Monday, August 25, 2014

You Are Peter

                                    21st Sunday in Ordinary Time
                                    

Feed My Sheep
Stained Glass Window
Assumption church
Fairfield CT*

           
We do not have to be concerned with the circumstances in the time of the Prophet Isaiah that caused one man to lose his position of authority, and be replaced by another man. We see plenty of it in our own time. During the past few years a number of seemingly invincible dictators have fallen from power, and others seem soon to follow.

In our own country politicians rise and fall with regularity. In the business world how many CEOs have been forced to step down in the past years? A good percentage of baseball managers and football coaches lose their jobs each year. Actually, you don’t have to be a big shot to have this experience.

In today’s reading from the Prophet Isaiah we are told that the master of the King’s palace will be stripped of his authority. His keys, the symbol of his authority, will be taken from him and given to another. This reading introduces today’s gospel account of the giving of the keys of authority to Peter. In Matthew’s account this incident occurs after Jesus had exhibited his power over and over again in various ways. In the previous chapter Matthew had told of the feeding of the multitude on two separate occasions, the walking on the water of the Sea of Galilee during a storm, and just last week the healing of the daughter of the Canaanite woman.

After all these signs the Pharisees and the Sadducees still continued to doubt and test Jesus. He criticizes their blindness and warns his disciples not to follow their teaching. Like the master of the palace in Isaiah’s time, their authority will be taken from them. At this point, Jesus asks his disciples for feedback. “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” They relate what they have heard but then he asks for their own opinion. “But who do you say that I am?”

Simon Peter answers, “you are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” After this affirmation, Jesus changes Simon Peter’s name, and gives him the keys that will symbolize his authority

And so I say to you, you are Peter,
And upon this rock I will build my church,
And the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.
I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven.

The changing of the name is as significant as the giving of the keys. Scholars tell us that the giving of a new name means that Jesus has given a new role to Peter. Peter may well have thought himself not ready for such great responsibility. During the storm on the Sea of Galilee he had doubted and only the Lord’s intervention had rescued him. In next week’s gospel we will see that Peter’s objections to Jesus’ announcement of his ultimate mission, led our Lord to rebuke him severely. Finally, Peter would even deny Jesus three times during the Passion.

We know that Peter, and the Apostles, and their successors have been given special authority. But I like to think that we all, despite our imperfections and failings, have been given the keys to our own little palaces. The message of the gospels is clear. We are all called to be good and faithful stewards. There is no doubt that we will think ourselves unworthy of the task, and that we will often stumble and falter. How many times will we look back and wonder if we could have done things better?

I believe that today’s second reading from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans deals with this very point. He writes,

Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!
How inscrutable are his judgments and how unsearchable his ways!

How many times have we heard the expression that God works in mysterious ways? St. Paul himself never tired of referring to his own weakness, and noted that God uses the weak of the to accomplish His objectives. Despite his weakness and failings, Jesus said to Peter,

Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven;And whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.

This is a responsibility that all of us are called to share when it comes to our own families, friends, and neighbors.

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Reading 1. Isaiah 22: 19-23
Reading II. Romans 11: 33-36
Gospel. Matthew 16: 13-20 (you are Peter) 

*Photographic image by Melissa DeStefano. Click on image to enlarge.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Canaanite Woman

                                    20th Sunday in Ordinary Time
                                    


           
It is very clear from all three readings today that the Church wishes to impart the message that the Word of God is for all, irrespective of race, nation, gender, social status, or even religious belief. In the first reading from the Book of Isaiah, written 700 years before the birth of Jesus, the prophet exclaims that foreigners “who join themselves to the Lord” will be welcome and that the Lord’s house “shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.”

Today’s gospel passage from the fifteenth chapter of St. Matthew highlights one foreigner in particular, the Canaanite woman. Let’s put the encounter of Jesus with this woman into context. Two Sunday’s ago we heard the account of the miracle of the feeding of the multitude that had followed Jesus into a deserted place. Following that significant event we heard last week of the storm on the Sea of Galilee where Jesus appeared to the disciples walking on the water. In that storm we remember that Peter had faltered until our Lord had saved him. Jesus said to Peter, “Why did you falter, you of little faith?”

Following these two great manifestations of power, Matthew tells us that Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon, a land foreign to the Jews. It is the home of the Canaanites, longtime enemies of the Jews. However, Matthew tells us that Jesus was approached by a Canaanite woman who implored his assistance for her daughter who was possessed by demons. She called out,

Have pity on me, Lord, Son of David!
My daughter is tormented by a demon.

We are told that Jesus did not answer her request. But the Apostles step in and ask him to send her away. He seems to ignore their request and says, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Before anyone has a chance to act, the woman speaks up a second time. She does homage to Jesus and exclaims, “Lord, help me.” The reply of Jesus seems so uncharacteristic:

It is not right to take the food of the childrenAnd throw it to the dogs.

It is hard to hear Jesus speak in such a harsh, and seemingly insulting manner. We would like to think that it is just a figure of speech. Dogs was the common word used by the Jews to describe Gentiles or unbelievers. We remember at the wedding feast of Cana that Jesus did seem to speak harshly even to his own Mother. When Mary mentioned that the wine had run out, he said, "Woman, what would you have me do? My hour has not yet come."

What is more serious than the words used by Jesus are his actions. At Cana, he did accede to his Mother’s request but in the presence of the Canaanite woman, he seems to be thinking it over. Maybe dog is a harsh word but how could he help this woman and her poor daughter possessed by demons? By this time he had already helped or cured thousands of people but he insisted that it was their faith that saved them. How could this woman have faith? She did not know Moses and the Prophets. She had no knowledge of Jewish law or tradition. She probably even worshipped idols.

Nevertheless, the woman refuses to take no for an answer and responds to the words of Jesus:

Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scrapsThat fall from the table of their masters.

She does have faith. She has faith in Him. She does believe that He can help her daughter and her persistence is rewarded.

Then Jesus says in reply:

‘O woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’

So many people in the bible are rewarded for their persistence. We think of the woman bothering the judge until he rules in her favor; the man waking his neighbor asking for food in the middle of the night; and the poor crippled beggar who had waited at the pool of Siloam for years to be healed. Persistence is not one of the great virtues but without it none of them would be effective.

The plight of the Canaanite woman brings to mind the plight of so many today who have children or relatives suffering from mental illness. Doctors can prescribe medication and treatment but that is often a hit or miss proposition. Often the only thing we can do is hope and pray, and persist in faith, hope, and charity toward those who are suffering.

In today’s second reading from the letter to the Romans, St. Paul says that “the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable.” It is a little hard to follow his line of reasoning but he is saying that when some reject the call, it will go to others, but that the others will then have the duty to reach out to those who have gone astray.


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Reading 1. Isaiah 56: 1, 6=7
Reading II. Romans 11: 13-15, 29-32
Gospel. Matthew 15: 21-28 (Canaanite Woman)

Friday, August 15, 2014

The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary

                       
                                

Crowning of Mary
Assumption Church
Fairfield CT*
Feast of the Assumption--August 15


In 1950 when the world was still recovering from the ravages of the Second World War, Pope Pius XII promulgated the doctrine of the Assumption of Mary into Heaven. Now Catholics didn't start believing in the Assumption only in 1950. Think of how many churches were constructed before 1950 dedicated to Our Lady of the Assumption. Belief in Mary's Assumption can be found in the writings of the early Church Fathers and for centuries artists have delighted in rendering the scene of Mary being taken up into Heaven.

Of course, Catholics have always loved images of Mary. In the first reading from the Mass of the Assumption, we have the famous image from the Book of Revelation of "the woman clothed with the sun" who was about to give birth to a son, "destined to rule all the nations." In tthe gospel of the day we have St. Luke's account of the Visitation. Almost immediately after the Annunciation, Mary embarks on a journey to visit her cousin, Elizabeth, who is herself expecting. Artists have loved to portray this tender scene of the meeting of the two women. The young Mary, barely pregnant, greets her elder cousin whose pregnancy is well advanced.

St. Luke is the only evangelist to describe this meeting but, of course, he wasn't present. How did he get his information? It's possible that he was merely relating an earlier oral tradition and giving us an account of what the early Church believed Mary would have said on this occasion. Perhaps he talked with the Blessed Mother herself after the death and resurrection of her Son. In that event, this passage would represent her profound recollection of the Visitation in the light of everything that came after.

Nevertheless, what image does St. Luke give us of Mary? We certainly can't take from his account that Mary was a bewildered, frightened teenager. The very name, Mary or Miriam, means "the exalted one." Scholars tell us that the expression "leaped for joy" is only used in the Bible when one is in the presence of the Almighty, such as the time King David danced in front of the Ark of the Covenant. Elizabeth's greeting,

            Blessed are you among women,
            and blessed is the fruit of your womb...

which we repeat every day in the "Hail Mary," proclaims that from Mary will come the Savior of the world.

The beautiful prayer of Mary which we call the Magnificat is a collection of verses from many sources in the Hebrew scriptures, especially the Psalms, those beautiful hymns of praise. We all know the beginning,

            My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord;
            my spirit rejoices in God my Savior
            for he has looked upon his lowly servant.
            From this day all generations will call me blessed:

This is the song of a great Queen who has accepted a great mission.




In artistic renderings of the Immaculate Conception Mary is portrayed as the woman clothed with the Sun, with the Moon at her feet, and stars in her crown. Her dress is white but she is covered with a blue mantle. Ordinarily, she is pictured with a red dress covered with the blue mantle. Now "red" is the symbol of earth or humanity but "blue" is the symbol of divinity. The artists follow the teaching of the Church. Mary is human but she has been cloaked with immortality. In the vigil Mass for today's feast, the words of St. Paul apply not only to Mary but to any who put on the mantle of her Son.

            When that which is mortal clothes itself with immortality,
            then the word that is written shall come about:
            'Death is swallowed up in victory.
            Where, O death, is your victory?
            Where, O death, is your sting?


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Reading 1: Revelation 11:19a; 12: 1-6a, 10ab
Reading 2: 1 Corinthians 15: 20-27
Gospel: Luke 1:39-56 (Visitation)

* Photographic images of the stained glass windows in Our Lady of the Assumption church in Fairfield, CT are by Melissa DeStefano.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Storm at Sea


                                    19th Sunday in Ordinary Time
                                    

Storm at Sea
Stained Glass Window
Assumption Church
Fairfield CT*

           
Today’s first reading is from the first Book of Kings and deals with an episode from the life of the prophet Elijah, the greatest of all the Prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures. Elijah  had been fleeing from enemies who sought to kill him, and finally had found refuge in a cave on Mt. Horeb. He feels alone and abandoned but then hears a voice. He is told to go to the entrance of the cave and wait for the Lord.

Immediately, he encounters a strong wind with hurricane like force, then an earthquake, and then fire. But the Lord was not in these terrible forces of nature. Finally, Elijah heard a “tiny whispering sound” and knew that the Lord was present. Like all Jews and unlike the Gentiles Elijah knew that God was not a God of earthquake, wind, or fire. Actually, by the time of Jesus most educated Greeks and Romans had ceased to believe in the gods of nature. Their philosophers and poets had even begun to laugh at them. One Roman poet named Lucretius, who died only 50 years before the birth of Jesus, insisted that things like earthquakes and storms had natural causes, and were not caused by angry gods.

In today’s Gospel Jesus seems equally unconcerned with the forces of nature. Matthew relates that a strong wind had come up in the middle of the night that prevented the disciples’ boat from making any progress. Then, Jesus, who had stayed behind to pray, comes to them walking on the water. It was this apparition that really frightened them for they thought it was a ghost. Jesus tries to calm them:

Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.

Finding it hard to believe, Peter responds, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” Jesus responds, “Come”.

The rest of the story is familiar. Peter starts out, but then, like all of us, he doubts and starts to sink. Fortunately, he cries out, “Lord, save me,” and Jesus gives him His hand and says the famous words, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” Then they both get into the boat and the wind dies down. 

How can we not sympathize with St. Peter here? How many of us have taken the plunge only to falter on the way and let our doubts overcome us? How can we not see that our Lord’s words are addressed to us all as we go through the storms of life? For some the story of the storm at sea is a great and awesome miracle. For others, it is a sign of something else like the way Jesus comes to us in the Eucharist. But for me it is a simple human story of belief, doubt, and then rescue. Rather than castigate St. Peter for his doubt, the Church has always held him up as a model for us.

In a way, this message is reflected in today’s second reading from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans. Paul is distraught by the fact that many of his Jewish brethren cannot follow Christ. He glories in his Jewish heritage.

They are Israelites;
Theirs the adoption, the glory, the covenants,
The giving of the law, the worship and the promises;
Theirs the patriarchs, and from them,
According to the flesh, is the Christ…

He says that he would be willing to give up everything for their sake. We should not take Paul’s words as just applying to Jews 2000 years ago. For him, Israel was his family, his history, his culture, and his whole life. How many of us have family and friends who have lost their faith, their culture, and rich history and tradition? What are we to do? We can only reach out our hands to them. We can only be willing to give up everything for their sake.

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Reading 1. I Kings 19: 9a, 11-13a
Reading II. Romans 9: 1-5
Gospel. Matthew 14: 22-33 (Why did you doubt?)

*Image by Melissa DeStefano. Click on the image to enlarge. The window is a small panel but if you look closely, you will see lightning in the background, wind-blown sails, and the sea in turmoil. Peter is sinking into the water, and Jesus reaches out his hand to rescue him.  

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Loaves and Fishes


                                    18th Sunday in Ordinary Time
                                    


           
The first reading each Sunday is usually from the Old Testament or Hebrew scriptures. Besides it’s own value, the first reading serves as an introduction to the Gospel reading. I think that the majority of these readings are taken from the Prophet Isaiah whose words, uttered more than six hundred years before the birth of Jesus, have always been thought to refer to the Messiah.

However, these words are not Isaiah’s words since he tells us that he is merely passing on the word of the Lord to us. In today’s reading the Lord invites all those who are thirsty to “come to the water;” and all who are poor to drink wine and milk “without paying and without cost;” and all who are hungry to “eat well,…and delight in rich fare.”

The Church uses this passage from Isaiah to introduce St. Matthew’s gospel account of the feeding of the 5000, a miracle that has always been regarded as pointing to the miracle of the Holy Eucharist. But before we get to the actual account of the “loaves and fishes” let’s look at the beginning of this gospel passage.

When Jesus heard of the death of John the Baptist,
He withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself.

We believe that Jesus was true God and true Man, but I think that we tend to overlook the actual humanity of Jesus. We might have reverence for His Sacred Heart but sometimes I think we read a gospel passage like this and think that Jesus had a heart of stone. There is no sign of grief or sorrow in Matthew’s account. He just tells us that Jesus went off by himself when he heard the awful news. 

Maybe the Evangelist wanted us to use our own imagination or experience to understand the actual emotional response of Jesus. My eye surgeon once told me that only 2% of the eye drops I have to put in my eye each day actually get through the defensive wall that protects our eyes. In the same way, I think that our souls have been made with a defensive wall that protects us from most of the horror and tragedy we hear about each day on the news. Otherwise, how could we calmly read about murders, wars, earthquakes, tsunamis, and famine and calmly go about our business each day? Once in a while, a public event like September 11 stops us dead in our tracks but it doesn’t take long for things to get back to normal unless we have been personally involved.

It is only when the bad news becomes personal that it can penetrate the outer defenses of our souls.  The death of a loved one especially if that person was young or in the prime of life is truly devastating. Sickness and suffering within our families can be overwhelming. I have heard it said that everyone in church is there for a reason. Despite our outward calm most of us have some hidden pain that we bring to the altar each Sunday. How can we deal with it? How did Jesus deal with the tragic news of the death of John the Baptist?
           
He had a human as well as a divine nature and so we see him act like many of us would do when faced with a great tragedy. He needed some time to Himself. But then, He got back to work. He saw the vast crowd and despite His own grief, “his heart was moved with pity for them, and he cured their sick.”

Some people think that suffering and pain come from God. It is hard not to sympathize with those people who ask, “How could God have allowed this suffering to come to me?” The pain and suffering does not come from God, it comes from the world we live in. Much of it is even caused by our own efforts. But Jesus was a healer who never hurt anyone. He came to bring us happiness, not sorrow. His words and miracles provide a way for us to deal with the sorrows that this world provides.

 Look at today’s account of the feeding of the hungry crowd. This miracle should remind us of the way we are fed in the sacrament of the Eucharist. Jesus took the little bit of food that they had and offered it up to his Father in heaven. He said a blessing and broke the loaves just as the priest does at Mass. Then he asked the Apostles to distribute the food to the assembly. They were all fed just as Isaiah had predicted. Despite his own personal grief Jesus took care of the needs of others. He expects us to do the same.

It is interesting to note that before the miracle Jesus had expected the Apostles themselves to provide for the hungry crowd. He said, “There is no need for them to go away, give them some food yourselves.” Is it in the Eucharist and in the care for others that we will find solace for our own pain? The love of God is the true food that Isaiah talks about, and it is given freely, not like the false or junk food that we accept today as a costly substitute.

In today’s second reading from the Letter to the Romans St. Paul says that no amount of tribulation can separate us from the love of Christ. Despite all of his own pain and suffering, he could write,

What will separate us from the love of Christ?
Will anguish, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or the sword?

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life,…
Nor any other creature will be able to separate us
From the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

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Mosaic in front of altar
Church of the Loaves and Fishes
Capernaum, Sea of Galilee


Reading 1. I Isaiah 55: 1-3
Reading II. Romans 8:35, 37-39
Gospel. Matthew 14: 13-21 (Loaves and Fishes)