Monday, June 25, 2007

Nativity of John the Baptist

Nativity of St. John the Baptist
C cycle

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

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 supercedes the ordinary Sunday readings.

Coincidentally, if we were using the readings from the 12th Sunday in Ordinary time, the first reading would be from the Prophet Zechariah, a prophet with the same name as the father of John the Baptist. In that reading Zechariah talks of hope. In ordinary time the priest usually wears green, the color associated with hope. The prophet tells the Israelites that even in the midst of great mourning and desolation, the Lord will give them "a fountain to purify from sin and uncleanness." Of course, from the earliest days Christians have looked upon Jesus as the fountain from which all hope springs.

But in the readings for this special feast day the Church talks of John, the precursor, the messenger, the herald of Jesus, our hope. 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 still 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 just as he would later appear 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.


Sunday, June 17, 2007

11th Sunday in Ordinary Time

11th Sunday in Ordinary Time
C cycle

Reading 1. 2 Samuel 12:7-10, 13
Reading II. Galatians 2:16, 19-20
Gospel. Luke 7:36--8:3, (the sinful woman).

Today we return to what the Church calls "ordinary" time. Three weeks ago the Easter season came to a close with the great feast of Pentecost. Then in the last two weeks the Church presented us with the great mysteries of the Holy Trinity and the Body and Blood of Christ. For the rest of the liturgical year we will have to return to our humble, daily journey through life.

Is that why today's readings deal with sin and forgiveness? The first reading from the Book of Samuel presents us with what is perhaps the most shameful deed in the entire Bible. I'm surprised that the makers of the famous TV series, "The Sopranos," never thought to use the story of King David and Uriah the Hittite as the basis for an episode. We only get the tail end in today's verses but if you read the 11th and 12th chapters of the Book of Samuel you will get the whole story.

It is the famous account of David and Bathsheba. It begins with lust and degenerates into betrayal and murder when David orders Bathsheba's husband Uriah, one of his most loyal and dedicated soldiers, to be killed. David's sin is especially despicable because he had previously been given so much by the Lord. He had literally come from nowhere for he was the least of his father's many sons, a mere shepherd. Nevertheless, he was picked to lead his people and become their King.

As the reading indicates, David had everything. He had been saved from death at the hands of Saul, the previous King, and had been given all of Saul's possessions even his palace and many wives. In those days the Israelites especially their leaders could have many wives as well as concubines. Still, for David, like so many of the rich and famous, it was not enough. He set his eyes on a poor soldier's wife and the results were tragic.

I would like to guess that David never realized that all of his success and achievements were the result of his faith in God until he and his family suffered the consequences of his sin.

St. Luke's gospel account today presents us with another sinner--the sinful woman who anoints our Lord with oil, and washes his feet with her tears. In this touching and meaningful story our Lord tells the woman that her "sins are forgiven." Then he tells her, "Your faith has saved you, go in peace."

What did our Lord mean? It is clear that our Lord uses the woman as an example not only to the Pharisee who invited Him for dinner but also to us. It was the woman's faith that led her to perform the basic works of hospitality that the Pharisee had omitted to perform for his guest. Pharisees prided themselves on their strict adherence to all the practices required by the Law.

This incident with the woman will help us to understand what St. Paul is talking about in today's second reading. For us today justification is a word that has lost much of its meaning. When St. Paul introduces the concept of "justification by faith" it just conjures up theological controversies of long ago. What is justification? What is faith? What are works? Is there a conflict between faith and works? The best way to understand these concepts is to turn to the gospels.

In today's gospel the woman despite her sinful status performs the basic work of hospitality. Our Lord's words to the Pharisee are addressed to us.

Do you see this woman?
When I entered your house you did not give me water for my feet,

but she has bathed them with her tears
and wiped them with her hair.
You did not give me a kiss,
but she has not ceased kissing my feet since the time I entered.
You did not anoint my head with oil,
but she anointed my feet with ointment.
So I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven
because she has shown great love.

Time and time again in the gospels our Lord urges us to do the work. Those who do the work are the ones of great faith and love. They are the justified who can go in peace.

Today is Fathers Day. Is there any more difficult job than the one faced by fathers today? On this day our society pays lip service to fathers but on every other day they are mocked and vilified. Everywhere around us we see men abandoning, and abusing their children, and even urging that their children be aborted. Let's pray today that fathers will deny themselves, and take up their cross and do their work

Here is a little 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.

After all, right after our Lord's words in today's gospel, He said, "For what does it profit a man, if he gain the whole world, but ruin or lose himself?


Sunday, June 10, 2007

Body and Blood of Christ

Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ
C cycle

Reading 1. Genesis 14: 18-20
Reading II. 1 Corinthians 11: 23-26
Gospel. Luke 9: 11b-17 (Loaves and Fishes).

Today's feast of the Body and Blood of Christ used to be called the feast of Corpus Christi, from the Latin words which literally mean the Body of Christ. The feast commemorates not just the Body of Christ but also the fact that it was given up or sacrificed for us. That's probably why each of today's readings features a priest who makes an offering to God.

In the first reading we go back to the first book of the Old Testament, the Book of Genesis, and meet the legendary priest-king, Melchizedek, who offers up bread and wine to "God Most High." Although little else is known about Melchizedek, the early Fathers of the Church always viewed him as a forerunner of Christ as both priest and king. At Mass if the priest uses the first Eucharistic prayer, he will compare our Eucharistic sacrifice with Melchizedek's.

In today's gospel we have St. Luke's account of the miraculous multiplication of the loaves and fishes. This miracle, where Jesus provided food for the 5000, has also always been viewed as a precursor of the Eucharistic sacrifice. Like many of the miracles of Jesus this one follows a standard format. Jesus is busy at his work of teaching and healing when a problem--a hungry crowd--is brought to his attention. At first He doesn't see what it has to do with Him, and tells his disciples to take care of it themselves. "Give them some food yourselves." When they confess their own inability, He takes over.

Then taking the five loaves and two fish,
and looking up to heaven,
he said the blessing over them, broke them,
and gave them to the disciples to set before the crowd.

St. Luke concludes that "they all ate and were satisfied," and that plenty was left over.

Despite the fact that this miracle is the only one to appear in all four gospels, it is one of the most difficult for many people to accept. Today it is fashionable to offer a purely natural or sociological explanation. Some think that people were shamed by the selfless sharing of Jesus, and proceeded to take food which they had hidden about their persons and share it with their neighbors.

That's one theory but I prefer to think that the God who is responsible for every grain of wheat that grows on the earth, and for every fish that swims in the sea, could feed 5000 people. Right after this miracle St. Mark tells us that Jesus saved His disciples from drowning when he calmed the storm at sea. St. Mark relates this incident to the miracle of the loaves. He says that the disciples in the boat "were utterly beside themselves with astonishment, for they had not understood about the loaves, because their heart was blinded."

Many people also find it hard today to believe that the Body and Blood of Jesus are offered in the Sacrifice of the Mass. In today's second reading from St. Paul's letter to the Corinthians we have what is probably the first written account of our Lord's offering of His own Body and Blood at the Last Supper. It's obvious that Paul didn't make these words up. He says that he heard them from the Lord Himself in much the same way that the other Apostles did at that Passover meal.

What could the Apostles have been thinking when they saw Jesus take the bread, offer thanks, break it, and then say, "This is my body that is for you?" How could the bread be His Body? Or what about, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood." How could the wine be His Blood? We know that they believed it because He said it and because He would raise His Body from the dead only three days later. We also know that the first Christian communities also believed it and from the beginning repeated the Lord's words whenever they gathered together "in remembrance of Him."

Since the beginnings of Christianity theologians have tried to come to a better understanding of what our Lord meant. In the Middle Ages they came up with an explanation that is as good as any that has been offered since. Guided by the rediscovery of the works of ancient Greek scientists and philosophers, theologians like St. Thomas Aquinas developed the concept of "transubstantiation."

Like most scientific words "transubstantiation" is a long word made up of different parts in order to give greater clarity and precision. But if we break the word down into its parts, we will get a better idea of what it means. First, let's deal with the prefix, "tran." It means going from one thing to another, like in transport or transmit. The suffix, "ation", at the end of the word means a process or action, like in transportation. So if we get rid of the prefix and suffix, we're left with the root or core of the word, "substance." Now "sub" means under and "stance" comes from the Latin verb, "stare" which means "to stand."

When we deal with substance we're dealing with that which stands under a thing, it's real core, what it is. So "transubstantiation" means that the bread and wine although they still look, and feel, and taste like bread and wine, have become something else. It's something like when we advance through the different stages of life, from infancy to old age. Although our bodies change, aren't we always the same person?

However, transubstantiation is an attempt to explain a mystery. It is not the mystery itself.
Like the early Christians we believe that the Body and Blood of Christ are truly present in the Sacrament of the Eucharist because our Lord said so at the first Eucharist.


Saturday, June 2, 2007

Trinity Sunday

Most Holy Trinity
C cycle

Reading 1. Proverbs 8: 22-31
Reading II. Romans 5: 1-5
Gospel. John 16: 12-15 (the Spirit of Truth).

On Trinity Sunday one is reminded of the great saint and philosopher, St. Augustine. There is a well known story that one day Augustine was thinking about the Trinity while walking upon the seashore. He came upon a little boy who was busy emptying pails of water into a hole he had dug upon the beach. Augustine asked him what he was doing, and the boy replied that he was trying to empty the sea into the hole. When Augustine told the boy that he was attempting the impossible, the boy replied that Augustine in trying to understand the mystery of the Trinity was also attempting the impossible.

Nevertheless, the boy's advice did not stop Augustine from writing a treatise on the Trinity. Nor has it stopped theologians and homilists from writing millions of words about the Trinity ever since. None of these words would ever have been written if our Lord had not repeatedly referred to the Trinity during His time on earth. The Church did not invent the idea of the Holy Trinity, our Lord did.

In today's gospel He says that "everything that the Father has is mine," and tells the Apostles gathered at the Last Supper about the coming of "the Spirit of Truth." In our second reading from St. Paul's letter to the Romans, he says that "we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ," as if the two were somehow different. Paul then goes on to say that "the love of God has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit." Clearly, Paul understood what our Lord was saying.

In other words, neither Paul, nor Augustine, or anyone else would have come to the idea of three persons in one God by the use of reason alone. Reason had led even the pagan philosophers to conclude that the many gods of antiquity were fraudulent, even comical. Reason had led them to conclude even before the time of Christ that there could only be one God. Of course, the Jews had come to this realization even before the philosophers.

Still, only the words of Christ opened up the idea that this one God contained three Divine Persons. Let's pause for a minute and consider the meaning of the word "person." The Latin word "persona" means the mask or masks that ancient actors wore to express different characters or emotions. We've all seen pictures of these masks, some with smiles and others with frowns, which the actors held over their faces while playing their roles. It's similar to the way our TV newsmen will look glum while reporting a tragic story but then smile when the next story deals with the rescue of a cat from a tree.

We often today think of our "personality" or "persona" as something different from ourselves. No matter what we are like inside, our personality is the way we appear to the world outside of us. Looking at it this way, couldn't we say that there are many persons in any one of us. A man could be a husband to his wife, a father to his children, a son to his own parents, a friend to his friend, etc. A woman would not be the same person to her husband as she is to her children, or her parents, or her friends.

Certainly Jesus meant much more when He talked about the relationship of the Persons of the Trinity. And I don't mean to suggest that God wears masks. I am merely saying that He has chosen to appear to us in different ways. I know that this is not a scientific explanation but if we consider the Trinity, we will see that our Lord is telling us that it is possible to have a warmer, more intimate relationship with God than our reason could ever imagine. Just imagine that the same God who created not only this world but all the worlds keeps them in existence by love alone. He actually came into our world as one of us. Then after He suffered, died, and rose from the dead, He sent His own Spirit to dwell in us and guide us.

Some poor heretics throughout history have been unable to accept this divine intimacy. For some Jesus was God but never truly a man. How could God lower Himself in such a way? For others, Jesus was a good man but certainly not God. How could a man be God?
We say, however, that what kind of a God would it be who couldn't do it, or who wouldn't do it?

Who would want a different God? God is not a white haired old man sitting on some mountain top waiting to zap us with lightning bolts when we do wrong. He is not some force of nature that guides our evolutionary progress. Neither is He some kind of unconcerned creator who made the world and then ignored it. St. John tells us that God is Love. The Book of Proverbs says that God "found delight with the human race." Our creed tells us that God sent His Son to be one of us, and to suffer and die for us. St. Paul says that the grace of God is our hope,

and hope does not disappoint,
because the love of God has been poured into our hearts
through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

We have a mystical relationship with the Trinity. Because of the Trinity we can with Jesus call God, "Abba" or "Father." We can call Jesus, "our brother." Finally, we can say that the Spirit of God lives not in the faraway heavens, but in our very selves.