Sunday, June 30, 2013

Love your Neighbor



                                    13th Sunday in Ordinary Time
                                    C cycle

Chariot of Fire: Symbol of Elijah
Stained glass window
Assumption Church, Fairfield CT*

           
Elijah was one of the great prophets in the Old Testament. In his time--about 700 years before the birth of Christ-- the Jewish people, their leaders, and their priests had departed from their ancient faith to follow strange gods. Elijah stood virtually alone against this apostasy.  Jewish tradition held that Elijah would one day return to usher in a new age.

In today's first reading Elijah, at the request of the Lord, chooses Elisha to be his successor. The young man is working, he is plowing a field, when Elijah calls him by throwing his cloak over him. Elisha understands that he has been called but only asks that he be allowed to kiss his father and mother good-bye. Elijah's response indicates that Elisha is under no compulsion. He is free to do what he wants. He has to choose. In his own way, by slaughtering the oxen, he sells all he has and gives it to the poor. Then "Elisha left and followed Elijah."

Who could not see the similarity between this episode and today's gospel? Chapter 9 of St. Luke's gospel is full of the signs and wonders that Jesus worked. The most incredible sign was the multiplication of the loaves and fishes when Jesus fed the multitude. Many in the crowd thought that Elijah had returned. Afterwards, Jesus asked the disciples, "who do you say that I am?" Right after Peter replied that Jesus is the "Christ of God," St. Luke tells us that our Lord took Peter, James, and John up the mountain where He was transfigured or glorified. At the Transfiguration Moses and Elijah appeared talking with Jesus. We don't have that reading today because the Church always has reserved the Transfiguration for the second Sunday of Lent.

Unfortunately, when they come down from the mountain, Jesus finds that people, even his followers, do not understand. A man has to beg Him to free his son from an evil spirit because the disciples had not been able. Jesus "healed the boy and restored him to his father." Next the disciples can't believe Him when he again says that He "is to be betrayed into the hands of men." Finally, they even start arguing among themselves about "which of them was the greatest." Again Jesus has to rebuke them: "he who is the least among you, he is the greatest." 

This is the background to our gospel today where Jesus sets out on the "journey to Jerusalem." His first stop is a Samaritan village. Samaritans were Jews who long before had intermarried with non-Jews and accepted strange gods. Here we see our Lord's standard operating procedure. When they refuse to welcome Him, when they turn their backs on Him, and fail to offer Him even common hospitality, He just moves on to the next village. It's their choice.

Then St. Luke tells us of three individuals who express a desire to follow Jesus. The stories are brief and puzzling and have been subject to much interpretation. I don't think that Jesus wants us to disregard our basic human obligations. My guess is that Jesus knew that his would-be followers were offering excuses or  having second thoughts. "Let me go first and bury my father," or "first let me say farewell to my family at home."

Jesus says to the fearful, to the undecided, to the waverers among us, "don't look back,"
"seize the moment," "strike while the iron is hot." He actually uses a proverb that was old even in His day, "No one who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what was left behind is fit for the kingdom of God." In a famous parable He spoke of a merchant who was willing to give up everything he had in order to gain the  "pearl of great price."

For St. Paul the "pearl of great price" is our freedom. Our journey to Jerusalem is a journey to find our freedom. It's strange that although we live in a world that values freedom above everything else, we actually possess so little of it. It's not just that so many people in the world live under tyrants and despots, or that so many are victims of poverty and hunger. Even here in the greatest and wealthiest country in the world's history, so many of us are enslaved to one addiction or another.

Could it be that our emphasis on "self-esteem" has led us down the wrong path?
 A children's doctor suggested as much in a newspaper column the other day. We have to recognize that the basic principles of religion are at odds with the world today, just as in the time of Elijah or St. Paul. Self-sacrifice, not self-esteem, is at the heart of Christianity. Last week our Lord said that we must lose our life in order to find it.

This week St. Paul reminds us that our flesh (our individual desires) is at war with the Spirit. He says that Spirit and flesh "are opposed to each other, so that you may not do what you want." Anyone on a diet looking at the dessert menu will understand the "war" that goes on within us. Anyone mindlessly flicking through the TV channels for hours will be hard pressed to explain to themselves how they could waste so much of the valuable time that has been allotted to them.

Today, St. Paul's advice to the Galatians and to us is, "serve one another through love." True freedom is found in the "Golden Rule." "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." Wouldn't our children be happier today if they were taught to esteem their parents, relatives, teachers, and neighbors rather than themselves? Wouldn't we be happier?

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Reading 1. 1 Kings 19: 16b, 19-21
Reading II. Galatians 5: 1, 13-18
Gospel. Luke 9: 51-62 (Let the dead bury their dead).

*Image by Melissa DeStefano

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Christ Carrying the Cross


                                    12th Sunday in Ordinary Time
                                  

Christ carries the Cross
Assumption church
Fairfield, CT*

           
Today's first reading from the Prophet Zechariah talks of hope. In ordinary time the priest usually wears green, the color associated with hope. The prophet tells the Israelites that even in the midst of great mourning and desolation, the Lord will give them "a fountain to purify from sin and uncleanness." Of course, from the earliest days Christians have looked upon Jesus as the fountain from which all hope springs.

Who was Jesus? Who is Jesus? In today's gospel the scene between Jesus and Peter is pivotal.  Chapter 9 of St. Luke's gospel is full of the miraculous deeds of Jesus. Not the least of which was the multiplication of the loaves and fishes to feed a great crowd. Right after that manifestation of his power, Luke says that our Lord and the disciples left the crowd of people behind and went off in solitude to pray. When they were alone, He turns to the disciples and asks, "Who do the crowds say that I am?"

The answer indicates that Jesus has made quite an impression on the people. Some say that John the Baptist has come back to life; others believe that He is Elijah, that great figure of Hebrew history who was taken up into heaven in a fiery chariot; and others believe that an ancient prophet like Zechariah has come back to life. But when He asks the disciples, "who do you say that I am," Peter answers, "The Christ of God." Peter's expression of faith means that he has come to regard Jesus as the long awaited Messiah who has come to save His people.

It's one of the mysteries of the gospels that every time an Apostle speaks we can almost imagine ourselves speaking. In fact, whenever our Lord speaks to them, he seems to be speaking to us. "But who do you say that I am?" What would our answer be? We know that many regard Him as a good teacher although His teachings may no longer be relevant in our modern age. Others see Him as a kind of social worker who went about doing good works. Of course, they find it hard to believe that any of these works could have been miraculous, and they try to find purely natural explanations. In other words, He was a man just like us. Indeed, a best-selling novel claims that He even married and had children of His own.

I think that one of the reasons why the film, "The Passion of the Christ," caused such controversy was not because of the violence depicted but because we do not like the idea that our Lord had to suffer and die. We know that the Apostles didn't like it either. After Peter's confession of faith, our Lord tells them,

            The Son of Man must suffer greatly
            and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests,
            and the scribes,
            and be killed and on the third day be raised.

After all the wonderful things He had done, this was shocking news. Even more shocking was what He said next,

            If anyone wishes to come after me,
            he must deny himself
            and take up his cross daily and follow me.
            For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it,
            but whoever loses his life for My sake will save it.

To save our lives, to find true happiness, we have to deny ourselves, take up our cross daily, and be willing to willing to give up our lives for the sake of others. Our ethnic, national, and even religious origins do not matter. To paraphrase St. Paul in the letter to the Galatians:

We are neither Jew nor Greek,
Amercan nor Mexican,
Slave nor free,
Rich nor poor,
Male nor female,
Liberal nor conservatuve.

Jesus asked “who do the crowds say I am?” If the crowds were to ask who we are, what would we say? Would we identify ourselves as Christians? Or, to put it another way, if someone were to accuse us of being Christians, would there be enough evidence to convict us? Each of us has to pick up our cross and follow Jesus. 

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Reading 1. Zechariah 12:10-11; 13:1
Reading II. Galatians 3: 26-29
Gospel. Luke 9: 18-24 (who do you say that I am?). 

*Image by Melissa DeStefano

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Sin and Redemption


                                    11th Sunday in Ordinary Time
                                    


        
Today's readings deal with sin and forgiveness? The first reading from the Book of Samuel presents us with what is perhaps the most shameful deed in the entire Bible. I'm surprised that the makers of the famous TV series, "The Sopranos," never thought to use the story of King David and Uriah the Hittite as the basis for an episode. We only get the tail end in today's verses but if you read the 11th and 12th chapters of the Book of Samuel you will get the whole story.

It is the famous account of David and Bathsheba. It begins with lust and degenerates into betrayal and murder when David orders Bathsheba's husband Uriah, one of his most loyal and dedicated soldiers, to be killed. David's sin is especially despicable because he had previously been given so much by the Lord. He had literally come from nowhere for he was the least of his father's many sons, a mere shepherd. Nevertheless, he was picked to lead his people and become their King. 

As the reading indicates, David had everything. He had been saved from death at the hands of Saul, the previous King, and had been given all of Saul's possessions even his palace and many wives. In those days the Israelites especially their leaders could have many wives as well as concubines. Still, for David, like so many of the rich and famous, it was not enough. He set his eyes on a poor soldier's wife and the results were tragic.

I would like to guess that David never realized that all of his success and achievements were the result of his faith in God until he and his family suffered the consequences of his sin.

St. Luke's gospel account today presents us with another sinner--the sinful woman who anoints our Lord with oil, and washes his feet with her tears. In this touching and meaningful story our Lord tells the woman that her "sins are forgiven." Then he tells her, "Your faith has saved you, go in peace."

What did our Lord mean? It is clear that our Lord uses the woman as an example not only to the Pharisee who invited Him for dinner but also to us. It was the woman's faith that led her to perform the basic works of hospitality that the Pharisee had omitted to perform for his guest. Pharisees prided themselves on their strict adherence to all the practices required by the Law.

This incident with the woman will help us to understand what St. Paul is talking about in today's second reading. For us today justification is a word that has lost much of its meaning. When St. Paul introduces the concept of "justification by faith" it just conjures up theological controversies of long ago. What is justification? What is faith? What are works? Is there a conflict between faith and works? The best way to understand these concepts is to turn to the gospels.

In today's gospel the woman despite her sinful status performs the basic work of hospitality. Our Lord's words to the Pharisee are addressed to us.

            Do you see this woman?
            When I entered your house you did not give me water for my feet,
                        but she has bathed them with her tears
                        and wiped them with her hair.
            You did not give me a kiss,
                        but she has not ceased kissing my feet since the time I entered.
            You did not anoint my head with oil,
                        but she anointed my feet with ointment.
            So I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven
                        because she has shown great love.

Time and time again in the gospels our Lord urges us to do the work. Those who do the work are the ones of great faith and love. They are the justified who can go in peace.

Jesus with Joseph
Assumption church
Fairfield Ct*


Today is Fathers Day. Is there any more difficult job than the one faced by fathers today? On this day our society pays lip service to fathers but on every other day they are mocked and vilified. Everywhere around us we see men abandoning, and abusing their children, and even urging that their children be aborted. Let's pray today that fathers will deny themselves, and take up their cross and do their work

Here is a little prayer 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.

After all, right after our Lord's words in today's gospel, He said, "For what does it profit a man, if he gain the whole world, but ruin or lose himself?

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Reading 1. 2 Samuel 12:7-10, 13
Reading II. Galatians 2:16, 19-20
Gospel. Luke 7:36--8:3, (the sinful woman). 

* Photo by Melissa DeStefano           

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Corpus Christi


                        Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ
                                   
 
Leonardo da Vinci: Last Supper
(click on image to enlarge)
See note below.

           
Today's feast of the Body and Blood of Christ used to be called the feast of Corpus Christi, from the Latin words which literally mean the Body of Christ. The feast commemorates not just the Body of Christ but also the fact that it was given up or sacrificed for us. That's probably why each of today's readings features a priest who makes an offering to God.

In the first reading we go back to the first book of the Old Testament, the Book of Genesis, and meet the legendary priest-king, Melchizedek, who offers up bread and wine to "God Most High." Although little else is known about Melchizedek, the early Fathers of the Church always viewed him as a forerunner of Christ as both priest and king. At Mass if the priest uses the first Eucharistic prayer, he will compare our Eucharistic sacrifice with Melchizedek's.

In today's gospel we have St. Luke's account of the miraculous multiplication of the loaves and fishes. This miracle, where Jesus provided food for the 5000, has also always been viewed as a precursor of the Eucharistic sacrifice. Like many of the miracles of Jesus this one follows a standard format. Jesus is busy at his work of teaching and healing when a problem--a hungry crowd--is brought to his attention. At first He doesn't see what it has to do with Him, and tells his disciples to take care of it themselves. "Give them some food yourselves." When they confess their own inability, He takes over.

            Then taking the five loaves and two fish,
            and looking up to heaven,
            he said the blessing over them, broke them,
            and gave them to the disciples to set before the crowd.

St. Luke concludes that "they all ate and were satisfied," and that plenty was left over.

Despite the fact that this miracle is the only one to appear in all four gospels, it is one of the most difficult for many people to accept. Today it is fashionable to offer a purely natural or sociological explanation. Some think that people were shamed by the selfless sharing of Jesus, and proceeded to take food which they had hidden about their persons and share it with their neighbors.

That's one theory but I prefer to think that the God who is responsible for every grain of wheat that grows on the earth, and for every fish that swims in the sea, could feed 5000 people. Right after this miracle St. Mark tells us that Jesus saved His disciples from drowning when he calmed the storm at sea. St. Mark relates this incident to the miracle of the loaves. He says that the disciples in the boat "were utterly beside themselves with astonishment, for they had not understood about the loaves, because their heart was blinded."

Many people also find it hard today to believe that the Body and Blood of Jesus are offered in the Sacrifice of the Mass. In today's second reading from St. Paul's letter to the Corinthians we have what is probably the first written account of our Lord's offering of His own Body and Blood at the Last Supper. It's obvious that Paul didn't make these words up. He says that he heard them from the Lord Himself in much the same way that the other Apostles did at that Passover meal.

What could the Apostles have been thinking when they saw Jesus take the bread, offer thanks, break it, and then say, "This is my body that is for you?" How could the bread be His Body? Or what about, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood." How could the wine be His Blood? We know that they believed it because He said it and because He would raise His Body from the dead only three days later. We also know that the first Christian communities also believed it and from the beginning repeated the Lord's words whenever they gathered together "in remembrance of 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.

Note: Leonardo's Last Supper depicts the moment when Jesus institutes the Eucharist. If you click on the image above to enlarge it, you will see his hands pointing to the bread and wine on the table. The Apostles are reacting not to the announcement of his betrayal but to his statement, "This is My Body."

Reading 1. Genesis 14: 18-20
Reading II. 1 Corinthians 11: 23-26
Gospel. Luke 9: 11b-17 (Loaves and Fishes).