Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Pentecost Sunday

The Sacred Triduum of Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Easter Vigil are considered to be the highest holy days of the Western Church.  For many in the Eastern Churches, however, Pentecost is considered the highest ranking feast, even above Pascha (the Eastern celebration of Easter).  But be it the first or second most important holiday on the Christian calendar, no one can argue it’s significance.  This is the day the Holy Spirit came upon the Apostles, the birthday of the Church.


Acts 2-1-11
Psalm 104:1, 24, 29-30, 31, 34
1 Corinthians 12:3b-7, 12-13
John 20:19-23

Our Sunday readings open fittingly with the Pentecost story from Acts of the Apostles.  It is after the Ascension and we are back with the Apostles in the upper room.  Most of us are familiar with the story… The Holy Spirit come upon the like “tongues of fire” giving them the power to go down into the streets and preach the Gospel so that this international multitude can hear them speaking in their own tongues.  While this later part of the story is the part we tend to focus on, the very beginning of the story also has great meaning… a meaning that our modern ears tend to miss…

The fist line begins “When the time for the Pentecost was fulfilled,”  It sound so simple and obvious that we miss the author’s deeper intent.  In fact, this passage refers to the Jewish celebration of Shavuot, or what Hellenistic Jews referred to as Pentecost (which in Greek for “fiftieth day” since the Passover).  Also referred to as the Festival of Weeks, Shavuot celebrates the giving of the Torah… the Law.  It also coincides with Israelite harvest season marking the conclusion of the grain harvest, or the Day of First Fruits celebrated at the Temple.  So while our Jewish ancestors celebrate Pentecost as the giving of the Law, Christians celebrate receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit, which in turn gave them the courage to spread the Gospel… the new Law.  Coincidence?  Not at all.  This is one of those moments where our author sees an opportunity to draw a connection between the old tradition and the new, and bring with it a sense of renewal that is echoed in our Psalm.

Our second reading comes from Paul’s 1st letter to the Corinthians.  Here Paul reminds us that our ability to say “Jesus is Lord” comes from the Holy Spirit.  Indeed, a fitting statement for Pentecost, but as Paul continues he presents us with one of the most important teachings of his ministry, that WE are the Body of Christ… though we have many parts, we are made one through the Spirit.

Our Gospel for this Holy Day comes from John, taking us back to the upper room where Jesus for the second time appeared to the Apostles after the Resurrection (the first being that time when Thomas wasn’t present).  It is a simple, yet moving moment as Jesus “breathed on them and said to them ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.:”  This is the “Pentecost moment” in John’s Gospel.  As we know, none of the Gospels go into a lot of detail with regard to Pentecost, but we need to remind ourselves that, as is typical with scripture, that it’s not always the details that are important, but the moment.

While the Gospels do not all discuss Pentecost in the same way, the importance of the moment is that the Holy Spirit came!  Jesus promised them the Spirit, and it came.  The Spirit that we celebrate in the Rite of Confirmation.  The Spirit that sustains us in our commitment to Christ.  The Spirit that binds us together as Church with Our Father and His Son.  This isn’t just a moment for the Apostles, but for the entire Church, as we witness the continuing coming of the Spirit to each of us, in its own way, in every generation.

Final thoughts:

Many people going through the RCIA or Adult Faith Formation, especially in the beginning, feel very uncomfortable because they feel they don’t yet know enough about the Catholic faith or what is proper during Mass.  They often feel a little out of place, thinking that the rest of the congregation is watching for them to make a mistake about standing or sitting or kneeling.  While this is a perfectly normal and common feeling, I am always reminding these “Catholics in training” that this is nothing to worry about, and that in fact there are many active Catholics who could stand to learn a thing or two about the practice of their faith.  Understanding the importance of this Sunday’s celebration of Pentecost is one of them.

We’re never too old to learn something new… even someone like myself who was raised in the Church and served in a variety of Liturgical and catechetical ministries.  One of the new things I learned this week was about the Vigil for Pentecost.  Now for all the years I’ve been teaching and writing about the fact that the readings we have for the Vigil of Pentecost (Saturday evening Mass) are different from those used during the Sunday celebration.  In and of itself, this isn’t all that unusual.  Many holy days have different “vigil” readings.  But until this week I had no idea how different.  There is, in fact a celebration that is referred to as the “Extended Vigil” for Pentecost... a Liturgy similar to the Easter Vigil as we immerse ourselves in the story of the coming of the Holy Spirit… from Genesis, to Exodus, to the prophets Ezekiel and Joel, and Paul’s letter to the Romans, all teaching us about the Holy Spirit.  Who knew?

It only seems right that we would have such a Liturgy, one that both reflects and respects the Easter Vigil by bringing the Easter story, and the Easter Season to its conclusion.  Truth be told, however, we can all give ourselves a little leeway on knowing about this “Extended Vigil” for Pentecost because it’s not widely celebrated, and therefore not widely known… at least not in Southern California.  But it would be interesting to find out which parishes or communities do celebrate this extended version of the Pentecost Vigil.  So if you know of anywhere, please let me know.  In the meantime, know this… The coming of the Holy Spirit is what makes us the Church, binding us into the Body of Christ.  It is a moment for praise and thanksgiving!

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord

This Thursday is traditionally celebrated as the Ascension of the Lord, marking 40 days since the Resurrection of the Lord with his Ascension to Heaven.  Tradition then tells us that 10 days after this the Holy Spirit came to the Apostles which we celebrate at Pentecost Sunday next week.  In the United States, however, and in other parts of the world, the bishops councils have moved this celebration of the Ascension to this coming Sunday, traditionally the 7th Sunday of Easter.  Why was this Solemnity moved to Sunday?  Because the reason for the celebration far outweighs the timing of the celebration.  The Ascension of the Lord is a pivotal moment for the Apostles.  Jesus, resurrected, is now leaving them, but he instructs them to wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit.


Acts 1-1-11
Psalm 47:2-3, 6-7, 8-9
Ephesians 1:17-23
Matthew 28:16-20

Our first reading comes from the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles, where the opening act is the Ascension of Jesus.  This is a far more dramatic (and detailed) version than where Luke leaves us at the end his Gospel (Chapter 24), but like many great sequels, the opening moments recap the story thus far (as a reminder of where we left off) in order to set the stage for the narrative moving forward.  It is interesting to note that the event of the Ascension is noted only briefly at the end of Luke and Mark, while Matthew and John don’t even mention it.  It is also interesting to note that the traditional 40 days Jesus spent on Earth after the resurrection only occurs in Acts; that Biblical 40 days meaning “when the time was fulfilled”.  This is a momentous occasion, the joy of which is echoed by our Psalm as we sing, “God mounts his throne to shouts of joy: a blare of trumpets for the Lord.”

For our second reading we leave behind our study of 1st Peter to hear from the opening verses of St. Paul's letter to the Ephesians.  Since this is just the opening of the letter, we haven’t gotten yet to the meat of his message to the Church in Ephesus, but he does give us a good visual of the risen and ascended Jesus, which supports our theme of the Ascension.  It is also a message of hope, a theme that we've been exploring all through the Easter season.

Our Gospel then takes us back to our current Cycle A and the conclusion of Matthew’s Gospel.  As previously noted, Matthew does not conclude his Gospel with the Ascension, but rather, takes this time to give us one last theological lesson... that “I am with you always until the end of the age.”  While the message is important, for Matthew's followers, the location - the mountain - is also important, giving us one last opportunity to see Jesus as the new  Moses.

Final thoughts:

Humor is not something we normally attribute to the Bible, but it is there is you look.  While a lot of the jokes tend to get lost just through antiquity, there are those that get lost because a certain gravitas has been placed on the “Sacred Scriptures” that wasn’t necessarily there when they were written.  Sometimes we need to allow ourselves to see the absurdity of the moment not only to enjoy the joke, but so we can see the deeper meaning the humor was meant to convey. 

I must confess, I have always found this week’s passage from Acts to be one of the more humorous moments in all the New Testament.  Here we see the Apostles, standing in the middle of nowhere, staring up into the clouds.  Then these two guys come up and ask why they’re standing there looking up in the sky?  This is funny stuff!  But sometimes we need the absurdity of the moment to shake us into action. 

Sometimes we treat our faith life like this moment with the Apostles.  We’re astonished and spiritually moved by the moment (like with the Ascension), but then we find ourselves staring up in at the clouds, as if we’ve been paralyzed by that moment.  But here’s the thing… we aren’t meant to be paralyzed by our faith because ours is a faith of action!  Just like at the end of Mass… filled with Christ and the wonder of the Real Presence of the Eucharist, we’re not meant to drop to our knees in awe and wonder, we’re told to “GO” and bring the Gospel to the world.  Sometimes we need to head these wiser angels and realize that we’re not meant to be standing here, but instead, going back to town to give them the good news!

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

6th Sunday of Easter

If you want to have some fun, ask a Catholic (or any Christian) about the Holy Spirit.  The answers you get will likely be as varied as the people you ask.  Our faith is based on a “Trinitarian” view of God:  God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit.  As a Church we do quite well teaching about God the Father, and we do an excellent job teaching about Jesus, but when it comes to the Holy Spirit we tend to treat the subject like a “third wheel” or “odd man out.”  We spend so much time learning about God the Father and God the Son that we end up with little time to spend on the Holy Spirit.  Perhaps our readings for this week can help us to better understand the Spirit…


Acts 8:5-8, 14-17
Psalm 66:1-3, 4-5, 6-7, 16, 20
1 Peter 3:15-18
John 14:15-21

For this 6th Sunday of Easter we open with a story from Acts of the Apostles where we hear how Philip has had great success in bringing the Gospel to the people of Samaria.  Even amid this great joy, Peter and John were concerned that the Holy Spirit had not yet come to them, so they travel to Samaria and lay hands on them.  Many Christians (and indeed many Catholics) wonder why we celebrate the Sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation separately, but that tradition has its basis in this reading,.  Adding to our members and receiving the Holy Spirit is a source of great joy that is echoed in our Psalm when we sing, “Let all the earth cry out to God with joy.”

Our second reading continues our study of 1st Peter, where we are asked to be ready to explain our reason for hope.  It’s easy for us to forget sometimes that life for these first Christians was very difficult.  Whether Jews or Gentiles, they were outcasts, both religiously and politically.  No longer part of the temples from which they were raised, and no longer in control of the countries in which they were born.  Yet even with this suffering and persecution, these people are hopeful.  Peter reminds them that even in the midst of suffering, there is life in the Spirit.  It’s a message that still rings true for us today, especially in our diverse, metropolitan,  and secular society where we can find it very difficult to defend our faith.

This theme of the Spirit continues in our Gospel from John.  Continuing from where we left off last week with the Last Supper Discourses, Jesus is teaching the Apostles about The Advocate… The Spirit of truth… the Holy Spirit.  This piece of God and this piece of himself that will be with them always.  Last week we heard Jesus teaching the Apostles about how he and God are like one.  But Jesus is also telling them that his time on this earth is about to come to an end, so it begs the question of the Apostles… how do we continue to see God if you are gone?  This is where the Holy Spirit comes in.  That essence of God within us, around us, and working through us.  The words of the Nicene Creed reflect this natural progression and understanding:

I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life
Who proceeds from the Father and Son
Who with the Father and the Son he is adored and glorified
Who has spoken through the Prophets


Final thoughts:
Holy Spirit, in Latin, Spiritus Sanctus, is literally translated as “breath, life force, or soul”.  Sometimes I think our teaching on the Holy Spirit is elusive because the very nature of the Spirit itself is elusive.  The Spirit is our connection to God the Father and God the Son, and is an integral, consubstantial part of the Trinity.  It is one with God, yet as individual as those whom it works through.  To paraphrase a popular quote, “it surrounds us, penetrates us, and binds the Church together.”  It is only fitting then that the Spirit be uniquely recognized through the Sacrament of Confirmation… a celebration that is still easily recognizable from our readings for this Sunday.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

5th Sunday of Easter

What happens when you have too much of a good thing?  When a business wins that lucrative new contract or expands into a new location?  Or taking that same idea a bit closer to home, what happens when two families merge through marriage, or when a family welcomes a new child?  We consider this kind of growth to be a good thing, but as with all things, these successes also come with their own baggage.  Our readings for this 5th Sunday of Easter have our Apostles facing similar challenges in the face of their growing successes.

Acts 6:1-7
Psalm 33:1-2, 4-5, 18-19
1 Peter 2:4-9
John 14:1-12

Our reading from Acts of the Apostles learning the hard way about the challenges that grow out of their continued success when their number of followers continues to grow.  Up to this point the Apostles have been doing their best to address the needs of the community, both spiritual and physical, but the community has grown so large now that they are becoming overwhelmed.  Realizing that they didn’t have the time to step in and negotiate every minor problem or day-to-day issue, the Apostles look for help.  From among the community they find seven men who are “filled with the Spirit and wisdom,” lay hands upon them, and set them to their tasks.  To us modern Christians, we recognize this laying on of hands as the primary symbol of ordination… men filled with the Spirit and wisdom to lead the community, just as a Deacon or Parish Priest would do today.  Further, we see the Apostles pulling away from the “day-to-day” problems so they are no longer neglecting “the word of God to serve at table,” not unlike our bishops today.  The troubles with growth like this are common with any organization, but our Psalm gives us the guidance we need when we face these types of challenges when we sing, “Lord, let your mercy be on us, as we place our trust in you.”


Our second reading continues our study of 1st Peter.  This week, Peter teaches that we, the people of God, are the new Temple.  Temple worship has been a long standing tradition among ancient peoples, including the Israelites.  But Peter is abandoning that idea… that worship does not happen in a place, but that it happens among the people, no matter where they are.  This is a monumental shift in thinking, especially for the ancient Jews, for whom the Temple in Jerusalem was (and is) the place that binds them together.  Peter calls us “living stone” as our bodies become a “spiritual house.”  Just as in the ancient Mosaic tradition, God isn’t limited to a single place, but instead lives among and within his people.  Mind you, Peter also had some additional motivations for this new thinking.  Not only had the Apostles and the other followers of Christ been physically thrown out of the Temple, but by the time this letter was written, the Temple itself was destroyed.  The young Christian Church was a Church of the dispossessed… not unlike those former slaves who fled Egypt.  We are the stones of the new Temple.

Our Gospel, taken from the Last Supper Discourses from John, has the Apostles still focused on “place.”  Jesus has promised that there is a place for them in the Kingdom of Heaven, but their thinking is still very focused on the physical… what they can see and what they can touch.  They still see this “Kingdom” as a physical place, and therefore, are concerned about its limitations.  Jesus, of course, is speaking from a higher place… a spiritual place.  Thomas is concerned about how they are going to get there.  Philip asks Jesus if they could just see the Father so they could assuage their concerns.  It is here that Jesus must step back and remind them that if they have seen him (Jesus) then they have seen the Father, and further tells them that because of this connection, their belief in Jesus can lead them to even greater works.  Jesus is trying to get the Apostles to think “outside the box,” a lesson that still needs some time to sink in.

Final thoughts:

This week our daily Angelus email linked to an interesting article titled, “
More Parish Closings Nationwide – What are we to Learn and Do?”  In this article the author, Msgr Pope, is speculating on why it seems so many parishes are getting closed down.  Regardless of why, however (and there are any number of reasons) Msgr. Pope provides us one serious revelation… “Bishops don’t close parishes, people do.”

I encourage you to read this article and ponder it, because it strikes at the heart of our readings this Sunday, which is that WE are the Church, WE are the new Temple, WE are, as St. Paul taught, the “Body of Christ.”  The physical nature of the Church lies within us.  This is what makes us part of the priesthood of the laity…that the action of the Church can only happen through our action.  We all have our duties as members of the Church.  While ordained ministers (deacons, priests, and bishops) all have their roles defined, this doesn’t mean we get to sit back and let them do all the work.  By our Baptism we are also priests on a certain level, and thus have our own role to play… to be that “living stone.”  Without our active participation the Church cannot live to spread the Gospel.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

4th Sunday of Easter - Good Shepherd Sunday

Shepherd imagery and references  are found throughout scripture.  Moses was following a lost sheep when he first encountered God in the burning bush, David was out tending the sheep when Samuel came looking for a new king for Israel.  Even Jesus made references to shepherds and sheep in his teachings and parables because it allowed him to connect with his audience.  This imagery is so rooted in our societal DNA that it still resonates through our modern urban cultural experience.  This coming 4th Sunday of Easter is better as “Good Shepherd Sunday” because we hear the very popular and beloved story of the Good Shepherd from John’s Gospel.


Acts 2:14a, 36-41
Psalm 23:1-3a, 3b-4, 5, 6
1 Peter 2:20b-25
John 10-1-10

Our first reading from the Acts of the Apostles picks up shortly after where we left off last week.  As we remember, Peter was speaking to the crowd in Jerusalem about Jesus and the events that are still fresh on their minds with his trial and crucifixion.  This week we pick up the narrative with Peter, very much filled with the Spirit, explaining to the crowd what they must to in order to be saved… that is, to repent and be baptized.  Though no direct shepherd imagery is depicted here, the message is clear that salvation comes from following Jesus.  Our Psalm reflects what Peter is preaching as we sing the favorite Psalm 23:  “The Lord is my shepherd, there is nothing I shall want.”

Our second reading, continuing our study of 1 Peter, reminds us that we have “gone astray like sheep” and  need to return to our “Shepherd and guardian.”  Here Peter is reminding us that in our journey of following Christ we may experience suffering along the way, but in those times we also have an example in Christ, who through his own suffering enabled us to be redeemed.  We are reminded that the mission Jesus took on was because we had strayed, so like a shepherd, Jesus came to gather us together.

Our Gospel from John continues on the “lost sheep” theme.  Here we are reminded that all sheep know the voice of their shepherd and will follow him.  In this case, Jesus is the shepherd, and those “sheep” that follow his voice are the ones who will be allowed into paradise.  A shepherd, by the nature of their job, is also the gate keeper to their pens.  Only those sheep who recognize the shepherd’s call will come to the gate, but the shepherd also knows his own sheep, so those whom he doesn’t know will not be let in.  It’s a reciprocal relationship… the sheep know their shepherd, and the shepherd knows their sheep. 

For those familiar with the trade of shepherding, like many of John’s audience, this is a clear image that makes sense.  But John’s message, like so much of John’s gospel, speaks both on the surface and on a much deeper level.  Jesus is clear in explaining that those who are HIS sheep will be let in, but those who are pretenders will not.  It is these pretenders to whom John is serving notice… that Jesus as the gate keeper knows his sheep, and those who are not following him will not be let in.  Jesus continues to say that those who try to force their way in are like thieves and robbers.  This rebuke is directed at the religious establishment who by Jesus’ view, are failing in their mission to be good shepherds.  While verse 11, which we don’t hear today, reinforces the idea of what a good shepherd does, I think the important take away for today is not the role of Jesus is in this scenario, but how well we are playing our role as sheep, which if we take  out verse 11, brings our focus back to what is expected as us as sheep, rather than what is expected of the shepherd.  

Final thoughts:

Any number of scholars and theologians have speculated on how and why Christianity spread as it did throughout the world, and still continues to do so today.  I believe it is due in part to Gospel stories like this.  Agricultural images like that of farmers or shepherds are universal ideas that cross most cultural and geographic barriers around the world.  With Jesus using these images to help us connect with God in a very basic way and allowing us to see his universal nature.  Even as our cultures continue to evolve into more urban and technological forms, these basic agricultural trades still exist and remain a necessary part of our human experience and critical to our survival as a species.  The story of the Good Shepherd resonates deeply with us because it not only connects with us on a cultural level, it connects on a deeply spiritual level.  Being able to see Jesus as a good shepherd helps us to more readily connect with him and follow him.  What’s right and wrong are easily understood, but more importantly, his great mercy is shown in his willingness to come after us when we go astray, and lovingly guide us back to his flock.