways to bring in the good and bad. Yes. That’s what it says: the good and bad. Even one of this new round of guests does not value the invitation by refusing to put on the wedding garment which the host provides.

No one is excluded from the invitation. We might exclude some, like Stephen Paddock, the Las Vegas sniper or other notorious figures. We might even exclude people we don’t like.  But they are all invited.

Sometimes we believe that we ourselves are excluded because we’ve had an abortion or are in a second unblessed/civil marriage or because we’ve been involved in a questionable business deal or because we’ve been told “You don’t belong!” But we are not excluded either. The invitation is for us, too.

As this week unfolds, let’s ask ourselves: Who am I in the story? Am I the servant messenger of the king, inviting others to the wedding feast? Am I the one who chooses something else – good as it may be – something that keeps me away from God’s banquet? Or am I one who has been invited because others refused to come? With whom do I identify and what does this mean for me?

~Sister Joan Sobala