Updates, writings and thoughts from our rector, Fr. Russ McDougall, C.S.C.
Maundy Thursday 2018: Sermon Delivered at Ecce Homo
Publish April 9th, 2018
The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt: “This month is to be the first of all the others for you” (Exodus 12.1-2).
Though it comes as the climactic conclusion to the ten plagues, the Passover was to be a beginning for the children of Israel, the beginning of what would turn out to be a long walk to freedom in the land that God had sworn to give to Abraham and his descendants. Like Abraham, the children of Israel are called to set out for a land they had never seen, for, as the Scriptures tell us, they had, by the time of Moses, lived for many generations in Egypt. Moses had been the first to escape from that house of bondage, and the Lord had sent him back as the one through whom he would rescue his people from slavery.
We enter the Exodus story this evening at the start of a journey toward the land of promise. It would take forty years simply to reach the borders of that land. More than once along the way the people had reason to doubt the trust they had placed in the Lord and in his prophet. They turn against Moses, they grumble against God, trying the patience of each. Turning back in repentance, they stumble on.
It’s intriguing, and surely no accident, that the Torah, the Five Books of Moses, conclude with the prophet’s death, with the people still waiting on the eastern bank of the Jordan about to enter the promised land, but not quite there yet. The cycle of readings in the synagogue—a cycle that Jesus would have been familiar with in some form—begins with the story of creation in Genesis, continues with the story of the Exodus, concludes in Deuteronomy with the people on the threshold of the promised land, and then starts over again. This way of reading the Scriptures implies that the journey toward the land of promise, the journey towards freedom, from creation to redemption, is ongoing. It continues, in every generation, even our own.
“Before the festival of Passover, knowing that the hour had come for him to pass over from this world to the Father, Jesus, loving those who were his own in the world, loved them to the end” (John 13.1).
Jesus and his disciples had celebrated the Passover every year since they were children. Remembering was an occasion to give thanks to God not only for a wonderful act of deliverance accomplished in the past, but for the ways that God continued to act on behalf of his people, leading them from slavery to freedom, from defeat and death to new life. But even more than that: by celebrating the Passover they were re-membered, made members anew of this people who were on a journey with God toward ever-fuller life.
For Jesus, this Passover, celebrated with his disciples, held particular significance. He knew that he had come from God and that the hour had now arrived for him to pass over to God. One form of life would give way to another. In his “passing over,” Jesus would become, in the language of Colossians, the “first-born from the dead,” “the beginning,” “the head of the body, that is, the church” (Colossians 1.18). As was true of Moses and the children of Israel, Jesus and his disciples stand, at Passover, at the beginning of a journey toward fuller life, toward the freedom of the children of God, toward the fullness of God’s kingdom.
Jesus is aware, and the gospel writer makes it quite explicit, that the disciples don’t know, that they don’t really understand what Jesus is about, or what’s about to happen to him and to them.
And so in the course of their final meal together Jesus invites his disciples to maintain trust through all that they would face in the coming days, weeks, years, even centuries: “Set your troubled hearts at rest,” he tells them, and us (John 14.1). “Trust in God always; trust also in me. There are many places in my Father’s house… I go to prepare a place for you, and I will come back, and take you to myself” (John 14.2-3).
In the course of their final meal together Jesus points to himself as the Way (John 14.6), inviting the disciples to show their love for one another through acts of mutual service. In washing his disciples’ feet the Teacher leaves his students an example to follow. In a deeper sense, the Lord also gives his followers a reminder of their enduring connection to him through baptism. As he says to Peter:
“Anyone who has bathed needs no further washing, except for the feet” (John 13.10).
No doubt his brothers and sisters would stumble along the way; they would fall, sometimes causing grievous injury to themselves, sometimes bringing it upon others. After he is set free from the power of sin and death, the risen Christ returns to his followers to entrust to them the ministry of reconciliation, so that those who have passed through the waters of baptism might abide in him forever as branches on the vine, rooted in his love, and not be cut off.
In the course of their final meal together, Jesus took bread, gave thanks, broke and gave it to his disciples, saying, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” Likewise after the supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me” (1 Corinthians 11.23-25). As Paul reminds us, when we break the bread and share the cup, we proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. In doing this we remember, and are re-membered as the body of Christ. This is why the apostle Paul is concerned with the divisions and factions within the Corinthian church: if the community isn’t able, truly, to “discern the body” in the gathered community, then they eat and drink judgment upon themselves (1 Corinthians 11.29).
Paul’s words of remonstrance to the Corinthian Christian community, as well as Jesus’ words of farewell to his disciples, highlight their concern that the love believers have for their Lord be visible in concrete ways in their love for one another. Jesus’ words and Paul’s words suggest to us that the measure of our nearness to God’s kingdom, to the land of promise, is to be found in the quality of our relationships with one another as disciples—not in the success or failure of this or that political program, but in our being truly the church, the body of Christ.
This evening we enter into Passover, the festival of freedom celebrated to this day by the Jewish people, the feast of victory over sin and death observed by the church as well. This evening we remember, and are re-membered as branches of the same vine, rooted in the love of God for us and for all people. In the midst of continued conflict over land in this country; amidst the violence that Christians and Yazidis have experienced in Iraq and Syria, and that Muslims have experienced in Burma; and against the background of resurgent anti-Semitism and nationalist populism in parts of Europe and the United States, our communities of faith still seem to stand closer to the beginning of that journey to the promised land, the journey to the kingdom of God, than to the conclusion. But as Jesus charged his disciples in that final meal shared together before his death, and as Moses challenged the people as they stood on the shore of the sea, pressed hard by the Egyptians, we’re invited to walk in faith and in love, and to trust in the fulfillment of what God has promised: “Do not be afraid; stand by, and see the salvation that the Lord will accomplish” (Exodus 14.13).
--Russ McDougall, CSC
On This Mountain: Christmas Message 2017
Published December 24th 2017
This year, at the threshold of Christmas, many of us feel a profound sense of disquiet. A profoundly ignorant man, one who may also suffer from mental illness, leads the nation that for most of the twentieth century had worked assiduously to knit the nations of the world together in a fabric of mutually beneficial relationships, but now embraces a rhetoric that places “America first.” A narrower vision of English nationalism has led voters in the UK to opt out of the European Union. Catalunya is divided between those who desire greater self-determination and those who want to preserve the region’s ties to Spain and to Europe. The wider political landscape of Europe and North America is also being re-shaped by tectonic forces of white grievance in ways that have yet to become clear.
From our perch at Tantur on a hill between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, local developments also give us cause for unease. The US leader’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, without a clear accompanying statement that this city holy to men and women of three faiths might also serve as capital for a Palestinian state, unleashed an outpouring of sentiment from many Israelis and Palestinians that Jerusalem is “ours”. That zero-sum thinking has long been reflected in the maps local folk draw of their land, according to which all the land between the Jordan and the Mediterranean is “Israel” for some, and “Palestine” for others. Is it one or the other? Might it somehow be both?
Scot or Briton? Catalan, Basque or Spanish? Tibetan, Uyghur, or Chinese? A fundamental question we face today is how to make possible the kind of local self-determination men and women all over the world so clearly desire, in a way that also recognizes that we live within a larger network of relationships in which the actions of one inevitably affect the many.
During Advent, the period of preparation for Christmas, Christians reflect on the prophecies of Isaiah, who envisioned a future in which the “wolf lives with the lamb, the leopard lies down with the kid, and the calf, the lion and the fatling dwell together, with a little child to lead them” (Is 11:6). The prophet envisioned the possibility that wise leadership could find a way to navigate through competing local interests to achieve genuine peace—that is, the well-being of all:
“On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines… And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations. He will swallow up death forever” (Is 25:6-7).
Casting our eyes around the globe at the leadership local polities, large and small, have chosen for themselves—whether Trump or Putin; Duterte or Maduro; Erdogan, Netanyahu, or Abbas —we have little reason for optimism that the wise leadership Isaiah envisioned will emerge from the current generation of political leaders. But as people of faith, we’re invited to remain steadfast in hope.
We’re invited to pray, in the words of the Advent collect: “Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us, and because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us.”
We’re also invited to act. In the words of the prophet Isaiah: “Prepare, [even] in the wilderness, the way of the Lord; make straight, [even] in the desert, a highway for our God” (Is 40:3). We can and should pray for the Almighty to send us a Churchill or a Roosevelt, a Gandhi or a Mandela, to lead us through the wilderness we are presently traversing. We also need to join together, both in the areas in which we live and beyond our local communities, in doing the “grunt work” necessary to pave the way for the emergence of local communities and global networks that are rooted in just relationships.
May this year’s Christmas celebration be a source of grace and blessing for Christian communities all over the world, spurring them on to follow the example of that little Child who offered his life to bring lion and lamb together. And may disciples of Jesus join together with all people of faith to work for the realization of that vision Isaiah was given so many centuries ago.
Pentecost in Jerusalem: Realities and Aspirations
Published May 29th, 2015
The season of Pentecost is upon us! Last Sunday for Western Christians, this coming Sunday for most Christians here in the Holy Land and for Orthodox Christians around the world, the Church celebrates the gift of the Holy Spirit received by the first disciples of Jesus, the gift that healed the confusion of languages at Babel, uniting men and women of different races and tongues in the praise of God.
Here in this holy city, our reality to all appearances is still the reality of Babel, divided and confused. But at Pentecost we recall that the Spirit of God is at work even now, overcoming divisions and bringing men and women together in mutual understanding. As we celebrate this great feast that brings the Church to life, let us pray for a greater openness to the Spirit’s gifts, in our own hearts, and in the hearts of all peoples.
Reflections on the Canonization of the Armenian Martyrs
Published April 27th, 2015
As the Israeli celebration of Independence Day drew to a close this past Thursday evening, April 23rd, services began here in Jerusalem to commemorate the hundredth centenary of the Armenian genocide that was carried out in what is now Turkey in the period from 1915 to 1923, and to give thanks for the canonization of those who died.
At 18:15, just after the canonization ceremony at Etchmiadzin Cathedral in Armenia had concluded, church bells in Jerusalem and throughout the Holy Land tolled one hundred times in remembrance of those who were killed, and who are now honored as martyrs. Following the tolling of the bells, Armenian seminarians sang the Sanctus and the Lord's Prayer before those gathered in St. James Cathedral here in Jerusalem. Then, holding torches, we processed together to the Church of St. Gregory in Emek Refa'im where a choir composed of Israelis and men and women of other nationalities sang psalms and other hymns in Hebrew.
On Friday afternoon, at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (the Church of the Resurrection), the Armenian, Greek and Latin Patriarchs of Jerusalem presided at an ecumenical prayer service to honor those who had been proclaimed martyrs the previous day. It was moving to be part of this vesper service that united all the Christians of Jerusalem in remembrance and prayer.
Though many, including Pope (now St.) John Paul II and Pope Francis, have referred to the massacre of Armenians that took place as the Ottoman Empire disintegrated as “the first genocide of the twentieth century,” many countries, including the U.S. and Israel, have been reluctant to use the “g-word” for fear of offending Turkey, an important ally. Prominent Turks who have acknowledged the genocide have faced criminal charges for “insulting Turkishness.”
Reconciliation between Turks and Armenians—as well as between Turks and Assyrians and Greeks, who were also massacred in large numbers—will become possible only when the Turkish people and their government acknowledge this dark period in their history. As the experience of Germans and Israelis, and of black and white South Africans, has shown, when guilt is acknowledged, a path toward reconciliation is opened.
May the prayers of the Armenian martyrs help to bring such reconciliation between the Turkish and Armenian peoples closer.
His Good Deeds Go With Him
Rev. Ted Hesburgh, "The Father of Tantur," May 25th, 1917 - February 26th, 2015
On March 4th the Notre Dame community gathered in the Basilica of the Sacred Heart to give thanks for the life of Fr. Ted Hesburgh, president of the university for 35 years, from 1952 to 1987. The community here at Tantur has special reason to be thankful for his remarkable life. Though Pope Paul, Patriarch Athenagoras, Archbishop Michael Ramsey and other church leaders offered the vision for what they hoped Tantur might become, it was Fr. Ted’s energy that helped nurture the vision to life. Through the network of relationships he cultivated, he was able to gather the financial and human resources that enabled Tantur’s doors to open in 1972.
Fr. Ted would often say that he wanted the University of Notre Dame to be the place where the Church did its thinking. And he hoped Tantur would be the place where the Churches came together to think through together the hard questions we face on the road toward closer communion with one another.
We still have a long way to go. There are important ethical and theological questions, as well as questions of church discipline and order, that cause divisions both among and within the Churches. Fr. Ted’s hope, and our continuing hope, is that the scholars and pastors and laypeople who form the Tantur community might help Christians to offer a thoughtful response to the difficult questions that have led to divisions between us, and between the Christian Churches and men and women of other faiths.
Here at Tantur we join with the Notre Dame community and with men and women around the world in giving thanks to God for Fr. Ted’s remarkable life. His good deeds go with him, and bless us still. May God embrace him in love that knows no end.
Fr. Russ McDougall's statement can also be viewed at Tantur's Youtube Channel.