Tuesday, April 12, 2005

popes and hopes

Like most everyone else, I suppose, I was pretty taken by the pomp and formality of last week’s ceremonies in Vatican City. We do not often see the pageantry of a papal funeral. Last time, in 1978, I was in seminary. Pope John Paul (as he was called then) had succeeded Pope Paul VI in August. He sat in St. Peter’s chair for all of thirty-three days before he up and died. John Paul was not an old man by any means, and I remember there being lots of rumors that he was poisoned or otherwise murdered, perhaps for fear he was too “liberal” on such matters as contraception in developing countries, or too honest in the face of alleged institutional corruption at the Vatican Bank. (See, The Godfather, III)

For my part, I was just sad. He seemed a genuine and genuinely funny man, always smiling and self-deprecating, too. Upon his election, he is said to have blessed the College of Cardinals with these words, “May God forgive you what you have done on my behalf.” A day or two before his death he told a small boy, a young pilgrim, that when he was little he had always had trouble with math. You gotta love that in a pope.

Within about a month we saw two papal funerals—one Paul VI and one for John Paul—but that was long years ago. John Paul II, elected in the “year of three popes,” was the only pope many of the world’s Catholics, or lots of others, had ever known.

They laid John Paul II in all his finery, for all the world to see. He had on the gold miter, the red outer robes, the white inner robes. He had on red socks and stiff shoes, He lay a bit crooked, his head cocked slightly to the side (arthritis and Parkinsons had made a lasting impression on him). Still, he was recognizable. No doubt who that was.

As I watched the unending lines of people pass him by, as I watched dignitaries kneel near his body, I thought to myself that it is an easy thing to recognize a dead pope. The evidence is obvious—the clothes, the hat, the Swiss Guard. Dead popes are easy to spot, and even for non-Catholics. Even for strangers.

Harder to identify is the living Christ, who is so much among his poor, suffering children that he is not always recognized—even by those who claim him. “Lord, when did we see you?” “You saw me in the hungry, the helpless, the suffering,” Jesus says.

One might only wish we and the world were as eager to find and follow the living Christ as we obviously are to gaze at the dead Vicar. God rest his soul; and God stir ours.

Sunday, April 03, 2005

In the Breaking of Bread

It is Easter afternoon, and two of Jesus’ disciples were on their way to Emmaus, a little village just outside Jerusalem. Why? No one knows for sure. Was it home for one of them or both? Or was it just a place, some other place than the place they had been these last few days.

It is Easter afternoon and Jesus himself draws near the two who are on their way to Emmaus, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. Why? No one knows for sure. Maybe the light was too bright. Maybe when your expectations are too much behind you cannot see ahead, or the side. When grief is too intense, maybe you don’t look up.

It is Easter afternoon and they do not recognize him, but for the next little while he walks with them and he talks with them and he interprets to them all the things in the the scriptures about himself. And then they get to the village and it appears he will leave them, will go on his way past Emmaus. Why? No one knows for sure. Maybe because now that Jesus is raised, resurrected, he is no longer bound to time or place or even previous relationships. He is free to go and do and form new friendships.

But then, when he about to go, they beg him to stay. They say, “The day is spent, the night is coming, please stay with us.” And so he does. Why? No one knows for sure, but maybe Jesus does not want his friends and followers to face the night alone.

When he was at the Table with them, Jesus took the bread, as he had taken it that Last night, and he broke the bread, and suddenly they remembered. They recognized. They rejoiced. And then he was gone again. Why? No one knows for sure, but this much is certain: Jesus is always on the move. Disciples have to follow him.

When Jesus leaves, so do they. They head back to Jerusalem to find the other disciples and tell them that Jesus had appeared to them in the breaking of bread. Being at the Table with Jesus began to bring them all together again.

The crucifixion was centrifugal for those whose loved Jesus. The force of his death dispersed them, drove them away from each other. But the Table was and remains centripetal for those who love and follow Jesus. The meal brings us together, keeps bringing us back together.