Years ago, while teaching theology to 9th graders, a particular student tugged at my heart.
Each day he would come into my classroom and listen thoughtfully. His face would twist up with frustration and confusion while he heard me explain how the Bible came to be and the call of discipleship. The questions seemed to agonize him, to torment any solid footing his faith may have once had.
He would often interrupt my lesson with questions–real tough questions. Other teachers might have received his struggles and doubts as disrespectful or a threat. I was challenged, certainly, but I thanked him.
I told him privately that his questions were a gift. That he should allow them to evolve and teach him the Truth. (And, my statement seemed to create more questions and agony for him. Why couldn’t I just give him clear answers?!)
I loved his questions, and I really loved him too.
I have been thinking a lot about the sacredness of questions lately, of the importance of letting them be a way that we are drawn into communion with other people, and God.
Last weekend, I caught part of This American Life on the radio and was reminded that answers aren’t as important the asking, as the listening and conversation–at least when it comes to the building of relationships and unity.
Here are some of my recent questions. What questions can I ask to increase compassion and connection? How can questions bring us to deeper levels of understanding? Why do certain questions make me uncomfortable?
What questions are causing you agony? What questions are helping you grow closer to God and others?
Although our questions can cause a lot of anguish and discomfort, let us remember that they are a way we can bond with others, that they are a path to union with Christ.
But we hold this treasure in earthen vessels, that the surpassing power may be of God and not from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not constrained; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our body. —2 Corinthians 4:7-10
The book of Revelation is a profound example of resistance literature.
The author, a disciple named John, is responding to a crisis: the severe persecution of the Church in the late first century. He himself is in exile, in Patmos, a Roman penal colony and island located between Greece and Turkey. The vision John receives and shares with us assures us that God has already triumphed, and will triumph, over the forces of evil. Revelation is a book of hope and consolation and challenge for believers to remain faithful – as God is faithful – to the end.
The book of Revelation begins with a blessing, a special message for all of us: “Blessed is the one who reads aloud this prophetic message, and blessed are those who listen to it and heed what is written in it, for the appointed time is near.” (Revelation 1:3)
This reading from Revelation refers to “the time of great distress.” We live in this time. Previous generations have too, but we can certainly claim it.
I’ll suggest a few signs of this “great distress,” but I also invite you to think about this reality from your own perspective and social location. A few examples: climate change and ecological destruction; mass migration and forced displacement (now involving 250 million people globally); violent conflicts and even the increasing threat of nuclear war; and the widespread presence of sexual violence, from body shaming to sexual harassment to rape, especially against women and girls.
The statistics are harrowing. I’ll offer one as an example. How many girls alive today have experienced forced sexual acts? According to United Nations, 120 million girls. The #MeToo campaign has effectively spotlighted – in a personal and compelling way – how sexual violence affects those closest to us: sisters, daughters, friends and colleagues.
“It is the time of great distress.” I have named a few examples. There are many more.
I invite you to consider: What parts of the “great distress” touch your heart, your conscience? Whose cries do you hear?
In Revelation, the destructive forces are symbolized by the four winds. We need no such symbol today. We know that this time of distress is our own making.
In Revelation, the great multitude cries out “Salvation comes from our God and from the Lamb.” Our hope is in God. And God has mercifully shown us the path of salvation: it is the way of the Beatitudes.
How must we walk together in the time of great distress? To be poor in spirit, meek, merciful, and clean of heart. To mourn, to hunger and thirst for righteousness, to make peace. It sounds like more resistance literature in our time of crisis.
The saints walk this path. Some are canonized, many others unrecognized, even more living among us. I invite you to consider: Who is a saint in your life – among the living or the dead – who has taught you the path of the Beatitudes, and how to live as a faithful disciple amid the great distress?
John describes these saints as a “great multitude,” too numerous to count, “from every nation, race, people and tongue.” They “wear white robes,” and their foreheads are “marked with a seal.” The seal is a mark of property, of belonging, and of protection.
We are among this multitude. We come from many nations. In our baptism we are marked with the sign of the cross; our heads are anointed with chrism, the oil of salvation; and we are “robed in white” as a sign of our Christian dignity. In our baptism God claims us, we become children of God (1 John), and we belong to God. And each time we share in the Eucharist, we too are “washed in the blood of the Lamb.” We are made one in Christ.
So, in this time of great distress, let us always remember our identity as children of God, sinners loved by God, called to walk the path of the Beatitudes, knowing we are among saints who cheer us on (Hebrews 12:1). This is the path of resistance that we walk together.
Note from the editor:This blog post is a version of a homily that Father Luke Hansen, SJ, preached October 31, 2017 (Vigil of the Solemnity of All Saints) in Rome.
Originally from Kaukauna, Wisconsin, Luke Hansen, SJ, has been a friend of Sister Julia’s since 2004 when they met at an airport on their way to serve in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps in California. Passionate about justice and peacemaking, much of his experience in ministry has been centered on serving adults and adolescents who are incarcerated. He now is studying in Rome at the Pontifical Gregorian University. (Photo credit:www.jesuits.org)
The heavy metal door bangs behind me, the electric buzz locks the bolt in place. After a pause, another door buzzes and is unlocked, controlled by a police officer sitting near a video monitor in another room. I cross the florescent-lit linoleum and open the next heavy metal door, making my way through this threshold of security.
It’s my first visit inside the county jail. My mind and breath are electric with anticipation. We — the other volunteer I am shadowing and I — arrange the blue plastic chairs in a circle and place copies of Scripture passages, prayers and reflections upon them. Shortly I will encounter my first group of inmates. More than a dozen men will join us for prayer and Bible study.
Driving through brightly colored October woods to the jail, I pondered…
Last Friday morning—the day of Donald Trump’s inauguration—two screens were in front of me; words and images flooding in.
A glowing laptop sat upon my knees, my web browser opened to an online Bible, Psalm 34. It was there because I awoke with this song in my head, particularly the “The LORD hears the cry of the poor, blessed be The LORD” part.
I stared at these words:
Keep your tongue from evil,
your lips from speaking lies.
Turn from evil and do good;
seek peace and pursue it.
~ Psalm 34: 14-15
I heard these words:
Protection will lead to great prosperity and strength.
I will fight for you with every breath in my body. And I will never, ever let you down.
America will start winning again, winning like never before.
We will bring back our jobs. We will bring back our borders.
I can’t make sense of the division, the gap between the two ways. I know, though, that I want to live under the influence of Scripture, the sacred Word of God.
I wonder what is happening to the Body of Christ; whether the wounds are becoming infected. Perhaps flesh is being gouged, torn apart. Maybe blood is flooding our world and we are too blind to see. (I have been meditating on the wounds of Christ ever since Inauguration Day.)
Certainly, much stirs in my mind and heart. What will happen to the children of God who are in the most vulnerable corners of society? What will happen to those who have been declared as enemies?
I see faces of friends waiting for decades for their citizenship papers to come through. I visualize children passing their lives away in detention centers. I see the face of a teen I taught years ago—a beautiful Iraqi Muslim who had migrated out of a war zone.
I think of the millions of people who are also fleeing war zones, oppression, starvation—good people who of course would prefer to stay securely in their homeland but can’t. They are powerless in their circumstances. (I know the feeling of powerlessness.)
I remember the women—young mothers coming right off the streets, desperate to get their lives together—choosing life with every chance, only to have the structures of society spit out a mess of impossibility at them. It’s impossible (all at once) to afford food, to find a job, to have good transportation, to find secure housing and to have proper health care but somehow—perhaps by the might of love alive within them—they persevered and gained stability for their family.
I think of the polluted waters and soils; of the climate refugees moving from place to place across this planet.
I think of the words of Jesus Christ uttered from the cross, his body aching with misery: “I thirst.” (John 19:28)
I feel my own heart thirst for justice and peace for all; for a world centered on the love of Truth and guided by Gospel values—values of sacrifice for the sake of the other; values of protection of the planet and the poor and vulnerable.
Inauguration Friday was as another Good Friday, another day when the Body of Christ was wounded upon the cross.
Meditating on the cross of Christ in the world today, I remember my deep conviction that the United States, with only 5 percent of the population but with 25 percent of the world’s wealth, needs not selfishly protect itself—we need not to give into the temptations for greed, power and pride. We must reject all of the seven deadly sins.
With all the news of heartache, fear and pain rapidly increasing in our world today, it seems we are stuck upon the cross, we are stuck in Good Friday.
We need not stay stuck. We believe in Easter Sunday and we know it is always coming in three days. We know that Christ’s wounds upon his body have been transformed, glorified.
The LORD’s face is against evildoers
to wipe out their memory from the earth.
The righteous cry out, the LORD hears
and he rescues them from all their afflictions.
The LORD is close to the brokenhearted,
saves those whose spirit is crushed.
~ Psalm 34: 17-19
We are that body, formed and guided by mercy, generosity and hope. We shall arise as one body united, radiating Love and Truth.
Lately a certain Gospel instruction is has been grinding challenge into my life, really giving my heart a doozy of a talking to.
Jesus says it a lot, in many different ways:
Do not be afraid.(Luke 1:30; Mark 5:36; Mark 6:50)
Can any of you by worrying add a single moment to your life-span? (Matthew 6:27)
Do not worry about tomorrow; tomorrow will take care of itself.(Matthew 6:34)
Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life.(Matthew 6:25)
Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid. (John 14:27)
Jesus is, after all, a very encouraging savior, a source of strength. He needs us to be brave if we’re going to do the hard work of building up the kingdom of peace and justice in the here and now.
Plus, it makes sense that the Gospel would be packed with messages telling us to persevere in faith. By the time the Gospels were written down—a few decades after Jesus walked the earth—those early Christians were dealing with some pretty intense fear. Uprisings and persecutions were becoming common. The Roman Empire was increasing its control, getting more oppressive to anyone who wasn’t … well … Roman. With such heavy darkness, it must have felt like the world was falling apart. Sort of reminds me of the world we’re living in today.
Jesus’ demands are not about darkness, though. We are children of Light.
I get it: to be a Christian means I am a person full of vibrant hope, love, and faith in God. Like a ceaseless trust that God can handle anything and shine light and peace into any situation. I know Jesus is trustworthy.
Yet. The “Be not afraid” words straight from Jesus’ heart stir up a gray space inside me; a place where I am not letting my trust in God illumine my faith life. Ultimately, anxiety corrodes the place where God’s light could glow bright.
In the past few months I have been reminded that my anxiety out-of-order is neurological, a condition made by realities beyond my control: genetics, trauma, biomechanics. I wake in the dark of the night with my heart pounding, my body vibrating with restless energy. My mind races with irrational thoughts; electric brain waves I struggle to redirect toward hope, trust and acceptance. My muscles cramp with tension; pinch nerves. Tears of pain moisten my eyelashes. I am afraid of things that I can’t even name and my body lets me know it.
Some might argue there’s good reason to worry. The news doesn’t sound good; happy headlines are hard to find. From Aleppo to South Sudan to the cracking corners in communities throughout the United States, the trouble only seems to be getting worse.
Faced with burdens and commissioned for Christ, we’re overwhelmed. Hearts are heavy with abundant hurt and there are many wounds to tend to. It continues to feel as things will just keep getting worse before they get better. Genuine cries and terrified screams are causing racket in our hearts and dreams as we do as we’re called to do: move toward the pain with servant hearts open wide.
When my body begins to manifest the anxiety that somehow settles into me, it can take hours for me to know relief, to relax into the dark, to rest and calm down. Often, what causes the most comfort when I am in the thick of fear is the calm of silence, the stillness of solitude and wide open spaces, like expansive skies.
At times, within the gaps of seconds ticking, I somehow come to gradually feel a holy, healing Presence; a fleeting consciousness that I am not ever alone; that Jesus himself knew—knows—the darkness and fear. (That’s Emmanuel, God with us.) Other times, my racing heart and shallow breath either normalize gradually or cause me to pass out from exhaustion.
Because the fear is real and intense, I find myself thinking of holy folks who have dealt with it well; who have modeled for me trust in God. I think of how the Holy Family were no strangers to a climate of fear, a culture of death. I imagine how oppressed the common person in Nazareth must have felt as they tried to survive on subsistence farming and continued to pay heavy taxes for fear of torture, robbery, murder, or the kidnapping and raping of their children. Certainly, they were desperate for a Messiah, a redeemer to liberate them. I meditate on how a very pregnant Mary must have felt; filled with discomfort and concern as she awaited the arrival of her son. I consider how uncertain Joseph must have felt; how he worked to remain steady and kind even while his heart and gut flipped in fear. I pray with Jesus squirming within the dark womb.
There are other words in the Bible that give me strength, that calm my fears—important messages first given to the early Church:
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of his own, so that you may announce the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. (1 Peter 2:9)
And you, child, will be called prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,to give his people knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our Godby which the daybreak from on high will visit usto shine on those who sit in darkness and death’s shadow, to guide our feet into the path of peace.(Luke 1:76-79)
Yes: no matter how strong our fear or how deep the darkness, we are children of Light. During the darkest days of the year (at least in the Northern hemisphere) we look for the light in the darkness, we decorate our homes with glowing bulbs, we observe the nature of light. We imitate the rays of light that unite together and illumine a way to peace, providing hope to all.
We live in a society that has a tendency to divide us into enemy camps. Violence and squabbles due to differences like politics or culture have become strangely normalized.
No matter what has become culturally acceptable, the Gospel challenges us to live counterculturally. Although some people may avoid those they don’t like or agree with, we reach out to others with love and compassion. While others discriminate against or systematically oppress those who are different because of their race or beliefs, we seek to welcome and appreciate diversity. Such bold actions help us know our belonging in part of an inclusive, universal Church. To embrace and celebrate diversity is central to what it means to be Catholic. As challenging as it may be, when our family of faith unites as one we are obeying the words of Jesus Christ.
Jesus, thank you for the beauty of human diversity and creating us as one. May I recognize and promote our oneness today. Amen.
Editor’s note: This is the second blog post in a five-part series “Faith lessons from my Ugandan family” by Messy Jesus Business guest contributor/Rabble Rouser Nicole Steele Wooldridge about her experiences in Mbale, Uganda (read lesson #1). Stay tuned throughout this week to experience the next three installments of Nicole’s faith lessons from Africa.
Ten years ago, I was enchanted by my Ugandan family’s practice of gathering to praise God together each evening. Their nightly ritual of vivacious singing and dancing, Scripture reading, and “giving testimony” is my favorite and most enduring memory of Uganda. It inspired the bedtime routine which my husband and I have adopted for our daughters (though I’ll be the first to admit that our energy pales in comparison to my Ugandan family’s), and it is what I miss most when I become nostalgic for my home across the globe.
Since my Ugandan family is always hosting visitors, they take measures to ensure that everybody can participate fully in their evening prayer. They have at least a dozen Bibles sitting around their living room, each well-worn and annotated. (When I returned home from our recent trip, I was embarrassed to realize that we barely have enough Bibles to accommodate our family of four. What does it say about our priorities, that we could provide enough Berenstain Bears books for an entire platoon, but we don’t have a single Bible to spare?!)
Beyond the presence of so many Bibles, though, it is my Ugandan family’s continued presence together each night that most impresses me.
A decade ago (before I was a busy mom) I didn’t appreciate just how committed my host parents have to be in order to carve out this precious time together as a family. In the 10 years since I lived with them, their lives have only gotten busier and more complicated: they are now raising four beautiful children, they both work full time, they are both completing PhDs, and they both hold leadership positions in a multitude of church and community organizations.
And yet, somehow, they spend even more time together praying each evening than they did 10 years ago.
During our visit I couldn’t help but be reminded of Mother Teresa, who advised her Missionaries of Charity: “Each day we should spend one hour in adoration, except on days we are busy—then we should spend two.” For my Ugandan family, praying together is not just a part of the day; it is the apex of the day. They are willing to sacrifice personal leisure, extended meals, and even sleep in order to honor their family prayer time.
So … What’s my excuse?
For reflection: How can we cultivate in ourselves and our children the conviction that dedicating time to God is as essential to daily life as eating and sleeping?
Author bio:Nicole Steele Wooldridge is a friend of Sister Julia’s who writes from the Seattle, Washington area. She spent three months living and volunteering in Mbale, Uganda in 2006, and recently returned there with her husband to visit her host family and friends. One of her life goals is to bring her daughters to Uganda so that, among other things, they understand her obsession with spontaneous dance parties.
When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the infant leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, cried out in a loud voice and said, “Most blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me, for at the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the infant in my womb leaped for joy.” –Luke 1:41-44
Gaudete! This is the week of joyful anticipation!!
Just as Jesus and John leaped for joy in the wombs of their holy mothers, we rejoice and leap for joy as we wait for the great things to come, the fulfillment of God’s promises!
Yes, we are aware that we wait in darkness. We are overwhelmed and pained by the intensity of oppression suffered throughout the world, near and far. Children sleep on streets, many people lack adequate shelter and water, bombs are being dropped, refugees are fleeing. Poverty, injustice, and violence are real and serious threats upon the dignity of humanity.
Still, with hope and joy we lovingly labor for a world where God’s reign is known, wherein justice is triumphant.
No matter our circumstances, how can our voices contribute toward the coming fullness of God’s reign? How can we join our voices together and sing a song of reversal that is in harmony with the strength and hope heard in Mary’s song in Luke 1:46-55?
And Mary said:
“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord;
my spirit rejoices in God my savior.
For he has looked upon his handmaid’s lowliness;
behold, from now on will all ages call me blessed.
I recently studied Elizabeth Johnson’s commentary on the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) within her masterful work Truly Our Sister: A Theology of Mary in the Communion of Saints (Continuum, 2003) as part of my graduate studies. This writing encouraged me to remain faithful and hopeful in the midst of the struggle for justice. I was provided a solid footing in information about the requirements for justice.
For example, even though Mary’s song is the longest speech from any woman in the entire New Testament, it is one of several hymns sung by Jewish women; it is parallel in content and structure to what was sung by several prophetesses in the Old Testament. Like their songs, Mary’s song also praises God’s creation of a liberating revolution.
With scholarship and reverence, Johnson details how Mary’s particular circumstances established her as dangerous for anyone who does not embrace God’s reign. God chose Mary, a poor woman, to be the partner in our salvation and she praises God from the depth of her relationship with God; God has preference for those who are economically and spiritually poor.
Mary was an oppressed woman and her song paints a picture of justice; throughout salvation history we understand that God defines justice as reversal. Mary’s voice foreshadows Jesus’ message in the Gospels. Fittingly then, Mary’s song is a “revolutionary song of salvation whose concrete social, economic, and political dimensions cannot be blunted.”
Praise and justice come together; by the life-giving body of the pregnant Mary we know a role model for solidarity with the oppressed. In her message, we can envision a world where all the hungry are fed and all power structures turn upside down.
Mary’s song is a song for everyone, and it is very much music to the ears of people who live in poverty. Yet, Johnson admits, “This message will not appeal to those who are satisfied with the way things are.” She advises that those who are prosperous strengthen their solidarity. I was invigorated for my task of informing those of us who comfortably enjoy privileges about the needs of a hungry humanity, of calling all of us to more mindfulness.
Ultimately, Johnson’s commentary on the Magnificat provides me with a hopeful lens through which I can view the injustices of today. It taught me how to joyfully sing songs of response that glorify and please God, through both word and deed.
By Mary’s partnership we experience the dawning of the Messianic Age. Her song is also a daily prayer that can inform our every-day work of helping God’s justice reign. In the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “This song has none of the sweet, nostalgic, or even playful tones of our Christmas carols. It is instead a hard, strong, inexorable song about collapsing thrones and humbled lords of this world, about the power of God and the powerless of humankind.”
Indeed, as Johnson so clearly articulated, in Mary’s universal song we hear the ultimate Advent hymn—a song of hope to reverse the patterns of suffering prevalent in the world today.
As we leap in joy and wait in hopeful anticipation for the coming of God’s Kingdom fully known, let us join Mary and do the work of establishing God’s justice while this song rings in our hearts!
 Elizabeth Johnson, Truly Our Sister (New York: Continuum, 2003), 263-264.
The beatitudes have been called Jesus’ version of the Ten Commandments. They sum up the heart of his message, point us in the right direction, show us the truth of God and grant eternal hope.
Except they are a lot harder to understand. And to follow.
What does it really mean, that
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 5:3-10
This week I heard the closest thing ever to a modern restatement of the beatitudes. It was an interview with a young French child and his father at the Bataclan, the site of one of the terror attacks in Paris last Friday.
“They might have guns, but we have flowers.”
Or in other words….
In the face of a gun, we light a candle and place a flower.
In the face of loss our empty hands link with other empty hands and we are not alone anymore.
In the face of horror we touch that place/time where God’s love is absolutely unstoppable.
Thank you to all the children who are suffering fear and loss this week and have taught us the meaning of Jesus’ words again.
P.S. Sometimes I like to hear the beatitudes with fresh ears. Check out this version from The Message by Eugene Peterson, which is not a Bible translation but a re-telling in modern language.
“And know that you are in good company. My prophets and witnesses have always gotten into this kind of trouble.”