Sunday, June 25, 2017

Apostles and Disciples

                                    12th Sunday in Ordinary Time
                                    

Called to Apostleship

           
It was not unusual in olden days for Kings and Princes to kill bearers of bad news. It was as if the messenger was himself responsible for the bad news. The prophet Jeremiah was such a messenger. His preaching or prophecy was that the Kingdom of Judah would be destroyed and its people would be led away as captives by their powerful enemies. And it was all because they had turned their backs on God.

Even today no one likes to hear bad news. Of all the prophets of the Old Testament Jeremiah has become most identified with bad news. The word, “jeremiad” comes from his name and means an extended prediction of impending doom. We don’t call them prophets anymore but our world is full of Jeremiahs. Cartoons used to depict shabbily dressed men carrying placards on street corners urging people to change their ways because the end of the world was coming. Today, we have global warming gurus also preaching disaster unless we mend our ways. Asteroids falling toward the earth, gigantic earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions are some of the themes of our most popular movies.

Jeremiah turned to the Lord when he was surrounded by danger and that is also the point of today’s gospel reading from St. Matthew. Jesus tells his Apostles to “fear no one.” These words, which the late Pope John Paul II used constantly, are not mere “pie in the sky.” The late Pope used them to help bring down the mighty Soviet empire in Russia and liberate 100 million people in Eastern Europe.

Today’s gospel account picks up right after the calling of the twelve Apostles. In effect, Jesus was calling them to be bearers of “good news,” not “bad news.” In another place He told them “as the Father sent Me, so I also send you.” They are to continue His work. The words spoken, the healings, the miracles, all these they can do also if they have faith and are not afraid. He tells them not to keep secret what they will learn and not to be timid.

What I say to you in the darkness, speak in the light;
 what you hear whispered, proclaim on the housetops.

We must understand that even though the Apostles have a special place in the Church, whenever Jesus speaks to them, He is also speaking to us. He gave the Apostles a mission but we are all called upon to continue it and play our part. But we all have different parts to play. We can’t all be the Pope or Mother Teresa. Thank God, He’s spared us from such an aweful responsibility. Most of us won’t be able to perform great deeds of healing except the little acts of healing we perform every day in our own families and communities.

These good works that we do are essential not only for our loved ones, but also for ourselves. But speaking of good works, what are we to make of today’s second reading from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans? In this letter St. Paul’s discussion of “justification by faith” has been the source of much controversy in theological circles. It certainly was at the center of the Protestant Reformation and remains today a divisive element between Catholics and Protestants.

Part of the problem today is the words or language used by Paul. Words like sin, justification, and transgression all seem foreign to our modern ears. What is Paul talking about, when he talks about sin and death entering the world? It doesn’t take an especially perceptive person to see that there is something wrong in our world. If we don’t want to call it sin or evil, we can call it pain, suffering, unhappiness, whatever. Where does it come from?

For Paul the problems of the world were so pervasive that he viewed them like powers or kingdoms that threaten us in the same way that powerful forces threatened Israel in the time of Jeremiah. These forces threatened to overwhelm the people of God and enslave it just as people today can become enslaved to anger, violence, jealously, greed, lying, or any of the many addictions that our society holds out to us as substitutes for God.

Paul saw that this evil was part of our human nature and that it had existed from the very beginning. At one point, the Lord had provided the Israelites with the Law in order to show them the way to happiness but the Hebrew Scriptures are nothing if not a chronicle of the many ways in which God’s people continually turned their backs on the Lord.  We were meant for happiness but something has gone wrong. We were meant to live forever, but now we must all face death. This is why Paul places so much emphasis on the Resurrection of Jesus.

God has sent His only Son to overcome death for us. It’s as if the impregnable fortress of an invincible enemy had been overcome by a mighty warrior. Now, if we believe in Him and are not afraid, all we have to do is complete the work. Today, our gospel ends with these famous words,

            Everyone who acknowledges me before others
            I will acknowledge before my heavenly Father.
            But whoever denies me before others,

            I will deny before my heavenly Father.

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Reading 1. Jeremiah 20: 10-13
Reading II. Romans 5: 12-15
Gospel. Matthew 10:26-33 (Fear no one).

Sunday, June 18, 2017

The Living Bread

                                    Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ
                                 

Stained Glass Window detail
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 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 sixth 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).

Sunday, June 11, 2017

God So Loved the World

                                    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 hold 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.

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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).