(Sunday Homily) Dear Pope Francis: Gaza Needed More than Tears; Next Time, Please “Walk on Water”

Walk on Water

Readings for 19th Sunday in ordinary time: I KGS 19: 9A, 11-13A; PS 85: 9-14; ROM 9: 1-5; MT 14: 22-23 http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/081014.cfm

In today’s Gospel, we hear Matthew’s account of Jesus walking on water – or rather, of Peter’s refusal to follow Jesus’ example of walking on the waves.

The account is relevant to the man in the Vatican who believes he is Peter’s successor. Israel’s month-long siege of Gaza invited Pope Francis to “walk on water” – to follow the example of Jesus in confronting demons. However uncharacteristic timidity left the pope sinking below the waves, out of sight and ear shot, cowering before Monsters like Obama and Netanyahu.

Let me explain. First off, consider today’s Gospel reading.

The story goes that following Jesus’ feeding of the 5000 (last week’s Gospel episode), Jesus forces the apostles to get into their boat and row to the other side. [The text says, “Jesus made (emphasis added) the disciples get into a boat and precede him to the other side.” Perhaps these experienced fishermen (as opposed to the land lubber, Jesus) saw a storm was coming and were reluctant to set sail despite Jesus’ urgings.]

In any case, a storm does come up and the apostles fear they are about to drown. You can imagine them in helpless tears.

Then they see a figure walking on the water in the midst of high threatening waves. At first they think it’s a ghost. Then they realize that it’s Jesus. He’s walking on the raging waters.

Peter, the impetuous leader of the apostles, doubts what he sees. So he says, “Prove to me that it’s you, Jesus; let me walk on the waves just as you’re doing.” Jesus says, “Join me then over here.” So Peter gets out of the boat and, like Jesus actually walks on water for a few steps.

Then, despite the evidence, he begins to doubt. And as he does so, he starts sinking below the water line. “Save me, Lord,” he cries out again. Jesus stretches out his hand and saves Peter. Then he asks, “Where’s your faith, man? Why is it so weak? Why did you doubt?”

Of course, this whole story (like last week’s “Loaves and Fishes”) is one of the dramatic parables Matthew composed. If we get caught up in wondering whether we’re expected to believe that someone actually walked on water, we’ll miss the point of this powerful metaphor. It’s about Jesus’ followers doing the unexpected and irrational in the midst of life-threatening crisis.

You see, Matthew’s Jewish audience shared the belief du jour that the sea was inhabited by dangerous monsters – Leviathan being the most fearful. And fearlessly walking on water was a poetic way of expressing what Matthew’s community believed about Jesus, viz. that he embodied the courage and power to do the completely unexpected in the midst of crisis and subdue the most threatening forces imaginable – even the most lethal of all, the Roman Empire.

Jesus’ invitation to Peter communicates the truth that all of us have the power to confront monsters if we’ll just find the courage to leave safety concerns behind even in the most threatening conditions, to confront life’s monsters, and join Jesus in the midst of its upheavals.

Problem is we easily lose faith and courage. As a result, we’re overcome by life’s surging waves and by the monsters lurking underneath them.

And that brings me back to Pope Francis and his ambiguous response to the slaughter that took place in Gaza over the last month.

We expected more. Over the course of his still-young papacy, Francis has demonstrated wonderful courage attempting to join Jesus on the world’s dangerous waves.

• He’s adopted a comparatively simple lifestyle.
• He’s condemned neo-liberalism and growing income inequality.
• His apostolic exhortation, “The Joy of the Gospel” implicitly endorsed the liberation theology his two immediate predecessors had tried to kill.
• More specifically, he adopted liberation theology’s “preferential option for the poor” as the leitmotif of his papacy.
• In that spirit, his famous “Who am I to judge” gave hope to the LGBTQ community.
• He helped head off President Obama’s plans to bomb Syria.

That last precedent led me to expect more in the context of Gaza. I was in St. Peter’s Square for Francis’ hours-long vigil for peace. There the Pope did as much or more to head off U.S.’ insane plans to bomb Syria as did Russia’s President Putin. Along with Putin, Francis was the hero who subverted the monstrous plans of Obama and his State Department.

But there was no peace vigil for the Gazans. Instead two weeks ago the Pope broke down in tears as he delivered his Sunday remarks from the balcony over St. Peter’s Square. He said:

“Never war, never war! I am thinking, above all, of children who are deprived of the hope of a worthwhile life, a future. Dead children, wounded children, mutilated children, orphaned children, children whose toys are things left over from war, children who don’t know how to smile.” This was the moment when the tears came. “Please stop,” said Francis. “I ask you with all my heart, it’s time to stop. Stop, please!”

The words were powerful; the tears were powerful. But unlike the prayer vigil before a potential Syrian fiasco, they remained largely unreported. Nevertheless, for those with ears to hear, the Pope was lamenting Israel’s killing of Palestine’s innocent. (No Jewish children were killed during the Gaza massacre.) However, to overcome the Media’s deafening pro-Israel tilt, the Pope needed to be stronger and more specific.

Yes, his papacy has daringly left the safe harbor and courageously sailed into the storm. Yes, Francis clearly sees Jesus as his role model demanding courage in the face of today’s unprecedented winds and waves. Indeed Francis has gotten out of the boat to trample underfoot the beasts and monsters roiling the seas all around us. But in the case of Gaza, instead of walking confidently on the waters, he sunk in apparent timidity before the threatening monsters, Obama and Netanyahu.

But what more could he have done? What sort of miracle did I expect?

Well, he could have given courage to all of us who are far less daring than he; he could have performed a miracle more stupendous than actually “walking on water” by:

• Owning the fact that as the leader of 1.2 billion Roman Catholics, with far more power than Jesus had, he was truly able to end Gaza’s slaughter.
• Announcing plans to travel to Gaza in the midst of Israel’s monstrous campaign.
• Before leaving, specifically naming Israel’s assault on civilians as sinful.
• Identifying the U.S. as equally culpable with Israel for crimes against humanity.
• Actually traveling to Gaza in a white papal helicopter (even in defiance of Israel’s predictable prohibitions) and landing in the midst of Gaza’s devastation.
• Celebrating Mass in Gaza on a pile of rubble and refusing to leave till the Israelis stopped their slaughter.
• If the slaughter continued, traveling to the key sites of bombing and shelling.

“Impossible!” you say? Such an act would offend Israel and upset Israel-Vatican relations. Ditto for the U.S.

Hmm. Is the pope a politician or a prophetic religious leader? Please use your imagination and spin out what would have happened if the pope walked on water as just outlined. What do you think?

In any case, those much less courageous than Francis need his example so the rest of us might venture forth to walk on water in our own far less powerful ways.

Yes, in today’s Gospel, Jesus invites us all to do the impossible. Why are we doubting? Where is our faith?

Sunday Homily: Pope Francis’ “New Song” – Seven Points You May Have Missed in “Evangelii Gaudium”

Francis Singing

Readings for Second Sunday in Ordinary Time: IS 49: 3, 5-6; PS 40: 2, 4, 7-10; I COR 1: 1-3; JN 1: 29-34 http://usccb.org/bible/readings/011914.cfm

What will Pope Francis do next? Since his election nine month ago, he seems to be in the news on a daily basis.

We all know, for instance, that he was Time Magazine’s “Person of the Year.” And just last week, the New York Times ran two substantial articles on him. “He has already transformed the tone of the papacy,” one of those articles said, “confessing himself a sinner, declaring ‘Who am I to judge?’ when asked about gays, and kneeling to wash the feet of inmates, including Muslims.”

The article went on to describe the reforms the pope is making in the Vatican. He has disempowered influential conservatives favored by his predecessor, Benedict XVI. The demoted include American Cardinal Raymond L. Burke, and Italian Cardinal Mauro Piacenza, along with Archbishop Guido Pozzo. Such reactionaries have been replaced with Francis’ allies like Secretary of State Pietro Parolin whom the pope listed among those he will make a cardinal in February.

Even more broadly, the Times described the pope’s employment of six Jesuit “spies” to assess and report on various Vatican offices. That’s making Roman apparatchiks very nervous. As a result, job insecurity has become the order of the day in Vatican City, where clerical careerists , the Times said, have responded like sulking teenagers plugging in their headphones, retiring to their rooms, and hoping the storm will pass them by.

Another Times report last week detailed Pope Francis’ recent appointments to the College of Cardinals. The Parolin appointment notwithstanding, the nominations represent a departure from tradition in that the majority of the 19 new cardinals will come from Latin America, Africa, and Asia instead of Italy and Europe. The appointees promise to change the tone of the consistory the pope plans to convene at the end of next month where discussions will begin about decentralizing church decision-making processes and about pastoral responses to changes in family structure including questions of divorce and homosexuality.

Couple last week’s moves with last September’s hugely successful mass demonstration in St. Peter’s against the bombing of Syria, with his denunciation of free market capitalism, under-regulated financial speculation, and “murderous” world-wide income inequality, and you have a worthy successor to John XXIII, the soon-to-be-canonized Great Reformer who convened the Second Vatican Council (1962-’65).

Put otherwise, in a very short time, Pope Francis has made his own the words of today’s responsorial psalm, “The Lord has put a new song in my mouth.” The song the pope is singing takes the emphasis off formal religion – what the responsorial calls the “sacrifice and offerings.” That’s not what God wants, the psalmist says. Instead God’s desire is “a people that hear and obey” — specifically the law of justice that God has placed in the heart of all human beings whether they think of themselves as believers or not . So far, the pope’s actions show that he agrees.

In terms of today’s gospel reading – a continued reflection on last Sunday’s account of Jesus’ baptism – it’s as if we’re witnessing the descent of the Holy Spirit upon a man determined to follow in the footsteps of Jesus of Nazareth.

Like Jesus, Francis has made a “preferential option for the poor.” He’s signaled justice for the oppressed as the overriding theme of his papacy. He has completely rejected war as a solution to any of the world’s problems. This pope is no hawk or friend of hawks — or of the rich who advocate free market solutions to problems of poverty and its attendant hunger and disease. For him, terrorism is blowback for injustice.

As most of us know, all of this is clearly explained in Francis’ “Evangelii Gaudium” whose significance in terms of church reform cannot be overstated. But there are some important aspects of the pope’s exhortation that may have escaped notice. Let me name just seven that have special connection with today’s liturgical readings and their emphasis on peace, justice and the Spirit of God. (Parenthetical numbers refer to the relevant sections in the papal document.):

• “Evangelii Gaudium” is not trivial. The pope writes “In this exhortation my intention is to map out the path for the church to follow in the immediate future” (2).So the pope’s concern for the poor and rejection of war are not simply expressions of his idiosyncratic aspirations. They represent attitudes and actions he expects the church and Roman Catholics to adopt.

• As the Huffington Post has put it, “Evangelii Gaudium” also represents a “remarkable about-face” relative to liberation theology. Significantly, the pope met with Gustavo Gutierrez, the doyen of liberation theology, last September. Gutierrez’s themes are found throughout the pope’s Exhortation – the “preferential option for the poor” (198, 199), the affirmation of “popular piety” (122-126), the historical perspective (54), social analysis uncovering unfettered capitalism as homicidal (53, 57), and recognition of “structural sin” (59, 202). . . .

• The Exhortation’s position on private ownership is much more radical than many have acknowledged so far. The pope actually states that the goods of the earth belong to the poor, not simply to those who can pay for them. Quoting “an ancient sage,” the pope says “The goods we possess don’t really belong to us but to the poor” (57). Can you imagine a stronger rejection of capitalism’s understanding of private property?

• In general, the Papal Exhortation is friendly towards theologians. This also represents an about-face from his immediate predecessor who routinely investigated, warned, condemned and silenced theologians – 106 of them by Matthew Fox’s count. By contrast, Pope Francis values the role of theologians whatever categories of reason they might use – even, one might conclude, if the categories are Marxist. Consider the suggestion in these words: “When certain categories of reason and the sciences are taken up into the proclamation of the message, these categories then become tools of evangelization; water is changed into wine. Whatever is taken up is not just redeemed, but becomes an instrument of the Spirit for enlightening and renewing the world. . . The church . . . appreciates and encourages the charism of theologians.”

• The pope’s appreciation of theologians means that “Evangelii Gaudium” holds promise for women and the campaign for women’s ordination – despite its specific rejection of women priests (104). This is because virtually no theologians or scripture scholars find credible the reasons advanced for restricting ordination to males. Even the pope’s Exhortation suggests the contrary. No sooner does he reject women priests than he falls into the traditional language of “holy mother church” (e.g. 139). The pope writes “. . . the church is a mother, and . . . preaches in the same way that a mother speaks to her child.” Do you detect the dissonance here – of males alone being allowed to speak as women?? Sooner or later that penny will drop.

• The pope’s promotion of the “sensus fidei” (119) holds similar promise for changes in church teaching on contraception. According to the pope, “God furnishes the totality of the faithful with an instinct of faith – sensus fidei – which helps them to discern what is truly of God.” For theologians, sensus fidei means that when the bishops, theologians and laity agree on a matter of faith or morals, their agreement represents the work of the Holy Spirit. On the question of contraception, previous popes have cut the laity and theologians out of the equation entirely. In the spirit of Vatican II, the pope’s words promise to include them once again. Theologians and laity overwhelmingly agree that church prohibition of artificial contraception needs change.

• In his Exhortation, the pope shifts away from just war theory to complete pacifism (239). He devotes a whole section to the rejection of war (98-101). Moreover, he identifies inequality as the cause of violence and war. He writes, “Inequality eventually engenders a violence which recourse to arms cannot and never will be able to resolve . . . weapons and violence rather than providing solutions, create new and more serious conflicts” (60). What if the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics took the pope’s words to heart?

All of this represents the work of the Holy Spirit – the same Spirit that today’s reading from John’s gospel describes as descending upon the just-baptized Jesus. John the Baptist describes Jesus as the gentle “Lamb of God.” The Spirit is pictured as a dove – the symbol of peace.

Like John the Baptist on Jordan’s banks, Pope Francis is calling the faithful to “Behold the Lamb of God” imitating Jesus’ identification with the poor and his gentle non-violence.

Ascension Sunday: What’s Christianity for Anyway? (Sunday Homily)

People attend the funeral mass for Cardinal Aloysius Ambrozic at St. Michael's Catholic Cathedral

Readings for Ascension Sunday: Acts 1: 1-11; Ps. 47: 2-3, 6-9; Eph. 1: 17-23; Lk. 24: 48-53 http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/050913-ascension.cfm

This is Ascension Sunday. For us Catholics, it used to be “Ascension Thursday.” It was a “holy day of obligation.” That phrase meant that Catholics were obliged to attend Mass on Thursday just as they were on Sunday. To miss Mass on such a day was to commit a “mortal sin.” And that meant that if you died before “going to confession,” you would be condemned to hell for all eternity.

So until the years following the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) Catholics would fill their churches on Ascension Thursday in the same numbers (and under the same threat) that made them come to Mass on Sundays. That’s hard to imagine today.

I suppose that difficulty is responsible for the transfer of the commemoration of Jesus’ “ascension into heaven” from Thursday to Sunday. I mean it wasn’t that the church changed its teaching about “holy days of obligation.” It didn’t. Catholics simply voted with their feet. They stopped believing that God would send them to hell for missing Mass on Ascension Thursday or the feast of the Blessed Virgin’s Assumption (August 15th), or All Saints Day (November 1st) or on any of the other “holy days.” Church once a week was about as much as the hierarchy could expect.

But even there, Catholics stopped believing that God would punish them for missing Mass on Sunday. So these days they more easily attend to other matters on Sunday too. They set up an early tee time or go for a hike in the woods. Afterwards they cut the lawn or go shopping at Wal-Mart. That kind of “servile work on Sundays” or shopping used to be forbidden “under pain of sin” as well. And once again, it isn’t church teaching that has changed. Catholics have just decided that the teachings don’t make sense anymore, and have stopped observing them.

And apparently they do so in good conscience. So you won’t find them running to confession after missing Mass or working and shopping on Sunday. In fact, that’s another way Catholics have voted with their feet. For all practical purposes, they’ve stopped believing in Confession – and largely in many of the mortal sins they were told would send them to hell – like practicing contraception or even getting a divorce.

I remember Saturday evenings when I was a kid (and later on when I was a priest). People would line up from 4:00-6:00, and then from 7:00 -9:00 to “go to Confession.” And the traffic would be steady; the lines were long. No more! In fact, I personally can’t remember the last time I went to confession. And no priests today sit in the confessional box on Saturday afternoons and evenings waiting for penitents to present themselves.

What I’m saying is that the last fifty years have witnessed a tremendous change in faith – at least among Catholics. Our old faith has gone the way of St. Christopher and St. Philomena and “limbo” all of which have been officially decertified since Vatican II.

In fact, since then the whole purpose of being a Catholic (Christianity) has become questioned at the grassroots level. More and more of our children abandon a faith that often seems fantastic, childish and out-of-touch. Was Jesus really about going to heaven and avoiding hell? Or is faith about trying to follow the “Way” of Jesus in this life with a view to making the world more habitable for and hospitable to actually living human beings?

That question is centralized in today’s liturgy of the word. There the attentive reader can discern a conflict brewing. On the one side there’s textual evidence of belief within the early church that following Jesus entails focus on justice in this world – on the kingdom. And on the other side there are the seeds of those ideas that it’s all about the promise of “heaven” with the threat of hell at least implicit. The problem is that the narrative in today’s liturgy of the word mixes each view is mixed with its alternative.

According the story about following Jesus as a matter of this-worldly justice, the risen Master spent the 40 days following his resurrection instructing his disciples specifically about “the Kingdom.” For Jews that meant discourse about what the world would be like if God were king instead of Caesar. Jesus’ teaching must have been strong. I mean why else in Jesus’ final minutes with his friends, and after 40 days of instruction about the kingdom would they pose the question, “Is it now that you’ll restore the kingdom to Israel?” That’s a political and revolutionary question about driving the Romans out of the country.

Moreover Jesus doesn’t disabuse his friends of their notion as though they didn’t get his point. Instead he replies in effect, “Don’t ask about precise times; just go back to Jerusalem and wait for my Spirit to come.” That Spirit will “clothe you in justice,” he tells them. Then he takes his leave.

Presently two men clothed in white (the color of martyrdom) tell the disciples to stop looking up to heaven as if Jesus were there. He’s not to be found “up there,” they seem to say. Jesus will soon be found “down here.” There’s going to be a Second Coming. Jesus will complete the project his crucifixion cut short – restoring Israel’s kingdom. So the disciples who are Jews who think they’ve found the Messiah in Jesus return in joy to Jerusalem and (as good Jews) spend most of their time in the Temple praising God, and waiting to be “clothed in Jesus’ Spirit” of liberation from Roman rule.

The other story (which historically has swallowed up the first) emphasizes God “up there,” and our going to him after death. It’s woven into the fabric of today’s readings too. Here Jesus doesn’t finally discourse about God’s kingdom, but about “the forgiveness of sin.” After doing so, he’s lifted up into the sky. There Paul tells his readers in Ephesus, he’s enthroned at the Father’s right hand surrounded by angelic “Thrones” and “Dominions.” This Jesus has founded a “church,” – a new religion; and he is the head of the church, which is his body.

This is the story that emerged when Paul tried to make Jesus relevant to gentiles – to non-Jews who were part of the Roman Empire, and who couldn’t relate to a messiah bent on replacing Rome with a world order characterized by God’s justice for a captive people. So it gradually turned Jesus into a “salvation messiah” familiar to Romans. This messiah offered happiness beyond the grave rather than liberation from empire. It centralized a Jesus whose morality reflected the ethic of empire: “obey or be punished.” That’s the ethic we Catholics grew up with and that former and would-be believers find increasingly incredible, and increasingly irrelevant to our 21st century world.

Would all of that incredibility and irrelevance change if the world’s 2.1 billion Christians (about 1/3 of the world’s total population) adopted the this-worldly Jesus as its own instead of the Jesus “up there?” That is, would it change if Christians stopped looking up to heaven and focused instead on the historical Jesus so concerned with God’s New World Order of justice for the poor and rejection of empire?

Imagine if believers uncompromisingly opposed empire and its excesses – if what set them apart was their refusal to fight in empires wars or serve its interests. How different – and more peaceful – our world would be!

A sensitive discerning reading of today’s liturgy of the word, a sensitive and critical understanding of Jesus’ “ascension” presents us with that challenge. How should we respond?

(Discussion follows.)

Pope Francis, Summon a Council: It’s Our Tradition!

Francis I

Readings for 6th Sunday after Easter: Acts 15:1-2, 22-29; Ps. 57: 2-3, 5, 6, 8; Rev. 21: 10-14; 22-23; Jn. 14: 23-29. http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/050513.cfm

Last year was the 50th anniversary of the convocation of the Second Vatican Council. The Catholic Church is still reeling from that earth-shaking event. Conservatives often consider it a huge mistake. They want to return to the Latin Mass, to women’s head-coverings in church, to weekly confessions and communion placed by the priest on the communicant’s outstretched tongue.

Liberals too are disappointed by Vatican II. It didn’t nearly go far enough, they say. It should have eliminated priestly celibacy and the all-male clergy. The church should have divested itself of the Vatican Bank, sold its art treasures and given the proceeds to the poor. The Council’s teaching on collegiality should have decentralized church bureaucracy and made lay-leadership more prominent. The prohibition of contraception should have been changed.

Into which of those camps do you fall? As a church member, do you consider yourself conservative or liberal? Today’s liturgy of the word provokes the question. It reveals a church which at its very beginning surrendered itself to extreme liberalism – or should I say to the “radicalism” of Jesus’ Spirit?

Think about those terms for a minute in the light of today’s readings. Think about what “conservative” and “liberal” mean for us as individuals and community members in our faith tradition. Think of the Holy Spirit as “radical” – something believers are rooted in.

According to every great tradition (Christian or otherwise), the spiritual life – human life itself – is about change, about transformation. Change is the point. We are called to grow. Growth involves transformation. At the biological level, we’re told that all of our cells change every seven years. That means that at my stage in life, I’ve already gone through more than ten bodies! If I tried to keep my body from changing, I would die.

At the personal, psychic and intellectual levels we’re called to change as well. As St. Paul puts it, when we were children, it was appropriate to think, speak and act as children (I Cor. 13:11). But as adults, we’re called to something more. If we don’t change, we can never become who we’re meant to be.

Even institutions must change to survive. That’s true in the realm of politics, economics, and religion. Jesus’ followers found no exemption from this rule of life – of evolution; as community members they had to change or die. In other words, at the end of the day, strategies of conservatism are doomed for Christians as well as for everyone else.

It’s easy to sympathize with conservatives however. I spent much of my life in that category. As such, my concern was simply to preserve what is essential. I saw liberals as being too free with the unchangeable. Like other conservatives I accused them of throwing out the baby with the bath water.

Nonetheless, in today’s liturgy of the word, we get an idea of how difficult it is to determine which is which –baby or bath water. That is, in our readings, we are faced an example of a key conflict between religious conservatives and liberals within the first century infant church. Paul, Barnabas, Silas and Barsabas lead the liberal wing. Peter and Jesus’ brother, James are the leaders of the conservatives.

Paul and his friends come from the gentile world. Their concern is to make Jesus both understandable and acceptable to non-Jews. For their audience, circumcision and dietary restrictions (like not eating pork) represent great obstacles to accepting Jesus’ “Way.”

On the other hand, Peter and Jesus’ brother, James, are Jews through and through. They remember the importance of full observance of the law within the Jewish tradition. They recalled for instance that during the second century Seleucid persecution of the Jews under Antiochus IV Epiphanes, many Jews gave their lives rather than eat forbidden foods. Faced with Paul and his colleagues, the conservative faction wondered: were those lives sacrificed in vain? And besides, circumcision was the identifying mark of Jewish manhood. What good follower of the biblical God set that all-important commandment aside?

The issue is so serious that it provoked a meeting of church leaders – what scholars call the “Council of Jerusalem.” Like Vatican II (1962-’65) it called together church leadership to discuss burning issues of the day and to make changes that responded effectively to what Gaudium et Spes called the “signs of the times.”

Today’s gospel reading implies that leaders could come together with confidence because of Jesus’ promise that his Holy Spirit would continue teaching the church even after he is gone. The Spirit would remind the church of what Jesus himself taught – and more besides.

According to today’s readings, it was the “more besides” that the Jerusalem conservatives were resisting. They didn’t deny, of course, that Jesus himself was a religious liberal. (It was Jesus’ liberalism that angered the Scribes and high priests.) Jesus frequently placed love and compassion above God’s most important commandment, the Sabbath law; he associated with the “unclean;” he even befriended and worked miracles for gentiles. Jesus was never bound by the letter of the law as were his conservative opponents.

At the same time however, Jesus was Jewish to the end. He had no intention of founding a new religion. He was a Jewish reformer. No one could deny that. Jesus didn’t revoke the Law. He simply gave it an enlightened, more humane, more liberal interpretation. He himself had been circumcised!

It was with these understandings that the Council of Jerusalem convened. And according to Luke, the author of Acts, it was a battle royal. Luke says the meeting (like Vatican II) was filled with “dissension and debate.”

What we find in today’s first reading is the final decree of the Council of Jerusalem. Concerning circumcision, it says “never mind.” As for dietary restrictions, fagedaboutit. The Council was concerned with not placing unbearable burdens on converts. In other words, it couldn’t have been more liberal. It could not have been less conservative.

The Council of Jerusalem is reputed to have happened no more than 30 years after the death of Jesus. But by the time John of Patmos writes his book of Revelation at the end of the first century, look where his church had come. His vision of the “New Jerusalem” which we read about in today’s second reading doesn’t even have a temple. Jerusalem without a temple?! The city is founded not on the 12 patriarchs of Israel, but on the 12 apostles. How liberal is that!?

I suppose what I’m saying is that Christians shouldn’t be afraid of change. It’s our tradition – right from the beginning. In fact, in today’s gospel, John has Jesus say specifically that we should not be agitated or fearful. Rather, our hearts should be filled with peace because of our reliance on the Holy Spirit. John’s Jesus teaches that the Spirit’s presence guarantees the community is moving in the right direction, even when the Spirit’s teachings shock and scandalize – as long as it’s moving towards Jesus’ compassion, love, and ease of burden. The guarantee remains even when the Spirit’s guidance seems to dilute what many consider essential – like circumcision, dietary laws and the Jerusalem Temple.

What “essentials” is the church being called to set aside today? Priestly celibacy? An all-male priesthood? Prohibition of contraception? Are any of these really essential?

The question is as unnerving for the church as it is for us as individuals. But the answer is always the same: “Don’t be afraid or agitated; the Holy Spirit guides.”

Think about it: at the personal level, after ten changes of body and innumerable psychic growth spurts and changes of mind, what remains that allows me to identify with that child they tell me I was in my baby pictures? The bath water has been thrown out virtually every day. But somehow I’m able to say “I” remain. Who is that “I?”

Once again, today’s gospel leads us to believe that the answer is the indwelling Holy Spirit herself who continually leads us into the new and unforeseen – but without that “fear or agitation.” That unifying, enlightened Spirit is the same in me as She is in you.

The bottom line: today’s readings teach that there is no future in timid conservatism. Instead we are called to extreme liberalism. And that liberalism actually translates to Jesus-like radicalism (or going to the root of things). The Holy Spirit is that root.

And so we can pray with confidence: “Holy Spirit, in the present crisis of your church, inspire Francis I to call us together once again. Convene a Council. Surprise us. Shock us one more time. Wake us up! Move us towards compassion, love and ease of burden as you did the Jerusalem Council. We believe that under your guidance, we can never go wrong!

“Widow’s Mite” or “Don’t Put That Money in the Collection Plate!”

Readings for 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time: IKgs. 17: 10-16; Ps. 146:7-10; Heb. 9: 24-28; Mk. 12: 38-44 http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/111112.cfm

In the election season just passed, some politicians were pushing for a “flat tax.” They called attention to the “unfairness” of a tax system which has rich people paying more than everyone else. The asked, why not tax everyone the same?  That would be fair. Today’s gospel reading says something about that idea of fairness.

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About a month ago, the great theologian and spiritual teacher, Matthew Fox, passed through our town in Berea, Kentucky. Matt is an ex-Dominican priest who was forced by Pope Benedict XVI to leave the Dominicans and to cease publishing. Fox’s crime, like that of more than a hundred theologians in the past twenty years, was being too energetic in teasing out the implications of the Second Vatican Council for the world we actually live in. According to Matthew Fox, the anti-Vatican II stance of present church leadership places the present pope (and the one who preceded him) in schism. It’s the duty of Catholics, Fox says, to withhold financial support from the church until popes and bishops once again embrace the official teaching of the church, which remains the doctrine of Vatican II. Today’s gospel reading also says something about that.

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The gospel reading just referred to is the familiar story of “The Widow’s Mite.” Jesus and his friends are visiting Jerusalem for the Passover Feast during the final week of his life. They are in the Temple. On the previous day, they had all taken part in (and perhaps led) a demonstration there against the temple priesthood and its thievery from the poor. I’m talking about Jesus’ famous “cleansing of the temple.” Soon the temple priesthood and scribal establishment will offer a reward of thirty pieces of silver for information leading to Jesus’ arrest. Judas will soon find himself seriously considering collecting that reward.

In the meantime, Jesus continues instructing his disciples on the corruption of the Temple System. In the episode before us, he takes a position, Mark says, “opposite” the temple treasury. The treasury was the place where Jews paid the tithe required by the law as interpreted by the priesthood Jesus despises. It was a “flat tax” applying the same to rich and poor.

Ever class-conscious, Mark points out that “many rich people” somehow made it clear to all that they were putting in large sums. Then a poor widow came along and furtively put in a penny. Jesus calls attention to the contrast: “large sums” vs. “two small copper coins, which are worth a penny.”

“It’s all relative,” Jesus says.  “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.” Jesus then leaves the temple in disgust.

There are two ways for homilists to explain this incident in the context of today’s Liturgy of the Word. Remember, it began with a reading from I Kings and its story of the great prophet Elijah and the widow of Zarephath.

Elijah was hungry. He encountered a single mom gathering sticks to make a fire to eat her last meal with her son. They were starving, and she had only a handful of flour and a few drops of oil to make some bread before she and her son would die of hunger. The prophet asks that instead she make him some food. Obediently, she does so. And strange to say, after feeding Elijah, the widow discovers that her flour and oil never run out. She somehow has an endless supply. She and her son are saved.

Then in today’s second reading, Jesus is contrasted with the temple priesthood. The temple priests, the author of Hebrews says, were required to repeatedly offer sacrifices in the Temple year after year. In contrast, Jesus entered the heavenly “Holy of Holies” but once, offering there not the blood of bulls and lambs, but his own blood. Jesus is the true high priest.

The standard way of treating these readings would run like this: (1) The widow of Zarephath gave the Holy Man all she had to live on and was materially rewarded as a result; (2) the widow in the Temple donated to the temple priests “all she had to live on” and was rewarded with Jesus’ praise; (3) follow the examples of the widow feeding Elijah and the widow giving her “mite;” (4) donate generously to your priest (a successor of the Great High Priest in Hebrews) and you will be richly rewarded either here, in heaven, or in both places.

That’s a standard treatment we have all heard. However, it has severe problems. To begin with, it ignores the liturgical response to the Elijah story taken from Psalm 146. That excerpt from Psalms sets a back-drop for the entire Liturgy of the Word and provides a key for interpreting not only today’s readings, but the entire Bible. The psalm reminds us that the poor are God’s Chosen People. God’s concern for the poor is not with their generosity towards God but with God’s securing justice for them. As the psalm says, God gives food to the hungry, sets captives free, gives sight to the blind, protects immigrants, and sustains the children of single moms. God loves those concerned with justice for the poor, the Psalm says. God loves prophets like Elijah and Jesus. On the other hand, God thwarts the ways of the wicked – those who, like the scribes and high priests, exploit God’s favored poor.

All of that represents a “red thread” running through the entire Judeo-Christian tradition. It offers us a key for interpreting the story of Elijah as well. It changes the emphasis of the story from the widow’s generosity, to God’s provision of food for the hungry and God’s concern for the children of single mothers.

With that key in mind, we are alerted to circumstances in today’s gospel story that summon us to interpret it differently from the standard treatment.

We are reminded that the episode takes place in an elaborate context of Jesus’ assault on the temple system. In effect, the context is Jesus’ symbolic destruction of the temple itself. Yes, there was that “cleansing” I referenced. But there was also Jesus’ prediction of the deconstruction of the building itself. “Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down” (13:1-2). Then there was that strange incident of Jesus cursing a fruitless fig tree as he was entering the temple precincts (11:12-14; 20-24).  The fig tree was the symbol of Israel. Here again Jesus pronounces a judgment on an entire system that had become corrupt and forgetful of the poor who are so central to God’s concern.

That judgment is extended in Jesus’ teaching immediately before the episode of the widow’s mite.  Again, Jesus takes a position “opposed” to the temple treasury and says, “Beware of the scribes . . . They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers.” As scripture scholar, Ched Myers points out, Jesus was probably referring to the practice of turning over to scribes the estates of deceased husbands. The surviving wives were considered incapable of administering a man’s affairs. For his troubles, the scribe-trustee was given a percentage of the estate. Understandably fraud and embezzlement were common. In this way, religion masked thievery from society’s most vulnerable.

With Jesus’ accusation ringing in their ears, a case-in-point, a poor widow, arrives on the scene. She pays her tithe – the flat tax – and leaves penniless. Jesus can take no more. He leaves the temple in disgust.

According to this second interpretation, Jesus is not praising the generosity of the widow. Instead, he is condemning the scribes, the priests, the temple and their system of flat taxation. Jesus’ words about the widow represent the culminating point in his unrelenting campaign against hypocrisy and exploitation of the poor by the religious and political leadership of his day.

We would do well to keep today’s gospel in mind when evaluating “Christian” politicians calling for a “flat tax” in the name of the “fairness” of taxing everyone at the same rate.

We would do well to keep today’s gospel in mind – and the example and words of Matthew Fox –  when the collection plate passes in front of us on Sunday or when our pre-Vatican II priest urges us to follow the example he finds in the story of the widow’s mite.

My Wife’s First Mass

My wife, Peggy, said her first Mass last Sunday.

I remember my own “first Mass.” It was at the beginning of January in 1967. Strictly speaking, it wasn’t really my first Mass. I had been ordained a priest in the Missionary Society of St. Columban on December 22, 1966. So it was maybe my 12th Mass. But it was a Big Deal anyway – on a par with a wedding reception.

All my relatives were there – at some country club dining room in Downers Grove, Illinois just after New Year’s. There I was at the head table, the uncomfortable focus of all the attention. I was sitting there with my mom and dad and with Fr. Stier, my pastor. As I recall some Columbans were present as well.

As I said, it was a big deal – speeches and everything. Of course, I was the final speaker. I don’t remember what I said – except one phrase where I thanked my mom and dad, brother, Jim, and sisters, Rosanne and Mary for “virtually praying me through the seminary.” That was true. In retrospect, I don’t understand how I made it through all those years from the time I entered the seminary at 14 till I was ordained at 26. It’s enough to make you believe in the power of prayer – or something.

The miraculous nature of it all stands out because for all practical purposes, the training all those years was without women. Can you imagine that – during the most formative years in a person’s life? Thank God for my mother and sisters and for the summer vacations which brought me into (very guarded) contact with women. How can men become human without them?

In any case, I somehow overcame all of that too. So here I was a couple of weeks ago and after 37 years of marriage at my bride Peggy’s First Mass. No Big Deal. No head table. No speeches. Just Peggy standing there, hands extended the way we’ve all seen priests do, and leading us all in the Eucharistic Prayer that both of us had composed for the occasion. It was beautiful.

I say “no big deal” because the context is an ecumenical community of Catholics, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Baptists, and others who have taken seriously the idea of “priesthood of the faithful.” So if “the faithful” are priests, women are priests – or at least the priesthood should be open to them.  Why shouldn’t they officiate at the Eucharist in this community seeking to break free from the bondage of patriarchal church traditions?

Even Catholics in the group didn’t blink when they saw Peggy there. We’re ready for change. Despite our best efforts, most of us have become alienated both from our local church and from the Church of Rome. And it hasn’t been just one issue – not simply the patriarchy or the absence of women in church leadership positions. It wasn’t just the pedophilia crisis, not just the Vatican’s put-down of progressive sisters, or the “Republicanization” of the hierarchy, the amnesia about Vatican II, the silly liturgical language changes that no one understands (e.g. “consubstantial” has replaced “one in being”), not just the childish sermons. It’s all of that and the general irrelevance of the church whose hierarchy despite Vatican II is hundreds of years behind the post-modern curve. It’s surprising we haven’t just written it all off as b.s.  In fact, of course, many have

On the other hand, Peggy’s First Mass was a huge deal. It and our ecumenical community represent an awakening of “the faithful” and the fruition of seeds sown at the Second Vatican Council whose 50th anniversary we are about to celebrate.

The Spirit still moves and cannot be contained.

Next Wednesday: the “Table Prayer” Peggy and I composed

“Legitimate Rape,” Jesus and “The War against Women” (Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time)

Today’s Readings: Jos. 24:1-2a, 15-17, 18b; Ps. 34:2-3, 16-17, 20-21; Eph. 5:21-32; Jn. 6:60-69

Last week Congressman Todd Aikin, a Republican candidate for the Senate from Missouri caused a firestorm of criticism by using the term “legitimate rape.” The phrase arose in the context of controversy about government funding for abortions resulting from forced sex.  Mr. Aikin was trying to explain his belief that conception resulting from non-consensual sex (as opposed to “statutory rape”) is next to impossible.  In other words, pregnancy following rape indicates that the sexual relations in question were consensual not forced.  Mr. Aikin said that when “legitimate rape” occurs, the female body “shuts down” thus preventing conception.

Response to the congressman’s assertions and his use of the term “legitimate rape” was immediate.  Even the leadership of the Republican Party called for his withdrawal from the Missouri Senate race. Feminists and others identified Mr. Aikin’s remarks as yet another sign of what they’ve called a “War on Women” – a new virulent offensive against women that would deny them access not only to abortion caused by rape, but to contraception. It is a war which vilifies feminists as “Feminazis” (as Rush Limbaugh puts it). It praises rich and middle class women for staying at home with their children, but condemns poor single mothers for staying home with theirs.  The chief protagonists of the war come from the ranks of fundamentalist Christians who take literally St. Paul’s words in today’s second reading – “Wives be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord.”

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A few months ago, the Vatican set off its own firestorm by criticizing American Catholic nuns for spending too much effort on serving the poor and on peace and social justice issues, while neglecting issues of more concern to the Vatican – abortion, contraception, and same-sex marriage. In response, Rome initiated what it called a process of “Doctrinal Assessment.” Echoing St. Paul and the Evangelical right, it summoned the U.S. sisters to “obedience,” i.e. unquestioning submission to the male ecclesiastical hierarchy. Catholics throughout the world wondered if the Vatican too had declared its own “War against Women.”

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A couple of weeks ago Sr. Pat Farrell, the President of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) gave her long-awaited Presidential Address – the first since the Vatican harshly criticized the LCWR for what it called its “radical feminist agenda.”In her presidential remarks, Sr. Farrell observed that the world is currently experiencing a very large and comprehensive paradigm shift – i.e. a fundamental change in its framework of understanding. The world is moving, she said, from a paradigm dominated by individualism, patriarchy, and competition to one characterized by equality, collaboration, expansiveness, wholeness, mutuality, intuitive knowing, and love.

To get from here to there, Sr. Farrell called for contemplation and prayer, cultivation of prophetic voice, solidarity with the poor and marginalized, celebration of differences, non-violent self-criticism – and living in joyful hope.

The readings in today’s liturgy had me thinking about the events I just mentioned: about the alleged “War on Women,” the Vatican’s “Doctrinal Assessment” of the LCWR, and Sr. Farrell’s remarks about paradigm shift.  In fact today’s readings are all about “paradigm shift.”

That first reading from the book of Joshua addresses a shift in world vision that took place for a group of slaves in Egypt about 3000 years ago. The reading is part of a very important summary of Israel’s ancient faith that appears later on in Chapter 24 (as well as in Deuteronomy 26). The summary performed the same function for the ancient Hebrews that our Nicene Creed accomplishes for us; it’s a brief account of the heart of Hebrew belief. The words were to be recited at occasions of worship. And it ran something like this:

Our father (Abraham) was a wandering Aramean. He went down into Egypt and became a great people. But the Egyptians enslaved our people. In their distress, they called out to Yahweh, who raised up a great prophet.  Moses led us out of Egypt, across the sea, and through the desert. He brought us to this land (Canaan) which is ours by the grace of God.

That’s it. Nothing more; nothing less. So much could be said about that summary. It’s about land. It reflects that faith common among all tribal Peoples about the sacredness and God-given nature of their physical place in the world. There’s nothing about heaven or hell in this creed; it’s very this-worldly. Someday we’ll have to pursue the implications of all that. But for now, I just want to point out the paradigm shift represented here.

The shift is connected with women and patriarchy. And it has both an up-side and a down-side as far as women are concerned. The up-side is that a whole new concept of a God of the poor is introduced with this story. It presents the liberating God, “Yahweh”, as overthrowing the God “Osiris” worshipped in Egypt as the God of Empire. With Yahweh, the poor finally have a champion. The God of the slave-owning rich is removed from his throne. In the “history of God,” that was a splendid achievement. But it had a down-side.

The down-side was that Yahweh was not just the God of the poor, he was also a patriarchal God – a God of war. And he replaced not only Osiris, but the Goddess Isis, the beloved mother of Horus, the Egyptian God of Light. In other words, with Yahweh an exclusively patriarchal God is adopted by the escaped Hebrew slaves. Something similar happened when the Hebrews invaded Canaan, their “promised land.” There Ashera was the much-loved female Goddess treasured by the Canaanites. Yahweh took her place.

All of this reflected a huge world-wide paradigm shift in human understandings of God. It went far beyond the Middle East and actually began about 10,000 years ago. With the rise of agriculture, and its accompanying need to defend fields, crops and stored grain, male warrior Gods like the Hebrew’s Yahweh everywhere supplanted their female counterparts who had reigned for 50,000 years.

I’m reminding you of all this because the world vision that resulted in the relatively recent shift from a female Goddess to a male, tribal, warrior God inevitably impacted Paul and the words he wrote in his letter to Ephesus which we heard this morning. It’s unavoidable that when God is thought of as a male, males begin to think of themselves as God. Listen to Paul’s words again: “Wives be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord.”

Yes, it’s true Paul tells husbands to care for their wives. But even here the reason for doing so is quite male-centered: in loving their wives, husbands are really loving themselves. As Paul put it, “He who loves his wife loves himself.”

No doubt Jesus originally had an outlook similar to Paul’s. How could he not? He was indoctrinated into that patriarchal viewpoint just like Paul. Evidently his father and mother raised him as a good Jew with all that it entailed – including a profound machismo. So Jesus imagined God to be father – “abba” (daddy) was the charming term he used. Never once however did he refer to God as “imma” (mommy), as he well might have since nearly everyone has always agreed that God is neither male nor female.

But Jesus grew (as Luke says) in wisdom as time went on. Gradually, he underwent a personal paradigm shift. In his parables he used women as images of how God acts – mixing leaven in dough, and thoroughly sweeping her house in search of a lost coin. He imagined prostitutes entering God’s kingdom with the male priests and religious lawyers trailing far behind.  He forgave a woman caught in adultery, and shamed the men who would stone her. He had no qualms about speaking alone with a woman of questionable reputation. In fact his first resurrection appearances were to women.

Who knows, Mary Magdalene might well have been instrumental in converting Jesus from Jewish machismo to his kind of proto-feminism?  After all, in the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus praises her as the “one who knows all.” In that same Gospel, he angers the patriarchal (and jealous) Peter by often kissing Magdalene (as Thomas says) “on the mouth.”  In John’s Gospel, it is to Mary Magdalene that Jesus first appears on Easter Sunday morning. (By the way, I hope everyone reading this will also read my upcoming series on Mary Magdalene – beginning on Monday.)

In any case, the Jesus who leaves machismo behind ends up embodying the virtues most often considered feminine: care, compassion, feelings, intuition, and spontaneity – the sort of things Sr. Pat Farrell was calling for in her presidential address . Such virtues enable John the Evangelist to describe Jesus as a “Spirit Person” in today’s Gospel reading.  According to John, it is Jesus’ spirit, not his male body that gives life and makes him “the holy one of God.”

I suppose what I’m saying this morning is that if the War against Women –i.e. against more than half the human race – is to stop; if both Evangelical Christians and the Catholic hierarchy are to finally embrace  Jesus as speaking “words of eternal life,” they (we) must begin seeing the world through Jesus’ converted eyes – and acting like the Jesus who was liberated from machismo and patriarchy. 

And perhaps it’s time for church leadership to begin speaking like the women they try to censor. I at least find Sister Farrell’s words about contemplation, prophetic voice, solidarity with the marginalized, celebrating differences, non-violence, and joyful hope far more inspiring than the Vatican’s insistence upon “obedience” and submission.

Sister Farrell is probably correct. It’s time for another big paradigm shift – one that again shows us the female countenance of God. I believe she (rather than her Vatican assessors) gave us a glimpse of that countenance a few weeks ago.

What do you think is preventing God’s womanly countenance from being seen ? What can we do to stop the war on women?  (Discussion follows) 

Coming Monday: “Everyone’s Talking about Mary Magdalene” (First in a Monday series)

Jesus Was a Radical Feminist: 13th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Sunday’s Readings: Wisdom 1:13-16, 2:23-24; Ps. 30:2, 4-6, 11-13; 2Cor. 8:7, 9, 13=16; Mk. 5:21=43

All of us, I know, have been following with great interest the Vatican’s confrontation with U.S. nuns. Officials in Rome are disturbed because the sisters have adopted what the patriarchy considers a “radical feminist agenda.” That agenda includes advocating a priesthood open to women.  It also places service of the poor ahead of issues dear to our male church leadership such as contraception, abortion, and same-sex marriage.

Towards resolving the crisis, the Vatican has insisted on placing a major national organization of sisters under the authority of a Rome-appointed bishop. The idea is that this man would determine what is best for the women religious.

Not surprisingly, the nuns find the Vatican’s action unacceptably patriarchal, patronizing and insulting. They also insist that the issues Rome finds objectionable are more in accord with the actual teaching and example of Jesus than the focus the hierarchy prefers. After all, the nuns say, Jesus said a great deal about the poor, but nothing at all about contraception, abortion, same-sex marriage, or women priests.

Jesus himself might also be considered a radical feminist, some sisters hold.  They point out that in addressing specifically female issues, he favored women who spoke for themselves and courageously exercised their own initiative. Jesus even praised women who disobeyed laws aimed against them precisely as women. He ended up preferring them to females who were passive captives of the religious patriarchy. We find an example of such radical feminism on the part of Jesus in today’s reading from the Mark’s gospel.

First of all consider Mark’s literary strategy. In today’s reading he creates a “literary sandwich” – a “story within a story.” The device focuses on two kinds of females within the Jewish faith of Jesus’ day. In fact, Mark’s gospel is liberally sprinkled with doublets like the one just described. When they appear, both stories are meant to play off one another and illuminate each other.

In today’s doublet, we find two women. One is just entering puberty at the age of 12; the other has had a menstrual problem for the entire life span of the adolescent girl. (Today we’d call her condition a kind of menorrhagia.) So to begin with the number 12 is centralized. It’s a literary “marker” suggesting that the narrative has something to do with the twelve tribes of Israel – and in the early church, with the apostolic leadership of “the twelve.” The connection with Israel is confirmed by the fact that the 12 year old in the story is the daughter of a synagogue official. As a man in a patriarchal culture, he can approach Jesus directly and speak for his daughter.

The other woman in the doublet has no man to speak for her; she has to approach Jesus covertly and on her own. She comes from the opposite end of the socio-economic spectrum from the 12 year old daughter of the synagogue leader. The older woman is without honor. She is poor and penniless. Her menstrual problem has rendered her sterile, and so she’s considered technically dead by her faith community. Her condition has also excluded her from the synagogue. In the eyes of community leaders like Jairus, the petitioning father in the story, she is “unclean.” (Remember that according to Jewish law, all women were considered unclean during their monthly period. So the woman in today’s drama is exceedingly unclean. She and all menstruating women were not to be touched.)  

All of that means that Jairus as a synagogue leader is in effect the oppressor of the second woman. On top of that the older woman in the story has been humiliated and exploited by the male medical profession which has been ineffective in addressing her condition. In other words, the second woman is the victim of a misogynist religious system which, by the way, saw the blood of animals as valuable and pleasing in God’s eyes, but the blood of women as repulsively unclean.

Nonetheless, it is the bleeding woman who turns out to be the hero of the story. Her faith is so strong that she believes a mere touch of Jesus’ garment will suffice to restore her to life, and that her action won’t even be noticed. So she reaches out and touches the Master. Doing so was extremely bold and highly disobedient to Jewish law, since her touch would have rendered Jesus himself unclean. She refuses to believe that.

So instead of being made unclean by the woman’s touch, Jesus’ being responds by exuding healing power, apparently without his even being aware. The woman is cured. Jesus asks “Who touched me?” The disciples object, “What do you mean? Everybody’s touching you,” they say.

Finally, the unclean woman is identified. Jesus praises her faith and (significantly!) calls her “daughter.” So what we end up finding in this literary doublet are two Jewish “daughters” – yet another point of comparison.

While Jesus is attending to the bleeding woman, the first daughter in the story apparently dies. Jesus insists on seeing her anyhow. When he observes that she is merely asleep, the bystanders laugh him to scorn. But Jesus is right. When he speaks to her in Aramaic, the girl awakens and is hungry. Everyone is astonished, and Jesus has to remind them to feed her.

What does all the comparison mean? The doublet represented in today’s Gospel addresses issues that couldn’t be more female – more feminist. The message here is that bold and active women unafraid of disobeying the religious patriarchy will save the faith community from death. “Believe and act like the bleeding woman” is the message of today’s Gospel. “Otherwise the community of faith will be for all practical purposes dead.”   

Could this possibly mean that we should imitate the women religious who evidently represent such a threat to the Vatican today? Could today’s gospel be telling us that their bold specifically feminist faith that sides with the poor and oppressed (like the hero of today’s Gospel) will be the salvation of the church which is otherwise moribund? Are they today’s real faith leaders, rather than the elderly, white, out-of-touch men who overwhelmingly claim to lead the church?

Consider some patriarchal history related to today’s Gospel reading. Does it suggest déjà vu?

As late as the 13th century Christian theologians were warning people that it was a mortal sin to have relations with a menstruating woman because sickly or possessed children would result from them. A hotly debated theological theme during the middle ages was whether a woman during menstruation (also called her “periodic pollution” or her “monthly venting”) could receive communion during mass or not. Even worse, the blood of a woman giving birth was considered to be more noxious that the menstrual blood. The Synod of Treves in the year 1227 established that after childbirth women needed to be “reconciled” with the Church – a disposition which combined the Jewish laws of ritual purification with Christian theologians’ rejection of the pleasure that is implicit in every sexual relation. In many cases of that epoch the religious hierarchy determined that women who died in childbirth could not be buried in Christian cemeteries because they had not been “reconciled.”

Such recollections do not inspire confidence in patriarchs making pronouncements on women’s issues. I mention them here only because they show those male “leaders” pontificating quite confidently about women’s biological processes, about the effect of sexual intercourse on fetuses, about God’s attitude towards women during menstruation, and about women’s “pollution” following sexual intercourse and childbirth. And in hindsight all of it turns out to be pure nonsense!  In summary, it reveals that male church leaders never have really understood female sexuality – or sex for that matter. Obviously, pronouncements like those just mentioned (however confident and supported by scripture) have nothing to do with “revelation.” Is it any different – can it be any different – in our own era? 

Today’s Gospel then suggests that it’s time for men to stop telling women how to be women – to stop pronouncing on issues of female sexuality whether it be menstruation, abortion, contraception, same-sex attractions, or whether women are called by God to the priesthood . Correspondingly, it’s time for women to disobey such male pronouncements, and to exercise leadership in accord with their common sense – in accord with women’s ways of knowing. Only that will save our religious community which is currently sick unto death.

All of us can imagine how such suggestions apply to the controversy between the Vatican and U.S. nuns. Let’s discuss that now. (Discussion follows).