Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Ascension of the Lord 2014

This Sunday the Church in the United States celebrates the feast of the Ascension in place of the 7th Sunday of Easter. Traditionally a Holy Day of Obligation, we celebrate the moment when Jesus, after the Resurrection, is taken up to Heaven. Our readings for this special day are the same for all three Lectionary Cycles.

The Word for the Ascension of the Lord
Acts 1-1-11
Psalm 47:2-3, 6-7, 8-9
Ephesians 1:17-23
Matthew 28:16-20

Our first reading comes from the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles, where the opening act is the Ascension of Jesus. This is a far more dramatic (and detailed) version than where Luke leaves us at the end his Gospel (Chapter 24), but like many great sequels, the opening moments recap the story thus far (as a reminder of where we left off) in order to set the stage for the narrative moving forward.  It is interesting to note that the event of the Ascension is noted only briefly at the end of Luke and Mark, while Matthew and John don’t even mention it.  It is also interesting to note that the traditional 40 days Jesus spent on Earth after the resurrection only occurs in Acts; that Biblical 40 days meaning “when the time was fulfilled”. This is a momentous occasion, the joy of which is echoed by our Psalm.

For our second reading we leave behind our study of 1st Peter to hear from the opening verses of St. Paul's letter to the Ephesians. Since this is just the opening of the letter, we haven’t gotten yet to the meat of his message to the Church in Ephesus, but he does give us a good visual of the risen and ascended Jesus, which supports our theme of the Ascension. It is also a message of hope, a theme that we've been exploring all through the Easter season.

Our Gospel then takes us back to our current Cycle A and the conclusion of Mathew’s Gospel.  As previously noted, Matthew does not conclude his Gospel with the Ascension, but rather, takes this time to give us one last theological lesson... that “I am with you always until the end of the age.”  While the message is important, for Matthew's followers, the location - the mountain - is also important, giving us one last opportunity to see Jesus as the new  Moses. 

Catholic Update
The Resurrection:  How We Know It's True
We Believe in the Resurrection

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

6th Sunday of Easter 2014

If you want to have some fun, ask a Catholic (or any Christian) about the Holy Spirit.  The answers you get will likely be as varied as the people you ask.  Our faith is based on a “Trinitarian” view of God:  God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit.  As a Church we do quite well teaching about God the Father, and we do an excellent job teaching about Jesus, but when it comes to the Holy Spirit we tend to treat the subject like a “third wheel” or “odd man out.”  We spend so much time learning about God the Father and God the Son that we end up with little time to spend on the Holy Spirit.  Perhaps our readings for this week can help us to better understand the Spirit…

The Word for the 6th Sunday of Easter
Acts 8:5-8, 14-17
Psalm 66:1-3, 4-5, 6-7, 16, 20
1 Peter 3:15-18
John 14:15-21

For this 6th Sunday of Easter we open with a story from Acts of the Apostles where we hear how Philip has had great success in bringing the Gospel to the people of Samaria.  Even amid this great joy, Peter and John were concerned that the Holy Spirit had not yet come to them, so they travel to Samaria and lay hands on them.  Many Christians (and indeed many Catholics) wonder why we celebrate the Sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation separately, but that tradition has its basis in this reading, and the the joy in these experiences is echoed by our Psalm.

Our second reading continues our study of 1st Peter, where we are asked to be ready to explain our reason for hope.  It’s easy for us to forget sometimes that life for these first Christians was very difficult.  Whether Jews or Gentiles, they were outcasts, both religiously and politically.  No longer part of the temples from which they were raised, and no longer in control of the countries in which they were born.  Yet even with this suffering and persecution, these people are hopeful.  Peter reminds them that even in the midst of suffering, there is life in the Spirit.

This theme of the Spirit continues in our Gospel from John.  Continuing from where we left off last week with the Last Supper Discourses, Jesus is teaching the Apostles about The Advocate… The Spirit of truth… the Holy Spirit.  This piece of God, this piece of himself, that will be with them always.  Last week we heard Jesus teaching the Apostles about how he and God are like one.  But Jesus is also telling them that his time on this earth is about to come to an end, so it begs the question of the Apostles… how do we continue to see God if you are gone?  This is where the Holy Spirit comes in.  That essence of God within us, around us, and working through us.  The words of the Nicene Creed reflect this natural progression and understanding:
I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life
Who proceeds from the Father and Son
Who with the Father and the Son he is adored and glorified
Who has spoken through the Prophets
In Latin, Spiritus Sanctus, is literally translated as “breath, life force, or soul”.  Sometimes I think our teaching on the Holy Spirit is elusive because the very nature of the Sprit itself is elusive.  The Spirit is our connection to God the Father and God the Son, and in an integral, consubstantial part of the Trinity.  It is one with God, yet as individual as those whom it works through.  To paraphrase from popular culture, “it surrounds us, penetrates us, and binds the Church together.”  It is only fitting then that the Spirit be uniquely recognized through the Sacrament of Confirmation… a celebration that is still easily recognizable from our readings for this Sunday. 

Catholic Update
How the Spirit Guides the Church:  Two Views In Matthew and John
Confirmation:  A Deepening of Our Christian Identity

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

5th Sunday of Easter 2014

What happens when you have too much of a good thing?  When a business wins that lucrative new contract or expands into a new location?  Or taking that same idea a bit closer to home, what happens when two families merge through marriage, or when a family welcomes a new child?  We consider this kind of growth to be a good thing, but as with all things, these successes also come with their own baggage.  Our readings for this 5th Sunday of Easter have our Apostles facing similar challenges in the face of their growing successes.

The Word for the 5th Sunday of Easter
Acts 6:1-7
Psalm 33:1-2, 4-5, 18-19
1 Peter 2:4-9
John 14:1-12

Our reading from Acts of the Apostles learning the hard way about the challenges that grow out of their continued success when their number of followers continues to grow.  Up to this point the Apostles have been doing their best to address the needs of the community, both spiritual and physical, but the community has grown so large now that they are becoming overwhelmed.  Realizing that they didn’t have the time to step in and negotiate every minor problem or day-to-day issue, the Apostles look for help.  From among the community they find seven men who are “filled with the Spirit and wisdom,” lay hands upon them, and set them to their tasks.  To us modern Christians, we recognize this laying on of hands as the primary symbol of ordination… men filled with the Spirit and wisdom to lead the community, just as a Deacon or Parish Priest would do today.  Further, we see the Apostles pulling away from the “day-to-day” problems so they are no longer neglecting “the word of God to serve at table,” not unlike our bishops today.

Our second reading continues our study of 1st Peter.  This week, Peter teaches that we, the people of God, are the new Temple.  Temple worship has been a long standing tradition among ancient peoples, including the Israelites.  But Peter is abandoning that idea… that worship does not happen in a place, but that it happens among the people, no matter where they are.  This is a monumental shift in thinking, especially for the ancient Jews, for whom the Temple in Jerusalem was (and is) the place that binds them together.  Peter calls us “living stone” as our bodies become a “spiritual house.”  Just as in the ancient Mosaic tradition, God isn’t limited to a single place, but instead lives among and within his people.  Mind you, Peter also had some additional motivations for this new thinking.  Not only had the Apostles and the other followers of Christ been physically thrown out of the Temple, but by the time this letter was written, the Temple itself was destroyed.  The young Christian Church was a Church of the dispossessed… not unlike those former slaves who fled Egypt.  We are the stones of the new Temple.

Our Gospel, taken from the Last Supper Discourses from John, has the Apostles still focused on “place.”  Jesus has promised that there is a place for them in the Kingdom of Heaven, but their thinking is still very focused on the physical… what they can see and what they can touch.  They still see this “Kingdom” as a physical place, and therefore, are concerned about its limitations.  Jesus, of course, is speaking from a higher place… a spiritual place.  Thomas is concerned about how they are going to get there.  Philip asks Jesus if they could just see the Father so they could assuage their concerns.  It is here that Jesus must step back and remind them that if they have seen him (Jesus) then they have seen the Father, and further tells them that because of this connection, their belief in Jesus can lead them to even greater works.  Jesus is trying to get the Apostles to think “outside the box,” a lesson that still needs some time to sink in.

The overarching theme from our readings this week is that WE are the Church, WE are the new Temple, WE are, as St. Paul taught, the “Body of Christ.”  The physical nature of the Church lies within us.  This is what makes us part of the priesthood of the laity…that the action of the Church can only happen through our action.  We all have our duties as members of the Church.  While ordained ministers (deacons, priests, and bishops) all have their roles defined, this doesn’t mean we get to sit back and let them do all the work.  By our Baptism we are also priests on a certain level, and thus have our own role to play… to be that “living stone.” 

Catholic Update
The Joy of Being Catholic
The Priesthood Today:  We’re All In This Together
Sacrament of Holy Orders:  Priesthood in Transition

Thursday, May 8, 2014

4th Sunday of Easter 2014 (Good Shepard Sunday)

This coming Sunday is knows as Good Shepherd Sunday because our Gospel is the well known “Good Shepherd” story, where in John 10:11 Jesus is quoted as saying “I am the good shepherd. A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”  In an interesting twist, however, our Gospel reading stops just sort of this verse, ending with verse 10.  Regardless of the fact that we don’t actually hear the phrase “The Good Shepherd” used in the Liturgy, the understanding of Jesus in the roll of “Shepherd” is well understood, and perhaps in avoiding the often used quote, we have an opportunity to better understand the context of the story, because it’s not so much about Jesus’ roll as shepherd but how we as “sheep” responding to our shepherd’s call.

The Word for the 4th Sunday of Easter
Acts 2:14a, 36-41
Psalm 23:1-3a, 3b-4, 5, 6
1 Peter 2:20b-25
John 10-1-10

Our first reading from the Acts of the Apostles picks up shortly after where we left off last week.  As we remember, Peter was speaking to the crowd in Jerusalem about Jesus and the events that are still fresh on their minds with his trial and crucifixion.  This week we pick up the narrative with Peter, very much filled with the Spirit, explaining to the crowd what they must to in order to be saved… that is, to repent and be baptized.  Though no direct shepherd imagery is depicted here, the message is clear that salvation comes from following Jesus.  It is in our Psalm that we get our first vision of “shepherd” with the often heard Psalm 23:  “The Lord is my shepherd, there is nothing I shall want.”

Our second reading, continuing our study of 1 Peter, reminds us that we have “gone astray like sheep” and  need to return to our “Shepherd and guardian.”  Here Peter is reminding us that in our journey of following Christ we may experience suffering along the way, but in those times we also have an example in Christ, who through his own suffering enabled us to be redeemed.  We are reminded that the mission Jesus took on was because we had strayed, so like a shepherd, Jesus came to gather us together.

Our Gospel from John continues on the “lost sheep” theme.  Here we are reminded that all sheep know the voice of their shepherd and will follow him.  In this case, Jesus is the shepherd, and those “sheep” that follow his voice are the ones who will be allowed into paradise.  A shepherd, by the nature of their job, is also the gate keeper to their pens.  Only those sheep who recognize the shepherd’s call will come to the gate, but the shepherd also knows his own sheep, so those whom he doesn’t know will not be let in.  It’s a reciprocal relationship… the sheep know their shepherd, and the shepherd knows their sheep.  For those familiar with the trade of shepherding, like many of John’s audience, this is a clear image that makes sense.  But John’s message, like so much of John’s gospel, speaks both on the surface and on a much deeper level.  Jesus is clear in explaining that those who are HIS sheep will be let in, but those who are pretenders will not.  It is these pretenders to whom John is serving notice… that Jesus as the gate keeper knows his sheep, and those who are not following him will not be let in.  Jesus continues to say that those who try to force their way in are like thieves and robbers.  This rebuke is directed at the religious establishment who by Jesus’ view, are failing in their mission to be good shepherds.  While verse 11, which we don’t hear today, reinforces the idea of what a good shepherd does, I think the important take away for today is not the role of Jesus is in this scenario, but how well we are playing our role as sheep, which if we take  out verse 11, brings our focus back to what is expected as us as sheep, rather than what is expected of the shepherd.

Catholic Update
The Rosary:  A Gospel of Prayer
The Rosary:  A Prayer for All Seasons