Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed (All Souls Day), 2014

This coming Sunday is the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed, or more commonly referred to as All Souls Day.  As this special day falls on a Sunday this year, we put aside our readings for the 31st Sunday of Ordinary Time to focus our attention on those who have passed on before us.

The Word for All Souls Day:
Wisdom 3:1-9
Psalm 23:1-3a, 3b-4, 5, 6
Romans 5:5-11 or Romans 6:3-9
John 6:37-40

What happens after we die?  This is the question that our first reading from the Book of Wisdom tries to answer.  Here the passage states that “the souls of the just are in the hand of God.”  In other words, those good people who have passed on are in good hands.  The book of Wisdom comes to us about 50 years before the birth of Christ from the Jewish community in Alexandria.  In many ancient cultures sickness and death were equated to sin, so those who were passing before their time, that is, those who didn't die of old age, must have done something to anger God.  Our passage from Wisdom is meant to assuage that fear.  Our Psalm is meant to echo that comforting notion through the very popular Psalm 23… the Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.

Our second reading gives us two options for the All Souls Day celebration, both from Paul’s letter to the Romans.  In the passage from Chapter 5, Paul tells us that “Hope does not disappoint.”  That through Jesus’ suffering, we have been reconciled with God.  In the passage from Chapter 6, Paul reminds us that by our own Baptism in Jesus, we too are baptized into his death.  While this might not sound very comforting, Paul continues by saying that just as we share in Jesus’ death, we also share in his resurrection.  In both these passages we learn that although there may be suffering in this life, there is resurrection and reward in the next life.

Our gospel, as often occurs with special celebrations, comes from John.  In this passage we have Jesus addressing the crowds, teaching them that he is their conduit to the Father.  That his power and authority comes from the Father, and that salvation (that is, being risen on the last day), also comes through him.  Jesus is establishing himself as the official go-between… sent from the Father to bring others to the Father, and therefore it is through following Jesus that we have eternal life.

During All Souls Day we remember all those who have passed on before us.  Ever since we were children we have asked what happens to us after we die.  In times of loss we like to comfort ourselves with the idea that “they’re in a better place.”  Our readings today reinforce that understanding.

You may have heard the phrase that “Jews don’t believe in Heaven.”  Like so many other “beliefs” and stereotypes we learn through popular culture, this idea is but a broad brush being painted over a highly diverse people with varying teachings with regard to the soul and the afterlife.  There are some Jews that don’t believe in an afterlife.  There are some that do have some concept of an afterlife, but perhaps not to the extent of how we Christians understand Heaven and Hell.  What we do know is that the ancient Jews struggled with this question throughout their history, just as we do when we were children, and little by little, through the wisdom of the prophets and others, grew to understand that there was much more to us than our mortal coil, and that understanding continued to evolve through Jesus and the Apostles.

When we pray in the Creed that we believe in the “communion of saints,”  the special nature our All Souls Day celebration becomes clear.  That we all can attain eternal life.

All Souls day is the conclusion of what we referred to as the triduum of Hallowmas, a celebration that honors the dead (saints, martyrs, and all the dearly departed).  It begins with All Hallow’s Eve, celebrated the night of October 31st as the vigil celebration of All Hallow’s Day… what we now call All Saints Day… which is celebrated November 1st.  This is followed by All Souls Day celebrated on  November 2nd.  Our neighbors in Mexico celebrate this time as Dia de los Muertos… the day of the dead.  All these traditions have their origins in pagan mythology, but as with many pagan celebrations, they translate to Christian theology in a way that enlightens our faith, while maintaining certain cultural heritages.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

30th Sunday of Ordinary Time 2014

What is the measure of a person? From a Biblical perspective, it’s how you treat others. In fact, the Scriptures are quite consistent on this point. From the Mosaic Law Code in Exodus, to the teachings of the prophets, to the parables of Jesus, to the teachings of Paul and the Apostles, we are constantly reminded about how a God-loving people are expected to act toward one another. Our readings for this coming Sunday provide us the best examples of this most important teaching:

The Word for the 30th Sunday of Ordinary Time:
Exodus 22:20-26
Psalm 18:2-3, 3-4, 47, 51
1 Thessalonians 1:5c-10
Matthew 22:34-40

We open with a reading from the book of Exodus. When we think of the Exodus, we always remember the Ten Commandments, but we tend to forget that these Ten are just the beginning of the Law Code. Just as with the preamble to the Constitution for the US, there’s a whole lot more that follows, providing the nuts-and-bolts (the context and applications) of how this new Covenant with God is going to work. The Ten Commandments can be found at the very beginning of Chapter 20, but the Law Code continues all the way through Chapter 23.

Our passage from Exodus for this Sunday is perhaps even more important than the Ten Commandments because it establishes how the law is to be applied, and it does this through a most effective means… by reminding the Israelites that they themselves were the beneficiaries of God’s compassion. It explains how the Israelites are expected to treat those who are most venerable… widows, orphans, aliens (foreigners), and the poor. To use a modern legal term, it gives definition to a “protected class, ” a class that the Israelites themselves were a part of, and a class deserving of the same compassion that God provided to the Israelites when he heard them “cry out” for deliverance.

Our second reading, continuing our study of the letter from St. Paul to the Thessalonians, also touches on the subject of how to act toward one another. Paul’s teaching is simple… just do what we do. The Thessalonians were concerned about what was considered proper behavior for the members of the community. Instead of going into a lot of detail, he tells them simply to become “imitators of us and the Lord.” Put another way, “we learn by doing.”

“Which commandment in the Law is greatest?” This is the question the Pharisees posed to Jesus in our Gospel for this week. After he slammed the Sadducees along with the chief priests and elders (in our previous weeks Gospels), the Pharisees and the Scribes (literally, “scholars of the Law”) pose this as a test to Jesus, not only of his knowledge of the Law, but depending on how he answered, hoped to trap him in debate in an effort to discredit his teaching. Instead, Jesus, the master of getting to the point, gives us the Two Great Commandments (what we also call The Golden Rule). The beauty here is how Jesus was able to summarize all of the Law Code down to its core elements… Love God, Love your neighbor. These building blocks not only summarize the Law, but also allow us to argue the Law (in fine Jewish tradition) from a new perspective... In other words, giving deference to the Spirit of the Law, not just the Letter of the Law. And reminding us that our “neighbor” includes everyone else other than ourselves, including those in that “protected class” from Exodus.

There are those that believe religious teaching is essentially black and white… “this” is right what “that” is wrong. But if we’ve learned anything in our journey of discovery through the Catholic Faith, it’s that nothing is that simple. Nothing is black and white. Our faith is not lived in a vacuum, but rather is both of and in the world. But using these Two Great Commandments as our guide, we can navigate our way toward the light.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

29th Sunday of Ordinary Time 2014

Sometimes it can be aggravating when someone answers a question with a question, but when looking for the theme of our readings this week, that’s what I get.  Who is God and what do we owe him?  The answer to both questions is “everything.”  This theme has its origins in the 1st Commandment, “I am the Lord your God… there is no other.”  But what does that mean to us on a practical level?  In short, it is God whom we thank for everything we have, and because of this, it is only to God whom we owe our allegiance.

The Word for the 29th Sunday of Ordinary Time:
Isaiah 45:1, 4-6
Psalm 96:1, 3, 4-5, 7-8, 9-10
1 Thessalonians 1:1-5b
Matthew 22:15-21

We open with a reading from the book of the prophet Isaiah… in this case, “Deutero” or Second Isaiah.  The Exile is coming to an end.  The Babylonian Empire has fallen to the Persians and now Cyrus, whom we know as Cyrus the Great, has been, according to Isaiah, anointed by God.  Cyrus?  A pagan?  A foreign king?  Yes.  How could this be?  Simple… God can choose whomever he wishes.  The hand God chose to free Israel from her Exile was in fact the hand of Cyrus, the king of the Persian Empire, who through the defeat of the Babylonians, now has set Israel free and wants to send them home.  To Israel, this is not only redemption, but an opportunity to show everyone, God’s power and God’s mercy.  To show all nations, that it is God whom we thank, God whom we honor, and God who we owe everything.  Our Psalm echoes this song of praise.

Our Gospel from Matthew picks up, again, where we left off last week.  The Pharisees, whom after having been confronted by a series of parables from Jesus (chastising them severely), go off and plot their revenge.  They send their disciples back to confront Jesus with a question about paying the Imperial tax.  The question is a trap.  If he says pay the tax, he gives the Sanhedrin evidence he’s siding with the Romans.  If he says don’t pay the tax, he give the Romans evidence for inciting rebellion.  But Jesus knows this is a trap, and finds a way around it.  He asks for a coin, and then asks them to identify who’s image is on the coin.  It is, obviously, Caesar’s, whereupon Jesus says, "Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God."

This story, shared in all three Synoptic Gospels, marks a profound break from Hebrew tradition… that is, separating fealty to God from that of the temporal authority.  Jewish tradition puts its focus on the Jewish state… in other words, Israel ruled by Israelis.  Jesus, on the other hand, sees fighting against the Roman occupation (and the Herodian dynasty) as counterproductive.  Instead we should focus on our relationship with God and let everything else flow from that.  I would argue that it is here where Jesus himself originates the concept of a separation between church and state.  Empires come and go, but God remains.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

28th Sunday in Ordinary Time 2014

Invitation.  This is the theme that resonates through our readings for this 28th Sunday of Ordinary Time.  And not just any invitation… an invitation to the Lord’s house.  Who wouldn’t want to go?  Who would turn down this invitation?  Let’s explore our readings to see what we might be missing…

The Word for the 28th Sunday of Ordinary Time:
Isaiah 25:6-10a
Psalm 23:1-3a, 3b-4, 5, 6
Philippians 4:12-14, 19-20
Matthew 22:1-14

We open with a reading from Isaiah at a point where he sees great hope for Israel (for a brief time as King Hezekiah begins his reign).  In this poem of praise for God, he describes what it is like to live on the mountain of the Lord… a paradise with rich food and choice wines… a place where God’s people rejoice under the umbrella of his protection.  Our Psalm echoes this joy with its chorus “I shall live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life.”  Who would want to leave?

Our Gospel from Matthew has Jesus using this image of a Heavenly banquet as he confronts the chief priests and elders with another parable.  In this parable of the wedding feast, the king has prepared a wedding feast for his son, but none of the people he has invited wants to come.  Why would anyone refuse such an invitation?  Yet that’s exactly what happens, so the king sends his servants out into the streets to invite all anyone and everyone they found, and fills the hall with guests.  If the king’s chosen guests refuse his invitation, then his invitation will be extended to everyone else.

We all have been invited by God to his Heavenly banquet.  Will you accept the invitation?  But even if you accept… you still must come dressed for the occasion.  The long form of our Gospel takes on issue when the king finds someone at the feast who’s not wearing his wedding cloths.  He has the servants bind his hands and feet, and has him tossed out into the night.  Imagine his dismay… having been invited but then tossed out.  It’s a reminder that even though the Lord invites us to his banquet, there still remain certain protocols and obligations to follow.  By accepting a wedding invitation it’s expected that you will dress nicely and bring a gift.  Similarly God’s invitation to us also comes with certain protocols and obligations, but the focus here isn’t on those, it’s on the benefit of having a seat at the table for the feast.
Our second reading concludes our study of Paul’s letter to the Philippians, and not surprisingly, his message provides us with the reassurances we need should we fear getting tossed out of the banquet.  Paul explains how he has been through good times and bad times, but regardless of circumstance, we, like he, can find strength through Christ Jesus.  The Lord will provide us with what we need.

This themes played out in these readings can also be seen in our celebration of the Mass.  The invitation is to everyone, Catholic or not.  We come dressed for the occasion both physically and spiritually.  We make our offering and find strength in Christ himself through the Eucharist.  A weekly (even daily) reminder that we’ve been invited to the Heavenly feast that awaits.  All we need do is to accept the invitation.

Final Thoughts:
If you're familiar with the quote "Many are called, but few are chosen," you're not alone.  A quick internet search will show you that not only is it a popularly known phrase, but many people seem to not know where it comes from or what it means.  The internet being what it is, however, has no shortage of "answers."  The phrase actually comes from more traditional translations of the end of our Gospel reading for this week, but in the New American Bible we read it as "Many are invited, but few are chosen."  This is one of those rare occasions where I feel the New American translation go it right.  The word "call" in the biblical sense tends to carry a lot of weight.  We tend to equate it to a "calling" from God, like someone being "called" to the priesthood... something we can't ignore.  But God's not calling us out, he's inviting us in.  It's an invitation, and with all invitations the ball is put into our court... do we accept or not?  The Parable of the Wedding Feast in Matthew's Gospel is deeply layered with meaning, but you may need to read through it more than once to see the points Jesus is trying to make.