Lent is easier than Easter. The struggle of life, a gnawing sense of our own inadequacy, the patience of everyday life–these Lenten themes are not a stretch for the mind. Incompleteness and wandering in the wilderness are the very taste of the ordinary. Easter, on the other hand, is a stretch. Not only are we confronted with the Resurrection, with all its beautiful implausibility, but we are confronted with joy, the imperative to rejoice, the idea that the universe is somehow bent towards the bright side. Wired for survival as we are, fear speaks much louder than love–staying two steps ahead of what might kill us is engraved in us in ways that gratitude just isn’t.
I anything can break through our innate Lentenness, it’s music. Music makes us dance in spite of ourselves; three minutes of music can free us from self-preoccupation with the power of twenty minutes of monastic prayer. As I offered with my Lenten playlist, maybe these songs will get you there, or maybe others will. This Easter, let music, mine or yours, be the loveforce that breaks through fear and brings you a little closer to the Risen Lord.
How do you choose a song about everything? For American Christians, I’d venture to say Christmas is a bigger deal than Easter, but theologically speaking, the latter is really the sine qua non. In Paul’s words, “if Christ is not raised… we are of all people most to be pitied.” The Easter Vigil goes so big as to start the story at the beginning, with creation itself.
Every celebration of Jesuitness, be it vows, ordinations, or a surreptitious moment of self-congratulation, has something from the soundtrack to The Mission. However rose-colored its grandeur with respect to the Jesuits, Ennio Moricone’s soundtrack is right on target for the creation and redemption of the world, especially the opening song.
We believe that two thousand years ago, something as gratuitous and inexplicable as the creation of the world happened: a human came back from the other side. Sure, he was hard to recognize, and his return involved a dramatic shift of perspective on the part of the disciples: there was something subjective about it. But they knew about ghosts and visions, and the Gospels could not be clearer: we touched him; he was alive. It’s an event buried not only in history but in implausibility, like treasure in a field. But if we entertain the possibility of it, let our longing fire across the gap between the impossible and the real, we do what God did, and what God does–that’s the force that gives birth to the world.
For your prayer: Christ is risen! Go with Mary Magdalen to the tomb–try placing yourself in the scene of John 20:1-18 and watch it unfold. What are the things in your life right now making it hard to believe in the Resurrection? Talk to the Risen Lord about it.
Second Sunday of Easter
In today’s reading from Acts, the apostles are rock stars after the Resurrection. This may be my Catholic hormones talking, but I kind of like the story of people positioning sick loved ones to touch even Peter’s shadow as he walks by. Part of how we deal with the remoteness of the Resurrection in history is to appreciate that Jesus meant it not only to blow his friends’ minds, but also to empower them. “I’m alive after being humiliated and tortured and executed, so what are you afraid of? What excuse could you possibly have for not loving people, trying to bring the transformative power of love into the world and into people’s lives?”
David Byrne’s “One Fine Day” is a slow-motion power ballad for the disciples as they move through the streets of Jerusalem, robes billowing, loving the world with what must have seemed like the joy and confidence of the insane: Jesus showed them in the middle of history that “One Fine Day” would be achieved–now go out and get there.
For your prayer: Where does your fight come from? What are you hoping for? Who are you hoping with? (Try the hope question with other prepositions!) Thank the Risen Lord for planting inside you seeds of unvanquishable hope and persistence.
Feast of St. Mark
The color of the Easter season is white. A church calendar for these weeks looks like lilies around an altar, with a few notable exceptions. Today, April 25, the feast of St. Mark, is one of them, a blot of red, blood in the milk. Red is the color for martyrs: the end of Mark’s life clearly shows that the Resurrection didn’t mean the struggle was over. The Beths sing, “‘Cause we live in darker times/Open my eyes so I can see brighter, oh/You are a beam of light/Maybe that’s why/Your battery runs dry.” Love still has its cost. Mark’s traditional symbol is the lion: blunt, direct, persevering: “the God of all grace who called you to his eternal glory through Christ Jesus will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you after you have suffered a little.”
For your prayer: Where are you being invited to simplify? How has your experience equipped you to give your life away? Let God fill you up with how you have been loved and ask for the grace to let it flow through you.
Feast St. Catherine of Siena
“It’s hard to see a type of girl like me/The stars truly, they want me to succeed… They’ll sing my songs and dance along… I’ll take my chances on the road.” White dot, not red: Catherine died of (more or less) natural causes. She is a “Doctor of the Church,” a special saint recognized for their contribution to theology through research, study, and writing—one of only four women to hold the title. By all accounts she was a gifted, single-minded, and passionately intense person. She wanted to devote herself to God from an early age, against the will of her parents. Though affiliated with the Dominicans, Catherine was a layperson. Church politics were turbulent in her time (14th century), and the Pope entrusted her with a leadership role in negotiating peace. She had a practical and also mystical investment in the unity of the church: she wrote extensively about it in several spiritual treatises. Needless to say, these are remarkable accomplishments in any era, and almost unfathomable for a woman in the Middle Ages.
Gamaliel, teacher of the law who tries to set the Sanhedrin straight in the first reading, speaks from a place of grace: let the Christians be. If their defiance of convention is genuinely attractive to people and sticks around, God may be in it.
For your prayer: Who are the women who have given you life, physically and spiritually? Give thanks to God for them. As Pope John Paul I said, God is every bit as much our mother as our father.
Third Sunday of Easter
“I’m going fishing”: Peter’s response to the Resurrection. Jesus has died, Jesus has reappeared. The shock of Easter has worn off a little, even though we are clearly living in a different universe now, one where death has lost its sting. But minutes, days, weeks, still roll on in their sometimes pleasantly, sometimes maddeningly predictable way, and Peter goes back to the water, back to what he knows. Then Jesus appears again, tells them to put their nets out, and gets them the big catch. Peter knows it’s Jesus and dives off the fish-laden boat and swims to shore—the joy is in the abundance, and in the company—filling time with good things and good people.
After breakfasting on a couple of fat fresh fish, Jesus takes Peter aside. “Do you love me? Feed my sheep.” Peter isn’t going to be able to just pass the rest of his days fishing, keeping a deathgrip on the moment for fear of what might come: the Resurrection wasn’t just to relieve his discomfort, to take some of the edge off filling the time and filling his stomach. The Resurrection is just the beginning, Jesus tells Peter: “Follow me.”
For your prayer: What does “following Jesus” mean to you at this moment in your life? Is there any way you feel Jesus desiring more for you?
Feast of St. Athanasius
This song plays during a crucial montage in the delightfully bizarre show The Young Pope. Pope Pius XIII (Jude Law) realizes in a moment of heartbreak the depth of his need for other people, the beautiful vulnerability and incompleteness that comes with being built for relationship.
Today the church remembers St. Athanasius, fourth-century Egyptian theologian and staunch defender of the Trinity against a popular heresy of his time: Arianism. For the Arians, it was irrational and blasphemous to consider Jesus truly to be God. Jesus may have been divine-ish, but how could humanity, in all its brokenness, claim any part of the divine nature? Against this position, Athanasius wrote an erudite and heartfelt defense of the divinity of Jesus: the Word, the Logos, the source of what Albert Einstein called the universe’s marvelous comprehensibility, really did come join us in the ordinary run of things for a while.
First Stephen (today’s first reading), then Athanasius: in the face of our self-loathing and insistence on division, holding fast to a God so in love with humanity that she welcomes us into her very life.
For your prayer: Athanasius famously wrote that “the Son of God became man that we might become God.” What people in your life are the face of God for you? Give thanks today for God’s desire for a relationship of trust, respect, and love with you.
Feast of Sts. Philip and James
Who knows what happened to the apostles Philip and James? This is not James, the son of Zebedee, but James “the Lesser”–how would you like to have that as a moniker? Tradition says they were martyred, possibly by crucifixion, but no one’s really sure.
“What do I know?/What do I hold/That will not fade away?” sings Madison Cunningham. For all of the paucity of detail about their lives, Philip and James are still less lost to history than you and I will likely be. But Philip makes a request of Jesus that comes from a place beneath any anxiety about being known. “Master, show us the Father, and that will be enough for us.” I don’t need to carve my name into the tree of life, God, just let me see your face. And Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you for so long a time and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” Open your eyes–the glory of God is breaking through.
For your prayer: Mary Oliver writes in her beautiful poem “In Blackwater Woods,” “To live in this world, you must be able to do three things: to love what is mortal; to hold it against your bones knowing your own life depends on it; and, when the time comes to let it go, to let it go.” Where are you on this journey? What have you held against your bones, and what have you let go? Let the Lord relish and grieve with you.
Fourth Sunday of Easter
“You can dance in a hurricane/But only if you’re standing in the eye.” Paul and Barnabas find themselves today in a hurricane of religious disapproval in today’s first reading. Trying to communicate the magnitude of what Jesus meant for them and for the world was no cakewalk. There’s a point of stillness in the middle, though, deflecting all the voices of shame and inadequacy: Jesus, declaring with the typical majesty of John’s Gospel, “My sheep hear my voice… No one can take them out of my hand… The Father and I are one.”
As much as our incarnational faith commits us to a love of the world and a desire to transform it after God’s purposes, sometimes the invitation is more to a change of imagination than a change of circumstance. Tradition has it that John gave us not only today’s Gospel, but also the second reading from the wild book of Revelation. Train the eye of your mind with me, John says, on a reality underlying everything, an eye at the center of the storm of our lives: a great dance of life, where God wipes away every tear.
For your prayer: The turbulence of your life is the turbulence of the saints of God. How do the struggles of your life connect you to your ancestors and to a great stream of beleaguered but undefeated love? Stand with Jesus in the eye of the hurricane.
Feast of St. Matthias
I’m not sure what the target audience of this song is, but I doubt it’s seminarians well on their way to middle age. Ever since I first heard this song in college, I just haven’t been able to shake it. It’s so… genuine, so simple, an electric dance mantra. Good pop songs have the ability, however vapid their lyrics, to carry enormous emotional weight. (I may or may not have teared up once at Cascada’s “Everytime We Touch”–words God says to you!!) “This opportunity will only come once in my life,” sings Alexis Jordan.
Today Matthias is chosen to replace Judas among the Twelve; Barsabbas, the rival candidate, presumably has to give him a smile and a pat on the back when he draws the long straw. In today’s Gospel, we hear more of Jesus’ farewell discourse from the Last Supper, though cast in a hue of post-Resurrection grandeur. Jesus is simplifying things. “I abide in the Father’s love by following his commandments. You can abide in me, you can find a home in this Russian-Doll of the divine life, by following my commandments. And my commandment is simple: love one another.” Jesus simplifies things so that his joy may be in us, so that, in all the (deceptively?) simple earnestness of a teenage pop song, we may find our way to happiness.
For your prayer: How happy am I? Where is the joy in my life? What made me happy as a kid? Talk to the Risen Lord about his desire to complete your joy.
Fifth Sunday of Easter
*SPOILER ALERT!* In the beautiful 2013 movie from Studio Ghibli The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, a wood sprite becomes human and is raised to be a princess. Her carefree childhood as a country girl ends when her father insists that she move to a palace to learn the strict rules of Japanese high society. Her otherworldly insouciance attracts a bevy of suitors who pursue her more and more aggressively. When unwanted attention finally becomes outright harassment, she asks the spirit world to take her home. This song plays when Buddha rides in on a cloud for the rescue, his heavenly court in tow.
In today’s second reading, John has a vision of the end of things: “a new heaven and a new earth,” and “a loud voice saying, ‘Behold, God’s dwelling is with the human race.’” If Easter is about anything, it’s about our conviction that there is more to life than what meets the eye. Another dimension is breaking through. But John sees a new heaven and a new earth, “a new Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God”–the vision isn’t really about getting off the spaceship, finally being rid of Earth. As Princess Kaguya is taken up in the cloud, she turns back to look at the world with tears in her eyes–a heavenly figure in whom we see love bringing heaven and earth together.
For your prayer: Imagine the communion of saints, the heavenly host, rooting humanity on at this moment in history. What are the things that make you want to get off spaceship Earth, and what are the things that give you hope? Ask for the grace to see the preciousness of the world, to see it with Jesus’ regard of love and compassion.
Sixth Sunday of Easter
“When I die, don’t you cry, I’ll be flying by you, I’ll be riding wings of love.” Jesus today begins to warn his disciples that he won’t be around forever. In the context of the Last Supper, they might have interpreted him to mean that his death was coming soon. But we are hearing these words one week before the Ascension. Even though death was not the end for Jesus, the Risen Lord can’t stick around–he is “going to the Father.” He’s trying to convince the disciples that this is something to be happy about, in the end: “If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father; for the Father is greater than I.” What’s more, Jesus promises to send help once he’s gone, the Advocate, the Holy Spirit. And the disciples will need it, because there are important decisions to be made: Jesus has called them his friends, and he trusts them to carry things forward. Their first big decision comes in today’s reading from Acts: Gentiles don’t need to get circumcised in order to become “Christian,” to join the ranks of the Jews who believe that Jesus is Messiah. The joy of just having Jesus around is ripening into the confidence that, based on what he sees in us, we can carry his work forward.
For your prayer: How have you been growing in freedom? How has that process of loving and saying goodbye (see Mary Oliver poem above) made you freer and more mature in your ability to love people? Thank Jesus for his zealous protection of your freedom and independence.
“God mounts his throne to shouts of joy: a blare of trumpets for the Lord.” Jesus has given everything he can from his physical, human presence–today he leaves, and a new era begins. “Keep on pushin’… We push until the day we see the light.” Two figures in white appear after Jesus has been taken up into the clouds: “Why are you looking up into the sky?” It’s time to go back to Jerusalem and wait for more power to come from on high, to wait for the God of Surprises to act again, and push… The trumpets of this song encouraging us to persist are the same trumpets that ring out in the heavenly spheres at the entrance of a human being into the life of God. We continue the fight, the journey, because Jesus has already given us a glimpse of how it ends.
For your prayer: “May you know what is the hope that belongs to his call,” today’s reading from Ephesians tells us. Looking back on this Easter season, this past month and a half, how has your sense of the hope that belongs to his call changed or grown?