Jul 172017
 

Matthew 13:1-9

On that day, Jesus went out of the house and sat down by the sea. Such large crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat down, and the whole crowd stood along the shore. And he spoke to them at length in parables, saying: “A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky ground, where it had little soil. It sprang up at once because the soil was not deep, and when the sun rose it was scorched, and it withered for lack of roots. Some seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it. But some seed fell on rich soil and produced fruit, a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold. Whoever has ears ought to hear.”

In the Gospel lesson for today we have the familiar story of The Sower.  As we just heard, Jesus says that a sower casts seed on four different kinds of ground: first the packed ground of the footpath, second the ground that is full of rocks, then the ground that is thick with thorns, and finally good fertile, well-tilled ground. Depending on where they land, the seeds are eaten by birds or spring up quickly and then wither away and die or they get choked out by the thorns. However, some of them, roughly a quarter, take root in good soil.

In the longer reading, Jesus explains the parable, explaining why some folks are faithful and others are not. Those of us who have reflected on this parable over the years worry about what kind of ground we are. We get concerned about how many birds are in our field, how many rocks, how many thorns. We have firm talks with ourselves and prayerfully try to figure out how to turn ourselves into well-tilled, well weeded, well fertilized fields for the full reception of the sowing of God’s word.

It’s awfully easy to see this as a story that informs us that the odds of being faithful are 3 to 1 against us. We may start stewing about what we need to do to beat those odds.

This parable is often heard as a challenge, a challenge to be different, a difference that comes about by doing a good and thorough personal inventory which leads to repentance and amendment of life. I’ve often prayed that my heart would be fertile ground for the word of the Lord so that I would be open to fully receive and ultimately bear a good yield for the furtherance of the Kingdom.

In reflecting on this parable, we note that there are times when we are like the well-trampled pathway. We’ve become hardened. We don’t want to hear God’s word and we certainly don’t want it to sink in; we are just not interested, we are not available for God the Holy Spirit to speak to us, even to bless us and empower us.

We don’t want to be bothered— thank you very much— and you can almost hear the devil chuckle, “This is too easy” as we putter or lurch around in our disobedience. Sometimes we do it with our feet up watching TV or sitting in front of a computer screen.

Sometimes we are like the shallow soil of the rocky ground. We get enthusiastic and determined to be faithful. But it’s all based on feeling good, so that when things don’t feel so good, we dry up, we wither. There’s no root system, we haven’t built on our sacramental foundation which in part is meant to sustain us during the dry spells; there’s no discipline of daily prayer nor works of mercy; there’s little or no financial generosity. We are shallow. Jesus is explicit: such a person has no root, but endures only for awhile, and when trouble or persecution arises…that person immediately falls away.

Sometimes we are like the thorny ground. Our intentions are good, we start off right, we get involved, we even try to be steady in our weekly Mass attendance and other acts of faithfulness that the Church prescribes. But pressures with the job, with the family, with recreation, with life in general just get to be too much and we literally get choked out. This is a dangerous time, too. For thorns and thistles and weeds in our life not only rob us of spiritual nutrition, they also make us feel guilty and resentful and we tend to pull away even more.

I don’t think I can count the number of people I know who have excommunicated themselves because they were being choked out by the cares and pressures of the world: all too often the lure of money and power and feeling good, of succumbing to the oppression of an all consuming “busyness,” or maybe just by abiding by our own selfish agendas and not God’s.

A choice is made and the choice is to stop being fed by the Body and Blood of our Lord, the one antidote to the world, the flesh and the devil. Sadly what is given up is nourishment from the Eucharist, true food of life and for life and along with the abandonment of the other sacraments and regular daily prayer, generous stewardship, and the love and comfort of the Christian community. When this happens something within shrivels and sometimes even dies.

But sometimes we are like the well-tilled fertile soil. We are open, we are receptive and we are prepared to accept all that God has for us. We are useful for the kingdom and our bountiful harvest blesses God and others who receive what God has produced in us to offer to them.  We have been empowered for discipleship. It is a wonderful experience of what it means to be faithful and fruitful.

Showing how we may be at times the beaten path, the rocky soil or the thorn-filled field and even the good fertile field is basically the standard interpretation of this parable.

But there is another dimension to this parable. Remember that for centuries it has been known as the parable of the Sower which means that we may have it backwards when we focus only on ourselves and our response to the word of God. This parable is primarily about the sower and not just about the various kinds of soils, or the birds and rocks and thorns and even the devil. We need to ask, “Is there another point that Jesus is making?  What else could he be saying?”

I suggest this: what if this parable is also about the incredible extravagance of the sower who does not seem to be fazed by the hard path and the birds and the rocks and the thorns? What if the sower intentionally flings seed everywhere with a kind of reckless abandon, a holy abandon, what if he delights in feeding birds and whistles at the rocks and nimbly picks his way through the blackberries, what if he sings hymns of joy, beaming and brimming with good will as he just keeps on sowing, confident that there is enough seed to go around, that there is plenty and at harvest time the produce will fill every barn in the community to the rafters?

If this parable is also about the largess of the sower as well as the different kinds of ground, then we have something really important here. How do we respond to such incredible generosity? What happens when our hearts are so full of gratitude that tears start to well up? Perhaps we will be motivated to express our gratitude by praying more, by being more faithful in Mass attendance, by choosing to extend ourselves more in our acts of charity, by digging deeper for the financial needs of the Church and of the poor?

If this interpretation is applicable, and the focus is not just on us and our shortcomings but more on the great and kind and incredible, even mind-blowing, generosity of God, the prolific sower who is not stingy with his grace, who casts the seed of his word everywhere, upon good soil and bad, who is more joyous and generous than he is judgmental or even practical, who seems to keep reaching into a bottomless seed bag, and flinging out the seed, covering the whole of creation with the fertile kernels of the word of truth.

You and I would not do it that way of course.  If we were in charge, we would devise a more efficient operation, a neater and cleaner and more productive one that does not waste good seed on birds and rocks and thistles. We’d concentrate only on the good soil and what we could do to make it that way.

But if this is the parable of the sower, then Jesus seems to be suggesting that God has another way of doing things, a way less concerned about our productivity and more about loving us.  In response maybe we could even trust Him to take care of us and the terrible state of affairs this old world is in. Now that is really Good News!

 

 

 

 

Jul 092017
 

Matthew 11:25-30

At that time Jesus exclaimed: “I give praise to you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for although you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned you have revealed them to little ones. Yes, Father, such has been your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son wishes to reveal him.” “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.

As I prayed and pondered the Gospel lesson for today, I got to reflecting on this statement that is so very dear to our hearts: “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. This phrase in all its various translations has given immeasurable comfort to people in distress. It can be found engraved on tombstones or designed in stained glass windows or even stitched in needlepoint and framed to hang in church halls.

This is a wonderful promise, a comforting promise to which many of us turn when burdens are seemingly impossible to bear, when our best efforts to cope are inadequate and we are close to collapse. This is the promise of a loving Redeemer who will lift the sweaty loads off our backs and replace them with something that is greater than we are, and yet with this supernatural help we can shoulder any burden.

Let’s reflect on the situation in which Jesus spoke these words.

Here we are in the beginning stages of Jesus’ ministry. He had just called his inner core of disciples, the ones whose names we know: Peter, James, John and so on. Many others had decided to follow Jesus as well, perhaps as many as 200 or so. So here was this itinerant preacher and miracle worker wandering about the country preaching and teaching about the coming Kingdom of God. And he was accompanied by a whole slew of other folks.

Jesus had just finished the portion of his ministry that is generally known as the “Galilean Mission.” He had been preaching, teaching, healing and exorcising in various cities in Galilee, a region of what is now Northwestern Israel, but his reception had been less than warm. First, you can imagine the sight of a couple of hundred people descending on your village or town. That in itself would make you somewhere on the scale between curious and anxious, maybe even fearful. But itinerant Rabbis and their entourages weren’t that uncommon, so most folks took it in stride.

It also must be noted that the people in these communities were smart, resourceful, capable and most were prospering despite the Roman occupation. The vast majority were not looking for help from Jesus, nor from anyone else for that matter. Sure they hoped the Romans would be kicked out, but they knew this wasn’t likely, so they did the best they could. And like so many today in our own country, those folks may have found Jesus and his message interesting, but they were far more fascinated by the miracles than in the call to repent and amend their lives. They soon grew tired of this itinerant rabbi and his motley band of followers.

We can see how that group of newly minted disciples of Jesus would be discouraged. They hadn’t been at this very long and they were far from seasoned. It was all new to them and it was probably tougher than they expected.

The setting for today’s Gospel lesson depicts Jesus and the disciples sitting down to rest. Right before our reading, Jesus had been heaping some powerful reproaches on those who did not receive him and his Gospel message. In our text, Jesus is starting to pray. He thanked God for revealing his message to those so called “little ones” who took his words to heart over against those so-called wise and understanding who could not/would not be receptive. We read: “I give praise to you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for although you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned you have revealed them to little ones. (By the way, if you are among the “little ones” to whom God has revealed the fullness of the Gospel, consider yourself blessed.)

And then Jesus addresses his burdened disciples by saying: Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.”

My word, what does he mean? First of all, I think he was addressing the immediate situation. It wasn’t easy following an itinerant rabbi. You were always scrounging for food and a place to stay. Frequently you weren’t particularly welcomed and often, in the dust and fatigue, it would be easy to be discouraged. We do know that some joined and then left. We note this especially in the 6th chapter of St. John’s Gospel where Jesus made the great pronouncement that unless you eat his body and drink his blood, you have no life in you. We are told in verse 66 that after he said this, many of his disciples drew back and no longer went about with him. But that’s later. Now we are in the beginning stages of his earthly ministry and Jesus is teaching his disciples about the importance of sharing burdens. That’s something we need to be reminded of as well.

Second, it’s important to note that Christ gave this message of helping with our burdens shortly after his first pronouncement about taking up our crosses. Both are critical for faithfulness; the cross shows our willingness to sacrifice for the greater good. Taking on the yoke of Christ shows that we desire to be useful for the Kingdom.

Much has been written and said about the yoke of Christ. It is almost always thought of in the singular, that there is a unique, distinctive personally made yoke for each one of us. I wouldn’t refute that, but there is another dimension here as well. Starting with a basic tenet of Catholicism that drew me to the faith, I want to affirm once again that Catholics “think ‘we’ instead of just ‘me.’” I’ve said it many times and I believe it applies here. We are communitarians. We are people who function in community with a heavy emphasis on collective responsibility and blessing.

With that as a premise, I want to do a bit of reflecting on yokes. If you’ve traveled around the world or just read National Geographic on occasion, you know that there are two basic kinds of yokes that are used to bear burdens, single ones and shared ones.

The single ones are very efficient. By placing a yoke across the shoulders and fitting buckets that are hung from poles on each side, a human being can carry almost as much as a donkey. However, a single person will tire easily and have to sit down and rest frequently. Their shoulders will ache all the time and backs will eventually give out. But it is possible to move great loads from one place to the next using a single person under a single yoke.

A shared yoke works quite differently. It requires two creatures for one task, but if they are well matched, they can work all day, because under a shared yoke there is a greater distribution of the load. They can take turns bearing the brunt of the weight; they can cover for each other without having to lay their burden down so frequently. They have company all day long and when the day is done both are tired but neither is exhausted because they are a team and the burden has been shared.

Plenty of us labor under the illusion that the yoke Christ has for each of us is a single one, that we have to go it alone, that the only way to please God is to load ourselves down with heavy requirements: good deeds, pure thoughts, blameless lives, perfect obedience while not receiving any help. And yet, as I like to remind folks, we Catholics have so much help available to us.

We start with Christ and the other two members of the Holy Trinity. We have the Angels and Saints, especially the Blessed Virgin, we have patron saints and saints who are focused on specific needs. As an example I’ve been calling upon St. Alban lately. He’s the patron of immigrants and prisoners and those being persecuted. I invoke him in my daily prayers to watch over and tend those millions of people who flee for their lives from the incredible violence and persecution that is out there. We also must believe that we are yoked with these folks in peril and distress, especially with the Christian minorities who are blatantly being persecuted. We are yoked with so many others, those who have incredible burdens and those who help carry them.

We must believe that the mysterious yoke that Christ lays upon us and upon so many others is the same yoke that he bears himself. We are called to be “yokefellows” if you will. Jesus is right here, half of the yoke on his own shoulders, the other half wide open and waiting for each of us, a yoke that requires no more than that we step into it and become part of a team. “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. It’s not just for select individuals. It’s for all of us who get weary and teeter on despondency and despair. And it’s also for those of us who are willing to help shoulder the burdens of others, both physically and with our prayers and by means of other support. No wonder these words have weathered the centuries so well; no wonder these words are still music to our ears.

They assure us that those who please God are not those who can carry the heaviest loads alone, rather they are the ones who are willing to share their loads and to be with Christ as he hefts the burdens of so many.

In closing, it must be said that we who are willing to share burdens are blessed by entering into relationship with the one whose invitation is a standing one. Once again we hear: Take my yoke upon you and learn from me… for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.

 

July 2, 2017 Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

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Jul 022017
 

 Matthew 10:37-42

Jesus said to his apostles: “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up his cross and follow after me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. “Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me. Whoever receives a prophet because he is a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and whoever receives a righteous man because he is a righteous man will receive a righteous man’s reward. And whoever gives only a cup of cold water to one of these little ones to drink because the little one is a disciple— amen, I say to you, he will surely not lose his reward.”

 

If you’d like to see my shoulders slump, then tell me what I should or should not do, particularly if I’m not inclined to do what needs to be done or if I want to keep on doing what I shouldn’t be doing. I think this is a part of the Catholic ethos I’ve picked up that I wasn’t anticipating. I’m pretty sure you know what I’m talking about; it’s what’s called in the vernacular Catholic Guilt. I’m going to change the name, but a Catholic woman once told me that she’s thought about introducing herself this way to strangers: “Hi, I’m Betty and I’m sorry.” I suspect some of you can identify with this.

The primary reason for this is that there are many “shalls” and “shall nots” in our faith. We can start with the 10 Commandments and go from there. I don’t need to tell you this; it is part of our ethos. It’s particularly true if we really, truly want to be faithful above all else. So let’s look more closely. It’s about discipleship.

The Gospel readings this time of year focus on what could be called The Cost of Discipleship. You may have noted that with the Church’s emphasis on Evangelization, the term disciple is being used more and more. The Catechism tells us that:  The disciple of Christ must not only keep the faith and live on it, but also profess it, confidently bear witness to it, and spread it: “All however must be prepared to confess Christ before[others] and to follow him along the way of the Cross, amidst the persecutions which the Church never lacks.” Service of and witness to the faith are necessary for salvation…(CCC#1816)

I like to define discipleship as actually following Jesus over against just admiring him, usually from a passive perspective. Disciples get up and move; they actually follow him both literally and figuratively. They do what needs to be done and they refrain from doing those things that are not in accord with faithfulness. Discipleship is the manifestation of an active faith, not a passive one. Disciples are willing to be inconvenienced and even suffer for the cause of Christ. They are willing to take on the guilt as well as the glory.

In contrast, admirers tend to remain inert or to find something else to do. I remember a former parishioner once telling me that “Church is what you do in your spare time.” This is not an expression of discipleship.

But this former parishioner was on to something. There are many people who want all the benefits of the faith without the rather rigorous requirements and especially they don’t want the guilt. There are many reasons, but I have noticed that people tend to be natural minimalists, particularly when it comes to matters of faith. Frequently questions like: “What must I do to be saved?” or “How much should I give away?” or “What is required of me to forgive that “so and so” who cheated me?”  These are almost always implying: “what is the very least I have to do to be saved, to give away or even to be forgiving? What are the minimum requirements to be obedient? What is the least I have to do to quit feeling guilty?”

In other words, “what are the minimum requirements to be a true Disciple of Jesus?” Now we do that with a lot of things, but it’s particularly prevalent among those who want to identify as being part of the faithful without having it cost too much.

Lutheran Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer called this “Cheap Grace,” which he defined as the “grace we bestow on ourselves… Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, receiving Holy Communion without confession…Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”

Cheap grace is concerned about social approval and risks nothing.

Over against cheap grace is costly grace. The term costly grace may seem like a contradiction in terms. However, let’s just think about Jesus’ parable of the treasure hidden in a field (Mt. 13:44ff). If you remember, this is the story of the man who discovers this hidden treasure in a field and happily cashes in everything he owns so he can to procure it.

Costly grace is not simply a lucky door prize. This grace takes the form of a call to follow Jesus to the cross. This was a teaching that the first disciples found very hard to take. How could the coming kingdom of God really mean that they might have to follow Jesus even to his death? Was there no short cut that did not involve this path?

There is no short cut. Grace costs nothing, but it demands everything. Costly grace confronts us as a gracious call to follow Jesus, it comes as a word of forgiveness to the broken spirit and the contrite heart. Grace is costly because it compels us to submit to the yoke of Christ and to follow him.

True grace comes only from God. It is free, but it is ever so costly. It took the crucifixion for it to be always available to us, the recipients. And disciples are aware of that cost and consequently they—we—are charged to offer our very lives as the only appropriate response. And when we don’t want to do that, when something else is more important or even more interesting, the guilt kicks in. The Catechism tells us that: In union with his Savior, the disciple attains the perfection of charity which is holiness. Having matured in grace, the moral life blossoms into eternal life in the glory of heaven. (CCC #1709)

But it is not an easy journey to get there. We hear this in today’s Gospel lesson:

Jesus said …: “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up his [or her] cross and follow after me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. 

We must be careful with this. This is not the case, as some have claimed, that what matters is following Christ in your own way. Jesus is saying loud and clear, that what matters is allegiance to Him and the Gospel and on his terms, not ours. This is not some kind of hobby that we do in our spare time when it fits our schedules. It is not grace that we bestow on ourselves. Following Christ on his terms and not ours must supersede everything else.

But we can see as this story unwinds, how difficult this was even for people who were His disciples back then. Eventually Peter denied Him three times, Judas betrayed Him, and the rest ran away and hid. But His call and challenge remain: embracing everything, demanding everything, offering everything, promising everything.

So how do we respond? There may come a time when the hassle and even the persecution can and will be almost unbearable. But never forget that the challenge of Jesus’ sayings is always matched by the remarkable promises He makes to those who accept and live by them. We will never be abandoned. Ours is a God of love, and love will prevail.

So let’s remember this when our shoulders slump and the guilt kicks in. This is what keeps us on the straight and narrow; it leads us to repentance and reconciliation and puts us back on the path of true discipleship.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

June 25, 2017 Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time

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Jun 252017
 

Matthew 10:26-33

Jesus said to the Twelve: “Fear no one. Nothing is concealed that will not be revealed, nor secret that will not be known. What I say to you in the darkness, speak in the light; what you hear whispered, proclaim on the housetops. And do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather, be afraid of the one who can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna. Are not two sparrows sold for a small coin? Yet not one of them falls to the ground without your Father’s knowledge. Even all the hairs of your head are counted. So do not be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows. Everyone who acknowledges me before others I will acknowledge before my heavenly Father. But whoever denies me before others, I will deny before my heavenly Father.”

 

A basic theme of today’s Gospel lesson is martyrdom. We note that Jesus presents a key component to martyrdom as he instructs the disciples to go out and share the Good News. He tells them twice: “Do not be afraid.” I’ve reflected several times with you on the martyrdom that is occurring today. More Christians have been slaughtered in the last hundred years for the cause of Christ and his Church than all the previous 19 plus centuries combined. This aptly-named red martyrdom is ongoing.

So let’s get some historical perspective. I would remind you that the word “martyr” means “witness.” The first centuries of the Church were spattered red with the blood of these heroic martyrs. Finally peace of a sort came to the Church in the 4th century when the Emperor Constantine became Christian and officially protected the Church. This was the age of councils and sophisticated theological development. It was principally the Councils of Nicea in 325 and Constantinople in 381 that brought about the establishment of the Church’s official teaching on the doctrine of the Trinity. We proclaim the result each time we recite the Creed. But all did not stay rosy and there was still a need for heroic witness.

Very soon the concept of “white martyrdom” developed; a martyrdom without death, but still bearing the brunt of scorn and ridicule and sometimes violent hatred of the faith and the faithful. These white martyrs were those who gave total offering to God while dying to self, the world, and its allurements.

There is much “white martyrdom” today, some with bloodshed. I recently read about some young Catholics in China who belonged to the Legion of Mary. They were forbidden by their government to practice the faith. But that didn’t stop them. They eventually were arrested and their rosaries confiscated. While in jail they continued to pray using their fingers to count the decades. The government swiftly chopped off those fingers.

Hopefully none of us will ever have to endure such a trial for our faith, but many ordinary Catholics do suffer rather minor but persistent persecution, especially if they—we— are committed to following Jesus for more than an hour on Sunday. Do you know anyone who is suffering a quiet white martyrdom for the faith? There are quite a few out there.

Let me offer some examples with corresponding Scriptures. To start, I read of a woman who announced, through heart-wrenching sobs, that her husband wanted a divorce and was moving out. After six kids and 19 years of marriage, you can bet they had their ups and downs. There finally was an issue of faithfulness that caused the break. You see, all throughout their marriage they had practiced Natural Family Planning. But now with age and unpredictable cycles, the husband did not want any more children, his solution was contraceptives. Her solution was continued Natural Family Planning and faith in the wisdom of God. After seeking counsel from several priests, family therapy, and prayer, he moved out. I believe she is a “white martyr” for the faith, a true witness for Christ and his Church.

The Prophet Sirach declares: When you come to serve the Lord, prepare yourself for trials. Be sincere of heart and steadfast, undisturbed in times of adversity. Cling to Him, forsake Him not; thus will your future be great. Accept what befalls you; in crushing misfortune be patient. For, in fire gold is tested, and worthy men [and women] in the crucible of humiliation. Trust God and He will help you. Make straight your ways and hope in Him. You who fear the Lord, wait for His mercy. Turn not away, lest you fall. (Sirach 2:1-7)

Here’s another account of “white martyrdom.” A Jewish convert to Catholicism was abandoned by his family upon his conversion. He took refuge in his new-found faith. He even turned away from a lucrative business career in order to shoulder the wheel of evangelization. The people in his church-related workplace proved more secular and profane than those on the outside. He continues to struggle with disillusionment as he tries his best to share the faith with cynical, condescending cradle Catholics.

St. Peter wrote…you may have to suffer through various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith, more precious than gold that is perishable even though tested by fire, may prove to be for praise, glory, and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 1:6-7)

Another convert is a lector and Eucharistic minister who brings Holy Communion to the sick at hospitals and to the homebound. His fellow very secular colleagues think it is hilarious to send pornographic images to his computer because of the “shock value” it evokes.

Jesus tells us in the Gospel of John: Remember the word I spoke to you. No slave is greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. (John 15:20)

A young woman college student, the eldest of seven children, is walking in the way laid out by her holy parents, the way of Truth. She suffers from several chronic diseases, and has been accosted by inexplicable satanic malevolence. Yet she continues to be cheerful, faithful and unafraid. She is a hero of the Church and a good example to young people all around her. Her witness comes at great cost, but it is a scourge to the nemesis, and a scandal to worldlings at her college.

St. Timothy tells us: In fact, all who want to live religiously in Christ Jesus will be persecuted. (2 Tim 3:12)

In today’s society faithful Catholics are regularly held in contempt. They are the “spoilers” of deviant lifestyles, polluted entertainment and sinful pastimes. They are the moral compass in the office, in politics and in the world. These are the faithful voices that make so many angry and sometimes even violent.

Should we be surprised? Jesus tells us in the 15th chapter of St. John’s Gospel:  If the world hates you, realize that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, the world would love its own; but because you do not belong to the world, and I have chosen you out of the world, the world hates you. (John 15:18-19)

But take courage! St. Peter exhorts us to cast all our worries upon Jesus because he loves us so very much. In the Epistle of First Peter we are told to be steadfast in faith, knowing that our fellow believers throughout the world undergo the same sufferings.  Peter tells us that the God of all grace who called you to his eternal glory through Christ will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you after you have suffered a little. (cf. 1 Peter 5:10)

We take solace in Our Lord’s promise: Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you (falsely) because of me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven. (Mat 5:11)

We are told in the book of Hebrews that God… will never forsake you or abandon you. Thus we may say with confidence: “The Lord is my helper, I will not be afraid. What can anyone do to me? (Heb 13:5)

God’s love for us is so deep and intense. Someone once said that he has a picture of you on his refrigerator. But there is a bit of carrot and stick here. Let me say that God would rather coax than coerce us to be faithful, but there are consequences for unfaithfulness. That is something of which we all need to be aware. We are loved without reservation, but it is not a sloppy agape. There is order and there are requirements. This is what we hear in today’s Gospel lesson. Jesus says to his disciples: Fear not:

Are not two sparrows sold for a small coin? Yet not one of them falls to the ground without your Father’s knowledge. Even all the hairs of your head are counted. So do not be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows. Everyone who acknowledges me before others I will acknowledge before my heavenly Father. But whoever denies me before others, I will deny before my heavenly Father.”

This is the stuff of martyrdom, both red and white. It’s worthy of our reflection.

 

 


 

June 18, 2017 Corpus Christi

 18 June 2017  Comments Off on June 18, 2017 Corpus Christi
Jun 182017
 

 

Abbot Jeremy Driscoll of Mt. Angel Abby wrote a wonderful little book entitled What Happens at Mass. He tells us that “The Mass is about love. It is not an idea about love, but the supreme encounter with love. A Christian is defined entirely by this encounter. And so, I am not in the [world] of Descartes [who said] “I think therefore I am.” Rather because of what happens at Mass, I know what that makes me [who I am]: I am loved, therefore I am…”

Abbot Jeremy continues: “To say that the Mass is about love is to say that it is…an encounter with God, but not as God vaguely contrived. It is an encounter with God through Jesus…who was crucified under Pontius Pilate and who’s death is [manifested] during the course of the Mass…[and it must be said that] Christ is not only the victim—he is also the Great High Priest who presides at the sacrifice.” (pp vii-viii)

These are basic, simple words that speak of the most incredible mystery. From early on the Church incorporated the word “mystery” when describing the sacraments, especially the sacrament of the Eucharist. The roots of this lie in the theology of St. Paul; for him the word ‘mystery’ is key to his understanding of what happens in Christ. The central mystery is the cross; he calls it a mystery because something was hidden in the cross that we cannot understand without it being revealed. For example, he explains in the 2nd chapter of I Corinthians that when the ‘rulers of this age’ crucified Christ, they didn’t have a clue who he was for his true identity was hidden. But in fact these rulers crucified “the Lord of Glory.” St. Paul wrote, “None of the rulers of this age knew the mystery. If they had known it, they would never have crucified the Lord of Glory.” (I Cor. 2:8) Ironically it’s all part of the great mystery of the Mass.

Abbot Jeremy defines the mystery of divine activity at the Eucharist this way. He writes: “a mystery is a concrete something that when you bump into it, it puts you in contact with divine reality…The bread and the wine of the Eucharist are concrete things, in them are hidden the very body and blood of Christ…” (p. 3)

The Greek word “mysterion” means something that is hidden and secret. The Latin word “sacramentum” refers to something that is made holy. In the Eucharist things are made mysteriously holy, things that we can touch, consume, the sacrament of Christ’s blessed Body and Blood. This mysterious sacramental presence is concrete but the mystery is that it occurs in the bread and the wine which are available to us by means of the words and movements of the Mass.

Abbot Jeremy also reminds us that the “Mass begins long before it begins…There is deep theological significance hidden in the arrival of many people coming from many places into one place to celebrate the Eucharist…[it is] the mystery of the assembly… people just coming to the Church building is already a mystery. A divine reality is hidden in… [our] concrete [act of gathering.]” (pp. 7-8)

Each of us brings a personal story: our struggles, our pains, our joy, our experiences in prayer. Are you going through some kind of faith crisis? Are the kids acting up? Is there trouble in your marriage? Did you just get a wonderful letter from a grandchild? Is someone you love close to death? Have you been away from the Eucharist for a long time?  Have you just made your confession and have you received the rejuvenating absolution by a priest and all things are sweet and new again? Is work a burden that borders on being unbearable and you aren’t sure what to do? Have you found new joy in a new job? Are you dealing with some chronic health issue? We bring so many things with us to Mass. These all are gathered into a common offering of this concrete assembly.

And hidden in this mystery of the concrete assembly is a much higher assembly, the whole Church of Christ has gathered, the Church in heaven and on earth, down through the centuries with the Blessed Virgin and all the saints and angels and archangels—cherubim and seraphim—chanting words beyond our hearing, giving voice to song that silently echoes through the centuries: “Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God Sabaoth, Heaven and Earth are Full of Your Glory, Hosanna in the highest.” This is the Church.

St. Paul tells us at the end of the 1st chapter of Ephesians that Christ is the Head of His Body, the Church and therefore we must always keep in mind that Christ is the only priest and ultimately there is only one Mass and Christ presides, always.  It is also important to remember that Christ shares his priesthood with all the Faithful. The presider at the head of the Eucharistic assembly is a sign of the one priesthood of Christ; all his words, all his actions during the rite are geared toward uniting the people of God with him;  in this sense we all participate in Christ’s priesthood because we are united with him in this priestly act.

So, when in obedience to Our Lord’s command at the Last Supper, we “do this” with the bread and wine, we are united in Fellowship with the Father, in the love of his Son, who is present in the Eucharist by and through the power of the Holy Spirit. United in and through the Blessed Triune God, together with so many we cannot see, we comprise the Church which transcends time and space. At every Mass we are present in both the Upper Room gathered with Jesus and the disciples and at Calvary, beholding him who is spiked to that cross. However, there is one obvious impairment, we can’t see Jesus with physical, human eyes but we can with the eyes of faith. Whenever this Holy Sacrifice is celebrated, all the benefits of Christ’s one, unrepeatable sacrifice is re-lived and all these benefits become available to us as we are united in the great and wondrous mystery called the Mass.

In closing I want to relate a story told by Dr. Peter Kreeft, professor of Philosophy at Boston College and a former Presbyterian. One day he took one of his students, a Muslim, to Mass, something the student had never witnessed before. Afterwards they discussed what they had experienced. The Muslim student asked Dr. Kreeft “Do you really believe that the bread [and wine] become, through consecration, the body and blood of the crucified and risen Christ?” “Certainly,” Dr. Kreeft responded, “That’s exactly what we believe.”

“If I believed that,” the Muslim student told him, “I would never get off my knees.” Here is a non-believer who intuitively understands the phrase, “The Eucharist is the Source and Summit of the Faith.”

 

June 11, 2017 Trinity Sunday

 11 June 2017  Comments Off on June 11, 2017 Trinity Sunday
Jun 112017
 

John 3:16-18

God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him will not be condemned, but whoever does not believe has already been condemned, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.

Theologians have long held that love is the cohesive bond of the three persons of the Trinity. This is pure love as described by St. Paul in the 13th chapter of 1 Corinthians: this is love that is patient and kind, love that is neither jealous nor boastful, love that is neither arrogant nor rude, love that does not insist on its own way, love that is neither irritable nor resentful, love that does not rejoice in the wrong but rejoices in the right, love that bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things, this love never ends, this love is holy.

This love permeates all three persons of the Triune God to the extent that the Apostle John can say that “God is love.” (I John 4:16) This is that wonderful self-giving kindness and affirmation that unconditional positive regard that we know from the Greek as agape.

And if the bond of the Trinity is this agape love, then I would like to reflect on one aspect of this holy love and that is vulnerability. And if one is vulnerable then one is subject to be hurt and to experience loss, even great loss, and the loving response to loss is grief. It is the grief of the Father when beholding his Son suffer and die on the cross, it is the grief of the Son upon noting the great sinfulness of our human condition, it is the grief of the Holy Spirit when violence and hatred become all too common in our interactions. The collective heart of the Blessed Trinity grieves and breaks especially when we humans submit to our lower natures, when we succumb to temptations, when there is the whiff of sulfur that wafts up from Hell and the enemy rejoices. And the great remedy for all this grief is love, an irony because it makes the all powerful, all knowing God vulnerable in a holy way. It is the love that is spoken of by St. John in our Gospel lesson when we read that:  God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.

With love there is always risk. The risk of being hurt, and yet if love does not reign supreme, then we are in a wretched place. In God’s call to us to love him in return and to love our neighbor as ourselves, we often fall short. Sometimes our vulnerability makes us so very weary. We fall victim to disease, distress, dryness, depression, abandonment, despair. We can easily feel overwhelmed. And when we are overwhelmed, we often have something other than love at the forefront of our lives.

The prophet Jeremiah spoke to this in the 12th chapter of the book that bears his name. He asks: “If you have raced with men on foot, and they have wearied you, how will you compete with horses? And if in a safe land you fall down, how will you do in the swelling of the Jordan?” (Jer. 12:5)

Jeremiah is talking about being hunted, about giving your all in escaping, by being exhausted by the ordeal. Imagine that your enemies, in this case the foot soldiers of Babylon, have been tracking you down, trying to kill you and you’re “done in” after outrunning them to safety only to look up and find that they have called in the cavalry and they are now hunting you down on horses.

They have found you and they are about to capture and kill you, so you flee once more and in your great fatigue you keep stumbling, and finally you’ve made it to the river’s edge, the boundary to home and safety. But once you get there, you see that the Jordan is in flood stage. The roaring waters are deep and swift and treacherous. What do you do? Jeremiah asks how will you fare if you have to cross the roaring river on foot when you can’t even keep your balance on dry ground? Panic overcomes you and you fall into despair.

Jeremiah has been experiencing some of this as the Children of Israel are being taken into captivity as slaves by the Babylonians. Some have escaped, trying to return home across the Jordon but they are being captured and killed. In this passage the prophet is railing at God, bewailing how unfair life can be. He is crying out: “Lord it is too much, I cannot go on!”  And then his heart becomes still and he is chagrined because he realizes that this is something that is so very common in our human condition. And God is there grieving with him, with us, because God’s love has made him vulnerable. It’s akin to the love of the Blessed Virgin as she watches her son being hammered to the cross. The Holy ones know what it is like to be vulnerable and aching.

We get upset because God doesn’t do what we want; he isn’t delivering us as we demand. But he is here with us, always. We must remember that the day of redemption, salvation, is nigh but it is not here yet.  We get frustrated as things are often overwhelming in their unfairness. But there it is, a product of our broken and sinful world, today’s world.

In today’s world, I ask you, what would you do if you were a citizen of Syria and you were hit by a ceaseless bombardment of mortar rounds and no one is there to help and worse, the attackers are preventing anyone from coming to your aid. Filth and disease and death are everywhere. There is no relief. And then more shells start landing again and again and again, and you can’t find your children, and your sobbing prayers seem to go unheeded. This is true vulnerability. This is what it is like to be a bombing victim in London or a stabbing victim on a Portland Light Rail train. This is what it is like to be a family member of the victims of such atrocities.

I am no chirpy optimist, horrible things happen all the time in this broken and fallen world. The task before us is to be realistic without being cynical. Sometimes that is a real challenge for me and yet I confess that the older I get and the more I see, the more I am amazed at the tenderness and kindness of the love of God.

Embracing this is the great conviction of the faith, that our time here on earth is transitory and that our hope and home is in heaven. You may think you believe in that, but wait until a loved one dies violently, and that belief is sorely tried. Lower your dear one into an open grave and you will learn what true believing means.

But never forget that we have wonderful hope and help. Not only do we have the Triune God who conveys love in so many ways. We also have the angels and saints who are constantly intervening for us; and of course our sisters and brothers in Christ here on earth.

In closing I want to remind you that each of us can get so self-preoccupied that we become absorbed with our own agendas and we lose the big picture, the call to love God and others. For perspective, have you noticed in your readings of the lives of the saints that there is almost never mention of the folks back home who grieve for a martyred family member? But there is a great deal written about the saints in glory.  Even Dante, who focused on the terrors of hell, went up on a hill. And suddenly he is confronted with a strange sound. “What’s that?” he asked.  And his guide smiled. “Some happy soul,” he said, “has burst through into victory, and all the heavenly host is singing praises to God with great jubilation.” It’s tough to keep this in mind when the blow falls. But we are in this together and like the three  persons of the Trinity, love is what binds us together, whether in sharing the Eucharist or chatting over coffee and donuts or bringing comfort and offering prayer when the there is so much hurt and desperation. We experience our Trinitarian God who is love; it’s what keeps Christians together; it’s what keeps us together and keeping this in mind puts everything else in its proper place.

 

 

 

February 26, 2017 8th Sunday in Ordinary Time

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Feb 282017
 

Although the 1983 Code of Canon Law for the Church has 1,752 separate laws, there are only six precepts, as the Church calls them, that are the basic house rules, if you will. I thought that I’d go over them with you a bit, so that together we can have more grist for the mill for our Lenten preparations. Of course they are in addition to the 10 Commandments and the Beatitudes and other admonitions, but we need to know and observe these six precepts.  Sometimes it’s important to go over the basics.

Here’s the list and then we’ll reflect on each one separately:

  • Attend Mass on all Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation
  • Receive Holy Communion during the Easter Season
  • Confess your sins in the Sacrament of Reconciliation at least once a year
  • Fast and abstain on appointed days
  • Observe the marriage laws of the Church
  • Contribute to the support of the Church

Let’s go over them:

  1. Attend Mass on all Sundays and Holy Days of obligation.

Every Catholic is required to attend a Catholic Mass on each and every Sunday and Holy Day of Obligation. Missing Mass on one of those days is a mortal sin, and when we miss we are putting our souls in jeopardy. Inclement weather, bad health and finding ourselves too far from a Church to attend, do excuse us from the obligation, but that’s about it.

Even on vacation Catholics are obliged to attend Mass. It just takes a little planning. Non-Catholic religious services are fine, but they aren’t a substitute. So if you go to a Baptist service with a friend or family member, there’s still the obligation to go to Mass. And if there is some reason you can’t receive Holy Communion; for instance if you’ve committed a mortal sin and you haven’t gone to confession, you still need to be at Mass.

One of the things folks often forget is that when we skip Mass, particularly on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation, we deprive the community of our prayers and we don’t receive the prayers of our brothers and sisters. That’s why I almost always use the confession of sin at the beginning which asks that “you my brothers and sisters to pray for me to the Lord our God.” It’s part of our privilege and responsibility as Catholics.

  1. Receive Holy Communion During Easter Season

Catholics are required to receive Holy Communion during Easter Season, which for U.S. Catholics is between Ash Wednesday and Trinity Sunday.

Back in the middle ages, many Catholics felt personally unworthy to receive the Eucharist on a regular basis, even though the Church never endorsed this. In the early part of the 20th century, Pope St. Pius X felt that Catholics should receive Christ every time they went to Mass, as long as they were without the blemish of mortal sin.

So Catholics were encouraged and prepared for regular reception of Christ’s Body and Blood. It’s key for ongoing faithfulness. Once again I remind you that the Mass is the Source and Summit of our faith; without it we are greatly diminished.

This precept is also a not so subtle reminder to tend to those things that would keep us from receiving Holy Communion, such as a troubling mortal sin. Sometimes it’s really easy to let things slide. If this applies, go to confession.

  1. Confess Your Sins in the Sacrament of Reconciliation at Least Once a Year.

Now technically this is not required of anyone who is neither guilty nor conscious of a mortal sin. I would remind you that for a sin to be mortal there must be three things: 1). It is a grave matter; 2) there must be full knowledge that it is sin, and 3) there must be full consent; for example it’s not a mortal sin if someone forces you to do something that’s sinful.  Missing Sunday Mass without a valid excuse, such as really bad weather or serious illness would be one example of a mortal sin.

Another would be blasphemy by using God’s name in vain. These and all other mortal sins must be confessed before a Catholic can worthily receive the Holy Eucharist. The bare minimum requirement is that those in a state of mortal sin must go to confession and receive absolution before receiving Holy Communion. It’s actually a sacrilege to receive Holy Communion when in the state of mortal sin; it’s a sort of spiritual double jeopardy. That’s Church teaching.

  1. Fast and Abstain on Appointed Days

On the one hand, abstaining applies to all Catholics age 14 and older. It means that we may not eat meat on Ash Wednesday and all Fridays of Lent. (And “meat” is any red blooded animal: beef, pork, venison, elk, bison, antelope, rabbit, chicken, turkey, grouse, chukar partridge, goose, duck and so forth. Knowing what some of you folks have in your freezers, it’s helpful to paint the definition with a broad stroke.) It also includes things such as gravies and soups that have a meat or chicken stock base.

Fasting, on the other hand, applies to all Catholics ages 18-59. So if you are 17 or under or 60 and over, the fasting requirements do not apply. At minimum, a fast means that one may eat only one full meal and two small meals on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday and this means no snacks between meals. If possible, we are encouraged to consume less on those days.

Pregnant mothers, people who are ill and those traveling receive dispensations, which can be obtained from your parish priest. And since February 23, 1966, it has been authorized that a substitution of other acts of penance may take the place of the observance of abstinence and fast on the appointed days of the year. If in doubt, check with your pastor.

By the way, some Eastern Rite Catholics and Orthodox observe what’s called the Great Lent which means that they don’t eat any meat, eggs or dairy products, and sometimes even fish, during all 40 days of Lent. Sometimes they even fast in addition to this abstinence. I emailed my dear friend Fr. Jim Thompson who’s Orthodox about this. He wrote back and I have his permission to share some of what he said: There are so many layers to Lent itself, that it’s a little hard to untangle things sometimes.  But all look forward to peanut butter, hummus and baba ganoush.  Sure we do.

  1. Observe the Marriage Laws of the Church

In a Catholic marriage there are always 3 parties involved: the bride, the groom and the Lord Jesus Christ. The sacrament of marriage is a covenant between the couple and God. It’s God’s original intent that his image is manifested as both man and woman—together— and marriage is the way that he ordained this. The Church has imposed all kinds of safeguards to affirm this covenantal dimension in marriage, including Catholics, a Catholic married to a non- Catholic and for those who are not Catholic. I’ll not go into the details now, but know that those teachings are of God.

And cemented to the covenant of marriage are issues of procreation and human life in general. Some time back Pope Benedict XVI listed 5 other non-negotiable issues indelibly linked with covenantal marriage. They include abortion, artificial birth control, euthanasia, embryonic stem cell research, human cloning and homosexual marriage. The Church teaches that these must be refuted. Marriage is not just about the husband and wife. It’s an affirmation of all human life as God intended. It’s a sign of Christ’s relationship with his bride the Church, and Lent is a good time to remind ourselves of this.

  1. Contribute to the Support of the Church

I must confess that one of the biggest challenges I encountered when I became Catholic was the general resistance to the notion of tithing. Somehow it’s perceived as a burden rather than a blessing. So I’ve backed off on pressing the issue, but I still believe that it pleases God to give away ten percent of what we receive financially and if Deanna and I were to stop tithing, then we would encounter God’s disappointment and perhaps even displeasure. I admit, now that I’m retired, Deanna and I spread the tithe around a lot more than we did when I was employed, but we both still make sure that we give away at least 10% of our income.

Having said that, the Church is clear that we all need to give something for her mission, ministry and maintenance. This includes our time and talent as well as treasure. It’s important, both for us and the Church.

So again, here are the 6 precepts of the Church:

  • Attend Mass on all Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation
  • Receive Holy Communion during the Easter Season
  • Confess your sins in the Sacrament of Reconciliation at least once a year
  • Fast and abstain on appointed days
  • Observe the marriage laws of the Church
  • Contribute to the support of the Church

In closing, it must be said that nobody goes to heaven merely by being obedient. There must be love of God and love of neighbor as oneself. After all, salvation is a free gift from our loving God through our Lord Jesus Christ. However, observing the laws of God, especially through the admonitions of the Church, helps each one of us to be a better person, a better Christian and a better Catholic. And just as following your doctor’s advice promotes good health, following these precepts in particular help promote holiness. Having said all this, I pray you a holy Lent.

February 19, 2017 7th Sunday in Ordinary Time

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Feb 192017
 

Matthew 5:38-48

Jesus said to his disciples: “You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil. When someone strikes you on your right cheek, turn the other one as well. If anyone wants to go to law with you over your tunic, hand over your cloak as well. Should anyone press you into service for one mile, go for two miles. Give to the one who asks of you, and do not turn your back on one who wants to borrow. “You have heard that it was said, You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have? Do not the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brothers only, what is unusual about that? Do not the pagans do the same? So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

I ran across this old chestnut the other day and thought that I’d share it with you. A father was leaving on a business trip and he pulled his 11-year-old son to the side to have a word with him. “While I’m gone,” he said, “you’re going to be the man of the house. What I’d like you to do is to think about what I’d do and then do that.”

When he came back he asked his wife how things had gone. She shook her head and said, “Well, it was really strange. Right after breakfast he poured himself a cup of coffee, went into the living room, turned on the television, cranked up Fox News really loud and read the paper for half an hour.”

I think that’s both funny and unsettling. Our kids do watch what we do; even, and perhaps especially, those things that we don’t particularly want them to see, let alone imitate. But there are some things that need copying. And that’s the point of today’s lesson from the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus is telling his disciples—and that would include us—that they/we are to fulfill God’s holy will for Israel by emulating the Father. Let’s develop this.

Israel is the chosen nation. And yet the Israelites, the Jews, are also taught that God does not have favorites. It’s a bit of a mystery. If they are the chosen ones, doesn’t that mean that they are God’s favorites?

The answer is found earlier in the Sermon on the Mount. Israel isn’t chosen in order to be God’s special people while the rest of the world remains in outer darkness. Israel is chosen to be the light of the world, the salt of the earth. Israel is chosen, so that through them, God will bless all people.

And Jesus is proclaiming that now is the time for Israel to be the light of the world. It must not,it cannot, be put off. Jesus is opening the way, carving the road through the wilderness if you will, towards that particular vocation. He is calling God’s people to come with him on this perilous journey to be Christ’s disciples. And perilous it is. Israel has many enemies. Pagan nations have overrun the land and subjected the people to harsh new laws and oppressive taxes. And there are violent factions within; movements of national resistance have sprung up fuelled by outrage at the Roman occupation in particular. They were not unlike ISIS or the Al-Qaeda today in Islam. They had the desire to purge Israel of her perceived unfaithfulness, which was blamed for the success of the pagan invaders. Why else would God allow this happen?

Added to this was the economic divisions that caused some, mostly supporters of the Romans, to become very, very rich and the general populace was becoming more and more impoverished. The place was a powder keg.

This was the environment into which Jesus came. He was restoring God’s people and showing the way of true faithfulness. The pressing issues of the people listening to Jesus were channeled into this one topic and each one was challenged to ask “how does all this apply to me?” It’s the same for us today; each of us is to ask the same question: “how does all this apply to me?”

Well, Jesus offered the people of Israel then, and us today his disciples, a new understanding of justice. It’s a creative, cleansing, healing, restorative justice. The old Justice found in the Hebrew Bible, what we call the Old Testament, was designed to prevent revenge from running rampant. Better an ‘eye for an eye’ and a ‘tooth for a tooth’ than an escalating feud with each side ratcheting up the conflict until wholesale slaughter became the rule of the day.

No, Jesus says “I’m giving you a new understanding of justice. I’m offering a better way.” Instead of limiting retaliation to an “eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” it is better to have no retaliation at all. Rather there must be a creative way forward, a way that reflects the astonishingly patient love of God the Father. Jesus is telling us that this is what God wants us to copy. God wants his people to shine his light into the world so that all people can see that He is the one true God, and that his deepest nature is overflowing love.

Anglican bishop and New Testament scholar N.T. Wright offers some insight into what Christ meant. (N.T. Wright Matthew for Everyone pp.51-53)

First Wright suggests that to be struck on the right cheek, at that time and place, would almost certainly mean that one was being hit by the back of the right hand. That’s not just violence, that’s an insult. It implies that you’re an inferior, perhaps a slave or a child or in that day and age, and all too often today, a woman. What’s the answer? Hitting back only keeps the evil in circulation. Offering the other cheek implies “Okay, hit me again if you like, but now as an equal, not as an inferior.” There will be no more condescension. All people are to be viewed as equals.

Wright then proposes that you envision yourself in a court of law where a powerful enemy is suing you, perhaps for non-payment of some huge debt, and she’s angry and wants the shirt off your back. You can’t win but you can show her what she’s really doing. The illustration that Jesus uses is of someone taking your tunic and then you are to give your cloak as well. You see, in a world where most people only wore the two garments, tunic and cloak, you would be left in a state of impoverished nakedness. The goal would be to show the person the consequences of her action so that she might repent. Unfortunately this is frequently what the rich and powerful did then and are doing today; all too often they reduce the impoverished to a state of humiliation, embarrassment and shame. God’s pretty clear; if any of us do that, there are consequences for our immortal souls.

And Wright’s third example clearly reflects the Roman occupation. Roman soldiers had the right to force civilians to carry their equipment for one mile. But the law was quite strict, it was forbidden to make someone go farther than that.

Turn the tables on them, advises Jesus. Don’t fret and fume and plot revenge. Copy your generous heavenly Father. Go a second mile, and astonish the soldier (and perhaps even alarm him “What if his commanding officer found out?”) By so doing, you are showing that there is a different way for humans to relate with one another, a way that has no place for revenge or retaliation, one that reflects Jesus’ admonition for us to offer no resistance to one who is evil. It’s the way that shows God’s path to victory over violence and injustice.

These three are examples of God’s people bringing His light to the world. I think N.T. Wright might be on to something.

Moving on, whatever situation in which we find ourselves, we need to prayerfully think it through, asking what it would mean to reflect God’s generous love despite pressure and provocation and in spite of our own anger and perhaps paranoia and certainly frustration.

We must always keep in mind that these admonitions from Jesus are not “pie in the sky” suggestions, they are instructions because they are key to the Gospel, the Good News. We can look to the example of our Lord. When they mocked him, he did not respond. When they challenged him, he came back with quizzical, often humorous stories that forced his challengers to think differently.

When they struck him, he took the pain. When they put the cross on his back he staggered with it out of the city to the place of his execution. When they spiked him to that cross, he prayed for them.

Our Lord’s instructions, especially in the Sermon on the Mount might be viewed by many as a fine bit of idealism. And we always have some kind of rebuttal, keeping in mind the cares and even dangers in the world. But all this is about Jesus himself who copied the Father in all His ways. He asks nothing of his followers that he hasn’t faced himself. This is the way that God the Father shows what He is really like. It isn’t just how we are to behave, it’s about discerning the living God in the loving and dying of Jesus, and learning to reflect that love into the world that needs it so badly.

In closing, when Jesus says, So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect,” he is saying that we will be completely like the father one day. If we don’t get it accomplished here on earth, it will happen in Purgatory, for Jesus is describing what it means to be holy, and holiness is a prerequisite for entry into heaven. Do it now or do it then when it will be a whole lot tougher. If you claim the title Christian, it is going to happen.

 

 

 

 

February 12, 2017 6th Sunday in Ordinary Time

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Feb 112017
 

Matthew  5:20-22a, 27-28, 33-34a, 37
Jesus said to his disciples: “I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.  “You have heard that it was said to your ancestors,
You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment.  But I say to you, whoever is angry with brother will be liable to judgment.
“You have heard that it was said, You shall not commit adultery.  But I say to you, everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
“Again you have heard that it was said to your ancestors, Do not take a false oath, but make good to the Lord all that you vow.  But I say to you, do not swear at all.  Let your ‘Yes’ mean ‘Yes,’and your ‘No’ mean ‘No.’  Anything more is from the evil one.”

 

I’m going to start with a plug. I’ll be teaching a class during Lent on Pope St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. It is the subject of a series of 129 lectures given by the Holy Father between 1979 and 1984. It was the first major teaching of his pontificate. The complete addresses were later compiled and developed in many of St. John Paul’s encyclicals.

Underlying Theology of the Body is the understanding that human beings are to be seen “holistically.” I confess that this is one of those words I’ve had trouble spelling; I always wanted to start it with a “w.” No, “holistic”starts with an “h” and therefore note the ironic connection to “holy.” For us humans, being holy and being “holistic” are interrelated.  In other words the Body and the Soul/Spirit cannot be viewed as strictly separate entities. Both are involved in our sanctity.

St. John Paul harkens back to the old Manichean heresy of the 3rd century which taught an elaborate dualistic understanding of the Cosmos, which saw everything as a struggle between a good, spiritual world of light, over against an evil, material world of darkness. Through an ongoing process which takes place in human history, light is gradually removed from the world of matter and returned to the world of light, whence it came. For Christians there is no such dualism; holiness includes both body and soul—the material and the spiritual.

St. John Paul wrote: Moral value is connected with the dynamic process of man’s innermost (being). To reach it, it is not enough to stop “on the surface” of human actions, but one must penetrate precisely the interior. (TOB 24:3)

To illustrate, I go back to an old tongue-in-cheek poem/prayer written by Shel Silverstein several decades ago. Some of you might be familiar with it. It’s the nighttime prayer of a little boy:

Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep, If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my toys to break, because I don’t want none of those other kids to play with them.

Although pretty funny, this interior response speaks of the lack of true morality. To be truly moral, motivation and action have to be in sync.

To gain clarity as to which specific moral acts are particularly important, we turn to the Decalogue, otherwise known as the Ten Commandments. Along with the Beatitudes in the St. Matthew’s Gospel, they are the standard by which our moral decisions are to be made. So, for example, the command against bearing false witness is not just about following the rule, but it is also about the formation of an honest character. The commandment is followed not just for the sake of following it, but because by repeated faithfulness in following the commandment in our ever-changing circumstances, we become people who are disposed to act honestly—to actually be honest.

Jesus is teaching this understanding in today’s Gospel lesson, which comes from a section of the Sermon on that Mount that traditionally has been called “The Antitheses.” It is called this because Jesus’ teaching is presented with a statement then a counter statement, the “thesis” and then the “antithesis.” So, for example, Jesus says, “you have heard that it was said… ”; and then he follows with his own magisterial counterstatement, “but I say to you.” However, there’s a problem with calling these teachings “Antitheses” because it seems to suggest that Jesus is contradicting the earlier statement. But this is not what Jesus is doing. Rather Our Lord is clarifying the true meaning of the law.

In these so-called “Antitheses,” Jesus is showing what he meant earlier in the Sermon on the Mount when he said that he came “not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it.” His purpose was to teach a greater righteousness. He said that “If your righteousness does not surpass that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never get into the kingdom of heaven.” The commandments are not just rules to be followed, rather they are given so that by following them we might become righteous, that we might become truly moral, truly holy with proper objective, proper intention and proper action in all that we do. If we harbor ill feelings or selfish thoughts, then we are prone to unfaithfulness. It’s holistic. Our entire being must be involved.

Jesus says: “You have heard that it was said to those in ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment.”

Jesus isn’t contradicting the commandment against murder, he is explaining it. He knows that even if we keep the commandment not to kill, we can still hate and despise others. We can follow the rule and still kill relationships, still treat people as if they were dead to us.

Jesus shows us that the fulfillment of the commandment not to kill flows from our hearts and minds. So if we look at others with the antagonism that stems from anger rather than compassion that comes from love, we have broken the commandment against murder. The commandment is given not just so that we won’t kill each other, but so that we will be the moral, righteous, holy people who will seek out someone who has wronged us and work toward reconciliation. This is the means by which we can love others as we would have them love us, even when they are our enemies.

Jesus says: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”

Again, Jesus isn’t contradicting the commandment against committing adultery, he is enhancing it. He knows that even if we keep the commandment not to commit adultery, we can still demean and belittle and objectify others; the lustful glance, the undressing with the eye, the fantasy of seduction are all at the heart of adultery. Jesus shows us that the fulfillment of the commandment not to commit adultery is a faithful heart that cherishes our spouses, that reveres the sacrament of marriage and respects our neighbors.

Jesus says: “Again you have heard that it was said to your ancestors, Do not take a false oath, but make good to the Lord all that you vow. But I say to you, do not swear at all. Let your ‘Yes’ mean ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No’ mean ‘No.’ Anything more is from the evil one.”

Jesus isn’t contradicting the commandment against swearing falsely, he is intensifying it. Jesus knows that even if we can keep from swearing falsely, we can still manipulate others with our words and lead them astray with our tongues. We can make frivolous oaths in the name of heaven and belittle God’s holy name. Jesus shows us that the fulfillment of the law is not just to refrain from swearing falsely, but that our words ought to be so reliable and so honest that no oaths need to be taken. The greater righteousness is to let your “yes” be “yes” and your “no” be “no.” We ask, “Is your word any good?” The commandment is given so that we would become honest, forthright people.

We don’t become moral, righteous, holy people without effort. L. Gregory Jones, in an essay entitled “The Grace of Daily Obligation: Shaping Christian Life,” reflects on how we become holy, righteous, moral people; it is through the daily and disciplined practice of fulfilling Christian obligations. He writes: “Isn’t it interesting that when we are talking about [ballet dancers] … we describe them as being graceful – full of grace. Yet anybody who has ever undertaken the craft of ballet or piano or basketball knows how much work day by day by day goes into the cultivation of that gracefulness. In this sense, gracefulness is not simply a process of sitting back and waiting. Rather, through the activity of daily habits people are prepared to move gracefully, in a way that transcends the day-to-day preparation. It becomes so natural that the graceful performer doesn’t have to think it through. … The gracefulness develops over time so that eventually the steps come together in a powerfully new way, a performance. That happens only through daily obligation.” That is how we become righteous, moral, holy people. We have to work at it—day in—day out—week in—week out.

Jesus came not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. Jesus came to call and form disciples in a community devoted to higher righteousness. We follow the commandments not simply because they are rules; we follow the commandments so that we might be holy people doing holy things.

We become like this not by forsaking the law, rather, we become like this by following the law with true intention. God gave the commandments in part for the formation of our character, so that we might become people who are pure in heart, so that we might love the Lord our God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength, and that we might love our neighbor as ourselves.

“Jesus said to his disciples; I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” We need to be careful about our rationalizations. Jesus makes it clear that there are consequences and even repercussions.

This all may seem quite daunting. That’s why we have so much help that is just a prayer away—the great cloud of witnesses, our patron saints, our guardian angels, the Blessed Mother and of course our Triune God—Father, Son and Holy Spirit—not to mention the Church and the Sacraments, our friends, family and all who love us. We’re in this together. It makes it ever so much more likely that we will not only be faithful, but as St. John Paul tells us, we can actually become holy.

 

 

 

 

 

January 29, 2017 4th Sunday in Ordinary Time

 29 January 2017  Comments Off on January 29, 2017 4th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Jan 292017
 

I’ve been intrigued by the bumper sticker: Well behaved women seldom make history, so I decided to track down its origin. Evidently it is from the writing of Laura Thatcher Ulrich, a prominent professor of Early American History at Harvard. The line is from a 1976 scholarly article about Puritan funeral services, specifically those of pious women. These women were virtuous and demure. Professor Ulrich wrote of them: Hoping for an eternal crown, they never asked to be remembered on earth. And they haven’t been. Well-behaved women seldom make history…”

It went viral. Some entrepreneur figured out there was money to be made off this line, so it was put on T-shirts and bumper stickers and a lot of iconoclastic women bought them.

As I pondered this, I couldn’t help thinking about the current marches around the country supporting women, and the pro-life march in Washington D.C. this past week which is reportedly to have been the largest in quite awhile. And I also couldn’t help but think of the best behaved woman of all time, a woman who has made a good deal of history, our Blessed Mother, the Virgin Mary.

This brings me to an article I read in a recent addition of National Catholic Register. It’s written by a woman named Carrie Gress and it is entitled: If There is an Antichrist, What About an Antimary?

She writes: “While researching my latest book, The Marian Option: God’s Solution to a Civilization in Crisis (Tan Books, May 2017), I was struck by a new theological concept. I kept running across the notion that Mary is the New Eve, an idea that goes back to the early Church Fathers. Mary as the New Eve is the female complement to Christ, the New Adam. In Scripture, St. John speaks of an antichrist as a man, but also as a movement that is present throughout history (1 John 4:3, 2 John 1:7). This got me thinking: if there is an antichrist, perhaps there is a female complement, an antimary?”

Dr. Gress continues: “What, then, would an antimary movement look like, exactly? Well, these women would not value children. They would be bawdy, vulgar, and angry. They would rage against the idea of anything resembling humble obedience or self-sacrifice for others. They would be petulant, shallow, catty, and overly sensuous. They would also be self-absorbed, manipulative, gossipy, anxious, and ambitious. In short, it would be everything that Mary is not.”

I had to pause and think that this is something a man could not write if he were to be effective and not offensive. And even still, I feel as if I’m treading a fine line by even presenting it. But I kept thinking of the phrase—“Well behaved women seldom make history.” Hmm.

Dr. Gress goes on to say: “While behavior like this has been put under a microscope because of the Women’s March on Washington, D.C., the trend of women-behaving-badly is nothing new. There is, however, ample evidence that we are witnessing something, because of its massive scale, quite different from run-of-the-mill vice seen throughout history.”

She continues: “The treatment of motherhood is one of the first signs that we are dealing with a new movement. Mothers (both spiritual and biological) are a natural icon of Mary, to help others know who Mary is by their generosity, patience, compassion, peace, intuition, and ability to nurture souls. Mary’s love (and the love of mothers) offers one of the best images of what God’s love is like, unconditional, healing, and deeply personal.”

Upon reading this, I immediately flashed on one of my former colleagues in the Episcopal Church who accidently became pregnant and had an abortion so that she would not be encumbered by a child. One of her friends posted this about her on facebook: “If the Reverend Anne Fowler had not had access to an abortion when she accidentally became pregnant after enrolling in Divinity School, she would never have been able to graduate, to serve as a parish rector, or to help the enormous number of people whose lives she has touched.” Oh my…

I return to the article by Carrie Gress: “The last few decades have witnessed the subtle erasing of the Marian icon in real women. First through the pill, then the advent of abortion, motherhood has been on the chopping block. Motherhood has become dispensable, to that point that today the broader culture doesn’t bat an eye when a child is adopted by two men.”

“Every culture until ours has known how critical a mother is (even in her imperfection) for healthy adulthood and spiritual maturity and no culture can renew itself without spiritual maturity. Yes, there are many people who have been motherless. Most would agree that truly, there are few things as tragic. But these sad realities only strengthen the argument that children need mothers, instead of diminishing their importance. It can be no accident that we are witnessing unprecedented emotional and mental trauma and brokenness in every segment of our population when motherhood has been so devalued.”

She concludes: “Another striking clue that we are in an antimarian age is that, for all the so-called progress women have made, there is precious little evidence that any of it has actually made women happier. Divorce rates are still staggering, with 70% initiated by women; suicide rates are up; drug and alcohol abuse is soaring; depression and anxiety are everywhere. Women are not getting happier, just more medicated.”

That was a pretty strong statement, but one that I think is worth pondering. And although I don’t agree with everything she wrote, Carrie Gress has a good point. There is a general coarsening in our culture that is both explicitly and implicitly anti-marian. But it concerns men as well as women. Vocabulary that once would have been shocking, is now common on our airwaves. As an aside, one of the things about vulgarities and swearing and cursing is that they are acts of laziness. By using these words, one need not think about wit or statements that actually would require some thought.

To be a vulgarian, especially if one is in a position of trust, influence and power, is inexcusable. I must say that President Trump disturbs me greatly because he is setting a very poor example. Here, I join with many women who have been offended by his language and his attitude and his behavior. He ought to know better. However, we Christians, especially we Catholic Christians ought not to respond in kind.

And we need to look to our Blessed Mother for both example and intercession in difficult times. There is no record of her ever being vulgar. She embodies all that is strong and good and gracious and generous and kind. She demonstrates those things which are required of us who would be faithful disciples of Jesus. All we need to do is look at the Beatitudes which were the subject of today’s Gospel lesson and we can see that she is an exemplar of all those attitudes and actions.

She embodies humility, which is the essence of being “poor in spirit.”

She knows the great depth of grief, witnessing her son’s scourging and crucifixion. Oh how she mourned.

As Queen of Heaven she is meek, not timid, powerful but not imperious as she reigns.

She hungers and thirsts for righteousness and she is merciful and clean-hearted and a peacemaker.

There is no doubt she suffered great persecution from both her own people and from Roman authorities. But she did so for the sake of righteousness.

Oh, yeah. She is a well-behaved woman. And she did make history.