Sunday, April 30, 2017

A Time for Everything Under the Sun

March is named after the Roman god Mars, god of war, because it was the season of war. The weather grew warmer, the days longer, and it was time to resume wars that might have stalled under wintery snow. Spring might be thought of as the season of life and mating, but it was also a season of death and destruction.

I’m not sure we’ve changed much since the Romans. April is the cruelest month. Late April, in particular, has a disproportionate amount of tragedy in American history: Columbine, Waco, Oklahoma City bombing. There is agitation in the air.

On April 6, 1917, the United States entered the Great War. On the same date 100 years later, the United States launched dozens of missiles on a Syrian airfield. Quite the commemoration of the “war to end all wars.” A week later, the United States dropped its biggest non-nuclear weapon in Afghanistan. Not that these attacks were that striking; we’ve been bombing those places for years. The wars don’t stop anymore; they just accumulate.

I look at a snapshot of 1917 and compare it to 2017 and I don’t see much difference: Tangled, bloody, international politics, the struggle to shake off colonialism, marches for the rights of women, destruction of the environment for profit, a push for progressive globalism and the pullback, the nationalists, the populists, the capitalists, the communists, the anarchists, the hedonists, industrialization, corporations, pollution, immigration, injustice, opioids, violence, disease. Nothing really changes. It all feels stale.

But there was something else going on in the spring of 1917. Three Portuguese shepherd children witnessed the first apparition of Our Lady of Fatima on May 13. She appeared again on the 13th of the month throughout the summer and into the fall. By October, tens of thousands converged on the site. They were witnesses to the Miracle of the Sun. Many were religious skeptics, looking to discredit the children, but what they witnessed changed their minds. According to testimonies, after a period of rain, the clouds broke, and the sun appeared as a spinning disk, casting multicolored light. It was also described as opaque, duller than normal, so that people were looking right into it. The sun shifted in the sky in a zig-zag before settling back in its natural place. The soaked ground and pilgrims were dried. The event lasted about 10 minutes. Witnesses gave varying testimony, but many claimed multicolored light and movement of the sun.

While some critics claim that the visual signs can be attributed to staring at the sun too long or mass hysteria, it should be noted that the people did not gather for a sun miracle; they were waiting for a vision of Our Lady, and many report looking at a gate or the tree where she had appeared before when the miracle started. Additionally, people up to 40km away who were not aware of Fatima reported the miracle, ruling out group hallucination. It is also suggested that what people saw was a parhelion, when light appears on either side of the sun caused by refraction of ice crystals. Color grades through a muted prism. Still, it happened at that exact moment, as thousands gathered, looking to three, poor children for a sign of hope, a message from God.

What does a dancing sun mean? That’s probably left to the individual witnesses. Some were filled with fear, awe, and thanksgiving. The message from Mary to the children was that the war would end and the soldiers would return home along with a reminder to continue saying the rosary. Maybe the gloom and violence of the 1917 just needed a comforting reminder of color and warmth.

It’s the quintcentennial anniversary of the Reformation (its own kind of destructive force). It’s the centennial anniversary of U.S. entry into World War I, the Russian Revolution, the Halifax explosion. But it’s also the centennial anniversary of the visions at Fatima and the Miracle of the Sun. God sends comfort and light in dark times. The world might seem terrible and stale, and the world is like that sometimes. But it also beautiful and alive and in the hands of its creator.

Friday, April 14, 2017

It is Good

One of the most nagging questions I had about Christianity growing up was why Good Friday was called good. It’s the day Jesus died. The altar is stripped or in black. It’s gloomy and sad…and good?

Over the years I came to understand how Good Friday got its name: It is finished, this is Christ’s sacrifice so that we might be saved, our salvation is what is good about it. But it still felt contradictory.

But a homily from a cardinal this week made me reexamine what was good about Good Friday. It wasn’t just good to us; it was good to Christ. Yes, his painful torture, the abandonment of his followers, his undignified death: he found them good. 

The Father sent the Son into the world to save us. Jesus’ crucifixion was him perfectly following the Father’s will. It was his purpose on earth. We all search for our purpose, that thing that makes everything else make sense, makes all our struggles worth it. We want to know our place. We seek the satisfaction of doing what we were made to do. 

Christ found his most satisfaction on that cross, fulfilling his purpose. I’m not saying he was happy or that he didn’t mind the pain. But he was at peace, knowing this was the reason he came to earth. Every part of his life led to that moment on that hill. His love for us was not just one sacrificial act; it was a life of following the will of the Father. God created the world and found that good. God was killed in a fallen world so that we might live, and it found that good too.

It is a gloomy and sad and good Friday.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Spy v. I

Today is Spy Wednesday. It might be the coolest named day of Holy Week, but without its own distinct service, it’s probably the least known in the West (the East regularly fasts on Wednesdays to mark this). Spy Wednesday is the day that Judas betrayed Jesus for 30 pieces of silver. This the moment of betrayal.

But it has been difficult for me to completely vilify Judas. I obviously think what he did was wrong, but I see my own flaws. That could have been me. He was still expecting the Messiah to be something else and was disappointed. He was struggling with greed. Even the Church won’t state that he’s in hell, so who am I to judge?

Maybe it’s because so many movies these days love to flip the script: the dark hero, the relatable villain. Good and evil are shades of gray. It’s all about who’s telling the story, right? It’s all relative. Except it’s not. Some things are black and white. Judas was wrong. He turned God over for greed.

Jesus says of him: “Woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed. It would be better for that man if he had never been born.” (Matthew 26:24)

Understanding him only shows my own sin. Wanting him to be a relatable villain only shows my own desire to obfuscate sin, to make good and evil just two shades of the same thing. Yet despite uncertainty and discernment and complex theology, ultimately, it is simple. There is that which works towards God’s will and that which works against it.

The betrayal, turning over Jesus to death, is the pinnacle of working against God’s will. Of course, God will use that action for his will to be done, but Judas’ heart was hardened. This was a bad, evil thing. We should remember it with disgust and anger and sorrow. And may we never be the one to ask, “Surely, it is not I?”