What It Meant to March

Some readers may be offended by this post. To them I can say only, “I may be wrong.” But there was nowhere else I would have rather been last Saturday morning than the women’s march in Oakland, CA. As my daughter, grandson and I rode the train there, we reminisced on other marches we’d done:

  • When the NRA insisted on holding its convention in Denver shortly after the Columbine tragedy, the mayor asked them not to come. They came anyway; we encircled their hotel, then heard speakers like Tom Mauser, whose son Daniel had died at Columbine, plead for sane gun control. A rabbi who offered opening prayer said he usually wouldn’t do this on the Sabbath, but his children begged him to.
  • The Million Mom March continued to demand gun control, this time in Washington, DC.
  • At another time, we marched against war in Iraq.

One might well ask whether these marches accomplished anything. Maybe not, but I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t at least try.

So too on Saturday Jan. 21, the energy was contagious and spirits were lifted for the long haul ahead. It was the first march for my three grandchildren there, ages 1 to 5. Some of my favorite signs were: “I’ve seen better cabinets at Ikea,” “Boomers back to the streets!” “It’s so bad, even the introverts are here,” “Melania–it’s not too late. You can still join us!” “ReSISTERS” Creativity, humor and hope are a fine combination.

But something more was afoot. One woman began planning with 12 moms in a living room, hoping they’d get 500 people to turn out in their little town. Instead, they got 10,000. The New York Times photos from around the world were heartening, and hard to deny: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/01/21/world/womens-march-pictures.html

In retrospect, I think we marched:

  • for the women of Syria, desperately seeking safe harbors for their children
  • for the women of Africa, traveling long distances for clean water
  • for the women of the U.S. inner cities, pounding the pavements for medical care or jobs.

The South African saying, “you have struck the women; you have struck the rock,” seems relevant. Brisk bureaucratic maneuvering, the trappings of power, and executive orders may appear to succeed for a time, but they tangle with a formidable force. I wouldn’t want to oppose the strength of those who took to the streets in wheelchairs or with strollers, with friends and signs and songs. “Still we rise,” said Maya Angelou. When misogyny, racism, threats to the planet, homophobia and bigotry rear their ugly heads, we resist.

Mary: Holding the Tension

As we look at the third bright light, Cana, let’s focus on Mary. Sometimes we think we’ve got a monopoly on stress. Then we consider her situation: steeped in the Torah, reading the Bible stories of God’s fidelity, lighting the Sabbath candles each week as a reminder of God’s goodness.

On the other hand, she lived under Roman oppression. She had friends who were sold into slavery with their children when Romans slaughtered 2000 men of her country. We too move tween two worlds: the promises of our faith, the sad realities of our culture. If we take comfort in the faith, we’re accused of ignoring reality. If we focus only on people’s inhumanity, we risk despair.

Caught between similar, powerful forces, Mary then receives a most puzzling message. At the annunciation, Gabriel doesn’t give her a script. Instead, she’s invited to enter the mystery and live with the unresolved. Nothing guarantees the story of her child will go well.

When she approaches Jesus at Cana, she models how to transcend the dividing lines between men and women that would’ve been strict at a Jewish celebration. She resists the temptation facing all parents of young adults: to deluge with words, control, direction. She simply uses 5 words: “They have no more wine.” When Jesus responds to her somewhat curtly, she hears the “yes” beneath the “no.” In utter confidence, she tells the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”

What in my faith tradition helps me self-transcend? Surely, Mary’s model of how to respond to stress.

 

Some excerpts from Mary  by Kathy Coffey, Orbis Books

Baptism of the Lord

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.

Epiphany: “Welcome, Everyone!”

It’s not over yet. Sad to take down the Christmas decorations, but three lights still burn bright: the feasts of Epiphany, Baptism of the Lord and Wedding at Cana.

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!”

Book Review: The Kind of Brave You Wanted to Be by Brian Doyle

Brian Doyle’s writing is contagious. No matter how hard I try to resist, I soon find myself modeling his quirky syntax, abundant adjectives and long strings of words that cascade like waterfalls. I admire the way he synthesizes his family life with his faith; as I’ve often said, we need more parents’ voices in a church dominated by celibate saints and clergy.

He can pluck a 50-year old memory from whatever bin it’s stored in and it emerges fresh and shiny: he is eight, his brother is seven, they are eating cereal on Saturday morning while watching cartoons, and the whole scene is varnished in sunlight. “Even when it rained it didn’t.” He explains the comfort of memory:

“How is it that what we experienced, we always experience

And even what we think we forget is never actually gone?”

Doyle is a genius at unveiling the sacramentality of popsicles, rebounds, cedar needles, four year olds, the snap of a baseball bat, scuffling in leaves, owl feathers, attentive doctors, a pint, the chinook, old confessionals, storytelling cops, ratty jerseys. In one succinct sentence, he describes what theologians don’t say as well in volumes of sacramental theology: “there are no tiny things, not at all.” Or: “Everything speaks clearly if you can decipher the language, the music.”

The only way to read Doyle is in short spurts: gorging on too much at once can be unpleasantly like an overdose of ice cream. But read slowly, savored, cherished, he helps us appreciate the sheer grace and blessing of our own momentous minutiae.

 

Available from Liturgical Press, 2016, $14.95, http://www.litpress.org

Christmas

Just as the overture to a Broadway musical sounds themes that will recur in later songs, so the Prologue to John’s gospel read on Christmas day begins ideas that will be developed later. One that is especially relevant today is how God seeks out human beings, making them God’s own children. Always, God tries to change human darkness into stunning light.

To apply that truth to our own experience, we might reflect on verse 16:  “From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.” What have been the special graces in our lives, spilling over from God’s fullness? Have we been aware of them, and thankful?

No matter what our worries are: about scarcity or loss, unemployment or loneliness, illness or death, today we set them aside and rest in the fullness of God’s overflowing love. This is a day to focus on the wonder of God becoming human, uplifting us all to be brothers and sisters of Jesus. Isaiah expresses the good news: “the Lord has comforted his people, he has redeemed Jerusalem” (52:9). In this case, Jerusalem stands for all of us: redeemed, graced, blessed, joyful.

On this day, we may sing carols around the crèche, worship with our faith community, ring the bells, enjoy the decorations, laugh, tell stories, eat the feast and relish Christmas cookies. If that sounds a bit self-centered, we’re also called to hospitality: as in the Benedictine tradition, to welcome all guests as Christ.

Fourth Week of Advent

Theme for the Fourth Sunday:  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.

Excerpt from an article originally published In Liguori Magazine, Dec. 2015.