As you all know, Robert and I were away last Sunday attending the Call to Action conference in Milwaukee. Each year since 1976, a group of between 1,000-3,000, at its zenith, Catholics, meet to discuss, ponder, pray and celebrate the mystery of Church—all that it means, all that it can and should be and then to go back to our personal lives and hopefully be enlivened in ways that can truly ignite fires in the smaller spaces that we call “church.”
Ironically, it was the bishops of this country that ignited the first flame under the laity, back in 1976 in Detroit—to become more involved in the Church. As I said last week, the bishops have all walked away from this movement that took them at their word. Perhaps under the guidance of Francis, the bishops will once again recognize the Spirit-filled work of this 40 year-old group.
Call to Action has been evolving since its inception, trying to ever more be open to new ideas, to more inclusion, to ever more deeply mining the message of our brother, Jesus. The past several years this organization has been concentrating on more diversity, proclaiming that Jesus’ face can be seen in all creatures, cultures, genders, lifestyles and this was so evident in the liturgies throughout the weekend: A Jewish opening hymn on Friday evening, a Portuguese liturgical dance, and a Eucharistic prayer on Sunday, prayed in Spanish, German, Hmong and English tongues and where, of course, everyone was welcome at the table, no exceptions!
I don’t know why German was specifically chosen, but I surmised that it might have been in deference to the German bishops, and what has come to be known as the “German Miracle” coming out of the Synod on the Family wherein they all agreed on change being needed on marriage and family and other issues within the Catholic church to make it more viable in our world.
This conference heard the wisdom of Joan Chittister who spoke of the “spiritual arthritis” that has taken over our Church; John Dear, Jesuit peace activist who was called in by his bishop in New Mexico to defend his work trying to eliminate nuclear weapons in our world. His defense was that he was following the words of Jesus, to which his bishop responded that he need not listen to the words of Jesus anymore!—that God won’t protect us! Talk about “spiritual arthritis” –this sounds more like a terminal illness; Barbara Blaine, of SNAP (Survivors’ Network for those Abused by Priests) and their present work at the United Nations to name child sexual abuse and its cover-up for the crime against humanity that it is; Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas, an Episcopal priest and director of the Religion Program at Goucher College in Baltimore whose new book is Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God, wherein she makes the case powerfully for how history merely shifts and changes the words that keep black people enslaved; Zach Wahls, a young man raised by his two lesbian moms who basically told us that it’s all about love—that is all it is about! –Maria Teresa Davila, Associate Professor of Christian Ethics at Andover Newton Theological School in Maryland, Sunday’s homilist, spoke to us, as she said, “in the confidence of the Incarnation” about “the [kin-dom] being on the move”—in other words, being a follower of Jesus, calls for action. This was just a sampling of the many presenters at this annual conference that challenged us to “Love Radically and Live Faithfully.”
This week’s readings call us to the same as this in the last Sunday in Ordinary Time with next week’s feast of Christ the King, or as I prefer, the feast of Jesus, our Brother and Friend. The apocalyptic readings this week—those that describe the “end times” or the, “end of time,” are disturbing. Whether they were meant to frighten or not, the fact is, for many of us, readings like the selection from Mark’s gospel, do. For this reason, exegesis of the Scriptures becomes important, so that we can understand what is truly meant by words that we may otherwise just take at face value.
First, we have to understand that the ancient Israelite people had a concept of two different times—the “end times” and “the end of time.” The end times were thought to be a time of transition, when suffering and hard times would be no more, when the Chosen One, whom Christians believe is Jesus, the Christ, will come again in glory to make all things right and the kin-dom will be celebrated before the face of God, in that wonderful reality. It is a tremendously hope-filled image that is attractive to many people. The cinema has in recent years come up with such images of a time of justice when good, will reign—we have seen it in the epic series, The Lord of the Rings, and in the Star Wars movies. The “end of time” is another time, and when that time will come, none of us knows, or in fact understands just how it will be—we will just have to trust that all will unfold according to God’s loving plan.
So why are we given frightening images—of the sun and moon going dark—of stars falling from the sky? The reading from Mark has an apocalyptic tone, and part of that, the exegetes tell us, was their way to cover the subversive tone of their writings from their enemies. The Israelites were told overtime that all they were suffering would come to an end—the Chosen One would come to alleviate their sufferings—this was their hope. This knowledge that their God did hear their cries and would come to save them, gave them the will to go on. In faith, we believe the same.
It has been thought that the reference to the “heavens and earth passing away” referred to the destruction of Jerusalem. It encouraged fidelity when the people’s world seemed to be crumbling around them. And for each of us, this type of reading gives us courage in our struggles through life because there is reason to hope—we are not alone, our God is with us.
The placing of the “end times” reading on this weekend is appropriate as our Church Year is winding down, setting the stage for the wonderful season of Advent—a time of gentle hope, yet building anticipation for the coming of Jesus, our Way, our Truth, and our Life.
This weekend’s readings serve then as a beginning to a time of transition in our Church Year, but also in our personal lives. They also remind us of the end of time, whenever and however that might come to be. The end of time—our personal time, when our life as we know it, comes to a close, need not frighten us if we strive in our lives to do our best, always keeping our eyes on Jesus, unlike the New Mexico bishop seems to think, who truly shows us the way. The thought then of our God—Jesus, the Christ, coming “in the clouds,” with great power and glory,” should bring us joy and anticipation, not fear and dread.
Many people over time, from those people who were the first Christians, followers of Jesus, thought that the “end times” were inaugurated with Jesus and that the end of time would follow shortly. Jesus, they thought, had come to make all things right, get us on the path of goodness—mercy, love, justice, compassion and once we got it, Jesus would return and take us all, the faithful, with him, to heavenly glory. It seems it has taken us all, collectively, longer to “get it” then those first Christians thought. It was evident this past weekend that there is still much that we as a nation and world need “to get” our heads, but mostly, our hearts around, and at the same time, much to be hopeful about as well. And when the end of time will come, no one knows, and perhaps it is not something we need worry about, but rather, to concentrate on the transition in our own lives.
Much of what we heard this past weekend was about communicating with others, hearing and understanding their stories and where each is coming from. It has been said that we communicate most and best, when we allow a communion, a sharing of ideas, needs and concerns to happen between those we encounter—when we let their story seep into our hearts. When I reflect on situations where I have disagreed with others in the past; I realize that the way to make a difference with them will be by the way I am with them—trying to understand their concerns—witnessing to what I have come to, and showing them by my actions that we are probably concerned about many of the same things at the heart of it all.
So, my friends, this week, as we ever so relentlessly move toward the end of our Church Year, anticipating the beautiful season of Advent, recalling that our brother Jesus is always with us, showing us the way, let us pray for each other that we might let his example of truth, goodness and justice for all seep into our hearts in order that our encounters with others might more regularly move from the surface to become empathic encounters, true communions with them, and through them, with our loving God.