Yours is the Kingdom

Alongside the Ten Commandments, the Beatitudes provide a startling and sometimes unsettling contrast. The former lists a series of succinct guidelines for life, the first three being proactive and the rest prohibitions. All apply to individual choices and behaviors which heartily impact the lives of others and so the whole community. Adherence to them allows for a society, a community, to determine just how to manage the mystery of being human. The Beatitudes, on the other hand, have a nearly lyrical tone with an invitation to find within ourselves deep personal empathy, kindness and compassion in looking at self and others.

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain,
and after he had sat down, his disciples came to him.
He began to teach them, saying:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are they who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the land.
Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be satisfied.
Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the clean of heart,
for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you
and utter every kind of evil against you falsely because of me.
Rejoice and be glad,
for your reward will be great in heaven.”

As a child, the Beatitudes reminded me that there are heroes everywhere; hidden within blankets of anonymity, they are neither visible and often unappreciated. They are the frantic parents, the Amazon drivers and the cashiers at Kohl’s, the cleaning ladies and the maintenance people, baristas and bus drivers. The Beatitudes taught me that everyone walks a long hard road, and there is more to everyone than I can see. I learned that God embraces each person, most especially those invisible to me. My own misgivings or judgements of others pale in the face of a truth that a generous and gentle God guarantees so much more than what the world can provide. As I grew old with the words, they became so much more.

Decades of seeing and hearing these words from the Gospel of Matthew Chapter 5 taught me how challenging and humbling they actually are. They hold a mirror to the breath of human life, and a promise that there is a “more” to what the ordinary days of human lives bring. They intimate that life holds circumstances far beyond human control; suffering is simply part of life. Tragedy, brokenness, weakness need not divorce us from a relationship with God. These words suggest that it is in those very moments that God holds us close, closer than ever. And even more, they whisper of what we are humans are capable of: we can dare to choose goodness, to seek the right, to build peace and we can make mistakes, fail and try again. So much of it is about what we can be within the wonder of who we are and what is happening. In so many ways, these words invite us to look at ourselves and one another with fresh eyes and an openness that defies the smallness of which we are all so capable.

In that light, “rejoice and be glad” takes on a whole new meaning. And from David Hass’ “Blest Are They”, “Rejoice and be glad. Blessed are you, holy are you! Rejoice and be glad, Yours is the kingdom of God.” Yours is the kingdom. Imagine that.

Still alive

We sat in a spacious office with carefully positioned furniture and walls adorned with fragments of color and simple but powerful phrases like “Be still and know that I am God.” The conversation opens with a softball question about spiritual life in a secular world and in a secular institution. And so it all begins: two persons unraveling the mysteries of the decades and journeys they’ve lived. Resting there in the conversation is the most intangible of realities: a respect for the presence of God. Life-giving. Sacred. Quietly sought and gently pursued. Acknowledged.

For both, there is the sense that God, postulated or even mentioned as a word, is far from welcome here. There are rattling conversations among colleagues about the attendant challenges of publicly identifying with a church or a tradition. The complexity of a label or a statement about that is lost in the widespread sense that a term like “Christian” or “Catholic” is an alternative for “bigot”, “ignorant”, “intolerant” or “prejudiced”. Ironically, that is far from the truth; perhaps it is a backlash to shifting cultural norms or a consequence of limited education in a tsunami of information. Nevertheless, so few are the safe spaces for the practice of faith and an attentiveness to something greater than self.

In that office, conversation unfolded the juxtaposition of personal faith and institutional membership, the way the two sustain one another yet still rub against one another in distress. Humanity’s many failings stain the idealized images: institutions have drowned in the cries of “hypocrisy”. It is the personal tie, the relationship with God, that matters. Faith that is alive in the subtleties of living actually challenges the institutional structure to become stronger, better, than it was before. All of that is the process of living, the processes of evolution and change that characterize human life. Wholesale rejection of churches or religious communities is a choice that negates the chance to stumble upon, to seek, to discover, that maybe there is something beyond the rhythms of intellect and something to the concept of soul.

And so it is that the practice of belief becomes deeply personal and hardly public. There are the quiet pauses before eating, a silent grace before a meal offered. There is the daily lighting of a single tea light to remind one of the presence of God, of the holy ground. There is the early morning reading of Scripture, its poetry piercing the hours to come. There is the glance that embraces ordinary scenes as extraordinary gifts. Most of all, there is humility in the realization that in a time celebrating the expanse of scientific and technological understandings, there is so much of life and being that is not known. There is the sense that we are always still learning, still only beginning to see, only starting to really understand. Daring to live out faith in those personal ways, within or outside a broader tradition, takes openness and courage just as surely as it demands humility and attentiveness. It is a recognition that none of us are quite whole.

Still, there is continuity with generations of humans in the readings of the day. “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; upon those who walked in gloom a light has shone.” Isaiah’s words slip across the centuries and shape a framework for the ways faith, religious communities and lives are still alive.

Holy Ground

Today, I consciously step away from the cacophony of voices that spill from every device, in every hand. Today, I wonder about the information clogging the information superhighway and drowning each recipient. I wonder about accuracy, interests benign and malicious, depth, and context. Most of all, I wonder about common ground, community, and collective good. And today, I think about what we are turning away from as much as what we are turning towards.

The Bible, filled as it is with graphic imagery, symbolism, stories and myths, once provided that sense of common ground in some cultures; in others, the Torah or the Koran did the same, knitting unique and varied individuals into a tapestry of belief and incredulity, hopes and heresies. Somehow, there were shared reference points, bits of stories which bore common links and enabled a sense of becoming more than we had been. Sometimes, in the rising tides of secularism and the tsunami of media posts, the common ground seems more difficult to identify and the dialogue around it vitriolic and pointedly painful. In embracing one perspective or investing in a particular dimension, exclusiveness negates any other. As a result, in the dynamic effort to give everyone a voice and to democratize information, there is a corresponding loss of balance, civil discussion and ability to rationally discuss positions and issues. The foundation for development of civil discourse has become shifting sand rather than the whole of common ground.

That very evolution has ignited brilliant research and development of concepts that existed only in dreams for earlier generations. It has created wholly new systems for everything from banking to communication, and as human beings, we are still navigating those paths. Taking that step back, looking at the chronological development of communities, societies and civilizations, we congratulate ourselves on the success and pace of these never-before-seen developments. History teaches that every generation has endured and benefitted from innovation and change. It also teaches us how rarely human beings actually agree on a trajectory for a society, how so many can be trapped within a broader economic structure or political hierarchy with a focus on simply surviving. Life is so much more than that, and Catholicism provides a tiny peek at thoughts which can be companions on this journey.

In this Second Week of Ordinary Time, the readings offer a tender commentary and subtle reminders helpful to this very contemporary evolution. There is promise, commitment, and connections that can simplify the journey. The first reading from Isaiah celebrates the promise captured so beautifully in the phrase “I will make you a light to the nations”. As humans, we are more than what we might seem, even to ourselves, and there is the promise of more. It is followed by the idea of “Here I am, Lord, I come to do your will.” Nestled in those words are the agency and independence, the freedom of choice and the commitment to look beyond the needs of self to something, someone, greater. And there is the Gospel where John the Baptist becomes the ultimate arbiter of change and introduces something that could not have been imagined or entertained earlier: the arrival of the Messiah and the Spirit coming down upon him. In essence, this revelation changed everything for a generation embedded and invested in rituals, traditions and practices that would be updated and shifted for some and hotly contested by others. The change came, and individuals were able to decide what to do, who to follow, and how to proceed. Maybe this century is not all that different after all. Maybe our past can assist us in navigating the future, celebrating the wonders of this very complicated world and finding once again goodness bursting through in hopes and choices, decisions, and lives. This, after all, is still Holy Ground.

Hope and Risk

This morning an inky dark sky yielded the brilliance of a sparkling crisp full moon just glowing into dawn’s twilight. It was cloudless, perfectly clear. And it was also the morning of the celebration of the Epiphany, an almost ironic close to the Christmas season. In a church with a scattered population in wide set pews, holiday decorations still stood and the familiarity of Christmas carols somehow bound everyone together. And yet, the treasure of the past weeks was still emerging.

The young priest’s homily spoke of his bafflement at the reception he received in a local Catholic high school, and he won chuckles from an appreciative audience. He expanded on it, heading past the historical conflicts around the story of the three kings to the essence of the message…..their gifts, their giving. And as the crowd exited, a student at that school edged closer and told him that she, and her friends, had heard his message and appreciated it. He laughed, and I realized she had actually just lived his message: she was giving something she had received. The intellectual issues around the story were not as relevant as the reality of the way we live in this age, with these challenges and with the message of this story.

The story bears so many other connotations: there is the star, for instance. Its allure has been unrivaled, even by that sparkling moon. And it is impelling somehow, like the intensity of intuition and the power of synchronicity in the universe. Following the depth of what you know to be right is a second message embedded in the words: it is life-giving, kind and deeply personal. That is reaffirmed by the dream that warned the kings not to return to Herod. While there is, as the young priest noted, a Harry Potter magnetism to the story, there is also that sense that we as humans are given and possess powerful intuition, the divine spark and the ability to follow through on all that.

There are moments in life when the pause to wait and to capture, for even a moment, the beauty of the divine, is its own reward. There are moments when working for that, towards that, is essential, yet that can only be discovered through keen insight and self-awareness. And there is the reality that as the wise men disappear from the narrative of Jesus, so we disappear from the pages of history. What we do and how we do it lingers behind us, though. And for the wise men, so much was left behind.

Theirs was a story of humility, patience, recognition and hope. In a world that was broiling over with conflict, their mission, scraped into the pages of the Gospel, shows the extent of hope that the life of a child offers, that a new beginning was what mattered and that they were each willing to risk for it, to take a chance, and to dare to bring a gift. Their hope enables us to ask ourselves, “What do we hope for? What are we seeking? What matters? What am I willing to risk?” And so they wander through our imaginations anchored only by the Nativity sets and their caricatures.

Christmas Magic

Histories reveal startling lessons: for the most part, human beings merely stumble through life without actually grasping the implication of choices or decisions. Guided by a limited range of understandings and, too often, an incongruent sense of conviction about those, we compound problems even as we solve issues in every generation. Maybe that is part of what makes Christmas so special and memorable: it marks the beginning of possibility, of divine presence in ordinary life.

There is a certain magic to the story, and it is remarkably relatable. Birth is sacred, a common denominator for all of us. And the magic of it is immersed in mystery, just as we are. The idea that Jesus was born and addressed us as one human to another is an authentic choice, a gift of presence that demonstrates the desire to journey through life with us, not above and condescending, not below and propelling. Simply WITH. This is about companionship on the journey: it is not about power or hierarchy or positioning. It is about presence, caring and compassion. It is about empathy, modeling and being. Each of the central characters: Mary, Joseph and Jesus, are conduits of support for each other, examples of grappling with the challenges life affords. A little imagination expands that very relatable situation to the miracle and magic, the sacredness of every birth and the uniqueness of the surrounding mysteries.

The secondary characters expand that whole sense of relatable. With scant information about each one, it is action which defines the connection. There are the curious and attentive shepherds who become witnesses; the enthusiastic celebration of the angels and the humble wise men. The first shows the importance of observation and purpose, movement and direction. The second opens the importance of being, simply being who we are in a given space, and the final points to the entanglement of social and political structures and even touches on the travesty of fear and hatred in the actions of Herod. The symbolism of their gifts is significant, but the example of their living out their convictions is noteworthy.

Consider the intricacy of the systems Herod devised and juxtapose that with the centuries since. Layers of economic and political systems have multiplied in the spiral of centuries since. Each has generated intricate webs that stretch into an unimagined complexity. Sophisticated technologies and the emergence of AI create illusions about the world we live in. The Christmas story anchors all of this to the most fundamental of human practices: daily choices and decisions. We live within these complicated circumstances and then are invited to become observant, attentive, responsive and humble participants in the journey of life. That is what matters.

Christmas is the reminder that each one matters. Each birth is sacred; each interaction is special. The powerless have power in the practice of integrity and the design of purpose. Systems may surround and engulf us, and we may be stumbling through as so many others have before us. Our hearts can be made whole in empathy, compassion and understanding and acceptance in spite of everything. maybe that is the magic of Christmas.