Monday, December 29, 2008
Reading 1. Sirach 3: 2-6, 12-14
Reading II. Colossians 3: 12-21
Gospel. Luke 2: 22-40 (the child grew and became strong).
It is appropriate that we celebrate the Feast of the Holy Family right after Christmas. Not only do we continue the narrative of the infancy of Christ but also at no time do families come closer together than at Christmas. However, there is a dark side. We all know that the Christmas season can strain and test family relationships.
Today's first reading from the Book of Sirach can be summed up in the great commandment to "honor thy father and mother." It would do us well to pay close attention to Sirach's words. He tells us that the authority of a father and mother come from God, and that it is ingrained in all of us. We would call it today a part of our genetic makeup. To depart from this practice violates our very nature and will only result in bitterness and unhappiness.
In our time when so many of our parents can no longer take care of themselves, the words of Sirach are more important than ever.
My son, take care of your father when he is old;
grieve him not as long as he lives.
Even if his mind fail, be considerate of him;
revile him not all the days of his life.
In our culture the roles of father and mother have come increasingly under attack. Television and movies usually portray fathers as ignorant simpletons or as brutal abusers. This only reflects a culture where men casually urge their girl friends or wives to abort their own children. That men should act as guardians and protectors of their wives and children is now regarded as old fashioned and laughable.
In today’s gospel St. Luke tells the poignant and significant story of the Presentation of the infant Jesus in the temple in Jerusalem. Here Joseph and Mary fulfill their duty to “consecrate” their child to the Lord. Parents today do something similar when they bring their own newborn to church to be baptized. Maybe they don’t meet with such interesting characters or hear such puzzling prophecies, but they still should be amazed by what lies ahead of them and their child. The parents are taking on an awesome responsibility.
The role of father and mother is also the central theme of our passage today from St. Paul's letter to the Colossians. How are we to understand this reading especially that controversial passage where St. Paul says, "Wives, be subordinate to your husbands, as is proper in the Lord."
We could say that Paul, like so many of his contemporaries, was a "sexist" who thought that women were second-class citizens. We could also say that since Paul never married, he knew nothing about the actual relationship of a man and a woman in marriage or the way they would arrange responsibility in a household even then.
However, we could also say that Paul was dealing in this passage with a very practical problem that had arisen in the early Christian churches, especially among the Gentiles. It would appear that the new faith was especially attractive to women. Scholars tell us that in pagan families it was often the woman who first converted to Christianity, and then subsequently brought their husbands and families into the fold. This is not unusual even in our time.
However, there were cases where the husband would not convert, and women in this situation wondered what to do. Should they stay with their pagan husbands or should they leave? Paul always urges them to remain faithful to their marriage vows. He knew that there was no social safety net for these women outside of marriage but he also argued that they would be better able to bring their husbands and families to believe by remaining married.
Finally, I think we could say that St. Paul is preaching a revolutionary new doctrine here. For a minute, let's concentrate on his advice to the men. "Husbands, love your wives." It is hard for us to realize that in the ancient world, love of a husband for his wife was not the ideal. Our idea of a young couple falling in love and dedicating their whole lives to one another was an alien idea in the ancient world. At that time and for centuries after marriages were arranged between families. A young woman or girl might only meet her future husband, often an older man, for the first time at their engagement. A woman was little more than a child-bearing machine. If she could not bear children, her husband was obligated to divorce her. As far as romantic feeling or sexual pleasure was concerned, a man usually found that outside of the bonds of matrimony.
Despite today's popular opinion, Christianity elevated the role of women not only in society but also in the eyes of her husband. St. Paul understands the teaching of Christ to mean that Christian men must give up their whole lives for their wives and families, a rare thing in any time. Look at the first part of today's reading. St. Paul is telling the Colossians and us to put on virtue in the same way we would put on a suit of clothes. The relationship in a family should consist of "heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience." A family built on these virtues won't have to worry about who's the boss.
Today's feast is not just about "The Holy Family" but it’s about making our families holy.
And over all these put on love,
that is, the bond of perfection.
And let the peace of Christ control your hearts,...
Saturday, December 27, 2008
Reading 1. Isaiah 62: 1-5
Reading II. Acts 13: 16-17, 22-25
Gospel. Matthew 1:1-25 (Genealogy of Jesus Christ).
Reading 1. Isaiah 9: 1-6
Reading II. Titus 2: 11-14
Gospel. Luke 2: 1-14 (she gave birth).
Reading 1. Isaiah 62: 11-12
Reading II. Titus 3: 4-7
Gospel. Luke 2: 15-20 (the shepherds).
Reading 1. Isaiah 52: 7-10
Reading II. Hebrews 1: 1-6
Gospel. John 1: 1-18 (the Word was with God).
There are four Masses that we could attend on Christmas. There is the Vigil Mass celebrated in the afternoon on Christmas Eve. Then there is the Midnight Mass. There is a Mass celebrated at dawn. Finally, there is the Mass for Christmas day. Each Mass has a different set of readings and so unless we get to church real early and read them all in the missalette, we will never hear the whole story.
All of the Masses begin with a joyful, exuberant reading from the prophet Isaiah. The reading from the Midnight Mass is typical:
The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom
a light has shone.
In the gospels we hear the story of the birth of Christ as told by St. Matthew and St. Luke. Little by little the characters in the Nativity scene are introduced. In the vigil Mass on Christmas eve, Matthew presents us with Mary and Joseph and tells us of Joseph's decision to take Mary into his house after finding her pregnant. In the Midnight Mass we find the stable and the manger, and the angels appear to the shepherds. At dawn, the shepherds go down to Bethlehem to find the child "lying in the manger." Finally, the gospel on Christmas Day is the famous beginning of the gospel of John, where John tries to explain the significance of the great event.
In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God.
No matter what Mass we attend all the readings testify that something unique and earth shattering occurred 2000 years ago. From Isaiah to John we hear that at that moment the darkness was pierced by a shaft of light and that because this tiny shaft of light entered the world, the world would never be the same.
Years ago I remember reading a novel by a little known Russian author about a day in the life of a prisoner in a Soviet concentration or prison camp. The book was written by a man who had himself spent 20 years in camps such as the one he described. He wrote the book secretly while in prison on little scraps of paper which had to be carefully hidden from the watchful eyes of the prison guards. The book was called "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch" and its author was Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who would go on to become one of the greatest authors of the 20th century.
When Solzhenitsyn's book first appeared, it was like a shaft of light cutting through the darkness of the vast Soviet empire. Until that time there were still those who defended that empire as a noble undertaking, or as the dawn of a new era in human history. Once the light appeared it exposed the rottenness, corruption, and brutality of that regime. The world would never be the same. Twenty years later the whole edifice came crumbling down.
Whatever Mass we attend today the readings all say the same--the light has come into the world and the world will never be the same. For each of us this Christmas it can be the same. A light can come into our hearts and we might never be the same. In the Vigil Mass we heard how Joseph after his dream, "did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took his wife into his home." For each of us who will take Mary and her child into their house this Christmas there is the possibility that our world will never be the same.
In today's Masses the story begins. We'll hear the rest of the story in the weeks and months to come.
Monday, December 22, 2008
Reading 1. 2 Samuel 7: 1-5, 8b-12, 14a, 16
Reading II. Romans 16: 25-27
Gospel. Luke 1: 26-38 (Hail, full of grace!).
It’s easy to understand how King David felt in today’s first reading. He is settled in his palace and no longer has any reason to fear his enemies all of whom have been overcome. We can picture him sitting back in his lounger, watching the game of the week on TV, and being waited on by his many wives. Then, the thought comes to him: what about the Lord? Maybe I should throw an extra twenty into the collection basket, or maybe even make a contribution to the church renovation fund. Actually, David thinks of building a house for the Lord,
Here I am living in a house of cedar,
While the ark of God dwells in a tent!
We can understand David’s desire to give back after receiving so much from the Lord but he doesn’t really understand. The Lord replies bluntly. “Should you build me a house to live in?” It’s not just that the Creator of everything can’t be confined in a house or temple; it’s also David’s incredible chutzpah in thinking that the Lord needed anything from him. The Lord reminds the young King of all that he has received and of all that he will receive.
I will raise up an heir after you, sprung from your loins,
And I will make His kingdom firm.
How different is the story in today’s gospel account of the appearance of the angel Gabriel to the virgin whose “name was Mary.” St. Luke is the only evangelist to give an account of the Annunciation. Obviously, he was not present when the angel appeared to Mary, but Luke was a good historian. Where did he get his information? It’s possible that he was merely relating an account of what the early Church believed, but I like to think that Luke talked to the Blessed Mother herself after the death and resurrection of her Son.
St. Luke is very careful with words and he especially likes to use proper names. Look at the first few lines of today’s gospel. We see Gabriel, Galilee, Nazareth, Joseph, David, and Mary. These names are all very important. In particular, scholars tell us that Mary or the Hebrew Miriam means “the exalted one.” The angel confirms Mary’s elevated status when he calls her “full of grace.” Scholars have pointed out that the angel’s greeting implies in its recipient “the attitude of being so open to God that all of His love can stream unhindered into one’s life.”
Indeed, no one else in the Bible receives such a stream of beautiful salutations as does Mary. “The angel’s praise, in fact, echoed St. John’s words about Christ: ‘full of grace and the abode of God’s glory.’” So we see that the Lord is not going to dwell in a tent or house or a temple. The Church had always regarded Mary as the dwelling place of the Lord, the true Ark of the Covenant. Gabriel says to her,
Behold you will conceive in your womb and bear a son,
And you shall name him Jesus.
He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High,
And the Lord God will give him the throne of David…
What is the significance of the name, Jesus? We know that throughout their history the Jews have been reluctant to use the name of God. Whether this was due to reverence, awe, or fear is hard to say. Instead of naming God, they chose to refer to His activity in the world. Thus the word, "Jesus" literally means, as Matthew tells us, God saves. Similarly, the name, Emmanuel, means God is with us. The birth of the Child will mean that God has entered our world in a special way. He will become one of us and from that day forward we will be able to call Him by his real Name, and even call Him brother. He can no longer be viewed as distant or unapproachable. We cannot imagine Him as some angry old man in the skies waiting to throw lightning bolts at us when we step out of line. God is Love, and Love comes into the world at Christmas.
Just like the Jews of yesteryear we too need signs. Maybe there is nothing special about them. Maybe we just fail to recognize them. Maybe, we can just point to the signs expressed in Charley Brown's Christmas song.
Christmas time is here.
happiness and cheer,
fun for all that children
call their favorite time of year.
Snowflakes in the air,
olden times and ancient rhymes
and love and dreams to share.
Sleigh bells in the air,
yuletide by the fireside
and joyful memories there.
Christmas time is here;
we'll be drawing near;
oh that we could always see
such spirit through the year,
such spirit through the year.
Tuesday, December 2, 2008
Reading 1. Isaiah 63: 16b-17, 19b; 64: 2b-7
Reading II. 1 Corinthians 1: 3-9
Gospel. Mark 13: 33-37 (Be watchful! Be alert!).
A few years ago three films based on J.R.R. Tolkien's epic story, "The Lord of the Rings," enjoyed enormous critical and popular success. Issued in three successive years around Christmas time, they were a box office smash. The third in the series, entitled, "The Return of the King," won the Academy award for "Best Picture." Most of us know by now that both the three-volume book and the films tell the story of a great journey or adventure undertaken by a group of men, elves, dwarves, and the now famous hobbits.
The adventure begins however in a smaller book of Tolkien's called "The Hobbit." In that book one particular hobbit is woken out of a quiet peaceful afternoon nap by a violent knocking on his door. To his amazement he is told that he must rouse himself out of his comfort and complacency and embark on a dangerous adventure whose end is far from certain. In the course of the adventure he will find that there is more to life than he ever dreamed, and that there is more to him than he ever dreamed.
Isn't it odd that the word "advent" is contained in the word, "adventure"? Advent is not just a time of preparation for Christmas; it is a time for all of us to consider how far we have progressed on the great adventure of life. Many of us might feel today like the people in today’s first reading from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah. It is a story of people who have turned their backs on God and have lost their way.
Why do you let us wander, O lord, from your ways,
And harden our hearts so that we fear you not?
The result is loneliness, isolation, and unhappiness.
We have all withered like leaves,
And our guilt carries us away like the wind.
Despite the apparent joys of the Christmas season, it can be a very depressing time of year. Many of us will feel out of touch not just with God but also with friends and family; maybe even estranged from them. It doesn’t have to be that way. Even though it is a time of penitence the season of Advent is also a time of hope. Advent marks the beginning of a new year for the Church, and it can also mark a new beginning for all of us. Interestingly, today’s gospel reading does not come from the beginning of St. Mark’s account but almost from the end. The Evangelist repeats the words of Jesus right before He enters upon His Passion.
Jesus is talking to his disciples. We must remember that since Holy Scripture is the inspired word of God, whenever Jesus talks to His disciples, he is talking to each one of us. He tells them,
Be watchful! Be alert!
You do not know when the time will come.
What is He talking about? The next verse gives the clue. When He refers to the man who goes away, He is talking about Himself right before His death. We are the servants whom He places in charge, each with our own work to do. He is telling us to act as if everyday will be our last and not waste the time we have left.
Advent has always been regarded as a season of preparation. Why is it that we prepare for everything in life but often fail to prepare for the most important thing in life? What football team would go into the weekend's big game without practicing all week? What will they practice? Why, the very same formations and plays that they expect to use when they are put to the test. During the week they will also be in the weight room preparing their bodies for the blows to come. On game day they will put on their protective gear or armor. Only a fool would go into such combat improperly equipped.
In business it's much the same thing. Salesmen practice their presentations before facing their customers. They learn how to anticipate and overcome every objection. In politics look how even the presidential candidates go through rigorous prepping and role-play before debating their opponents.
There is no better way to prepare this season than by increasing our attendance at Mass. Certainly, in this season when we should all be looking forward to the coming of Christ, he comes to us in each and every Mass. Besides Sunday Mass we will celebrate the great feast of the Immaculate Conception on December 8, a true Holy Day of Opportunity.
Finally, I can think of no better way to counter the stress and anxiety of this mad shopping season than to attend daily Mass during Advent. You will find a half hour of peace and tranquility every day and encounter some of the most beautiful readings in the Missal. You will get an opportunity to reconcile yourself with God and your neighbor when you recite the Kyrie Eleison, the Confiteor, the Our Father and the Agnus Dei. You can offer the kiss of peace to your friends and family. You can offer thanks to God for all the good things that have been given you, and then you can approach the altar to receive the true gift of Christmas, the gift of God's only Son.
We will not be alone on our adventure. As St. Paul says,
God is faithful,
And by Him you were called to fellowship with his Son,
Jesus Christ our Lord.
Monday, November 24, 2008
Reading 1: Ezekiel 34: 11-12, 15-17
Reading II: 1 Corinthiansm15: 20-26, 28
Gospel: Matthew 25: 31-46 (Inherit the Kingdom).
Today's feast of Christ the King marks the end of the church year. Although Christians have always believed in the Kingship of Christ, the feast is a relatively recent one dating only from 1925. At a time when the very idea of Kingship was on the way out, the Pope chose to emphasize the Kingship of Christ.The Second Vatican Council reemphasized the importance of the feast when it moved it from the last Sunday in October to the very last Sunday of the church year.
Naturally, the theme of today's readings is Kingship. The first reading from the prophet Ezekiel compares the role of a leader to that of a shepherd. The reading makes clear that a true king exists to serve his people, and not to be served by them.
Thus says the Lord God,
I myself will look after and tend my sheep.
In America we have never been partial to kings or the idea of Kingship. We pride ourselves on being a government "of the people, for the people, and by the people." It wasn't only that our founding fathers revolted against King George III of England but their aversion to kingship went even deeper.
Kings were supposed to be God's divinely appointed representatives on earth. Their coronations were religious ceremonies where the new king would be anointed with holy oils by a religious leader. Political philosophers spoke of the "divine right of kings" to justify their power. Old traditions held that the King even possessed miraculous healing powers. It was believed that merely touching his cloak could cure many physical maladies.
By the time of our Revolution it was clear that most kings were not what they were supposed to be. Many had come to their thrones not by divine right or election but through violence and usurpation. Many did not behave like representatives of God especially when it came to being good shepherds. A King was supposed to be the best and noblest man in the nation but often he seemed to be the worst. Even if they started out with good intentions, power corrupted them.
But what if there was a person whose teaching was both simpler and wiser than any of the world's great philosophers? What if this same teacher was able to calm storms at sea and even walk on the angry waters? What if there was a person who did indeed possess miraculous healing powers? -- if merely touching his cloak could cure both physical and spiritual ailments? What if there was a person who could feed the multitudes not only with bread for a day but with the bread of everlasting life? What if there was a person whose power was so great that he could even bring the dead back to life? Finally, what if there was a person who rather than being corrupted by power, surrendered his own life for his people? Shouldn't we call that person our King?
Today's gospel reading from the 25th chapter of St. Matthew is one of the most famous in all of scripture. Here we have the image of our Lord in His glory, surrounded by angels, and sitting on His throne at the final or last judgement. He says:
Come, you who are blessed by my Father,
Inherit the kingdom prepared for you
From the foundation of the world.
For I was hungry and you gave me food,
I was thirsty and you gave me drink,
A stranger and you welcomed me,
Naked and you clothed me,
Ill and you cared for me,
In prison and you visited me.
We know the response. When the blessed ask when they did all these things, the King replies, “whatever you did for one of the least brothers of mine, you did for me.” What a King! He does not ask us to sacrifice ourselves for Him but only to follow His example and give our lives for others. Continually in the gospels Jesus diverts our attention from Himself and tells us that we must care for others. We can only come into His kingdom if we see Him in our neighbor.
Today’s second reading from St. Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians seems to be all about death. St. Paul believed that originally we were not meant to die, that we had been created, every single one of us, to live forever in Paradise. But then sin entered the world and death followed sin. This is why St. Paul thought the Resurrection of our Lord was the central event in History. Our King has defeated death and because of that we can follow Him to everlasting life. We merely have to feed and cloth and visit all those who have been entrusted to our care.
The scene of the Last Judgement where the sheep are separated from the goats has been immortalized by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel in Rome. Even before that time innumerable churches had put this image high up in their beautiful west windows. Usually in the back of the church, the west faced the setting sun which was identified with the end of the world or the final judgement. As they left the church the congregation could look up and see the Lamb of God in the center surrounded by Apostles and Prophets representing all the blessed.
On this last Sunday of the Church year we can also look up at the Risen Lamb and think of the words from the Book of Revelation.
The Lamb who is in the midst of the throne will shepherd them,
And will guide them to the fountains of the waters of life,
And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.
Monday, November 17, 2008
Reading 1. Proverbs 31:10-13, 19-20, 30-31
Reading II. 1 Thessalonians 5: 1-6
Gospel. Matthew 25: 14-30 (to each according to his ability).
Today’s first reading is from the last section of the Book of Proverbs and is taken from a poem which some have called the “Poem of a Perfect Wife.” Our reading calls her a “worthy wife” from the famous opening:
When one finds a worthy wife,
Her value is far beyond pearls.
Most historians would agree that sexism was part and parcel of the ancient world. Whether we’re talking about Greeks, Romans, Arabs, or Jews it was all the same, a world dominated by men. The male had absolute authority in his own household and this power extended into all of their communities whether clans, tribes, or cities.
In today’s reading, however, we get a chance to peek behind the scenes and see what actually went on in an ancient household. The picture that emerges, especially if we read the whole poem and not just the excerpts in our missal, is of a wife as business manager or chief executive. What are her duties? She gets up while it is still dark and gets the whole household moving. She feeds her employees and gives them their work for the day. She herself labors well into the night. With the household running smoothly she turns her attention to other matters of concern. For example,
She sets her mind on a field, then she buys it;
With what her hands have earned she plants a vineyard.
She doesn’t seem to need her husband’s advice or permission even when she deals in such business matters:
She weaves linen sheets and sells them,
She supplies the merchant with sashes.
Finally, at the end of the day with her household and business prosperous and in good order, she can enjoy the fruit of her hard work:
She is clothed in strength and dignity,
She can laugh at the days to come.
It is very interesting that the Church uses this account of a hard-working woman to introduce today’s gospel account of our Lord’s parable of the three servants and the talents. Anyone who reads of the works and teaching of Jesus has to realize that there is no hint of sexism there. St.Paul realized as much when he said that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free. We are all one in Christ.
How many times in the Gospels does our Lord refer to Himself as a servant and insist that we must be good and faithful servants? In other words, the role of the woman in the Book of Proverbs is now the work of all of us. After all, who benefitted from the hard work of the woman in the Book of Proverbs? It wasn’t just her husband, her children, and her entire household. She also benefitted for she found peace, prosperity, dignity and honor.
Isn’t it strange that Jesus called us to be servants even though God has no need of our service? Jesus asked us to use our talents in the service of others. The servants in the Gospel parable were all given talents and asked to grow them. Don’t we admire the athletes who work the hardest to develop their God-given skills? Isn’t it a shame when we see people who bury their gifts in the ground and waste their lives in trivial pursuits?
People in business attend seminars where they learn how to treat or serve their clients. They learn how to provide good “service” not only by doing their job well but by giving recognition and rewards, especially to their best clients. If only we could apply these techniques in our own families. What if husbands and wives were to regard each other as their best clients?
It is so sad when people, especially young people, take the easy way out. So many of our children refuse to take advantage of the education offered to them today. They often brag about skipping class or not doing assignments Some even get through college without ever reading a book.
Even if we have not been given the same gifts, it is still important for us to work with what we have been given. Wouldn’t our lives be happier and better if we worked hard to develop our God-given talents? Also, let’s not waste our time by wishing we had someone else’s gifts or underrating our own? It says in today’s Gospel that each servant was given an amount “according to his ability.”
If we work hard and spend our lives in the service of others, we will be able, like the worthy woman in Proverbs, to rest easy at night and laugh at the days to come. In today’s second reading St. Paul commended the Christians of Thessalonica for avoiding the “darkness” and being “children of the light.” Still, he urged them and us to keep up the good work:
Therefore, let us not sleep as the rest do,
But let us stay alert and sober.
Friday, August 15, 2008
Reading 1. Revelation 11: 19a; 12: 1-6a, 10ab
Reading II. 1 Corinthians 15: 20-27
Gospel. Luke 1: 39-56 (Visitation).
It's funny how so many people today are critical of the idea of Papal Infallibility. Ever since the First Vatican Council proclaimed the doctrine of Papal Infallibility back in 1870, commentators, including some Catholic ones, have voiced opposition. Many of them while denying the doctrine seem to put on the very mantle of infallibility themselves. Today all we have to do is look at the political talk shows on TV to see pundit after pundit absolutely sure that their position on any issue is the only correct one.
As a matter of fact the Popes have acted in a much more cautious and humble way than most of their critics. Papal Infallibility only means that the Pope cannot err when he is speaking "ex cathedra," that is, from the chair of Peter, in unison with the entire Church, and only on matters of faith and morals. As far as I can tell the Popes have only done this on two occasions and both concerned Mary.
In 1854 even before the first Vatican Council Pope Pius IX promulgated the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. He affirmed that Mary from the first moment of her existence was free from the stain of original sin. Now the Pope wasn't talking about the birth of Jesus to a virgin. He merely said that Mary through the grace of her divine Son was conceived without the flaw or imperfection that every son and daughter of Adam and Eve inherits. Interestingly enough the idea of Mary's Immaculate Conception had been debated by theologians and scholars for almost 800 years before the Pope's proclamation.
Since that time the only other occasion when a Pope ventured to speak "infallibly" occurred in 1950 when Pope Pius XII promulgated the doctrine which we celebrate today, the Assumption of Mary into Heaven. Now Catholics didn't start believing in the Assumption only in 1950. Think of how many churches were constructed before 1950 dedicated to Our Lady of the Assumption. Belief in Mary's Assumption can be found in the writings of the early Church Fathers and for centuries artists have delighted in rendering the scene of Mary being taken up into Heaven.
Of course, Catholics have always loved images of Mary. In today's first reading we have the famous image of "the woman clothed with the sun" who was about to give birth to a son, "destined to rule all the nations." In today's gospel we have St. Luke's famous account of the Visitation. Almost immediately after the Annunciation Mary embarks on a journey to visit her cousin, Elizabeth, who is herself expecting. Artists have loved to portray this tender scene of the meeting of the two women. The young Mary, barely pregnant, greets her elder cousin whose pregnancy is well advanced.
St. Luke is the only evangelist to describe this meeting but, of course, he wasn't present. How did he get his information? It's possible that he was merely relating an earlier oral tradition and giving us an account of what the early Church believed Mary would have said on this occasion. Perhaps he talked with the Blessed Mother herself after the death and resurrection of her Son. In that event, this passage would represent her profound recollection of the Visitation in the light of everything that came after.
Nevertheless, what image does St. Luke give us of Mary? We certainly can't take from his account that Mary was a bewildered, frightened teenager. The very name, Mary or Miriam, means "the exalted one." Scholars tell us that the expression "leaped for joy" is only used in the Bible when one is in the presence of the Almighty, such as the time King David danced in front of the Ark of the Covenant. Elizabeth's greeting,
Blessed are you among women,
and blessed is the fruit of your womb...
which we repeat every day in the "Hail Mary," proclaims that from Mary will come the Savior of the world.
The beautiful prayer of Mary which we call the Magnificat is a collection of verses from many sources in the Hebrew scriptures, especially the Psalms, those beautiful hymns of praise. We all know the beginning,
My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord;
my spirit rejoices in God my Savior
for he has looked upon his lowly servant.
From this day all generations will call me blessed:
This is the song of a great Queen who has accepted a great mission.
In artistic renderings of the Immaculate Conception Mary is portrayed as the woman clothed with the Sun, with the Moon at her feet, and stars in her crown. Her dress is white but she is covered with a blue mantle. Ordinarily, she is pictured with a red dress covered with the blue mantle. Now "red" is the symbol of earth or humanity but "blue" is the symbol of divinity. The artists follow the teaching of the Church. Mary is human but she has been cloaked with immortality. In the vigil Mass for today's feast, the words of St. Paul apply not only to Mary but to any who put on the mantle of her Son.
When that which is mortal clothes itself with immortality,
then the word that is written shall come about:
'Death is swallowed up in victory.
Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?'
Monday, June 23, 2008
Reading 1. Jeremiah 20: 10-13
Reading II. Romans 5: 12-15
Gospel. Matthew 10:26-33 (Fear no one).
It was not unusual in olden days for Kings and Princes to kill bearers of bad news. It was as if the messenger was himself responsible for the bad news. The prophet Jeremiah was such a messenger. His preaching or prophecy was that the Kingdom of Judah would be destroyed and its people would be led away as captives by their powerful enemies. And it was all because they had turned their backs on God.
Even today no one likes to hear bad news. Of all the prophets of the Old Testament Jeremiah has become most identified with bad news. The word, “jeremiad” comes from his name and means an extended prediction of impending doom. We don’t call them prophets anymore but our world is full of Jeremiahs. Cartoons used to depict shabbily dressed men carrying placards on street corners urging people to change their ways because the end of the world was coming. Today, we have global warming gurus also preaching disaster unless we mend our ways. Asteroids falling toward the earth, gigantic earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions are some of the themes of our most popular movies.
Jeremiah turned to the Lord when he was surrounded by danger and that is also the point of today’s gospel reading from St. Matthew. Jesus tells his Apostles to “fear no one.” These words, which the late Pope John Paul II used constantly, are not mere “pie in the sky.” The late Pope used them to help bring down the mighty Soviet empire in Russia and liberate 100 million people in Eastern Europe.
Today’s gospel account picks up right after last week’s account of the calling of the twelve Apostles. In effect, Jesus was calling them to be bearers of “good news,” not “bad news.” In another place He told them “as the Father sent Me, so I also send you.” They are to continue His work. The words spoken, the healings, the miracles, all these they can do also if they have faith and are not afraid. He tells them not to keep secret what they will learn and not to be timid.
What I say to you in the darkness, speak in the light;
what you hear whispered, proclaim on the housetops.
We must understand that even though the Apostles have a special place in the Church, whenever Jesus speaks to them, He is also speaking to us. He gave the Apostles a mission but we are all called upon to continue it and play our part. But we all have different parts to play. We can’t all be Pope John Paul II, or Pope Benedict, or Mother Teresa. Thank God, He’s spared us from such an aweful responsibility. Most of us won’t be able to perform great deeds of healing except the little acts of healing we perform every day in our own families and communities.
These good works that we do are essential not only for our loved ones, but also for ourselves. But speaking of good works, what are we to make of today’s second reading from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans? Actually, ever since we re-entered Ordinary time about a month ago we have been going through this famous letter. In this letter St. Paul’s discussion of “justification by faith” has been the source of much controversy in theological circles. It certainly was at the center of the Protestant Reformation and remains today a divisive element between Catholics and Protestants.
Part of the problem today is the words or language used by Paul. Words like sin, justification, and transgression all seem foreign to our modern ears. What is Paul talking about, when he talks about sin and death entering the world? It doesn’t take an especially perceptive person to see that there is something wrong in our world. If we don’t want to call it sin or evil, we can call it pain, suffering, unhappiness, whatever. Where did it come from?
For Paul the problems of the world were so pervasive that he viewed them like powers or kingdoms that threaten us in the same way that powerful forces threatened Israel in the time of Jeremiah. These forces threatened to overwhelm the people of God and enslave it just as people today can become enslaved to anger, violence, jealously, greed, lying, or any of the many addictions that our society holds out to us as substitutes for God.
Paul saw that this evil was part of our human nature and that it had existed from the very beginning. At one point, the Lord had provided the Israelites with the Law in order to show them the way to happiness but the Hebrew Scriptures are nothing if not a chronicle of the many ways in which God’s people continually turned their backs on the Lord. We were meant for happiness but something has gone wrong. We were meant to live forever, but now we must all face death. This is why Paul places so much emphasis on the Resurrection of Jesus.
God has sent His only Son to overcome death for us. It’s as if the impregnable fortress of an invincible enemy had been overcome by a mighty warrior. Now, if we believe in Him and are not afraid, all we have to do is complete the work. Today, our gospel ends with these famous words,
Everyone who acknowledges me before others
I will acknowledge before my heavenly Father.
But whoever denies me before others,
I will deny before my heavenly Father.
Sunday, June 15, 2008
Reading 1. Exodus 19: 2-6a
Reading II. Romans 5: 6-11
Gospel. Matthew 9:36—10:8 (the harvest is abundant).
Today is Father’s day and coincidentally the readings all deal with a calling to a special vocation or mission. In the first reading from the Book of Exodus the Lord instructs Moses to tell the people that if they hearken to the voice of the Lord and keep His covenant, they shall be “a kingdom of priests, a holy nation.” Not just the priests but the whole nation of Israel is being called to do the work of the Lord.
Today’s gospel reading starts with the end of the 9th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew. This chapter is full of incredible works. By this time crowds are following Jesus and everywhere He turns there is work to do. He heals a paralyzed man after forgiving his sins. “Take up your pallet and walk.” Then He brings the daughter of Jairus, called by Matthew a ruler, back from the dead. On the way to the girl’s house a woman suffering from a hemorrhage is healed by just touching His cloak. After He left the house of Jairus, two blind men follow Jesus begging for their sight. He cures them also.
Matthew who had himself been called to follow Jesus in the midst of these miracles indicates that these extraordinary events he describes were just the tip of the iceberg.
And Jesus was going about all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and curing every kind of disease and infirmity.
At this point today’s gospel begins. The reading tells us that,
At the sight of the crowds, Jesus’ heart was moved
With pity for them
Because they were troubled and abandoned,
Like sheep without a shepherd.
There was so much work to be done. Wherever He turned there were people in need of physical or spiritual healing. At this point in the narrative Jesus summoned twelve of his disciples and deputized them. Matthew gives us their names and a little information about them. Scholars tell us that the number twelve is important since it reminds us of the 12 tribes of Israel. In other words, just as the twelve tribes signified the whole people or nation of Israel, the twelve Apostles signify the whole Church.
In the first reading the Lord said that Israel would be a kingdom of priests, a holy nation. In the same way Jesus makes it very clear throughout the gospels that we are all to share in the work of healing.
Today, everyone here in church is here for a reason. Most of us are feeling some pain or anxiety either for ourselves or for our loved ones. Aren’t we like the crowds that followed Jesus? Outside the Church there are millions who also feel troubled and abandoned. Just read Anne Landers or Dear Abby to see how much people need healing.
Typically, these modern day gurus advise people to see a counselor, as if there were enough counsellors to go around for all of us. Other people turn to drugs, legal or illegal, to cure their pain. Some of the most widely prescribed drugs are designed to counter depression and produce happiness. Even our wealthy and powerful and famous citizens have not escaped the epidemic of unhappiness. What’s going on?
Today is Father’s day. Is there any more difficult job than the one faced by fathers today? On this day society pays lip service to fathers but on every other day they are mocked and vilified. Comic strips, TV shows, and even commercials portray fathers as inept bumblers. More seriously, the very concept of Fatherhood has been attacked. Statistics show an alarming percentage of children being born without fathers. Everywhere we see men abandoning, and abusing their children, and even urging that they be aborted.
In every walk of life sacrifice is necessary to be successful. The best athletes are the ones who practice the longest and hardest. The best businessmen or women are those that pay the most attention to their clients. A father must give up a lot for his children but our Lord tells us that if we give up our life, we will find it. 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.
The words Jesus addressed to His first Apostles are addressed to all of us, “Without cost you have received, without cost you are to give.”
Sunday, May 25, 2008
Reading 1. Deuteronomy 8: 2-3, 14b-16a
Reading II. 1 Corinthians 10: 16-17
Gospel. John 6: 51-59 (the living bread).
After the completion of the Easter season, we are presented with three great feast days, all designed to follow up and reinforce the great message of Easter. Two weeks ago we celebrated the great feast of Pentecost commemorating the descent of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles and on us. Last week we celebrated the feast of the Holy Trinity which brought to mind the ways in which God works in our world. Today we celebrate the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ, formally the feast of Corpus Christi, which celebrates our intimate relationship with Jesus, Himself.
Today’s first reading takes us back to the wanderings of the Israelites in the desert after their escape from the bondage of slavery in Egypt. Moses reminds them of how the Lord has sustained them on their long journey. They had been fed with manna, a new and miraculous food unknown to them and their fathers. This had been done in order to show them that,
Not by bread alone does one live,
But by every word that comes forth
From the mouth of the Lord.
In the beginning of the John’s gospel Jesus, himself, is called the Word of God. Today’s gospel from the 6th chapter of that gospel contains the hardest, perhaps the most difficult, words that Jesus ever uttered. They were so difficult that not only did they strike consternation among His Jewish hearers, but they also caused some of His disciples to leave Him. He said.
I am the living bread that came down from heaven;
Whoever eats this bread will live forever;
And the bread that I will give
Is my flesh for the life of the world.
To make his point clear He repeats it over and over.
Amen, amen, I say to you,
Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood,
You do not have life within you.
This was especially shocking and disgusting to the Jews because of their traditional abhorrence to eating even the blood of animals. These words remain a stumbling block today to many who cannot accept them as literally true. What are we to make of them? How do we eat His flesh and drink His blood?
Of course Catholics have always believed that it is in the Holy Eucharist. At the Last Supper, Jesus took bread into His hands, broke it, and gave it to them to eat saying that it was His Body. He also took the cup of wine and told them to drink it for it was His Blood. No Pope or theologian made this up. We get it from Jesus Himself. We live by the Word of God; Jesus is the Word of God: and “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my Blood remains in Me and I in him.”
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. What we do today at each Mass is what the first Christians did from the very beginning. As St. Paul said in today’s second reading,
The cup of blessing that we bless,
Is it not a participation in the blood of Christ?
The bread that we break,
Is it not a participation in the body of Christ?
Monday, May 19, 2008
Reading 1. Exodus 34: 4b-6, 8-9
Reading II. 2 Corinthians 13: 11-13
Gospel. John 3: 16-18 (God so loved the world).
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.
Today's gospel passage begins with the famous gospel verse, John 3:16, which we often see on tee shirts and on placards at sporting events. "God so loved the world that he gave His only son..." John is quoting the words of Jesus here, words which speak of the special relationship between God and His Son. In our second reading from St. Paul's second letter to the Corinthians, Paul refers to the Holy Trinity using words that we now use at the beginning of every Mass.
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ
and the love of God
and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.
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.
Sunday, May 11, 2008
Reading 1. Acts 2: 1-11
Reading II. 1 Corinthians 12: 3b-7, 12-13
Gospel. John 20: 19-23. (Recive the Holy Spirit).
In today's first reading from the Acts of the Apostles St. Luke gives us the well known account of the extraordinary appearance of the Holy Spirit to the Apostles in the upper room. The Apostles had gathered together for the Jewish feast of Pentecost, a feast which commemorated the giving of the law to Moses on Mount Sinai.
Next week we will celebrate the feast of the Holy Trinity but today's feast is about the Third Person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit. Let's start out by clearing up a few misconceptions that some of us may have about the Holy Spirit. First of all, the Spirit is not a bird. I know that the traditional image of a dove given us by Christian artists is probably ingrained in all of us. It is hard to portray a purely spiritual being in art for a spirit has no body to paint or sculpt. In one gospel passage the movement of the Holy Spirit is likened to the fluttering flight of a dove and so I guess the early artists used the dove as a kind of artistic shorthand.
Speaking about images I have to confess that as a child I thought that the "tongues as of fire" that rested on the Apostles at Pentecost were actually human tongues on fire. It took me years before I realized that the "tongues" were actually similar to the darting flames that we would see in our own fireplaces. Also back then it was more common to refer to the Holy Spirit as the Holy Ghost, which only conjured up images from Abbott and Costello movies.
But in today's readings we see that although we cannot see or feel or hear the Spirit of God, It dwells in us and works through us. St. Luke says of the Apostles that "they were all filled with the Holy Spirit."
So who or what is the Holy Spirit? First, let's think about the word spirit. In my bedroom there is a picture of me as an infant. Next to it is a picture of me as a young man taken a short while after my wedding day. Next to that I can look into the mirror and behold a senior citizen. Which of these three pictures is me? I guess that even though I look different they all are me. In other words my "spirit" is in all of them. My spirit is the real me. Another word for spirit is "soul," a word that is somewhat out of fashion today.
So when Jesus, on the evening of that Easter Sunday when he rose from the dead, breathed on the Apostles, and said, "Receive the Holy Spirit," He was giving them His own self or spirit. He also makes it clear that He is sending them to continue the work that His Father had sent Him to do. "As the Father has sent Me, so I send you." His Spirit will give them the strength and courage to continue the work.
Fifty days later He comes to them again in the roaring wind and in tongues of fire.
If we can't see or feel or hear the Spirit, how do we know that He dwells in us? As Christians we have to learn to read the signs. Just as the shipwrecked Robinson Crusoe knew that there were other men on his lonely island when he beheld their footprints, we will know the Spirit by His signs. St. Paul says in the letter to the Corinthians,
There are different kinds of spiritual gifts but the same Lord;
there are different workings but the same God
who produces all of them in everyone.
Then, talking to us as well as to the Corinthians, Paul says that to "each individual the manifestation of the Spirit is given for some benefit." In other words we all have a role to play in bringing the Spirit of God to each other.
What are the signs that the Spirit dwells in us? In years past we used to speak of the fruits of the Holy Spirit. If you pick a fruit from a tree and it tastes and smells and feels like an apple, then you can conclude that it's an apple tree. The same goes for a peach or pear tree. In his letter to the Galatians, St. Paul lists the fruits or signs of the Spirit as charity, joy, peace, patience, benignity, goodness, longanimity, mildness, faith, modesty, continency, chastity." Some of these words might sound strange to us today but we surely get the general idea. Who would not want to receive the Holy Spirit? Would we want to be uncharitable, miserable, quarrelsome, impatient, malicious, bad, mean-spirited, offensive, unfaithful, immodest, wasteful, or promiscuous?
We don't need miraculous, mystical, or ghostly experiences to encounter the Spirit today. After all, we have all received the Spirit at Confirmation. Right after Pentecost the Apostles saw that it was necessary not only to preach the Word but also to lay their hands on all the baptized in order that the Spirit might dwell in them. Generation after generation have continued this practice. Every confirmation is a kind of Pentecost.
Even though the Apostles had walked with the Lord and had seen His Risen Body, they still needed to receive His Spirit before they could leave the upper room and go out and face the world. St. Paul says the same for us.
For those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.
For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear,
but you received a Spirit of adoption,
through whom we cry, "Abba, Father!
Sunday, April 6, 2008
Reading 1. 2: 14, 22-33
Reading II. 1 Peter 1: 17-21
Gospel. Luke 24: 13-35 (road to Emmaus.)
In the Sundays after Easter the readings usually give us testimony or witness to the Resurrection of the Lord. Last Sunday, for example, we had the touching account of doubting Thomas. Remember our Lord's words to Thomas, "do not be unbelieving, but believe." These words were addressed not only to Thomas but to all of us. Today's readings are also addressed to us.
The scriptures are the Word of God. As such they are addressed to every generation not just to those living 2000 years ago. So when as in today's first reading Peter stands up in front of a congregation much like ours, we should consider that he is speaking to us. When he says, "You who are Jews,"... "You who are Israelites, hear these words," he means us.
In his oration Peter gives witness to the life, death and Resurrection of the Lord.
Peter says about Jesus,
This man...you killed, using lawless men to crucify Him.
At the famous church Council of Trent, held over 400 years ago, the Church fathers refused to blame the Jews for the death of Christ. They said that inasmuch as Christ died for all men's sins, then all of us are responsible for His death. This position was reiterated at the Second Vatican Council.
Nevertheless, He died for all of us and He was raised from the dead for all of us. Peter then quotes the great Jewish King David as foretelling the resurrection of Jesus. Now Peter was no scripture scholar or learned rabbi. Perhaps he got this reference to David from the disciples who met the risen Jesus on the road to Emmaus.
Some of us must remember that old series of movies with Bing Crosby and Bob Hope--with titles like "The Road to Morocco" and "The Road to Zanzibar." In each movie the two traveled usually by accident to some exotic locale where there comic adventures took place. Well, the road to Emmaus is a journey to the most exotic of all locations and it is a journey that all of us must take.
Today's gospel account is so familiar that sometimes it is easy to overlook what is really going on. As two of the disciples were walking along the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus, Jesus falls in with them but St. Luke tells us that "their eyes were prevented from recognizing Him." They take him for a stranger. When He asks them what they had been discussing, they tell Him of the events since the Crucifixion and how some of the women had seen an angel who gave them the incredible news that Jesus was alive. The news astonished them and they found it difficult to believe.
The stranger scolds them,
Oh, how foolish you are!
How slow of heart to believe all that the prophets spoke.
Scholars tell us that what follows is like a Mass or liturgy. Jesus reminds them of the scriptures which has referred to the Messiah beginning with Moses and continuing down through the prophets. As they approach Emmaus, the disciples ask the stranger to stay with them. He accepts and they sit down to share a meal. He then offers a sacrifice of thanksgiving or eucharist in the same way that He does at every Mass.
he took bread, said the blessing,
broke it, and gave it to them.
Finally, in the breaking of the bread they recognized Him. At every Mass we hear the Scriptures read. They tell us not only of the predictions of a Messiah, but of the actual words and deeds of the Messiah. Then after the readings we join Him at the altar table and He comes to us or we come to Him in the breaking of the bread.
In today's second reading St. Peter again speaks and reminds us of our journey. He says,
conduct yourselves with reverence during the time of your sojourning...
Peter uses a strange expression here. He says that we were "ransomed." Today we think of ransom as a payment made to free someone from kidnappers. In the ancient world slavery was much more common than it is today. Prisoners taken in battle or piracy were sold into slavery. Only if family or friends could raise enough money could the captive be bought back out of slavery. Obviously, if someone came up with the ransom to free you, you would be eternally grateful to that person. Moreover, once freed you would never want to return to slavery.
Isn't it obvious from reading the newspapers or watching TV that so many of us are enslaved to one harmful addiction or another. Has Easter made any real difference in our conduct or relationships? Now we are halfway through the Easter season. In the weeks to come we can discover the road to happiness. On journey to Emmaus can begin today. We have heard the Scriptures. Now in a few minutes we will have the opportunity to recognize Him in the breaking of the bread.
Friday, March 28, 2008
Reading 1. Acts 2: 42-47
Reading II. 1 Peter 1: 3-9
Gospel. John 20:19-31 (Doubting Thomas).
In the Sundays after Easter the Church gives us a little history lesson. For the next few weeks the first reading will be taken from the Acts of the Apostles, and not from the Old Testament or Hebrew scriptures. We are going to see the young Church growing through the "signs and wonders" worked by the Apostles in the Name of the Risen Christ. They devoted themselves to teaching...to the communal life, to the breaking of bread and to the prayers.
Today's gospel, however, shows us another manifestation of the Risen Lord. It is the traditional and touching story of "doubting Thomas," from St. John's gospel. Before Vatican II this gospel was always used for the first Sunday after Easter. Even though we now have three cycles of gospel readings, the story of our Lord's appearance to the Apostles and to Thomas is used in each cycle.
Remember that last week we heard how in the early hours of the first Easter Sunday, Mary Magdalene had found the tomb empty. Then St. John tells us that he and Peter ran to the tomb and also found it empty with the burial cloths neatly rolled up. When the two men went back to tell the others, Mary Magdalene stayed by the tomb. Jesus appears to her and asks her why she's weeping. At first she fails to recognize Him but when He speaks her name she believes. We can imagine her throwing her arms around Him but He cautions her not to touch Him, "for I have not yet ascended to my Father." He tells her to tell His brethren what she has seen. She returns to the disciples and says, " I have seen the Lord." Immediately, after this episode John's gospel jumps right to the incident in today's gospel reading.
On the evening of that day Jesus comes to the disciples despite the locked doors of the house. He "stood in their midst and said to them "Peace be with you." He shows them His hands and His side and they all rejoice. Again He says, "Peace be with you," and tells them of their mission. "As the Father has sent me, so I send you." All were present except Thomas and when he returns, he can't believe it.
Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands
and put my finger into the nailmarks
and put my hand into His side, I will not believe.
A week goes by and Jesus appears to them again. Again He says, "Peace be with you." This time Thomas is there and in that unforgettable scene, Jesus tells him to examine his wounds. "Do not be unbelieving but believe." We can picture Thomas dropping to his knees and saying, "my Lord and my God."
Only about a century ago Pope Pius X, who would later be canonized as St. Pius X was trying to encourage frequent reception of Communion. It was part of the effort of this great Pope to restore all things to Christ. It's hard to believe but for centuries most Catholics did not receive Communion at Mass. Not only did Pius X encourage adults to receive, he also lowered the age for the reception of first Communion so that children could receive. As part of this effort Pius X encouraged Catholics to look at the Host when it was elevated and repeat the words of Thomas. "My Lord and my God."
The Pope also initiated a great liturgical reform movement. He was the first to grant permission for the words of the Mass to be printed in everyday language alongside the traditional Latin. Older Catholics will remember the Latin-English Missals of their youth. His reforms led to the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council. One of those reforms has particular relevance to today's reading.
How many times in today's gospel did our Lord say, "Peace be with you?" In the traditional Latin Mass it seemed like the priest was always kissing the altar and then turning to the people to say "Pax Vobiscum", "Peace be with you." The altar represented Christ. The priest would receive the Kiss of Peace from Christ and then pass it on to the deacon, who in turn would go into the congregation and bring Christ's Kiss of Peace to all. Since Vatican II the Church has given new emphasis to this practice.
Later in the Mass the priest will give us the Kiss of Peace and ask us to pass it on to our neighbor. He will ask us to give much more than a simple handshake. He will ask us to repeat the same words that our Lord used in today's gospel and give Christ's blessing to our neighbor. A blessing is a real thing. It is meant to heal. We are being asked to bring Christ to our neighbor just as the Apostles did. After the Apostles believed, they were able to work "signs and wonders," they were able to heal the sick in both body and soul.
People will travel thousands of miles to receive the blessing of the Pope, the Vicar of Christ. Yet, for us we believe that at every Mass Christ, Himself, comes into this room and gives us His blessing. "Peace be with you." As Peter said in today's second reading:
Although you have not seen Him you love Him;
even though you do not see Him now yet believe in Him,
you rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy,
as you attain the goals of your faith, the salvation of your souls.
Sunday, March 23, 2008
Reading 1. Acts 10:34a, 37-43
Reading II. Colossians 3: 1-4 or
1 Corinthians 5: 6b-8
Gospel. John 20: 1-9 (Easter).
The Church uses many different readings on Easter. The Vigil Mass has seven readings from the Old Testament; St. Paul's famous letter to the Romans--"Christ raised from the dead, dies no more; death no longer has power over Him:" and St. Matthew's account of the angel at the empty tomb, "go quickly and tell his disciples, 'He has been raised from the dead'." In the afternoon Mass we will have St. Luke's account of the risen Lord's appearance to the disciples on the road to Emmaus.
This morning's Mass, however, begins with a reading from the Acts of the Apostles. Peter is preaching. Remember how prominently Peter appeared in the readings during Holy Week. Last Sunday he told Jesus that he would follow Him to prison, even to death. But our Lord predicted that Peter would deny Him three times before the cock crows. Peter's subsequent denial is one of the few things reported in all four gospels.
Today it's a different Peter. He gives as good an account of the life and work of Jesus as you will find anywhere. Then he bears witness to His Resurrection,
This man God raised on the third day and granted
that He be visible...to us,...
who ate and drank with Him after He rose from the dead.
Finally, he makes the claim "that everyone who believes in Him will receive forgiveness of sins through His name."
However, it's easy to imagine that Peter might have felt differently after the death of Jesus. He didn't know how the story was going to come out. What was there to believe? As St. John says in today's gospel, "they did not yet understand the Scripture that He had to rise from the dead." Not only had his Lord been brutally tortured and killed, but Peter had also turned his back on Jesus. He especially could have no hope of a resurrection or new day. Wouldn't Peter think that his own sin, his own lack of faith could never be forgiven?
Then Mary Magdalene comes rushing in on the first Easter Sunday morning to tell them that the tomb is empty. Fearing that the Lord's body had been stolen Peter and John race to the tomb only to find the burial cloths neatly rolled up with no evidence of foul play. St. John tells us that "he saw and believed." St. Luke tells us that Peter was "amazed."
Is this why we're all here today on this Easter Sunday morning? Are we all here today to peer inside the empty tomb? The empty tomb itself means nothing. We will not find our Lord among the dead. His appearances among the living are what matter. Over the next fifty days we'll hear about all of His appearances. He'll appear to Mary Magdalene in the garden; to the disciples on the road to Emmaus; to the Apostles in the upper room; to doubting Thomas; to the fishermen in Galilee; and to countless other witnesses. Finally, His Holy Spirit will come upon them at Pentecost..
As we listen to these witnesses we'll have to examine our own belief. After all, St. Paul said that "if Christ is not risen, our faith is in vain." In other words if Christ is not risen, there will be no resurrection for us. However, maybe some of us feel like we're in the same position as Peter. Maybe doubts have crept in, maybe we're too secure, maybe something has caused us to deny our Lord and turn our backs on Him.
The only way to rekindle our faith is to act differently. We have to realize that like the Apostles we are called to be witnesses of the Risen Christ. St. Paul calls us the "yeast" that leavens the dough. In our own little way each of us is called to bring Christ to each other. Last week during the reading of the Passion, our Lord said to Peter;
Simon, Simon, behold Satan has demanded
to sift all of you like wheat,
but I have prayed that your own faith may not fail;
and once you have turned back,
you must strengthen your brothers.
The little Albanian nun who became Mother Teresa did not wait for someone else to pick up that little deserted child in the street and bathe his sores. She saw the Risen Christ in him and in all the others she helped. Did the young Polish priest who became John Paul II ever imagine when he took his first vows that he would bring the Risen Christ to more people than all the previous Popes put together?
The word "Easter" comes from a Germanic goddess of spring. Latin peoples use the word pasqua from the Jewish pasch or passover. When the Germanic peoples were converted the Church wisely associated the word for Springtime with the feast of the Risen Lord. All around us new life is springing from the dead of winter. And so, as St. Paul says,
let us celebrate the feast,
not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and wickedness,
but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.
Saturday, March 15, 2008
Palm Sunday of the Lord's Passion
Reading 1. Isaiah 50: 4-7
Reading II. Philippians 2: 6-11
Gospel. Matthew 26: 14--27: 66 (the Passion).
Today's reading of the Passion of our Lord is the highlight of the Church year. This year we heard St. Matthew's account of the Passion. Next year we will hear St. Mark's account and the year after we will have St. Luke's account. Of course, on Good Friday we always have the Passion according to St. John. Although each of the Evangelists approaches the life of Christ in a different way, they draw very close to each other when it comes to the Passion.
The narrative of the Passion which we have just heard seems like a great drama with a cast of characters we can all identify with. If we could be in the drama, what role would we play? Would we be like the disciples who fell asleep in the Garden of Gethsemane? or would we be part of the crowd who mocked and taunted Jesus only a short time after cheering Him and waiving palm branches.
Maybe we would like a more important role. We could be Pontius Pilate who condemned Jesus, or Peter who denied Him, or even Judas who betrayed Him. Still, it is clear from today's readings that we are supposed to play the part of Jesus, Himself. The Church has always recognized that in His Passion and Death our Lord gave us an example which we must follow. Many times during His time on Earth Jesus said, "Follow Me." Many times He urged us to take up our cross and follow Him.
Today's readings show that it is through the practice of humility and self sacrifice that we come to follow the Lord. Matthew begins his account of the Passion at the Last Supper. There Jesus told the disciples that He would give up His body and blood for us all, and that they should share in this sacrifice. When He asks us at every Mass to eat His Body and drink His Blood, he is also asking us to share in His sacrifice on Calvary.
Today's first reading is about humility and self sacrifice.
I gave my back to those who beat me,
my cheeks to those who plucked my beard;
my face I did not shield
from buffets and spitting.
St. Paul in the letter to the Philippians says that Jesus "humbled Himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross."
This is the point of all of our little sacrifices during Lent. Everything that we gave up or did was to remind ourselves that we do not live just for ourselves. Humility means giving up our own pride and ambition for the sake of others. Didn't our Lord say that we must deny ourselves in order to save ourselves? that we must lose our life in order to find it?
Our Lord was a great teacher but the Passion shows us that He taught by example.
Sunday, March 9, 2008
Reading 1. Ezekiel 37: 12-14
Reading II. Romans 8: 8-11
Gospel. John 11: 1-45 (raising of Lazarus).
Today’s first reading is from the book of the prophet Ezekiel. Ezekiel is an unusual prophet because his words are spoken in a land far away from Jerusalem or Judea. He along with the remains of the Jewish nation had been taken captive and enslaved after their homeland had been conquered and destroyed by foreigners. In a way Ezekiel and his fellow captives were the lucky ones since many of their people had died in the invasion.
Today’s reading is part of one of the most famous passages in the Hebrew Scriptures. The prophet has a vision of a vast, dry, desert valley filled with bones. Suddenly at the word of the Lord the bones arise and are covered with flesh, and the Spirit of the Lord breathes life into them. Scholars tell us that Ezekiel is speaking of a future time when his people as a nation will rise and return to their homeland. The Lord says, “I will put my spirit in you that you may live.’
Is it any wonder that the Church uses this prophecy to introduce today’s gospel account of the raising of Lazarus from the dead? The gospel of St. John is filled with signs. Last week we saw that our Lord gave sight to the beggar, blind from birth, to indicate that He was the Light of the world. We saw how as a result of this great miracle, the leaders of the people began to plot against Jesus. He was forced to leave Jerusalem.
Nevertheless, when Jesus hears that his dear friend, Lazarus, the brother of Martha and Mary, is ill, He decides to return to Judea. On the way He realizes that Lazarus has died, but resolves to perform the greatest of His signs.
He said this, and then told them,
“Our friend Lazarus is asleep,
but I am going to awaken him.”
As they say, the rest of the story is history. Not only did Jesus come to bring ‘light’ to the world, the raising of Lazarus was a sign that He came to bring ‘life’ to the world.
I am the resurrection and the life;
whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live,
and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.
He went to the tomb and cried out in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” St. John tells us that after this incredible sign many came to believe but when Jesus gave new life to Lazarus, he sealed His own death warrant. He came to give life but now those who cannot believe plot to kill Him. Next week on Palm Sunday we will hear the story of His Passion and Death.
In this last week of Lent it might be good for us to consider the words of St. Paul in today’s second reading. He says, “Those who are “in the flesh cannot please God.” By “in the flesh,” St. Paul means living in a kind of captivity such as experienced by those Israelites who had been enslaved along with Ezekiel. In another place Paul describes the works of the flesh as ‘immorality, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, hatreds, rivalry, jealousy, outbursts of fury, acts of selfishness, dissensions, factions, occasions of envy, drinking bouts, orgies, and the like.”
Paul contrasts those works with the fruits of the Spirit, “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” Isn’t it obvious that any of us who could be freed from the captivity of the “flesh” and who could enter into the life of the Spirit would have been raised from the dead?
But if Christ is in you,
Although the body is dead because of sin,
The spirit is alive because of righteousness.
Sunday, March 2, 2008
Reading 1. 1 Samuel 16: 1b, 6-7, 10-13a
Reading II. Ephesians 5: 8-14
Gospel. John 9: 1-41 (the man born blind).
Since Lent began the first reading for each Sunday has presented us with great figures from the Old Testament. First, there was the story of Adam and Eve. Then we heard the story of the calling of Abraham, the father of Israel. Last week’s reading was about Moses, the deliverer of his people from captivity. Today's reading is about David, the greatest of the kings of Israel.
But David was not always a great king. Today we see him as the youngest and the least of the many sons of Jesse. Nevertheless, David is chosen over his brothers because,
Not as man sees does God see,
because man sees the appearance
but the Lord looks into the heart.
Today's gospel also deals with a nobody, the poor beggar, blind from birth. There are many reasons why the Church uses this famous story from the Gospel of St. John on the 4th Sunday in Lent. Traditionally, this Sunday is known as Laetare Sunday. Laetare is the Latin word for “rejoice,” and now that the penitential season of Lent is more than half way over, we are called to rejoice at the approaching prospect of Easter. Certainly, the blind man is today’s gospel had reason to rejoice. Even more important is the great spiritual significance of this miraculous cure. Didn’t the prophet Isaiah foretell that the Messiah would bring sight to the blind.
I would love to see this episode put into film. It would take a great comic actor to play the blind man. It is such a long reading with a message so perfectly clear that I would only like to dwell on a couple of points. Let's try to imagine the scene in our minds. Jesus is walking with his disciples when they see the blind man. In the ancient world blindness, like many other physical infirmities, was considered to be caused by sin. This is why the disciples ask Jesus “who sinned, this man or his parents?”
Jesus disputes the ancient belief—the man’s blindness was not caused by sin, either his own or his parents’. The beggar, blind from birth, suffers from a physical not a spiritual illness. Maybe that is why Jesus uses such a physical means of healing him. His method seems gross to us. He spits on the ground, makes a kind of clay paste, smears it on the man’s eyes, and then tells him to go wash it off in the nearby pool of Siloam, the central water storage reservoir in Jerusalem.
When the blind beggar gains his sight, no one else can believe his or her own eyes. First, his neighbors, then the Pharisees can’t believe. He is repeatedly questioned in a courtroom scene that is almost comical. His parents are also brought in for questioning.
Finally, the beggar on this greatest day of his life is thrown out of the synagogue, which means banishment from his community. At that point Jesus seeks him out to comfort him and offer him spiritual healing. “Do you believe in the Son of Man?”
This was not the only time when Jesus worked a physical cure in order to show that spiritual healing was even more important. Remember when he cured the paralyzed man, he first forgave his sins and then told him to take up his pallet and walk to show that He had the power to heal our souls. He tells the Pharisees that the blind man had no sin, but that they are the ones who are spiritually blind.
Especially during the season of Lent we must put ourselves in the place of the Pharisees. Have we become spiritually blind? Are we living as St. Paul says in today’s letter to the Ephesians as “children of light” or have we succumbed to darkness? Most of us don’t take part in what he calls the “fruitless works of darkness,” things “shameful even to mention.” Nevertheless, we may, especially as we get older, become somewhat spiritually visually impaired.
I know a man who two years ago was told by his eye doctor that unless he had surgery, he would be blind in five years. The surgery was successful and now the doctor thinks that he may have 10 to 15 years of sight. There was, of course, the risk that this delicate surgery might not have succeeded and things could have even been worse. In any case it made the man think that he should make the most of his few remaining years of sight. He should not waste his vision on trivial, stupid, unimportant, ugly things.
Our lives are the same. No matter how much time we have left, we should make the most of it. As St. Paul says,
Awake, O sleeper,
And arise from the dead,
And Christ will give you light.