Monday, February 25, 2013

Rediscovering Redemptive Suffering

How can a musical about the "miserable ones" win hearts in a postmodern world?  How can a love story speak to people in a time marked by cynicism and threatened by a looming sense of meaninglessness? 

If you have not yet seen Les Miserables, treat yourself to this beautiful film--and soon.  It's a dramatic story filled with great characters and powerful life lessons, and it might just be a sign of hope for our time.  Why a sign of hope?  I think, at some level, people have been moved by the story because it boldly retraces a way of looking at suffering that is totally counter-cultural.

Since the beginning of time, one of the ultimate questions of human existence has centered on suffering: why does it exist, and how ought we to respond to it?  Suffering seems to be woven into the fabric of human existence in our fallen world, and we are faced with often daily decisions about how to respond.  In our early 21st Century mindset, there seem to be only two possible paths of resistance to suffering--it's either "fight" or "flight."  Either we strive to overcome and eliminate suffering, or we seek to escape its debilitating grasp.  We all know the myriad forms of escapism that are available today, not to mention the extreme forms of eliminating suffering that are now being promoted as human "rights."  But we also know that these options ultimately fail and so leave us with a profound sense of hopelessness.
Les Miserables, however, opens a window onto a third alternative.  It is the path of redemptive suffering.  It is a life of self-sacrificing love which alone brings meaning in the face of senseless suffering.  It is the Way which was made a reality by Christ himself--the Way which has been walked by countless humble souls, thanks to the gift of his Spirit.

Monday, February 18, 2013

B16: "It is Finished"

It's always difficult to say farewell to a father--and especially to a holy father. 

I was struck by the following line in Pope Benedict XVI's brief announcement that he would be renouncing the office of the papacy on February 28th:  "this ministry, due to its essential spiritual nature, must be carried out not only with words and deeds, but no less with prayer and suffering" (emphasis added).  Anyone who has looked beyond the secular media's portrayals of the pope has been able to see that he is a man who is not only theologically brilliant but also "meek and humble of heart" (Mt 11:29).  He has certainly resisted pressure to simply remake the Church in the image of the world and instead continued inspiring the Church to transform the world with the good news of the risen Lord.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

"Getting" Ash Wednesday

More people go to Church on Ash Wednesday than on any other days of the year except for Christmas and Easter.  Getting ashes is as sign of the times.

But what does it mean?  In terms of religious expectations, Sunday Mass attendance is required and expected of Catholics, and Ash Wednesday is not a holy day of obligation.  So why do more Catholics come out for Ash Wednesday than for any given Sunday Mass?  What is there in this outward sign of repentance, this marking of our mortality, that draws people back to holy mother Church each year?

And what does this day mean to you personally--this year, at this point of your faith journey?  Sometimes it's hard to name or articulate exactly what we believe, but what would your "elevator speech" be in case someone asked what's on your forehead (that is, a less-than-two-minute explanation)? 

Monday, February 4, 2013

Seek Forgiveness--Find God's Mercy

"Behold, I stand at the door and knock.
If anyone hears my voice and opens the door,
I will enter his house and dine with him,
and he with me." (Rev 3:20)
Why is it so hard to seek forgiveness from those who we have hurt?  And why is it sometimes even more difficult to forgive ourselves for the more stupid, more mean-spirited, more hurtful things we've said and done?

It seems to me that pride must be at the root of what prevents us from seeking forgiveness and thus from finding God's mercy.  Pride is the first of the seven deadly sins--the tendency to make self-centeredness the ultimate norm of all our conduct.  Indeed, St. Augustine once defined sin in its root sense as a "curving in on one's self."  Our pride wants to define ourselves and thereby limits us by keeping God out of the center of our lives. 

If you have friends or family members who have seen you at your worst and love you nonetheless, you've had a glimpse of the merciful love of God. If you've ever heard Christ himself speaking in and through his priest in the sacrament of Reconciliation, you've had a direct encounter with divine mercy. We all need to be "straightened out" at times, and the first step to healing and wholeness is to open the door of our heart and ask for forgiveness. Indeed, it's the only way to become an instrument of God's mercy in our painfully proud and misshapen world.