Wednesday, December 30, 2015

The Epiphany of the Lord

The celebration of the Epiphany varies greatly among the many different Christian traditions and cultures.  Originating from the Easter Church in the fourth century, the celebration of the Epiphany ranks third in importance, behind Easter and Pentecost.  While the celebration was accepted by the Western Church in the fifth century, its celebration has varied over history, but still remains an important part of our Christmas season.

Isaiah 60:1-6
Psalm 72:1-2, 7-8, 10-11, 12-13
Ephesians 3:2-3a, 5-6
Matthew 2:1-12

Our first reading comes from the later chapters of Isaiah, referred to as Trito-Isaiah or "third" Isaiah.  As with the other post Babylonian Exile prophecies, we see a vision of Jerusalem as a shining beacon to all the nations.  These nations both near and far, will bring their riches as tribute.  The significance of the gifts of gold and frankincense as mentioned in this prophecy are not lost on Matthew when we get to his Gospel.

Our Psalm reflects similar sentiments only instead of focusing on Jerusalem, we focus on the King and his Son.  To the ancients, king and country were one in the same, but to our Christian ears, the justice and mercy shown by the Son help us to draw a line from these ancient prophecies straight to Jesus, the Christ.

While our first readings give us a vision of a new kingdom, who gets to be part of this new Kingdom?  Our second reading from Paul's letter to the Ephesians tells us.  Here Paul states clearly and unambiguously that salvation through Christ is open to everyone.  There was some question in the early Church as to whether you had to be a Jew (or become Jewish) to be accepted as a follower of Christ.  This revelation, this epiphany from Paul, who had been a Pharisee and devout follower of Jewish Law, demonstrates the profound nature of his message... that Christ's saving light isn't just for some people, but for all people.

As is fitting for this celebration of the Epiphany, our gospel is the story of the Maji.  In a story that is unique to Matthew's gospel we have the fulfillment of the ancient prophecy... that all nations will come to see Jerusalem and her king (and his son) as a beacon of light.  The Maji in our story represent these foreign nations, and in case we're not sure, Matthew takes care to note that they offered gifts of gold and frankincense as was noted in our first reading.  But while these foreigners are able to recognize Jesus as this king of prophecy, we are told that King Herod and all the Jewish people were greatly troubled, as if to ask, "what is it that they see that we can't?"  Matthew's story is meant to help us make the distinction between being guided by fear and jealousy or being guided by God and the prophets.

Final Thoughts:
The Maji in our gospel represent one of the important revelations of the Epiphany... that these foreign nations could recognize Jesus as a king, and fulfilling the prophecies that all nations would see his people as a beacon of light.  But that's only part of the story.  The second revelation of the Epiphany is what we heard from Paul in our second reading... that the salvation of Christ is available to everyone, both Jew and Gentile.  For you see, it's one thing to recognize Jesus as a King, but it's quite another to realize that we all can be part of his kingdom.

The Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph

In accordance with the new Roman Calendar, the Feast of the Holy Family is celebrated as part of the Christmas Season on the first Sunday after the celebration of the Nativity of the Lord (Christmas).  And it seems only fitting, because it is the addition of a child that turns a couple into a family.  And it is that family experience that serves as the basic formation of that child.  Just as we are, in part, a product of our own family experience, Jesus too was a product, in part, of his family experience.  Both Mary and Joseph said "yes" when they were approached by the angel of the Lord, and the three of them together, as family, give us a model of family life.

1 Samuel 1:20-22, 24-28
Psalm 105:1-2, 3-4, 5-6, 8-9
1 John 3:1-2, 21-24
Luke 2:41-52

Our first reading is from the first book of Samuel.  Samuel, as we may recall, was the last of the Judges of Israel and a pivotal figure in their transition from a tribal structure to a monarchy.  So what does a story about Samuel have to do with the Holy Family?  As our passage would suggest, Samuel's parents, Hannah and Elkanah, shared something in common with Mary and Joseph... their devotion to God and their willingness to say "yes" to God's plan for their son.  In Hannah's case, she had prayed to God to have a son.  By way of giving thanks for having her prayer answered, she willingly gave up her son to the service of God by handing him over to Eli the great priest and prophet.  Hannah, like Mary, understood her son was destined by God for great things, and willingly followed.  Hannah's story is reflected in our Psalm as we sing, "blessed are those who fear the Lord and walk in his ways."

Our second reading takes us from being parents to that of being children.  In a passage from the first letter of Saint John, we are reminded that we are all "children of God."  By following Jesus and by following his commandments, we become like him.  Further, it is the Holy Spirit that reveals this truth to us.  In his letter John calls us "beloved."  Many of the first Christians who heard John's letter were considered outcasts for their belief in Christ, but he provides comfort to them (and us) by revealing that though Christ we are part of a new family, a greater family.

In our celebration of family, our Gospel from Luke give us a unique view into the family life of Jesus.  Jesus is now twelve years old, and as is the family custom, they journey to Jerusalem for the Passover festival.  As Joseph and Mary are with the caravan returning back to Nazareth, they discover that Jesus is missing., so like any concerned parent, they back-track their way to Jerusalem to find him.  They eventually find him at the temple where he has been conversing with the teachers.  Jesus, like the boy he is, doesn't understand his parent's anxiety, but neither do his parents understand him when he assumes they should know why he has stayed behind at the temple.  All ends well as they all return to Nazareth, but this story, unique to Luke's gospel, gives us a special story in which we can, as both children and parents, can relate to our own family experiences.

Final Thoughts:
Family life is not always easy.  As children we find ourselves challenged by parents, teachers, care-givers, and siblings.  As parents we find ourselves challenged by our children, our spouses, our careers.  Yet even with all its challenges, our family lives give us purpose and teach us love.  The family unit is the most basic element of humanity and is one of those aspects of our humanity that we share with Jesus.  The blessings of family life, and the challenges of family life.  This feast day is a reminder that Jesus is our brother, and through him we are all children of God.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

4th Sunday of Advent

This Sunday is the 4th and final Sunday of Advent.  The Nativity is quickly approaching, and like an expectant parent, the reality of what is to come is beginning to set in.  During the Sundays of Advent we’ve been hearing the prophecy of God sending us a Savior, and now with that moment nearly upon us, we see the prophecy in our readings becoming much more specific, giving flesh to what was just an idea, leaving no doubt that this is going to happen, and that we should be prepared…

Micah 5:1-4a
Psalm 80:2-3, 15-16, 18-19
Hebrews 10:5-10
Luke 1:39-45

Our first reading comes from the Book of the Prophet Micah.  While Micah is a contemporary of Isaiah, and his prophetic message is similar, Micah is not a native of Jerusalem like Isaiah, so through his voice we see the view of an outsider looking in.  Though we don’t hear from Micah very often in the Liturgy, his prophecy is the one that gives us the birthplace of our Savior… Bethlehem-Ephrathah.  While Bethlehem is only about 5 miles south of Jerusalem, we need to remember that Luke’s Gospel tells us that Joseph and Mary were from Nazareth, about 100 miles north of Bethlehem.  The difficulty of their journey is that much more apparent when you look at the geography.  Micah’s prophecy tells us that this new ruler will have origins of old, but will stand firm and bring the children of Israel back to the Lord.

Our Psalm complements Mica’s message by reminding us that from his thrown the Son of Man will lead is to salvation as we sing “Lord, make us turn to you, let us see your face and we shall be saved.”  It’s also a prayer for the Lord to take care of is vine (Israel) so that it can be made strong.

Our second reading is from the Letter to the Hebrews.  Here we are reminded that the Lord does not want the holocausts and sin offerings of the ancient tradition, but instead wants our hearts.  The death of Jesus marks the final sacrifice.  Now to show our devotion to the Lord we are asked to simply do the Lord’s will, that is, to love him and love one another.  In the spirit of Advent we need to consecrate ourselves to his will.

We conclude our readings with Luke’s “Hail Mary” passage.  The words, coming from Elizabeth, form the basis our most common Catholic prayer as the unborn John the Baptist leaps in her womb at the sight of Mary, pregnant with Jesus.  The prophecy is being fulfilled.  The players are all in places and our stage is now set for the celebration of the joyful celebration of the Nativity.

Final Thoughts:
Preparing for the Nativity is like preparing for the coming of a child.  Just as the typical term of a pregnancy gives new parents time to prepare for the coming of their child, the season of Advent gives us time to prepare for the coming of our Lord.  To be fair… preparing for Christ’s second coming seems to be a very daunting task, something many fear.  The idea of “the coming of the Lord” is almost too much for us to grasp.  But Advent teaches us that we need to approach the Lord’s coming with joy, and to help us understand the full nature of this joy we cloth our celebration in the memory of the Nativity.  For nothing is more real than the birth of a child.  All that prophecy through the ages is now made manifest in a manger.  Something we can touch, something we can hold, something we can cherish.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

3rd Sunday of Advent

“Shout for Joy!”  The opening lines of our first reading express the feelings we should be having during this third Sunday of Advent.  Also known as Gaudete Sunday (Latin for “rejoice”), we celebrate that we have now past the half-way point of our penitent reflection… the “hump day” of Advent, if you will.  What have we to be so joyful about?  Our readings provide the answer…

Zephaniah 3:14-18a
Psalm 12:2-3, 4, 5-6
Philippians 4:4-7

Our first reading comes from the Book of the Prophet Zephaniah.  Though we don’t hear from Zephaniah very often in our Sunday Liturgies, and though the book itself isn’t that long (only 3 chapters), the importance of his message not only can be seen in his predecessors Jeremiah and Baruch, but may even have had a profound effect on the Judean monarchy itself by moving King Josiah to begin his campaign of religious reform.  Our passage this week, though similar to the passages we heard from both Jeremiah and Baruch these past two weeks, seems to come with even greater earnestness and joy.  Though he has seen the fall of Jerusalem, he sees a glorious return for the people of God.  This joy is further echoed in our Psalm as we sing “Cry out with joy and gladness:  form among you is the great and Holy One of Israel” which shows us that the Lord is our savior… an image that works for both our Hebrew and our Christian interpretations of this Psalm.

Our second reading comes from the conclusion of Paul’s letter to the Philippians.  Also echoing the joy in our previous readings, Paul exhorts us to “Rejoice in the Lord always!”  That through our kindness, and by offering everything up to God, we will in turn find the peace of God through Christ Jesus.  Another way to look at this passage would be to see it as Paul’s version of “Don’t worry, be happy!”

After all this rejoicing then, our Gospel from Luke takes a more somber, practical tone.  Picking up shortly after where we left off last week with the introduction of John the Baptist, we now see him surrounded by a crowd asking him questions.  They want to know what they must do to avoid God’s wrath, and he provides sound advice to everyone… To share what they have.  To the tax collectors:  don’t collect more than prescribed.  To the soldiers:  don’t extort or bear false witness.  This mixed audience (Jews and non-Jews) start to think that he might be the Christ, but he quickly refutes that idea, stating that “one mightier than I is coming.”

Final Thoughts:
Christmas is coming… we can really start to feel it (especially when the weather gets cooler).  For students and children they can almost taste the joy of the coming winter break from school.  For others, the coming holiday means a satisfying break from work.  Liturgically this joy is represented by the rose colored candle of our Advent Wreath, and the rose colored vestments which may be worn by the priest at Mass.  But though we are joyful, we’re not there yet… not quite ready.  As John the Baptist reminds us, the one who is to come is preparing to separate the wheat from the chaff.  Our salvation is secured by our Baptism, but how have we been living up to our mission of living and preaching the Gospel?  Now is the time to let our joy transform us, like it did for Ebenezer Scrooge in the Dickens classic A Christmas Carol.  In these final weeks of Advent, we need to seek forgiveness and reconciliation… let go of the baggage that holds us down and allow the joy of the season, and of our faith, to shine.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

2nd Sunday of Advent

A promise fulfilled.  This is the promise of Advent.  This is the promise of Christ.  As we begin our new Liturgical cycle with this season of Advent, we take a lesson from the prophets… that our hope for salvation will be fulfilled.  How do I know this?  Let’s look at our readings for this week…

Baruch 5:1-9
Psalm 126:1-2, 2-3, 4-5, 6
Philippians 1:4-6, 8-11
Luke 3:4, 6

Our first reading is from the Book of Baruch, who was an assistant to the prophet Jeremiah.  Jeremiah, as we may remember from our readings last week, is one of the prophets of the Babylonian Exile.  The Book of Baruch is reflective of that same period, though unlike the Book of Jeremiah, no known Hebrew version of this book has been found, making it one of the Bible’s Deuterocanonical books (those included in the Catholic Bible, but not the Hebrew or Protestant Bibles).  In our passage for this week, Jerusalem (currently in Exile) is told to “take off your robe of mourning and misery” and to “put on the splendor of glory from God forever.”  In other words, Jerusalem shall rise again, and be a beacon to God’s glory.  God is making a promise to his people, and though it might sound like a tall order given their situation, our Psalm reminds us “the Lord has done great things for us; we are filled with joy.”

Our second reading is from Paul’s letter to the Philippians.  In a passage from the letter’s opening greeting, Paul encouraging the community (and us) to continue the work that has begun, and that in doing so, will be prepared for “the day of Christ.”  That while we gain salvation through Christ, we also need to stay vigilant in following the path of the Gospel in order to maintain that state of grace.

Our Gospel from Luke then sets the stage for our journey toward salvation by literally setting the stage.  The opening of this third chapter has Luke putting his narrative into a specific historical context (in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberious Caesar).  This device not only provides a historical context for the listener, but is used to reinforce the fact that Jesus was part of that history.  Not a myth.  Not made up.  An actual person placed here by God in that place at that time to fulfill the promise God made through his prophets.  And now our gospel presents us with the last of the prophets before Jesus, John the Baptist, who through the words of Isaiah, has come to tell us that salvation is at hand.

Final Thoughts:
When I was boy the Promise of Christmas was that Santa Clause would come with presents on Christmas Eve, provided of course, that we managed to stay on the “nice” list.  And if your childhood was like mine, nothing could replace the joy we felt on Christmas morning to find the stockings stuffed and the tree surrounded by presents.  As adults now, however, you may feel you’re well past that understanding of the Promise of Christmas.  But I’ve got news for you… for according to our readings the Promise of Christmas remains alive and well and waiting for us.  Santa, in this case, is Christ himself, and his gift:  Salvation!  And if we want a truly Catholic understanding of what the second coming will be like… remember what it was like when you were a child on Christmas Eve.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

1st Sunday of Advent

When we celebrate the secular New Year, we like to reminisce about the past year while looking anxiously ahead to the year ahead.  With this first Sunday of Advent the Church rings in the new year in much the same way... remembering how God promised to send us a Savior and the memory of that fulfillment through Jesus Christ, and looking forward to the time when Christ will return.

Jeremiah 33:14-16
Psalm 25:4-5, 8-9, 10, 14
1 Thessalonians 3:12-4:2
Luke 21:25-28, 34-36

Our first reading comes from the book of the Prophet Jeremiah.  Jeremiah, as we may remember, came to his calling under the great reformer King Josiah, but after seeing his king fall in the battle of Megiddo, and witness to the failure of the Kingdom to maintain it's devotion to God, turned his prophecy to warnings of the coming fall of Jerusalem and the subsequent Exile.  But even as he saw the fall of the Kingdom, he also foresaw a time when it would be restored, and it is from this prophecy we hear from for this 1st Sunday of Advent.  God promises to "raise up from David a just shoot," a successor who will bring safety and security in the Lord.  Jeremiah was earnest in assuring the ancient Jews that God always keeps his promises, and we Christians know this promise to be fulfilled with Jesus.  Knowing that God keeps his promises is what brings us to sing in our Psalm "To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul."

Our second reading comes from Paul's 1st letter to the Thessalonians.  This Sunday's passage is a "bridge" in the middle of the letter... the conclusion of his greeting and prayer of thanksgiving, and the beginning of his exhortation to conducting themselves in a manner pleasing to God.  Paul offers them the praise for coming to the Lord, but is also compelled to remind them that they need to continue to live according to how they were taught, with the understanding that they want to be ready for Christ's return.  Paul felt this was particularly important for the Thessalonians as they were a community surrounded by persecution, so their vigilance in the Christian life was imperative to their survival.

With the new Liturgical year we move to Cycle C of the Lectionary with its focus on the Gospel of Luke.  In this Sunday's Gospel we have Jesus warning his disciples of the terrible things to come.  Jesus knows this is his last chance as he knows is arrest will be coming soon, so he is eager for his disciples to be ready, not only for his own death, but for the end of days.  In the midst of the tribulation that will surround them, Jesus urges them to "stand erect and raise their hands," because they have nothing to fear, and to stay vigilant so that they will be ready when the Son of Man returns.

Final Thoughts:
Advent, like Lent, is a season for contemplative reflection, an opportunity to take stock in oneself and ask if we are in fact living our faith.  While the secular world prepares with a frenzy of decorating and shopping, all in the hopes for that "perfect" Christmas Day, our Christian faith challenges us to keep our focus on the day, but the future.  The commemoration of the Nativity of the Lord is a wonderful thing and we should enjoy it, but we also need to keep it in perspective.  We're not preparing for a one day celebration, but for a lifetime of Christian service.  To paraphrase Ebenezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" we need to keep the spirit of Christmas in our hearts all year long.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe

The celebration of the Solemnity of Christ the King marks the last Sunday of the Liturgical Year.  Although being one of the newest feast days on the Church calendar, having been established by Pope Pius XI in 1925, its importance in the life of Christians should not be overlooked nor taken lightly.  While this may be a relatively new solemnity for the Church, it’s roots run quite deep, as our readings will show:

Daniel 7:13-14
Psalm 93:1, 1-2, 5
Revelation 1:5-8
John 18:33b-37

Our first reading comes from the Book of Daniel.  As I wrote last week, the Book of Daniel is to the Hebrew Scriptures what the Book of Revelation is to the Christian scriptures.  Our passage this week sounds as if it could be coming from Revelation, as we hear about Daniel’s vision of the Son of Man, being received by God and being granted dominion over all creation.  Whether you read this from a Jewish perspective or from a Christian perspective, the meaning is the same:  All creation belongs to God alone, and no matter how much we squabble over the things of this world, only God can grant dominion over it.  If that message isn’t clear enough, our Psalm spells it out for us as we sing “The Lord is king; he is robed in majesty.”

Our second reading comes from the Book of Revelation, with a passage that is a reflection of what we heard in our first reading from Daniel.  Here we hear John’s vision of Jesus coming amid the clouds, ruler of all the kings of earth, coming for all to see, even those who persecuted him.  Yet even Jesus, king of kings, is only granted his authority from God, his father, who in turn takes it only in service to his father.

Our Gospel this week comes from John, where we revisit the scene where Jesus is being questioned by Pontius Pilot.  Pilate asks “Are you the King of the Jews?”  The banter that follows is both comical and quizzical, obfuscating yet revealing.  Pilot is trying to get to the truth, but it’s a truth that he can’t quite understand, because for Jesus, to be a king means to be of service to us and to the God the Father.  Born to testify to the truth.  Not a ruler who takes, but a ruler who gives.

Final Thoughts:
For most Americans as well as most modern democratic societies, the meaning and importance of this Feast can easily be lost without understanding the context from which it originated.  The early 20th century not only saw the Great War sweeping Europe and the world into economic and political turmoil, but long established monarchies and governing structures from Europe through the Far East, and through the colonies of the New World being challenged by popular uprisings, only to be replaced by equally dangerous movements fueled by nationalism and fascism.  Even the Church herself was being challenged as these new governments established laws against religion, and in particular against the Catholic Church.  Many of these revolutions saw priests and bishops being arrested, imprisoned, and executed, while demanding citizens to give their allegiance to their new countries and their new leaders.

Amid this turmoil and persecution the Holy See saw the need to remind the greater Church, and the world, that as Christians we owe our allegiance not to any temporal or political authority, but only to Christ.  This idea of Christ as king of all, having been well established in both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament, serves to remind the world that we are all bound to a higher authority.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

33rd Sudnay of Ordinary Time

Our journey through Ordinary Time is almost at an end.  Next week we celebrate the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe (or simply, Christ the King), marking the last Sunday of the Liturgical Year.  In our readings, Jesus also knows the end is near.  We have spent this long stretch of Ordinary Time walking with Jesus and his disciples through the Gospel, and now, nearing the city of Jerusalem for the last time, our thoughts turn to the end times…

Daniel 12:1-3
Psalm 16:5, 8, 9-10, 11
Hebrews 10:11-14, 18
Mark 13:24-32

Our first reading comes from the book of Daniel.  Daniel is to the Hebrew Scriptures what the book of Revelation is to the Christian Scriptures… a prophet’s dream-like vision of the end of days, where the righteous will be saved, and the unrighteous condemned to Hell.  The book of Daniel isn’t a prophetic book, but rather more like the book of Job, taking its name from the story’s hero.  While Daniel was a prophet who lived during the Babylonian Exile (586 BCE), the Book of Daniel wasn’t written until about 160 years before Christ.  In this week’s passage we have Daniel hearing the Lord’s voice proclaiming how those who have their name in the book shall have everlasting life, while the remainder shall be “in everlasting horror and disgrace.”  In reading this passage it’s easy to see how this might have inspired Jesus in his parable of separation of the sheep from the goats.

When we modern Christians here these types of apocalyptic stories, we tend to get fearful… afraid that our name won’t be in the book, afraid that we haven’t earned a place in Heaven with the Lord.  But we need to remember that this isn’t how the ancients read this work.  Rather, they read it as a comfort.  During their days of persecution by their “Gentile” overlords, they saw these writings an assurance that by following the Lord, they would be saved.  This positive message is echoed in our Psalm as we sing “You are my inheritance, O Lord!”  These apocalyptic warnings weren’t for us who have accepted the Lord, but rather a warning for those who did not follow the Lord (and persecute those who do).

Our Gospel from Mark has Jesus contemplating the end of days as well, in fact quoting from our passage from Daniel.  Jesus’ message is clear… there will be dark times ahead, but the Son of Man will gather those that are his “elect” (a term we in the RCIA understand well).  He warns his disciples to be observant, because the signs are there in front of us.  In other words, continue the mission, continue to preach the Gospel and gather followers, because there will be a time when he returns to gather all those who follow him.

Our second reading is the conclusion of our study of the Letter to the Hebrews.  Though not the end of the letter itself, this does bring to conclusion the theme of Jesus as our High Priest.  It too shows a vision of the end times with Jesus sitting at the right hand of God, his enemies as his footstool.  An interesting picture that, like the Gospel, reminds us to be vigilant in our fight against sin.

Final Thoughts:
We Catholics tend to get uncomfortable when it comes to hearing about “the end of days.”  Like the Apostles before the Passion, we just don’t want to hear about it.  Part of it is because we don’t like to dwell on bad things… and there’s a lot of bad things going on in these apocalyptic writings.  But part of it is that we as a Christian community (and as a society) have lost our ability to understand these writings… to put them into perspective.  And it doesn’t help that we have so many loud, misguided preachers telling us that we need to be afraid… telling us that we might get “left behind.”  For you see, we have already been saved.  Christ died for our sins, once and for all.  And by our Baptism we are made priest, prophet and king… embracing our salvation as a follower of Christ.  But what if we screw up?  In our humanity, it is inevitable.  But Jesus understood that too, and gave us the Sacrament of Reconciliation to seek forgiveness and get ourselves back on course.  They’re meant to reassure us when times get hard… that when we feel the world is against us (as it so often can be), we can be reminded that God has our back, because we’re on his team.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

32nd Sunday of Ordinary Time

As members of the Church we are taught to give of our time, our talents, and our treasure in service to the Gospel.  But how much is enough?  Scripture is quite clear on this subject… this is an “all in” proposition, as our readings this week tell us:

1 Kings 17:10-16
Psalm 146:7, 8-9, 9-10
Hebrews 9:24-28
Mark 12:38-44

Our first reading comes from the 1st Book of Kings.  In our passage this week, Israel is suffering a great drought, and the great prophet Elijah is on the run from King Ahab.  He comes to the gates of Zarephath, a city North of Israel between the cities of Tyre and Sidon.  There he meets a widow and her son.  Tired and thirsty from his journey, he asks the widow for some water and some bread, whereupon we learn that they too are suffering, having  only enough flour and oil to last one more day.  Elijah asks her again to make him some bread, and that the Lord will make sure that her jars of flour and oil will no t run dry until the end of the drought.  We are told that all three were able to eat for a full year, as God had promised.  This promise that the Lord will provide is reflected in our Psalm as we sing “Praise the Lord, my soul.”

The widow from our first reading was willing to give everything she had, her last remaining bread, to Elijah.  Our Gospel from Mark, we see Jesus teaching about two different widows.  In the first part of our Gospel, we hear Jesus chastising the scribes for taking advantage of wealthy widows.  Jesus then moves to a place opposite the temple treasury where he can watch the people making their offerings.  He points out that the wealthy are putting in large sums of money.  Then he point to poor widow who drops in just a few coins.  He tells his disciples that this poor widow has contributed far more than the wealthy donors, for while they are contributing from their surplus wealth, this widow was giving all she had.  It begs the question, who gave more?

Our second reading continues our study of the Letter to the Hebrews.  Here the author is drawing a comparison between the annual blood sacrifices made by the Temple priests to that of the blood sacrifice Jesus made on the cross.  Whereas the Temple priests are not giving their own blood, Jesus, our High Priest, gave all he had as a single, final sacrifice, rendering any other sacrifice inconsequential.

Final Thoughts:
So how much are you will to bet?  How much are you willing to put in?  Scripture is consistently clear on this issue:  When it comes to serving the Lord, you must be willing to go “all in.”  Following Christ isn’t something we just do on Sunday’s for an hour.  Rather, it’s an everyday, lifelong pursuit.  The Lord expects nothing less than our entire effort.  And yet we hesitate.  We are quite naturally afraid of that kind of commitment.  Giving is not something we do instinctively.  Our animal nature is to take and to hoard, storing for that rainy day.  What parent hasn’t had to constantly remind their children to share?  Parents know that learning this behavior is good.  Similarly God is calling us to share.  How do we know this is the right thing to do?  Like that child, we have to trust that this is right and good.  God has shown time and again that when we give our all, he will give us his all.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

The Solemnity of All Saints

Since the beginning of the Church her people have always recognized those who were models of holiness and piety.  They were given the tile “saint,” and what began as a local custom developed into a more structured practice under the Holy See beginning in the 10th century.  In recognition of the Solemnity of All Saints falling on a Sunday, we forego our usual readings in favor of these chosen specifically for this special holiday:

Revelation 7:2-4, 9-14
Psalm 24:1bc-2, 3-4ab, 5-6
1 John 3:1-3
Matthew 5:1-12a

Our first reading comes from the Book of Revelation… probably one of the most misunderstood, misinterpreted, and confusing books of all the Bible.  And it’s no wonder… with its apocalyptic style thick with symbolic images and numerology, it can be hard to follow.  So let’s try to unpack our passage for this week.  The passage opens with John seeing an angel, speaking with God’s authority, to the four other angels charged with Earth’s destruction.  This angel tells them that the Earth cannot be destroyed before the “servants of God” can be marked with the seal of God.  John tells us this will be 144,000, or 12,000 from each of the Twelve Tribes of Israel.  This follows another vision of a “great multitude which no one could count” standing before the Heavenly Jesus (the throne and the Lamb) in their white robes.  John tells Jesus that “you are the one who knows.”  These are the followers of Jesus.  Why are they here?  Our Psalm has the answer:  “Lord, this is the people that longs to see your face.”

Our second reading comes from the First Letter of John.  Our passage reminds us that we are in fact, children of God.  While this is a wondrous and important understanding, John also tells us that he’s not entirely sure what this means, but that this will be revealed when we become like him (Christ), and in doing so “become pure as he is pure.”

Thus far our readings might give the impression that getting into Heaven is near impossible.  Only a saint could qualify.  Least we get discouraged, our Gospel from Matthew has Jesus teaching us the Beatitudes.  The word “beatitudes” is an anglicized form of the original Latin, beātitūdō, which means “happiness.”  In other words, Jesus is giving us a roadmap to happiness.  When it comes to reading the Beatitudes, however, we tend to breeze through them too quickly.  They eight blessings are short and concise, each being rich in meaning on their own.  When viewed as a whole, they form our understanding of the Christian ideal in how we should treat others and how we carry out Christ’s mission.  Note well that purity and perfection are not in the requirements.  Instead, we are taught to treat everyone with dignity, with mercy, and with love.

Final Thoughts:
While we look to the saints as examples, we also have a tendency to put them, both literally and figuratively, on a pedestal.  While we give them a place of honor, we also tend to think of them as better than us… that they possessed something that makes them better than us.  In doing so, however, we forget two important things.  First, we tend to assume that they were perfect.  They were not.  Second, we forget that our Catholic understanding of who is a saint includes everyone in Heaven, whether they are recognized as saints on earth or not.  The “communion of saints,” as we profess in our Creed.  We are all saints in the making.  Similarly, we are also all sinners, so how can we possibly be counted as one of the saints?  The answer to that is through God’s mercy.  Jesus gave us a good roadmap to Heaven, with the Beatitudes and the Golden Rule as our guide.  We may struggle, we may stumble, and at times we may lose our way.  But that’s OK, because we can always learn from our mistakes, seek the Lord’s forgiveness, continue our journey with Christ as our guide.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

30th Sunday of Ordinary Time

Are there times where you feel “unworthy?”  It’s a feeling we have all experienced at one time or another.  No matter how severely you may feel this way, however, our readings this week remind us that God is there for us, always...

Jeremiah 31:7-9
Psalm 126:1-2, 2-3, 4-5, 6
Hebrews 5:1-6
Mark 10:46-52

Our first reading comes from the book of the Prophet Jeremiah.  As you may remember, Jeremiah came to his calling as a prophet under King Josiah, the great reformer of the later Southern Kingdom of Judah.  Jeremiah saw the eventual downfall of the kingdom and the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, but even though he foresaw the fall of Judah, this week’s passage gives us a vision of redemption and hope… that God will restore the people of Israel.  Even in the midst of impending tragedy, Jeremiah could see God’s great mercy.  How can Jeremiah be so confident of our redemption?  It’s found in our Psalm as we sing, “The Lord has done great things for us; we are filled with joy.”  God has saved us before, and if we turn to him, he will be there for us.

This faith in God and his mercy is mirrored in our Gospel from Mark.  Picking up where we left off last week (with Jesus teaching the Apostles that they are here to serve, not to be served), Jesus is heading out of town when a blind beggar cries out to Jesus, “Son of David, have pity on me.”  Those around tried to rebuke the man, but that made him cry out that much louder.  Jesus cures the man, who then goes on to follow Jesus.  So what is our take-a-way from this moment?  There are several, but the one point that binds this to our other readings is that God will redeem us, all we need do is turn to him.

Our Second reading continues our study of the Letter to the Hebrews.  As you will recall, last week’s passage from Hebrews told us that Jesus was our great High Priest, a man like us who understood our weaknesses.  This week’s passage continues with this image of High Priest, but now teaches that “every high priest is taken from among men.”  Called by God to make offerings on our behalf.  Not to be glorified, but to give glory to God.  If this sounds to you like the job description of your parish priest, you would be correct.  This passage is meant to teach us about the special nature of the ordained priesthood, and to reclaim the call to be of service to the people like Aaron and Melchizadek.

Final Thoughts:
Our readings this week give us two distinct lessons.  Our first reading, our Psalm, and our Gospel remind us of God’s mercy and his willingness to do great things for us.  Our second reading give us the criteria for our ordained priests, that they come from among the people, to serve the people by bringing them to God.  Though the lessons are distinct, they do share an understanding of God’s willingness to be among us.  While our ordained priests have particular tasks reserved for those so called to Holy Orders, we also need to remember that our baptism calls us to be priests, prophets, and kings.  As members of this “priesthood of the laity,” we too have an obligation to bring God to others.  We too have the mission to serve.  Like the blind beggar in our Gospel, we should see the good God has done for us, and follow.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

29th Sunday of Ordinary Time

For some time now Jesus has been trying to explain to his disciples that he is going to be killed, but the Apostles either can’t see this, or refuse to see it.  Jesus, however, a student of Isaiah’s “servant songs,” understands this all too well… that to speak the word of God will often lead to personal suffering:

Isaiah 53:10-11
Psalm 33:4-5, 18-19, 20, 22
Hebrews 4:14-16
Mark 10:35-45

Our first reading comes from the book of the Prophet Isaiah.  In a passage from late Second Isaiah he tells us that God’s servant will suffer – the fourth of Isaiah’s “servant songs” which tell of a redeemer sent by God to save humanity, but that redemption comes at a cost… the death of his servant.  While the opening hook is troubling for us to hear (The Lord was pleased to crush him in infirmity), as if God takes delight in his servant’s suffering, we need to continue with the passage to see that God’s being pleased comes not from inflicting pain, but by having his people redeemed and through it, his servant glorified.  Our Psalm reinforces this understanding as we sing “Lord, let your mercy be on us as we place our trust in you.”  If we know and trust in the Lord, we know he will protect us.

Our Gospel from Mark continues near where we left off last week.  Here James and John asking Jesus to appoint them to his right and his left.  While we might consider this to be forward and self-serving, we need to remember that such a request would not at all be unusual in their culture, for men of that age and in their position.  Having no understanding of the depth of that commitment, Jesus asks them if they are prepared (even though he knows they are not, and predicts that they too will suffer for his sake).  Not surprisingly, the remaining 10 Apostles are somewhat indignant when they heard what James and John were asking.  Seeing this, Jesus gathers them all and reminds them that their mission is not to be above all, but to serve all.  At this point in Mark’s narrative Jesus’ journeys are coming to an end as they head for Jerusalem, where Jesus knows what his fate will be.

Our second reading continues our study of the Letter to the Hebrews.  Here we are told that we have in Jesus a high priest who is not unfamiliar with our weaknesses.  What does that mean for us?  That through Christ we can be forgiven of our sins.  Having lived the human condition, having suffered and died for us, he is uniquely qualified to grant us mercy.

Final Thoughts:
We are very much like Jesus’ disciples.  We don’t like hearing these stories about his suffering and death.  We take no joy in the celebration of Good Friday.  Like his disciples we’d much rather be sitting next to Jesus, to be touched, to be healed, to have our eyes opened to new possibilities if we just love one another.  But ignoring a problem doesn’t make it go away.  For as much joy we can receive in service to the Lord, there can also be pain and suffering.  But here’s the thing… if Jesus could take it, if the Apostles could take it, so can we.  We’re always so fast to say, “Jesus was God, so of course he could take it,” or “the Apostles, those guys were saints, I’m nothing like that.”  But by being so quick to acknowledge their divine support, we completely negate their humanity.  Jesus was human.  The Apostles were all too human.  As our second reading reminds us, it is Jesus in his humanity that allows him to forgive us our human weaknesses because he himself faced those same weaknesses.  Jesus came, and the Apostles served, to remind us that they, in their weaknesses, were no better than us.  We too, have it in us to serve and be saved.

28th Sunday of Ordinary Time

What is truly valuable?  As a species humanity seems constantly preoccupied with this question, starting from our individual perspective, and building up to our families, our parish, our community, all the way up to the entire world view.  Whole industries have grown around this idea of value, from the advertising industry that tries to convince you of the value of what they’re selling, to insurance companies that can set a monetary value on everything, including your own life.  Our faith tradition also has some thoughts on this question, as addressed by our readings this week:

Wisdom 7:7-11
Psalm 90:12-13, 14-15, 16-17
Hebrews 4:12-13
Mark 10:17-30

Our first reading is from the Book of Wisdom.  You may recall that we had a passage from this book three weeks ago, but by way of reminder, the Book of Wisdom comes to us from the Jewish community in Alexandria some 50 years before Christ.  Typical of wisdom literature in the Bible, it’s meant to be an aid to teaching the faith and what is important in life.  In this week’s passage, typical of this genre, wisdom is anthropomorphized as a beautiful woman, with her beauty and splendor far beyond that of any gem, or gold, or silver.  The passage means to challenge our perceptions of what is valuable.  Those things we normally consider to be of value are worthless next to wisdom itself.  Our Psalm has us praying “that we may gain wisdom of heart.”  But that prayer is also a recognition of our sinfulness, and a cry for mercy and recognition as we turn our work toward the Lord so that we can realize his blessings.

Playing on the idea of wisdom being more valuable than gold, our Gospel takes us to the story of the rich man asking Jesus what it takes to inherit eternal life.  Not only is the man dejected by Jesus’ answer, but the Apostles are confused, and seek not once, but twice for clarification.  As is typical for most scripture, however, we need to scratch below the surface to find the truth lying underneath.

On the surface Jesus seems to be chastising the rich, as if wealth itself were the sin, a theme you may remember from our passage from James a couple weeks ago.  In that reading the sin was not wealth itself, so much as it was the manner in which that wealth was obtained (Behold the wages you withheld from the workers…).  Similarly in today’s gospel, the sin isn’t wealth, but rather the inability to make a sacrifice by doing more.

By all rights the man in our story was an upstanding citizen, living by the commandments.  While that is commendable, however, it’s not enough.  Jesus is teaching us not to be satisfied with the status quo… but instead we need to continue to grow.  Once we’ve accomplished one thing, we need to build on that experience and accomplish something else.  Jesus is essentially saying “You did something good.  Great!  What are you going to do tomorrow?”

One of God’s gifts to us is our ability to learn and grow… to evolve (not a dirty word to Catholic Christians).  Our lives are not static, and neither is our relationship with God.  What we accomplished yesterday was good for yesterday.  It gives us the strength, confidence, and wisdom to accomplish something today.  But the good we do today means little if we don’t do something with it tomorrow… and the next day, and the day after that.  There is always more we can do, and there is always more out there that needs to get done.  Which takes us to the larger lesson of our Gospel, that we need to be willing to make sacrifices in order to accomplish what is needed.

Love, by its very nature, involves a sacrifice.  Ask yourself… if you love someone, would you do anything for them?  That, by definition, is a sacrifice on your part.  A new parent sacrificing their sleep and freedom to care for their baby.  The ultimate expression of this idea is Jesus sacrificing himself on the cross for our salvation.  Love is an “all-in” game.  But as Jesus is trying to explain to his disciples, that sacrifice not only leads to rewards in this life, but in the next.  A life lived in service to the Gospel is a ticket to eternal life.

How do we know this is true?  The answer lies in our second reading from the Letter to the Hebrews.  Here we are taught that “the word of God is living and effective,” and that Word can be found in our scriptures.  The Bible is often referred to as “the Word of God.”  While this “Word” may be coming to us through its flawed human authors, the message is consistent and clear… we must love God, and love one another.  We are also reminded, however, that God knows our hearts.  Is our love genuine?  Is what we do in the service of our neighbor done in the true spirit of service or are we looking to get something out of it?

Final Thoughts:
Do readings like this make you feel uncomfortable?  They should.  I know they make me feel uncomfortable.  But that’s exactly the point.  We shouldn’t ever feel comfortable.  We should never be complacent about our faith or our relationship with God.  Like any relationship, we should never take it for granted.  Don’t get me wrong… you don’t need to “earn” God’s love.  Like a parent, he gives that love unconditionally.  But a relationship is also reciprocal… action and reaction.  God has certain expectations for us, as scripture has taught us.  But one kind act doesn’t mean you’re finished.  Rather, our faith is a continual growth process, building on past successes, learning from past failures, in order to become the best version of ourselves.  Are we prepared to make the sacrifices necessary to accomplish this goal?

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

27th Sunday of Ordinary Time

With Pope Francis concluding his Apostolic Journey to the US by opening the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia, our readings for this week are particularly appropriate as they focus on marriage.

Genesis 2:18-24
Psalm 128:1-2, 3, 4-5, 6
Hebrews 2:9-11
Mark 10:2-16

Our first reading is from the second creation story in the Book of Genesis.  Wait… second creation story?  Most Catholics are aware that Genesis is the first book of the Bible, and most are aware that it begins with the story of creation, but unless they’ve engaged in any critical Bible reading or study, any details beyond that tend to get a little fuzzy.  So let me explain…

The first chapter of Genesis does in fact give us the story of creation, starting with “In the beginning,” and very poetically proceeds to give us a day by day description of the events.  When we get to day six, we are told in verse 27, “God created mankind in his image;  in the image of God he created them;  male and female he created them.”  The author then brings his story to a close with verse 31, “God looked at everything he had made, and found it very good. Evening came, and morning followed—the sixth day.”  This is what we call the first creation story.

The second creation story then starts in Chapter 2 where the passage from our first reading is taken.  Here we are told a story about how after creating the man, God felt he needed a partner, so he puts the man into a deep sleep, takes one of his ribs, and fashions from it, a woman.  The closing of the passage gives us our catechetical lesson for the day… “That is why a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and the two of them become one flesh.”  Thus our lesson focuses on marriage.  Our Psalm continues this lesson with images of home and hearth singing “May the lord bless us all the days of our lives.”

This theme of marriage continues in our Gospel passage from Mark.  Here Jesus is confronted with a question from a group of Pharisees.  They want to know if it is lawful for a husband to divorce his wife.  Jesus turns the question back on them and asks, “What did Moses command you?”  They reply with the law from the Book of Deuteronomy (chapter 24, verse 1) that says it is permitted.  Jesus replies, however, that this section of the Law was put in “because of the hardness of your hearts,” and then supports his argument with a quote from Genesis.  Actually, it’s a couple quotes from Genesis.  The majority of the quote you should recognize from our first reading, the part about how a man leaves his mother for his wife.  But the first part of this quote is from the first creation story…where “God made them male and female.”  Jesus then teaches us that, “what God has joined together no human being must separate.”

Many of us are familiar with these passages as they form our understanding of Christian marriage and serve as the basis for the Church’s teaching on divorce.  Unfortunately, for far too many of us Christians, we’re so focused on divorce and what constitutes adultery that we are missing the point of what Christ is trying to teach.  To find that, we must go back to the original Law code in Deuteronomy, which states, “When a man, after marrying a woman, is later displeased with her because he finds in her something indecent, and he writes out a bill of divorce and hands it to her, thus dismissing her from his house.”  Jesus isn’t teaching so much about marriage and divorce as he is teaching about equality and the rights of women within the marriage covenant.

At the heart of the Mosaic Law is a sense of social justice.  We have a duty to love God and love one another, just as Jesus taught with the Golden Rule.  These laws go even further stressing our need to be of service to one another, especially to those who are marginalized or in need.  Jesus saw in this passage from Deuteronomy the same things we see… first, that it is decidedly one-sided by allowing the man to write out a bill of divorce for just about any reason, and second, that it is a violation of the spirit of the Mosaic Law in that by dismissing her from the house you create a marginalized class.  To bring home his message of equality, Jesus quotes not only from the second creation story, but from the first, where God created man and women at the same time… together in one breath… equal and complimentary, not separate and subordinate.

Our second reading begins our study of the Letter to the Hebrews.  From now through to the end of Ordinary Time we will be spending time with this letter.  This week’s short passage from chapter 2 reminds us that Jesus, who was above all, was made “lower than the angels.”  In order to save us, he became one of us, and because he was one of us, both from the same God, we are brothers and sisters in Christ.  We hear and say that phrase so often that we sometimes forget that it originates from our earliest traditions.

Final Thoughts:
Jesus intentionally wanted to revolutionize our understanding of marriage.  Unfortunately, we weren’t listening very well.  We, the Church, have taken Jesus’ teaching to be purely a prohibition of divorce rather than a reinforcement of marriage being a covenant among equals.  For you see, if both parties enter into marriage as equal partners, with all due care to the seriousness to the vocation that it is, then divorce as defined by these ancient laws would be a sin.  The sin lies not so much in the actual separation, but in the fact that one party has been marginalized by the other.  More specifically, that the women have been marginalized by the men.

When Jesus taught, he did so by challenging us… asking us to take that extra step, go the extra mile, to do something more.  Even if what we are doing was good, there is still more we can do.  No matter where we are at, Jesus meets us there and compassionately guides us forward, calling to our better natures, building on our successes, so that in time we can become the best versions of our selves, reflecting the light of Christ within us.  Jesus also knew this would take time.  We are, after all, only human.  For the entirety of recorded human history, but for a few notable exceptions, we have been a male dominated society.  This was the society into which Jesus and the Apostles were born.  It is this condition we see reflected in our scriptures.  And in too many cases, it is still the society in which we live today.  But Jesus taught us to do better.  Perhaps instead of focusing on divorce, we should focus more on what a true Christian marriage really is:  A covenant among equals.