January 28, 2018 4th Sunday in Ordinary Time

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Jan 302018
 

 Mark 1:21-28

Then they came to Capernaum, and on the sabbath Jesus entered the synagogue and taught.  The people were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority and not as the scribes.  In their synagogue was a man with an unclean spirit; he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?  Have you come to destroy us?  I know who you are—the Holy One of God!”  Jesus rebuked him and said, “Quiet! Come out of him!”  The unclean spirit convulsed him and with a loud cry came out of him.  All were amazed and asked one another, “What is this?  A new teaching with authority.  He commands even the unclean spirits and they obey him.”  His fame spread everywhere throughout the whole region of Galilee.

I thought I’d begin by taking a look at the Gospel of St. Mark, the featured Gospel for this liturgical year. It’s the shortest and sharpest of the four Gospels and most scholars believe that it was the first one to be written. It has about it a terseness and snap, the punch of a well-honed delivery. There’s no birth narrative, no story of Mary and Joseph or shepherds or Wisemen; Mark goes right to the ministry of Jesus.

When Mark wrote this Gospel in the mid-first century, becoming a follower of Jesus was a radical and dangerous decision. It usually meant strong disapproval or even outright rejection by friends and family. To be a follower of Jesus,  a disciple if you will, meant that those who at one time avoided each other became brothers and sisters in the Lord:  the affluent with the slave, the devout Jew with the decadent Gentile, Greek patricians with former Roman soldiers, they all joined with ex-harlots and tax collectors and thieves and murderers, banded and bonded together in the worldly absurdity of following a carpenter from some backwater village who had suffered the most ignominious form of capital punishment, knowing that at any moment their faith could result in imprisonment, torture and death by the ruthless Romans.

In spite of all this, as one reads the words of St. Mark’s Gospel, there is a sense of overflowing joy. Mark is fairly bursting with the Good News of Jesus the Christ, the Son of God, crucified and raised gloriously from the dead. For Mark, the life, death and resurrection of Jesus changed the history of the world; in fact it brought history to its culmination. It’s what makes sense of, and brings completion to, all that God did for his people Israel and was foretold in their scriptures, what we call the Old Testament.

St. Mark writes in plain, even blunt, language, a rudimentary style of Greek that made his writings understandable and accessible to those who could barely read. Consequently his writings were often disparaged as being unrefined and even vulgar. Yet there is energy and intensity and urgency in his writing. For example one of his favorite words is euthys, which in Greek means “immediately,”  a word he uses over 40 times in comparison to six times for Matthew and only once in Luke. It gives Mark’s narrative a sense of expediency and fast-pace. Jesus said something and immediately there was action, there was no lag time.

At the heart of Mark’s theology is the Paschal Mystery: the great mystery of the Messiah who enters his glorious reign only through the horror of the Cross. Remember Mark doesn’t even bother with a birth narrative. The cross casts its shadow over the whole Gospel, all the while the resurrection is the ultimate destination.

It also must be noted that Jesus’ teachings direct his listener’s attention to the eternal life that he has come to give them (cf. 8:35b; 9:43 & 10:30) His exorcisms and miracles point to the ultimate victory over sin and Satan and death; his healings prefigure the raising of the dead on the Last Day. He brings a new authority and that is the theme in today’s lesson; so let’s look at the events leading up to this reading.

Jesus has been baptized by John in the Jordan. The Holy Spirit descends upon him in the form of a dove and the Father declares that this is His beloved Son, then “immediately,” there’s that Greek word euthys I just mentioned, immediately the Spirit drives Jesus out into the desert to be tempted by Satan.

Afterward, Jesus calls the first disciples and then our Lord sets out with them on his ministerial travels. In today’s lesson Jesus is teaching in a synagogue and a man with an unclean spirit accosts him. The demon recognizes Jesus and screams at him:  “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!”  Jesus rebuked him and said, “Quiet! Come out of him!” The unclean spirit convulsed [the man] and with a loud cry came out of him. (Mk 1:24-26).

By this act, Jesus’ announcement of the Kingdom (v.15) becomes dramatically concrete. The reaction of the people was astonishment at his authority. In contrast to the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus is not just offering opinions or handing on traditions of interpretation of the scriptures. He is teaching by his own authority and, in so doing, he exposes evil so that it can be expelled. This is a primary step in the eventual establishment of the Kingdom.

This story of Jesus’ first exorcism shows that the forces of evil are invisible, malevolent beings who are bent on destroying humans and hindering God’s plan of salvation. Through the whole of the New Testament and specifically in Mark’s Gospel, these spirits are responsible for both mental and physical maladies. (Mk. 7:25; 9:17-27)

It must be said that some scholars note that the Gospels do not always clearly distinguish between illness and demonic possession and therefore they assert that demon-possession is probably a mythological way to show a primitive understanding from a primitive people.

The Church refutes this.  The Catechism teaches us that:  “Behind the disobedience of our first parents lurks a seductive voice, opposed to God, which makes them fall into death out of envy. Scripture and the Church’s Tradition see in this being a fallen angel, called ‘Satan’ or the ‘devil.’ [Other names are Lucifer (light bearer) and Belezebul (Lord of the Flies)] The Church teaches that Satan [which literally means “prosecuting attorney”—the one who accuses—Satan] was at first a good angel, made by God. The devil and other demons were indeed created naturally good by God, but they became evil by their own doing.”…It is the irrevocable character of their choice, and not a defect in the infinite divine mercy, that makes the angels’ sin unforgiveable. ‘There is no repentance for the angels after their fall, just as there is no repentance for men after death.’” (CCC #s 391 &393)

Exorcisms are still performed to this day. The Catholic Church does it right. The Catechism tells us that a simple exorcism is performed at the celebration of baptism, but a solemn or major exorcism can only be performed by a priest with permission from the bishop. The priest must proceed with prudence, strictly observing the rules established by the Church. Therefore, before an exorcism is performed, it is important to ascertain that one is truly dealing with the presence of evil and not a mental illness.

If you have trouble buying this personification of evil, look at the evidence. Consider racial and ethnic cleansing, millions of people are slaughtered because they belong to a particular racial or ethnic group. Look at ISIS and Bokohoran and the incredibly barbaric activities that are occurring in the mid-east and Africa. Think about the sexual abuse of children and human trafficking and the drug trade and abortion mills. All this shows more than a merely human malice at work. Satan finds the weak spot, and then exploits it.

At a personal level, we must never forget that God loves us so much that he sent his only Son to die for us. God loves each one of us without reservation. But which one of us has not heard that voice telling us three things: “You are no good. You never were any good. You never will be any good.” That’s a message that carries with it the strong whiff of sulfur straight out of Hell. That’s the message the enemy wants us to believe.

And as frightening and real as the power of Satan and his minions, the authority of Christ is infinitely superior. As St. Mark tells us and as the Church affirms, the power of the Cross and glory of the Resurrection show that Jesus has conquered the powers of Hell. For the present time however, these malicious actions of the enemy are permitted by God, whom St. Paul tells us is able to work good out of every evil. (Rom. 8:28)

In closing, as Mary Healy writes in her Commentary on Mark in the series “Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture”: The grace provided for us in baptism provides protection from all demonic forces and provides us with the strength to resist their seductive influence. (p.48)

That is a wonderful part of the Good News for us today, the same Good News that Jesus delivered to us by St. Mark almost 2000 years ago.

 

 

 

 

 

 

January 21, 2018 3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

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Jan 212018
 

About 40 years ago I came across the work of a Carmelite Scholar, Sr. Rose Page. In an article in the Fall 1979 edition of Contemplative Review, she laid out the stages of conversion which describe the process of discipleship. I periodically go over her 8 stages to help us understand what it means to be on this road of being a disciple of Jesus. Here are her “8 Stages of Conversion.”(“Direction in the Various Stages of Spiritual Development,” Contemplative Review Fall 1979 p.12ff)

The first stage:

  1.  Awakening. Sr. Rose writes:  “It is more than intellectual acceptance of truth. It seems to encompass…emotions of joy and consolation or fear and dread.” You have an in-depth awareness that “I’m not in this all by myself.” You are prompted to look for something more.

2.  Investigation. You start paying attention to the homilies, you do some reading, you try your hand at Bible study and prayer. You listen to CDs. You go to classes and maybe even a retreat. You ask    more  questions, you talk to your spouse, you talk to your co-workers. You talk to a priest, you talk to your friends;  the nudge seems to be prompting you to be more pro-active. Although you are unsure,   even wary, the nudge gets the better of you and you want to explore the things of faith.

3. Commitment. This is the moment of truth. This is the moment of conversion. This is generally tied in with an event. It may be at a sacrament: your baptism or the baptism of your child or grandchild, it may happen at confirmation. If you’re a long time Catholic, maybe there’s an unexpected experience of holiness at Mass as you receive the precious Body and Blood of our Lord. Christ may make himself known to you in a moment of prayer that really shakes you. Sr. Rose writes:  “[It] is a leap into the indefinite, the infinite realm of meaning.  Commitment is the decision to take the leap. For many, this stage is a time of vacillation and anxiety. For some this stems from a need for intellectual certainty, for others, from a kind of faint-heartedness in facing the implications…”

And when you make this commitment there is a sense of relief and joy and peace.  As an example, I read recently of the conversion of the poet Sally Read. Raised an atheist, she recounts that when living in Italy she got into the habit of stopping by a small Carmelite Church and sitting in front of an Icon of Jesus. One day, she was having some difficulty so she relates “I spoke aloud to the face and asked for help. There was no visual or aural hallucination, or anything, as a poet, I can use as a metaphor to tell what happened. The nearest I can come to describing it is to say that it felt like I was an amnesiac in a fit of quiet panic, and suddenly someone walked into the room that I recognized.” She entered the Catholic Church in December of 2010. (First Things p.70 Feb. 2013)

This stage is about committing your life to Jesus, of establishing a relationship and not just about getting your needs met.

  1. Conscious integration. This is a time of getting your act together. This is a time of making sure that your conduct is in tune with your newly formed beliefs. You avoid situations and places that compromise your newly found faithfulness. You strive to have what you believe and profess to be in accord with your behavior. You watch your language. You quit fudging on your taxes, you’re more patient when you drive. You become less critical. Your countenance is sweeter.

You also realize that your faith is personal, but it most certainly is not supposed to be private; it is meant to be shared. It’s essential to go to Mass for example and receive Christ’s precious body and blood with other people. An added aspect of conscious integration is that you become more deeply aware of folks in need and you feel prompted to help out. There are social justice issues that have to be addressed. It’s an expanded understanding of what it means to have a relationship with Jesus.

In this stage there is also an increased understanding of the role of the saints in your life. Petitions to the Blessed Mother for example get more fervent.

  1. Fidelity. This is a time of dryness. Sr. Rose writes:  “When we first turn to God we experience emotional satisfaction in our religious practices… [Now] the emotional fervor dries up.  Prayer, meditation, attentive participation takes so much effort.” And she continues—“Also the nastier side of our character, which we thought we had conquered seems to re-emerge.”

You become more easily annoyed and hassled. You get grumpy and grouchy, deep-seated resentment comes to the surface; you succumb to being irritable and defensive; you get really critical of others; you don’t feel like saying your prayers one morning and the next thing you know, it’s been a week since you prayed and you’d quit largely because your prayers seemed to have been bouncing off the ceiling.

Worldly things seem to dominate your life. You get overwhelmed by all the natural disasters. The idea of a whole family of youngsters being grievously mistreated by their parents makes you resentful of God. You become very critical of Church leaders, especially clergy and even the Pope. You make excuses to skip Mass. The everyday hassles are really getting to you. A lot of people leave the faith when going through this.

But if you make the conscious decision to hang in there instead of tossing in the towel, you force yourself to at least read your prayers, go to confession and keep faithful at Mass, you get through it.

That leads to the next step:

  1. Absorption. The decision to ‘hang in there’ pays off. Your prayers are being answered. Prayer is a joy instead of a burden. You are becoming more mature in your faith. There’s a fresh awareness of the presence of Christ in all aspects of your life, especially in your relationships with others. You become less critical and resentful. You develop a deeper appreciation of the words of Jesus when he says, “For when two or three are gathered together in my name, there I am in the midst of them.” (Matthew 18:20) You find yourself needing to be in the company of other faithful Catholics. You become well-grounded in Christ and you get a deeper appreciation of the concept that ours is a communal faith—that we need to operate in community if we are to function truly as disciples of Jesus. The saints in heaven become more real to you and their companionship is something that sustains you. You become content.
  2. Penetration: All hell breaks loose…literally. Things start to go wrong in your life—really wrong. You get hammered and tempted in ways you couldn’t have imagined. Your kids do stupid things. Your parents do stupid things. The priest does stupid things. You do stupid things. Jobs are lost. A spouse gets ill. You get ill. Your marriage is in trouble. A loved one dies. Crises abound. It’s as if you are the target of an attack, and it’s probably true. The devil does not want you to be a faithful disciple of Jesus. And in the midst of all this, God penetrates to the very core of your being. All pretense is stripped away, and you become aware that God is present in even the darkest, most hidden, the most vulgar and shameful places of your life. It’s a time when a lot of folks fall away. But if you withstand this onslaught and don’t fall away, you become truly seasoned in your faith— and your relationship with Jesus has become mature.
  3. Transformation. You become one with Christ, and He with you and you develop an even deeper understanding of the importance of community. You have an intuitive appreciation of what Jesus means in the 17th chapter of St. John’s Gospel when He prays: “Holy Father, keep them in thy name, which thou hast given me, that they may be one, even as we are one.”( Jn.17:11)

You see the sins and blemishes of others more clearly but they become less important. Because in the midst of these folks, you really encounter Christ and, together with them, you have a much deeper awareness that you are in Christ and Christ is in you, both individually and in the “you all” of the community. It’s really sweet.

In closing, I would remind you that this is not a clean set of steps that will follow one immediately after the other. There’s a lot of zigzagging and back and forth and you get to repeat them more than once. But it is helpful to see that conversion is a process; discipleship is a process, the process of having a mature relationship with Jesus. I’ll repeat Sr. Rose Page’s “8 Stages of Conversion.”

  1. Awareness— you start paying attention.
  2. Investigation— you start checking things out.
  3. Commitment—it’s a time of conversion—and you make a newly found commitment to Christ. You have a relationship with Him.
  4. Conscious integration— you get your act together.
  5. Fidelity— you hang in there during a time of real dryness.
  6. Absorption—it’s a time of sanctification and satisfaction and joy in your walk of faith
  7. Penetration— all hell breaks loose and you are driven to your knees—and you become aware of God’s presence in the darkest places of your life—those places you want to keep hidden.
  8. Transformation— you become one with Christ, and He with you—and you discover the true joy of Godly living and love.

January 14, 2018 2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time

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Jan 152018
 

1 Samuel 3:3b-10, 19

Samuel was sleeping in the temple of the LORD where the ark of God was. The LORD called to Samuel, who answered, “Here I am.” Samuel ran to Eli and said, “Here I am. You called me.” “I did not call you, ” Eli said. “Go back to sleep.” So he went back to sleep. Again the LORD called Samuel, who rose and went to Eli. “Here I am, ” he said. “You called me.” But Eli answered, “I did not call you, my son. Go back to sleep.” At that time Samuel was not familiar with the LORD, because the LORD had not revealed anything to him as yet. The LORD called Samuel again, for the third time. Getting up and going to Eli, he said, “Here I am. You called me.” Then Eli understood that the LORD was calling the youth. So he said to Samuel, “Go to sleep, and if you are called, reply, Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.” When Samuel went to sleep in his place, the LORD came and revealed his presence, calling out as before, “Samuel, Samuel!” Samuel answered, “Speak, for your servant is listening.” Samuel grew up, and the LORD was with him, not permitting any word of his to be without effect.

 

For those of us who were raised on Bible stories, the OT lesson about the calling of young Samuel was and still is a favorite. As children we listened with rapt attention as we heard of God actually talking to this boy. Part of the psychological development of youngsters is that they take things so literally.  When we are little we know that Santa actually will come down the chimney, the Easter Bunny does bring those special eggs and so on. We go, “Wow. I would really like to have God speak to me, like he did to Samuel.”

As we get older, more mature in the faith if you will, we come back to this passage of God speaking to Samuel and need to look at it from a more reflective perspective.

When I’m preaching from a specific portion of scripture, I like to break it down into two parts: The “there and then” message and then offer a “here and now” application.

Let’s set the stage as we take a moment and actually look at the central character’s name: Samuel. We break down the Hebrew and we find two parts. For the first part, “Samu” the Hebrew is a little ambiguous, but I like the translation “heard from.”  The last syllable, “El,” refers to “Elohim,” one of two words along with “Yahweh” which indicates the presence of God. So the name Samu-el means “heard from God.”

Throughout the Old Testament names that end in “ah” are referring to Yahweh. So Jonah, Hannah, Methuselah, Isaiah, Jeremiah and so on refer to people who have a special connection with Yahweh, referring to the one who revealed himself to Moses in the burning bush, the so-called “Great ‘I am’.”

Names that end in “El” refer to the understanding of God as “Elohim.” So Daniel, Ezekiel, Joel, Nathaniel along with Samuel and others, all refer to those who have a special relationship with the one called “Elohim.”

There’s quite a bit of rather elaborate and sophisticated scholarship about all this, but for our purposes, the names Yahweh and Elohim refer to the one God who is our common creator and sovereign.

In our passage today, we read about the one who “heard from God.” We know the story. The first chapter of Samuel tells of his parents, Elkanah and Hannah (note the “ah” endings to their names? They had a special connection with Yahweh.) Anyway, they were old and had no children together. Elkanah’s younger and prettier second wife, Penniah who had children with Elkanah, was especially venomous toward Hannah.

One day Elkanah decided to make a pilgrimage to a holy place called “Shiloh” where Eli was serving as priest. Elkanah decided to take Hannah his barren wife with him and leave Penniah at home.

Once there, Hannah begged God to give her a son. She vowed that if her request was granted, she would return her son “to the Lord” to serve him “all the days of his (Samuel’s) life.” (I Sam. 1:11) God heard her plea and granted her heart’s desire. A child was born and was named “Samuel” somewhat in anticipation of God speaking to him a bit later in life. True to her word, she dedicated him to the Lord’s service. (I Sam.1:19-2:11) Eli took the child and prepared him for the Temple priesthood. And while at Shiloh, God spoke to Samuel on quite a number of occasions.

There are several layers to this story. First we read of the kindness of God in granting an old woman’s request for a child. Second, we read that although Samuel was dedicated to the Temple priesthood, he also became a prophet. Remember these are two roles. On the one hand, a priest communicates to God for the people. The priest is the one who makes the sacrifices and offers the petitions on behalf of God’s people.

On the other hand, a prophet communicates to the people for God. A prophet is one who says “thus says the Lord” to the people. Usually it’s followed by some dire warning that behavior had better change or there would be significant consequences.

Another layer to this story is that the boy Samuel’s initial prophetic task was to confront Eli about the wretched behavior of his boys. In those days, the Temple priesthood was hereditary, so Eli’s sons were functioning as priests, but they were sexually abusing some of the women and extorting some of the worshippers and God was not pleased. The boys were eventually killed in battle and when Eli heard the news, he fell down and broke his neck and died. (I Sam. 4:1-18) It was pretty grim stuff.

Eventually, Samuel became the greatest of the so called “judges” who ruled over Israel. Each year he made a circuit of the cities to “judge” the inhabitants. He also built an altar to the Lord in Ramah, his home town, to reinforce his priestly function (I Sam.7:15-17). In later years his sons became judges, but not unlike Eli’s son, they were a rapacious and unworthy lot, taking bribes and perverting justice. (I Sam. 8:3)

Eventually the people decided to do away with the whole system of judges and have a king instead like most of the surrounding countries. At the Lord’s direction, Samuel anointed Saul the first king of Israel. (I Sam. 10:1).

During the reign of King Saul, Samuel continued to exercise both priestly and prophetic functions, speaking to God for the people and speaking to the people for God.

In his prophetic role in particular, Samuel was directed by God to chastise Saul, especially for his failings as king to keep the commandments of the Lord. Eventually, God had enough, and directed Samuel to find and anoint David to be Saul’s replacement. This eventually happened, but it was not fully accomplished until a rather long and violent struggle between the forces of each man. This is a shorthand version of the “there and then” message.

So we move to a “here and now” application. The standard interpretation of today’s text usually focuses on what’s thought to be a simple story about how God calls us and we are often either unable, or more frequently unwilling to recognize it.

Although there is this element in the story, it ignores the fact that God’s call did not come to Samuel back then, nor to us today, in general circumstances. This is not a story of religious awakening. It is not simply another experience on the road to spiritual maturity.

Rather Samuel is specifically called by God in a time of spiritual desolation, religious corruption, political danger and social upheaval. We are told in the text that at that time the “word of the Lord” was rare and the sons of Eli were corrupt, the Philistines were threatening Israel’s survival and Eli in particular was ducking his responsibilities as priest. Somebody needed to tell him about his dissolute, crooked sons and God has selected the boy Samuel to be that person. It was neither an easy nor enviable task.

Today, we often celebrate so called “mountain top experiences” of God as ends unto themselves. We can dwell on something mysterious and perhaps both frightening and sweet as the penultimate religious experience. But more often than not God wants us to do something with these experiences because we too are living in politically dangerous times of social upheaval and corruption. If we receive God’s word in a special way, he generally is calling us to do something specific and we frequently want to back away.

Who wants to deliver difficult, confrontive, prophetic and demanding news to someone else? But I think that we would all agree that the process of discerning the call of God includes our response to it. A duty is not faced as a duty until it is responded to as a duty.

An example for all of us is God’s call and our response to this call, specifically to confront and prayerfully challenge all those who would abort babies.

I’ll lay it out for you. Groups such as Planned Parenthood, RCRC (Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice), NOW (the National Organization for Women) and the Democratic Party like to claim that the fetus or conceptus is an unviable tissue mass and not a baby. It is simply extra tissue in the mother’s body that can be disposed whenever desired. However, any medical textbook on fetal development clearly shows that the little one she is carrying is a distinct person from the mother:

The baby has unique DNA, different from the mother’s, at the moment of conception.

The baby has a heartbeat 18 days after conception, which is usually before the woman even knows she’s pregnant.

The baby often has a different blood type than the mother.

The baby has measurable brain activity less than 45 days after conception, well before most abortions in America.

The baby has a soul from the time of conception.

So what’s to be done? Pray, especially for the conversion of pregnant mothers who are considering an abortion. Pray for a change of heart of abortion providers, bear witness gently and peacefully to this great evil. Support legislation that protects unborn babies. Pray some more.

I look at the figure of Hannah. She knew at some level that the baby she so longed for was not that different than any other baby. But she did affirm that the life in her womb was precious to God and she acted on that by dedicating that child to God. We can say that all babies in their mothers’ wombs are precious in the sight of God.

This is the prophetic word to all of us. God is clear. Each little one is a child, not a choice. And I’m conveying this once again to all of you because of God’s direct challenge to me. I’m just doing what I am called to do.

It would be wonderful if these little ones in their mothers’ wombs could grow up hearing Bible stories too, like so many of us did.