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Knowing Jesus

1 May
via flickr user my2cents

via flickr user my2cents

Where do we find Jesus in the post-resurrection time in which we live? For those of us who did not get to know Jesus during his embodiment on earth, how do we now get to know him now? This Sunday’s Gospel, the road to Emmaus story from Luke 24, gives us some important clues to answering these questions.

This Gospel story opens with two of Jesus’ disciples walking toward Emmaus, a village seven miles from Jerusalem. Along the way, their conversation, not surprisingly, turns to the events that had recently transpired involving Jesus’ death and the empty tomb found three days later by some women from their group. We are told they were “conversing and debating,” and we can imagine them trying to make sense of these events that defied all of their expectations about who Jesus was. The one who they had hoped would “redeem Israel” was put to death, along with their hopes that Israel would find political and religious freedom apart from their Roman occupiers.

As the disciples are deep in conversation, a fellow traveler joins them, a man the Gospel reader knows is Jesus but who is unrecognizable to the disciples. We are told that “their eyes were prevented from recognizing him,” but I do not think we need to look to supernatural explanations for their blindness. Post-resurrection, Jesus is no longer human in the same way that he was during his lifetime on earth. If we expect Jesus to look a certain way, or if we place too much importance on what Jesus’ physical visage would have been, we will miss what is crucial about Jesus’ identity, like these disciples who can’t quite wrap their heads around what has happened now that Jesus has turned out to be someone different than who they thought.

In order to join their conversation, Jesus asks them what they have been discussing, and they tell him about what has happened to “Jesus the Nazarene, a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people.” They end their story by relating their own visit to Jesus’ tomb, where they saw indeed that Jesus’ body was gone but did not see Jesus himself or a vision of angels announcing that he was alive, as the group of women had. At this, it seems that Jesus gets a bit fed up with the lack of understanding evidenced by the disciples, and he gives them a scripture lesson as they walk, “beginning with Moses and all the prophets” interpreting “to them what referred to him in all the scriptures.”

And even having heard this interpretation from the mouth of the resurrected Jesus himself, the disciples still do not know Jesus. Now certainly gaining this perspective, this knowledge, may open them up to being able to recognize Jesus later in the story. But in and of itself, this cognitive knowledge, this knowing about Jesus, is not sufficient for them to recognize their traveling companion as Jesus, as the one whom they had followed and with whom they had had an intimate relationship. Thus we will not come to know Jesus in a personal, life-changing way if we only know about him. We will not meet Jesus by being able to offer a “correct” interpretation of scripture or by reciting an orthodox set of beliefs about him.

As the traveling group approaches Emmaus, Jesus seems as if he will keep traveling, but the two disciples urge him to stay with them since the day is almost over (perhaps demonstrating in this offer of hospitality that they have not completely missed the message of Jesus’ life). Then the dramatic climax of the story occurs: Jesus sits with them at the table and takes bread, blesses it, breaks it, and gives it to them. And they recognize him for who he is in this action, just as he disappears again.

There are at least two aspects of this moment of awakening for the disciples that are instructive to us in our post-resurrection time. The first is that it is in a communal moment that this recognition takes place. Knowing Jesus is not only about an individual’s relationship with Jesus or “accepting Jesus as their Lord and Savior,” as common evangelical parlance puts it; rather, knowing Jesus demands participation in a community (Matthew 18:20). Second, it is in doing something that Jesus had done in during his life, in imitating this past action, that the disciples finally awaken to the reality that Jesus has been raised. Thus knowing Jesus is never only about head knowledge; it involves imitating the life of Jesus in our own lives. This begins, of course, with participating in the Eucharist, the source and summit of Christian life. But it also involves imitating other aspects of Jesus’ actions on earth: reaching out to those on the margins, speaking as a prophet, and grounding one’s life in adoration of God.

Gospel Reflection for May 4, 2014, Third Sunday of Easter

29 Apr

Two disciples were walking from Jerusalem to Emmaus and began talking to a stranger about Jesus’ death and all that had transpired since that time.  They did not recognize that the stranger was the risen Jesus.

While Jesus sat with the two disciples, he took bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to them.  Their eyes were opened, and they recognized, him but he vanished from their sight.

Luke 24.30-31


The mystery of God’s ways escapes the two disciples, even though Jesus had told his disciples three times that in Jerusalem he would suffer, die, and be raised up.  The disciples’ expect that their journey with Jesus will end in earthly triumph, which blinds them to the presence of God in the unprecedented and bewildering events unfolding around them.  They handle their confusion by retreating to a comfortable place they once came from.

When have your expectations blinded you to the presence of God at work in your life?

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Gospel Reflection for February 2, 2014, Feast of the Presentation

27 Jan
An old man, Simeon, received and blessed Jesus when Mary and Joseph presented him at the temple. “Lord, you can let your servant go in peace; you have fulfilled your word.  My eyes have seen your salvation which you have prepared before all the nations: a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”

Luke 2.29-32

The Old Testament prophets through whom God promises consolation and redemption speak in faith, not in foreknown fact.  They affirm God’s faithfulness to the covenant relationship and threaten God’s judgment on all who worship other gods and take advantage of the poor.  These prophets and their hearers have to wait to see how God’s promises come true.  In Simeon’s eyes Jesus fulfills God’s promises.  His prophetic prayer describes Jesus as both the glory of Israel and a light of revelation to all peoples.

What promises have you inherited from earlier generations in the Church, in your families, in our country?  How do these promises sustain you?  How do you sustain them?

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Gospel Reflection for November 24, Feast of Christ the King

21 Nov

Jesus was crucified between two criminals. One belittled Jesus while the second criminal believed.

The second criminal said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
Jesus responded, “I assure you this day you will be with me in paradise.”

 Luke 23.42-43

Jesus is no ordinary king. He reigns from the cross, not a throne. He forgives a thief as his final act rather than command an army to his rescue. In this act of forgiveness he completes his mission as the prophet the Spirit anoints to announce a year of God’s favor, a jubilee year.

Whom do you need to forgive? From whom do you need forgiveness?


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Seen through God’s Eyes

8 Nov

When I was seventeen, I registered for a religion class on prayer and spirituality at my Catholic high school. Even though I was convinced that prayer was not for me, it was a pass/fail course that included an overnight at a retreat center and my best friend was planning to take it, too, so I figured, “What could it hurt?” As it turned out, it ended up helping more than I ever could have imagined. Not only did my entire attitude about prayer change, but I also experienced the wonderful gift of seeing myself in a way I had never seen myself before.

The shift in my outlook on prayer unfolded over the course of the trimester, as I discovered that prayer does not need to involve words or memorization or recitation; that prayer can happen when we do the things we love to do, things that restore our souls, things in which we are our best selves; that our whole lives can be prayers. The new vision of myself was more instantaneous, occurring on the evening the entire class gathered around our teacher in the basement of the retreat center—dressed in pajamas, cuddled up in sleeping bags, lounging on pillows—for the evening prayer service. The hush in the room matched the quiet snow falling outside the windows as our teacher named each student one by one and proclaimed where he saw God in each of us. There were barely concealed smiles and astonished gasps as he unveiled authentic and insightful visions of God’s presence in each of our lives. After what seemed like an interminable wait, he said, “Claire, I see God in you when you perform your floor routine at gymnastics meets.”

In my eleven years of doing gymnastics, I had never recognized, in quite this way, that when I competed, I forgot about everything else in my life, lived in the moment, reveled in the wonderful ways my body moved, and connected with my deepest self. And in connecting with my deepest self, I also connected to God. And in my seventeen years of life, I had never recognized, in quite this way, that God was a part of me and that I was a part of God. God was so close to me that God was with me when I did this thing I loved to do. To this day, I can see myself dancing and tumbling across the blue floor mat, and I smile because I see myself as God sees me: as a perfectly beautiful, loved and lovable, child of God.

When I read this week’s familiar gospel story from Luke about Zacchaeus the tax collector’s encounter with Jesus, I think that his experience must have been similar to mine on that retreat. In high school, I often felt on the margins of social life and I was used to people treating me just as “the shy, smart girl” rather than bothering to get to know me. On that retreat night, it felt as if my teacher had really seen me, in my entirety, and helped me to see myself truly, too. The empowerment that came with acknowledging my identity as someone who bears God’s image in my being is something that has stayed with me over the years, inspiring any imperfect ability I have to act for good in the world.

As a tax collector, Zacchaeus would have been rejected by his own Jewish people, deemed unclean for associating with the Romans and for making money in this unjust way. I have to imagine that he was used to be scoffed at for being “the tax collector” and rarely, if ever, treated as a full human being. And then Jesus comes along, calls Zacchaeus out of the tree, and asks to stay at his house, something no other self-respecting Jewish man would have done for fear of being made unclean and undesirable by association. Jesus sees Zacchaeus not just as “the tax collector” but as someone who is worth stopping to see. He is not worth this because of his wealth or his job; he is worth this because he is a human being, like the rest of us. The results of being seen truly in this way are astounding: Zachaeus resolves to give away half of his possessions and to pay back anyone he has defrauded four-fold.

There is something remarkable that happens when we receive the gift of being truly seen and also loved and accepted for who we really are. While it may happen all too rarely in our lives, we can be assured that this is the way that God always sees us. May it be that we come to see ourselves as God sees us.

When have you felt truly seen by another person? How did it feel? What did it inspire in you?

Gospel Reflection for November 10, 2013, 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time

5 Nov
Jesus said, “God is not God of the dead but of the living.  All are alive to God.” 

Luke 20.38


In Sunday’s gospel a Sadducee poses a question to Jesus regarding the law of Moses.  The law states a man is to marry his brother’s widow if she is childless.  The Sadducee presents a case in which a widow has married seven brothers but never had children.  Who will be her husband in the afterlife?

Jesus’ statement recognizes the Sadducee’s real issue has nothing to do with the hypothetical case of a woman with seven husbands but focuses on the denial of resurrection.  He dismisses the Sadducee’s assumption that life in the resurrection will be identical to life on earth.  Jesus argues from the book of Exodus that the God who spoke to Moses in the burning bush claimed to be the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who lived long before Moses.  Thus God is God of the living.

When  do you use the bible to debate points of doctrine?

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Gospel Reflection for November 3, 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time

29 Oct

Jesus asks, “Today salvation has come to this house for he, too, is a son of Abraham.  The Son of Man has come to seek out and save the lost.”

Luke 19.9-10

Jesus’ final statement in the gospel makes his mission clear: he comes to seek out and save the lost.  Jesus draws Zacchaeus, the marginalized tax collector, into the mystery of God’s unconditional love.  In response Zacchaeus pledges the almsgiving that marks a true Jew, a son of Abraham—half his possessions to people who are poor.  He promises to repay anyone he has defrauded fourfold.  Neither the law nor his greed isolate Zacchaeus any longer.

What is your experience of being an outsider?


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Serenity Prayer

23 Oct

Through its comparison between the prayer of the Pharisee and the tax collector, this week’s Gospel from Luke invites us to consider our own prayerful attitudes. As I indicated a few weeks ago, I have found myself praying the Serenity Prayer multiple times a day lately, and I am curious what this says about my own prayer practice right now.

God

Flickr photo:   Kathy Crabbe Art

Flickr photo: Kathy Crabbe Art

When I first started saying this prayer this summer, it occurred to me for the first time that the image in my head when I say “God” is a distant, stoic, male figure, a God removed from and not particularly interested in my life. This was a surprise because I have taken a lot of Bible and theology classes over the past fifteen years that have introduced me to the beautiful and inspiring range of images for God and challenged me to critique using solely masculine language for God and to recognize the dangers in doing so. And yet all this head knowledge had not yet seeped into my heart. In my heart of hearts, I still pray to a disciplinary God, a God who finds humanity weak and wanting, a God who cannot be bothered with the trials of mere humanity.

So now I take my time praying this first word of the Serenity Prayer. When I say “God,” I bring other images of God to my mind: God as Mother, giving birth to humanity and rocking Her children to comfort them; God as a Potter, patiently shaping me and seeing me as perfectly lovable despite the inevitable lumps; God as Water, infiltrating all the spaces of our lives with love. It is my hope that over time these images will seep into my heart, so that I am praying to a God who is overflowing with love.

Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change;

When we ask God to grant us something, we are acknowledging that we cannot do the work of our lives on our own. We open ourselves to God’s presence and power and begin to align our will with God’s will for our lives.

The idea of being serene, that is, calm and unruffled, so that we can accept what we cannot change is similar to what religious traditions have called mindfulness. In Buddhist traditions, mindfulness connotes an acceptance of the way that things are in the present moment, which in day-to-day living involves paying non-judgmental attention to our bodies, feelings, and thoughts. Mindfulness feels like going with the flow of the current, rather than actively paddling against it. Praying for serenity has illuminated for me the many ways in which I have been paddling upstream against parts of myself that I believe God is calling me to simply accept as part of who I am. In particular, I am learning that I have been using food to suppress the anxiety that arises in countless situations in my life. I am praying to be able to accept this anxiety as part of how God created me, rather than desperately trying to escape it.

The courage to change the things I can;

Some of these revelations have come to light during my counseling sessions at the Emily Program, which serves to provide real help for eating disorders. Despite my healthy respect for counseling programs and those who avail themselves of the help that counseling can provide, when I first started going to my sessions I felt weak. A tape in my brain, recorded long ago and based on sources I can’t really even identify, kept telling me that I should be strong enough to change on my own and that I was a hopeless, broken person for seeking help.

Well, I am a broken person. As my counselor has pointed out, it is our vulnerability that defines our humanity. But this does not mean that we are hopeless or weak. It actually took hearing Sara Bareillis’s “Brave” playing in the car to help me realize what is implied in this line of the Serenity Prayer: if you are working to change the things you can, you are not weak but are demonstrating tremendous courage.

And the wisdom to know the difference. Amen.

Thank goodness we can rely on God’s wisdom! The task of discerning what we are called to accept and what we are called to change in our lives is not something we can do solely on our own. In our humanity, we are too good at tricking ourselves into doing what is not good for us. There is a good reason that one of the titles we use for God is Truth, with a capital T. When we pray to God for wisdom, we can trust that the answer will be the truth that sets us free.

Gospel Reflection for October 27, 2013, 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time

21 Oct

Jesus asks, “All who make little of themselves will be lifted up, but all who make much of themselves will be brought down.”

Luke 18.14

In this Sunday’s gospel Jesus tells the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector.  The Pharisee supposes the very prayer that distanced him from the tax collector brings him near God.  The tax collector, on the other hand, supposes he is unworthy to be anything but distant from God; his openness to God’s mercy brings him close to God.

Jesus creates room for us to assess ourselves in holding up these two contrasting examples of prayer.  Outward signs of piety do not make the Pharisee an insider with God, nor does social inferiority exclude the sinner from relationship with God.

How do I measure what I or others deserve?

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Gospel Reflection for October 20, 2013, 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time

14 Oct

Jesus tells the parable of the unjust judge who gives in to a widow who persists in seeking her rights.

Jesus asks, “Will God not do justice to those chosen ones who call out day and night?  Will God delay justice for them?”

Luke 18.7

In Luke’s time widows have little place in society but many find a home in Christian communities.  The widow’s voice demanding her rights would perk up the ears of Luke’s original listeners.  The poor widow represents the helpless and abandoned of the world; she has no legal rights without a husband.  She lives at the mercy of those who ought to protect her.

People who are poor today often become victims of the powerful, pawns of the mighty.  The recession, the sequestration, the stall in Congress—all hurt those most in need.  Yet our heritage is one of a hope that comes through faith in the goodness of God and the goodness of those who follow Jesus’ way.

Whose persistence do you admire?


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