Sunday, June 29, 2014

Peter and Paul


                                    Saint Peter and Saint Paul, Apostles
                                    

Feed My Sheep
Assumption Church window
Fairfield CT


           
It takes a great feast day for the Church to interrupt the regular Sunday celebrations of Ordinary time. Today, June 29, is the feast of Saints Peter and Paul and that certainly qualifies. You wonder why the Church does not have a separate feast day for each of these important saints. Perhaps it’s because their lives are so intertwined in Scripture and Tradition.

Although their backgrounds were different, they both had remarkable conversion experiences. For the most part the Acts of the Apostles is all about the work of Peter and Paul. They are both powerful and effective preachers, they both work healing miracles, and they both have miraculous escapes from their enemies. Yet, they each insist that it was only by invoking the “name of Jesus” that they were able to accomplish anything. They took no credit to themselves. Tradition tells us that they both suffered martyrdom in 64 A.D. during the persecution of Christians by the brutal and insane Roman emperor, Nero.

However, I think that the reason for today’s feastday is not necessarily the greatness of these two saints but their weakness.  Both were failures who had to seek redemption before they could follow in the Lord’s footsteps. Rather than trying to hide the story of Peter’s denial that he even knew Jesus, the Church broadcasts this dark moment in the life of the first Pope. The denial of Peter is one of the few incidents recorded in all four gospels. Moreover, artists have never tired of depicting Peter’s denial. In Caravaggio’s version, after someone claims that Peter was a follower of the recently arrested Jesus, Peter points to himself as if to say, “who me?”



In the same way, no attempt has ever been made to hide the fact that St. Paul persecuted members of the early Church. Before his conversion on the road to Damascus, Paul considered himself the greatest of sinners. In Raphael’s depiction of St. Cecilia discarding her musical instruments after that she has discovered the music of heaven, the saint is flanked by St. Paul and Mary Magdalen, both symbols of saints who had triumphed over sin. Paul leans on the sword that usually identifies him in sacred art but it is not an ordinary sword. In one of his letters Paul referred to the word of God as the sword of the Spirit.



There is a church at the northern entrance of the city of Rome right next to the famous Paizza del Populo. It is called Santa Maria del Populo and it contains two of the greatest works of the artist Caravaggio. In the small Cerasi chapel Caravaggio has depicted the Martyrdom of Peter on one wall, and just a few feet away on the opposite wall the Conversion of Paul.


In S. Maria del Populo the two saints can be seen together again just as on this feastday. Peter is depicted head down on a cross as he is about to suffer the same fate as Jesus. In the gospel of the vigil mass we have tha account of the appearance of our Lord to Peter after the Resurrection. As if to remind us that Peter had denied him three times, Jesus asks Peter if he loves him. Each time when Peter affirms his love, Jesus deflects it and tells him to feed his sheep. In other words, to direct his love to those entrusted to his care. The image at the top of this post depicts the Risen Lord handing the shepherd’s staff to Peter.

Caravaggio depicted Peter at the end of his journey but Paul is depicted at the beginning. He is shown fallen on the ground with his arms outstretched toward the light that is blinding him. Paul hints at the end of his story in today’s in today’s reading from the letter to Timothy. 

I, Paul, am already being poured out like a libation,
And the time of my departure is at hand.
I have competed well, I have finished the race;
I have kept the faith.

Today, their message still goes out to all the earth.

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Reading 1. Acts 12:1-11
Reading II. 2 Timothy 4: 6-8, 17-18
Gospel. Matthew 16: 13-19 (thou art Peter).\

Vigil:
Reading 1Act 3: 1-10
Reading II: Galatians I: 11-20.
Gospel: John 21: 15-19 (Feed My sheep)

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Corpus Christi


                                    Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ
                                    

Assumption Church window
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 great feast of Pentecost commemorating the descent of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles and on us. 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 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. Moses reminds them of how the Lord has sustained them on their long journey. They had been fed with manna, a new and miraculous food unknown to them and their fathers. This had been done in order to show them that,

            Not by bread alone does one live,
            But by every word that comes forth
            From the mouth of the Lord.

In the beginning of the John’s gospel Jesus, himself, is called the Word of God. Today’s gospel from the 6th chapter of that gospel contains the hardest, perhaps the most difficult, words that Jesus ever uttered. They were so difficult that not only did they strike consternation among His Jewish hearers, but they also caused some of His disciples to leave Him. He said.

            I am the living bread that came down from heaven;
            Whoever eats this bread will live forever;
            And the bread that I will give
            Is my flesh for the life of the world.

To make his point clear He repeats it over and over.

            Amen, amen, I say to you,
            Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood,
            You do not have life within you.

This was especially shocking and disgusting to the Jews because of their traditional abhorrence to eating even the blood of animals. These words remain a stumbling block today to many who cannot accept them as literally true. What are we to make of them? How do we eat His flesh and drink His blood?
Of course Catholics have always believed that it is in the Holy Eucharist. At the Last Supper, Jesus took bread into His hands, broke it, and gave it to them to eat saying that it was His Body. He also took the cup of wine and told them to drink it for it was His Blood. No Pope or theologian made this up. We get it from Jesus Himself. We live by the Word of God; Jesus is the Word of God: and “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my Blood remains in Me and I in him.”

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. What we do today at each Mass is what the first Christians did from the very beginning. As St. Paul said in today’s second reading,

            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?

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Reading 1. Deuteronomy 8: 2-3, 14b-16a
Reading II. 1 Corinthians 10: 16-17
Gospel. John 6: 51-59 (the living bread).

Saturday, June 14, 2014

The 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.

Speaking of fathers, here is a little prayer for fathers on this Father’s Day.

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.

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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).

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Receive the Holy Spirit


                                    Pentecost
                                    

Pentecoast
Stained Glass Window
Assumption Church
Fairfield CT*


In today's first reading from the Acts of the Apostles St. Luke gives us the well known account of the extraordinary appearance of the Holy Spirit to the Apostles in the upper room. The Apostles had gathered together for the Jewish feast of Pentecost, a feast which commemorated the giving of the law to Moses on Mount Sinai. 

Next week we will celebrate the feast of the Holy Trinity but today's feast is about the Third Person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit. Let's start out by clearing up a few misconceptions that some of us may have about the Holy Spirit. First of all, the Spirit is not a bird. I know that the traditional image of a dove given us by Christian artists is probably ingrained in all of us. It is hard to portray a purely spiritual being in art for a spirit has no body to paint or sculpt. In one gospel passage the movement of the Holy Spirit is likened to the fluttering flight of a dove and so I guess the early artists used the dove as a kind of artistic shorthand.

Speaking about images I have to confess that as a child I thought that the "tongues as of fire" that rested on the Apostles at Pentecost were actually human tongues on fire. It took me years before I realized that the "tongues" were actually similar to the darting flames that we would see in our own fireplaces. Also back then it was more common to refer to the Holy Spirit as the Holy Ghost, which only conjured up images from Abbott and Costello movies.

But in today's readings we see that although we cannot see or feel or hear the Spirit of God, It dwells in us and works through us. St. Luke says of the Apostles that "they were all filled with the Holy Spirit."

So who or what is the Holy Spirit? First, let's think about the word spirit. In my bedroom there is a picture of me as an infant. Next to it is a picture of me as a young man taken a short while after my wedding day. Next to that I can look into the mirror and behold a senior citizen. Which of these three pictures is me? I guess that even though I look different they all are me. In other words my "spirit" is in all of them. My spirit is the real me. Another word for spirit is "soul," a word that is somewhat out of fashion today.

So when Jesus, on the evening of that Easter Sunday when he rose from the dead, breathed on the Apostles, and said, "Receive the Holy Spirit," He was giving them His own self or spirit. He also makes it clear that He is sending them to continue the work that His Father had sent Him to do. "As the Father has sent Me, so I send you." His Spirit will give them the strength and courage to continue the work.

Fifty days later He comes to them again in the roaring wind and in tongues of fire.

If we can't see or feel or hear the Spirit, how do we know that He dwells in us? As Christians we have to learn to read the signs. Just as the shipwrecked Robinson Crusoe knew that there were other men on his lonely island when he beheld their footprints, we will know the Spirit by His signs. St. Paul says in the letter to the Corinthians,

            There are different kinds of spiritual gifts but the same Lord;
            there are different workings but the same God
            who produces all of them in everyone.

Then, talking to us as well as to the Corinthians, Paul says that to "each individual the manifestation of the Spirit is given for some benefit." In other words we all have a role to play in bringing the Spirit of God to each other.

What are the signs that the Spirit dwells in us? In years past we used to speak of the fruits of the Holy Spirit. If you pick a fruit from a tree and it tastes and smells and feels like an apple, then you can conclude that it's an apple tree. The same goes for a peach or pear tree. In his letter to the Galatians, St. Paul lists the fruits or signs of the Spirit as charity, joy, peace, patience, benignity, goodness, longanimity, mildness, faith, modesty, continency, chastity." Some of these words might sound strange to us today but we surely get the general idea. Who would not want to receive the Holy Spirit? Would we want to be uncharitable, miserable, quarrelsome, impatient, malicious, bad, mean-spirited, offensive, unfaithful, immodest, wasteful, or promiscuous?

We don't need miraculous, mystical, or ghostly experiences to encounter the Spirit today. After all, we have all received the Spirit at Confirmation. Right after Pentecost the Apostles saw that it was necessary not only to preach the Word but also to lay their hands on all the baptized in order that the Spirit might dwell in them.  Generation after generation have continued this practice. Every confirmation is a kind of Pentecost.

Even though the Apostles had walked with the Lord and had seen His Risen Body, they still needed to receive His Spirit before they could leave the upper room and go out and face the world. St. Paul says the same for us.

            For those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.
            For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear,
            but you received a Spirit of adoption,
            through whom we cry, "Abba, Father”!

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*Image by Melissa DeStefano

Reading 1.  Acts 2: 1-11
Reading II. 1 Corinthians 12: 3b-7, 12-13
Gospel. John 20: 19-23. (Recive the Holy Spirit).

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Between Ascension and Pentecost


                                    7th Sunday of Easter
                                   

Ascension of the Lord
Stained Glass Window
Assumption Church
Fairfield CT*
(click on image to enlarge)


Today, the seventh Sunday of Easter, falls between the Feast of the Ascension of our Lord, which we celebrated last Thursday, and the feast of Pentecost, which we will celebrate next Sunday. For these nine days we, like the first disciples, are in a kind of Limbo. We commemorate these nine days in our “Novenas,” a word taken from the Latin word for nine. Jesus has ascended and now we wait for His Spirit to come at Pentecost.

It is interesting that in the first reading from the Acts of the Apostles, St. Luke gives us the immediate aftermath of the Ascension. After witnessing the Ascension, the Apostles walk back the short distance from Mt Olivet (the mountain of Olives) to Jerusalem. There they went to the “upper room” where they were staying. There were eleven of them: Peter, John, James, Andrew, Philip, Thomas, Bartholomew, Matthew, James the son of Alpheus, Simon the zealot and Judas not the betrayer.

In a few days they will become the Church. Significantly, they are joined by some of the early women followers of Jesus, including his Mother, Mary. In this rare reference to Mary we can see her already as Mater Ecclesia, the Mother of the Church.

Today’s gospel is from the seventeenth chapter of St. John and describes the last words of Jesus before he leaves the Last Supper to undergo his Passion and Resurrection. Jesus is about to complete his mission on earth and his departing words are directed at us as well as the Apostles. His whole mission has been to reveal the Father to us and once that is accomplished, the rest will be up to us. He says to the Father,

          And now I will no longer be in the world,
But they are in the world, while I am coming to you.

In a way we will be on our own even though Jesus promised to send His Spirit and not leave us like orphans. But still, his work is done but ours is just beginning. We will hear the story of Pentecost next week but for now I would just like to say that there are multitudes today that feel like orphans. This is especially the case with contemporary teenagers and college students.

Depression seems almost like an epidemic among young people today. Suicidal thoughts and behavior are alarmingly prevalent in high schools and colleges. Colleges employ psychotherapists to deal with this very real problem. Catholic schools are not immune. A college professor told me that at a nearby college, the students pride themselves on attending a Jesuit institution, but shrink from identifying it as Catholic. They have cut themselves off from the faith that motivated St. Ignatius and formed the basis of Jesuit spirituality, Now, they only have an empty shell. Now, they only have themselves to turn to. Now they are really orphans.

Actually, they turn to behaviors that only make them feel worse. Drunkenness and drug abuse are rampant on college campuses today. The high incidence of sexual abuse is a sign of unfulfilling sexual practices. The resulting shame and guilt cannot be taken away by counselors or therapists. These well meaning professionals can listen and advise but they can’t forgive. Since most of these students have discarded their religion in their early teens, they have nowhere to turn.

As St. Peter said in today’s second reading, if you are going to be insulted and suffer, let it be because of the good you do and not the evil. He writes to the members of the early Church,

But let no one among you be made to suffer As a murderer, a thief, an evildoer, or as an intriguer.

If we are insulted for doing what is right and good, then there will be no shame and we will be able to “rejoice exultantly.”

Today’s responsorial Psalm is the famous Psalm 27 and is directed to all of us who might think of ourselves as orphans.

The Lord is my light and my salvation;Whom should I fear?The Lord is my life’s refuge; Of whom should I be afraid?... Hear, O Lord, the sound of my call,Have pity on me, and answer me.Of you my heart speaks; you my glance seeks.

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Reading 1.Acts 1: 12-14
Reading II. 1 Peter 4: 13-16
Gospel. John 17: 1-11a (the hour has come).

* Image by Melissa DeStefano