Sunday, April 26, 2009

A Pale Blue Dot

This is Mr. Weber's address to the student body on April 27, 2009.

This narrow-angle color image of the Earth, dubbed 'Pale Blue Dot' was taken by Voyager 1 on February 14, 1990 from approximately 4 billion miles away. NASA calculates the size of the dot as .12 pixels.

Reflecting on this dot, astrophysicist and popular writer on the cosmos Carl Sagan said:

If you look at it, you see a dot. That's here – That's home. That's us. On it, everyone you ever heard of, every human who ever lived, lived out their lives. The aggregate of all our joys and sufferings, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilizations, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every hopeful child, every mother and father, every inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every supreme leader, every saint and sinner in the history of our species – lived there on a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam. The earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena.

Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and in triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of the dot on scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner of the dot. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. “

A “light year” is the distance light travels in one year. Light travels 186,000 miles per second. The nearest star to the earth, not counting the sun, is 4.2 light years away, or about 24 trillion miles. There are about a dozen stars we can see that are within 12 light years (72 trillion miles); most of the stars we see in the sky are considerably farther away than that. Just think—as you gaze up at the stars on a clear summer night, they are so far away it took the light you see shimmering at you 12, or 15 or 50 years to get to earth.

We tend to think how important we are, but astronomy reminds us we are but a speck in a vast, vast universe—a universe so big we can’t imagine it. The earth is puny by comparison, and we who live in it, even punier. Our artificial divisions, our petty disagreements that seem so important to us at a given moment are really trivial in the scope of things.

We are one earth, one family, one planet in a relatively small solar system among billions of other solar systems in this universe. Let’s pray for the day we can move beyond building fences that artificially separate us from one another. That was Jesus' prayer for us: "I pray also for those who will believe in me, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you." (John 17:21)

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Junior Ring Ceremony

These are Mr. Weber's comments to the junior class of Pope John Paul II High School on the occasion of the junior ring ceremony.

18 days.

18 days of classes until Senior Walk, the last day of class for seniors, the last time they will walk the hallways as students of JPII. Though our rightful attention will be on them--and there will be hugs and photographs and tears--something else is happening that is less noticed. From that moment on, the junior class of Pope John Paul II High School, the class of 2010, will in effect be seniors, the unquestioned leaders of the school, the class that sets the bar for the rest of the student body. I've always believed "as goes the senior class, so goes the school". A year from today, on April 22, 2010, we will know what kind of leaders you’ve been. What legacy will you leave? Will JPII be a better school or a lesser one? The answers to those 2 questions will be very clear, most especially to the underclassmen here with you this morning.

Junior ring ceremonies are not about getting jewelry. They are induction ceremonies. “Induction” is an interesting word. On the one hand, it means a kind of formal installation. In a very real way, you are being formally installed as the next senior class and next leaders of our school.

But the word “induction” can also refer to a process of reasoning. Inductive reasoning is when we make general assumptions based on specific experiences. Here’s an example: Johnny, who is a junior, is a good singer. Aaron, a junior, plays the drums well. Jeremy, a junior, made all state choir. Apparently the junior boys are musically talented. From specifics, we’ve induced a generalization. Now you’ll notice that the smaller the sample, the less reliable the generalization. I‘ve overheard some others of you guys sing and can detect no shred of musical talent whatsoever. Logically, inductive reasoning can be wrong.

I’ve always been amazed how quickly people make generalizations about a SCHOOL by their experience of one or two encounters with members of its student body. Perhaps it’s an incident in a football game in which one of our players takes a cheap shot at someone. “They’re a bunch of thugs at JPII” you might hear someone say after the game. Maybe you cut in front of someone while driving, and the other driver sees the JPII bumper sticker and concludes, “Those JPII kids are spoiled jerks”. Or on the more positive side, perhaps you are particularly kind and caring during your Christian service hours and the onlookers think “Wow, JPII kids are fantastic “ or you do exceedingly well in an academic contest and people say “JPII must be a great school; they have really smart kids”.

Each of you juniors in this auditorium this morning has the power to do great harm or great good to the school by the way you conduct yourself and what people see you doing. Because of your actions, people will form lasting impressions of who this place is and what we stand for. That power, that responsibility increases dramatically as the torch now passes to you as senior leaders of our school.

To help you in this last year, we are giving each of you a leather bound bible as a gift, in addition to the ring that some of you will be receiving. Pope John Paul II High School’s deepest aspiration for all of you is that you will be in a relationship with Jesus Christ. A student I once taught said during his senior year it was as if his life had stepped on the accelerator. As life gets busier and busier, seek the Lord and rely on him to show you the path for your life. Each bible bears a personalized inscription from a faculty or staff member here, with their words of encouragement for what lies ahead.

Congratulations for coming this far. Work hard, through your leadership make us a better school, and stay close to the Lord.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Pots, pans and belonging

This is Mr. Weber's address to the student body on Monday, April 20, 2009.

What a weekend--the Taylor Swift "You Belong with Me" video, ball games, pre-Prom dinners, the Prom itself, post-Prom parties, and the Societas induction ceremony on Sunday! All of us, I suspect, are a little tired this morning. I’d like to publicly thank Ms. Champlin for working so hard to make Prom a success, all the teachers who volunteered for duty on Friday night to help the video go smoothly, Dr. Caron for organizing the induction ceremony, and all of the JPII student body for making the weekend worth the effort. At 11:30 on Friday night, having worked with you for over 8 hours, the director of the video told me, “This is an awesome student body. We definitely chose the right school to make this video. They’re first class, all the way.” I told him I agreed with him—you’re amazing!

One final note about the weekend: They told me it would take in the neighborhood of 3 weeks or so to finish the editing and release the video. If that occurs before we’re out of school, I asked them if we could watch the video here at JPII in a school assembly the day it’s released, and they agreed. Let’s hope that happens. It will be fun to watch it together.

So, we’re back to the ordinary again, but that’s a good thing. Many people go through their lives a thrill at a time, always looking forward to the “next big thing”, while not paying enough attention to their daily lives, which, in the case of a high school means attending class, studying, and appreciating our friends.

St. Teresa of Avila once said: “God dwells among the pots and pans”. She means that people too often look for God in lofty places—in grand cathedrals, perhaps, or some deeply moving religious service—and fail to notice that God speaks to us more often within the routine of our lives—through our friends, our teachers, our family and through the ordinary.

We have about a month of school left. As we complete our year together, let us remember the words of St. Teresa, so that we can appreciate all the ways in which God daily speaks to us and blesses us. We are attracted to so many things, but he wants us, ultimately to be close to him. The message of this Easter season is that despite our deepest pessimism about the human condition, ultimately, God’s love reigns. We may veer away, we may sin, we may forget who we are, but ultimately, God tells us something we know deep down in our hearts. He tells us: “You belong with me.”

Sunday, April 05, 2009

By his wounds...

This is Mr. Weber's address to students on Holy Week, April 6, 2009

We begin the most important week of the Christian year—the week we celebrate the death and resurrection of Christ.

We have become so accustomed to the image of the cross it is difficult for us to comprehend the extent of the suffering that death by crucifixion entailed. Crucifixion was the most brutal death a person could die in the Roman world—reserved for only the worst criminals, and designed to be painful, long lasting and terrifying to behold.

It typically began with a scourging. We often imagine scourging as a whipping, inflicting a sting from a high velocity “snap” against the skin. But Roman whips were short, with braided leather knots at the end. Inside the knots were pieces of bones or iron balls, so that when the whip hit the human body it was more of a "thud" that ripped into the skin. The prisoner was stripped naked and whipped on his back, buttocks and legs. Lacerations from repeated blows cut into the underlying muscles and sometimes, the scourgings were so brutal that a person’s entrails were exposed. When Jewish authorities did scourging, they would never do more than 39 blows as per Jewish law, but Jesus was scourged by the Romans, who had no regard for Jewish law or custom, and their standard for how many times a person was beaten was to bring the person literally to the edge of death.

After scourging, the convicted criminal had to carry the crossbeam of the crucifix to the place of crucifixion. The crossbeam was strapped around the back of the head and tied to the wrists and could weigh anywhere from 75 to 125 pounds. Tradition says Jesus fell three times on his way to Golgotha (in Latin, Calvary) and since his hands were tied, he had nothing to break the fall. There is some debate as to exactly where Golgotha was located, but Scripture says it was “outside the city walls”, and given that Rome wanted crucifixions to have the greatest deterrent effect possible, scholars believe it was near the main entrance to the city, so that passers-by could be reminded what happened to persons who challenged Rome’s authority.

Once at the site, Jesus would be thrown onto his back and nailed to the upper beam. Scripture says Jesus was nailed in his hands, but in ancient thought, the wrists were considered part of the hand, and had he been nailed through the hands, he would not have been able to hang without the weight stripping through his fingers. Most scholars now believe he was nailed at the wrist, between the radius and the ulna. His legs would have been pushed up in a near crouching position and swung to the side—different from the image of most crucifixes, and the nail would have been sent sideways through the back heels rather than through the front of the feet.

Despite there being an enormous amount of blood, Rome didn’t want people to bleed to death, which would have made death happen too quickly, so they avoided major arteries. Death from crucifixion comes surprisingly through suffocation. As the body hung, exhaling was very difficult, prompting the victim, because of the survival instinct, to push up with his legs through the nail so he could get a good breath, and this horrific hanging and pushing up could go on for 2-3 days before one collapsed. That’s why, in order to bring someone to a quick death, breaking the crucified person’s legs led to quick suffocation, as he had no way of pushing up to get a breath. (As an aside, it’s a unique testimony to how gruesome crucifixion was when getting one’s leg’s broken is considered an act of mercy). And one final thing: Our crucifixes always depict Jesus’ mid-section covered by a shroud. Given that the aim of crucifixion was to completely shame the victim, they were always crucified nude.

In my third year of teaching, as I was describing all this in some detail, a very sharp student raised his hand and asked me: “Mr. Weber, all this Christian pre-occupation with the crucifixion and death of Jesus seems morbid to me. People even wear crucifixes around their necks. If Jesus had died today, 2000 years from now would Christians be wearing little electric chairs around their neck?”

This is one of the best questions I’ve ever been asked as a teacher, and the answer is YES. Realizing that helps us understand the utter shame and humiliation of being crucified—for when we think of someone being killed in the electric chair, we automatically think that person must have been the worst of the worst—only mass murderers, we think, are killed that way. Surely no one who is good! Surely NOT the messiah! In fact, some scholars think the reason the Jewish leaders handed Jesus over to the Romans for crucifixion was to wipe out any foolish notion he could be the messiah. Had they simply stoned Jesus, a common form of execution between Jews, Rome wouldn’t have cared, but they had to have him crucified like a murderer.

You see, up until that time, many Jewish people had thought that the messiah—the anointed one—would be a great king. When Jesus came into Jerusalem in what we now celebrate as Psalm Sunday, they gave him a hero’s welcome, as if he were a victorious general, coming home after war. “Hosanna to the son of David!”, they shouted. The title “Son of David” was not a religious title, but a political one. They hoped that Jesus would become like David, the greatest king of Israel’s past, to free the Jewish people from their Roman oppressors. But when Jesus was arrested and Peter tried to fight for him, he said “He who lives by the sword dies by it” and told Peter to put the sword away. He then allowed himself, like a lamb led to his slaughter, to be scourged and crucified.

Why this great indignity? How could God allow his own Son to suffer so greatly and die like a common criminal? As the early Christians tried to understand these questions, they looked for inspiration from Isaiah, who had prophesied 500 years earlier:

He was despised and rejected by men,
a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering.
Like one from whom men hide their faces
he was despised, and we esteemed him not.

Surely he took up our infirmities
and carried our sorrows,
yet we considered him stricken by God,
smitten by him, and afflicted.

But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was upon him,
and by his wounds we are healed.

(Isaiah 53: 3-5)