Sunday, November 28, 2010

Advent Adventure, Week 1

1st Sunday of Advent
A cycle

Reading 1. Isaiah 2: 1-5
Reading II. Romans 13: 11-14
Gospel. Matthew 24: 37-44 (stay awake!).

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 arard 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 this 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 himself 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. Let's consider the first reading from the Prophet Isaiah. He sees whole nations and peoples climbing the Lord's mountain. In famous words he portrays a vision of a far off world completely different than the one we know.

They shall beat their sword into plowshares
and their spears into pruning hooks;
one nation shall not raise the sword against another,
nor shall they train for war again.

Before we reach this new world the old world must pass away.

This is the reason why Advent, the season which marks the beginning of the Church year, has traditionally begun with readings reminding us of the end of the world. In today's gospel from St. Matthew, Jesus refers to the people before the great flood. He says that like us they were going about their daily business without a clue of what was in store for them. Our Lord's advice whether it be the end of the whole world or just the end of our own little world is the same. "Stay awake." By "awake" He means be ready, be prepared to set out on your journey.

So too, you also must be prepared,
for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come.

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.

How should we prepare for life's great adventure? Let's see if we can come up with a list of things to do this Advent season they will help us on our way. First, let's take St. Paul's advice and avoid destructive behavior.

let us conduct ourselves properly as in the day,
not in orgies and drunkenness,
not in promiscuity and lust,
not in rivalry and jealously.

Wasn't it sad to read in the paper that two of our local Catholic universities led the state of Connecticut in arrests for drunkenness? It was even sadder to read the article about the young woman at a midwestern university who drank herself to death while at a frat party. The paper reported that she was just one of many who would die a similar death this year. I know that television glamorizes this type of drinking but what is so glamorous about falling into an alcohol induced coma in a frat house or an office party?

We can all think of ways to "throw off the works of darkness," but St. Paul also urges us to "put on the armor of light." There is no better way to do so 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 tranquillity 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.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

The First Thanksgiving

The word eucharist is a Greek word that means thanksgiving. Its root, from which our word charity is derived, literally means a gift of love, in particular a gift of divine love. The earliest Fathers of the Church used the word Eucharist to describe the Sacrifice of the Mass. Holy Eucharist means Holy Thanksgiving.

The Mass consists of two parts: a liturgy of the Word, and a Liturgy of the Eucharist. The second part begins with the Offertory. Members of the congregation, representing the entire assembly, bring up the gifts of read and wine that will be offered to the Father. What is the purpose of the procession? What is the nature of these gifts?
It is a natural thing for people who have been blessed or gifted to want to give back. As the Psalmist says, “What return shall I make to the Lord for all that He has given me?” Here we have the basic reason for our attendance at Mass. We come not to get something out of it but to try to give thanks to the Lord for all that we have been given.

What can we give back? A few dollars? A tenth of all we earn? What do a few coins or pieces of paper matter to the Creator who has given us every good thing? The only thing we have of any real value is our immortal soul. Again the Psalmist says, “a soul contrite and humble You will not spurn.” Ultimately, the gift that we bring to the altar at the Offertory is the gift of our very selves, the promise that we will give our whole life in service to god and our neighbor.

After the Offertory procession the priest goes up to the altar and prays that the bread might become “the bread of life,” and that the wine might become “our spiritual drink.” Then he prays that our sacrifice “may be acceptable to God, the almighty Father.”

Please note that it is “our” sacrifice. The priest acts as our agent, our representative, our ambassador in presenting our offering to the Father. Will the offering of ourselves be acceptable?

After the completion of the Offertory, the priest begins the Eucharistic or Thanksgiving prayer. He asks us to “lift up our hearts,” and says, Let us give thanks to the Lord our God. Thanksgiving is the theme of all that follows. In the Preface we pray: “Father, it is our duty and our salvation…to give you thanks through your beloved Son, Jesus Christ.”

Again, is our gift worthy? The priest understands his own unworthiness and introduces a new priest or ambassador. “We come to you Father, with praise and thanksgiving, through Jesus Christ your Son. Through Him we ask you to accept and bless these gifts we offer you in sacrifice.” In other words, our gift, our sacrifice, the gift of our very selves must be merged with the gift of our Lord, with His own Sacrifice on the Cross.

We then proceed to the Consecration of the Mass. The words of consecration in our missals were being used by the earliest Christians even before they were written down by the four Evangelists and St. Paul. Our Lord had said to “do this in remembrance of Me.” When we hear the words of Consecration we are taken back to that first Eucharist which our Lord celebrated on Holy Thursday. When the priest pronounces the words of Consecration not only does the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ, the celebrant becomes Christ. We believe that at every Mass it is our Lord himself who is he celebrant, our agent, our ambassador.

If we believe this, we have been given a great gift, the gift of Faith. At the end of the Eucharistic prayer we join in the acclamation or “Great amen.” Through Him, with Him, in Him, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all glory and honor is yours, almighty Father.”

Now we can proceed to Communion. We have brought our gifts to the altar. The sacrifice has been offered and accepted and now we publicly prepare to receive back more than we could ever give—the Body and Blood of Christ. To prepare ourselves we first recite the Lord’s Prayer to ask for forgiveness and healing. In the Rite of Peace we offer the Kiss of Peace to our neighbors as a sign of reconciliation.

Just before the reception of Communion we say two more prayers asking for peace and forgiveness. First, the ancient Agnus Dei or Lamb of God, and then we paraphrase the words of the roman centurion: “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed.” Now we are ready to receive the body and Blood of the Lord.

After Communion there is very little left to be done in church. Our Eucharist or thanksgiving has been accepted. Our gifts have been returned to us a hundredfold. The priest dismisses us telling us to “Go in the peace of Christ to love and serve the Lord.” We have been transformed and now we are dismissed to go and transform the little corner of the world in which we live.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Gospel of Luke: Christ the King

Christ the King
C cycle

Reading 1. 2 Samuel 5: 1-3
Reading II. Colossians 1: 12-20
Gospel. Luke 23: 35-43 (the good thief).

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. Pope Pius IX instituted the new feast after a devastating world war which saw millions killed and empires fall. The Kaiser of defeated Germany was forced to abdicate his throne; the Tsar of Russia was deposed and executed by angry revolutionaries; the Austrian empire--the heir to the Holy Roman empire which had lasted for over a thousand years--was broken up into a number of small states; and the Turkish empire, which had ruled the Middle East for over 500 years, was also overthrown, an event which led to the anarchy in that area which persists even today. Even though the English monarchy survived the war, the mighty British empire was mortally wounded.

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 presents us with David, the greatest of the kings of Israel. The reading makes clear that a true king exists to serve his people, and not to be served by them.

You shall shepherd my people Israel
and shall be commander of Israel.

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. Ever since the time of King Henry the Eighth, the kings and queens of England had acted as head of the Church of England. 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 readings present us with Christ our King. In St. Paul's letter to the Colossians we hear that God has "delivered us from the power of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son." He enabled us to enter the Kingdom "by the blood of His cross." In other words we have a shepherd king who was willing to lay down his life for his sheep.

In today's gospel from St. Luke we see our King on this last Sunday of the Church year dying on the cross. The crowd is jeering at Him and the soldiers taunt, "If you are King of the Jews, save yourself." Even one of the criminals dying next to Him reviles Him. How fitting it is that our whole cycle of readings ends this year with the "good thief," who only asks, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom."

All year we have been reading St. Luke's account of our Lord's journey to Jerusalem. We started in January when Jesus was forced to leave his home town of Nazareth after preaching in the synagogue. We've followed Him on the journey, heard the famous parables, witnessed the miracles and the miraculous cures and healings. He asked us to take up our cross and follow Him and promised that if we would do so we would enter into His Kingdom. Actually, He said that His Kingdom would enter into us--that the Kingdom of God would be within us.

Let's end this Church year by visualizing the scene on the Cross. Let's imagine that we are one of the thieves being crucified along with Jesus and that our own journey through life is coming to an end. Wouldn't we want to hear the last words in our gospel when the King turns to us and says,

Amen, I say to you,
today you will be with Me in Paradise.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Gospel of Luke: Apocalypse

33nd Sunday in Ordinary Time
C cycle

Reading 1. Malachi 3: 19-20a
Reading II. 2 Thessalonians 3: 7-12
Gospel. Luke 21: 5-19 (Nation...against nation).

This Sunday marks the next to last Sunday in the Church’s liturgical year. As we get closer and closer to the end of the year the readings remind us not only of the of the end of the world but also ask us to consider our own personal end.

The reading from the Prophet Malachi sets the tone.

Lo, the day is coming blazing like an oven,
When all the proud and all evildoers will be stubble…
But for you who fear my name, there will arise
The sun of justice with its healing rays.

Today’s gospel reading takes up most of the 21st chapter of St. Luke’s gospel. Immediately after this chapter we get into the story of the Passion and Death of Christ. However, to begin this chapter Luke tells the story of the poor widow who gave a small but to her a huge donation to the treasury of the Temple. Onlookers look down on her and point out how the temple “was adorned with costly stones and votive offerings.”

Jesus turns the tables on them and warns that all these costly adornments will not be worth anything on the day of salvation. He says, “the days will come when there will not be left a stone upon another stone that will not be thrown down.” He had been teaching in the Temple and the onlookers ask, “when will this happen?” They also ask for warning signs and he foretells a time of a great persecution.

In the passage following our reading Jesus even seems to predict the fall and utter destruction of Jerusalem, which would take, place only 37 years after his death. He warns his followers that when they see an army surrounding the city, they should escape to the hills surrounding the city. We know for a fact that immediately before the siege of Jerusalem in 70 AD the Christian community did leave the city while the rest of the Jewish nation stayed behind.

What are we to do today in our lives when we try to confront the dangers and evils that surround us both individually and as a nation? Although we are in no imminent danger of foreign invasion, our Nation has been at war for almost a decade and no end is in sight. At home the culture war goes on every day and has even invaded our homes through TV, the Internet, and sophisticated cell phones. What are we to do? How are we to act or respond?

In the distant past Christians left cities endangered by war or moral decay to enter monasteries secluded in mountains, deserts, and swamps. There they tried to build a new life based on spiritual renewal and hard work. Centuries later other religious orders appeared, like the Franciscans and the Dominicans, that sought spiritual renewal not by leaving the corrupt cities but by staying and reforming them. These new orders even created what were called “third orders,” laymen and women who would share in the work of renewal. Later, it would become more and more apparent that the work of reform was the work of all Christians, clerical or lay.

Whatever response we make, it is clear that one option is not open to us. It is ok to leave the corruption behind. We can throw out the TV and the computer and home school our children. On the other hand, we can work to make these important elements in our culture better. But we cannot give in and surrender to the enemy. We cannot accept and accommodate. To say that this corruption is ok, or that everyone does it, is not only wrong but also madness. Just look at the advice columns in our daily newspapers to see how messed up people’s lives have become in our society.

The other day a 70-year-old Catholic woman told me that after all these years she was now trying to figure out who she was. Maybe this is something we should all ask ourselves as we approach our own end of the world. A good place to find the answer is always in the letters of St. Paul.

In today’s letter to the Thessalonians he told them to honor their life of hard work.

You know how one must imitate us.
For we did not act in a disorderly way among you,…
On the contrary, in toil and drudgery, night and day
We worked, so as not to burden any of you.

He also warned them to mind their own business. Someone once said that when our own business is not worth minding, then we mind the business of others. In other words, a life spent in diligence or hard work, whether in a monastery or a convent, whether in the home, school, factory or office, will need no justification.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Gospel of Luke: Jesus and the Sadducees

32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time
C cycle

Reading 1. 2 Maccabees 7: 1-2, 9-14
Reading II. 2 Thessalonians 2: 16--3:5
Gospel. Luke 20: 27-38 (seven brothers).

The month of November is sometimes called the month of the dead. As we look around we see the leaves falling from the trees, the sun riding lower in the sky and setting earlier and earlier. Animals are preparing for the long cold winter. The Church year also follows the cycle of nature. We began this month with the great feast of All Saints, and then remembered all the departed on All Souls day. Throughout the month we will remember our beloved departed and at the end of the month we will celebrate the feast of Christ the King where we will come face to face with the end of the world and the Last Judgment.

But today rather than dwelling on death the Church presents us with the theme of resurrection from the dead. In the first reading from the Book of Maccabees, we have the terrible story of the cruel torture of the seven brothers, a story which reminds us of some of the atrocities we see in our headlines today. Despite their suffering the brothers remain true not only to their faith but also to their belief in another better life. One says to his torturer,

You accursed fiend, you are depriving us of this present life,
but the King of the world will raise us up to live again forever.

The themes of persecution, death, and resurrection in this account of the seven brothers are repeated in today’s gospel account of the hypothetical case of the woman with seven husbands. It is a good idea to put St. Luke’s account in context. In the preceding chapter of his Gospel, he told of the entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem. Jesus went to Jerusalem not only to endure persecution and death, but also to triumph over sin and death by his own resurrection.

Now in chapter 20 the persecution begins. At first the Scribes and Pharisees question His authority. When that didn’t work Luke tells us that they sent forth spies, “who should pretend to be just men” to question Jesus and trap him into making claims that would enable the authorities to arrest him.

First, they ask Him whether it was lawful to pay taxes to Caesar. After his masterful answer puts them off, another group enters the picture. This time it’s the Sadducees, a group of wealthy priests who controlled the Jerusalem temple. They were a political and economic elite who were generally despised by the Jews because of their cooperation with the Roman rulers; their watering down of Judaism to conform with new and foreign ideas; and the resultant laxity of their own morals.

Unlike the heroic Maccabees, the Sadducees resembled most of our own political, economic, intellectual, and cultural leaders. The lived for the here and now and did not believe in the immortality of the soul, or the resurrection from the dead.

So their ridiculous question about the woman and her seven husbands is just a way to make Jesus play the fool. In much the same way modern atheists try to play the same tricks on believers. I recently heard of a teacher who advised one of his students that he would have to give up his belief in Jesus in order to study science. How unscientific is that advice? Why would belief in Jesus inhibit anyone from studying botany or chemistry?

St. Paul in today’s reading from the second letter to the Thessalonians prayed for his friends. He prayed that God would give them “good hope through his grace,” but asked that they be “delivered from perverse and wicked people.”

At a recent public debate a well-known atheist asked the audience to question everything; everything, that is, except his own infallible pronouncements. He offered no evidence to back up his criticisms of religion. It was only his ardent belief that God, even though He didn’t exist, was responsible for all that had gone wrong with the World, and for all the suffering that still continues today. Like the Sadducees he could not believe in the immortality of the soul or the resurrection of the dead. He was full of anger and bitterness. Today, the poor man is dying of cancer. I don’t believe that his illness is a punishment from God. Anyone can get cancer. But I feel sorry for anyone who has turned his back on Jesus and has to face death without any hope.

The Book of Maccabees was written less than two hundred years before the birth of Christ. It indicates that even at that time the idea of resurrection from the dead was taking root among the Jewish people. This idea of resurrection was competing with an earlier concept which supposed that all the dead--both good and bad--went to Sheol, a place of shadow and nothingness from which they would never emerge. By the time of Christ the new concept of a life after death was competing vigorously with the old traditional one. Jesus, however, brought the debate to a new level.

He answered the Sadducees by reminding them that God was the God of the living, and that all whom God loved would live forever. This was not mere theorizing. He backed up his words with His own Resurrection from the dead. Not just the Apostles but also hundreds of others saw Him after the Resurrection. Not only did they see Him, but most willingly gave up their own lives to cruel persecutors who insisted that they give up their belief. As St. Paul said before he was cruelly executed, ‘if Christ is not risen, then our faith is in vain.”