Sunday, February 23, 2014

Letting Go and Letting God

Mk 9:14-29

"I do believe, help my unbelief." In the context of this particular Gospel narrative, these are among the most poignant words in scripture.  We hear the words of a desperate father seeking help for his epileptic son. 

The apostles had already proven to be inept at helping the man whose increasing desperation is obvious.  The father's plea was precipitated by Jesus' frosty, and perhaps sarcastic, response to his request for help.  "If you can!  Everything is possible to the one who has faith."  The boy's father had faith in Jesus' ability to heal his son.  Faith drew him to seek out Jesus in the first place.  However, his faith wavered.  "But, if you can do anything have compassion and help us."  Thus Jesus' annoyed response, "If you can!?!"  (my punctuation)

In the synoptic Gospels Jesus' healing miracles depend on faith. They do not cause or create faith.  The faith may be on the part of the supplicant or on the parts of those who present the case to Jesus. Those of no faith or those hostile to faith, both then and now, can always find an alternate explanation for whatever happened.  Miracles occur in the context of faith.  Hence the desperate father's poignant act of faith, a prayer we would all do well to take to heart.  There is something else interesting in this narrative.  Jesus apologizes to his apostles for his shortness with them. 

Upon first confronting the apostles' ineptness Jesus' irritation with them is obvious.  However, at the end of the narrative, in the privacy of the house, when the disciples ask why they couldn't drive the spirit out of the boy, Jesus, by way of apology, explains to them, "This kind can only come out through prayer."  The apostles still had a long way to go in the area of prayer and more critically, in their own faith in Jesus. 

Over the weekend the college seminarians from Providence, Rhode Island were on retreat at Campion Center.  They left behind a sheet with hymns they used.  I noticed one I'd never heard of before.  The hymn is titled, "Faith Begins By Letting Go."  The first verse reads as follows:

"Faith begins by letting go,
giving up what had seemed sure,
taking risks and pressing on,
though the way feels less secure. . . "

Thus, we can and must say with the epileptic boy's father, "I do believe, help my unbelief."
It is warming up a bit though more snow and ice is predicted for later in the week. Very cold weekend in the offing.  Couldn't that groundhog have taken this year off?

One of my favorite places to visit with a camera slung over my shoulder (and some lenses, batteries and other stuff bulging out of my pockets) is the Jianguo Holiday Flower Market and Jade Market.  The large sheds that contain the markets are under a very large highway overpass thus adding an extra level of protection from the periodic torrential downpours of Taiwan.  I've taken many hundreds of shots there, being limited only by physical exhaustion.  Below are three of paper lanterns for sale in the market.  I have a similar one hanging over my desk.  Ignatius had it in his room when we were in theology at Weston Jesuit.  In the frantic rush to pack (the car to pick him up for the airport was in front of the house and he wasn't done) he left it behind.  I kept it.  I would have purchased one of these but the odds of getting it home in one piece were not good.  

+Fr. Jack, SJ, MD

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Sixth Monday in Ordinary Time

Jas 1:1-11
Ps 119:67-8, 71-2,75-6
Mk 8:11-13

The Gospel today is about as short as a Gospel reading can be, just three verses.  But it packs a punch and reflects the first reading from James.  While James exhorts those who are being troubled to hold onto their faith, Jesus is expressing his frustration with those who demand signs almost as a basis for having faith, of a sort.

In both the Old Testament and the New Testament asking for a "sign" is asking for a miracle.  As a bit of trivia, the word miracle does not appear in either testament.  The closest we come to what we understand as miracle is a word translated as "marvel" that appears only once in the New Testament, in Matthew.  Thus, asking for a sign is asking for a miracle of some sort. 

The Russian writer Dostoyevsky put it well when he wrote, "Man seeks not so much God as the miraculous."  The late Jesuit Father Stanley Marrow describes the same with less brevity.  "The difficulty with signs and miracles, even the greatest of them, is that our appetite for them is insatiable.  The recipient of the favor . . . keeps coming back for more.  We are forever testing to see if God is still there, whether our prayers are getting through."

Jesus' signs and miracles are manifestations of God but they do not produce faith.  They are only experienced--or sometimes even noticed--by those with faith. 

As James exhorts in his letter, "ask in faith, not doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind."  When we demand signs from God we are going to be disappointed because our demand for a sign comes not from faith but from an attitude of "oh yeah?  Show me."  May we approach God not with an attitude of show me but with the words of the psalmist on our lips,

"I know, O Lord,
that your ordinances are just
and in your faithfulness
you have afflicted me.
Let your kindness comfort me."
Just a few photos.  
I've been fascinated for years by the Dutch genre paintings, particularly the still life works that depict glass, light, shadow and so on.  It took a long time to come to an appreciation of that kind of work.  Given the snow and general unpleasantness of the weekend weather (it was a tad warmer but the low tonight is to be 9) there were good excuses to stay in and play with photos. 

The first is a detail of a small stained glass window in an out-of-the-way hallway near where the two other photos were taken. 
These two are the same place taken from different perspectives.  They remind me of the Dutch Master paintings in the way the light makes all the difference.  The scene itself was more than a little mundane (and kind of dusty too, given the lack of traffic through the area).  

+Fr Jack, SJ, MD

Sunday, February 9, 2014

5th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Salt and Light

Is 58:7-10
Ps 112:4-5, 6-7, 8-9
1 Cor 2:1-5
Mt 5:13-16

There is something missing from the first reading.  That something is the first six verses of chapter 58 of the Book of Isaiah.  Those beginning verses put the reading we just heard into context.  In the missing verses the prophet Isaiah is denouncing the people.  He is not denouncing them because they had assumed and adopted pagan customs and practices but because they performed their own religious practices, such as fasting and penance, insincerely and hypocritically.

The Jewish Study Bible makes an interesting comment on the background for this reading.  The people observed rituals such as fasting not out of true devotion but for their own benefit.  People prayed for divine intervention in their quarrels against each other. The prophet is denouncing the people because they fasted and did penance so as to manipulate God, as if that were possible.  The verses we heard here make more sense with this background.  Isaiah is instructing the people about what a true fast means.  True fasting is not starving one's body.  That's dieting.  True fasting means sharing what one has with others and thus having less for oneself.  Humility is not sitting in sackcloth and ashes looking pathetic for all who pass by.  True humility means a desire for justice.  True humility includes compassion toward those who suffer.  With Ash Wednesday just a few weeks away we would do well to come back to this reading. It gives good instruction for how we are called to observe Lent. 

"You are the salt of the earth.  But if salt loses its taste, with what can it be seasoned?"

Jesus' image of 'the salt of the earth' is part of common English usage.  It is a compliment to the person who is described that way.  As used in colloquial English 'salt of the earth' means a good or worthy person who places the needs of others first.  It implies actions free of underhanded dealings and devious behaviors that ultimately benefit the self.    But salt is tricky.  It is not always a blessing.  

On one hand salt purifies and preserves food.  That is an important use even today.  It adds exquisite flavor to food.  Unsalted pretzels, for example, are an abomination.  But add a few grains of salt and flavor explodes.  On the other hand salt can also poison.  Watering plants with salt water will kill them.  Too much salt in the diet can result in high blood pressure, congestive heart failure and a generalized feeling of bloat. 

Jesus' sayings about salt are not easy to understand.  I was bothered for years by the words, "If salt loses its taste, with what can it be seasoned?"  How can salt lose its taste?  That was always a problem in my mind.  But it wasn't a problem only because of Jesus' saying.   Part of the problem was my grandmother.

Grandma, who lived four blocks away, came to dinner every Sunday.  Almost every week she would announce, "They don't make salt as salty as they used to."  Even when I was sixteen it didn't make sense though I didn't know why.  By the time I was in my thirties, after years studying biology, chemistry, and human physiology, my mom began saying the same thing.  Generally she would make the announcement while shaking salt over the potatoes that I had just cooked at my house.  "You didn't add enough salt.  And remember, they don't make it as salty as they used to." (OK Jack, count to ten.  She is your mother). 

There is an explanation for salt seeming to lose its flavor. It is not because of the salt.  It is our fault.  Salt is as salty as it has always been.  But, as we age our ability to detect and taste salt on the tongue diminishes dramatically.  What seems to be salted just right to someone who is 85 may be experienced as very salty to someone 35.

Jesus is the light of the world.  Jesus is also the salt of the earth who preserves, purifies, and protects us just as salt preserves food and protects it from contamination.  We cannot afford to lose our taste for that salt.  We cannot allow our taste for the Word of God to diminish as we age. 

While it is never a good idea to shake too much salt on the mashed potatoes, we can never take in enough of the Word of God.  We can never get enough of the salt of the earth or the salt TO the earth that is Jesus and his life.  Paul prayed in the second reading, " . . . so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God."  That power of God is light for the world and salt for the earth.  May we never lose sight of that light.  May our faith never be low salt.

Very busy week with more of the same coming.  Fr. Dan Harrington, SJ, one of the world's greatest New Testament scholars died on Saturday here at Campion.  He came after dealing with cancer for four years.  In the early autumn it became apparent that he could not get the care he needed in a busy community at the school so he came out here.  He will be very missed by the faculty, students, and the world of New Testament scholarship in general.  He was my thesis adviser at Weston Jesuit School of Theology when it was still in Harvard Square.  He was a passionate sports fan.  Every Monday during football season he would have some  comment on the Penn State game of the previous Saturday.  Very nice man who wore his considerable learning and erudition lightly, never using it like a club to beat others who were less accomplished into submission.  This is a rare trait among academics.  

The photos are all the same subject.  One of the men had some orchids in his room.  I had the camera when I passed by.  The shots didn't come out of the camera looking all that great.  Wretched wall color in the room for starters along with very poor light.  After a lot of post-processing (not with Photoshop) I was happy with the results.  

The first photo is an 'out of the camera.'  Not very good by any stretch.  This is the sort of thing that an amateur could not have corrected in the past. 

Same photo after about 20 minutes of adjustment. 

A friend wondered how it would look in black and white.  I'm not sure about this one.   Added a few 'buds' to cover the supporting stick on the left.  That part looks much better in black and white than it did in color. 

The final three are different shots all of which were similarly manipulated in the Aperture 3 program. 

 +Fr. Jack, SJ, MD

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Presentation of the Lord

Celebrated Mass at St. Julia, the church on the main street in Weston.  Pretty little church with an active and involved congregation.  A trip out to Spencer to see my spiritual director and then home to watch the Super Bowl.  Not so super play by Denver.  Wretched commercials.  The Oikos Yogurt one was offensive.  Pathetic. John Stamos reached a new low, something I didn't think possible after being in Full House.


Mal 3:1-4
Ps 24
Heb 2:14-18
Lk 2:22-40

Today we celebrate the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord, a feast known in the past as Candlemas.   On Candlemas the beeswax candles used in both Church and home for the coming year were blessed.  The Gospel just proclaimed is one of the many exquisitely beautiful narratives found in Luke.  It includes Simeon’s prayer, the Nunc Dimittis

"O Lord, now you let your servant go in peace
Your word has been fulfilled . . . "

The Church prays this daily at the end of night prayer.  It has been set to music by many composers. 

More than any other Gospel, Luke gives us a window into the dynamics of Jesus’ family life and relationships.  The Annunciation, the Vistitation, Jesus’ birth, the circumcision, Jesus’ presentation at the Temple, and a brief look at Jesus at the age of 12.  All of this detail is an important reminder that Mary and Joseph were observant Jews who fulfilled all of the laws and customs surrounding the birth of a son.  They were indeed righteous people.  All of this emphasizes that Jesus was like us.  He was like us in all things but sin.  The story of Jesus is a human and humane one.  The details of Jesus' life as put forward in Luke's Gospel are details with which we can identify. 

In the second readings we heard,  "Since the children share in blood and flesh, Jesus likewise shared in them, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death . . . and free those who through fear of death had been subject to slavery all their life."

Jesuit Theologian Karl Rahner  points out what is obvious in this reading from Hebrews: Jesus, “came into the world the same way we did in order to come to terms with the given facts of human existence, . . . and to begin to die”

What Rahner calls the facts of human existence are not always easy to understand.  Many of us rage against the fact that we must suffer and die. Perhaps we rage even more violently against the fact that those we love must suffer and die.  Here we can turn to Mary.

There are hints of the pain to come in Simeon’s cryptic comment to Mary, “and you yourself, a sword will pierce” or, in another translation
“and a sword will pierce through your own soul also.” What did Mary feel when she heard these words?  Did she recall them later at the foot of the cross?  There is no pain greater than that of a parent who endures the death of a child at any stage of the child’s life from life in the womb to death in old age.  But there is also pain in watching a parent or a spouse in end stage of Alzheimer's or coping the harsh realities of cancer or the myriad of other diseases that can claim us.  All of us have our hearts pierced with a sword many times in our lives. 

"And suddenly there will come to the temple the LORD whom you seek,  And the messenger of the covenant whom you desire.
Yes, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts."

We just heard how this prophecy from the Book of Malachi, was fulfilled in this Gospel.  Jesus was brought to the Temple.  He was recognized. He was not recognized by the crowd in the Temple but by two people whose eyes were open.  Jesus was recognized by two who were awaiting the Lord, and were disposed to recognize Him when He came. 

Simeon and Anna are us.  And they are examples for us. They are examples because they recognized Jesus in the infant brought into the Temple.  They were open to the grace of Jesus' presence.  They knew of God's promise and were eagerly awaiting the Messiah, the Christ, the Anointed One.

Our challenge is to recognize Jesus when we encounter Him, wherever we encounter Him and in whomever we encounter Him.  We may encounter Him in the adolescent at school, or in the child noisily exploring the world.  And most critically we encounter Jesus in the child being carried in the womb.  We recognize Him in that child who, just as Jesus was under attack by Herod, is under concerted attack by American government and society.  We are called to recognize Jesus in the elderly afflicted with dementia.  We are called to recognize Jesus in all whom we encounter.

Lent begins on 4 March, a month from this coming Wednesday.  We will hear more in the Gospel narratives how Jesus was like us in pain, suffering, and death, how Jesus was like us in all things but succumbing to temptation, like us in all things but sin.  But today on Candlemas we recall and celebrate that Jesus is the light of the world, a light that will never be extinguished.
Playing with black and white conversions in photos.  The first role of film I shot with a Canon AE-1, a revolutionary camera in its time, was ASA 400 black and white.  I continue to have a fondness for that medium.  The eye notices different things with black and white than it does with color.  I've been posting photos lately on a web site for photographers.  Purely for fun.  

I took this near Chiang Kai-shek's tomb in Taipei.  There are two huge theaters at opposite ends of a massive square.  A women's choir was going into the hall for rehearsal.  They had a photographer taking photos as they made their way across the square.  I decided to join in the fun.  It was very hot and humid.  The women were wearing all black.  The secret is that there was a second man standing in the background.  I removed him.

These are prayer requests at Wen-wu Temple at Sun Moon Lake in Taiwan.  Sun Moon Lake is one of the most beautiful places I will ever visit.  Complete tranquility. 

This is not black and white but it might as well be.  I'd never seen a white peacock before.  Note the pink beak and feet.  Probably an albino.  

And on to Australia.  All of these were taken at Sevenhill during the long retreat.  
The first is the road from the house where John, Simon and I made the retreat.  We walked it multiple times per day.  Unlike the weather this year where the temps are hitting 105 and higher, we had cool, rainy and foggy weather.  It was disastrous for the grape harvest. 

The meadow across from the house. 

Moon rise. 

A meadow in the early morning light. 

This last is Sydney, Australia by night.  It is a lovely colored photo but the intensity of some of the colors reflecting off the harbor is distracting.  I much prefer this one. 

+Fr. Jack, SJ, MD