Friday, April 6, 2012

So you hate bullies, do you?

I was watching a story on an upcoming movie, "Bully" and it was saying how 18 million kids are bullied this year (that we know of).  It is a sad indictment on this country, but where does it come from?  Did 20th -21st Century kids invent bullying?  No, it has been around as long as humanity as been.  Bullying is part of the human condition as long as there exists one person who out of selfish motivations needs to feel as if they are superior to another.  The bully needs to be number one.  They need to be the center of attention.  They will get that attention any way they can.  Maybe it is by gossiping or verbally running down another person.  Maybe it is by exposing another person's faults while ignoring their own.  Maybe it is by making blanket statements about entire groups.  Maybe it is joining a group and using intimidation to get one's way.  Maybe it is physical attacks.  However it happens, it is ugly.  It has one focus, to quiet, bring into submission and , if necessary, destroy anyone that gets in the way of them.  Now, with the internet and 24/7 TV, Facebook and other social media, bullying has found all new avenues beyond grade school taunts.  It is easy to focus on the bullying that children do to one another.  It is sad to see a crying child or a scared child.  There is something in good people that wants to see such things stop.  However, the kids are mimicking behavior they already see.  You want to stop children from bullying?  Then you better start with their teachers...the adults who model and revel in the behavior.  That is a tall order as it is so pervasive in our society.

Let's start with politics.  Politics has become more and more an exercise in sheer bullying.  Ad hominum attacks are as common as milkweed pollen.  Politicians, political pundits, and entertainers make their stock in trade on it.  For example, I am not one who thinks that Sarah Palin is presidential material, but the way she was personally savaged was disgusting.  Worse yet, the attacks on her children, including her infant son with Down's Syndrome, were unbelievably gross.  If one wants to disagree with her views, that is fine.  Knowledgeable  adults should be able to rationally debate ideas.  Personal attacks are a sure sign of a lack of knowledge. People laughed at these horrible jokes and attacks and said she and her family were fair game as they entered the public arena.  Would you like to guess why a lot of good people want nothing to do with politics or refuse to run for office?  Smear campaigns are just another version of adult bullying.  Whether that comes in the form of a conservative radio show host publicly calling a college student a slut or a late night 'comedian' referring to female conservative politicians as words I just refuse to even is bullying either way.  If the radio host commentator wanted to debate the testimony of the college student...fine..that is challenging an idea.  If the late night 'comedian' wants to debate the politics of these women...fine.  Name-calling is a form of bullying.  It is also in politicians who paint entire groups with disparaging names, make blanket (and mostly false) statements about the other political party, presume to know the motivation of someone else, and use tragedies to their advantage to push their agenda (and call their opponents heartless). It is political activists who see intimidation and other bullying tactics as fair game in pushing ahead their agenda.  Our kids see this. They hear it.  They see it glorified in the media and lionized by pundits.

How about the way we entertain ourselves?  Why do we laugh when a person is mocked in the entertainment industry?  Why do we allow stereotypes to carry the day?  Whether it is the starlet who is getting raked over the coals because of her outfit, or the person made fun of because they are too thin or too fat, or the actor who made a big mistake, or the singer who had a meltdown after years of harassment from the paparazzi?  How about the hate filled statements directed at certain groups and the return fire sometimes offered back?  Watch you favorite TV show and see the stereotypes and bullying fly!   Our kids watch these shows and know certain groups can be called anything and everything and it not only considered fair game but as hugely entertaining as well.  How many of our shows, music, video games, and such encourage aggression against weaker people?  If we really want to keep our kids from bullying, then perhaps we should quit feeding them a steady diet of it!

We cannot be selective about which bullies have to quit bullying.  We can't say the kids have to quit but the adults can continue.  We can't say that bullying needs to stop unless the bully agrees with my positions or makes me laugh.  We can't say it is okay to bully some people but not others.  We can disagree about issues and even agree to disagree. That is fine.  But we do not need to personally attack to win.  My Catholic faith (as it is 'on paper' and not as it is sometimes practiced) tells me that every single person must have their dignity respected, even if we disagree.  I can say this or that action is good or bad, but I cannot make the jump to saying therefore the person/s who do such are evil.  That is not my call.  On this Good Friday, when we see that God was much more interested in saving us than attacking us, maybe learning the lessons of Christ are that important.

My Thoughts on Good Friday

10 years ago or so, the movie “The Passion of the Christ” came out.  It was not well reviewed.  Some swore it would stir up animosity towards Jews, which it didn’t.  Some were troubled by the gore and violence although these same people were not so troubled by gore and violence in other films.  My guess is that they were troubled by the overall message of the film, which is quite simply that, as the Gospel of John tells us, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son.”   They were troubled by the reality of the Christ, which is far from the cleaned-up  really nice philosopher they prefer to think of, if they think about Christ at all.  But we can get used to that cleaned-up image of Christ on the cross.  We look at most crucifixes and we see this cleaned up image…most of the corpus is free of blood or wounds.  When I was in Peru some time back, their depictions of the crucifixion were rather graphic and hard to look at.  But they were realistic.  When one looks at those depictions, one gets a graphic understanding that the crucifixion was indeed violent, gory, and graphic.  This should give us a sense of why he endured the cross and depths of His love for us in enduring the Passion and death He did.  Quite frankly, it should trouble us, move us, and bring about a profound sense of God’s deep love for us.

Why is the cross necessary?   Because man refuses God’s love.  We sin.  We do awful things to one another.  We heap inhumanity upon inhumanity.  Each act is an act of rebellion against God, who created us for so much more and better.  In our selfishness, we rebel against God.  Justice would demand that the fitting penalty for rebellion be served, namely death.  If justice were not served, there would be no purpose to not sinning; if we were to receive an a reward independent of our actions, then our actions would mean nothing and our need to promote good would be non-existent.   No loving God would bring us into existence just for his amusement of watching us suffer and beat each other as if creation were no more than God’s Coliseum to watch us suffer in some sick gladiatorial engagement.   No.  Quite the opposite, our faith tells us it grieves God when we heap our selfishness upon each other, and deep in our hearts we feel that same distress and pain in watching man’s inhumanity to each other.  How could God allow into heaven such a rebellious species?  Would we not rebel in heaven as we rebel on earth? 

Since God refuses to give up on his creation, but also knows that justice demands punishment for our rebellion, He sends His only Son to give us a new way of life knowing full well that His words would sting our ears.  Where man had rebelled against God, now man would rebel against the world.  In Christ, Jesus redeems us and foments a rebellion against the world and its master, the devil.  He dies the execution method of a rebel in Roman times, crucifixion…a death so horrific that it would make people think twice about rebelling.   The fury of the world knows no mercy and brought that fury down in full force against Jesus.  In the movie, “The Passion of the Christ”, the one scene that is scorched into my mind more than any other is the scourging.  Jesus is first caned.  Welts and blood cover Him as He is beaten to the ground.  The Romans laugh as they make sport of Jesus, thinking Him defeated.  Then He does something…He stands up…an act of rebellious defiance against the world.  The Romans become enraged and bring out the cat-of-nine-tails (a whip with 9 ends, each with a razor on the end) and brutally beat Jesus within an inch of His life.  The whipping is halted lest Jesus dies before he makes it to the cross.  It occurs to me that each blow Jesus takes in our stead, so loathsome is our rebellion to a loving God.  He willingly does for us what we cannot do for ourselves.  The offering of His Body and Blood at the Last Supper would earlier that day would know come to its bloody zenith.

In his DVD series “Catholicism”, Fr Robert Barron stands in a church in France and reflects on very old altarpiece of the crucifixion.  Its depiction is painful to see, but Fr Barron makes a point of saying that this is a portrait of the happiest man to ever live.  It is striking when he says it.  He is absolutely correct, though.  On the Cross, we see a man victorious.  Satan could not deter Him by temptations towards worldly honor, worldly wealth, worldly power, nor worldly pleasure from the Cross. On the Cross, Jesus soundly refutes these temptations and conquers them.  By His obedience, man no longer need be a slave to worldly pleasure, power, wealth, or honor…instead he can freed from such things and thus open to  so much greater with God.  When Jesus says, “It is finished’, they are not the words of a defeated would be king,  but the words or a victorious king…one who has come to do exactly what he was sent to do.  This is why Good Friday takes its name.  Jesus pays the price for our transgressions and thus breaks any hold Satan would have on us.  In the death of Jesus, we are set free.

Thus the last act of Good Friday: will we live as men and women set free from the hold of worldly power, wealth, honor, and pleasure?  Will we turn our backs on rebellion and choose to freely love?  Will we live the life of Christ?  We live in a world pockmarked by selfishness: every act of bullying, of greed, of envy, of disrespect for the integrity of another person, every act that rips away another’s dignity, of lust, of wrath...all proof that man still will reach out to be enslaved by the world.   Will we forge our own chains of slavery or allow the death of Christ free us from such chains.  Through the actions of Good Friday, we remind ourselves that we are created and meant for so much greater than this world can promise…let us embrace that Cross and by it be freed from rebellion, be freed from selfishness, and share in the victory of He who conquers it!  A Blessed Good Friday to all.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Thoughts on Holy Thursday

 Today we begin the Sacred Triduum, those three days when we focus upon the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.  It begins with the celebration of the Mass of the Lord’s Supper this evening.  This Mass celebrates the two sacraments founded on that night of the Lord’s Supper: Holy Orders and Eucharist, thus tying them intimately together.  Both flow from the same base: agape, that is, self-giving and self-sacrificing love.  Both are bound in the person of Jesus Christ Himself.

Holy Orders are founded at the last supper in both the command to the Apostles ‘to do this memory of me’ and in washing their feet and its attendant command to ‘as I have done for you, you should do for others.’   Both of these lead to the same point about the ordained priesthood in that it is to be a life of selfless service by which that first Eucharist is both made present and forcefully lived to the purpose for which it is given.  I shall back to Holy Orders in a moment, for to understand the reason for Holy Orders is to understand the Eucharist first.

In the Gospels of Mathew, Mark, and Luke, the Last Supper is the Passover meal.  In the Gospel of John, the Bread of Life discourse (John 6) is placed deliberately in proximity to the Passover.  Why?  If we go back to the Passover, what happens?  Moses and the people of Israel are commanded to sacrifice a spotless lamb, mark their doorposts and lintels with its blood, eat the lamb with proscribed dishes, and to do this on the night when God would strike the House of Egypt for its enslavement and cruelty to the people of Israel.  The blood redeemed the first born in that household.  That very day (remember, Jews measure days from sunset to sunset, not midnight to midnight) Israel would be freed from its enslavement and start its long journey to the promised land.  In the instructions for the meal, God tells Moses that the people of Israel are to do this as a perpetual remembrance (zachar) so that every age of Jews throughout time might perpetually receive the same freedom and direct help from God as did those Jews around their tables in Egypt as long ago. To this day when Jews celebrate the Passover, they do not view what they do as a re-enactment of the first Passover, but as a direct participation in the only Passover.  If we do not understand this very basic understanding the Passover, then we will not understand the Eucharist.

Recall what John the Baptist refers to Jesus as: the Lamb of God. Fully human and fully divine, He is the spotless lamb to be sacrificed as a redemption for humanity.  No more than the lamb in the Passover sacrifice had done anything meriting death had Jesus done anything meriting death or punishment.  Yet, just as the Passover lamb takes upon itself the sins of the firstborn deserving death, so the sacrifice of Jesus takes upon Himself the sins of humanity and suffers the death we have merited.  In both cases, eternal justice is served.  But as in the Passover sacrifice the lamb wasn’t merely slaughtered then chucked to the side, but was consumed instead, so the Lamb of God is not merely chucked aside but is consumed as well.  Why?  The sacrifice was not finished until the sacrifice and the one for whom it was sacrificed were literally one and thus the one for who the sacrifice had been sacrificed could attain the benefits of the sacrifice.  Without the consumption of the sacrificial victim, the purpose of the sacrifice was in vain.  This is why in John 6, Jesus says, ‘Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood, you have no life within you!  Why say something so bold and then give us no way of fulfilling this teaching?

 We turn to Mathew, Mark, and Luke for that answer.  In their passages, we see how Jesus intends for the bold proclamation in John to be fulfilled.  He takes two very common elements in both the Passover meal and in Jewish life: unleavened bread and wine.  He then proclaims the bread to be His Body and the wine to be His Blood.    These are rather dramatic statements.  He takes the bread of a people in flight (unleavened) and proclaims it His Body.  Why?  Unless those who follow Christ could partake of His Body they would have no benefit from the sacrifice of the Cross and hence no life.  He then takes wine and proclaims it as it Blood, for the same reason.  His Blood would seal this new covenant relationship which gives us access to eternal life.  Had Jesus meant that the bread and wine were symbols or representative of His Body and Blood, then would He have not said as much?  He doesn’t though.  This IS my Body, this IS my Blood. Later that day he would be sacrificed on the Cross.  Now we have the ability, through Christ, to participate directly in the one sacrifice of the Cross for as many times as we would need it.  If we are honest, we need that grace as many times as we can get it, certainly at least once a week!  How sad it is that anyone would see participation in the Eucharist as an uninteresting chore and infringement on their time!  Our participation in the Eucharist is our thankful response that Christ poured Himself out for us so that we might both have the grace necessary to trudge through this life and have access to eternal life in the Kingdom of Heaven! The Eucharist is part of that firm foundation on which our hope and peace lay.   The Eucharist is the power source for the life of a Catholic!

We have the elements for this to happen, but the person is necessary as well.  There has to be a person who can act in the Person of Christ so that the bread and wine we have can also become the Body and Blood of Christ.  The Scriptures always had men set apart who were selected to be the mediator between God and His people.  Hebrews reminds us that Christ Himself becomes that mediator.  Yet He charges his Apostles at the Last Supper to ’do this in memory of me.’  This charge was given to a very specific group. The New Testament lest us know that this group of apostles and their successors, bishops, would be charged with the responsibility of making present to every age the Eucharist and the forgiveness of sins in Jesus’ name.  This is the basis of Holy Orders, the fullness of which is in the Bishop, and then to a lesser extent to his priests.  They are set apart , even changed on the most base level of their being (soul) so that they can be the spiritual conduit by which the Body and Blood become really present.   Hence, the less priests there are, the less access to the Eucharist there is.  But the priest is more than a sacramental dispensing machine.  He is to be a witness…a profound witness.  That witness is to be not towards power…but towards service.  

In John, Jesus washes the feet of His apostles.  In the time of Jesus, this was a bit scandalous.  Feet, in his time, were seen as the dirtiest part of the body and more often than not were.  Not only was the task of the foot washing of guest considered the chore of a servant and not a master, it was the job of the lowliest of servants.  In washing the feet of His Apostles, Jesus shows them the depths of service; a service which will be given even more powerfully upon the cross.  Jesus did not want His apostles to be the greatest and most powerful of overlords, but the most profound of servants.  They were to follow His example (“As I have done for you, so you should do for others”)  and thus give example to all followers of the life of selfless service every baptized person is called to be!  At ordination, we are not ordained and changed so that we might be overlords, petty monarchs,  or despots.  We are to be of service as Christ was.  This is the foundation of Holy Orders, seeking to serve instead of being served.

But this life of service is not restricted to clergy.  It is to be embraced by all and anyone who calls themselves a Catholic.  In our society, living a selfless life in wholly contrary to this culture and is, in fact, counter-cultural.  Each of us is to model our life on Christ.  Could you imagine just how different life would be?!

This the big question is this: “How do I mimic the selflessness of Jesus Christ that we celebrate this Holy Thursday?  Does it get me out of my living room and to the Church this evening?  Does it help me prioritize?  How can I say I selflessly serve?  There are always new chances if one has failed to this point…which is why we celebrate what we celebrate over and over again.  As long as we draw breath, we can change more and more to what we are called to be.  May God bless us all on this Holy Thursday.