Sunday, August 29, 2010

22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time

22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time
C cycle

Reading 1. Sirach 3: 17-18, 20, 28-29
Reading II. 1 Hebrews 12: 18-19, 22-24a
Gospel. Luke 14: 1, 7-14 (take the lowest place).

In today's readings we have some of the scriptural sources for that most important of all Christian characteristics--humility. The reading from Sirach sets the tone:

My child, conduct your affairs with humility,
and you will be loved more than a giver of gifts.
Humble yourself the more, the greater you are,
and you will find favor with God.

In last weeks gospel our Lord said that the last shall be first, and the first shall be last. Today He tells the parable of the guests at the wedding banquet who were choosing the places of honor for themselves, but who then had to shamefully take a lower place.

Every one who exalts himself will be humbled,
but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.

The word "humility" comes from the Latin word "humus" which literally means dirt. It reminds us of the words said on Ash Wednesday, "Remember, you are dust and unto dust you shall return." In Medieval Church art the virtues were often depicted along with their contrasting vices. For example, Chastity was paired up against Lust, and Temperance was paired up against Gluttony. Humility was, of course, always contrasted with the greatest of the vices, Pride.

Now, what is Humility? The readings today suggest that this virtue has to do with knowing who you are and acting accordingly. Sirach says, "What is too sublime for you, seek not, into things beyond your strength search not." Or as Clint Eastwood said in one of the dirty Harry movies, "A man's got to know his limitations."

All the virtues are meant to be practiced each and every day. Virtues are good habits in the same way that vices are bad habits. Like other habits the more we practice them, the harder it will be to break them. For example, the more we lie, the harder it will be for us to tell the truth. In the end it will be virtually impossible to tell the truth. In the same way, the only way to avoid Pride is to practice Humility.

How do we do that? I'd like to start by giving an example from History. Although Monasteries are no longer a key part of our culture, they were for over a thousand years a major factor, if not the major factor, in the development of Western Civilization. Most monasteries evolved from the Rule of St. Benedict, a Roman nobleman of the 4th and 5th centuries. A Rule just means a set of regulations or laws that everyone in the monastery agreed to live by.

The Rule told them when to get up in the morning, when to work, when to study, when to pray, when to eat, and when to sleep. We might be shocked at this idea, but most of us have adopted some kind of rule for ourselves. We get up at the same time each morning, eat the same breakfast, read the same newspaper, and so on. Ideally, by adhering to the rule the monk was practicing humility. He was following the words of our Lord, "not my will, but your will be done."

I'm not saying that we have to enter a monastery to practice humility. Sirach gives us some practical tips.

The mind of a sage appreciates proverbs,
and an attentive ear is the joy of the wise.
Water quenches a flaming fire,
and alms atone for sins.

The first line about the "mind of a sage" indicates that we should appreciate the wisdom of those who might have the knowledge and experience to instruct us. Our parents and grandparents are the first ones who come to mind here. It is a sign of the pridefulness of our age that we don't think that we have anything to learn from our elders. Teachers come to mind next. I recall reading about a woman who became a millionaire even though she never made more than $60000/ year. She attributed her success to the example of her elementary and high school teachers.

Someone once said that since we have two ears and one mouth we should do twice as much listening as talking. What a dream? At most business conferences I have attended, the participants have been more interested in talking about themselves and their ways, than learning from others. Invariably, the top producers are the ones who talk least about themselves.

The giving of alms was a cornerstone of Sirach's Jewish faith just as it is a cornerstone of our Christian faith. Just as Christ gave Himself up for us, the giving of alms is a giving up of a little bit of ourselves for others. It is the ultimate act of humility. For the medieval monks their doors were always open to the poor.

Today's second reading reminds us a little of the scene from the Wizard of Oz, when Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion finally approach the great and powerful wizard after completing their mission. They discovered that they didn't need the wizard after all. By practicing virtues like prudence, loyalty, courage, and humility on their journey, they found their brain, their heart, their courage, and their way home.


Sunday, August 22, 2010

21st Sunday in Ordinary Time

21st Sunday in Ordinary Time
C cycle

Reading 1. Isaiah 66: 18-21
Reading II. 1 Hebrews 12: 5-7, 11-13
Gospel. Luke 13: 22-30 (the narrow gate).

In today's first reading from the prophet Isaiah we have an image of an almost limitless line of people streaming toward Jerusalem, God's "holy mountain," a symbol of Heaven. The Lord says,

I come to gather nations of every language;
they shall come and see my glory.

Today's gospel reading from St. Luke gives us the same picture.

And people will come from the east and the west
and from the north and the south
and will recline at table in the kingdom of God.

You may recall that we have been in the third or "C" cycle of readings since the year began. In this cycle most of the gospel readings are from St. Luke's gospel. From the beginning it has been St. Luke's intention to depict our Lord's journey to Jerusalem. All year Jesus has been preaching, teaching, healing, and working wonders on His way. Today's reading begins this way:

Jesus passed through towns and villages,
teaching as He went and making His way to Jerusalem.

All along the way He has been asking His people, including us, to join Him on the journey.

Despite the vast numbers of those who will enter the Kingdom, there is a hint in both readings that some will not make it. There is even the strong suggestion that among those who will not make it are those who might have thought that they had it locked up. Isaiah says that the Lord will go outside the ranks of the "chosen people" to strangers in distant lands who "have never heard of my fame, or seen my glory." This reminds us of the parable where Jesus speaks of a King who, after the invited guests failed to show up, had to go out into "the highways and byways" to find guests for his banquet.

The message of today's gospel is equally clear. The master of the house has locked the door and some will be left out. This parable refers to the Jews, especially the Pharisees, of our Lord's time. They will see Abraham and the prophets at the great banquet but they, themselves, will fail to be admitted. Now, whenever Jesus speaks to the Jews and Pharisees we should realize that He is also speaking to us. For just like our Lord's contemporaries we also run the risk of being locked out of the banquet.

Now we shouldn't get the impression that Heaven is a kind of walled fortress that is almost impossible to enter. When our Lord compares it to a banquet, He means that it is happiness. He never says that we have to wait until death to find happiness. We can start the journey right now. In fact, it will be fatal to delay.

Strive to enter through the narrow gate,
for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter
but will not be strong enough.

It's hard to know exactly what He means by "narrow gate" but let's consider the words, "strive" and "strong." As He does on so many other occasions, Jesus says that concentrated effort along with constant preparedness is necessary to find happiness.

His saying brings to mind the Olympic games which will be taking place in two years. Of all the athletes how many will be strong enough, fast enough, or skilled enough to reach the victor's podium? Talk about a narrow gate! Just think of all the athletes who will not even be eligible for their country's Olympic trials. Think about all those who will then fail to qualify at the trials. Finally, when they get to the Olympic games many world class favorites will falter and fail to realize their dream.

Whether winners or losers we know that all the participants will have put in incredible amounts of time and effort in pursuit of their goal. Even though TV cameras will only highlight the efforts of a few favorites, all of the athletes must believe in sacrifice and self discipline. At the last Olympics, for example, one young runner said that he had dreamt of the Olympics since he was nine years old, and had dedicated his whole life to getting there.

However, when it comes to our own lives, why are so many of us couch potatoes? What do we do to prepare ourselves for the great events that we will face in life's decathlon. Today's second reading is about discipline, the constant training and practice that is required to face life's hurdles and trials.

all discipline seems a cause not for joy but for pain,
yet later it brings the peaceful fruit of righteousness
to those who are trained by it.

How many of us in our business and professional careers go to countless workshops and seminars in order to strengthen and develop our skills. We learn and practice these skills in order to improve our performance. Yet, how often do we fail to apply these skills to our own personal quest for happiness? If discipline and self-sacrifice work in sports or business, why shouldn't they work in our personal journey?


Sunday, August 15, 2010

Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, August 15.

In 1950 when the world was still recovering from the ravages of the Second World War, Pope Pius XII promulgated the doctrine of 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 the first reading of the Mass of the Feast of the Assumption we have the famous image from the Book of Revelation of "the woman clothed with the sun" who was about to give birth to a son, "destined to rule all the nations." In the 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 also 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?'

I have never forgotten the scene in the “Great Divorce,” a little known book by C. S. Lewis, a great Christian apologist. The book has a Twilight Zone feel
since the main character boards an ordinary bus one day but the next stop is Heaven. Once there, a guide takes him around and at one point they come upon a magnificent procession where the participants are praising an incredibly beautiful and majestic woman. The man asks the guide, “Is that her?” meaning Mary. The guide answers, “No, that’s Mary so and so, a London washerwoman.

In fact, I have met many women, and men also, who are like both the Marys. They have heard the message from God and responded as the first Mary. My own mother died when I was only 11 years old, but my grandmother and aunt quickly stepped into the breach to assist in the upbringing of two younger brothers and myself. Their souls also “magnified” the Lord. Today, I still see many others who echo the words of Mary. “Behold the handmaid of the Lord, be it done unto me according to thy word.” August 15, the Feast of the Assumption, should be called a Holyday of Opportunity.

Reading 1. Revelation 11: 19a; 12: 1-6a, 10ab
Reading II. 1 Corinthians 15: 20-27
Gospel. Luke 1: 39-56 (Visitation).

Sunday, August 8, 2010

19th Sunday in Ordinary Time

19th Sunday in Ordinary Time
C cycle

Reading 1. Wisdom 18: 6-9
Reading II. Hebrews 11: 1-2, 8-19
Gospel. Luke 12: 32-48 (where your treasure is).

All three readings today deal in one way or another with the great virtue, "Faith." The author of the Book of Wisdom says the Hebrew forefathers gained courage from the "sure knowledge of the oaths in which they put their faith." In today's second reading the passage from the Letter to the Hebrews concludes with the famous statement about Abraham.

By faith Abraham, when put to the test, offered up Isaac,
and he who had received the promises was ready to offer his only son...

Faith is one of the three great virtues along with Hope and Charity. Unlike the latter two it has been the source of much controversy in the history of the Church. You could almost say that it was the single great issue in the Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther criticized the Church of his time for its failure to see that faith was the key to salvation and not good works. In his arguments Luther referred to the very passage in Hebrews that we read today. Even today, Protestants still speak of "justification by faith alone."

But what exactly is Faith? We've all heard the word used in so many ways. We speak of our "Catholic faith," and sing of the "faith of our fathers." We say that something is an "article of faith" or ask someone to "take something on faith." For most of us faith is the same as belief, especially a belief in something that we cannot otherwise understand.

However, the word "faith" comes from the Latin word "fides" from which our word "fidelity" is derived. In this sense it is not a belief but a habit of loyalty, of doing one's duty. The motto of the U.S. Marine Corps is "Semper Fidelis" or "Always Faithful." I believe that this motto means that a Marine will never leave his post or shrink from his duty. He would certainly never betray or let down a comrade or his country.

In today's gospel our Lord makes it clear that "Faith" means doing one's duty especially when no one is watching or forcing us. He calls us stewards meaning that until He comes it is up to us to care for our brothers and sisters. He says,

Blessed are those servants
whom the master finds vigilant on his arrival....
You also must be prepared, for at an hour you do not expect,
the Son of Man will come.

Now one of the major themes of our faith is stewardship. How many times does our Lord refer to stewards, both just and unjust? How many times does He tell us not to hide our talents or squander them? How many times have we heard Him say that we have to use our gifts to the full? Even today,

Much will be required of the person entrusted with much,
and still more will be demanded of the person entrusted with more.

Faith, then, is itself a kind of good work or more correctly, it is a habit of doing good work on a regular basis. That is why we speak of "practicing" our faith since we must work on it each and every day. The opposite of faith is infidelity or unfaithfulness. For example, when a husband or wife is unfaithful, we all know that it's not a question of believing in marriage, but that they are not living up to their vows.

Even though Protestant leaders like Martin Luther placed such a reliance on scripture, they still had to reject the "Epistle of St. James" largely because of its emphasis on works. That's where we find the famous words, "Faith without works is dead." It's not just that epistle however, for whether it's Jesus, Peter, John, or Paul they all agree that no one can say they love while failing to actually perform the work of love.

It's not lack of belief but the failure to do the work of the Lord that will assign us "a place with the unfaithful." The unfaithful mistreat those who have been placed in their care, preferring to live only for themselves.

In today's reading St. Peter asked, "is this parable meant for us or for everyone." Isn't it obvious that it's meant for all of us?

Our newspapers tell us that a growing proportion of teenagers have no religious faith. For those who get through high school with their faith intact, college is often a faith-shattering experience. In the same place we read about the high incidence of teen suicide. Fidelity in the workplace seems to be a thing of the past on the part of both employers and employees. Of course in politics anything goes. Just don't get caught.

In no field of endeavor would we take such little care as we do with our own lives. Athletes and musicians must practice every day to keep in shape. The good ones are "religious" about training in order to reach their goals. When our Lord says, "Gird your loins and light your lamps," He is talking about getting ourselves spiritually in shape. What's our goal? What do we really value?

For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be.


Sunday, August 1, 2010

18th Sunday in Ordinary Time

18th Sunday in Ordinary Time
C cycle

Reading 1. Ecclesiastes 1:2; 2; 2-23
Reading II. Colossians 3: 1-5, 9-11
Gospel. Luke 12: 13-21 (this night your life will be demanded).

Our Lord must have been familiar with today's first reading from the Book of Ecclesiastes. "Vanity of vanities...All is vanity." The words of the ancient author sound very similar to words our Lord would use centuries later.

"For what profit comes to man from all the toil and anxiety of heart
with which he has labored under the sun?...
even at night his mind is not at rest."

Even the illustration of the man who labored so hard and well but who must eventually leave all his property behind at death is very similar to the one our Lord uses in today's gospel.

Before we get to the gospel we should realize that in St. Luke's previous chapter, our Lord has really let the Pharisees and the Lawyers have it because of their hypocrisy. He especially reproached them for their greed and selfishness. While they feather their own nests, they load others down with burdens and will not lift a finger to help. The Pharisees and the Lawyers bitterly resent the insulting words of Jesus and a heated argument breaks out. Sure enough a crowd gathers and it is at this point that our gospel reading begins.

Someone in the crowd asks his advice about an inheritance. A Rabbi was often asked to settle problems like this one. Jesus declines to offer advice on this particular question but takes the opportunity to warn the crowd. Now whenever we hear a crowd mentioned in the gospels, we can always assume that we are in it and that Jesus is speaking directly to us. He says,

Take care to guard against all greed,
for though one may be rich,
one's life does not consist of possessions.

Jesus then tells the parable of the rich man who is doing so well and making all kinds of plans for growing and expanding his business. The man thinks that once he reaches all his business goals that he will then be able to "rest, eat, drink, and be merry."
Little does he know that none of his plans will come to fruition.

You fool, this night your life will be demanded of you,
and the things you have prepared, to whom will they belong?

What would we do if we knew that tonight would be our last night on earth? I know that it's morbid to think like this and it certainly is impossible and un-Christian to begin every day thinking that it will be our last. We're supposed to get up every day with joy in our hearts, thankful for all the good things that the Lord has given us. Indeed, we're supposed to offer each day to the Lord hoping that it will be a productive one for ourselves and our loved ones.

Nevertheless, once a year when we hear the words, "Vanity of vanities...all things are vanity," it might not be a bad thing to consider what we might do if we knew this day might be our last. Who would we want to see? What would we say to them? What would we want to do that we have put off? Where would we like to go? What possessions or things would we want to use or enjoy for the last time? What book would we want to read? What song would we want to hear?

Maybe if we thought like this once a year we might appreciate the message in today's readings a little better. St. Paul tells the Colossians and us that if we have accepted Christ there is no longer any room in our life for idols. Now an idol is a false god, a mere human invention. It doesn't have to be a statue or image--it just has to be something that we have let enslave us in one way or another. Paul has a whole list of these things that are hurting us as well as those we love. He says,

Put to death, then, the parts of you that are earthly;
immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire,
and the greed that is idolatry...
all the anger and quick temper,
the malice, the insults, the foul language.
Stop lying to one another.

Our Lord was critical of the leaders of His time because of their greed and hypocrisy. He and St. Paul might as well have been speaking of our politicians today. Greed, malice, foul language, and lying are part and parcel of politics today. Is it any wonder that our politics are so divisive? If our leaders act the way they do, they are only reflecting what is going on in our society today. Immorality, greed, anger, and lying have become virtues rather than vices. Just look at the way these behaviors are glorified on television.

The readings today are saying that if we reflect on what is really important in life, we can bring peace and harmony into our lives, our families, our cities and our country. We've tried the old way and it doesn't work. What about a world where we recognize that because we all have the same heavenly Father, we are all brothers and sisters. Where,

there is not Greek and Jew,
circumcision and uncircumcision,
barbarian, Scythian, slave, free;
but Christ is all and in all.