Lord, Save Me From Chaos

In my last week here in Camden, NJ, I have been given an opportunity to offer a reflection on the readings at two of the masses this weekend. My hope is that you will read this for what it is, a short reflection on our readings, and not what it could be, a comprehensive theology of theodicy (For that, please see my posts from two years ago, Why Do We Suffer Pts 1, 2, and 3). There are things that I omit and things that I gloss over because, well, it’s a ten minute reflection. Enjoy!

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A couple weeks ago, I helped the Student Leaders here at St. Anthony’s plan a trip to Washington, D.C. The plan was for the students to go to the Capitol building for a tour, go next door to meet their Senator, spend a few hours site-seeing, and then head up to one of the friars’ parishes in Maryland for a presentation. A fool-proof plan with every detail accounted for! What could go wrong? Well, let me tell you: we couldn’t find parking so the students were almost late, one of the volunteers lost the keys to the van on the grass of the Capitol, we got caught in some rain walking down the mall, and then on our way to the parish, we got lost, stuck in traffic because of the power lines down everywhere, and one of our drivers was pulled over by the cops. We eventually showed up to the parish so late that the students had no time to practice before their presentation. So much for our fool-proof plan!

The fact of the matter is that our world is chaotic. No matter how hard we try, there will always be things around us that we cannot control. This is certainly the case in our readings today. For an ancient person, there was nothing more chaotic than nature: crushing winds, fire, earthquakes, and the roaring sea. Not having the scientific knowledge that we have, no smartphone to tell them the weather or where to go, the natural forces of the world were unpredictable, uncontrollable, and completely chaotic. While our chaos may be a little more domestic, it is overwhelming just the same. There are bills to pay, kids to take care of, shopping, cooking and cleaning, things to fix, people to deal with, microphones that don’t work, and emergencies to take care of. And if your life is anything like mine, every single one of these things will happen on the same day. Our lives are chaotic. How could we ever find time for ourselves, let alone prayer?

Our natural tendency is to run away from chaos: we deny anything that we can’t control and try to escape the world of disruption and unpredictability. Do you ever say to yourself, “If only I had more time…if things weren’t so crazy… I’d be able to pray better, I could take care of myself more. There’s just too much in the way right now.” This is how I felt my first year with the friars. Living in Wilmington, DE, I was in a house a block away from the noise of I-95, in a neighborhood that is known for violence, at a church that routinely had quinceañeras that would go until one in the morning. Let’s just say that it was a chaotic experience. You can imagine my excitement, then, when I found out that we would be going on an 8-day silent retreat in the middle of nowhere New York. Silence. Serenity. No chaos at all. I was amazed when I got there that I could hear the wind gently blowing in the trees. How peaceful. Finally, I could pray like I wanted to.

Do you know what I found out almost immediately? There was still chaos around me. I was sitting in the chapel trying to pray one day, and one of the monks upstairs kept slamming the door. BANG! BANG! Another kept walking in and out of the chapel looking for something *STOMP* *STOMP* STOMP*. And one of the lights flickered on and off, on and off, on and off, every few minutes. “You’ve got to be kidding me!” I couldn’t believe it. In a place as quiet and peaceful as you can imagine, there were still things out of my control distracting me from God.

I realized in that moment that you can never escape chaos. No matter where you go or how in control you think that you are, there will always be things you cannot change. While at first this depressed me, I realized something quite spectacular: God was there with me experiencing everything I was. I thought to myself, “I bet God is annoyed by that slamming door, the annoying monk, and the flickering light too.” I realized that God was not some manipulative judge causing these distractions to test me or some passive observer watching his creation from a distance, God was right there with me sharing in my chaos.

This is an important distinction we must always remember: While God is always present, God is not the chaos nor does he cause the chaos. When we look at our first reading, we hear Elijah speak of a terrifying situation: wind, fire, earthquake. The passage says, “But the Lord was not in the wind…but the Lord was not in the fire… but the Lord was not in the earthquake.” These things were all happening around Elijah, thing beyond his control, and God was not the one causing them, but God was there. God was in the whisper, the comforting voice. The same is true for the disciples. Out in the middle of the sea during a storm, in the darkness of night, they were absolutely doomed. Was God the storm that was about to crush them or the darkness that gave them fear? No, of course not. But God was still there. Jesus came, not running, not shouting, not calling great attention to himself, but walking calmly on the water to meet his followers. God was their comfort, their calm within the storm.

When we look at our lives and at our world today, it is so easy to only see the storm. With tragedy around every corner we find ourselves asking, “Where is God?” Where is God when violence in our city robs us of our sons and daughters? Where is God when all we hear from Gaza, Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan is terrible news: houses being demolished, children fleeing from their homes, and Christians being killed? Where is God when our whole world is crashing down around us? In the chaos of our lives, it can be difficult to see him, but he is there.

God is not in the violence, but he is there suffering with us.

God is not in the destruction but he is there fleeing with us.

God is not in the tragedies all around us that make life seem impossible sometimes but he is the one walking with us, comforting us with his love.

For some, this may be difficult to accept. “If God really loved us, why wouldn’t he put a stop to evil in our world. If he were really in control, why wouldn’t he do something.” Many times, we want a powerful God that crushes the bad guys and prevents bad things from happening. But that’s not how our God works. He loves us so much that he gave us free will, he made us co-creators in this world, and is unwilling to take that away from us just to make things perfect. Because of that, Jesus came to earth not as a king or wealthy business person to rule over the world, but as a simple carpenter to be ruled by it. He wanted to experience the pain of sin and invite us to create a better world, one with justice and love. His message was not of a perfect earthly world, and so we should not expect him to makes us rich and powerful or to take away our earthly pain; his message is of the heavenly kingdom, the reign of God through justice and mercy. Jesus was like us in everything but sin, and loved us so much that he endured torture and death to share in in our humanity; He gave up his body and blood so that we could share in his divinity. That, the sharing of this communion meal, is our eternal calm within every storm.

And so, we’re given a choice: we can try to run from the chaos, never venturing out of our comfort zones for fear that something might surprise us or go wrong, or we can embrace the chaos all around us, giving up our fear and our need to be in control, to be where our God is. There’s a chance we might get hurt by the crushing winds; there’s a chance that we might sink in the roaring sea. But if we stay hiding in the safety of the cave or are afraid to have faith to walk out onto the water, how will God ever be given the opportunity to save us from the chaos?

Do This in Memory of Me

What Jesus shared with us was a meal and his life.

What Jesus shared with us was a meal and his life.

In each of the four eucharistic prayers in the Roman Rite of the Catholic Church, the words “Do this in memory of me” are spoken by the priest in what is called the Institution Narrative. Although some of the words change for each prayer, these are repeated in each one: “Do this in memory of me.” They are significant words that help guide us in our understanding of this celebration.

In one sense, it is a clear reminder that the reason we meet each week in the Church is because Jesus gave his body and blood to the disciples through the celebration of the Last Supper just prior to his Passion. His words invoke the memory of this religious celebration, the great institution of the sacrament that gives us life and offers us salvation.

But our memory cannot stop there. In another, maybe more significant sense, the memory we must have when we celebrate the Eucharist is of Jesus himself. When we take his body and drink his blood, we are not only remembering the final meal he shared with his disciples before his Passion, we are remembering all that he was/is and all that he did. In one complex moment, we call to mind his triumphant Incarnation and his glorious Passion; the miracles he performed and the words he preached; the love and forgiveness he brought to the lost and the least, and the truth and justice he brought to the corrupt and powerful. Our memory of Jesus is not simply one of a religious feast or liturgical action, it is one of love, forgiveness, humility, simplicity, openness, mercy, unity in diversity, sacrifice, friendship, and most of all, justice.

Because of this, taking part in the mystery of the Eucharist does bring to the present a moment in history, the Last Supper, and allows us to share in the once-for-all sacrifice of our God; but it does much more than that. Taking part in the Eucharist brings to the present the whole life and teaching of Jesus. How can we possibly celebrate the feast without remembering the person celebrating it?

When we remember the person of Jesus, we radically open ourselves up to a new experience of and response to the Eucharist. If what we are remembering when we take the precious body and blood is how Jesus “emptied himself” to become human, we are forced to ask ourselves how well we act with humility and grace. If we remember how Jesus showed mercy and forgiveness to sinners, we are forced to ask ourselves how well we forgive those who wrong us. If we remember how Jesus loved the poor and cared for the outcasts of society, making them his primary focus because no one else would, we are forced to ask ourselves how well we love the poor and outcasts of society and whether or not we are missing an opportunity to love someone unloved by anyone else. In every way, if we remember the person of Jesus, we will be forced to compare our lives with the life he lived, challenging us to grow closer to the one who wants nothing more than to be in perfect union with us.

Jesus says, “Do this in memory of me.” My prayer is that, the next time you receive the Eucharist, you will be flooded with the powerful memory of Jesus’ life and teachings, that it may be such a powerful experience of remembering the person of Jesus that all you can do is let him pour out of you for the whole world. That is the memory Jesus wants us to have, and that is the true thanksgiving meal we share with one another. Only when Eucharist transforms us in this way can be it called the “source and summit” of our life.

 

A “Quest” For Community

Quest members take turns hosting a Bible Study in their house each week.

Quest is among the many ways that people can come together to build intimate bounds of prayer and fellowship.

It is easy to feel anonymous and even alone at church. In large churches, there can be more than 10,000 parishioners at the same parish, attending any of the five or six masses on a weekend. Many get lost in a sea of faces: not knowing anyone and never getting chance to regularly see the same people, they find themselves joined together with others in proximity only, each practicing a private devotion. What a sad irony.

This is by no means a problem for large churches only. No matter the size of the church, unless people make a concerted effort to get to know the people with whom they are worshipping, (and I don’t just mean names, I mean knowing the person in their struggles, prayers, joy, and life) “community” worship does not take on its fullest expression. I sympathize with those who feel that it would be a better experience to simply stay home and read the bible than to go to church because they simply do not know what it means to worship with their brothers and sisters in Christ. Their experience has been one of boredom, loneliness, and anonymity, and they do not know that it can be different, let alone how to do it.

To me, the answer seems obvious: get involved with what the Church is doing the rest of the week! Sunday is a time for the community for worship, but it is not all that the community does. For example, at St. Anthony’s in Camden, a group of people meet each Thursday evening for a Bible study called “Quest”. Unlike other Bible studies that meet in the church and are led by one or two people, this one is hosted in a different person’s house each week where there is food and fellowship in a comfortable environment. There is a guide to how the time should go, but in the two times that I’ve went we have yet to follow any sort of strict program. The whole point of the time together is to listen to the readings for the upcoming Sunday and to share our lives with one another. That’s about it.

For me, the activity itself is incidental. Sure, bible studies are great. But it’s not about the bible study, it’s about the community coming together each week around a common focus as a way to know one another better, pray with one another, and form intimate bounds within a worshipping community. It’s a time to share our own struggles with faith, ask questions, offer support, learn from those who are walking with us, and really, to just spend some time laughing with good people. For this Quest group, it all started with a longing to build a community; six years of faithful meetings later, they continue to meet each week because they have developed a spiritual bond that keeps their faith alive.

It’s communities like these that every church needs if it wants to have life in mission and worship. They are the building blocks of the Church, its place of strength and love. Because, honestly, how can we possibly worship or work with one another if we don’t recognize a single face or know where each of us is coming from?

I guarantee you that there are communities of people like this at your church already. Take a look at your bulletin this weekend and I bet that you’ll see a dozen different ways to get involved with the people around you throughout the week. Why not try one out? Pick any event, ministry, or prayer group and commit yourself to it for a few weeks to see what it’s like. My guess is that you’ll find people you don’t know, good people, struggling with your same struggles, wondering the same things, and looking for companions of the journey.

If the Church is something you’re already committed to each Sunday and yet, it’s not fulfilling you like you would hope, why not go on a “quest” for community on a different day of the week? The Church is alive seven days a week, 365 days a year, engaged in the world in almost every way you can imagine. Trust me when I say that Sundays mean so much more when there’s something from Monday to Saturday to bring to worship!

The Joy of Salvation

This was hands down the best liturgical experience I have ever had. Second place hasn't even finished yet this is so far ahead!

This was hands down the best liturgical experience I have ever had. Second place hasn’t even finished yet this is so far ahead!

All around the world, Christians are celebrating! Christ has risen from the dead! Our salvation is at hand!

How does one even begin to celebrate such a moment? At St. Camillus, we celebrate in the way of the Roman Catholic Church with the night watch of the Easter Vigil:

Just after sundown, turn off all of the lights in the church, and sit in the physical and spiritual darkness, awaiting Christ’s coming in joyful anticipation. We retreat outside of the church where a candle is being lit, the Paschal candle, the light of Christ in our darkness. With great praise, Christ illumines the night. From the One true light, everyone keeping vigil lights our own candle and processes into the church, now illumined by 1200 or more flames. What can we do but sing? Lumen Christi. Lumen Christi. Lumen Christi. There is anticipation of the joy to come in our voice, but our celebration is yet subdued. Three of the four priests approach the ambo, and taking turns in English, Spanish, and French, sing the ExsultetIt is emotive, haunting, and joyous all at once.

With only the light in our hands, we now sit for a journey through salvation history. Six readings, proclaimed in four languages, recall our journey from darkness into light, from Adam to Abraham to Moses, from sinfulness to forgiveness, from diaspora to reconciliation. We journey as a people in need of the light. Between each reading we sing a response, praising God, using many tongues to express our praise: Latin, French, Hebrew, Spanish, and Bangla are among them.

And then, all at once, there is a great light. The church lights are thrown on and the whole multicultural community cries out in joyful exultation the best way we can: Gloria Deo in excelsis, Gloria Deo sempiternam, “Glory to God in the highest.” From English to Spanish to French to Bangla, repeating the response in Latin, we are united in our diversity, made one from many in our great praise. An epistle from Romans is read, the Gospel and a homily is proclaimed in three languages, and the liturgy has just begun!

Those wishing initiation into the church are presented, so many they stretch the whole width of the church. We kneel and invoke the intercessions of the saints in a prayerful litany, Pray for us. Twenty eight people step into a pool of water for baptism, and each in their native language, have three buckets of water poured on them: “In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” With each there is an eruption of cheers and a joyful Alleluia sung. The rest of us are renewed in our own baptism with our own “sprinkling” of water, chanting Wade in the Water like you’ve never head it before. The other catechumens are then received, either into full communion or through the sacrament of confirmation. 98 sacraments are received throughout the evening.

And as if this were not enough, it was then, after two and half hours, we begin the liturgy of the Eucharist. The gifts are presented with a traditional Bangla dance, and the Holy Spirit is invoked upon the gifts to make them new. A wonderful blending of cultures and languages, the Eucharist was blessed and communicated, uniting people from all around the world in the utmost pinnacle of our faith, the real presence of our Lord, now risen, here among us.

Throughout the whole liturgy, I was overwhelmed with the overflowing, almost tangible, emotion that I felt and witnessed. The absolute tipping point was after everyone had received communion, the whole church stood up and began to dance, shout, sing, and embrace one another as if a war was called off and we now knew we were going to make it; it was as if we had just been reunited with someone lost many years ago; it was as if we had been given an unexpected day to live when we had lost hope. And in a way, it was all of these things. Although we receive Christ in the Eucharist every week, even every day, there was something even more being celebrating among the more than 1200 people last night: we were celebrating our salvation. Christ has RISEN! The darkness is no more! The true light is with us, and dwells with us! Death has been conquered, our fear has been taken away.

If you’d like to see what I mean by overflowing joy, click the link below to see one of the baptisms, the “sprinkling” of water, the Bangla offering of gifts, and the communion song:

The Gift of Sacrifice

Jesus' gift is Himself, broken and shared. All that is ours to do is be thankful and receive.

Jesus’ gift is Himself, broken and shared. All that is ours to do is be thankful and receive.

In this time of Holy Week as we enter the Triduum (The Holy Thursday/Good Friday/Easter Vigil Liturgy), our focus as Christians is the on suffering, death, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. We are reminded of the injustice done to Jesus, the spotless lamb, who was sacrificed for our sake. We are moved by the way He took our burdens away from us, removing the stain of sin. We transition from the deepest sorrow to the most exultant joy in a matter of days. All of this because of the gift that was given to us, Jesus’ passion.

I might be wrong, but I have a feeling that “gift” is a difficult concept to understand for many of us because I doubt many of us actually know how to give or receive a gift in the purest sense. That’s not to say that most people aren’t generous: we give and receive gifts for birthdays, going out of our way to do something nice on that special day, and for Christmas, most of us “exchange gifts” with people we love. This is a wonderful practice of building relationships.

At the same time, however, I have to wonder why “exchange gifts” is not seen for what it is, an oxymoron. The very essence of gift is that it is freely given love from one to another without any expectation of return. To “exchange” gifts or to have any expectation of a mutual return is not giving a gift, it is an economy of friendship; it is a transaction, albeit well-intentioned and often fruitful.

With birthdays and Christmas, special holidays and end-of-the-year celebrations, there is, like it or not, an expectation placed on each of us to engage in this exchange to some extent. And while it’s not necessarily bad because it shows people affection and is a great way to build relationships, I wonder if that can even be considered “gift” at all. If it is owed to them, that sounds more like justice than it does gift.

Jesus speaks to this in the Gospel of Luke:

When you hold a lunch or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or your wealthy neighbors, in case they may invite you back and you have repayment. Rather, when you hold a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind; blessed indeed will you be because of their inability to repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous. (Lk 14:12-14)

There is a sense here that a true gift is something given freely without any strings attached. It is an end in itself. The giver gives simply out of love and the receiver is not compelled to do anything but receive graciously. Is this the case when we give gifts? For me, I often receive a wonderful present and wonder, “How am I going to match this on so-and-so’s birthday?” Worse yet, I have been disappointed at the present someone has given me because I put so much more money and effort into their present than they did into mine. Such an attitude, I believe, completely undermines the whole purpose of gift in the first place.

Such is the case, returning to the Triduum, of Jesus’ passion, death, and resurrection. It is gift in the truest sense, freely given love that requires absolutely nothing in return. I think that our often-distorted view of gift exchange detracts from the beauty of his sacrifice. When we enter this Holy Liturgy, we can sometimes feel overwhelmed with guilt because it is our sins that made Jesus do this and feel compelled to help Jesus carry the cross to take away His pain; we despair in the fact that we are unworthy to receive such a sacrifice or how incapable we are of returning it; sometimes, we futilely attempt to “make up” for our sins anyway. Our first response is to return the favor that Jesus has done for us in his sacrifice, but this is absurd. He did not do it because we deserved it or because He was looking for something in return. He did not do it only for those that would be thankful. Jesus’ sacrifice is a gift. It is freely given, unmerited favor, and it requires nothing from us in return because that is the very essence of gift.

And so, this evening as we enter into this most holy Triduum, all that is ours to do is to be thankful. Jesus is offering us a gift of great love. Graciously accept it knowing that there is nothing that we could possibly do to return the favor, and that we’re not expected to even try. What a joyous occasion it is! May you have a blessed Easter knowing this!