Sunday, June 24, 2018

Baptism of Repentance

Nativity of St. John the Baptist


Michelangelo: The Doni Tondo
Behold the lamb of God
The young Baptist looks on
as Mary elevates her Son


Today is usually the 12th Sunday in Ordinary time. By "ordinary" the Church means the time of year not marked by great feasts like Christmas and Easter. But today just happens to be the feast day of the birth or nativity of St. John the Baptist and that feast is so great that it supersedes the ordinary Sunday readings.

In the readings for this special feast day the Church talks of John, the precursor, the messenger, the herald of Jesus. The Church has always interpreted the words of Isaiah as referring to John.

The Lord called me from birth,
from my mother's womb he gave me my name.
He made of me a sharp-edged sword...
He made me a polished arrow, ...
You are my servant, he said to me,
Israel, through whom I show my glory.

Who was John? The gospels from today's Mass as well as from yesterday's vigil Mass give us an account of the birth of John. The story as narrated by St. Luke bears a remarkable resemblance to the birth of Jesus. Commentators have noted that both accounts are like plays or dramas which can be broken down into acts and scenes. But first, let's look at the cast of characters. In the first account we have Zechariah and Elizabeth, the parents of John. Then, we have Mary, the future mother of Jesus. The angel Gabriel appears in both accounts.

Zechariah's name means "Yahweh remembers." He was one of the 800 priests of the Temple and he could trace his ancestry back to Aaron, the first high priest. The name of his wife, Elizabeth, means, "God swears." Elizabeth, the cousin of Mary, was a good, holy woman but advanced in years and childless. The name John, which has such importance in today's reading, means "God is gracious." Mary, in Hebrew Miriam, means "the exalted one." Jesus, or Yeshua, means "God's salvation or savior."

The names alone would indicate the importance in Luke's gospel of this account of the births of John and Jesus. But we should also notice the similarities between the two dramas. God's messenger, the angel Gabriel, appears to Zachary in the inner sanctum of the Temple. Later he appears to Mary. Both of them express anxiety at the appearance but are told, "Do not fear."

The angel makes a mysterious announcement and both Zachary and Mary respond with a question. Zachary's doubt causes him to be struck dumb until after the birth of John when his acceptance restores his speech. But Mary's acceptance; "Be it done unto me according to thy word" is immediate.

There are even more parallels but it is enough to say that St. Luke didn't mean these accounts to be merely charming little stories. The life and mission of John is linked with the life and mission of Jesus from the beginning. John preached repentance while the gospel of Jesus is all about the completion of repentance--forgiveness and healing. Now we don't have to go out into the desert to find repentance. In fact, the Church makes it kind of easy for us. Forget for a moment the great sacrament of Penance. Did you ever notice how often during the Mass we are given opportunities for repentance and forgiveness?

Right at the beginning we ask for mercy from the Trinity in the Kyrie, one of the oldest prayers in the liturgy. "Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy." Right after that in the Confiteor we confess our sins. "I confess to Almighty God, and to you my brothers and sisters...."

Later we all say the "Our Father" that famous prayer composed by Jesus, himself. In it we say, "forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us." The great St. Augustine said that the sincere recitation of these words of repentance was enough to gain forgiveness for most of our sins. Right after the Lord's Prayer we turn to each other and offer the Lord's "Kiss of Peace," a sign of our reconciliation with our neighbor.

Finally, before receiving our Lord in Communion we prepare ourselves with another act of repentance. We join together and say the "Agnus Dei"

Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us,
Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us,
Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, grant us peace.

Then, we follow by paraphrasing the words of the Roman soldier who asked our Lord to heal his son. "Lord I am not worthy that thou should come under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed."

A few years ago there was a saying that became very popular. It was, " Happiness is never having to say you're sorry." This sounded good but was mistaken. I think that most psychologists would agree that a sincere expression of sorrow or repentance is the first step toward happiness for us and for those we've offended. 

What I have always liked most about John the Baptist is his humility. Jesus called John the greatest of the Apostles but in today's second reading from the Acts of the Apostles, St. Paul noted these words of the Baptist. 
What do you suppose that I am? I am not he. Behold, one is coming after me. I am not worthy to unfasten the sandals of his feet.
We all tend to think that our words and our deeds are so important but they are really important when they prepare the way of the Lord.


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Reading 1. Isaiah 49: 1-6
Reading II. Acts 13:22-26
Gospel. Luke 1: 57-66, 80 (He will be called John)

Sunday, June 17, 2018

The Mustard Seed

                                    11th Sunday in Ordinary Time
                                 

Holy Family
Stained Glass Window
Assumption Church
Fairfield, CT


Today’s first reading from the book of the prophet Ezekiel speaks of a tender shoot that the Lord plucks off a great cedar tree and plants it among his people. It will itself grow into a mighty tree offering sustenance and shelter to those who seek refuge in its branches. Of course, this botanical imagery is just meant to be a metaphor for how God calls upon all of us to grow and bear great fruit in our lives.

Jesus uses the same imagery in today’s gospel when he says, “this is how it is with the Kingdom of God.”

            It is like a mustard seed that, when it is sown in the ground,
            Is the smallest of all the seeds of the earth.
            But once it is sown, it springs up and becomes the largest of plants…

Like Ezekiel Jesus is calling on little, ordinary people like ourselves to put forth large branches and bear much fruit.

Today’s gospel reminded me of one such a person in my home parish who passed away a few years ago. His name was Theodore, which coincidentally means God’s gift, but everyone called him Ted. He was a small, unassuming, and quiet spoken man who rarely talked about himself but he was one of the most giving men I have ever known.

At his funeral I saw an old black and white marriage photo. Ted, who served in World War II, was in uniform next to his young Italian war bride who had sewn her beautiful white wedding gown out of Ted’s parachute. I never met his wife because she died shortly before I met Ted, but I know that he loved her until the day he died. They had four or five children and all were there at the funeral with a number of grandchildren. One of the grandchildren gave a brief eulogy in which he described all the things his grandfather had taught him.
           
Ted was an avid gardener and wine maker but by profession he was a master electrician who worked at his trade right until his final illness struck. My wife and I originally met him in an Italian language class but he subsequently became a friend as well as our electrician. I will never forget the night our electricity went out during a violent ice storm. Ted came to the house, climbed a ladder, and repaired a broken power line in the midst of the storm.

The only problem we ever had with Ted was that he was always reluctant to accept payment from friends. There was a large crowd in the Church at his funeral and I’m sure that most had also been the recipients of Ted’s generosity will never be canonized but he was one of the multitude of ordinary men who loved their families, their church, and their country.

In today’s second reading St. Paul speaks of courage. He says that even though our real home is not here, we must live our lives as best we can here on earth. We must be courageous. Today’s readings about little, ordinary people provide an opportunity to give a brief mention of Fathers’ Day. I know that we all have our different vocations in life, and I do not wish to slight anyone, but it takes real courage to be a father. It takes real courage to make a commitment to give up your own wants in order to live for your wife and children.

In today’s world when even the idea of Fatherhood is maligned, it is very important that we do all we can to support those who have accepted the challenge. Here is a prayer for fathers.

Our Father in Heaven, we thank you for all the fathers on earth who,
            like St. Joseph, accept the responsibility to care for and love their children.
            May you strengthen them with the kindness, patience and wisdom they need
            to encourage and guide their children.

            May they be supported by a steadfast wife, a caring family and good friends.
            Most of all, may they know that you and you alone are the source of all that is
            good and truly valuable in this world.


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Reading 1.  Ezekiel 17: 22-24
Reading II. 2 Corinthians5: 6-10
Gospel. Mark 4: 26-34 (a mustard seed).

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

My Mother and My Brothers

                                    10th Sunday in Ordinary Time
                                    


           
In the last three weeks we have celebrated the three great feasts, Pentecost, Trinity Sunday, and the feast of the Body and Blood of Christ, that mark the end of the Easter season. Now we return to what the Church calls Ordinary time, that period of the liturgical year that is not associated with the great feasts of Christmas and Easter.

The priest dons a green colored vestment (a symbol of hope) that will be worn for practically every Sunday until the start of the season of Advent. Ordinary comes from a Latin word and doesn’t exactly mean what we mean by ordinary but still, most of the readings in Ordinary time deal with the ordinary day by day events in the mission of Jesus.

However, our first reading goes back to the beginning where we have the familiar story of Adam and Eve from the Book of Genesis. In today’s passage we read of the first consequences of original sin. We do not like to talk about original sin anymore, but it is good to define the term. Sin is a very blunt English word, but the Latin equivalent is peccata which means a stain or imperfection. None of us likes to be called evil or sinful but we can all agree that everyone is imperfect. Original means from the origin or beginning.

In other words, we can find imperfection not only in ourselves but also in every human being from the dawn of time. The greatest saints have acknowledged their imperfection and claimed that they were sinners who only had been saved by the grace of God. Even the Moslem Koran says that only Jesus and his mother, Mary, entered this world without being touched by Satan.

Because we all are imperfect, we can instantly recognize and understand how Adam and Eve reacted when their disobedience was discovered. They blamed someone else! Adam blamed Eve. “The woman whom you put here with me—she gave me fruit from the tree, and so I ate it.” In turn, Eve blamed the serpent. “The serpent tricked me into it, so I ate it.”  

Interestingly, this passage ends with a phrase that has long been misunderstood. The Lord says to the Serpent:

I will put enmity between you and the woman,
And between your offspring and hers,
He will strike at your head,
While you strike at his heel.

In times past the “woman” became associated with Mary, the new Eve, and artists often depicted Mary standing on the head of the serpent who vainly attempted to strike at her heel. Today, as our translation indicates, it is the offspring, Jesus, who will strike at the head of Satan, and destroy his kingdom.

In today’s gospel passage we actually see Jesus in combat with the serpent, Satan. This passage picks up right after Jesus had embarked on his mission of  teaching and healing. In particular, he had been driving out demons from those who were in their power. Moreover, in the previous verses, he had just called his apostles and given them the power and authority to combat demons as well.

His success had attracted large crowds, and Mark tells us that immediately on arriving back home with his apostles from this first journey, Jesus was surrounded by a crowd to the extent that his own relatives could not even get in to see him. It may be that the relatives were alarmed by the charges that Jesus himself was possessed by the Devil.

There were scribes or biblical experts from Jerusalem in the crowd who claimed that rather than opposing Satan, Jesus actually derived his power to drive out demons from Satan. In effect, they were saying that He, himself, was possessed with “an unclean spirit.” The reply of Jesus is simple. “How can Satan drive out Satan?"

Jesus then goes on to say that while all the bad things that humans can say and do can be forgiven, “whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never have forgiveness.” In the feast of Pentecost, we saw the Holy Spirit come down upon the disciples. The feast of the Holy Trinity showed us that the Holy Spirit is the spirit of Jesus himself. 

To call His Spirit unclean is to say that it is an evil spirit with no power to save us from our own imperfect nature. If we deny the very power of the Spirit of God to forgive our sins, how can we find salvation and happiness?

Finally, some in the crowd tell Jesus that his mother and brothers are outside waiting for him. Scholars tell us that in the Aramaic language there is no separate word for brothers, sisters or cousins. In any case Jesus informs the crowd that “whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” All of us who bear the fruits or marks of His Holy Spirit will be of his family.

In no particular order, these fruits of the Spirit are modesty, patience, peace, chastity, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, self-control, charity, joy, generosity, and kindness. As St. Paul said in today’s passage from the letter to the Corinthians we are all of one family.

Since we have the same spirit of faith,…
We too believe and therefore we speak,
Knowing that the one who raised the Lord Jesus,
Will raise us also with Jesus
And place us with you in his presence.


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Reading 1.  Genesis 3: 9-15
Reading II. 2 Corinthians 4: 13—5:1
Gospel. Mark 3: 20-35 (my mother and my brothers)