Sunday, November 24, 2013

Christ the King

The Heavenly Throne*

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 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. It says, "You shall shepherd my people 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. 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." We do have a shepherd king who was willing to lay down his life for us.

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've followed Him on the journey, heard the famous parables, witnessed the miracles 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.

*Stained Glass Window, Church of Our Lady of the Assumption, Fairfield, CT (image by Melissa DeStefano)

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Meaning of Life

                        33nd Sunday in Ordinary Time

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.

I remember a 70-year-old Catholic woman who once told me that after all her years she was still trying to figure out who she was. Maybe this is something we should all consider 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.


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

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Death and Resurrection

                                    32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time
Stained Glass Window
Assumption Church
Fairfield CT*

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.”

I recall a public debate where 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. The poor man has since died of cancer. I don’t believe that his illness was 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.”


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

*Photgraphic image by Melissa DeStefano

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Calling of Zacchaeus

                                    31st Sunday in Ordinary Time

House of Zacchaeus
Click to enlarge

The Book of Wisdom was written in the century before the birth of Christ. One commentator calls it "a precursor of the message of mercy that Jesus taught." Today's passage certainly bears that out. It is a hymn to a merciful Lord.

            But you have mercy on all, because you can do all things;
            and you overlook peoples' sins that they may repent.
            For you love all things that are
            and loathe nothing that you have made...

This is a central idea in both the Old and New Testaments. God is Good, God is Love, and His creation can only be full of good and love. Where we find imperfection or evil in the world, it is only because of our own doing. Nevertheless, despite our failings, the God of mercy and love is always open to us who turn to Him.

St. Luke's Gospel is sometimes called the "Gospel of the Great Pardons."  Only a few weeks ago we heard the parable of the Prodigal Son. Last week it was the parable of  the tax collector who went home "justified" because of his humble prayer, "O God, be merciful to me a sinner." A parable is just a story but this week we have the story of a real tax collector, Zacchaeus.

Remember that tax collectors were hated by the Jews and regarded as sinners because they did the dirty work of the Roman conquerors. The Romans knew better than to try and tax conquered people themselves. They gave out franchises to local leaders. A tax collector like Zacchaeus would advance a large sum of money to the Romans for the right to collect taxes from the local people. Once he collected more than he had paid the Romans, it was pure profit and his to keep.

Besides its spiritual message, St. Luke's gospel is a model of historical accuracy. We certainly can believe him when he tells us that Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector of Jericho, was a wealthy man. The Jews despised men like Zacchaeus not only because they cooperated with the Romans, but also because they enriched themselves at the expense of the oppressed.

The gospel account of the conversion of Zacchaeus is sketchy but we can imagine what happened. Seeking to catch a glimpse of Jesus, Zacchaeus climbs a tree only to be called down by Jesus who informs him that He intends to stay at his house. Like so many people who came face to face with Jesus, Zacchaeus is instantly converted. He received our Lord into his house "with joy." When people grumble that Jesus is going "to stay at the house of a sinner," Zacchaeus is so moved that he offers to give half his wealth to the poor. He even promises to think back over his entire career and repay anyone he has wronged four times over.

The conversion of Zacchaeus means that he realizes that he doesn't need all his wealth and possessions once he has found our Lord.

Our Lord pays Zacchaeus one of his highest compliments. He calls him a "descendant of Abraham." It's not that Jesus is calling Zacchaeus a Jew, that would merely be pointing out the obvious. He is saying that the tax collector is acting as a Jew is supposed to act. He is giving to the poor, he will be fair in his dealings with others, and he will make restitution if he has harmed anyone. Anyone who acts this way is a true "descendant of Abraham" no matter what his occupation.

A vocation is a calling. The word comes from the Latin word, "vocare" which means "to call." It is the root of the words, "vocal" and "voice." Sometimes we use it in a very limited sense of religious vocation. In earlier days we used to speak of vocations to the religious life, the married life, and the single life. It's clear though that in the scriptures we all have a vocation and that none of them are unworthy or ignoble.

In St. Paul's letter to the Thessalonians, he prays for that little community of believers. He prays that "God may make you worthy of his calling." He also warns them not to be alarmed or distracted by thoughts about the end of the world. If we are true descendants of Abraham we need not worry about such things. All we have to do is conduct our affairs honestly, keep busy following our own vocation in life, and realize what constitutes real wealth.

There is a famous passage in the Book of Revelation which reminds us of the story of Zacchaeus. It is the passage of Jesus knocking at the door asking us to let Him into our homes and lives. The passage is addressed to those of us who have become comfortable and materialistic.

You say to yourself, 'I am rich, I have made a fortune, and have everything I want,' never realizing that you are wretchedly and pitiably poor, and blind and naked too." 
Even so, He offers us a chance.

Look, I am standing at the door, knocking. If one of you hears me calling and             opens the door, I will come in to share his meal, side by side with him.

There is a famous painting of this scene but if you look closely, you will see that there is no knob on the door. It must be opened from the inside.

Reading 1. Wisdom 11: 22-12:2
Reading II. 2 Thessalonians 1: 11--2:2
Gospel. Luke 19: 1-10 (Zacchaeus, come down).