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.