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.