Palm Sunday

“Lamentation at the Tomb” Taken from http://gabrielsmessage.files.wordpress.com/

Today is Passion Sunday, aka Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion. We have at last arrived at Holy Week. This week, culminating in the Three Days (Triduum), are the axis of cosmic time and human history. As the Carthusian monks word it, Stat crux dum volvitur orbis, “The cross is steady while the world whirls around.”

This week the Maker of time and space, the One who fashioned humanity to be “little less than a god” (Psalm 8:5), has set his face on Jerusalem, enduring for us and our salvation the terrors of the grave, tasting, and then harrowing, hell. Today’s first Gospel, taken from St. Matthew, walks us through Jesus’ triumphal entry into a “shaken” Jerusalem where he is jubilantly (though wrongly) hailed by the palm-waving crowds as the hoped for conquering Messiah. The allusions in this scene to the successful Maccabean war for religious freedom less than two centuries earlier (1 Maccabees 13:51) must have both worries the Romans and created a confused set of expectations among the Jews in Jerusalem who had come us to celebrate that great feast of God’s overthrow of political oppression in favor of religious freedom, the Passover.

However, our vision of Messianic triumph is suddenly set off balance we we hear Isaiah speak of a prophet beaten, beard-plucked and spat on; as we hear the Messianic psalm give voice to his cry of abandonment as he is savaged by his enemies before a silent God; as we hear St. Paul sing to us of a God-made-slave whose obedience reveals crucifixion and death as the cost of exaltation and victory. Our vision has been stunningly clarified.Then, at last, in the Gospel we happen on Jesus transubstantiating the meaning of Passover with his own sacrificial death; on his agony and betrayal; on his trial and condemnation; on his torture and crucifixion. We stand at the foot of the cross to see him nailed naked and bloodied to the gibbet, mockingly (and rightly) hailed as the treasonous “King of the Jews” whose death targets not the overthrow of Caesar, but the “despoiling of the principalities and powers” (Colossians 2:15); the overthrow of sin, death and the prince of darkness. But we are left at the end of this exhausting journey with us exiles from Eden “fixing a seal to the stone and setting the guard” at the tomb of God to make certain that He who expelled us once from the Garden and set a guard at its gate can Himself no longer threaten our rebellion with His terrifying love.

Meditation

Today’s feast, therefore, permits us to enter into the opaque mystery of these coming days, leading us right to the very threshold of the grave where hope and despair vie for supremacy. Is not where we live and where faith abides?

I will share with you a meditation of Passion Sunday I wrote a dozen or so years ago, that I think I have shared here before. I pray it will help you open your heart a bit more to the quiet power of these days of awe, leading you even beyond the grave…

Like a Dish Cast Down
In this world of shallow depths
what is fair to the eye, and clean
is held aloft in highest esteem;
but what is broken, unpleasing to the eye
we shun, hide, judge worthily despised.

But should it be so?

No! and God, to shatter such folly chose
to stoop lowly low from soaring height
downward to a womb, all silence enclosed
from whence arose His needful cries
labored into Judah’s deep and waning night.
Now see! look, be still and surely know
That His Highness came down, mercy-crazed,
to shatter our enslaving shackling chains
by being bound, whipped, beaten, dazed,
led, gently along to silent slaughter,
to rescue in time Zion’s daughter,
give her undeservèd reprieve.

Behold! Immortal Spirit gasping to breathe,
the suffocating, waning Ancient of Days.

Love became mercy here,
the Just and Almighty Word
bloodied,
sullied,
spittle-drenched,
mocked and pierced;
wailing, lamenting cry,
gathering all flesh up
in a “Why?”
Silent is His tear-soaked death,
God slumping to earth,
breathing out eternal Breath.
Marred contours of clay, re-figured,
Heart welling up and over
emptied, out-poured to perfection.

Blood-writ icon of Triune life:
God from God,
One-shattered into an Other,
Substance wholly spilled,
wholly received, wholly returned;
yet now into our flesh!
Broken-God now risen,
turned up in ceaseless gaze
upon the Father’s Face,
as from all ages, yet now,

O Now!

He sees that Face with ours.

Entry into Jerusalem | The Palm Sunday Icon Taken from http://iconreader.files.wordpress.com

My Brother, Father Drenched long ago, chrism’d flow Whet your thirst, the Vault outburst; Unleash of torrent grace, a deathless Face Impressed into your soul, Seraphic Coal Plucked of immaterial Fire, celestial choir Hymned your Day, dawned for human clay To carve your face paternal, icon of Eternal Begetting God unborn, forever His side torn To Beget a Word, in you whose whisper heard Recreating heart and star, those near, those far. We laud your life this hour, time of mercy’s Power That gave you as priest, rising from the dawning East. Amen.

Speaking of silence…

As promised yesterday, I will not Blog theology today. So consider this a faux post.

As American novelist William S. Burroughs once said, “Silence is only frightening to people who are compulsively verbalizing.”

So let me at least feign for a day that I am not a compulsive verbalizer.

 

‘They shall look on him whom they have pierced’ (Jn 19:37)

Following on yesterday’s Blog post “In Sum,” which was simply an image of the Crucified, and was meant to serve as a ‘summary’ of all of my theological labors, I received this email from a long time friend. The reaction it narrates so moved me that I asked if I could post the email anonymously (they said yes, of course). It moved me deeply not only because of our warm friendship, or because of its refreshing honesty, but because I felt this reaction demonstrated the very simple point I was trying to make in the post: every attempt on my part at theological eloquence or clarity or persuasiveness in words justly falls silent before the all-surpassing beauty of our crucified God, Jesus Christ.

As the eastern theologian St. Maximos once said it, “In the journey to the vision of God we must move from word to image, and from image to silent longing.”

That silent longing, which my friend alludes to in his email, is the place every theologian aspires to possess, so they can honestly say with 15th century Cardinal-theologian Nicholas of Cusa, “theology is simply organized stammering before God.”

My dear friend!

I habitually open your blog when I feel hungry for inspiration in the morning. This morning I am preparing for a hard meeting amid a series of other difficulties that have made me cry out to God “basta!” out of dryness.

When I saw the simple post of the cross this morning my raw reaction was an expletive.

Then I started laughing. Then I started crying.

Ave Crux, Spes Unica! [Hail the Cross, Only Hope!]

Keep teaching me from afar!

We need saints. . .

Jordan

Jordan Haddad
M.A. Student Theological Studies

We need saints without limit or bound.

We need saints who never leave their home town.

We need saints who change diapers.

We need saints who are homeless window wipers.

We need saints who cry, laugh, mourn, rejoice.

We need saints who are just little girls and boys.

We need saints who silently suffer what they cannot change.

We need saints who speak out and are then estranged.

We need saints who will go out into the gutters.

We need saints who love constantly and are brave mothers.

We need saints who pray, hope, and love.

We need contemporary saints similar to those who are above.

Thérèse 2

In the wake of yesterday’s amazing feast, I couldn’t help but allow Thérèse to speak again. Two of my all-time favorites:

But now I realize that true charity consists in putting up with all one’s neighbors faults, never being surprised by his weakness, and being inspired by the least of his virtues . . . When God, under the old law, told His people to love their neighbors as themselves, He had not yet come down to earth. As He knew how much we love ourselves, He could not ask us to do more. But when Jesus gave His apostles a “new commandment, His own commandment,” He did not ask only that we should love our neighbors as ourselves but that we should love them as He loves them and as He will love them to the end of time. O Jesus, I know You command nothing that is impossible. You know how weak and imperfect I am, and You know only too well that I could never love the other nuns as You love them if You Yourself did not love them within me.

+ + +

Though I’m quite unworthy, I love to say the Divine Office every day, but apart from that I cannot bring myself to hunt through books for beautiful prayers. There are so many of them that I get a headache. Besides, each prayer seems lovelier than the next. I cannot possibly say them all and do not know which to choose, I behave like children who cannot read: I tell God very simply what I want and He always understands. For me, prayer is an upward leap of the heart, an untroubled glance towards heaven, a cry of gratitude and love which I utter from the depths of sorrow as well as from the heights of joy. It has a supernatural grandeur which expands the soul and unites it with God. I say an Our Father or a Hail Mary when I feel so spiritually barren that I cannot summon up a single worthwhile thought. These two prayers fill me with rapture and feed and satisfy my soul.

The Best Sermon I Ever Heard

Pastor James Toney

In his really excellent book, The Little Way Of Ruthie Leming, Rod Dreher recounts the story of the events surrounding his younger sister Ruthie’s death, events that witness to the extraordinary character of humble faith in small-town Louisiana. Dreher recently posted my favorite excerpt from the book — story of his friend James Toney, a country preacher, who eulogized his mother at her funeral. It’s really powerful, and worth reading to the very end:

+++

Miss Clophine Toney died in hospice care that spring. She was 82. On the day of her burial, I picked Mam and Paw up and we drove to the funeral home in Zachary.  James, her son and my childhood peewee baseball teammate, eulogized his mother. I knew my old friend had become a part-time evangelist, but I had never heard him preach. He stayed up all night praying for the right words to say. He stood behind the lectern next to his mother’s open casket, flexed his arms under his gray suit and black shirt, then turned the Spirit loose on the 40 or so mourners in the room.

“During Christmastime, my mother would go out and pick up pecans,” he began, in his husky voice. “She wasn’t very well educated. Today they tryin’ to educate us in everything. Gotta stay with the next game, gotta make sure we go to college. We can’t get too far behind, because we might not make enough money, and that would make our lives miserable. My God, we gettin’ educated in everything, but we not gettin’ educated in morals. We not gettin’ educated in sacrifice.”

James said his mother was poor and uneducated, but during the fall pecan season, she worked hard gathering pecans from under every tree she could find.

“She was carryin’ a cross,” he said. “Because let me tell you something, if you don’t sacrifice for your brother, if you don’t sacrifice for your neighbor, you not carrying your cross.”

Miss Clophine took the money she made selling pecans and went to the dollar store in St. Francisville, where, despite her own great need, she spent it on presents for friends and family.

“Aunt Grace told me the other day that of all the presents she got from everybody, those meant the most,” James said. “Why? Because there was so much sacrifice. She sacrificed everything she made, just to give.”

James pointed to Mam and Paw, sitting in the congregation.

“She used to give Mr. Ray and Miss Dorothy presents. And I’ll say this about Mr. Ray and Miss Dorothy Dreher, they were so close to my mother and my father. They sacrificed every year, whether my mother and father have enough to give them a gift of not. They gave. We talkin’ about sacrifice. We talkin’ about whether you’re carryin’ your cross today.”

As a child, James said, he would cross the river into Cajun country to stay with his Grandma Mose, Clophine’s mother. There he would eat a traditional dish called couche-couche, an old-timey Cajun version of fried cornmeal mush. Grandma Mose served couche-couche and milk nearly every morning, and little James loved it.

“But every now and then,” he continued, stretching his words for effect, “we wouldn’t eat couche-couche and milk. We’d eat something called bouille.”

Bouille, pronounced “boo-yee,” is cornmeal porridge, what the poorest of the Cajun poor ate.

“I didn’t like bouille. I frowned up. Mama made me that bouille sometime.Bouille tasted bad. It wasn’t good,” he said. “But let me tell you something: you may have family members, and you may have friends, that will feed you some bouille. It may not be food. They may not be treating you the way you think you ought to be treated. They may be doing this or doing that. You may be giving them a frown. But we may be talking about real sacrifice.”

James’s voice rose, and his arms began flying. This man was under conviction. He told the congregation that if a man lives long enough, he’s going to see his family, friends, and neighbors die, and no matter what their sins and failings, the day will come when we wish we had them back, flaws and all.

The preacher turned to his mother’s body, lying in the open casket on his left, and his voice began to crack.

“If my mama could give me that bouille one more time. If she could give me that bouille one more time. I wouldn’t frown up. I wouldn’t frown up. I would eat that bouille just like I ate that couche-couche. I would sacrifice my feelings. I would sacrifice my pride, if she could just give me that bouille one more time.”

I glanced at Mam, who was crying. Paw grimaced and held on to his cane.

“Let me tell you, you got family members and friends who ain’t treating you right,” James said, pointing at the congregation, his voice rising. “Listen to me! Sacrifice! Sacrifice! — when they givin’ you that bouille. Eat that bouillewith a smile. Take what they givin’ you with a smile. That’s what Jesus did. He took that bouille when they was throwing it at him, when they was spittin’ at him, he took it. He sacrificed.

“My mother didn’t have much education, but she knew how to sacrifice. She knew that in the middle of the sacrifice, you smile. You smile.”

The evangelist looked once more at his mother’s body, and said, in a voice filled with the sweetest yearning, “Mama, I wish you could give me thatbouille one more time.”

James stepped away, yielding the lectern to the hospice chaplain, who gave a more theologically learned sermon. Truth to tell, I didn’t listen closely. The power and the depth of what I had just heard from that Starhill country preacher, James Toney, and the lesson his mother’s life left to those who knew her, stunned me. And it made me thing of Ruthie, who lived and died as Miss Clophine had done: taking the bouille and giving, and smiling, all for love, as Jesus had done.

This was true religion. James showed me that. I tell you, the greatest preacher who ever stood in the pulpit at Chartres could not have spoken the Gospel any more purely.

The funeral director invited the congregation to come forward and say our last goodbyes to Miss Clophine before driving out to the cemetery. I walked forward with my arm around Mam’s shoulder. We stood together at Miss Clo’s side. Her body was scrawny and withered, and it was clad in white pajamas, a new set, with pink stripes. I felt Mam tremble beneath my arm. She drew her fingers to her lips, kissed them, and touched them to Miss Clophine’s forehead.  In that moment, I thought of the Virgin Mary’s song, from the Gospel of Luke:

He hath scattered the proud in the conceit of their heart.

He hath put down the mighty from their seat,

And hath exalted the humble.

He hath filled the hungry with good things,

And the rich he hath sent empty away.

James buried Miss Clophine at the family cemetery, on a hill overlooking Thompson Creek, in the same graveyard where Roy Dale Craven, who played baseball with James and me, lies. Thousands of cars pass by on Highway 61 every day, and the people inside never know what treasures lay buried on the hilltop, just beyond the trees. Those people have somewhere to get to, and speed along, unawares.

Grateful for the Sea, הגליל

As Jesus was walking by the Sea of Galilee… (Matthew 4:18)

My wife and I agree that one of our life’s most unexpected blessings has been finding a home near the water, a few blocks’ walk away from the levee along Lake Pontchartrain’s south shore.

The Refulgence of Galilee 

When I was growing up, my family spent lots of time along the Rhode Island shoreline, especially in and around a wonderful small town called, as divine serendipity would have it, Galilee. I fell in love then with the ocean, wholly taken with its dark and turgid mysteries that circumscribed all manner of aquatic life (eels, blue fish, flounder, porgy, or even occasional nocturnal flourishes of bioluminescent plankton). I was taken with the oscillating and restless play between stormy danger and placid calm; taken with the bracing vastness beyond Narraganset Bay and the embracing intimacy within Wickford Cove; taken with the water’s capacity to gather people in chaotic order around those majestic Tall Ships at Newport Harbor, only then all at once to find ourselves isolated in an anchored solitude on the Atlantic ocean far past Block Island.

But the true theft by heaven of my childhood imagination was left to the magnetic and mystic blaze of a starry night (only to be found far away from the man-lit shore) where the billion-star Milky Way arranged its oriental escape from, and occidental plunge back into, the ocean’s indiscernible horizons. This, above all, took me away from my small life’s many cares and gave me an inkling of a Grand and Free God who ebbs and flows between hiding from, and peeking out of, creation — at me.

So now, as I have the privilege of walking or biking, fishing or just sitting aimlessly gazing across Pontchartrain’s 24 mile stretch, it’s Galilee again for me; though now I can more knowingly see, feel and maybe hear the rustle, if I’m lucky, even beyond an inkling, of Jesus walking along the shore. Here. Now.

How? A wise and elder theologian once gave me a gift — an awe-some image capable of sacramentalizing my shoreline prayer:

Imagine what it was like for God in the flesh, with human eyes, feelings, imagination, looking out at His own creation with delight; across the seas that He made teem with life; that He once spoke into existence; and remembering that Day in His divine-human mind as if it were only yesterday. In your prayer before the ocean, ask for Him to share that delight with you…

The Sea

I must leave you with a lecture by Peter Kreeft that I think is a masterpiece of language and theology and humanity — about the sacramentality of the sea. It’s a bit long (~40 minutes), but absolutely worth taking the time to listen when you can.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r3tO2hSPCxk