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?