Sunday, November 30, 2014

Advent Adventure


                                    1st Sunday of Advent
                                   



A few years ago three films based on J.R.R. Tolkien's epic story, "The Lord of the Rings," enjoyed enormous critical and popular success. Issued in three successive years around Christmas time, they were a box office smash. The third in the series, entitled, "The Return of the King," won the Academy award for "Best Picture." Most of us know by now that both the three-volume book and the films tell the story of a great journey or adventure undertaken by a group of men, elves, dwarves, and the now famous hobbits.

The adventure begins however in a smaller book of Tolkien's called "The Hobbit." In that book one particular hobbit is woken out of a quiet peaceful afternoon nap by a violent knocking on his door. To his amazement he is told that he must rouse himself out of his comfort and complacency and embark on a dangerous adventure whose end is far from certain. In the course of the adventure he will find that there is more to life than he ever dreamed, and that there is more to himself than he ever dreamed.

Isn't it odd that the word "advent" is contained in the word, "adventure"? Advent is not just a time of preparation for Christmas; it is a time for all of us to consider how far we have progressed on the great adventure of life. Many of us might feel today like the people in today’s first reading from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah. It is a story of people who have turned their backs on God and have lost their way.

Why do you let us wander, O lord, from your ways,
And harden our hearts so that we fear you not?

The result is loneliness, isolation, and unhappiness.                       

            We have all withered like leaves,
            And our guilt carries us away like the wind.

Despite the apparent joys of the Christmas season, it can be a very depressing time of year. Many of us will feel out of touch not just with God but also with friends and family; maybe even estranged from them. It doesn’t have to be that way. Even though it is a time of penitence the season of Advent is also a time of hope. Advent marks the beginning of a new year for the Church, and it can also mark a new beginning for all of us. Interestingly, today’s gospel reading does not come from the beginning of St. Mark’s account but almost from the end. The Evangelist repeats the words of Jesus right before He enters upon His Passion.

Jesus is talking to his disciples. We must remember that since Holy Scripture is the inspired word of God, whenever Jesus talks to His disciples, he is talking to each one of us. He tells them,

            Be watchful! Be alert!
            You do not know when the time will come.

What is He talking about? The next verse gives the clue. When He refers to the man who goes away, He is talking about Himself right before His death. We are the servants whom He places in charge, each with our own work to do. He is telling us to act as if everyday will be our last and not waste the time we have left.

Advent has always been regarded as a season of preparation. Why is it that we prepare for everything in life but often fail to prepare for the most important thing in life? What football team would go into the weekend's big game without practicing all week? What will they practice? Why, the very same formations and plays that they expect to use when they are put to the test. During the week they will also be in the weight room preparing their bodies for the blows to come. On game day they will put on their protective gear or armor. Only a fool would go into such combat improperly equipped.

In business it's much the same thing. Salesmen practice their presentations before facing their customers. They learn how to anticipate and overcome every objection. In politics look how even the presidential candidates go through rigorous prepping and role-play before debating their opponents.

There is no better way to prepare this season than by increasing our attendance at Mass. Certainly, in this season when we should all be looking forward to the coming of Christ, he comes to us in each and every Mass. Besides Sunday Mass we will celebrate the great feast of the Immaculate Conception on December 8, a true Holy Day of Opportunity.

Finally, I can think of no better way to counter the stress and anxiety of this mad shopping season than to attend daily Mass during Advent. We will find a half hour of peace and tranquility every day and encounter some of the most beautiful readings in the Missal. We will get an opportunity to reconcile ourselves with God and our neighbor when we recite the Kyrie Eleison, the Confiteor, the Our Father and the Agnus Dei. We can offer the kiss of peace to our friends and family. We can offer thanks to God for all the good things that have been given us, and then we can approach the altar to receive the true gift of Christmas, the gift of God's only Son.

We will not be alone on our adventure. As St. Paul says,

            God is faithful,
            And by Him you were called to fellowship with his Son,
            Jesus Christ our Lord.


###

Reading 1. Isaiah 63: 16b-17, 19b; 64: 2b-7
Reading II. 1 Corinthians 1: 3-9
Gospel. Mark 13: 33-37 (Be watchful! Be alert!).

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Christ the King

                                                Our Lord Jesus Christ the King


Stained Glass Window
Assumption Church
Fairfield, CT*


The 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 re-emphasized 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 from the prophet Ezekiel compares the role of a leader to that of a shepherd. The reading makes clear that a true king exists to serve his people, and not to be served by them.

            Thus says the Lord God,
            I myself will look after and tend my sheep.
           
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 gospel reading from the 25th chapter of St. Matthew is one of the most famous in all of scripture. Here we have the image of our Lord in His glory, surrounded by angels, and sitting on His throne at the final or last judgement. He says:

Come, you who are blessed by my Father,
Inherit the kingdom prepared for you
From the foundation of the world.
For I was hungry and you gave me food,
I was thirsty and you gave me drink,
A stranger and you welcomed me,
Naked and you clothed me,
Ill and you cared for me,
In prison and you visited me.

We know the response. When the blessed ask when they did all these things, the King replies, “whatever you did for one of the least brothers of mine, you did for me.” What a King! He does not ask us to sacrifice ourselves for Him but only to follow His example and give our lives for others. Continually in the gospels Jesus diverts our attention from Himself and tells us that we must care for others. We can only come into His kingdom if we see Him in our neighbor.

Today’s second reading from St. Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians seems to be all about death but it is really about life. St. Paul believed that originally we were not meant to die, that we had been created, every single one of us, to live forever in Paradise. But then sin entered the world and death followed sin. This is why St. Paul thought the Resurrection of our Lord was the central event in History. Our King has defeated death and because of that we can follow Him to everlasting life. We merely have to feed and cloth and visit all those who have been entrusted to our care.

The scene of the Last Judgement where the sheep are separated from the goats has been immortalized by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel in Rome. Even before that time innumerable churches had put this image high up in their beautiful west windows.  Usually in the back of the church, the west faced the setting sun which was identified with the end of the world or the final judgement. As they left the church the congregation could look up and see the Lamb of God in the center surrounded by Apostles and Prophets representing all the blessed. 

On this last Sunday of the Church year we can also look up at the Risen Lamb and think of the words from the Book of Revelation.

            The Lamb who is in the midst of the throne will shepherd them,
            And will guide them to the fountains of the waters of life,
            And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.

Stained Glass Window
Assumption Church
Fairfield, CT*

    ###      


Reading 1: Ezekiel 34: 11-12, 15-17
Reading II: 1 Corinthians15: 20-26, 28
Gospel: Matthew 25: 31-46 (Inherit the Kingdom).

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

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Parable of the Talents

                                    33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time
                                  


           
Today’s first reading is from the last section of the Book of Proverbs and is taken from a poem which some have called the “Poem of a Perfect Wife.” Our reading calls her a “worthy wife” from the famous opening:

            When one finds a worthy wife,
            Her value is far beyond pearls.

Most historians would agree that sexism was part and parcel of the ancient world. Whether we’re talking about Greeks, Romans, Arabs, or Jews it was all the same, a world dominated by men. The male had absolute authority in his own household and this power extended into all of their communities whether clans, tribes, or cities.

In today’s reading, however, we get a chance to peek behind the scenes and see what actually went on in an ancient household. The picture that emerges, especially if we read the whole poem and not just the excerpts in our missal, is of a wife as business manager or chief executive. What are her duties? She gets up while it is still dark and gets the whole household moving. She feeds her employees and gives them their work for the day. She herself labors well into the night. With the household running smoothly she turns her attention to other matters of concern. For example,

            She sets her mind on a field, then she buys it;
            With what her hands have earned she plants a vineyard.

She doesn’t seem to need her husband’s advice or permission even when she deals in such business matters:

            She weaves linen sheets and sells them,
            She supplies the merchant with sashes.

Finally, at the end of the day with her household and business prosperous and in good order, she can enjoy the fruit of her hard work:

            She is clothed in strength and dignity,
            She can laugh at the days to come.

It is very interesting that the Church uses this account of a hard-working woman to introduce today’s gospel account of our Lord’s parable of the three servants and the talents. Anyone who reads of the works and teaching of Jesus has to realize that there is no hint of sexism there. St.Paul realized as much when he said that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free. We are all one in Christ.


How many times in the Gospels does our Lord refer to Himself as a servant and insist that we must be good and faithful servants? In other words, the role of the woman in the Book of Proverbs is now the work of all of us. After all, who benefitted from the hard work of the woman in the Book of Proverbs? It wasn’t just her husband, her children, and her entire household. She also benefitted for she found peace, prosperity, dignity and honor.

Isn’t it strange that Jesus called us to be servants even though God has no need of our service? Jesus asked us to use our talents in the service of others. The servants in the Gospel parable were all given talents and asked to grow them. Don’t we admire the athletes who work the hardest to develop their God-given skills? Isn’t it a shame when we see people who bury their gifts in the ground and waste their lives in trivial pursuits?

People in business attend seminars where they learn how to treat or serve their clients. They learn how to provide good “service” not only by doing their job well but by giving recognition and rewards, especially to their best clients. If only we could apply these techniques in our own families. What if husbands and wives were to regard each other as their best clients or customers?

It is so sad when people, especially young people, take the easy way out. So many of our children refuse to take advantage of the education offered to them today. They often brag about skipping class or not doing assignments Some even get through college without ever reading a book.

Even if we have not been given the same gifts, it is still important for us to work with what we have been given. Wouldn’t our lives be happier and better if we worked hard to develop our God-given talents? Also, let’s not waste our time by wishing we had someone else’s gifts or underrating our own? It says in today’s Gospel that each servant was given an amount “according to his ability.”

If we work hard and spend our lives in the service of others, we will be able, like the worthy woman in Proverbs, to rest easy at night and laugh at the days to come. In today’s second reading St. Paul commended the Christians of Thessalonica for avoiding the “darkness” and being “children of the light.” Still, he urged them and us to keep up the good work:

            Therefore, let us not sleep as the rest do,
            But let us stay alert and sober.


###

Reading 1. Proverbs 31:10-13, 19-20, 30-31
Reading II. 1 Thessalonians 5: 1-6
Gospel. Matthew 25: 14-30 (to each according to his ability).

Monday, November 10, 2014

Cleansing of the Temple

                                    The Dedication of the Lateran Basilica
                                   

Giotto: Cleansing of the Temple


           
It is unusual to have a feast day dedicated to a church building. In fact, there is only one such day in the Church calendar, and that is today’s feast of the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica. The Lateran Basilica is one of the most important churches in Christendom. Its original construction early in the third century after Christ marked the advent of the toleration of Christianity in the pagan Roman Empire by the Emperor Constantine.

Constantine’s edict of toleration came right after one of the most large scale and brutal persecutions of the Church by Constantine’s predecessor Diocletian. In that persecution practically every Christian church had been vandalized or destroyed. Constantine signaled a change of policy by granting land on Rome’s Lateran hill for the construction of a new church. From that time to today the Lateran Basilica has been the seat or cathedral of the Pope in his capacity as Bishop of Rome.

Despite its importance, the Church takes the opportunity in today’s readings to make an even more important point. In the first reading from the Prophet Ezekiel we see that a stream of water flows from the Temple, and that the water will irrigate or give life to the whole land. The Temple is the House of God, and the water is a symbol of the Spirit of God that gives life to us all. Some commentators even see the water as a symbol of the water that flowed from the side of Christ after He had been pierced by the centurion’s lance at the Crucifixion.

In today’s gospel we see that Jesus identifies himself with the Temple. It is that famous scene that takes place almost at the beginning of the gospel of John where Jesus drives the moneychangers and sellers of sacrificial animals out of the Temple. Jesus is shocked by the desecration of the Temple and in a rare display of anger; he literally drives the offenders out, and tells then to take their animals with them.

Take these out of here,
And stop making my Father’s house a marketplace.

The onlookers take offense at his disruption of this business that everyone regarded as normal and traditional. They ask him for a sign that might explain or justify his seemingly rash action. Jesus usually ignores requests for miraculous signs but in this case he gives a shocking and mysterious answer.

Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.

He calls Himself a Temple, and even though the onlookers misunderstood, we understand that he was referring to his own death and resurrection. Like the Temple in the Prophet Ezekiel’s vision, Jesus will be the source of the living water that will irrigate the world. He will prove it by his Resurrection three days after he is put to death.

In today’s second reading from his first letter to the newly converted Christians in Corinth, St. Paul says something even more amazing.

Brothers and sisters:You are God’s building….Do you not know that you are the temple of God,And that the Spirit of God dwells in you?If anyone destroys god’s temple,God will destroy that person;For the temple of God, which you are, is holy.

Jesus referred to Himself as a Temple, and St. Paul goes a step further and claims that the Christian community, no matter how big or small, is also a Temple in which the Spirit of God dwells. It is not so much the building or structure but the people who come together there to worship with Jesus. We are the temple from which the living waters flow.

This concept was incredible and revolutionary in the time of Jesus and St. Paul, and is still revolutionary today. A building, no matter how magnificent or beautiful, is just an artifact or historical monument without a congregation of believers. Jesus did say, “where ever two or more of you are gathered together in my name, there I am among you.”

If we are the Temple of God, then we are also called to be the living waters that flow from the Temple. It is up to us in our own little way to renew the face of the earth.


###

Reading 1. Ezekiel 47: 1-2, 8-9, 12
Reading II. 1 Corinthians 3: 9c-11, 16-17
Gospel. John 2: 13-22 (Cleansing of the Temple)

Saturday, November 1, 2014

All Saints Day



                                    All Saints Day
                                 

Resurrected Lamb of God surrounded by symbols of Apostles
Our Lady of the Assumption, 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 begin this month with the great feast of All Saints, and then remember all the departed today 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.

This weekend’s two great feasts deal not with death, however, but with triumph over death. The first reading for All Saints day is taken from the Book of Revelation. In his vision John sees an angel who holds off the powers about to destroy the world.

Do not damage the land or the sea or the trees
Until we put the seal on the foreheads of the servants of our God.

John numbers these servants as 144000 but who takes time in a vision to count. Twelve is the mystical number that signifies completeness and 12 times 12 equals 144, as if to say completeness squared. Multiply 144 times 1000 and we realize that the vision includes a multitude. John says as much in the next verse,

After this I had a vision of a great multitude,
Which no one could count,
From every nation, race, people, and tongue.

The gospel for All Saints is the account of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus identifies the Blessed who will inherit the Kingdom. The are the poor in spirit, they who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the clean of heart, the peacemakers, and those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness.

The second reading for All Saints is from the first Letter of John. John identifies the saints not as marble or plaster statues but as the children of God. He says “we are God’s children,” and as such holds out the hope that we all can become like our Father in Heaven.

High up on the wall in the back of many churches, we can observe a great stained glass window that is often called a rose window because it is shaped like a flower with a central core with twelve petals surrounding the core. In the core there will be either the figure of the resurrected Jesus, or the symbolic Lamb of God. Symbols of each of the twelve Apostles will be found in the petals. There is that number 12 again signifying that the Apostles represent all the saints. Like the Apostles the saints were ordinary men and women who by the grace of God were able to overcome their weaknesses, and become good and faithful servants.

In a small chapel in the church of Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome the great painter Caravaggio portrayed two of these ordinary men across from each other. He portrayed St. Peter about to be crucified at the end of his mission, and St, Paul at his conversion, the start of his mission. He portrayed them as ordinary human beings like us or our brothers and sisters being persecuted even today all over the world.


Caravaggio: Crucifixion of Peter




Caravaggio: Conversion of Paul



###

* Assumption church window image by Melissa DeStefano. (click on images to enlarge)

Reading 1. Revelations 7: 2-4, 9-14
Reading II. 1 John 3: 1-3
Gospel. Matthew 5: 1-12a (Blessed are…)