Ars Praedicandi: Fifth Sunday of Easter, Ed Foley

by Fr. Edward Foley, Capuchin

For five Sundays in a row
Roman Catholic worshipers are alternately
enriched and bewildered
by selections from the Book of Revelation
chosen for our second reading
throughout this Easter Season,
the only such time readings from this Book
are scheduled to grace our Sunday gatherings.

This Book is part of that genre known as apocalyptic literature,
a highly symbolic style of writing
that foretells of supernaturally inspired cataclysmic events
signaling an end time or a turning point in history.

Written during a time of intense persecution for Christians,
the Book was intended to encourage the faithful
to stand firm in the face of this serious threat,
promising that in this cosmic showdown
between good and even
Christ’s reign will triumph over satanic forces
and an eternity of grace and glory will open to all believers.

While many worshippers may not be deeply inspired
and some may even be confused
by this kind of biblical literature,
broadly speaking the genre
is actually quite popular in our culture.
We don’t call it apocalyptic literature, however,
but disaster movies.

From “Armageddon” to “The Towering Inferno,”
“The Perfect Storm” to the “Poseidon Adventure,”
“Independence Day” to the recent “Moonfall”
audiences in our own country and seemingly around the world
revel in these and similar tales
of threatening natural disasters and alien invasions,
global catastrophes and interplanetary battles
and pay big bucks to watch
masters of the universe and Jedi Knights outwit evil,
heroes and heroines turn back the tides of nature,
or some ragtag collection of unlikely collaborators
restore tranquility to a threatened universe.

But since lectionary passages are not selected
for their enduring entertainment value,
nor liturgically crafted to inject a few thrills
into our otherwise placid worship
we may have to look for a different entry point
for discerning the contribution
of this string of apocalyptic visions
to our own lives and society
with their alternately ominous and promising message.

Having visions is not ordinarily something
most of us either experience or place much credence in.

As the person charged by my order
to promote the canonization of Blessed Solanus Casey
who was beatified in 2017,
I hear many stories of healings received through his intercession
and the occasional letter or email
reporting a vision, even a message from the holy man.

My theological training makes me skeptical of such reports,
but my own spiritual longings make me wonder:
after all, if Gabriel could announce a pending birth
to a young peasant girl in Ancient Israel;
if mystics such as Francis of Assisi could experience
the presence of a six-winged Seraph
whose appearance coincided
with the gift of the stigmata;
and if the great Native American medicine man, Black Elk
whose cause for canonization is now open,
could as a 9-year-old
have celebrated visions that were
a life-long source of mission for him,
why not embrace what the theologian Karl Rahner
called the mysticism of daily living
and, in particular, ponder these biblical visions
as a compelling source of mission for us?

We might even contemplate our Christian responsibility
to nurture such visions in our own lives.

The famed founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud,
developed a theory of dreams that contended
that unconscious visions were actually
disguised fulfillments of repressed wishes,
driven by suppressed aggression
and other unfulfilled longings.

While his dream theories have largely been debunked,
Freud gave contemporary science a basis for caution
or even downright distain
for dreams or visions or parallel experiences
of phantasms, angels, or other spirits.

Ironically, contemporary leadership and management theories
emphasize with unrelenting zeal
how important it is
to have a vision, a vision statement,
an imagined direction and a construed path forward
for individual leaders and companies of every size
if they are going to be successful.

Such a vision is not understood to be
some kind of dreaming completely unmoored from reality;
rather, envisioning an effective path to a successful future
requires that a leader is deeply cognizant of her context
without being trapped by such a context.

One of the most revolutionary approaches
to organization development
that has emerged in the past decades: appreciative inquiry
posits “dreaming” as the first stage
in a community’s development forward.

Beyond its contributions to business ventures
there is also a long tradition
for employing our imagination, the power to envision
even holy daydreaming
as a cherished way to come closer to God.

One of the most celebrated saints
to deploy his formidable imagination to shape his life
and that of his religious community and the Church
was Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits.

Ignatius’ own writings document
the importance of what one Ignatian expert actually calls
religious “daydreams.”

Like one of his heroes, St. Francis of Assisi
early on in his life, Ignatius dreamed of chivalry
and romantic adventures.
During his long convalescence
after being seriously wounded in battle,
his dreaming continued as he imagined himself
a new St. Francis,
another transformed knight in Christ.

As the psychologist J. Marshal Jenkins notes
Ignatius’ dreams led him to develop
a process of discernment
that eventually blossomed into his famous
spiritual exercises
in which imagination is a key strategy
for making the spiritual journey.

While the vision of John in the book of Revelation
might not be a great source of inspiration to us
with its images of lambs and dragons,
beasts and women clothed with the Sun,
four horsemen and the chorus of 144,000
intended to shore up the faith and fervor
of churches under serious persecution,
it does remind us, that the origin of this book,
the origin of our faith,
is grounded in the very vision of Jesus Christ.

Now you might be saying to yourself,
sure Jesus was a mystic
and he did appear in the phantasm
we call the transfiguration
and then there are all of those appearances
to his disciples after the resurrection,
but we might have some difficulty putting our finger
any specific Jesus visions,
probably because they are no longer recalled
as shimmering oracles of a new world
like the dramatic language of the Book of Revelation
probably because
they have become so commonplace to us.

Recall that when he was confronted with the adulterous woman,
his vision was not of sin but forgiveness;
when he spied the diminutive Zacchaeus up a tree,
his daydreaming was not out outcast but new generosity;
and when he came across peasant fishermen on a beach,
his imagination did not behold bumpkins but disciples.

It is true that the vision of John
has given us a whole book of revelations,
but the vision of Jesus
has given us the whole of the New Testament,
the whole of Christianity
rooted in his radical new vision of a holy kingdom
in which there are no outcasts or lepers or slaves
but only friends, disciples, beloved.

In a unique and mysterious way,
the gospels and other books of the New testament
map what could rightly be called Jesus’ vision quest:
his mission to bring about a truly peaceable kingdom.

Happily for us today,
our Gospel passage succinctly summarizes the whole
of the Jesus vision,
of the very daydreaming of God,
and of the most sacred hope of the divine imagination:

That we might love one another
and so reveal us as true disciples.

In a favorite rabbinic story, a rabbi asked his students how they could tell when the night had ended and the day was begun. “Could it be,” asked one “when you can see an animal in the distance and can tell whether it is a sheep or a dog?” “No,” said the rabbi. “Is it,” asked another, “When you can look at a distant tree and tell whether it is an olive or a fig?” “No,” said the rabbi. “Is it,” asked a third, “when you can gaze into a cup and tell whether the liquid is water or wine?” “No,” said the rabbi.” Then tell us, they demanded, “Tell us when you know that the night has ended and the day is on its way.” “It is,” said the rabbi, “when you can look into the face of any woman or man and see that they are your sister or brother, because if you cannot do this then it is still night no matter what the time.

Living a life of faith requires an imagination,
a vision of what could be in God:
the possibility of treating all people with equal dignity,
the possibility of generosity rather than greed,
the possibility of peace rather than war,
and the possibility of John’s vision in today’s second reading
of a new heaven and a new earth.

May this eucharist fortify us with these mystical gifts
that we might see and enact
this revolutionary vision of Christ,
whom we call Lord and God, forever.

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