Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Talitha Koum

                                    13th Sunday in Ordinary Time
                                   


           
Starting last week and continuing on for this week and the weeks to come, we will be going through the gospel of Mark almost word for word. In his teaching Jesus mainly relied on parables as a way to convey his core message.  Even so, many of his hearers were mystified by the parables. However, his actions usually spoke louder than his words although they often also left the onlookers mystified.

Last week we saw that he calmed a storm while sailing on the Sea of Galilee with his disciples. Although they were experienced fishermen, the disciples were terrified by the raging storm but then were mystified when Jesus rebuked the storm and calmed the waters. They asked themselves “what kind of a man is this?” Being observant Jews they could never imagine that Jesus was anything but a man who had magical powers. However, the disciples could hardly have imagined that the magical powers of Jesus would even extend to life and death.

Today’s first reading from the Book of Wisdom gives us an insight into the traditional Jewish teaching on death.

God did not make death,
Nor does he rejoice in the destruction of the living…
For God formed man to be imperishable;
The image of His own nature he made him.

In other words, we were meant to be immortal but somehow sin entered into the world, and death is one of the consequences of sin for both the good and the bad.

Anyone who had trouble believing that Jesus could calm a storm at sea will have even more trouble with the two miracles recorded in today’s gospel. In the first case, after Jesus lands on the other side of the Sea of Galilee, he is surrounded by crowds who have heard of his reputation. A synagogue official works his way through the crowd and begs Jesus to come to his home and heal his daughter who is “at the point of death.” The official believes that Jesus just has to lay his hands on the child to heal her.

Jesus agrees to accompany the man home but on the way they are met by people who inform them that the girl has died and that there is no need to trouble Jesus any further. However, Jesus disregards the news and tells the father, “Do not be afraid, just have faith.” When they arrive at the house, they are met by a crowd of weeping mourners who ridicule Jesus when he tells them that the child “is not dead but asleep.” He puts all the mourners out and then enters the girl’s room with just her father and mother, and his three disciples, Peter, James, and John. Mark was a disciple of Peter and here is his account of what happened.
He took the child by the hand and said to her, “Talitha koum,” which means,
“Little girl, I say to you, arise!” The girl, a child of twelve, arose immediately and walked around.

Just as at the storm at sea, the onlookers were “utterly astounded.” No only does Jesus seem to have power over the wind and the waves; he also has power over death, the great enemy of us all. I know that there are some who will say that there must have been a natural cause for the girl’s recovery. Perhaps she was in a coma. But then how could Jesus have known the girl’s condition or been so confident that he could save her? How could he have pressed on even after he was informed that the girl had died? If this was a natural case of healing, how could he have known that merely touching the girl would bring her out of the coma?

The answer to these questions might be found in the other cure featured in today’s gospel.
On the way to the girl’s home a woman who had suffered from hemorrhages for twelve years came through the crowd surrounding Jesus hoping that if she could only touch his clothes, she might be healed. When she touched his cloak, she was healed immediately without a word from Jesus. He only sensed that power had gone out of him and turned around to ask, “who has touched my clothes”?

Even after miracles like these it appears that the crowds and the disciples could not realize who He was. At the most I suspect they thought of him as a great magician. It would take his own resurrection before they finally began to realize where his power came from.

In our time it is easy to think of Jesus as a good man who went about saying good things and doing good deeds. But Mark’s gospel will not let us leave it at that. Why do we underestimate Jesus today? Why do people feel it’s ok to ignore him or even ridicule him as the mourners did before he revived the little girl? Why do modern TV personalities think they can insult and demean someone who never hurt a fly and spent his life for others even to the point of torture and death on a cross?

In today’s second reading from St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, the disciple is urging the community in Corinth to provide assistance to their fellow Christians who are not so well off. He uses Jesus as an example they should follow.

For you know the gracious act of our Lord Jesus Christ,
That though he was rich, for your sake He became poor,
So that by his poverty you might become rich.

For those who believe, the power is still coming out of Jesus.

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Reading 1.  Wisdom 1:13-15; 2:23-24
Reading II. 2 Corinthians 8:7, 9, 13-15
Gospel. Mark 5: 21-43 (Talitha koum)

Sunday, June 14, 2015

The Mustard Seed

                                    11th Sunday in Ordinary Time
                                    


          
Today the Church returns to what is known as Ordinary time, that period of the liturgical year that is not associated with the great feasts of Christmas and Easter. The priest dons a green colored vestment that will be worn for practically every Sunday until the start of the Season of Advent. Ordinary comes from a Latin word and doesn’t exactly mean what we mean by ordinary but still, most of the readings in Ordinary time will remind us of the ordinary, seemingly insignificant details of everyday life.

Today’s first reading from the book of the prophet Ezekiel speaks of a tender shoot that the Lord plucks off a great cedar tree and plants it among his people. It will itself grow into a mighty tree offering sustenance and shelter to those who seek refuge in its branches. Of course, this botanical imagery is just meant to be a metaphor for how God calls upon all of us to grow and bear great fruit in our lives.

Jesus uses the same imagery in today’s gospel when he says, “this is how it is with the Kingdom of God.”

            It is like a mustard seed that, when it is sown in the ground,
            Is the smallest of all the seeds of the earth.
            But once it is sown, it springs up and becomes the largest of plants…

Like Ezekiel Jesus is calling on little, ordinary people like ourselves to put forth large branches and bear much fruit.

Today’s gospel reminded me of one such a person in my home parish who passed away three years ago. His name was Theodore, which coincidentally means God’s gift, but everyne called him Ted. He was a small, unassuming, and quiet spoken man who rarely talked about himself but he was one of the most giving men I have ever known.

At his funeral I saw an old black and white marriage photo. Ted, who served in World War II, was in uniform next to his young Italian war bride who had sewn her beautiful white wedding gown out of Ted’s parachute. I never met his wife because she died shortly before I met Ted, but I know that he loved her until the day he died. They had four or five children and all were there at the funeral with a number of grandchildren. One of the grandchildren gave a brief eulogy in which he described all the things his grandfather had taught him.
           
Ted was an avid gardener and wine maker but by profession he was a master electrician who worked at his trade right until his final illness struck. My wife and I originally met him in an Italian language class but he subsequently became a friend as well as our electrician. I will never forget the night our electricity went out during a violent ice storm. Ted came to the house, climbed a ladder, and repaired a broken power line in the midst of the storm. The only problem we ever had with Ted was that he was always reluctant to accept payment from friends. There was a large crowd in the Church at his funeral and I’m sure that most had also been the recipients of Ted’s generosity.Ted will never be canonized but he was one of the multitude of ordinary men who loved their families, their church, and their country.

In today’s second reading St. Paul speaks of courage. He says that even though our real home is not here, we must live our lives as best we can here on earth. We must be courageous. Today’s readings about little, ordinary people provide an opportunity to give a little advance notice for next week’s Fathers’ Day. I know that we all have our different vocations in life, and I do not wish to slight anyone, but it takes real courage to be a father. It takes real courage to make a commitment to give up your own wants in order to live for your wife and children.

In today’s world when even the idea of Fatherhood is maligned, it is very important that we do all we can to support those who have accepted the challenge. 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.

Reading 1.  Exekiel 17: 22-24
Reading II. 2 Corinthians5: 6-10
Gospel. Mark 4: 26-34 (a mustard seed).


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Sunday, June 7, 2015

Corpus Christi

                                    Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ
                                    

Stained Glass Window
Assumption Church
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 feast of Pentecost commemorating the descent of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles. 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 called 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. To many of us today this particular passage might sound offensive. Why was it necessary to kill those poor animals for sacrifice? Why was if necessary to sprinkle the blood of animals all over the altar and on the assembled congregation?

Even though we love our animals today, the animals of the Jews were of much greater value and importance to them. The Jews of the Exodus were a tribe of wanderers whose very lives depended on their flocks. To sacriice some young bulls as they did in today’s reading was to give up a great deal. In effect, to sacrifice these animals was as close to sacrificing themselves as they could get. To give up something of such great value was to acknowledge that the covenant or agreement with God was of even greater importance.

It was only with the Last Supper that St. Mark describes in today’s Gospel, that the followers of Jesus, all of them Jews, first began to realize that they would no longer have to slaughter their animals and sprinkle their blood. Here are St. Mark’s words:

            While they were eating,
            He took bread, said the blessing,
            Broke it, gave it to them, and said,
            “Take it, this is my body.”
            Then he took a cup, gave thanks and gave it to them,
            And they all drank from it.
            He said to them,
            “This is my blood of the covenant,
            which will be shed for many.”

Certainly, we know that the earliest Christians took these words literally. They realized that “the blood of goats and bulls and the sprinkling of a heifer’s ashes” were no longer necessary. The sacrifice of Christ on the Cross opened up the door for all of us. In today’s second reading from the letter to the Hebrews we heard the following words:  


How much more will the blood of Christ,
Who through the eternal spirit offered himself unblemished to God,
Cleanse our consciences from the dead works
To worship the living God.


In this famous letter we are told that Jesus is the “mediator of a new covenant.” What does that mean? A mediator is someone who stands in the middle between two parties trying to bring them together. How does Jesus act as a mediator? On one occasion his disciples asked Him to “show us the way.” He replied “I am the way.”

They didn’t understand and its hard for us to understand although he gave them and us a pretty good road map in his words and in his life. How many times did he have to tell us that He didn’t want our sacrifices, that His sacrifice which we celebrate every Sunday on the altar is sufficient. How many times did he heal people, feed them, comfort them and tell us to do likewise? The only sacrifice pleasing to the Father was that we love our neighbor as ourselves, and that whatever we do for the least of the brethren, we do for 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 once said

            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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* Image by Melissa DeStefano

Reading 1. Exodus 24: 3-8
Reading II. Hebrews 9: 11-15
Gospel. Mark 14: 12-16, 22-26 (this is my body).