Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Shout-out to St. John the Baptist

A few of our saints in the Catholic Church get more than one feast day to recognize and honor them. Obviously, Mary, the Mother of Jesus has numerous feast days throughout the year. My favorite saint, St. Paul, has at least two that I can think of. Today's saint- St. John the Baptist- also has at least two days to honor him: one to commemorate his birth and the other to honor his martyrdom.

Today, we remember the birth of St. John the Baptist which is actually remembered and recorded in the Gospel of Luke. All of the Gospel writers include John the Baptist insomuch as they mention that he baptized Jesus. However, Luke gives a background to the announcement of his birth and even parallels the announcement of John with the announcement of Jesus. Luke also includes the birth and naming of John which is the Gospel for today (Luke 1:57-80) John the Apostle (not to be confused with today's John, John the Baptist) includes an amazing soliloquy of sorts from John:

This passage from John's Gospel is beautiful to me because it really shows John the Baptist's character. He was a humble guy. He was a New Testament prophet in a time that didn't really have a lot of prophets. He bridged the prophets of the Old to Christ Himself. The prophets in the Old Testament were also strange characters and misunderstood. Many of them were outcast because of the messages that they were given to proclaim. We see John described in the Gospels as living in the desert, wearing camelhair, and eating locusts. But he wasn't so weird that people didn't come to him. John the Baptist had a following of his own before Jesus (at age 30) decided it was time to begin His Ministry. We always describe John the Baptist as the kind of precursor to Jesus. Again, he was the one who continued the ministry of the prophets of old, telling people to get ready for the Messiah, and then actually ended up baptizing the Messiah Himself. 

St. John the Baptist could've made his own little following about himself instead of about Christ, but he was always focused on the one to come- the Messiah. John is such an important character because of these things- his humility, his connection to God and the prophets, as well as being the cousin of Christ Himself! And he was proclaiming the Gospel- the Good News of Jesus- before that was even a thing. It isn't until after Christ's Death and Resurrection that we see the women coming from the tomb to proclaim the Good News about Christ the Messiah. And it isn't even until after Pentecost and receiving the Holy Spirit that the other apostles get in on that. St. John the Baptist had the Holy Spirit in a way before any of the other disciples knew what that was. He was the O.G. of disciples. A total hippie/hipster, doing things his own way before it was "cool". 

Perhaps this is why I am drawn to St. John the Baptist- not because I am so humble or cool- but because I admire someone who is a trailblazer and does his or her own thing and goes his or her own way. He still had a purpose and a "cause" though, and that sole purpose was always to point the way to Jesus. In the discourse from John above, St. John says his famous quote: "He must increase, I must decrease" when talking about himself and Jesus. That is a motto that is always a humble reminder of what ministry is about. 

In this time of quarantine and the Black Lives Matter movement, we need modern day St. John the Baptists. We need trailblazers who are pointing the way to truth. We need leaders who are proclaiming what is true not for their own sake, but for the sake of the greater good. St. John is described in the Gospels as "a voice crying out in the desert". There are voices crying out in our "desert" today. Will we listen to their truth? Or discard them as St. John the Baptist and the prophets before him were disregarded?

When I was in Israel last year, we got to visit the Church of the Visitation- aka the home of St. John the Baptist as a child. We got to see the marker designated as the place of his birth. Earlier that day, we had visited Bethlehem- the place of Jesus' birth. It was very moving and powerful to have our day bookend-ed by these two very powerful, very connected births- the Messiah's and the one who went out before him to prepare his way. 

 marker in the Church of the Visitation designated St. John the Baptist's birth
The Church of the Visitation in the Hill country of Judah, Israel.

Icon of St. John the Baptist from the Church of the Visitation- love his hippie/hipster look!

This time of quarantine may be a little like St. John's "desert"- a time when we are preparing for something greater to come. St. John the Baptist can be our guide as we navigate through this unprecedented time. May we be humble and ready for when Truth does appear. And may we lead others to Truth, not for our own sake, but for the sake of the greater Good. 

St. John the Baptist, pray for us. 


Monday, June 22, 2020

Encounters With Grace

In my last post, I wrote about how I believe that we encountered the Body of Christ in a new way this year. Instead of the Eucharistic Processions that we are maybe used to seeing on the feast of Corpus Christi- with the Body of Christ in a monstrance paraded through the streets- we saw the part of the Body of Christ that is crying out for justice taking to the streets demanding to be considered an equal part of the whole Body.

Both of these types of processions are encounters. When you see Christ in a monstrance being carried through the streets, you cannot help but look at Him. It is the same when we see the people who make up the Body of Christ shouting and chanting that they are not being treated equally. You cannot help but see and hear and think about their message.

In this time of quarantine and the increased visibility of the Black Lives Matter movement, we are encountering things in a way in which we haven't before. Some of these encounters are painful because they are forcing us to look at ourselves and our country and maybe see things that we would rather not see. Or maybe this time is painful because we aren't able to truly encounter friends, family, and our environments as we once did because of the virus.

I really think a lot of what we are seeing going on in our country right now- and even in the Church- is a result of something that happened way before quarantine, however. We had stopped encountering one another in a sense. Even before quarantine, we would so often encounter one another online instead of in person. It is so much easier to choose the opposite of an opportunity for grace when leaving a comment on someone's Facebook page than we speaking with them face to face. Even working at a Catholic School where our students are given opportunities to experience Christ in the sacraments and in prayer, even there, opportunities for grace can go unused.  Whether it be a misunderstanding with a parent, or teachers not communicating as we should when we encounter one another, opportunities and encounters for grace can pass us by. These are just two very simple examples from my every day life before we as a country started to look at much larger pandemics- both scientific and social.

Grace is what the Church teaches is the free gift that we are given to help us with sin. When we as Catholics receive the Body of Christ in the Eucharist, we believe that we are receiving Christ Himself. And with His presence, He gives us grace- which is a type of strength to help us live our lives in a more holy way. We believe in "actual grace", too, which is a free gift for everyone. Grace helps us to draw closer to God and what is good and true.

I think one of our issues just as humans in general is that we constantly want to focus on that encounter with sin, and not so much leave room for the encounter of grace. We do this with ourselves by maybe just focusing on the things that we do wrong, and not being gentle with ourselves and forgiving ourselves when we make a mistake. I know as a perfectionist, I struggled with this for years, personally. I had to start giving myself space to mess up, accept it, and not focus so much on the negative that I thought I had done.

We also do this with people we don't agree with- we focus on the sin, rather than the opportunity for change. I again see this online and in my school, and now we see it on a much larger stage with the conversations that we are having surrounding the issues in our country. These conversations CAN and should be opportunities of grace- freedom from our sin. Protests are calling attention to a gravely wrong sin that we have accepted for so long- racism. But in order for grace to come from this moment, we have to do as Christ did. We have to encounter. We have to engage.

One of my favorite Church documents is Our Hearts Were Burning Within Us which was a document that bishops came out with over twenty years ago to help adults encounter their faith more. It takes the Scripture story of the Road to Emmaus from Luke's Gospel and essentially breaks down what happened in that story and applies it to how we are to encounter our faith. Namely, that we encounter Christ in the following things: conversation and in breaking bread as the two in that story did (If you aren't familiar with the Road to Emmaus story, here it is. Scroll down to verse 13).

Image: Gang nacn Emmaus by Robert Zund, 1877

The men in that story have a conversation about the events that happened to Jesus. They are physically talking to Jesus, so they are praying in a sense. They then gather for a meal and receive the sacramental grace of breaking bread with Jesus. It is for us too, then, that our faith will grow if we are talking to God in prayer, conversing with one another, and sitting down together in community and in sacraments.

In this time of quarantine, some of these things are hard. We can't all sit together right now. Some of us still can't go to Mass and receive the sacraments. But we can pray and then let that prayer spark conversations with others. And if we are in a phase of quarantine that allows us to go out and have a conversation with someone- whether that be an elected official, a protest, or someone that maybe we disagree with or need to reconcile with- then we should. These are how moments of grace can happen. We need to encounter people and engage, but then allow them room for change. Grace is a free gift, but it requires openness. Grace has to be given freely and freely received.

It may seem to some that Black Lives Matters protesters are being forceful with their message right now and not leaving an opportunity for grace or change, but I don't think that is true. Because of the force that was and is used on African Americans for centuries, they are being forceful with their message, but what I see is a call to engage and encounter. Protesters are not forcing us to do something- we still have the freedom to choose to engage with their message or not (and this is part of privilege). African Americans have not had the freedom to choose in the past and because of this, our systems are still set up so that they do not have the same privileges and freedoms as others.

If I think about what Christ would do and where He would be if still physically walking the earth today, I believe that He would absolutely be down in the crowds speaking with others, trying to bring healing to those who are hurting, trying to bring about understanding and change. Wasn't He always doing that in the Scriptures? He is always depicted preaching in crowds, walking among the people and engaging with them, whether that person be a leper, a tax collector, a woman, a foreigner...anyone considered an outcast. Christ is still present among us...but through US. We need to be His hands and feet. We need to encounter and engage.

Juneteenth- a holiday that has long been celebrated by African Americans, but just recently started to get the recognition it deserved- happened to be the Feast of the Sacred Heart this year. The date of this feast varies depending on when Easter and Pentecost happen, but I think it is fitting that on a day when we finally are talking about Civil Rights and significant African American history, we also celebrate Christ's burning love for us. This feast day reminds us that we are all called to encounter Christ's Sacred Heart. By engaging with one another, we can encounter grace- a help for our sin. And this will ultimately draw us closer to His Sacred Heart and one another.

The stage has been set. The conversations are happening. The question remains:

How will we encounter that grace today?


Sunday, June 14, 2020

We are the Body of Christ

Corpus Christi is one of my favorite feast days. I have documented it well on this blog, just like my love of Pentecost. Also similar to my experience with Pentecost, I first really witnessed the feast of Corpus Christi when I went on school mission trips to Guatemala in 2001 and 2002.

Picture of Corpus Christi Procession, San Lucas Toliman, Guatemala, 2002.

I had never seen a Eucharistic procession before this time in my life. I had been to Eucharistic Adoration, but not seen the Eucharist processed through the streets as some communities do all around the world. I have since then traveled to many places around the world and seen Corpus Christi celebrated in a way that I, personally, wish that we would do more of in the States.

In Guatemala, each family created altars and shrines to the Blessed Mother and the Blessed Sacrament in their homes. The priest would then bring the Eucharist through the streets and into their homes to bless their house and visit their shrines. We followed the Eucharist into each person's space and said prayers for and with them.

Because of our current time of quarantine, it is hard to picture something like this happening right now. It is hard to picture people in large groups going with each other into a small space like someone's home. We are being socially distanced in our Churches now and, even in these larger spaces, it is still challenging for us to pray together. But Eucharist is still happening. Eucharist, in many ways, may not look like what it did before COVID-19 hit, but we are gathering as a body as best as we can and we are finding new ways to be the Body of Christ.

Similarly, during this time in which our country is once again discussing the need for systemic change in our country's many structures, I am wondering if these protests are not, in a way, a form of Eucharistic Processions in our time? Follow me here. We have had many processions through the streets recently where I live here in Richmond. People have organized and brought their voices and instruments to the streets to call attention to black lives and the need for change in our country regarding everything from monuments to white men who fought to keep black people enslaved, to dismantling the systems we have in place that still ultimately oppress people of color. Are these protests not still processions of the Body of Christ?
Image taken from NBC Protest in front of Robert E. Lee Statue, Richmond VA, 2020

As the priest at the Mass that I went to today reminded us, WE are the Body of Christ. We sing songs in Mass about being the Body of Christ, but what does it really mean to be it? I think we are seeing what it means in very real ways today.

While Christ as the head is perfect, the body is not. The body of Christ can be broken and is certainly suffering right now, but that does not make it less of the body. In a Eucharistic procession, the priest and the people draw the community to Christ. With the Body of Christ literally in the monstrance, we ask the community to receive Christ and our message that He is with us. I know that the protests have not done this in the same way, but have they not drawn attention to their message and the suffering parts of the body?

The Body of Christ is not always pretty. When Christ was bleeding on that Cross, after enduring beatings and scourging, it may have been easier for some people to look away from His Body. The Body of Christ right now is literally and figuratively bleeding. Are we going to help it? Contemplate it? Take care of it? Do what we can to engage with it? Receive it? Or are we going to look away?

St. Paul says:

"But God has so constructed the body as to give greater honor to a part that is without it,
so that there may be no division in the body, but that the parts may have the same concern for one another. If [one] part suffers, all the parts suffer with it; if one part is honored, all the parts share its joy."- 1 Corinthians 12: 24-26

I pray that our Church and its members may not look away from the parts of the body that are suffering right now. They are literally calling out to us and processing in the streets. I know personally that it is much easier not to engage in that hard conversation with that person that may not agree with me. I have deleted my own share of posts or comments on social media rather than engage that person in conversation. But am I lifting up the Body of Christ if I don't have that conversation or am I looking away from it?

When I think about Christ and His ministry, He went to all of the broken parts of the Body: the poor, the prostitute, the tax collector and engaged with them. He said things like: "take me to your house for dinner!" "Come down from that tree!" "Go, and rejoice, your faith has saved you!" We need to be Christ on earth and engage in these times with the people we may have rather looked away from. It is one way that we can uphold and help the Body of Christ right now. We should see the Body processing in the streets and receive the message that it has for us so that we can then better engage with that part and bring it to Christ, the Head.

Happy Feast of Corpus Christi.


Sunday, June 7, 2020

Black Lives Matter 2020 Edition

The Holy Spirit came in with a bang.

The Holy Spirit came in a way that maybe a lot of us weren't expecting, but that was needed.

I write because it helps me process. I also write to educate when I can. I also write to document. This week has given us as a world and a country a lot to process, educate ourselves about, and I hope that we will document.

It's hard to comment on what is going on right now because 1) I am a white, privileged woman. But I have found that being silent does not help people get justice and that even if I don't think that my voice is important, there is always someone who is listening that may need to learn, not necessarily from me, but maybe from my research or someone who is smarter or more qualified than me that I can share about.

2.) We are still living in and through this time in history, so it is hard to comment on what will come of it. We have gone from global pandemic (which we are still very much in) to radical movements  because three more African American lives- those of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd- were taken due to systemic racism that lies in our culture and in our policing systems.

The purpose of this blog post is to share what I can in hopes that I can maybe help someone who is struggling to understand what is happening right now. It's also my own very tiny contribution because I don't want to remain silent. I cannot possibly sum up everything that we are all feeling. I think one of the downfalls of the internet is that we want to simplify everything into one concise comment or meme and sometimes those things if done right can be effective. But racism in this country is so deeply rooted in our systems, it is going to take more than just what is happening this week, more than one blog post.

On Saturday, May 30, I was attending yet another Zoom party for a birthday of a friend. While I was online, I could hear sirens and helicopters outside of my apartment. I live in Richmond, VA, about two blocks from The Daughters of the Confederacy building and maybe half a mile from Monument Avenue which holds several monuments to white male soldiers who led the Confederacy. I texted some friends to see what was going on and was told that protesters had been organizing and mobilizing and were moving through tagging monuments and even setting The Daughters of the Confederacy building on fire.

This was the moment that I had to process and decide. The George Floyd murder had happened over Memorial Day which was back on May 25. All of that week, up until the protests, I had said nothing. Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor's deaths had actually happened before we went into shutdown and I remember hearing about them and seeing a couple of posts, but I said nothing.

With the protests happening literally two blocks away from me and helicopters flying over my head, I could not ignore or stay silent anymore. The protests forced me to look at what was going on. The protesters did tag and set fire to buildings and structures, but they did so to buildings and structures that stand for a racist ideology and our racist past. I have long agreed with taking our confederate statues and monuments down, but in the capital of the Confederacy? I never thought it would happen. I had tried to talk about the issue of taking monuments down with my students for the past couple of years, I had addressed cases like Trayvon Martin's with them, I had wept for Tamir Rice, and I tried to make a case for Colin Kaepernick with them, but other than those dialogues (which are important and I am glad that I have in my classroom), I have mainly stayed silent.

The morning after the protests, I (like many other white people of privilege, I noticed) walked over to see what had been done to the structures. I took some pictures and posted them, again, to document. And then I went to Church for the first time since the middle of March when quarantine had started.

My parish has been very organized now that Phase 1 has been implemented in Richmond. I had to sign up online to receive a "ticket" to Mass (which certainly felt weird, but I get that we need to document who is attending and make sure we stay at 50% capacity) and answer questions about my health. We waited in line to be checked in and while I was waiting in line, I heard some older white people standing behind me saying it was "such a shame" that the protesters were causing destruction to our monuments. I wanted to turn around and say something to them. But I didn't.

I could've turned around and said: "People are angry." "Those monuments stand for hate." "Destroying monuments is nothing compared to destroying lives." But I didn't.

I went into my first Mass, one that I thought was going to be a joyful end to the Easter season, with a very heavy heart. I was glad that our bishop addressed the movements happening outside our doors and we prayed. I then actually got into my car shortly after the Mass and joined my friend's family for a week in North Carolina for a beach trip. I obviously hadn't planned to leave town when all this was going on- it was the last week of school, we had been just been moved to Phase 1 of quarantine, and now my city and cities around the world were starting a movement- but I retreated. And I'm not going to fault myself for that completely because after two months of quarantine and ending the school year as I did, I believe I needed this past week for some self care. While at the beach, I took time each day to read articles, sign petitions, post on social media about what was happening in Richmond and around our country. I tried not to be silent, even though I was still removed.

Today is a new day. I am back in Richmond and about to head to Mass for the second time. I hope that today, if I hear comments in line, that I will say something. I plan on attending some of the protests that are continuing here in my city. I will continue to post and read and educate myself.

For those of you who might be wondering- why now? Well, "why not now?" And "why hasn't it happened sooner?" might be the better questions. I personally do think that the quarantine has had something to do with it. People have had time to sit and process and also to mobilize since many of us are at home. I also think that having a president who has allowed racism to come to the surface has angered people enough that people will not sit quiet anymore. Similar to the "Me Too" movement and Women's March that mobilized after we elected a president who openly said that he would sexually assault women by grabbing them and making fun of a female reporter's "bleeding", I think in a weird way, this presidency has allowed these issues emerge to the surface where we can't look away anymore. We can't say that theses issues don't exist, because they are in our faces. This is NOT a credit to him in any way, but to the people that are mobilizing and creating movements and who are not tolerating his behavior and I think that is "why now."

Also, we don't want any more black lives to be taken. Too much blood has been shed in this country due to systematic racism. If you don't understand what that means, here is a video I thought explained it well. And if you are someone who thinks we should say "All Lives Matter", here are a couple of passages in Scripture that I think point out otherwise:

- In Paul's 1st Letter to the Corinthians (chapter 12: 12-27), he says that we are all parts of the one body of Christ. But that when one of the parts of the body is hurting, the whole body suffers with it. Right now, black lives are the part of the body is hurting, so we call attention to it. We lift them up. We are still all one body, but that part needs attention and healing right now. That is what the Church's Catholic Social Teaching on Solidarity has long taught.

- The Parable of the Lost Sheep (Luke 15)- Christ is the Good Shepherd. When one of the sheep is "lost", He leaves the 99 to go and find it. Right now, we need to attend to that one part of the sheepfold and serve them and help them, just as Christ would.

- The Beatitudes (Matthew Chapter 5)- We know that all are "blessed", but Jesus calls out and separates those who are truly blessed. The poor, the mourning...aren't these the communities crying out now?

So what can we do to help? I have actually heard from people in the black community that we should not ask them what we can do right now, but rather we should research for ourselves. Read books and articles by black authors. Support black business owners. Follow black artists and advocates on social media. Listen to podcasts by black content creators. Hear their stories.

We live right now in a "cancel culture" where we hear of something that we don't agree with and we immediately want to write off that thing or person. I have struggled with this concept for the past couple of years. There are some things that absolutely need to be cancelled- things like the confederate monuments that were put up during the Jim Crow era to remind an entire demographic of people of the war and people that wanted to oppress and enslave them, for example. In the "Me Too" movement- people like Harvey Weinstein who had assaulted hundreds of women- needed to be taken down so that he wouldn't assault another woman again. But most of us, in most cases, we need room for growth and forgiveness. We need time to educate and learn and reconcile. I have heard from at least two friends that seeing people's posts about Black Lives Matter has made them change their ways of thinking. Having open dialogues does work. But so do large demonstrations that people can't look away from.

I believe the Church and ultimately Christ have always taught me what I need to know for difficult situations that I may not know how to deal with myself. Christ does say in the Gospels that if something is leading you to sin (or in this case influencing evil in the world), to cut it off. But Christ's whole mission and Paschal Mystery (his suffering, death, and resurrection) was about forgiveness. He died so that we could have redemption. He says in the Scriptures to correct your brother if he has wronged you, and to go to the Church or the courts if he has wronged you, but not to harm him or humiliate him or tear him down.

I know that this time is confusing and we are all processing a lot. This is just the beginning, just a start to hopefully some great changes. But it isn't going to be easy. Tough conversations are going to be had. We are going to have to rely on those gifts of the Holy Spirit if we want to see the fruits.

I'm going to end with a quote that I found this week that sums up some things that I have been feeling well:
All Will Be Well. But it is going to be a long, uphill climb- one that our black brothers and sisters have been on for centuries and the rest of us are just waking up to. We need to use our voices when necessary and we need to listen when necessary.

Black Lives Matter.