Music and the Gospel: “Arms Open,” The Script, 4th Sunday of Advent

We sometimes feel God’s presence in our life in surprising ways. Sometimes we can find God by taking a simple walk and connecting with the world around us. Other times, God’s presence arises in times of personal pain and darkness, times when we wonder “why me?” This week’s SPIRIT makes us aware that taking a risk (like Mary) and setting off on a journey can bring us closer to who we are meant to be. The song “Arms Open” reminds us that through all our questions, fears, and pains, God is always by our side.

Key lines: I can’t uncry your tears / I can’t rewind the time / I can’t unsay what’s said / In your crazy life / My love, my arms are open / Oh, and when you’re cursing at the sky / And thinking, “Lord, you must be joking” / My arms are open / And, and when you’re looking in the mirror / Thinking that, “my life is over” / My arms are open

Questions: When have you felt challenged in your faith? What sustained you? What did your journey teach you? Like Mary, what risks do you take to participate in God’s vision for peace on earth and good will to all?

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Called Out of Hiding

My parents raised me to think of myself as a leader. They pointed out that I was good at listening to people and breaking down complex tasks into smaller, more easily accomplished steps (and then making colored-coded flow charts and to do lists to map the work to be done). They also called attention to the fact that I was good at negotiating and compromising—which was their way of putting a positive spin on the fact that by the time she was three and I was five, my younger sister could pin me in a wrestling match, thus forcing me to find non-physical means of getting what I wanted.

Throughout grade school, I found ways to exercise this leadership ability. I served on student council and was elected its president my eighth grade year; I was an altar server at church and eventually trained in new altar servers; and I was captain of my club gymnastics team.

But then adolescence hit, and everything changed. My class in high school was what the educational experts call “a bad class.” The ring leaders, the students with power who everyone seemed to look up to, were the students who were good at partying, not those who were good at academics, sports, the arts, music, service… or any other thing that might be valued at school. In this environment, being a leader seemed too risky. So I decided on a tactic for survival that was the complete opposite of being a leader: I strove for invisibility. My thought process was that if people did not know you were there, then they could not tease, harass, or reject you, and this seemed my safest option.

Our junior year, the administration sat our entire class down in the school’s theater over lunch one day, and their message was simple: “You are a bad class. We do not know where we went wrong with you. We simply do not know what to do with you. Please find it in your hearts not to ruin this school before you graduate next year and we can say good riddance.” (I am sure that their message was much more nuanced and delicately put than this, and there may even have been a positive action plan thrown in at the end, but this is what I remember from that odd occasion.) I felt bad that day; I hated the idea that anyone thought I was a problem, even if only by association with this bad apple of a class. And of course, I could hear my parents’ voices in my head, insisting, “You could do something about this. You are a leader.” But I quickly shushed them, rationalizing that no one would listen to me anyway and resolving just to last out my time in high school as quietly as I had started it.

A few weeks later, as I was minding my own business at my locker one morning, Kate, someone I knew only from classes we had taken together, told me she was running for president of student council and wanted to know if I would run as her VP. While not popular by the standards of high school, everyone knew Kate because she was that person who found a way to be nice to everyone in the school—the custodians, the lunch ladies, the freshmen who looked lost and forlorn, the stars of the basketball team. Skeptical, I asked Kate, “Why me?” She replied, “Because you would be good at it and because together we can win.”

The immediate conclusion to this story is not the stuff of fairy tales. Kate and l lost the election to two good looking, popular boys in our class. When the results were announced over the PA at the end of the school day, I hid in the bathroom for half an hour so that the school would be empty by the time I dragged my tear-stained self to my locker to get my things. But Kate’s invitation and the whole process of running for student council got me to stop hiding. My senior year I assumed leadership of the National Honors Society, worked as the sports’ editor for the school newspaper, and loved the opportunity to make colored-coded spread sheets again. And perhaps even more importantly, I started to really get to know people and to let them get to know me. (Turns out my whole invisible strategy had not worked as I had intended. People noticed me but assumed I was completely stuck up since I never said anything!)

In this week’s gospel reading from John, Jesus and his mother are at a wedding in Cana, and the wine runs out, which was as horrible a faux pas back then as it would be now. Mary shares this information with Jesus, likely already knowing that her son is special and thinking he may be able to do something about it. Jesus replies, “Mother, what is this to you and me? My hour has not yet come.” For whatever reason, Jesus does not yet want to bring attention to himself or to make his identity or ministry public. Maybe he knew once he started he would no longer be able to be invisible, that people would expect and want things from him, that his relationships with people would change. Maybe he was afraid that he was not up to the task. Maybe he still doubted God’s plan for his life.

It seems that Mary has having none of this. Instead of arguing with Jesus, she simply says to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” After this, Jesus tells the servants to fill six large stone jars with water and to bring them to the steward in charge of the feast. When the steward tastes the contents of the jar, he imbibes the finest wine, and Jesus’ public ministry has begun.

Being truly who we are and who we are called to be by God can be a scary prospect. We might worry that people will not like us, that we will not be able to live up to people’s expectations for us, that too much may be demanded of us. Sometimes it takes important others in our lives to see our gifts, our best selves, and to gently encourage us to use them, instead of hiding ourselves and our gifts away. Sometimes we need to be called out of hiding, like Kate (and the ever-present voices of my parents in my head) did for me and like Mary did for Jesus.

Who in your life knows who you truly are? Who can you turn to in order to see your best self reflected?

When have you been afraid or hesitant to live as your true self? When have you been hesitant to answer God’s call for your life? Has anyone been able to call you out of hiding on these occasions?

Our Lady of Guadalupe

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Next week we celebrate the feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe (December 12), the patroness of the Americas. Our Lady of Guadalupe, just one of the many names conferred upon Mary, mother of Jesus, is of special importance to the faith of Mexican Catholics.

When Catholic missionaries first came to Mexico in the early 1500s, they did not have much success converting the local inhabitants at first. But then something miraculous happened: Mary, the mother of Jesus, appeared to a poor Aztec Indian named Juan Diego. As he was walking through the Tepayac hill country in central Mexico, Juan Diego encountered a beautiful woman surrounded by a ball of light as bright as the sun, and she spoke to him in his native tongue. She identified herself as Mary, the Mother of the true God, and told of her desire that a chapel be built where his people could come to know her and her love for them. After Mary directed him to run to Tenochtitlan to tell the bishop what he had heard and seen, Juan Diego did just that, only to be kept waiting for hours and eventually told to go home.

Returning to the hill where he had first encountered her, Juan Diego met Mary again and pled that she send someone more worthy than he to the bishop. But Mary clearly told him that she had chosen him for this task, so Juan Diego returned to the bishop again. This time he was able to meet with the bishop, who demanded a sign that prove the woman who appeared to Juan Diego was who she said she was.

A third time Juan Diego encountered Our Lady on the hill, and she told him to come back the next day to find the sign that would satisfy the bishop. However, Juan Diego was not able to return the next day, as his uncle had become very sick and needed care from his nephew. A few days later, with his uncle near death, Juan Diego went to fetch a priest, only to pass his meeting place with Mary one more time. She assured him that his uncle had been restored to health and directed him to go to the top of the hill to cut the flowers he would find there. Despite the cold, Juan Diego went to the top of the hill and was astounded to find Castilian roses in full bloom. He carried the roses in his tilma, which is like a poncho, back to Mary, who instructed him to show the roses to the bishop.

Meeting once again with the bishop and his council, Juan Diego opened his tilma to show them the flowers. But the real miracle ended up not being the flowers, but rather an image of the Blessed Virgin that appeared on the tilma. When he returned to his village, Juan Diego found that his uncle had indeed been made well, and his uncle told him that he had had a vision of a young woman surrounded by light, who told him to call her and her image “Santa Maria de Guadalupe.”

Within a few years of this apparition, six million Aztecs had converted to Catholicism. The tilma that bears the image of Mary can still be seen in the basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe and is the most visited religious shrine in the western hemisphere. The image of Mary from the tilma, that shows Mary as the God-bearer, as she is pregnant with Jesus, and that also depicts Mary as an Aztec princess and not a European Madonna, continues to be a popular symbol of Mexican Catholic faith.

What is the import of Our Lady of Guadalupe for our lives today? First, during this Advent season, this story reminds us of the crucial role God chose for Mary, a poor woman. Then Mary was chosen to bear God’s only son in her human body, and later, Mary has been the one God continues to choose to lead people to Jesus. Mary is a person with whom we may be able to identify, if God or Jesus seem a bit too intimidating to approach.

Second, it is instructive to think about how Mary appeared and spoke to Juan Diego. As noted above, she spoke to him in his own language, and the image she gave him in his tilma was not like the European images of Mary we see in European museums. Rather the image she gave him looked like him and his people. What does this tell us? First, I think it tells us that God chooses to appear to us, speak to us, and be present to us in the means that we can understand. God meets us where we are in our lives. Similarly, when we go forth to live as disciples of Christ, we, too, are called to appreciate and respect the culture and understanding of others we encounter. Just as God meets us where we are, we are called to understand others and to meet them where they are. It is only in this way that we can help people to know Jesus and God.

Have you seen an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe? Do you know anyone for whom Our Lady of Guadalupe is an important religious or cultural symbol?

What image of Mary do you have? Do you feel you can relate to Mary?

What can you learn from this story of Juan Diego and Our Lady of Guadalupe this Advent?

Photo courtesy of elycefeliz via Creative Commons License

Our Suffering God

Christians claim that Jesus is simultaneously fully human and fully divine. This is a difficult concept to think about, a confusing notion to believe in. Many heresies in our Church’s history center around leaning away from the human/divine balance that Jesus carried in his being, some losing sight of his humanity and focusing too much on his divinity, some the opposite. Declaring that we believe that Jesus is fully human and fully divine is bold.

In the passion story, Jesus cries out on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” This is a deeply human moment, where Jesus articulates that he is experiencing complete abandonment by God. Jesus is feeling totally fragmented from God even while he is divine. Yet it is in this very moment that he is God. God is a dying human, put on trial and crucified. This human plea of Jesus, this vulnerable pain of abandonment by his Father is so essential to our faith. We all, at times, feel that God has abandoned us. Yet maybe those are the moments when God is most near. If Jesus Christ himself felt utterly alone on the cross as a human, then God knows what that abandonment feels like. Jesus dies a painful, humiliating death as a full human being, as fully divine. God feels abandoned, God suffers, God dies, God resurrects.

It fills me with wonder and awe. Seeing Jesus cry out and die, knowing that he is God, these are challenging things to hold in our heads and hearts. It is hard to talk about, hard to know what to believe. No wonder Judas betrays Jesus, Peter denies Jesus, and Mary, Mary and Salome are too afraid to tell anyone that Jesus has risen. I know there are times in my life I have betrayed and denied Jesus. There have been times that I am too afraid to talk about what I believe. It is comforting to know that Jesus’ friends experienced the same thing.

When was a time you felt abandoned by God?

When was a time that God may have felt abandoned by you?

What are your favorite Gospel stories that you think highlight Jesus’ divinity?

What are your favorite Gospel stories that you think highlight Jesus’ humanity?

Today, who do you identify most with in the passion story: Judas, Peter, Mary, Simon, Pilate? Why?

 

Photo courtesy of  Lawrence OP via Creative Commons License

Mary’s “Yes.”

If I could pick one story in the Bible to be able to witness, I might pick the gospel for this week. Maybe it is because I am a woman. Maybe it is because there is little revealed about how Mary was feeling or what she was thinking. Did she hesitate? Did she cry? Did she say, “Yes!” or “Yes?” or “Yes.”? I think I would like to travel back in time to witness this moment because I see it as a turning point in the story, a moment that made Jesus possible. It seems to me to be a tenuous moment that so easily could have gone the other way.

Mary’s “yes” always amazes me. There were consequences for that “yes.” Mary looked at Gabriel (don’t you kind of wonder what that conversation between a young woman and an angel was really like?) and said, “Let it happen as you say.” Her permission was an acknowledgment of a truth I forget daily. We are not really in complete control of our lives. There are things, good and bad, that happen to us everyday that are beyond our control. There is spontaneity of life that takes us down paths we dared never to imagine. She said, “yes,” to God, and everything changed. It was bold, maybe even irrational to say yes to such a life altering proposition, and it carried with it consequences. Maybe Joseph would leave her. Maybe the pregnancy would go poorly. She must have been scared, right? She let go, trusted God, and I will be forever amazed at that “yes.”

Because of that “yes,” God became flesh. Jesus had a human experience. When I read stories about Jesus walking on water or resurrecting from the dead, it is easy for me to forget that he was really fully human. It has been so important to my faith to remember that Jesus had skin and hands and toenails. He experienced what it felt like to be human. He knows what it is like to die.

It amazes me that women can bear another human life in their bodies. It amazes me that Jesus was totally dependent on the body of Mary for life. She could have said, “no,” but she said, “yes.” Advent and Christmas are seasons filled with awe and amazement for me, only the kind of awe a baby can bring to a room. There is a silent reverence in the awe that Mary inspires in me. It gives me strength and courage to look at my life and see where God is wanting me to say, “yes,” too.

That is why I would love to be able to travel back in time and see Mary consent to be the Mother of Jesus. In a way, that is the moment that started the world as we know it. A world where the one we worship knows what it feels like to be a human in the world. That is good news.

What Bible story would you like to witness?

How do you think Mary was feeling when Gabriel came to her?

Do you tend to think of Jesus as more human or more divine?