Third Sunday of Lent

Those who like their Jesus sweet and pious better skip today’s gospel. Those who want to explore his complex depths should read on.

The scene of driving the sellers and money-changers from the temple can’t be camouflaged by platitudes: it is violent and chaotic. What prompted Jesus to act so dramatically? We have a clue in the way “my Father’s house” is used throughout John’s gospel. “In my Father’s house are many rooms” we read in 14:2. That sounds spacious, but there is no room for greed, betrayal or sacrilege. The merchants have made the “Father’s house a marketplace,” desecrated what is most precious to God; thus, they must be expelled quickly and efficiently. 

In Jesus’ ensuing discussion with the religious authorities, their pride is attacked. Any of us who spent forty-six years on a project might react the same way. As is often the case, they remain on a literal level, seeing the temple as a building. Jesus, however, sees it as an image of the self: beloved of God and incorruptible, transcending the most glorious edifice. As he protected sacred ground, so he fights to preserve God’s children from any who oppress, exploit or harm them. Do we respect each other or ourselves as much as he does?

Second Sunday of Lent: Prayer in Another Key

“Try it in G,” the musician suggests and we hear the same song in a different key. So Jesus models a transition from his glorious mountaintop experience to the verses that follow today’s gospel, about a boy foaming at the mouth, grinding his teeth and rigid. Descending, Jesus scolds a “faithless generation,” who cannot cure him, then rebukes the demon, curing what today we might term epilepsy.

“Will the real Jesus please stand up?” We’re inclined to believe in the one whose face dazzles and whose clothes shine, affirmed by the Father’s voice. Clearly Peter is stunned into babbling an elaborate plan for building tents, so Jesus can converse with the prophets in peace.

Yet it is no less Jesus who repeats, “how much longer must I put up with you?” in exasperation with the disciples’ lack of faith and inability to cure the boy. He heals him “instantly,” so his power is still intact; his compassion still overflows.

We also go through various transformations in our days. We might be praying, then cooking, gardening, paying bills, caring for children or the elderly, chatting, reading, singing, shopping, working on the computer, filling the car with gas or doing the laundry. It’s the same self, in different keys: some happy, some frustrated, some neutral. But because of Jesus’ transfiguration, we do all these things as children of the divine. It’s all prayer in different ways. The disciples who saw Jesus in dazzling light also see themselves anew.  The radiance might not be obvious, but it is there nonetheless, hiding beneath the surface.

Lent Begins

This season for Christians, as for other traditions that take time to repent, marks a turning point. From what to what? Jesus didn’t know or use the word “sin,” which wasn’t part of the Hebrew construct. But he clearly understood the context of anything less than the fullness of what God wants us to become.

So he says, “Turn from all that drags you down.” Are we haunted by worries about the future or shame about the past? Are we still angry about something that happened years ago? Lent means springtime: it presents us with the opportunity to slough off like a snakeskin all that deadens. Instead, we turn to the God who made us, who redeemed us and who lives in us.

Just as Jesus would say “the Prince of this world has no hold on me,” so we belong to God, not to all that threatens. If we over-identify with our emotions, achievements, children, work or ideas, we risk being in bondage to one sector of our lives, out of balance as a whole person. Instead, Jesus invites us to belong completely to him, with all we are. The only door into the future is trust. God who has been faithful before can be trusted again. Can we step towards that life source this Lent?

Some gospel accounts of Jesus’ temptations end with the phrase, “and angels waited on him.” After a dreadful ordeal, when Jesus is hungry and probably exhausted, the presence of the divine is somehow still with him. It is possible that angels attend all our lonely desert places. Where we sense the least comfort, there it abounds. Perhaps it’s a relationship, health or job issue, looming decision. And how have light wings touched us during lockdown? Through health care workers, kind friends, relatives who don’t tire of our cranky moods or repeated stories?

A Shot of Hope and Health

While many have described the physical benefits of the COVID-19 vaccination and extolled its remarkable success rate, few have described how it lifts the spirits. It’s wondrous to walk out of a vaccination center thinking, “so many have died. Now I have the chance to live.” Seems like that exhilarating exit should be heralded by mariachis, a gospel choir, brass band or string quartet.

I know: many have not yet had the opportunity for vaccination; many have wasted agonizing hours trying to get scarce appointments; the supply of vaccine seems limited. The communities of color where deaths have been disproportionately high lag behind on vaccinations. So, some readers may want to file this away for the future when all have better access. Pundits have joked how “Operation Warp Speed” turned to “Operation Lost Turtle,” but finally it seems to be accelerating. Old people like myself are getting the chance–so we rejoice.

My appointment came about because a friend, a former ICU nurse called, sounding urgent. “Go to this website,” she said tersely.  This was clearly no time for chit-chat. “They have openings if you hurry.” Indeed, the city of San Francisco in cooperation with Kaiser Medical had opened a huge facility at a downtown convention center. I had no idea where it was or how it worked, but I grabbed a time slot.

I arrived ready to wait, bringing a book and three magazines to read. To my astonishment, the whole process took less than half an hour. Plenty of staff directed us to follow the “yellow brick road” of arrows painted on the floor. They were prepared to inoculate 10,000 a day, but apparently that number had not materialized. Those who came were shepherded so efficiently through that by the time I thanked the nurse who administered the shot, I was almost teary.

“You don’t really need it,” she responded kindly. “But would you like a smiley face band-aid?”

“My grandchildren would love it!” And indeed, one took a photo for all the others.

They understand only that now grammy probably won’t get sick. From her standpoint, it opens the chance, denied for a year, to hug a beloved son and daughter, see grand-daughters in Seattle who have probably grown taller than me in so much time. Travel beckons—after the blessing of that second shot—and restaurants, meetings in person, all the life and culture we once took for granted.

It’s heartening to be part of probably the largest world-wide vaccination effort in history. Yes, our country goofed up a lot. But now we’re trying to remedy.  We’re the beneficiaries of countless scientists and medical researchers working hard, staying up late at night and developing this vaccine with unheard-of rapidity. Writing in the NEW YORK TIMES 2/2/21,  David Leonhardt acknowledged the lack of data on variants, but quoted Dr. Aaron Richterman, an infectious-disease specialist at the University of Pennsylvania: “In terms of the severe outcomes, which is what we really care about, the news is fantastic.” Surveying test results of five potential vaccines, Leonhardt concludes: “don’t confuse uncertainty with bad news. The available vaccine evidence is nearly as positive as it could conceivably be.” 

That could lead to the relief of Israelites escaping slavery in Egypt, or survivors of World War II celebrating VE or VJ day. At last, we can live without the constraint of fear, in what the gospel terms “the freedom of God’s children.”

I couldn’t restrain copious thank yous to the staff at the center, and even the most ordinary yellow flowers beside the road going home glowed with new radiance. When we’ve been part of miracle, its light surrounds and pervades us. We walk forward in grace and gratitude.

Relics/Sacramentals Today

In the mystics summit (https://mysticssummit.com) this week, Fr. Richard Rohr got quite excited about his relic of St. Therese of Lisieux. With apologies to his friends of other traditions, he explained that Catholics revere sacred objects because the incarnation made everything holy. Or, there’s nowhere that the divine is not. So we hold up that presence in things that have taken on meaning and become dear. In this case, it was a small piece of Therese’s bone, to him as precious as a wife’s favorite earrings to a widower.

This “God amidst the pots and pans” offsets the patriarchal strain of abstraction, dualism and perfectionism.  No, spirit isn’t better than body. We are one whole human. In that vein, I thought about sacramentals in my recent experience.

One was a battered, faded green cap used on almost every hike since lockdown began, when walks became one of our few legitimate forms of exercise. I’d gotten it at Trinity College, Dublin, where I admire the Book of Kells every 20 years or so. During a hike along Willow View Trail, an enormous cracking sound rent the air. At first I thought, “wild animal?,” covered my head, and ran forward to escape whatever it was. Turned out to be a huge tree limb, crashing over the path. I was lucky to escape with minor small bumps. Discovering, after many yards, a missing cap, I returned to retrieve it. I was dubious at first, seeing a long cliff where it could’ve easily fallen. But there it was, smack on the trail, symbol that I too had survived and wasn’t tumbling down the canyon. Cap overlaid with gratitude!

Another is a receipt for a take-out dinner, a scrap of paper I’ve found difficult to discard. It calls up a wonderful New Year’s celebration at Lake Tahoe with my son’s family. Holiday celebrations have been precious few this year, so we went all out for this one. The children dressed up to surprise their mom, who wore her dangliest earrings. She provided us all with headbands, noisemakers, bubbly, wish papers. We ordered a fine feast, enjoyed as we watched a spectacular sunset overlooking the lake. We were filled with hope—for the inauguration, the vaccine, the end of lockdown. One paper slip contained all that, so it has a secure place wedged in my journal for 1/1/21.

Therese and the medieval women mystics were remarkably concrete and fresh compared to their male peers. They wrote in the vernacular; the men in Latin. Their language is juicy, fluent and vibrant—vs.  stodgy, academic, male abstractions. Their metaphors, like Jesus’, are drawn from daily experience.   And so the question for us all: what dear, familiar objects would you place on your small sacred altar?

Stowaway in the Synagogue

As we hear or read this Sunday’s gospel about Jesus teaching in the synagogue, let’s imagine a different, ever-so-slightly more feminine angle. Here’s her version…

“The people were astonished at his teaching…”

Of course, girls weren’t allowed in the inner parts of the synagogue where the action was. So I had to figure out a way to sneak in and listen, unnoticed.

If I pretended to be cleaning, that usually didn’t attract much attention. The men who couldn’t be bothered with sweeping or mopping assumed “someone else” would do it. They had their lofty sights on more important stuff, like whether to approve this teacher—as though they were experts and it were up to them! With a mop as my excuse and camouflage, I slipped into the fringes of the crowd that day, just close enough to eavesdrop.

The little I could hear was astonishing. The usual synagogue bombast told us how wicked we were, so I wouldn’t mind missing that. But this teacher was different. I strained to catch every word, about a powerful Spirit speaking good news—not to the usual audience of wealthy men, but to the poor. Could that mean me?

He left us with a mystery better than all the certain answers I’d ever heard. Now that I’m brimming with questions, I’ve never felt so alive…

Excerpt from More Hidden Women of the Gospels. OrbisBooks.com, 800-258-5838. Free shipping now!

Robert Ellsberg, Publisher of Orbis Books, writes how Pope Francis “continually moves back and forth between the stories of Jesus and their impact on our lives,” continuing:

“Kathy Coffey does something similar through her creative and imaginative retelling of the stories of often unnamed or unmentioned women in the gospels. In More Hidden Women of the Gospelswhich follows a previous, much-acclaimed work, she lifts up women like “The Daughter of Herodias,” “Mrs. Bartimaeus,” or “The Servant at Cana,” inviting us to imagine our own response to the Galilean rabbi whose journey intersects with our own.”

Ritual at Its Best: the Inauguration

While many have written about the uplifting nature of the inauguration, the deep satisfaction of finally having an adult in charge, and the end of the national nightmare, what surprised me was how teary I became at the elegant use of ritual. What can’t be said in words can often speak more eloquently in gesture and symbol when they are carefully used.

Catholics are sticklers for ritual, which can sometimes become rigid and calcified. What we saw in DC last week, however, was the best: dignified, graceful, accessible. It began with the memorial service Tuesday evening. What brilliant use of landmarks that landscape the imagination: the Lincoln Memorial, reflecting pool, Jefferson Memorial beyond it—all at sunset,  with lights to represent the 400,000 dead. Biden wisely kept it simple. A man who knows grief—Beau’s death was only 5 years ago—the president-elect could speak authentically to grieving people. Many were surprised nothing like this had been done before, no prayer nor official mention of the dead. That’s the abyss created by leadership obsessed with itself.

But this was different: the haunting music, followed by the bells of the National Cathedral tolling 400 times, and bells across the nation ringing: in Dallas, New York, Charlestown, San Francisco. We can coordinate when we try—and what a profound, wordless symbol of national mourning.

Despite the constraints imposed by the pandemic and tight  security, the inauguration ceremony  was masterfully orchestrated and beautifully enacted. Contrast the crisp, disciplined presentation of colors, the soul-stirring music with the deadly violence of the mob waving Confederate and Nazi flags (dark symbols) just two weeks before.  I suspect I wasn’t the only one with misty eyes when Kamala Harris entered, escorted by the capitol security guard who had directed the angry thugs away from the legislators. And the unguarded play of emotions across her face as she took the oath—no one needed to repeat that she was making history in that moment.

A slight indication of how moving it was: my son and I, in a condo at Lake Tahoe, gazing out at the magnificent Sierra Nevadas, miles from the action in DC, stood for the national anthem and pledge of allegiance, hands over hearts. So did mothers and daughters, dressed up, watching t.v.s near Berkeley where Harris grew up. Our national rituals can be that compelling. And when the president’s address quotes St. Augustine and includes a moment of silent prayer, it represents the spiritual roots of the country at its finest.

Worn by the long virus, appalled by Trump’s consistent cruelty, plagued by insidious racism, embarrassed internationally, disempowered by lockdown, all people wanted was a little uplift. And they got it: gentle, affirming tones instead of haranguing bigotry, the parallelism of Biden’s speech and cadence of Gorman’s poem. It enabled us to be proud of who we were again, lift our chins a notch higher, knowing we belonged to something better than the last four years.

Wednesday brought that surge we experience when our anthem plays for the Olympic gold medalist.   As a child, I’d belt out the Chevrolet ad: “America’s the greatest land of all.” Then disillusionment set in. But briefly this week, I could almost believe it again.  

Drum Roll for a New Book, Please

As the nation inaugurates a new president, I publish a new book: More Hidden Women of the Gospels. Delayed when presses were shut down by the pandemic, it’s now available for purchase.

The women of the New Testament were a secret treasure I first imagined in Hidden Women Of The Gospels (Orbis Press, 2003, with an earlier edition from Crossroad Publishing, 1996). This book is its sequel and follows a similar pattern. To recreate Biblical women’s stories, I used a “midrash” technique. “Midrashic stories enhance biblical stories, imaginatively filling in blank spaces, expanding on underdeveloped or missing events, or casting them in a contemporary setting or language. Midrash explores the Bible, not through analysis, but through imagination.”

For women who lack an entry to the Bible where all the characters in the story are male, this approach opens doors. Some religious institutions tend to enshrine the Way We’ve Always Done It, and may be slightly rattled to think of beloved Bible figures as feminine. But we know there were women shepherds and servants at the time of Jesus—why not vineyard owners and potters as well? And who isn’t itching to know the imagined story of Zacchaeus’ daughter or Bartimaeus’ wife? What’s another angle on the persistent widow or forgetful bridesmaid of the parables?

No human experience was foreign to Jesus. With his fine sensitivity, he would never ignore nor exclude half the human race. Instead, he shaped his dominant metaphors from women’s experience. He must’ve overheard as a frantic woman thwacked her broom vigorously in search of a coin, or a young girl sobbed because she’d been locked out of the wedding feast. Leaven in dough, patches on cloth, lamps on stands, vines and branches, washing feet and drawing water: all came from the feminine “image bank.” His first female listeners must’ve nodded in agreement, perhaps astonished that someone understood their world.  

Ultimately, the point is not only do these women get Jesus’ message, but do we? The questions provided at the end of each chapter are either for individuals to take ownership of the material  through personal reflection or for book clubs, through group discussion. Bonus resources include women’s monologues useful for retreats, classes, prayer services, homilies or bulletin inserts.

So what are you waiting for? To order, visit the website https://www.orbisbooks.com/spring-2021/ or call:

Robbed

Returning from a hike among majestic redwoods at an Oakland park, I rejoiced that I’d had time to walk after caring for my grandchildren most of the day. I was surprised when my credit card asked me to approve a charge for $600 I hadn’t placed, but denied it and continued on. Until I saw my car: side window bashed in, trunk open, everything there stolen: purse, wallet, eyeglasses, computer, iPad. Thieves had done the same thing to three other cars; according to Next Door reports, they’d been active in the area, robbing many cars that day.

Of course such loss is stunning; I continue to discover what was lost on that computer, and I’ll waste hours on closing bank accounts, changing passwords, getting new credit cards and a driver’s license, all the paraphernalia of identification and complex 21st century life. But I’ve been touched by my family’s help, and the random strangers who’ve expressed sympathy, helped me navigate without money or ID.

But my loss is nothing, compared to how many people have been robbed this year: of life, health, relationships, employment, socializing, travel, mobility, so much of what we took for granted a year ago. Even final goodbyes are impossible. We’ve all seen the heart-breaking farewells as a nurse holds an iPad for a patient and grieving family.

But one loss could have been prevented. The federal government had not executed anyone for 17 years, then in a last spree, Trump arranged 10 until now, and plans 3 more for next week. It’s a blatant violation of Catholic social teaching and basic human decency. Sister Helen Prejean alerted us years ago to this travesty, through her book and the film Dead Man Walking. Since her ground-breaking work, the climate has shifted and a clear majority now oppose the death penalty. She puts it bluntly: we don’t just defend the dignity of human life when it’s attractive or innocent.

She also reminds us that hope is an active verb. President-elect Biden opposes federal executions. To support his stance, we can all sign the petition at https://catholicsmobilizing.org/.

New Years, Lake Tahoe

Turning to the fresh page of a new year, my skis glide over pristine white snow, sparkling with rainbow prisms. All around, a dark corridor of pines frames the path. A brief vacation at Lake Tahoe sets the stage for 2021.

The well-traveled writer Mark Twain called Lake Tahoe “the fairest picture the whole earth affords.” Few would argue, especially at sunrise and sunset when waters and sky fill with vibrant fuschias and peach-gold tones. A starry carpet stretches across the lake as the scriptures of this season celebrate light conquering darkness. Like pleats unfolding, each peak is touched by dawn, and the bowls between mountains fill with cloud-scarves the color of rose petals.

Such glimpses of the kingdom launch the new year with what naturalist Helen MacDonald in Vesper Flights calls “hymns of slow moving light.”  Being saturated in so much beauty stills the inner voices that clamor for control or whine with anxiety.

It seems more a time for living than for writing, so Twain gets the last word: “If Lake Tahoe does not cure whatever ails you, I’ll bury you at  my own expense.”