Sunday, June 17, 2012

Father's Day


11th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Holy Family
Assumption Church
Fairfield CT*
Today the Church returns to what is known as Ordinary time, that period of the liturgical year that is not associated with the great feasts of Christmas and Easter. The priest dons a green colored vestment that will be worn for practically every Sunday until the start of the Season of Advent. Ordinary comes from a Latin word and doesn’t exactly mean what we mean by ordinary but still, most of the readings in Ordinary time will remind us of the ordinary, seemingly insignificant details of everyday life.

Today’s first reading from the book of the prophet Exekiel speaks of a tender shoot that the Lord plucks off a great cedar tree and plants it among his people. It will itself grow into a mighty tree, offering sustenance and shelter to those who seek refuge in its branches. Of course, this botanical imagery is just meant to be a metaphor for how God calls upon all of us to grow and bear great fruit in our lives.

Jesus uses the same imagery in today’s gospel when he says, “this is how it is with the Kingdom of God.”

            It is like a mustard seed that, when it is sown in the ground,
            Is the smallest of all the seeds of the earth.
            But once it is sown, it springs up and becomes the largest of plants…

Like Ezekiel Jesus is calling on little, ordinary people like ourselves to put forth large branches and bear much fruit.

Just last week we buried one such a person in my home parish. His name was Theodore, which coincidentally means God’s gift, but everyne called him Ted. He was a small, unassuming, and quiet spoken man who rarely talked about himself but he was one of the most giving men I have ever known.

At the funeral I saw an old black and white marriage photo. Ted, who served in World War II, was in uniform next to his young Italian war bride who had sown her beautiful white wedding gown out of Ted’s parachute. I never met his wife because she died shortly before I met Ted, but I know that he loved her until the day he died. They had four or five children and all were there at the funeral with a number of grandchildren. One of the grandchildren gave a brief eulogy in which he described all the things his grandfather had taught him.
Ted was an avid gardener and wine maker but by profession he was a master electrician who worked at his trade right until his final illness struck. My wife and I originally met him in an Italian language class but he subsequently became a friend as well as our electrician. I will never forget the night our electricity went out during a violent ice storm. Ted came to the house, climbed a ladder, and repaired a broken power line in the midst of the storm. The only problem we ever had with Ted was that he was always reluctant to accept payment from friends. There was a large crowd in the Church at his funeral and I’m sure that most had also been the recipients of Ted’s generosity.Ted will never be canonized but he was one of the multitude of ordinary men who loved their families, their church, and their country.

In today’s second reading St. Paul speaks of courage. He says that even though our real home is not here, we must live our lives as best we can here on earth. We must be courageous. Isn’t it fitting that today’s readings about little, ordinary people should occur on Father’s Day. I know that we all have our different vocations in life, and I do not wish to slight anyone, but it takes real courage to be a father. It takes real courage to make a commitment to give up your own wants in order to live for your wife and children.

In today’s world when even the idea of Fatherhood is maligned, it is very important that we do all we can to support those who have accepted the challenge. Here is a little prater 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.


* Image by Melissa DeStefano

Reading 1.  Exekiel 17: 22-24
Reading II. 2 Corinthians5: 6-10
Gospel. Mark 4: 26-34 (a mustard seed).

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ


Stained glass window
Assumption Church
Fairfield, CT*
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 feast of Pentecost commemorating the descent of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles. 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 called 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. To many of us today this particular passage might sound offensive. Why was it necessary to kill those poor animals for sacrifice? Why was if necessary to sprinkle the blood of animals all over the altar and on the assembled congregation?

Even though we love our animals today, the animals of the Jews were of much greater value and importance to them. The Jews of the Exodus were a tribe of wanderers whose very lives depended on their flocks. To sacriice some young bulls as they did in today’s reading was to give up a great deal. In effect, to sacrifice these animals was as close to sacrificing themselves as they could get. To give up something of such great value was to acknowledge that the covenant or agreement with God was of even greater importance.

It was only with the Last Supper that St. Mark describes in today’s Gospel, that the followers of Jesus, all of them Jews, first began to realize that they would no longer have to slaughter their animals and sprinkle their blood. Here are St. Mark’s words:

            While they were eating,
            He took bread, said the blessing,
            Broke it, gave it to them, and said,
            “Take it, this is my body.”
            Then he took a cup, gave thanks and gave it to them,
            And they all drank from it.
            He said to them,
            “This is my blood of the covenant,
            which will be shed for many.”

Certainly, we know that the earliest Christians took these words literally. They realized that “the blood of goats and bulls and the sprinkling of a heifer’s ashes” were no longer necessary. The sacrifice of Christ on the Cross opened up the door for all of us. In today’s second reading from the letter to the Hebrews we heard the following words:   

How much more will the blood of Christ,
Who through the eternal spirit offered himself unblemished to God,
Cleanse our consciences from the dead works
To worship the living God. 

In this famous letter we are told that Jesus is the “mediator of a new covenant.” What does that mean? A mediator is someone who stands in the middle between two parties trying to bring them together. How does Jesus act as a mediator? On one occasion his disciples asked Him to “show us the way.” He replied “I am the way.”

They didn’t understand and its hard for us to understand although he gave them and us a pretty good road map in his words and in his life. How many times did he have to tell us that He didn’t want our sacrifices, that His sacrifice which we celebrate every Sunday on the altar is sufficient. How many times did he heal people, feed them, comfort them and tell us to do likewise? The only sacrifice pleasing to the Father was that we love our neighbor as ourselves, and that whatever we do for the least of the brethren, we do for 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 once said

            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?

Reading 1. Exodus 24: 3-8
Reading II. Hebrews 9: 11-15
Gospel. Mark 14: 12-16, 22-26 (this is my body).

*Image by Melissa DeStefano

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Most Holy Trinity

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. ###

* For today's reflection on the Trinity I use the readings from the A cycle.

 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).