2004—Fifth Sunday of Easter—C
Today's homily is a kind of "stream of consciousness." If you please try to stay with me for a bit, I promise, eventually, to try to get us back to the readings.
I am very fortunate where I live in that we have one room that's practically all windows. And it looks out onto a wonderful garden next door. The gardener, who also just happens to be a parishioner here at St. Ignatius, works continually to maintain an environment not only beautifully decorated with flowering shrubs and plants, but an environment replete with suburban wildlife. The bird feeders are constantly brimming and are sampled hourly by creatures large and small—some of them even birds.
There is a huge racoon who occasionally presides over this wonderland. He is Father Bob's backyard favorite. And if you haven't yet had a homily about the racoon, you soon will, I assure you. But I want to talk about some of the birds and the large tabby cat who play together on a regular basis in our little oasis.
Now you all may think I need to get more of a life for myself, but I have actually spent hours watching the intricate dance of cat and birds next door. The cat crouches down in attack position and stays perfectly still for as long as he can. The little birds perch on limbs directly above him, and then dart down to the ground to nibble on the morning's fare; they are ever vigilant. The cat remains motionless and poised to snatch breakfast himself—on the wing, as it were. But then his tail moves ever so slightly and all the birds take flight again to the branches.
This goes on for hours. The hunt! Both birds and cat seem so intent and the choreography is meticulous. I suspect the cat has never actually caught a bird in flight before. And I further suspect that none of the birds has been plucked out of the air by a cat either. But they dance together because it's what cats and birds do. They really can't be other than who they are. Some might say with slightly more scientific precision, they have each been "programmed" from centuries of conditioning to be exactly what they are.
As I watch them dance, an extraordinary poem comes to mind. A poem that is also about birds, kingfishers to be exact, and about dragonflies, and stones, and bells, and strings—all just being themselves to God's glory. The poem, of course, is by our Jesuit brother Gerard Manley Hopkins. He begins this way:
As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;As tumbled over rim in roundy wellsStones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell'sBow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;Selves—goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,Crying what I do is me: for that I came.
My brothers and sisters, this is what the game of life is about. That each mortal thing learn to do one thing and the same: to selve. To learn to fashion and re-fashion who I am. To be able, in the end, to cry with Hopkins: What I do is me—for that I came.
Examples of selving abound in today's liturgy. It's what Paul and Barnabus do. They selve. They cannot contain themselves, the enthusiasm, the ecstasy they experience at the Good News of Jesus' resurrection. They race breathlessly around their whole known world—from Antioch and Lystra, Iconium to Pisidia, into Perga and Pamphylia—just being themselves. Just hearing the account leaves me exhausted. And nothing, no one, can stop them! I'm reminded of the late Joseph Campbell: once you find and follow your bliss, there's no stopping you! Paul and Barnabus are breathlessly selving! Bliss!
And the examples get even better. In John's mystical account from the Book of Revelation, we get to watch God selve. When the Almighty selves, the thundering voice from behind the Throne speaks, and the mothering Spirit of the world breathes, and all creation comes into wonderful being. That's who God is. When God selves, all things are made new. And ,we are told, from all eternity God's dwelling place is with the human race. As any mother knows, in this vision, when the mothering Spirit of God selves, there can be no more tears; there is no more death or mourning, wailing or pain. No mother would allow it! Would that it were our world, some say! But wait, it is our world!
John's is a mystical vision, to be sure, but if we let it touch us, it might tell us who we really are and what our world can be.
God says: I have loved you from all eternity in Christ Jesus. Jesus says again today: "As I have loved you, so you also should love one another." That's really who you are. Just be yourself! And all will know you are my disciples. Be me! Be the body of Christ!
Listen to the end of Hopkins' poem; the poets always say it best.
...What I do is me—for that I came.
I say more: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: that keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God's eye what in God's eye he is—
Christ. For Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men's faces.
The new commandment Jesus speaks of today is really just a very old invitation. Be as fully as you can be just who you are, and all will know you by your love. The "commandment" is not just one more ethical obligation to bind us; it tells us who we really are in the new creation in Christ: we are lovers. We can be nothing else.
This is not Pollyanna speaking. But do I really believe we might never have heard of Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq if each mortal thing just did one thing and the same: just selved? Just touched the deepest and most life-giving, and loving energy of our being? I do believe that. And I hope you can too!
So may our love be just as obvious, and just as "programmed from the centuries" as my little birds and their cat in the garden. May our dance be no less delightful and no less predictable: love one another as you have been loved into life. Christ's body needs to continue to selve, so that Christ can continue to play in ten thousand places in our world and in our church—through the features of our faces. What I do is me—for that I came! Peace!