Sunday, January 30, 2011

Gospel: Beatitudes

4th Sunday in Ordinary Time: A cycle

One of the problems that the Church faces today is that we have lost the meaning of words, which were once perfectly clear. For example, I think that "salvation" is one of these words. I would bet that most people don't think of salvation as a goal. However, if we were to discover that salvation only means "happiness," then it's a different story. Who wouldn't want to be happy, especially if the happiness was forever or eternal?

How many best sellers today deal with the search for happiness? How many TV programs are devoted to the same subject? Yet today, despite our advanced technology, our great wealth, and our educational achievements, there is still so much unhappiness in our world.
Happiness is the subject of today's readings from Scripture. It has been said that there are three steps on the stairway to happiness. First, we have to recognize that we can't achieve it on our own. We are finite or imperfect. We just are not equipped with the ability or the tools to do it on our own. In today’s first reading the prophet Zephaniah proclaims that the road to happiness is not the one we would think to take. He indicates that those who seek riches, power, and fame will not be happy.

Seek the Lord, all you humble of the earth,
Who have observed his law;
Seek justice, seek humility,…

In other words, when we seek happiness through money or power or fame or sex or recognition we are bound to fail. Just read the newspapers every day. I know someone who hates her job so much that it is literally making her physically and psychologically ill. Yet, she can't bring herself to leave it because even though she is financially secure, she thinks she needs even more money. She is so unhappy!

In last week’s gospel St, Matthew gave his account of the calling of the first disciples. Even though the Evangelist named only Peter, Andrew, James and John, we must understand that we have also been called to be disciples. What does that mean? What does it involve? In all the gospel readings from now to Lent, we are going to get the answer to those questions.

In the gospel today Matthew brings us the famous Sermon on the Mount. Right before today's reading our Lord had gone up to a mountain to pray. Afterwards he had called his disciples to him. That's where we begin today. Jesus had already gained a reputation as a healer but now he begins to teach.

He preaches the "Beatitudes." Beatitude, blessed, bliss: all mean happiness. The second step to happiness is to be open to the truth when we hear it. Whenever Jesus speaks to his disciples, we can be sure that He is speaking to us.

Blessed (or Happy) are the poor in spirit…
Blessed (or Happy) are they who mourn…
Blessed (or Happy) are the meek…
Blessed (or Happy) are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness…
Blessed (or Happy) are the merciful…
Blessed (or Happy) are the clean of heart…
Blessed (or Happy) are the peacemakers…
Blessed (or Happy) are they who are persecuted…
Blessed (or Happy) are you when they insult you…

Scholars tell us that poor in spirit does not mean gloomy. It refers to those conscious of their need of God’s help in striking contrast to the proud who are supremely confident of their own ability. The greatest of all virtues, Humility, is here contrasted with Pride, the greatest of all vices. The rest of the beatitudes deal with the same idea. The proud, the arrogant, the self-righteous, the impure, the warlike, the persecutors will not find happiness.

The road to happiness is not the popular road. Once we're open to the Truth we can then take the third step and apply it in our own lives. The man who marries must give up his own ambitions and dreams, his own life, for his wife: and she must do so also. Parents give up their lives for their children. Who ever said that would be easy? Priests and religious give up their lives in the service of others. St. Paul says that single people even have a greater responsibility or opportunity for self-sacrificing love.

So, the road to happiness is open to ordinary people who just lead ordinary lives. In today’s second reading from St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians he makes the same point.

“Consider your own callin, brothers and sisters,
Not many of you were wise by human standards,
Not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth.”

“Rather God chose the foolish of the world to shame the wise,
And God chose the weak of the world to to shame the strong,
And God chose the lowly and despised of the world,…
To reduce to nothing those who are something…”

At the very outset of his public life Jesus began to teach and his teaching was all about humility. It’s not that we need to grovel in the dirt, we just have to understand who we are to achieve happiness.

“Whoever boasts, should boast in the Lord.”

Reading 1. Zephaniah 2:3; 3: 12-13
Reading II. I Corinthians 1: 26-31
Gospel. Matthew 5: 1-12a (Beatitudes)

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Gospel: Fishers of Men

3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time: A cycle

The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom
a light has shown.

These words from the prophet Isaiah are repeated in today’s gospel reading. It is clear that the St. Matthew believed that Jesus was the light that Isaiah referred to, and since that time Christians have agreed with him.

It is not just that Jesus, the light of the world, will dispel darkness and gloom but that he will be a healer. In the words of Isaiah,

For the yoke that burdened them,
The pole on their shoulder,
And the rod of their taskmaster
You have smashed.

Practically the first thing that Jesus does when he sets out on his public mission is to call disciples to follow Him and assist Him in His work of healing. In today’s gospel we see Him walking along the shore of the Sea of Galilee when He sees Peter and his brother, Andrew. They were fishermen and He says to them, “come after Me and I will make you fishers of men.” We are told, “At once they left their nets and followed Him.” Immediately after, he saw two other fishermen, James and John, the sons of Zebedee, and called them as well. Again we are told, “Immediately they left their boat and their father and followed Him.”

What strikes me most about this passage is how quickly they were converted. They did not require instruction or lessons in theology. They did not have to go through an extended course of study. They seemed to have asked no questions or made any inquiries about His background. From what follows in the gospels we know that these first disciples did not have a clear idea of who He was or what He was going to do. Like most of us when we embark on life’s great adventures, they did not know what they were getting into or where they would wind up.

There must have been something about Him that made them immediately give up their jobs and families to follow Him. There was something that led them to put their full faith in Him.

This passage reminded me of a book I recently read about Brother Andre, a recently canonized Canadian saint, who had as little theological knowledge and book learning as his namesake, Andrew, in today’s gospel. Andre was a poor orphan who received practically no education beyond what his mother taught him before she died when he was only 12. Thereafter, he had to work to help support himself and help out with his brothers and sisters. Eventually, a local priest, impressed with his holiness, asked the Holy Cross Fathers in Montreal to take him in. Since he did not appear to be very intelligent, he could not even be made a brother, but they gave him a job as doorkeeper or porter at their school.

To make a long story short, within a few years people were flocking to the school because Andre had gained the reputation as a healer. Some would come on crutches but go away walking on their own, leaving their crutches behind. Many of these crutches can still be seen today in St. Joseph’s Oratory, the magnificent church eventually built to accommodate all the pilgrims who wanted to visit him. When Brother Andre died in 1937 over a million people filed by his casket.

I mention Brother Andre because during his whole life he denied that he was a miracle worker possessed with great healing powers. Like Jesus, Andre often used material objects like oil and medals in healing people but he also denied that these had any magical powers. He had a special devotion to St. Joseph and asked all who came to him to pray to St. Joseph but even that he regarded as only a means for them to enhance their faith in Jesus, the light of the world. Andre always gave the credit for all of his accomplishments to faith in Jesus Christ.

In today’s second reading St. Paul does the same thing. He says to the Corinthians that it has come to his attention that some of them place their faith in him; that others believe in Apollos, or in Peter. He is shocked at this development.

Was Paul crucified for you?
Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?

Recently, in my own parish a beloved pastor had to retire after 18 years for health reasons. Tears ran down faces when the announcement was made. His farewell Mass and reception were packed. He had been a compassionate pastor as well as a wonderful homilist. He had a knack for involving people in every aspect of parish life. He was also a skilled and thrifty administrator who had taken the parish out of debt, and left it with a huge surplus.

Nevertheless, I never heard him claim any credit for himself. If you asked him, I’m sure he would have said that anything he had accomplished was due to Christ working through him. The last thing he would want is for people to leave their parish community because he had had to leave. In today’s gospel we are told that Christ will still be here, “proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, and curing every disease and illness.”

Reading 1. Isaiah 8: 23-9:3
Reading II. 1 Corinthians 1: 10-13, 17
Gospel. Matthew 4: 12-23 (fishers of men).

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Gospel:The Lamb of God

2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time: A cycle

Older Catholics will remember that before the Second Vatican Council there were only two major readings from Scripture at each Mass. There was the Epistle usually taken from one of the letters of St. Paul, and the Gospel reading from one of the four evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John. The same readings were repeated every year. Moreover, the priest read the readings in Latin with his back to the congregation. Only in the last century did he repeat the Gospel in the venacular while facing the people.

Besides allowing the use of the native language throughout the Mass, the Council sought to expand the selection of readings in order to put greater emphasis on the proclamation of the word of God, which became known as the Liturgy of the Word. This was done in two ways. First, a third reading was added to the traditional two. Now we have a first reading usually taken from the Hebrew scriptures or Old Testament. Then a second reading taken from the Epistles or Acts of the Apostles; and, finally, the Gospel.

However, the Church also introduced three cycles of readings, an A, B, and C cycle. That is, instead of the same readings every year, it would take three years before the readings would be repeated. The cycles are primarily differentiated by the gospel selections. In the A cycle, the gospel readings will be primarily from the Gospel of St. Matthew. In the B cycle it will be St. Mark, and in the C cycle it will be St. Luke. We will find readings from St. John interspersed throughout all three cycles.

Today is the second Sunday in Ordinary time. Ordinary time signifies that part of the church year which is not part of any particular feast, like Christmas or Easter. We might ask what happened to the first Sunday in Ordinary time? Well, it was last week but was called the Baptism of the Lord. Last week marked the beginning of the public life of Jesus with his baptism by John the Baptist at the river Jordan. Today, we follow up on that important event.

But let's begin by taking a look at our first reading today from the prophet Isaiah. The reading refers to a servant of the Lord who will derive his strength from the Lord, and who will be a "light to the nations," in order that the Lord's "salvation may reach to the ends of the earth."

Who is this servant? Is it Isaiah, himself? Is it the whole people of Israel? Is it some person in the future, say John the Baptist or even Jesus, himself? It is hard to say. Both Jesus and the Baptist appear in today's gospel account. Let's take a close look at what happens.

Representatives of the leaders of the Jews had approached John to ask him if he was the promised Messiah. John replied that he only baptized with water but that there was someone in their midst, “the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to loose.”

The next day the gospel account tells us that John “saw Jesus coming toward him” and said,

Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.

We have just completed the joyous feast of Christmas but the Church in its liturgical year does not dwell on the babe in the manger but immediately starts by confronting us with the whole purpose of the Lord’s mission. Jesus is going to sacrifice himself for us. He is the sacrificial Lamb who will atone for the sins of the people. From that point on sacrifice becomes the key element not only in our liturgy but in our lives.

Jesus is going to embark on a mission that will end with his crucifixion and death. Immediately after His baptism, the Evangelist tells us that Jesus began to call disciples to follow him. First Andrew and Peter, and then the rest ending with us. Fortunately, the sacrifice of Jesus is sufficient for us. Most of us will not have to face torture and a cruel death. But if we call ourselves followers of Christ, we will have to give up, in our own little way, our own lives in the service of others.

Husbands will give up their lives for their wives, and wives for their husbands. Both will have to sacrifice for their children. When they grow older, the children will have to sacrifice for their parents. Scripture tells us that people without spouses and children are called to even greater sacrifice. Not one of us is exempt. To save our life, we must lose it.

We all love sports but don’t we admire those players who sacrifice themselves for the good of the team? Even baseball has a special play called a “sacrifice” where a player gives himself up to advance a teammate.

So in today’s second reading when St. Paul tells the Corinthians to be “holy”, he is not telling them to become plaster saints. He is calling them to a life of hard work and sacrifice in doing the work of the Lord. Just as Jesus did, he is calling us to become disciples, and “take one for the team.”

Reading 1. Isaiah 49: 3, 5-6
Reading II. 1 Corinthians 1: 1-3
Gospel. John 1: 29-34 (lamb of God).

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Gospel: Baptism of the Lord

Last week we celebrated the great feast of the Epiphany of the Lord which brought to completion the 12 days of the Christmas season. Epiphany is a Greek word which means manifestation or appearance. The appearance to the Magi signified the mission of our Lord to the Gentiles as well as to the Jews.

Today we celebrate another divine appearance. Today's feast commemorating the Baptism of the Lord marks the beginning of the public life of Jesus. In one week we've gone from the little babe in the manger to our Lord's appearance to John the Baptist at the Jordan river.

The first reading from the Book of the prophet Isaiah introduces a mighty figure:

Here is my servant whom I uphold,
my chosen one with whom I am pleased,
upon whom I have put my spirit;

These words find their counterpart in today's gospel. After the Baptism of Jesus,

the heavens were opened for Him,
and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove
and coming upon Him.
And a voice came from the heavens saying,
"This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased."

Let's examine the scene of the Baptism a little more closely. First, Jesus comes to John to be baptized and John hesitates because he recognizes that someone far greater than he is standing before him. Nevertheless, Jesus insists on following the precepts of the Law since He is the one who will bring the Law to its fulfillment.

After the baptism we have the first manifestation of the Holy Trinity--Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It is unfortunate that over the years religious artists have found it almost impossible to depict the Holy Trinity. They have had remarkable success with the Son because Jesus did take on a human form. For the most part artists have had to resort to depicting the Father as a white-bearded old man--an angry one at that-- flying around in the sky. Even worse, they've depicted the Spirit as a bird, because today's gospel says that Jesus saw the Spirit descending "like a dove."

These images, well-intentioned as they are, have led to a lot of misunderstanding. We are made in the image and likeness of God. God is not made in our image and likeness. God is not an angry old man and the Holy Spirit is not a bird. Especially in the case of the Spirit, the image of the dove has led many to trivialize and underestimate His role.

Not only did God create the world, the world could not exist for an instant without the continued presence of His Holy Spirit. Every breath we take, every move we make is inconceivable without the presence of the Spirit of God. We're like fish swimming in the ocean but the ocean is the Spirit of God. Just like fish we don't realize that we're in the ocean and that every thing that sustains us comes from the ocean of God. We're even worse than fish because we think that we can do without the ocean. We can even, if we're smart enough, convince ourselves that it doesn't even exist.

St. Peter had no misunderstanding. Today's second reading from the Acts of the Apostles takes place after the Resurrection and the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Even after those incredible events, Peter and many other Christians had difficulty in realizing that the word of God had come for all nations and not just for Israel. In this scene which ends in the house of the pagan convert, Cornelius, Peter finally realizes that "God shows no partiality." He then recalled the scene at the Baptism where it all began.

You know...what has happened all over Judea,
beginning in Galilee after the Baptism
that John preached,
how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth
with the Holy Spirit and power.

From that day on the teaching of the Church has always been that our own Baptism is similar to our Lord's. At Baptism it's not just that the stain of original sin is washed away. We believe that at our Baptism we become children of God, and that we receive His Holy Spirit. In a way we should regard the day of our Baptism as the most important day of our life.

I know that there are those who do not attach much importance to the sacraments anymore. But at the outset of His public life Jesus, despite the objections of John the Baptist, attached great importance to His Baptism. He chose to have the waters flow over Him and to be anointed by the Father "with the Holy Spirit." At the outset of our own children's lives, why would we not choose to follow His example?

Baptism of the Lord
A cycle

Reading 1. Isaiah 42: 1-4, 6-7
Reading II. Acts 10: 34-38
Gospel. Matthew 3: 13-17 (my beloved Son).

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Gospel: Epiphany, Magi from the East

Epiphany of the Lord

Reading 1. Isaiah 60: 1-6
Reading II. Ephesians 3: 2-3a, 5-6
Gospel. Matthew 2: 1-12 (magi from the east).

Today we celebrate the great feast of the Epiphany of the Lord. Epiphany is a Greek word which means manifestation or appearance. Traditionally, the story of the "magi from the east" has been seen as a sign of the manifestation of the Lord to all nations.

Today's first reading from the Prophet Isaiah with its mention of caravans of camels and dromedaries bearing gold and frankincense has from the earliest days of the Church been associated with the story of the Three Kings or Wise Men. Today's gospel account from St. Matthew only tells us that "magi from the east" followed the star "to the place where the child was." It doesn't say that there were three of them, or that they were kings. But tradition and art have added the familiar features to the story.

We have three kings probably because of the three gifts--gold, frankincense, and myrrh--which are associated with royalty. In art one of the Kings is usually portrayed as an old man, another is middle aged, while the third is young and beardless. They symbolize all the ages of mankind. Tradition called them wise men because the word magi came to mean "magician", or one familiar with the secrets and mysteries of nature. It is common to think of them as astronomers or astrologers because of the famous star that they followed to Bethlehem.

Although legends have embellished the story of the Magi, there is an historical core to their story. There were, after all, "magi" in the East. The members of the ruling priestly class of the Persian empire to the east of Palestine had for centuries been called "magi." They would have been familiar with the Hebrew scriptures and prophecies because so many Jews had emigrated to Persia in the centuries before Christ. Their journey to Bethlehem would have been over a thousand miles but it would have followed established and frequently traveled trade routes.

The reaction of King Herod to their news certainly fits what history has told us about that cruel despot. In those days it was common for rulers to kill anyone who might be a potential threat to their crown. Herod murdered his favorite wife--he had ten--and five of his own sons when he suspected that they were plotting against him. The slaughter of the Innocents which St. Matthew describes a little later in this chapter is certainly in line with Herod's character.

What is the importance of the visit of the Magi? Why is the Feast of the Epiphany one of the greatest in the Church's calendar?

We know that after the Resurrection of our Lord the first converts to Christianity, even the Apostles themselves, had difficulty in understanding that the mission of our Lord was not just to the Jews. There was a great debate in the early Church where some argued that Gentiles had to convert to Judaism before they could be Christian. In St. Paul's epistles we see that this issue centered around the question of circumcision, that particular rite which signified one's membership in the nation of Israel.

In fact the very first Council of the Church was held at Jerusalem precisely to discuss this very issue. There St. Paul, inspired by his own vision of the Lord, argued that the message of Christ was for all mankind. As he says in today's reading from the Letter to the Ephesians,

it has now been revealed
to His holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit:
that the Gentiles are coheirs, members of the same body,
and copartners in the promise in Christ Jesus...

For Paul the Messiah promised to the Jews was to be in Isaiah's words a light to all nations. We will see next week that St. Peter, as observant a Jew as St. Paul, will have his own vision in which he sees that what God has created no man can call unclean. Perhaps it is only after the question had been decided that the early Christians began to reexamine the words and life of Jesus for new meaning.

He came to call sinners. He cured the Roman centurion's servant. The Sermon on the Mount did not mention race, creed, or color. He praised the Good Samaritan and insisted that the foreigner was more a neighbor to the beaten Jewish traveler than his countrymen who passed him by on the road to Jericho.

They even discovered an incident at the very beginning of our Lord's earthly life which indicated that He had come as a light to all the nations. The "Magi" had come from the East to bring Him gifts and do Him homage. On the other hand, the despised ruler of the Jews had only sought to put Him to death. Apparently, Herod and his advisers couldn't even see the star that led the "Magi" to the child.

The Christmas season comes to an end with Epiphany. The twelve days of Christmas are completed. Next week, we will begin to follow Jesus as He begins His public life. We will have a whole year to find Him on His way to Jerusalem. A few years ago I found a wonderful Christmas card which said simply,

Wise men still seek Him.