Sunday, August 23, 2015

The Bread of Life

                                    21st Sunday in Ordinary Time
                                   

          
In today’s first reading Joshua, the successor of Moses, presents the people of Israel with a choice.

If it does not please you to serve the Lord,Decide today whom you will serve,The gods your fathers served beyond the RiverOr the gods of the Amorites in whose country you are now dwelling.

Today, Joshua might have included the gods of the Americans that we are all being asked to serve. We may not think of them as gods in the old-fashioned sense but we are being tempted every day to turn away from the Lord and our values in the service of things that are strange and alien. Just like the people in Joshua’s time, we have to make a very important choice.

In today’s gospel reading Jesus also presents his followers with a choice. This year most of the gospel readings are from the Gospel of Mark. But since that gospel is so short, the Church supplements it with the long passage from the Gospel of John that is often called the “bread of life” discourse. It seems like all summer Jesus has been talking about the living bread that will give eternal life, and not just food for a day.

In last week’s gospel Jesus had said,

Amen, amen, I say to you,Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his bloodYou do not have life within you….Unlike your ancestors who ate and still died,Whoever eats this bread will live forever.

These words, coming right before the start of today’s gospel passage, were the ones the disciples found so shocking. This was the saying they murmured about. They said, “this saying is hard, who can accept it?” The disciples have not been the only ones to find this saying hard to believe. Not only is it hard to believe that Jesus would give his body and blood for us on the Cross, but also it is hard to believe that right before his Passion, he would give us his body and blood in the Eucharist.

So today while so many people are coming to the Eucharist all over the world and sometimes even being persecuted for their belief, many are turning away because it is hard, and all that goes with it, is hard to accept. One of the things that many find hard to accept is the passage from St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians that we heard today about husbands and wives. How are we to understand this reading especially that controversial passage where St. Paul says, "Wives, be subordinate to your husbands, as is proper in the Lord."

We could say that Paul, like so many of his contemporaries, was a "sexist" who thought that women were second-class citizens. You could also say that since Paul never married, he knew nothing about the actual relationship of a man and a woman in marriage or the way they would arrange responsibility in a household even then.

However, you could also say that Paul was dealing in this section with a very practical problem that had arisen in the early Christian churches, especially among the Gentiles. It would appear that the new faith was especially attractive to women. Scholars tell us that in pagan families it was often the woman who first converted to Christianity, and then subsequently brought their husbands and families into the fold. This is not unusual even in our time.

However, there were cases where the husband would not convert, and women in this situation wondered what to do. Should they stay with their pagan husbands or should they leave? Paul always urges them to remain faithful to their marriage vows. He knew that there was no social safety net for these women outside of marriage but he also argued that they would be better able to bring their husbands and families to believe by remaining married.

Finally, I think you could say that St. Paul is preaching a revolutionary new doctrine here. Let's concentrate on his advice to the men. "Husbands, love your wives." It is hard for us to realize that in the ancient world, love of a husband for his wife was not the ideal. Our idea of a young couple falling in love and dedicating their whole lives to one another was an alien idea in the ancient world. At that time and for centuries after marriages were arranged between families. A young woman or girl might only meet her future husband, often an older man, for the first time at their engagement. A woman was little more than a childbearing machine. If she could not bear children, her husband was obligated to divorce her. As far as romantic feeling or sexual pleasure was concerned, a man usually found that outside of the bonds of matrimony.

Despite today's popular opinion, Christianity elevated the role of women not only in society but also in the eyes of her husband. St. Paul understands the teaching of Christ to mean that Christian men must give up their whole lives for their wives and families, a rare thing in any time. Today, one would have to be blind not to see that so many men have given up on even the thought of marriage and the self-sacrificing love it demands.

Despite our material wealth and possessions we all, young and old, male and female, will still have to face a choice similar to that faced by the Israelites in the desert at the time of Moses, or the disciples in the time of Jesus. Who or what will we serve. Who or what will we pledge our allegiance to?

Joshua said, “As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” When many of the disciples left Jesus and turned their backs on the bread of life, He asked the Twelve, “Do you also want to leave?”

St. Peter’s response is a guide for all of us:

Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.


###

Reading 1.  Joshua 24: 1-2a, 15-17, 18b
Reading II. Ephesians 5: 21-32
Gospel. John 6: 60-69 (to whom shall we go?)

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary

                                    Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary
                                   


Queen of Heaven
Assumption Church
Fairfield, CT*


In 1950 when the world was still recovering from the ravages of the Second World War, Pope Pius XII promulgated the doctrine which we celebrate today, 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 today's first reading 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 today's gospel we have St. Luke's famous 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?'

###

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

* Image by Melissa DeStefano