Tuesday, January 27, 2015

4th Sunday in Ordinary Time, 2015

Since the close of the Christmas season we’ve been following Jesus as he begins his ministry.  We’ve seen him Baptized by John, we’ve seen him gathering his first Apostles (Andrew, Simon-Peter, James and John), and this week we continue our journey as Jesus begins to preach, teach, and heal.  Jesus has many different titles, but this week we focus on three:  Prophet, Teacher, and Lord.

Deuteronomy 18:15-20
Psalm 95:1-2, 6-7, 7-9
1 Corinthians 7:32-35
Mark 1:21-28

First, so that we have a clear understanding of what it means to be a prophet, our first reading from the book of Deuteronomy tells us.  In our passage Moses says to the people that a prophet is one like himself… someone chosen by God to speak for God.  Now upon hearing this you might ask why God can’t speak for himself?  Addressing that exact point Moses continues by reminding the people that it was they themselves who requested that God speak through an intermediary… through a prophet.  It was at Mt. Horab where God initially spoke to the people, but His voice so frightened them that they asked that it be only Moses to hear the voice of God.  From that moment on , God allowed Moses (and all the prophets who followed) to speak to us on his behalf.  But beware… God also warns them that if a prophet’s words stray from those of God, he will surely die.

Our Psalm response sings “if today you hear my voice, harden not your hearts.”  This idea plays well into the calling of a prophet, who in fact hears God’s voice, but it also recognizes that we who hear God’s voice through the prophets can find that message difficult.  To that the Psalm reminds us that God is our rock of salvation whom deserves our praise.  It also reminds us that there was that time at Massah and Meribah where we didn’t trust the message, and thus a  mistake we should not repeat.

Our second reading continues our journey through Paul’s 1st letter to the Corinthians.  Though not directly related to our other readings, Paul’s message, like our Psalm, reminds us to stay focused on the Lord.  As we examine this reading, as we hear Paul teaching us about the ways of married and unmarried men, married and unmarried women, and how they should act.  It’s passages like this, when they reach our 21st century ears, can make us feel very uncomfortable, and in fact allow us to feel that Paul is completely out of touch with our reality and thus diminishing the value of the message as irrelevant for our age.  As with all scripture, however, we need to give it deeper study to find the relevant truth.  In this case, Paul is reminding us that as our lives more busy, we become more focused on the moment… on the here and now.  This allows us to become too easily distracted from our higher commitment to God.

Our Gospel from Mark continues where we left off last week.  After having gathered his first Apostles, he goes to Capernaum and teaches in the Synagogue.  We see Jesus as “rabbi” or “teacher.”  But then we here how everyone was amazed by his teaching, with an authority like that of a prophet.  If that were not enough, a possessed man in the synagogue tries to rebuke Jesus.  Here Jesus confronts the unclean spirit, and by his position as Lord, causes the unclean spirit to flee.  This particular story shows us that Jesus has the qualifications to take on this mission of spreading the Gospel, and is indeed a teacher and a prophet who speaks with the authority of the Lord.

Final Thoughts:
When we hear stories like this from this week’s Gospel, it’s easy for us to feel intimidated.  We see the ability of Jesus not only to impress the crowd with his teaching and prophecy, but chasing away demons in the process.  Already, still at the beginning of Mark’s Gospel story, we see that Jesus is pretty impressive.  A hard act to follow.  Yet that is exactly what we are called to do… to carry on the mission.  I’ve heard it many times… “I’m not Jesus… I can’t do that.”  But we too easily forget that Jesus didn’t pass on this responsibility to just one person… he passed it on to all of us… his entire Church.  Just as the Apostles had each other, and the many disciples that followed after them, we are not alone in our mission to spread the Gospel.  We do it with the rest of the Church around us.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

3rd Sunday of Ordinary Time, 2015

Our readings this week focus on a core theme that runs through Jesus’ ministry… repentance.  There is no sin so grave that cannot be forgive with true contrition and a return to God.  This was the message that John the Baptist proclaimed, and the message Jesus continued as he took up his ministry.  This theme not only runs through the gospels, but is a major theme that binds the entire Bible into a cohesive volume.  

Jonah 3:1-5, 10
Psalm 25:4-5, 6-7, 8-9
1 Corinthians 7:29-31
Mark 1:14-20

Our first reading comes from the book of Jonah.  The story of Jonah is well known in both Jewish and Christian circles, yet for all its popularity, we only hear it in the Liturgy this once.  For this reason, many Catholics only have a passing familiarity with Jonah and his story.  They know his name and that he was swallowed by a large fish (or whale), but that’s about it.  In our passage this week, God asks Jonah to go through the city of Nineveh preaching that God would destroy the city in forty days.  The text states that Nineveh is so large that it takes 3 days to walk through it.  Not only is this a Gentile city, but it is the capital of the Assyrian empire (the same empire that defeats the Northern Kingdom some 50 years later).  Yet when Jonah delivers the Lord’s message, the people do in fact repent.  When God sees this he relents.

Our second reading continues our study of Paul’s 1st letter to the Corinthians.  While Paul’s message carries with it a certain urgency like Jonah’s, Paul’s concern is with the imminence of the Second Coming,  He is basically saying we need to forego the concerns of our daily lives and focus on what is important.  While Paul’s 2nd letter to the Corinthians has him walking back a bit from this message of urgency, the basic message is still sound, for them and for us:  We should always, in our actions and in our hearts, be prepared for the coming of Christ.

Following along with our theme of repentance, Mark’s Gospel this week shows Jesus picking up where John the Baptist left off… preaching urgency for repentance.  Along the way we hear Mark’s version of Jesus’ recruitment of the first Apostles.  A rather different take on the story we heard from John’s gospel last week, Mark has Jesus making them an offer they can’t refuse… a sales pitch, if you will, to entice them to come along.  Not only was it a good pitch, but it gives us one of the best lines from Jesus in the Gospels, “Come after me and I will make you fishers of men.”

Final Thoughts:
It’s a shame we Catholics don’t spend enough time with the book of Jonah, because what it lacks in size (only 4 short chapters, easily read in the course of a 10 minute prayer), it makes up for in theological importance.  Not only that, but it contains great irony and humor:  Jonah’s very name translates to “dove” which Jonah is anything but.  As a prophet of the Lord, he is deeply reluctant to deliver the Lord’s messages (which causes him to be swallowed by the big fish).  Then Jonah gets upset when God relents from his punishment of Nineveh.  Finally after all that, the book leaves us hanging at the end expecting us to figure out the moral of the story for ourselves.

The story of Jonah is an allegory for our own Catholic faith.  We continually struggle with God’s ways and wishes for us.  What is the moral of the story?  We need to find it for ourselves.  Jesus taught us what we needed to know, but it’s up to us to accept it.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, 2015

For the Western Church, the Christmas Season officially comes to an end this Sunday with  our celebration of the Baptism of the Lord.  The celebration of the Nativity is behind us and the new year stretches before us, so what better way to transition from Christmas to Ordinary Time than by celebrating the Lord’s Baptism.  Baptism marks a new beginning…  a rebirth.  For Jesus, this marks the beginning of his ministry, and serves as an excellent transition from the infancy narratives to the story of his life and ministry.  So this week we begin a new journey…

Isaiah 55:1-11
Psalm 12:2-3, 5-6
1 John 5:1-9
Mark 1:7-11

Our first reading is the famous “banquet invitation” which concludes 2nd Isaiah.  This song from Isaiah is a fitting end to his prophecy on Israel’s liberation from Exile in Babylon.  It sings of the goodness that God provides his people and welcomes them back into covenant with him.  The imagery draws us in and we can feel God’s love and forgiveness.  At the same time, however, we are reminded that we too have a role in this covenant, reminding us that the scoundrel should forsake his way.  He continues to remind us, in that very popular passage, that “my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways.”  As mere mortals it may be difficult for us to agree with what God is asking of us, but like a parent to a child, we should trust that God knows what’s best.

Our response comes not from Psalms, but from again from the Prophet Isaiah, in this case, 1st Isaiah where we proclaim that God is indeed our savior, and we should “draw water joyfully from the spring of salvation.”  As a complement to our first reading, our trust in God, even when we would rather follow our own path, leads to joy and salvation.

Our second reading comes from the 1st Letter of John.  Here John presents us with two important messages.  First, in a passage that compliments what we heard in our first reading and our response, in that following the Lord leads to salvation.  Here John exhorts us to “keep his commandments” while reminding us that doing so is not burdensome, and will in fact lead us to victory.  John takes this one step further, however, reminding us that Jesus himself, in following the Lord, was the victor over the world (through his death and resurrection).  He then goes on to remind us that Jesus, who came through water (at his Baptism) and blood (at his crucifixion) can attest, through the Spirit, that God’s promise of victory is true.  John’s oratory in this letter is both poetic and layered with insight.  In it you can hear John developing a style he will employ more fully in his Gospel.

This takes us to our Gospel, which in honor of the feast day we hear Mark’s account of the Baptism of Jesus.  Typical of Mark, the story is short and to the point.  Jesus has traveled from Nazareth down to John at the Jordon.  While the distance Jesus had to travel was pretty significant, it’s not nearly as significant as what happens after he emerges from the water.  As Mark describes it, the heavens are “torn open” and the Spirit, like a dove, descends on him, and we hear a voice from heaven proclaim “you are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”  It’s an extraordinary moment, and marks the beginning of Jesus’ mission.

Final Thoughts:
The story of Jesus’ Baptism is a Catholic favorite because for us it is the premier example of a “Sacramental moment.”  When we think of Baptism or Confirmation or any of the Sacraments, it’s these images that we think of most… and rightly so.  Unfortunately, it’s also the reason why that when we receive our own sacraments, we can feel a little let down...  because the heavens didn’t open up… no doves descended… you don’t really feel any different than before. 

We build up these expectations only to be disappointed when something miraculous doesn’t happen right at that moment.  But that’s only because we’re not looking at these moments the right way.  It’s not the moment of the sacramental act that is the miracle, but the grace we receive from it over time as we live out that sacrament.  It changes us in ways that we don’t immediately see, but over time, when embraced and practiced to the fullest, we can see how it has changed and formed our lives in ways we could never imagine.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Epiphany of the Lord, 2015

If Easter is our highest holy day, the Epiphany is rightly the second.  It is the celebration of the realization that God's salvation is a gift for all people, everywhere.  It is this feast that defines us as Christians, revealing not only that this child, Jesus, is the Christ, but that the grace of reconciling the people to God is a universal invitation.

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

Our first reading comes from the later chapters of Isaiah.  Here the prophet sees a glorious vision for Jerusalem… the city shall be radiant and become a beacon for all the nations.  And that is the key point of this reading today... that all people, all kingdoms, will see Jerusalem, God's city and God's people, as the light and life, and be drawn to her and the glory of the Lord.  These later chapters of Isaiah reflect the hope for the end of the Babylonian Exile, and the reconciliation of God to the people of Israel.  As seen through our Christian eyes, this passage also speaks to our hope for the messiah, a savior who’s greatness will be seen by all nations, especially the dromedaries from the east bearing gifts of gold and frankincense (a detail not lost on Matthew when we get to his gospel).

Our Psalm reflects the same sentiment of our first reading, but instead of looking toward Jerusalem, the Psalm has us looking to the King and his Son.  Ancient peoples saw the kingdom and the king as one in the same (i.e. David is Israel, and Israel is David), and here the Psalm asks for God's judgment and justice be endowed onto the king and his son, so that these kings would rule with the same care and mercy that God would show.  From our Christian perspective, however, we see this also as a foreshadowing of Christ, our King and king of the universe. 

This revelation is not lost on St. Paul in our second reading from his letter to the Ephesians.  Here Paul states clearly and unambiguously that salvation through Christ is open to everyone.  There was much debate in the early Church as to whether you had to be a Jew (or become Jewish) to be a Christian.  But just as Jesus reached out to foreigners, it became clear to the Apostles that Gentiles (non-Jews) needed to be welcome in the Church.  This revelation from Paul, who had been a Pharisee and devout follower of Jewish Law, demonstrates the profound nature of this message that that Christ is the light for all people.

Our Gospel also goes to great lengths to reinforce this revelation, this epiphany.  In a story that is unique to Matthew's Gospel, we hear the story of the Magi, coming from the East, to find this newborn king of the Jews.  We're very familiar with this story through song and legend and tradition, but as modern Christians this story tends to loose the impact that its first listeners (Matthew's primarily Jewish community) would have heard.  In fact, Matthew's community would likely have felt much like "all of Jerusalem" in this story, greatly troubled that these foreign emissaries seem to know something that they don't.  That Jesus is in fact the messiah that had been foretold by the prophets.  That this is the one, and if they can see this, so should we.  It also demonstrates how King Harod let fear and jealousy guide him instead of God and the prophets.  Matthew uses these important lessons to help us all see the truth and learn from his story.

The story and the legend of the Magi hold a special place in collective Christian conscience, and rightly so.  But we also need to remember that the true gift they brought was the revelation that this child was the Christ, and he brought salvation for all people.

Final Thoughts:
While many of us are familiar with the legends surrounding the maji and the importance they play in the infancy narratives, today’s gospel actually tell us very little about them.  While we have come to know them as the “wise men,” the “kings,” or the “astrologers,” from various traditions, our text uses the word “maji,” a Latin variant from the original Greek “magos,” which may refer to the ancient Persian religious cast.  As to the number of “magi,” the scripture is also unclear.  While we commonly think of “the three wise men,” some traditions indicate that there could have been as many as twelve.  The number three traditionally coming from the number of gifts, one from each of the maji.  In fact, many of the details of the legend come from non-biblical sources and traditions, and makes for fascinating reading.