Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Vine and Branches

I am the Vine, you are the branches.
(John 15:5)

When I was a small child, it was customary to harness little ones when you took them outside.  When my grandmother took me to the park, on would go the harness and off we would walk.  Not being a particularly adventuresome child, I didn't mind at all.  On the contrary, as I toddles after birds I couldn't catch, or explored mushrooms my grandmother warned me not to eat, or made friends with curious dogs, I always felt safe, knowing I was connected to someone who was always there to take care of me.  (As a side note, she also taught me the names of what we met, but one day, when she pointed up at the sky as a plane flew over, she asked, "And what is that."  I am reputed to have considered it carefully and then answered, "A DC-3".  I was three years old.  But I was also an airline pilot's daughter!)

The image of the vine and the branches conjures up this memory of our walks in the park.  A branch, however small and far from maturity, is always attached to the vine, unless some malicious or careless gardener cuts it off.  The vine feeds the branch and strengthens it, but it leaves the branch free to go off exploring, seeking a patch of sunlight, shaking off an encounter with a puddle, and growing, growing, growing, but always sheltered by the older branches.

And when the vine is Jesus,  it probably also laughs with delight when the three-year old identifies correctly the model of airplane soaring overheard because to learn is also to grow.

Copyright Abbey of St. Walburga 2017

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Resurrection Step by Step

The Book of the Acts of the Apostle, our Easter reading fare at Mass this season, might well be retitled "The Book of Chaos."  It might sell better, chaos being much more a part of our daily experience than apostles are.  And it would be true.  In it, St. Luke chronicles the ups and downs of the post-Pentecost Christian communities spreading from Jerusalem to Rome.

Some of them take with them the memories of the chaos that followed upon the discovery of Jesus' empty tomb in the gospels, including Luke's.  The impression all four evangelists give is that the early disciples were plunged at first into the kind of grief everyone knows from experiences of loss, bereavement, and discouragement as all their hopes fell to pieces in the wake of the crucifixion.  Jesus certainly talked to them about rising from the dead, but they were obviously utterly unprepared for what that really meant.

How could they be prepared, really?  They had some idea of a general resurrection from the dead at the end of time, a belief that had become fairly common among some groups of Jewish believers at that time.  The Pharisees, so often painted in dark colors by the evangelists, were prime supporters of that conviction.  But vague visions of the far-distant future are a very different thing than having your very dead leader, whom some have actually seen sealed into a tomb with a great slab of rock rolled across its entrance, suddenly appear among you, talk to you, share food with you, and show you the very real wounds of the crucifixion many of the disiciples had actually not seen because they had fled.  Quite understandably, chaos reigned as people ran around telling excited stories of what they had seen or what rumors they had heard and who had said what and who believed whom, or didn't.  Anyone who has ever tried to turn all those accounts into a coherent timeline knows that can't be done because experiences differed so widely.

Amid this narrative chaos, though, there is a single strand that draws all the stories together:  Jesus' actual appearances to one person after another, one small group after another, on Easter day and for some time after that.  These meetings become pools of quiet, intense conversation with no outsiders there to cause  ructions as Jesus gradually convinces all of them that, yes, he was indeed crucified, yes, he had indeed died, and yes, he had risen from the dead and was very much alive and with them through whatever would come.  "Peace be with you," was the refrain with which he reassured them in their frazzled, frightened confusion.  And the chaos could never drown that peace.

However, at the end of the gospels and the beginning of Acts, Jesus is withdrawn from the disciples' sight and the Holy Spirit falls upon them and quite literally blows them out into the street to tell the whole world the good news.  The chaos begins all over again as the stories of Jesus spread beyond the small group of followers to Jews and gentiles alike, some interested, some convinced to join the disciples, some furiously antagonistic.  And in the midst of it all, the disciples themselves discover that what they know about Jesus and his teaching is challenged over and over again by new experiences:  disciples sent to do jail time and released by angels, ethnic groups fighting with one another even in the intimacy of the early Jerusalem community, leaders disagreeing over whether and how to incorporate gentiles into their tight Jewish-born community, authorities threatening death, Christians at home in Jerusalem and Galilee forced to flee to other places where Greek rather than Aramaic is the common language and not everyone welcomes them.  Issue after issue arises to require that they deepen and expand their understanding of what Jesus' message means far from a Galilean hillside or the Temple in Jerusalem, and how it is to be lived in alien settings and what it means to be an alien in the Greco-Roman world without sacrificing anything essential about their faith. Over and over again, they have to learn what it really means to be a follower of the crucified and risen Christ.

And so do we.  It would be so much easier if we could travel through Lent to an all-encompassing profession of faith at the Easter vigil and emerge, whether as new Christians or newly transformed Christians, into the simple clarity of a gospel-driven life in our times.  We might envy St. Paul, who charged up the Damascus road a fire-breathing warrior for the Law against this new Christian stuff only to find himself knocked to the ground by a great light, blinded, skewered by Christ's words, and turned into an ardent campaigner for the gospel almost overnight.  That kind of starting over on a brand new page has always appealed to me as "real" Easter conversion.  But, as my fresh Easter script gets blotted or washed out in spots when I fall on my face all over again, I realize that even for St. Paul, conversion wasn't actually instantaneous.  Faith in Christ was, but figuring out what that meant for daily life took long hard work. Paul went off to the wilds of Arabia and spent fifteen years pondering and praying before he emerged as the great apostle to the Gentiles.  And even then, with every new encounter in every new place, with every new community offering new challenges, Paul had to keep deepening his understanding of the mystery of Christ and figuring out how on earth he and others should live it.

The story of the early Church, with all its crisis, chaos and learning, teaches us that although Jesus rose from the dead very quickly, it takes us much longer to grow into the resurrection.  Deadening habits, stifling mindsets, wounded histories all require that, with prayer joining us constantly to Christ, we have to struggle day by day to find our way out of the tomb and into the new life given us through the cross.  But remember the strand that linked all the episodes of resurrection chaos in the gospels:  quiet, intense personal conversations with the risen Christ.  We would call them prayer, and we will find them in our own lives if we look.  Remember, too, that it was Christ who appeared to his followers, not they who sought him out.  So we know he is waiting here beside us for us to notice so the conversation can begin.

The most consoling words I know about this lifelong process of dying and rising comes from the Book of Lamentations, product of Jerusalem's misery in the wake of conquest and destruction:  "remembering [my state] over and over, my soul is downcast.But this I will call to mind; therefore I will hope: The LORD’s acts of mercy are not exhausted, his compassion is not spent; They are renewed each morning—great is your faithfulness! The LORD is my portion, I tell myself, therefore I will hope in him" (Lamentations 3:20-24).

Amen!  Alleluia!

Copyright 2017, Abbey of St. Walburga