I wish Paul would be a bit more diplomatic, soften his tone, or make an apology for some of his lines. He could ease us into them so that they don’t broadside us the way they sometimes do. Weren’t there public relations firms in Israel when Paul wrote who could have helped him sell his "product?" Couldn’t he have been more like a mother soothing and preparing her two year old for an injection at the doctor’s office? "There, there, this is going to hurt for just a little while bit, then it will be ok. And the doctor has a lollipop for you when it is all over."
That’s just not Paul’s style, is it? He doesn’t sugar coat the tough message, or only preach the happy and appealing side of the gospel. So, as if to waking slumbering, or distracted Christians, he says, "Are you unaware that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?" There, you went and did it again Paul, you blew your chances of drawing a big crowd of ecstatic followers. I do get "unaware": that this union with Christ in baptism has a death to it; that I have not gotten a guarantee that being a Christian will flood me with rosy feelings; or that I will always be number one in my priorities and life will go smoothly; that my comfort level will be above the average and that I will drive a new Mercedes with a bumper sticker that proclaims, "Honk if you love Jesus."
Instead, taking on baptism, or recommitting myself to it at this Eucharistic celebration, may call me to: die to the very values my own friends and family enshrine; spend my energies for doing the right, if not the most popular things; be the one to stick my neck out to heal a strained relationship in my family; stand up at a meeting and defend the rights of the undocumented, or the propertyless; be the first to say, "Of course I forgive you"; see all of my life and not just some moments, as a vocation, a full-time response to a personal invitation I have heard from Jesus.
Baptism was supposed to have made a difference in our lives. It meant our sins died with Christ and "newness of life" was given us. It also meant we are supposed to see our lives in a different perspective. Whereas before, we might have measured the success, or failure of our lives, by those of our prosperous and comfortable neighbors, now we use Jesus’ life as our yardstick – and his death as well. We were, Paul reminds us, "baptized into his death." What we have come to believe is that out of death, God has brought life. For example, what is sacrificial for the good of others and serves the needs of the poor, opens us to receive a new kind of life we never could have gotten on our own.
Turns out, Paul does have some good "selling points" for his gospel message. If is not just about death he tells us, in the end, it is finally about new life. It is a new life that we can even experience here, for example, as we discover the deeper presence of God below the surface of suffering and in the presence of the poor. Where we, or society, have drawn a dead end, God breaks through the road block offering life and a new beginning. On the cross and in his death, Christ slipped out of our hands and away from our usual norms for success, into the waiting arms of God. In our baptism we do the same; we die to the many other options the world offers and, instead, come alive in the arms of God, all the while being breathed upon by the Holy Spirit.
Let’s not make this sound too ideal, romantic, or easy – it isn’t. In our daily experience, baptism isn’t a one time fait accompli, a dying once and for all. All of our journeys, from the baptismal font till our deaths (when our coffins will be draped with the white cloth that symbolizes our baptismal garment), will require many deaths along the way. We will have to die to our too narrow vision; we’ll have to broaden our tent pegs so as to include many and diverse people into our lives – the insiders and the outsiders. We’ll keep trying to open our hearts and minds to Jesus’ way of seeing others. Though at times hesitant, we will even let go of our self doubts and self loathings and welcome God’s love, which has been so eloquently revealed to us in Christ’s dying. We will die to much; but will "live with him" in infinitely grander ways. Emily Dickinson said, "the world is not conclusion." And we would add, "Nor is death the conclusion – life is." To reverse a favorite Jewish expression (which says, "From my mouth to God’s ear."), Paul is speaking for God today, "From God’s mouth to our ears."
We are focusing on Paul and the conversation has been around baptism. Let me make a digression. Some have complained that preaching from the Lectionary avoids addressing the "doctrines" of the church. The argument goes: people are ignorant of their faith, and these 10 or 12 minutes on Sunday are an opportunity for the preacher to do some educating to an uniformed laity. Gerard Sloyan wrote an article in the mid-80's entitled, "Is Church Teaching Neglected When the Lectionary is Preached?" Sloyan made a strong argument for preaching from the Lectionary. He reminded us that the homily is primarily an act of worship and praise, of thanksgiving and petition, and is not something apart from the entire liturgy. Instruction on another "topic" would thus extract the homily from its liturgical moorings. The homily is meant to be exhortation and encouragement and to evoke in us a consideration of the divine graciousness we have received in Christ. (Paul says it today in his way, "...you too must think of yourselves as dead to sin and living for God in Christ Jesus.")
The homily invites us to respond to the gifts God is offering us; the preacher’s job is to help us recognize these gifts, to name them for us. Sloyan sees biblical preaching as a corrective to all the theological misses in our Christian history. He challenges Catholic preachers not to fall back on childhood notions and pieties; but to put in the necessary prayer and hard work to discover and preach the good news of God’s love for us. What about the hard-working biblical preacher who still thinks the congregation needs education in central doctrinal issues? Well, there is the parish bulletin, he suggests. It is a good place for pastoral instruction and formation and is usually read by the congregation (one hopes not during the preaching!).
In addition, if preachers keeps an open eye and ear, we will notice how core doctrinal issues also come to the fore in our Lectionary readings. To discover what these doctrinal issue are, Sloyan suggests, requires serious study and preparation of the texts by the preacher. Having made this lengthy aside – let’s turn back to Romans and discover how Paul raises an opportunity to include instruction on baptism in the preaching today.
The Romans reading gives us an insight into Paul’s theology of baptism. His imagery might make more sense if we remember that, when first practiced, baptism was by immersion. It looked and felt like a burial as the candidate held her/his breath and was plunged under the waters. When the newly baptized came up for air, they were a new creation, from then on breathing the breath of God. Each breath after baptism was a new breath, a new life force within the baptized. Hence, because his readers would have been aware of the usual method of baptism by immersion, Paul’s language speaks about being, "buried," "raised" and "dying." The symbolism was clear to those immersed in water; to be baptized like this was to experience the death and resurrection of the Lord. There is no time difference here. We who are baptized are not separated from the event of the death and resurrection by a huge gap of time. Instead, when we are baptized the event is present to us here and now. Jesus’ death to sin is now our death to sin; Jesus’ resurrection to new life is now our resurrection as well. In baptism, an old way has died and a new resurrected life had taken its place.
Click here for a link to this Sunday’s readings:
Tessie Castillo: "Crimson Letters: Voices from Death Row," (Texas: Black Rose Writing, 2020)
Tessie Castillo was one of the first outsiders to be invited inside Raleigh, N.C.’s Death Row. There she facilitated a creative writing class for two dozen inmates. "Crimson Letters" is a collection of 30 autobiographical essays by four from her class. These are stories of brutal beatings, suicide attempts, isolation and fear during the long days and nights on the Row. They also tell of friendships, transformation and emotional farewells said to inmate friends who were about to be executed. The accounts confront the reader with our own presumptions and the injustices of the death penalty. If you have never been in a prison, or written to an inmate, this is a good introduction to the world behind the bars.
Blessed the people who know the joyful shout; in the light of your countenance, O Lord, they walk. At your name they rejoice all the day, and through your justice they are exalted.
What does it mean to live in God and in justice? Such living involves what we do for the vulnerable and those in need. As I am writing this, it is the Monday morning following a weekend of nonviolent protests followed by violent rioting precipitated by the unjust killing of George Floyd. The effects of 400 years of hatred and racial injustice against people of color--sometimes overt, sometimes covert, but definitely systemic in our American society--boiled over in 111 cities this past weekend and continues.
What are we to do as a people of faith to overcome racism? Fr. Bryan N. Massingale has just written a thought-provoking article, "The Assumptions of White Privilege and What We Can Do about It" (NCR On-line 6/1/2020) and offers some concrete actions that we can do as individuals and as parishes.
Massingale writes, "To create a different world, we must learn how this one came to be. And unlearn what we previously took for granted. This means that we have to read. And learn from the perspectives of people of color." He then suggests holding a parish series on race and racial issues for adults, in faith formation lessons, and in homilies beyond just Black History Month. He suggests writing our bishop to ask how anti-racism is part of our church leaders' formation for ministry, as well as in the formation of seminarians.
He quotes the words of St. Pope John Paul II who, on his final pastoral visit to the United States, summoned Catholics to "eradicate every form of racism" as part of their wholehearted and essential commitment to life.
Finally, Massingale tells us to pray. "Yes, racism," he states, "is a political issue and a social divide. But at its deepest level, racism is a soul sickness. It is a profound warping of the human spirit that enables human beings to create communities of callous indifference toward their darker sisters and brothers. Stripped to its core, white supremacy is a disturbing interior disease, a malformed consciousness that enables white people to not care for those who don't look like them." So, I would add one other action: if you don’t have a Black American friend, seek a friendship through one of our outreach ministries. To read Massingale’s entire article, go to: https://www.ncronline.org/
---Barbara Molinari Quinby, MPS
Director of Social Justice Ministries
Holy Name of Jesus Cathedral, Raleigh, NC
Mini-reflections on the Sunday scripture readings designed for persons on the run. "Faith Book" is also brief enough to be posted in the Sunday parish bulletins people take home.
From today’s 2 Kings reading:
One day Elisha come to Shunem
where there was a woman of influence,
who urged him to dine with her.
During the first part of our celebration today we, like the Shunemite woman welcomed God’s Word into our "home" – we made room for it in our hearts. As Scripture reminds us, the Word blossoms there with a promise of new life. God sends prophetic people to speak the Word to us, but remember, prophetic people don’t always fit into official categories; they aren’t always bearing an institutional stamp of approval. Yet, God often comes to us in the other and through people who are strangers.
So we ask ourselves:
"One has to strongly affirm that condemnation to the death penalty is an inhuman measure that humiliates personal dignity, in whatever form it is carried out."
This is a particularly vulnerable time for state and federal prisoners. Conditions, even without the pandemic, are awful in our prisons. Imagine what it is like now with the virus spreading through the close and unhealthy prison settings. I invite you to write a postcard to one or more of the inmates listed below to let them know we have not forgotten them. If the inmate responds you might consider becoming pen pals.
Please write to:
----Central Prison, 4285 Mail Service Center, Raleigh, NC 27699-4285
For more information on the Catholic position on the death penalty go to the Catholic Mobilizing Network:http://catholicsmobilizing.org/resources/cacp/
On this page you can sign "The National Catholic Pledge to End the Death Penalty." Also, check the interfaith page for People of Faith Against the Death Penalty:http://www.pfadp.org/
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4. "First Impressions" is a service to preachers and those wishing to prepare for Sunday worship. It is sponsored by the Dominican Friars. If you would like "First Impressions" sent weekly to a friend, send a note to fr. John Boll, OP at the above email address.
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3150 Vince Hagan Drive
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