Tuesday, January 24, 2017

4th Sunday of Ordinary Time

“Blessed are the poor…”  When we Christians hear this phrase we immediately think of the Beatitudes as Jesus taught them from his Sermon on the Mount.  But while we may easily recognize these words, what do they really mean?  Perhaps a deeper study of our readings for this week will help us understand…

Zephaniah 2:3, 3:12-13
Psalm 146:67, 8-9, 9-10
1 Corinthians 1:26-31
Mathew 5:1-12a

Our first reading comes from the book of the prophet Zephaniah.  If you’re looking for hope in the scriptures, I would avoid Zephaniah.  Although Zephaniah’s prophecy takes place during a time of great reform under King Josiah, his message is a dire warning to the people of Judah.  The Lord is angry and there will be fierce retribution for the people of Judah.  Does Zephaniah offer an hope?  Today’s passage offers this:  for “all you humble of the earth, who have followed his law… perhaps you may be sheltered on the day of the Lord’s anger.”  Even though the people turn back to the Lord under King Josiah, Zephaniah sees this as too little too late.  The Assyrians have already concurred the North, and soon the Babylonians will be coming for the South.  All that remains is humility.  Our Psalm echoes this spirit of the poor seen in our readings as we sing “Blessed are the poor in spirit, the kingdom of heaven is theirs.”

Our Gospel, which takes place shortly after last week’s story (gathering his first disciples), has Jesus giving the Sermon on the Mount.  Jesus climbs a hill, sits down, and gives us the Beatitudes:  “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  It sounds nice, but what does it really mean?

As it starts out, on the surface, it shows a heavenly preference for the poor.  In this case, “the poor” represent those special classes protected by Mosaic Law (widows, orphans, foreigners, the poor of society)… but it goes farther than that.  A surface reading would seem to tell us that the poor need not worry about their lot in life because in they will be rewarded in the end.  While this may be true, it could also be read that those who are not poor are absolved of any duty toward them.  Quite the opposite.  Mosaic tradition, the Prophets, and Jesus here are saying we need to take an active role in protecting the poor.  Because the poor are considered blessed, those blessings then transfer to those who help, and in doing so, will see God.  This understanding of “transference” is something a modern audience might miss with a quick reading.  By helping those who are “blessed,” we become blessed ourselves.

Our second reading continues our study of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians.  Though not directly related to our theme of the Beatitudes, Paul reminds us that we were not chosen for our wisdom, wealth, or power.  Instead, “God chose the foolish of the world to shame the wise.”  In fact, if we are to boast of anything, we “should boast in the Lord.”  Again, it’s not our great deeds that save us, but rather our humility.

Final Thoughts:

I have to admit… for a long time I struggled with the Beatitudes.  On the surface it seems someone like me has little to recommend them to the kingdom of heaven.  Look again at the list:  The poor, those who mourn, the meek, the hungry, the merciful, the clean of heart, the peacemakers, the persecuted.  All these people would appear to have a better chance of getting into Heaven than me.  My everyday life doesn’t really reflect these conditions… at least, not in the way they effect so many others.  Is there any hope?

But then I was taught that these Beatitudes are just part of a deeper theme that not only runs through Matthew’s Gospel, but through our overall Christian ethic.  Reading scripture like this requires us to dig deeper, and try to understand these words like those who first heard them, that is in the spirit of the Mosaic Law.  We need to understand that all these people in need are a protected class in the eyes of the Lord, and that we, as the Lord’s followers, have a duty to serve these people in need.  We may not be poor, but we have a duty to help the poor.  We may not be mourning, but we have a duty to help those who mourn.

There are also times in our lives where we ourselves may be poor or mourning, but when we are not, we owe a duty to those who are.  This understanding not only brings greater meaning to the Beatitudes, but they form an ethical thread that we will see again and again as we journey through Matthew’s Gospel, like when we hear, “Do to others whatever you would have them do to you.” (Matt 7:12), or “whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.”  (Matt 25:40).

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

3rd Sunday of Ordinary Time

Discernment.  It’s a word we use when we need to carefully and prayerfully come to a life-altering decision.  Often this term is used for those who are contemplating a vocation to the priesthood or the religious life, but the truth is we the laity are faced with discernments of our own.  We are regularly faced with decisions about school, majors, job opportunities and relationships that can alter the course of our lives.  This week’s readings focus on our need for discernment:

Isaiah 8:23-9:3-1
Psalm 27-1, 4, 13-14
1 Corinthians 1:10-13, 17
Mathew 4:12-23

Our first reading comes from early Isaiah.  The Northern Kingdom of Israel has fallen to the Assyrians, and the people of the Southern Kingdom of Judah fear they are next.  But over some time a new regime has taken has hold in the former lands of Israel, and Isaiah sees this as a useful example of God’s mercy.  Lands that were in anguish and darkness now “have seen a great light.”  This light shines from a land that now has a large non-Israelite (Gentile) population, and Isaiah hopes this will convince his fellow Israelites in the South that one only needs to put their trust in the Lord.  By looking at the lessons of the past and the grace of the present, one can discern that, as our Psalm sings, that “The Lord is my light and my salvation.”

These very same words from Isaiah also appear in our Gospel from Matthew.  Jesus has been discerning his own mission.  He’s been baptized by John and has been tempted by the devil in the desert.  He knows it’s time to begin his ministry, but where and how?  Jesus learns that John has been arrested, so it would seem Jerusalem is no longer a safe, so he goes to Galilee.  Why Galilee?  First, it’s sufficiently far enough away from Jerusalem (some 65-75 miles north).  Second, it’s not far from his family home in Nazareth.  Third and most importantly to Matthew’s readers, it fulfills the prophecy from Isaiah, which we heard in our first reading, and hear again in our Gospel… that this great light will rise from Zebulun and Naphtali… what we know in Jesus’ time as the land of Galilee.  So that gives Jesus the where… but how will he deliver his message.  He’s going to need help, so we next see Jesus gathering his first Apostles… the brothers Simon (Peter) and Andrew, along with James and his brother John.

Our second reading continues our study of Paul’s 1st letter to the Corinthians.  It is apparent that the community is becoming divided with different factions claiming allegiance to different leaders.  Here Paul reminds them that it was in Jesus in whom they were baptized.  It was through Jesus’ suffering on the cross that brought us to salvation.  Therefore, regardless of any other internal conflicts or politics, they have made a commitment to Christ, and that is what binds us together as a community.

Final Thoughts:
Discernment and vocation go hand in hand.  A vocation is much more than a job or a career, it is taking on a particular way of life.  Something that needs to be carefully discerned because once you’ve made the choice, there’s no turning back.  This is why we so often relate the term “vocation” to someone discerning a calling to the priesthood or the religious life.  In those choices we can easily see how those decisions can impact someone’s life.  But a vocation is not just a call to the priesthood or the religious life.  It is a way of forming one’s daily thoughts and actions to the Gospel.  It is a decision that every Christian must discern…  deciding for ourselves how best to fulfill our calling to be followers of Christ.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

2nd Sunday of Ordinary Time

With the Christmas season now behind us, we enter into a period of Ordinary Time.  The white and gold vestments and d├ęcor are put away as Green now becomes the color of the season.  Throughout Advent and Christmas we’ve heard the prophecy of the Messiah, witnessed his birth, and come to recognize him as the chosen one.  Now as we enter this first period of Ordinary Time we start our journey with Jesus as he begins his ministry.

Isaiah 49:3, 5-6
Psalm 40:2, 4, 7-8, 8-9, 10
1 Corinthians 1:1-3
John 1:29-34

Our first reading comes from the book of the prophet Isaiah.  This passage from second or Deutero-Isaiah comes to us from a time toward the end of the Babylonian Exile.  During this time we learn of God’s plan for Israel’s redemption by sending us his “servant.”  Someone dedicated to the Lord who will bring the survivors of Jacob and Israel back to the Lord, and make them a light for all the Nations.  And just how will they be that beacon of light?  By following God’s commands, as we hear in our Psalm singing, “Here I am, Lord;  I come to do your will.”

Why is it that we’re so enamored with Isaiah’s prophecies?  Because from our Christian perspective, we see Jesus as the Christ, the one sent by God to fulfill this prophecy.  As we read Isaiah’s words we can’t help but to picture Christ.  Reinforcing that idea is our Gospel from John.  Here we have John the Baptist giving testimony to the crowd gathered at the Jordon river, telling them how the Spirit has revealed to him that Jesus is the Son of God, who will baptize them with the Holy Spirit.

But what of our second reading?  Having entered Ordinary Time, our second reading won’t necessarily support the same theme as heard in the first reading and the Gospel.  Instead, for these next eight weeks (until the beginning of Lent), our second reading will be an extended study of Paul’s 1st letter to the Corinthians.  Our passage this week, quite fittingly, is from the beginning of that letter.  Here Paul introduces himself as a servant for Christ, and bestows his welcome and blessings on the Church in Corinth.  As is typical of Paul’s letters, he follows conventional Hellenistic form in his introduction.  Over these next several weeks we will dive deeper into the main points of this important letter.

Final Thoughts:
Living in Southern California as we do, we sometimes miss the sensations of moving through the four seasons… that journey from Fall to Winter to Spring to Summer and then back to Fall.  That same seasonal rhythm also moves through our Liturgical Seasons, with its high points and low points and transitions in between.  But just as we Californians have a hard time seeing these patterns in nature, we Catholics can sometimes miss seeing these patterns in our Liturgy.  With the Christmas season now behind us, we enter a stretch of Ordinary Time.  Over the years I’ve grown to have an appreciation of what Ordinary Time has to offer.  It’s a chance for us to slow down and take in what’s going on around us.  It is an opportunity to literally walk with Jesus as he goes from village to village, from town to town, spreading the Gospel message.

Our lives are not static.  Growth and change are built into us by design, moving through the various stages of our lives, learning and adapting along the way.  Life is a journey, and often times the joy of life is found in the journey.  So too with our faith lives.  Far too many people see their faith as something that is static, a constant that they can fall back on when needed.  But that’s an incomplete view.  Living our faith is also a journey.  While God may be constant, our relationship with him is dynamic, always changing with the flow of our journey of our lives.  Ordinary Time is our chance to re-engage with God in a way that is much different than the big seasons.  It’s a chance to follow Christ on his journey through his ministry, and like the Apostles, give us too a chance to learn and grow.

Congratulations and blessings for Bishop Oscar Solis

I realize that some of you who read this blog might not be locals, so to give you some perspective, I come to you from the City of Long Beach, which is part of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.  For the past 30 years the Archdiocese, due to it's size and population, has been divided into 5 administrative "Pastoral Regions" with a different Auxiliary Bishop managing each region.  Since 2009, our San Pedro Region has been served by Bishop Oscar Solis.

It was announced today that Bishop Solis has been appointed Bishop to the Diocese of Salt Lake City.  That Diocese covers the entire state of Utah, serving nearly 300,000 Catholics in 48 parishes.  You can read more about Bishop Oscar from this link.

This is a unique position in a unique diocese.  I urge you to read more about this diocese from this link to Wikipedia.

Bishop Oscar has served us with grace these past 7 years, and his wit and his wisdom will be missed.  We don't know when he will be leaving, but according to the article, his installation as Bishop for Salt Lake City is scheduled for March.  I will post more information as it becomes available.  It is not yet known who will be taking his place here in the San Pedro Region.

Bishop Oscar, we thank you for your grace, your service, and your inspiration.  Our prayers go with you as you undertake this new assignment.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

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 this story 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.

The story and the legend of the Magi holds a special place in the 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.