Feast of Marianne Cope, “God’s Aloha”—Jan. 23

“People on Molokai laugh now—like other people in the world, laugh at the same things, the same dilemmas and jokes.” — Sr. Magdalene, Cope’s nurse

We of miniscule penances and negligible achievements envy Sr. Marianne Cope. We huddle close to security; she embarked on uncharted waters for a risky and unpredictable mission. We admire her clear call, when ours seem muddled, her brisk rolling-up of sleeves to scrub a filthy hospital, when we feel paralyzed by too many choices, “falling in love with her work” when sometimes we can barely drag ourselves to ours.

Born in Germany, Cope moved as an infant with her family to central New York.  Joining the Sisters of St. Francis of Syracuse at the age of 24, she quickly became a leader in the community. After serving as a teacher and principal, she helped found and administer two hospitals. There, she instituted policies which seem common now but were revolutionary then: accepting patients regardless of race or creed, insisting on patients’ rights, treating “outcasts,” such as alcoholics rejected by other hospitals.

The medical protocols she developed there were transplanted to Hawaii when she cheerfully volunteered to serve those with Hansen’s disease. In 1883, the Hawaiian government was searching for someone to run the Kakaako Receiving Station for people suspected of having leprosy. More than 50 religious communities in the United States and Canada refused. Thirty-five Syracuse sisters volunteered immediately; six actually went. In her letter accepting the request, Cope wrote, “I am hungry for the work…I am not afraid of any disease, hence it would be my greatest delight even to minister to the abandoned ‘lepers.’”

Kalaupapa, Hawaii is a peninsula cut off from the mainland by high cliffs and from the rest of the world by the ocean. The sick were cruelly ostracized there, dropped off on the beach by boat, quarantined from their families because the disease was incurable and contagious. While St. Damien had first brought hope there in 1873, Sr. Marianne was able to assure him when he lay dying that his work would continue. Indeed, after his diagnosis with leprosy, the Church and the Government were afraid to welcome him. Only Cope offered hospitality, after hearing that his contagious condition had made him an outcast.  He died in 1889, six months after her arrival, probably confident that the work he began would continue in good hands.

Beyond making the community clean and safe, Cope must’ve known like Dorothy Day and Mother Teresa of Calcutta, that “we are saved by beauty.” Artistry might seem the last thing anyone would worry about, overwhelmed by lepers’ needs. But Sr. Marianne proposed that large, wide-necked bottles, decorated with shells, would make beautiful altar vases.

Her artistry flourished—trimming hats for the girls, requesting the latest fashion magazines for their dressmaking, creating lovely bows. As Sister Antonia Brown wrote, “viewed from the back, one would think they were New Yorkers.”

What made St. Marianne tick? Most powerfully, in her own unique way, she followed One who, shortly after teaching the principles of the Sermon on the Mount, touched gritty reality. Approached by a leper, he stretched out his hand and cleansed him immediately (Mark 8:1-4). He also promised his friends, “whoever believes in me will do the works that I do and will do greater ones than these” (John 14: 12). As Cope wrote in 1905, the time to do good is short:  “Let us make best use of the fleeting moments. They will not return.”

Excerpt from When the Saints Came Marching In Liturgical Press, 2015, litpress.org, 1-800-858-5450

 

 

Baptism of Jesus—Jan. 8

Scholars say that the mythic elements in today’s story– the sky opening, the voice of God, the descent of the dove—are common to spiritual experiences in many religious traditions. What makes Jesus’ unique?

Even in more ordinary circumstances, he remained attuned to the source of that experience: to God his father. Whether he was engaged in hot debate, confronting hideous disease, or teaching in the marketplace, Jesus didn’t forget that voice, that spectacular affirmation. He acted always as God’s beloved child. Furthermore, he saw everyone else through that same lens—no matter how cantankerous, sick, or stupid they were.

Do we? When doing dishes or driving, do we remember we are precious? Confronting a crisis, do we carry into it the same qualities that have gotten us this far: our courage, strength or skill? When we’re angry, mistaken, rejected, exhausted, ill, betrayed, depressed, unemployed, or told we’re worthless, does that sense of affirmation rise up within?

What God said to Jesus, God says to us: “you are my dearly beloved child. I’m pleased with you.” That should matter more than all the applause or awards in the world. And we should in turn hear that same description of everyone we meet.

This experience marks a pivotal point for Jesus: he emerges from it energized and inspired for his public ministry. Even in the long desert days, he must hear the echoes of that voice. When we’re tempted to focus on the criticisms, we could turn instead with joy to that life-giving praise.

 

“Welcome, Everyone!”

Long before Jesus preached inclusivity, Mary practiced it. Imagine being the mother of a newborn, exhausted from a trip to register for the census in Bethlehem. Then picture giving birth in a stable, which was probably not as cozy and clean as most Christmas cards depict. Mary is far away from her support system, so she can’t rely on her mother, sisters or friends for help. No casseroles, no baby blankets.

 

Then, according to Luke, a crowd of shepherds arrives. They must be strangers, but there is no record of Mary feeling uncomfortable with these uninvited guests. Instead, she “treasures” the memories and is filled with gratitude. Matthew’s account of the magi doesn’t mention Mary’s response, but she must have wondered: how many more strangers would crowd into their temporary housing? These surprising visitors aren’t even Jewish–and bring the strangest gifts.

 

Mary’s experience should give us fair warning. If we hang around with Jesus, we’d better keep our doors open. He brings along an odd assortment of friends. They may not bring frankincense or myrrh, but they arrive unexpectedly when there are only two pork chops for dinner. They come disguised as the children’s friends or the lonely neighbor who talks too long while the rolls burn. They phone at the worst possible times and they interrupt our most cherished plans. And in these, says Jesus, you’ll find me. This feast seems to celebrate James Joyce’s description of the Catholic church: “here comes everybody!”

Feast of the Holy, Imperfect Family

The first thing we must get straight is that a holy family isn’t a perfect family. Today’s gospel corrects any delusions about Jesus’ family being the perfect model. If a sentimental writer were describing his childhood, the family would stay pleasantly secure in a thatched cottage with climbing roses and a picket fence. Jesus would chat amiably with the squirrels and perform a miracle whenever Mary or Joseph needed help. Presto, bongo! A clean kitchen or a full water jug.

Instead, they hear news that must terrify a new mother: “you yourself a sword will pierce.” Wasn’t the insecurity of the birth in Bethlehem, the usual sleep deprivation enough?

By being part of a real family, not an ersatz, phony, plastic one, Jesus blesses our own families, with all their messy grit. He shows us that the family—not the church, retreat house, university or seminary—is the primary school of love and forgiveness. In ways that are charming, stupid or violent, families make mistakes. Furthermore, they are innocent victims of oppression like Herod’s. None of that seems to bother Jesus. He could’ve become human and lived his earthly life in a palace, synagogue or military post. Instead, he comes to an ordinary family, with all the graces and scars that entails. Thank God for that!

Fourth Sunday of Advent: Celebrations

At some point, even the most beautiful liturgy and symbol fail to communicate, because God is so much greater than all our efforts. God doesn’t need our feeble attempts in order to communicate God’s self with astonishing clarity. God is greater than Advent wreath and can burst the bonds of any catechism with startling power. But we start with simple, concrete things, because we need to remind ourselves we stand on holy ground. God is revealed in the material, so we look closely: the great unveiling is at hand.

Around the shortest day of the year, December 21, comes radiant illumination: God takes on human sinew and bone, a child’s voice, toenails and wispy hair. No longer is God remote and distant; God bears the human face of Jesus whom we can love. Furthermore, this incarnation makes us all God’s daughters and sons. It’s our birthday too: we are born again and again into a new identity as “temples of the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 6:19).

So our frail candles could also be birthday candles. Furthermore, they hint at larger light: the return of powerful sun, the crashing open of the gates of paradise, spilling wide with voluminous brilliance. “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light” (Isaiah 9:1). God hasn’t forgotten or given up on us, even if everyone else has. Any debt or guilt we may imagine is erased. “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and cry to her/ that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid” (Isaiah 40:2). What a relief to see the jail door sprung, the prison gate open wide as a grin. And the light within us is even more dazzling.

If we believe that everything in Christ’s life occurs somehow in ours as well, what does God want to bring to birth in us now? If that sounds like a large order, we must remember that for us as for Mary, “the power of the Most High will overshadow you…” (Luke 1:35). God’s elegant initiative, God’s magnificent doing, the creative vitality of One who spun the planets into orbit more than compensates for our limitations.

To those who pooh-pooh Christmas and its attendant commercialism, saying Easter is the greater feast, Richard Rohr counters: “If incarnation is the big thing, then Christmas is bigger than Easter (which it actually is in most Western Christian countries). If God became a human being, then it’s good to be human and incarnation is already redemption. Resurrection is simply incarnation coming to its logical conclusion: we are returning to our original union with God. If God is already in everything, then everything is unto glory!”  (“Incarnation Is Already Redemption,” Friday, June 5, 2015, Center for Action and Contemplation, Cac.org.)

 

That all seems more than enough reason to light the Advent wreath.

Third Sunday of Advent: High Expectations

When John the Baptist appeared, “The people were filled with expectation” (Luke  3:15). How splendid if those words could still describe us: open to wonder, chins uplifted, eagerly responding to the words of the Mass, “sursum corda,” “hearts on high!”

This season seems permeated with impossibilities like the dead stump of Jesse budding. Even if we could wrap our minds around the idea of God becoming human, “pitching a tent in us,“ it’s an even longer leap to see ourselves as God’s children, heirs to the divine kingdom. Irish poet John O’Donohue writes of “being betrothed to the unknown.” Christmas means we are also married to the impossible, getting comfortable with the preposterous. It all began with Mary’s vote of confidence: “For nothing is impossible with God.” During liturgies when we hear Mary’s “Magnificat,” we might remember Elizabeth’s words that precede it: “Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord will be fulfilled” (Luke 1:45).

It’s a good time to ask ourselves, do we let bitterness and cynicism poison our hearts? Ironically, WE are conscious of our own limitations. GOD keeps reminding us of our high calling, royal lineage and a mission so impeccably suited to our talents and abilities, no one else in the world can do it. Again, Mary is the perfect model. She might not understand half the titles given her son in the “Alleluia Chorus” of the “Messiah.” Mighty God? Prince of Peace? Such language is better suited to a royal citadel than a poor village named Nazareth.  While her questions are natural, she never wimps out with “I don’t deserve this honor.” Instead, she rises to the occasion.

What’s become of our great dreams? Have we adjusted wisely to reality, or buried ideals in a tide of cynicism? Mired in our own problems and anxieties, do we struggle more with good news than with bad? If these questions make us squirm, perhaps we need the prayer of Macrina Wiederkehr, OSB: “God help me believe the truth about myself, no matter how beautiful it is.”

Remember that the adult Jesus hung out with some unsavory characters: crooks and curmudgeons, loudmouths and lepers, shady ladies and detested tax guys. In his scheme of things, our virtue trips us up more than our sin. The ugly stain of self-righteousness blocks our path to God more than natural, human failures.  Limited as we know ourselves to be, we might ask ourselves the question raised by novelist Gail Godwin, “who of us can say we’re not in the process of being used right now, this Advent, to fulfill some purpose whose grace and goodness would boggle our imagination if we could even begin to get our minds around it?” (“Genealogy and Grace” in Watch for the Light. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2004, 167)

So the “Gaudete” or Joyful Sunday represented by the pink candle invites us to forget our lame excuses (Oh not me! I got C’s in high school, I can’t tweet or sing on key, I’ve always been shy, blah, blah, blah) and come to the feast, join in the dance. To put it in the simple terms of “Happy Talk,” a song from “South Pacific”: “If you don’t have a dream, how you gonna have a dream come true?”

Second Sunday of Advent:   Embracing What Comes

 

Mary models the perfect response to God’s unexpected, even scandalous intervention in her life. When she told Gabriel, “May it be to me as you have said,” she had no guarantees, no script foretelling the future. All she’d learned was the trust handed on by great great-grandmothers: if it comes from God’s hands, it must be perfectly tailored for me.

In times of central heating and plentiful food supplies, we no longer battle the winter as our ancestors did, finding it a precarious season to stay alive. Isolated from others, running low on resources, great-grandparents endured many cold, gloomy nights. How they must’ve rejoiced at those glints of light in dark forests , when almost imperceptibly, the planet tilted towards spring, and the days became longer.

We too have reasons for despair, crippling fears, anxiety over how much we need to do before Christmas. If problems are more serious, do we run from them, or lean into them, wondering what they might teach us? Can we befriend our pain, knowing we’re more than its sting? Could we embrace for once an imperfect holiday, not scripted by Martha Stewart, but perhaps closer to the first, where an unmarried couple had to scrounge an inhospitable place to have a baby?