Homilies-3rd Series (2018-2020)
Lent 3 C
Did you ever want to have a face-to-face with God?
The image I have for this question comes from a widely-spread story about a man who was terminally ill. There was no doctor immediately available, so they wheeled in a robot, and through the robot, a doctor in another location told this man that there was nothing more than could be done for him. He died two days later.
We are scandalized that such essential and sensitive messages might come via a robot, but I wonder what our conversations with God might be like, how robotic they might be. We stare into the emptiness and say the same things we usually say; we close our eyes and think we hear God saying the same old thing. We are like robots before God, or we make God a super-robot in our lives. Yet do not the scriptures today invite us to a renewed conversation with God.
Moses is an escapee, a refugee, hiding in the desert of Midian, trying to start a new life. He sees the burning bush, in one of the most powerful and dramatic passages of the Bible. He is curious enough not to dismiss the burning bush, this image of the eternal God, and he approaches it. God already knows Moses name; as they communicate and hare, Moses will learn the name of God, that is, the words that bring God’s reality to life.
“Take off your shoes, for this is sacred ground.” How do we hear that? For years I have always heard God balling Moses out, but now I think it means something different. We take off our shoes when we are in the house, when we belong, when we are with friends. We take off our shoes when our walking is done, and we now have time to spend with another. God wants Moses to be comfortable because Moses life would be changed from this moment on.
In God’s conversation with Moses, God begins by saying that he has heard the cries of the Jewish people, he has known their slavery, their misery; he will change that for them. Next God connects Moses to the tradition of his people—the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He then gives Moses a mission—to be an instrument of liberation and change. At that point, Moses asks God’s name, as if the first name was not enough, as if he wanted to know God even more intimately. “I am who am.” That is to say, I am the one who will always be there for you.
If we were to speak to God, what cries and pains would he say he has heard from our own hearts? Or do we think God is absent or cold? God surely would assure us that he has known us from the beginning. God would offer us liberty and a fuller life. Instead of a burning bush, God would say: look, am I not present in my Son, in the sacraments he sets out for you, in the Spirit that he sends in your hearts?
Perhaps we are afraid to talk to God, that we just stay with safe formulas and semi-empty phrases. Today Jesus tells us that unless we continue to refresh our presence before God, we run the risk of not listening to God, of misinterpreting God, of missing God’s presence. Yet God’s patience and mercy are God’s first qualities, the very ones we need to see and affirm.
Come, says God, take off your shoes. Before Lent goes by any longer, tell me what’s in your heart, and I will show you what’s in mine.
Lent 2 C
The season of the entertainment awards reached its climax with the Oscars. All these events have the same formula: famous people come dressed to the hilt, wearing expensive clothing and jewelry, walking down lavish carpets, in a display worth of royalty. At the last Oscars, I saw an image of an actor wearing a tuxedo, except, in place of pants, he had a huge pleated skirt. That was his way of doing what everyone, I suppose, was doing: calling attention to themselves and getting a little glory.
And we all eat this up! I try never to watch these kinds of shows in which overly-rich people come together to congratulate themselves. I figure they already got their applause; but I guess one can never get enough applause. We eat this up because the vanity and fame these people receive seems to filter down on us. We may not be them, but we loved their movies, and we cannot stop listening to their songs—so maybe their glow can rub off on us.
When Jesus takes his disciples up to the mountain to show them his glory, the last thing he wants is to get their applause. Even though some movies and shows have tried to make Jesus into a superstar, he never accepts that role. Once, when they tried to make him a king, he ran away and hid. When Peter sees Jesus, along with Moses and Elijah, talking in glory, he thinks the show is pretty good. He wants to get a front-row seat. He wants to become Jesus’ biggest fan.
But Jesus doesn’t want fans; he wants followers. He pauses with his disciples on the top of the mountain not merely to show them what his life-in-God has been about, the glory that is always part of his life whether he shows it or not; he pauses on the mountain to help them see that his glory lies precisely in the following of the path of his Father, the path of giving his life, the path of trusting totally in the Father. Are not the three men in glory talking about what Luke calls the “exodus” of Christ, namely the crucial road to death and resurrection, the road by which Jesus would liberate all his followers.
The sacrifice that Jesus makes dims the sacrifice of Abraham. Abraham falls into a trance after keeping away the birds of prey, the vultures that would have eaten his gift. Jesus likewise asks us to push away the vultures that would eat away the gift that we are to make, the gift of ourselves, in Christ. In the second reading Paul castigates those for whom religion is only a way to serve themselves. “Their stomachs are their gods.” They live for themselves, trying to establish their own glory, rather than follow Christ’s way of glory, the glory of giving oneself in love.
In some ways we all can have distorted visions of faith, using faith for one thing or another, or, worst of all, thinking that faith is useless because we want something entirely different out of life. If it’s not our stomachs, then maybe it’s our wallets, or our influence over others, or our ever-diminishing pursuit of pleasure. We’ll take glory wherever we think we can get it, even if it’s less than a golden Oscar we can hold up in pride.
“This is my beloved Son; listen to him,” says the voice from the cloud. He will not only tell you, he will show you the way to true glory, the glory that reflects the true love of Jesus. If we try for another kind of glory, in the end we will be empty-handed. If we listen to the Father, if we follow the Son, then we will receive, even now, the glory of the Spirit of God.
Lent 1 C
There are three kinds of bread we are asked to think about today, and each one has a different kind of test for us.
The first bread is the one the Satan, the tempter, presents to Jesus who is famished from fasting. “Turn this stone into bread,” he says, offering the kind of bread that people desperately need when they are starving. I imagine those stuck on the Amtrak train for 36 hours in Oregon last week; or the people in Venezuela where food is both scarce and in short supply. I imagine a teenage boy after a football game. Our stomachs are so empty we will do anything to fill them. Lord, give me this bread. Give us this day our daily need of bread.
What is the test: to think that this is all we need. It’s a test as much for the rich as for the poor, because anyone can forget what’s really needed in life and think it’s only about eating.
The second bread we see in the second reading. Here we have an ancient text from the book of Deuteronomy placed in the mouth of Moses. It speaks to the very heart of our experience of God. It springs from the realization that even if we have to work and sweat to earn bread, all bread is a gift from God, just as life itself is a gift. Moses says we bring some bread back to God as a gift to show that we realize God has created us, God sustains us, and God alone liberates us. God heard the affliction of his people, freed them from Egypt, gave them their own land . . . and now, from their land, they give back to God.
The test with this bread is to think that it’s all up to us, that God doesn’t provide or care for us, that we can live our lives without God.
The third bread is the sacred, consecrated bread that God gives to us in the Eucharist. It is the food that unites us with the one who not only defeated Satan in the desert, but also defeated all the forces of evil on the Cross. Now, risen from the dead, he invites us: “Take and eat; take and drink.” It is the food that sustains you and me in the very basics of our Catholic lives . . . to be given union with God through Jesus and the Spirit.
But this bread has a test too: that we take it for granted and we not realize what eating this bread does for us, but also what it asks of us. For the bread of the earth shows we are created. The bread of our offering shows that we are worshippers. But the Bread of Life says that we are disciples, that we follow Christ with every breath and act of our lives.
This may be something that sounds new to many of us Catholics who think of ourselves as parishioners. But in reality we were made disciples at our baptism, anointed with the Spirit, and empowered to live his life. It’s more than showing up and being counted. It’s more than contributing what we can. It’s giving our lives radically to follow Christ in our different vocations and ways of life.
Today every believer is tested. We are not in the desert but in this modern world which can so often suggest to us that we can live our lives without profound or lasting commitments, that we can change and shift whenever we want. Many today fail the test because they live for anything but God. This Lent, with Christ in the desert, we too renounce the many voices of the Satans, the tempters, of life today. With Jesus we say that we live for every word that comes from God’s mouth, loving God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength.
There’s been a lot of ruckus around Jussie Smollett and his now-infamous incident in Chicago; at first he claimed he was harassed and attacked, but now he is accused of filing a false report. Fans and supporters wonder what’s going on in his head. Where is all this coming from? We are similarly surprised by strange actions from stars and sports heroes. Even politicians leave us baffled . . . just look at the leadership of Virginia.
But if it is hard to know what’s inside another person, it’s also hard to know what’s going on inside ourselves. Trying to remember something from years ago, I had to ask a friend with a chemistry background to remind me of how chromatography works—you put a substance at one end of a cloth and let the chemicals run down the cloth; as they do, different colors show what was inside the substance in the first place. I wonder if life is not like a chromatography experiment for us? As we live, different incidents and persons bring out the different dimensions of what’s inside of us.
Jesus calls us today to look at what’s inside of us . . . how our basic attitudes can lead us to say and do things that are at variance with his way of life. In today’s world of social media, we are very busy pointing out the splinters in the eyes of others because we freely express opinions and pass judgment on the comments of others. But our very doing this shows the logs in our own eyes, logs which obscure our own prejudices and biases. We use these logs to basically hide from our won sins, thereby making us falsely see ourselves as good and innocent.
Jesus gives us another angle into this is: so what kind of tree do we think we are? Jesus notes that thorn bushes don’t produce figs. We don’t get grapes from poison ivy! By the fruit we bear, we will know who we are, and what is inside of us. I do not doubt that most of us, myself included, think of ourselves as generally nice people. But every one of us has that surprise action—a sharp word, an insult, a burst of anger, a snide judgment—which shows there’s plenty of thorn and bramble in our hearts.
When it comes to our hearts, though, one of the most dramatic things you and I do every week is come to Mass and take the Body and Blood of Jesus into ourselves. This is the most profound statement we can make about what we want inside of us. We want Christ in our hearts. We want his blood to run in our veins. We want his life to be our life. Receiving Communion, then, is a very bold action, because it holds a standard up to our lives and hearts, a standard from which we can easily fail. But the failure is not on the part of Jesus but rather on the part of our not following through.
Look at what Paul tells us in the second reading. It’s his ancient language, but the idea is the same. If we are filled with corruptibility, then corruptibility and death is all you get. But if we are filled with incorruptibility, with God’s eternal Spirit, then we are destined to eternal life. With all that might be lurking inside of us, why cannot the grace and power of God be part of our lives as well? Why cannot this abiding presence of God bring forth holy and beautiful things in our lives? This is what it means to receive Holy Communion—to affirm in our lives, once again, the immortality, the fullness of life, that Christ has won for us.
We live in a culture that likes to find weaknesses and shame inside people, especially those who are rich, famous, or religious. Just ask the owner of the Patriots! Or our bishops today. This can make us quite cynical, not only about others, but also about ourselves. Christ Jesus gives us another vision of ourselves: to be people filled not with shame and sin, but rather filled with the Spirit of God. Just think: if the Spirit of God abides within us, what great things can to emerge from our hearts?
We have a long tradition of movies showing suspenseful conflict; it all comes to a climax around a famous fight. High Noon, and The Gunfight at OK Corral depict this in their Western, Cowboy version; West Side Story shows it through a musical about gangs in New York; classics like The Guns of August, or The Bridge by the River Quai give us military versions of suspenseful conflicts. It’s all so stark and clear, good against evil, right against wrong, us and the enemy.
It makes us wonder what it would be like if we could live without any enemies. What if we never thought of each other in terms of conflict, of right and wrong? What if we could go through life without ever having a fight? Isn’t this what Jesus is telling us to do?
But, of course, that sounds crazy to us. What were we supposed to do when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor? When Hitler invaded most of Europe? When Vietnam seemed to be going Communist? Of course there are enemies, and of course we have to fight them. That’s built into both the human situation and into the deepest instincts of our soul.
Jesus implies, however, that the very process of making someone into an enemy that we must fight robs us of something essential in our own hearts. It is, after all, an almost useless strategy—particularly when it comes to our personal lives. The whole process of making, and then fighting, our enemies ends up being a vicious cycle in which people commit themselves to endless recrimination, and there’s no end in sight.
Isn’t the language of Jesus naïve? “Love your enemies. Pray for those who persecute you.” How are we supposed to do that, especially if an enemy keeps hurting me and coming after me? But Jesus’ language may not be so much about the enemy as about ourselves and, ultimately, about our view of God. Jesus’ preaching most of all, urges us to find a freedom in our lives that can transform them—a freedom from the deepest and darkest impulses inside of us. What greater freedom, Jesus suggests, can we have than to be free from anger and fighting?
Maybe our problem is that we do not take Jesus seriously—in that we do not pray for our enemies; we do not try to love them. We keep them on the other side of our feelings and emotions and, therefore, ever enter into their space. Nor do we enter into God’s space with them, God’s love for them. When we pray for our enemies things start looking different; they cease to be the “enemy out there” but become part of our own spiritual journey. We come to see them with compassion rather than anger. And compassion may be the strongest power of all.
We can be free in the way that Jesus suggests if we come to see how God is, the unending power to love and forgive, the One who makes no enemies but stands always ready to bestow mercy. After all, haven’t we tried to make ourselves enemies of God, going in directions that led us away from divine love, doing things that disfigures God’s image within us? Yet how has God treated us? God has loved us even in our estrangement. And hasn’t the love of God been the greatest power of our lives, whether we can see it or not? Every second you and I live, we presume a generous mercy on God’s part.
Jesus comes not to dismantle our humanity but to transform it. We are transformed to the extent that the qualities of God become the qualities of our own lives. When we are compassionate, kind, forgiving, and affirming the way God is—and the way God is to us—then we find another humanity is possible, not the humanity of the first Adam founded in resentment, but the humanity of the New Adam, founded in the infinite love of God.
Someone will say, “We’ve had a good winter; not much snow.” Shut up, someone else says. You’re jinxing us. “Wow, I can’t believe how well I’ve played today” and then will mess up the next 3 holes in golf. Jinxed. “Traffic is moving so well, we’ll be in Philly before we know it.” And then comes the accident that ties up the Delaware Bridge. We were jinxed.
It’s a funny idea, but it shows how much we feel language and thinking can be tied up with the way things turn out. It’s as if our words and thoughts correspond with some deeper level of reality; good vibes, we say, when things are working out well. Bad vibes, when things do not go our way. Some people even imagine others with voodoo dolls sticking pins into it as they try to explain why things are not going well.
Our scriptural themes today give us the opposing ideas of blessings and curses. In the first reading, we hear these words attached to the idea of our relationship with God. When we follow that relationship, when we are faithful to the covenant, then we will be blessed. When we violate that relationship, then only curses come to us.
What are blessings and curses? Blessings are words spoken that speak to our health or good. Curses are word spoken that speak to our illness or evil. People bless us when they wish us good; people curse us when they wish us bad. But blessing arises from our living in accord with the design of God, when our actions correspond to the way God is and the goodness God shows. Curses arise from our refusal to live in accord with the way God is, when we violate God’s path.
Jesus applies this insight when he talks about blessings and curses. Here Jesus is speaking about the blessings that come to us when we understand our relationship to God and to others. The blessed are those who know they have to rely on God for everything; those who know that they are poor, needy, and dependent on God. They re blessed because they acknowledge both their reliance on God and God’s fundamental care for them. Isn’t it true that some of the people who most readily acknowledge and thank God are the poor, those for whom every meal seems like a miracle?
It sounds strange to hear Jesus pronouncing curses, but he’s really saying that those people who think they can rely on themselves, who feel they have no need of God or others, are jinxing themselves. They are not living in accord with reality because, no matter how rich or powerful we are, we cannot guarantee one second of our lives. Every one of us is destined to die. This is why St. Paul insists that the resurrection of Jesus from the dead is decisive. Of ourselves, we are doomed and powerless. Only with Jesus do we have the hope of defeating death.
God doesn’t curse us; we curse ourselves by the illusions according to which we live. We jinx ourselves by the ways we live as if God didn’t matter, as if we controlled our lives. When we do this, we live in discord with reality, and we suffer the inevitable consequences. “Everything is fine; I’m in control,” and, boom, our lives start falling apart. We jinx ourselves when we think we can live apart from dependence on God.
At this Mass we participate in a God’s blessing in a maximal way. Here the words of Jesus become reality; here we see the risen Christ speaking the words of life, of his body and blood, of the Spirit. He extends the blessedness of his life to us through the Holy Spirit. His blessing has unlimited power. The only thing that can jinx his blessing is the illusion that we do not need him, that we can save ourselves by our human conceits.
At a workshop recently, a man stood up and basically attacked the idea of “volunteer” when it comes to church. He said that volunteers serve on their own time, at their own convenience. But servants were there whenever there was a need. I suggested that in the Church we are all really ministers, people who care for others in the name of Christ, that we were made ministers (and not volunteers) by our baptisms.
It’s not clear, though, that Catholics see themselves as ministers. Sure we have Eucharistic ministers, and we have various ministries like lector and acolyte. But that’s not for the majority of us, is it? That’s for the few who choose it, or who get roped into things. I said at the workshop: in fact, I think of baptism as an ordination—when we are all ordained to be lay ministers for the Kingdom. We are all called to serve in the name of Christ.
This kind of language meets with a lot of instinctual resistance. After all, we have our already abundant responsibilities, many of which revolve around family and work. Even more deeply, however, we have some of the same impulses that Isaiah had, and Peter showed: we feel profoundly unworthy, and perhaps we want to keep it that way.
Isaiah is a priest, serving in the Temple of God. His vision takes place in the scenery of the temple as it is filled with the smoke of incense. “I saw the Lord,” Isaiah says, something that most Jewish people though would cause instant death. To this rarest of visions, what is Isaiah’s reaction: he thinks about the unclean lips that he has, and that his fellow countrymen have: “Woe is me, I am doomed!” He cries. Perhaps he hopes to be relieved of the burden of the call of God.
Peter behaves the same way. When he sees the abundance of fish coming from the lake, instead of saying, “Holy Cow, who can believe this”—instead of saying that, he falls to his knees. “Get away from me Lord, I am a sinful man!” But I doubt Peter is thinking about his sins; rather, he’s thinking about a new way of life that is unlike anything he’s had before, and he’s not sure he wants it.
Peter is reluctant because he’s not sure he wants what Jesus offers. Isaiah is reluctant because he’s not sure what to say. But Jesus says to all of us: you have become my followers. My way of life will sweeten your lives. And you have seen what Peter saw, what Paul saw, what the Church proclaims—the unending message of Jesus’ resurrection, and his abiding presence in the lives of his followers. “Last of all he appeared to Paul.” But does Jesus not continue to appear to us, in the sacraments we celebrate, the Word we hear, and the community we have, now matter how little we think of ourselves.
We have all been anointed into the priesthood, prophecy and kingship of Jesus. That means we are all empowered to pray, to speak Christ’s Good News, and to shape the world in accord with the values of the Kingdom of God. But we have jobs and families, we say! But that’s exactly where Jesus calls us to minister—in our homes, among our friends, in our workplace, in our communities—not to be religious nags, but to be minister who transmit the love and mercy of God in our everyday lives.
Oil was poured upon our heads at baptism. It wasn’t only our lips that were made clean—everything about us was made clean. Not so we could sit around and talk about how clean we are. But so that we would know that we can put up no obstacles to the privilege God has given us to be his baptized ministers and servants.
It was one of the most exciting feelings I had as a small child, going down into the NYC subway. We would wait on the platform; like people today, we’d wonder when the train was coming. New York still has nothing like Washington’s flashing lights to say when a train was coming. To compensate, as a child I would hold myself perfectly still, trying to detect any changes. I would, at some point begin to feel the gentlest breeze, and a slight change in smell. “It’s coming,” I’d think. The train might be a few blocks away, but the wind would pick up, the platform began to vibrate, and I’d stick my head over the tracks to watch it arrive, something so powerful that it left me stunned.
I think of the subway cars of New York as some awesome creature which claims its own space and defines everything by its power. The steel frame of the platform would seem to tremble, the layers of cement would seem to cringe, but the train would pull in, powerful, unrelenting, as if there were no force in the world that could stop it. Even today, when I’m in NY, I have this sensation of unstoppable power.
Today’s readings ask us to think about power, but primarily in terms of what might oppose it. Jeremiah is called with a sense of inevitability—God called him before Jeremiah’s own conception. God is appointing him to be mouthpiece, spokesperson, especially when the words he speaks will meet their resistance. Jeremiah is sent off on a mission that most prophets received—to speak God’s word even when that word is resisted, even when the prophet is threatened. God’s word is so powerful, what can stop it?
We are surprised, then, by the reaction to Jesus’ message in the Gospel. The setting is the same as last week, where Jesus enthralled his townspeople by announcing the coming of the Kingdom. But today we find that their enthusiasm was tentative. Now they are dismissing him as a hometown boy, one known for years. Who is he to bring the Kingdom of God? Who does he think he was? In fact, by the end of our passage, the townspeople are ready to throw Jesus off a cliff to his death.
In the battle between good and evil, we know that God always wins. It’s almost a cliché, a bromide. “Good conquers all.” But why is that? Why does evil always inevitably lose?
We want to think of good and evil as two wrestlers or boxers and, pow, one gets defeated or knocked out. But the truth may be more like this: good always wins because evil does not have the force, the strength, to sustain it. The basis of evil, after all, is a vacuum, an emptiness, and we try to compensate for this emptiness by taking over whatever is around us. So evil uses others, takes things, bullies and abuses, trying to fill the emptiness inside. Evil fails because it is begotten of weakness, not strength.
Why, then, is there so much evil in the world? Because good has now shown itself enough. Because we often keep hidden deferring to what is evil even when we have the strength to overcome it in God. Notice the image the Gospel gives us: Jesus walks right through the midst of the crowd opposing him. He faces evil and knows its weakness. And when evil showed its full force on Calvary, he crushes it in his resurrection.
It may seem a hard time to be a Christian and a Catholic today, but throughout most of history, it’s often been hard. Most of time, the tide has gone our way, but sometimes it hasn’t. Yet every Christian and Catholic has had to face where she or he will find strength. It’s not in ourselves, nor in a culture that seems to support us. It’s in the Spirit of God that Jesus gives us that allows us to go forth with confidence. We can vanquish evil, but only because in the face of God’s love evil cannot survive. Evil has already been defeated because its emptiness cannot raise even a finger against the power of God’s love
Even in spite of modern communication media, few things stay with us like a powerful speech. Washington is bickering about the annual State of the Union at this time, but we remember phrases like: We have nothing to fear but fear itself. Or: Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country. Or: You and I have a rendez vous with destiny. These speeches are crafted for months and form a large part of know what a leader stands for.
The prophet Ezra in the first reading is proclaiming the law. We need to know the setting. Ezra is one of the leaders of the Jewish people after their return from Exile, their captivity in Babylon for almost 60 years. He’s speaking to people who were totally vanquished. But he is echoing former leaders in Israel, Moses 700 years before, and Joshua 600 years before, and Josiah 100 years before. Once the law was read, and everyone accepted it, the People of God would be made whole.
Of course, it doesn’t work that way. Most humans hear things and ignore them, including—or maybe especially—things that sound like law. For the Jewish people law was not something imposed from outside; rather, it was a way of living, a set of behaviors, that showed they were in covenant with God, that they belong to God, and to each other as Jewish people. But they still struggled to live the law.
Jesus has a scroll in the Gospel as well. He is in his home town, and he probably interacted with his neighbors as he had for decades. They hand him the book of Isaiah the prophet. It’s not a book of the Law, but a book of vision, of encouragement, of poetic hope. Jesus unscrolls Isaiah until he finds just the passage he’s looking for, in what we call chapter 61: The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, to proclaim good news to the poor . . .
Luke notes that the eyes of everyone were fixed on Jesus. Something had to be different about this occasion of Jesus’ visit to his synagogue. As with Moses and Joshua, as with Josiah and Nehemiah, people are stunned by the words. What does Jesus then do? He stuns them even further by saying: This very day the words of Isaiah, the words of hope and prophecy, are being fulfilled even as you hear them. Right now. In the very words that pierce your ears.
We still struggle to hear those words today. Jesus, after all, is announcing his project, the purpose of his life. And that project is simple: to fulfill the dream of God by bringing the Kingdom of God into reality in our very experience. We think of the Kingdom as some kind of future fantasy, as something that comes about later, after we are dead. But Jesus is inaugurating the Kingdom in his day, and he continues to inaugurate the Kingdom in our own day.
This happens by our undertaking and living for the very project that Jesus lived for. Do we not know the poor who need Good News? Do we not know people who are trapped in the prisons of their own making, and prisons sapping human hope? Do we not suffer from our willful blindness? Are not many of us deaf? And yet Jesus says that if we live out of the hope of his vision, if we strive to make the Kingdom real in the occasions of our lives, then we are part of God’s unending destiny, a destiny God chooses to share with us.
I’m sure the scene in the synagogue was small and intimate, hardly the size of any modest-sized Catholic church today. But the energy, the electricity, that Jesus generated with his speech would penetrate his life and his death; and it would come to penetrate us through the Spirit Jesus sends to us upon his rising from the dead. We become living words spoken by Christ; we become the words of the speech for which the world is still waiting.
The Wedding at Cana
Sometimes we just don’t know what’s happening to us. As a nation we felt this when Pearl Harbor was bombed, when John Kennedy was murdered, almost all through the crazy year 1968, and on that tragic Monday, September 11, 2001. Trauma does that to us. But this sense of not knowing what is happening can extend to non-tragic events too. Economists interpret data as periods of growth or decline, but we aren’t often sure why.
Sometimes these events are personal, as when we encountered that teacher who seemed to help us get a handle on so many things, or we run into a group of friends that shape our lives, or we go out on a date and realize that something is very different. We keep going back, trying to find that special moment when everything started to shine, but, when we think about it, we just don’t know how it happened. It all seems magical.
I suspect the couple at Cana had an experience like this. Obviously it’s an important day for them and for the town as well. Obviously they planned for a big crowd because not only Mary, but Jesus and his friends were also invited. And, obviously, people didn’t know how to count. But Jesus takes the ordinary water of their lives and transforms it into wine. Not only the head waiter, but everyone is scratching their heads wondering what is happening to us.
Even today, I am not sure we know what was happening. We think of it as a miracle, we wonder what happened to all that wine Jesus made, we smile that the couple was not put to shame. But something much more is going on: Jesus is announcing to this town, and to the world, what his ministry is all about. He is telling us, in this first of his miracles, what he wants us to feel, know and accept. And we still don’t quite get his message.
Because we do not yet see that God is fundamentally about love and joy, and God’s coming into our lives is to fill us with the wine of gladness and consolation. God’s Kingdom is a feast to which the whole world is invited. It’s a feast that can transform every part of our lives because it shows us the abundance, the fluidity, of God’s mercy and grace. For Jesus, the only tragedy would be for us not to see this is what God is about.
Yet so often we make our faith into something oppressive, something about failure and shame, about punishment and pain. Whole periods of spirituality have specialized in doing this—worry, scrupulosity, insecurity. Jesus says to us: Join the party! Come and understand my love! Come and dance in my joy. Because, in the end, love is a much more accurate measure of our hearts than fear can be. And it’s a much greater standard to which we are called to live up.
What is happening to us? Often we do not know. But Jesus gives us a way to probe and search the mysteries of our lives. He calls us to his meal, his Eucharist, his feast. Sunday by Sunday he gives us a new peek at his plan to bring joy to humankind. Take and eat, take and drink, he says: you will be one with me in my passion, but also one with me in eternal joy.
Baptism of the Lord C
January usually has us making resolutions, and the joke is that we really don’t keep them. Because the truth is that it’s hard to change, and we get into our routines of daily life and hardly change them. Sometimes, however, big decisions come about, notably about what college to attend, or what job we will take, or how we will commit ourselves to someone we totally love. These decisions change the course of our lives.
On this feast of the Baptism of the Lord, we are seeing a big decision. It might not have been obvious when Jesus made it. As Luke paints the picture, Jesus is with a group of people who are all being baptized by John. Who knows how large the group was? But Jesus appears as one of many. It’s only after his Baptism that the significance of the moment is underlined: the Spirit descends upon Jesus in the form of a dove, and a voice from heaven outlines Jesus’ mission and destiny.
“You are my Son, in whom I am well pleased,” the voice from heaven proclaims. This clearly echoes Isaiah’s words about a savior, a suffering servant, who would come. God is please when God is revealed through the faithfulness of followers. God gives his servant a mission—to be a guiding light for every person, to open the eyes of the blind, and to bring freedom to people who are trapped and broken. This mission that Isaiah lays out comes to its fulfillment five hundred years later, when Jesus emerges from the water and accepts his destiny as the Christ.
Of course, reading about Jesus’ baptism, on this feast which officially ends the Christmas-Epiphany season, makes us think about our own baptisms. But this is a stretch for most of us. I’ve had the privilege of baptizing adults in a large font, with water flowing all around them. But most of us were baptized as children. And this reality makes baptism both easy and difficult for us.
It makes baptism easy because we can plan the ceremony, send out the invitations, select the godparents, and arrange the ceremony for Theresa or Tommy. It makes it hard because Theresa and Tommy, and every one of us, will then have the responsibility, and privilege, of letting the Spirit make the power of baptism actual in our lives. Whether as adults or as children, we are baptized in Christ. As Christ accepts his mission, so everyone one of us has a mission as well—the same one that Jesus had, to reveal the Kingdom of God through our actions of service and love.
I often wonder if those baptized as children were given a choice later in life to reaffirm that baptism—if they would do it. Sometimes the sacrament of Confirmation can seem like that. But many people either start drifting from their lives as Catholics today, or else we tame our faith so that it doesn’t bother us too much. We block out the Father’s voice proclaiming us beloved servants, and we close our eyes to the appearance of the Spirit in all our lives. We accept the label of Christian but dull the reality.
After all, are there not people who need sight and insight all around us? Are there not people trapped by their fears, or their lusts, or their addictions, in every one of our lives? Are there not people looking for a sign of hope, an inkling of God’s love, everywhere? Haven’t we been baptized to reach these people, just as Jesus did in his day? And we will not do this unless we see fully ourselves as baptized disciples of Jesus.
In place of the Creed, I will invite you to renew your baptism promises today, and then I will sprinkle you with water. This places the question before us once again: for whom are we living? Are we living for ourselves? Are we living for the forces of evil? Or are we living for the Father’s Kingdom? As this happens, as we feel the sprinkling of water, Jesus invites us to the Jordan, to be in the same group that he was in, to re-new a decision that will have real impact on our lives, and to accept our mission as disciples of Jesus Christ.
Do you reject the forces of evil? And do you accept the God that Jesus reveals—and invites us to follow?
Maybe you heard this one before. A security guard drives up to a man in a large parking lot outside a football stadium. The man is walking around looking on the ground for something. “Can I help you,” the security guard asks. “Yes, I lost my keys and can’t seem to find them.” “Oh, what makes you think you lost them in this area?” The man replies, “Oh, I don’t know where I lost them. I’m looking here because this is where the lamppost is! It’s the only place I can see.”
If life is a search, and that’s what the feast of Epiphany teaches us today, where do we end up searching? Often we settle for the nearest light we can find, the lone lamppost in the parking lot. But how often we need to be led further, beyond our usual searching, to find out what we are really looking for. I had the misfortune to see The Favourite during Christmas break. So much beauty and drama in the film, but ultimately it’s about two women who strive for the attention of a half-crazy queen. Wasn’t there anything more important to struggle for?
The Magi follow a star. This star, clearly, is not part of their ordinary experience. It’s something dramatic, alluring, engrossing—so powerful that it can draw them beyond what they know into strange lands and strange scenes: in the end, they see a child and understand that God is announcing a different future for humankind. It’s not a future based on the power of Queens and Kings, not a future based on hoarding or accumulating wealth. It’s a future based on gift. If we search for Wisdom—a deeper knowing—Wisdom says it can be found only as a gift, not a possession to be hoarded. That’s lesson one.
The Magi follow this star with their gifts. They show us that we cannot find what is real and true in our lives unless we are prepared to go beyond ourselves, to open our hearts and hands, to give of ourselves. If we stay within ourselves, if we refuse to stretch, if we cannot expend ourselves, then, in the end, all we have is ourselves—our ever-smaller world absorbed in our own interests. And then we wonder why we are bored, uninterested, empty—when God would fill us with riches of the soul beyond our comprehension. That’s lesson two. Wisdom is a gift, but we have to give ourselves to grasp it.
I don’t suppose there’s a society in human history more restless than the one we live in today. On the one hand, we have this drive to get ahead, to advance, to make life better. On the other hand, we keep getting stuck in our relationships, our politics, our life goals, even our ability to concentrate. We need to be distracted every moment to think we are making progress—click-click, buzz, ring—more things yet to do even though we feel we are not going anywhere.
Where are the stars to guide people today? Where is the light that shines on the object of our searching and our longing? Today it won’t be in the sky because the sky has lost its magic for modern people—it’s just empty space filled with rocks and gas. No, we have to be the stars. We have to help light the paths for people. We, who have found Jesus, who live in his Spirit, have to be the light, the stars, for people today.
Unlike our man in the parking lot who can search only in a little circle, we can be “lampposts” that go out to people, in their daily lives, in the choices they make, in the struggles they face. We can proclaim that God has been given to us in Jesus, a gift that teaches us that we too can find only by giving ourselves through our trust in God and through our love for each other.
Holy Family C
Growing up used to be a bit easier. It happened so quickly compared to today.
Growing up mostly entailed becoming like my family, my parents, and grandparents. This was true before the industrial age when people were born into a certain class. Most people were surfs, worked on someone’s estate, and did not aspire to much more than surviving, and having one’s own family, and keeping them safe. But even after the industrial age, when we mostly worked for companies and factories, growing up meant working where one’s parents work, or in some similar role. Girls became mommies in their late teens. Sons of plumbers or bankers became, themselves, plumbers or bankers.
Today it’s very different. Families scatter because teens leave home, go to college, and undergo a long process of growing up and maturing. Here the ideal is not to become like my parents or grandparents; rather, the ideal is to find myself, to make myself into who I want to be, to construct my own identity. As a result, although modern life offers many more options for young people, growing up can be much more experimental, and take much longer.
So we are somewhat struck that Jesus, at the tender age of twelve, knows so much of what he’s about and what he wants to do. Of course, being twelve at that time was more like being twenty today, but, still, we are amazed. We want to read the story of Mary and Joseph in modern terms: Jesus is breaking away from his parents and forming his own identity. He wants to give up small-town, rural life in Galilee and hang out in the big city of Jerusalem.
But Jesus’ actions are not really ones of rebellion. He is not telling his parents that he has a different identity than theirs. Rather, Jesus is showing us that we are all to be about the business of our Father; that serving God, and the Kingdom of God, is the common destiny of all those who believe. Did you not know I had to be in my Father’s house? Do you not know that everyone belongs in my Father’s house—and, belonging there, already has a destiny in life?
As we celebrate the feast of the Holy Family, we can have very naïve images of family, as if we were all supposed to be in some 1950s family drama where everyone is super nice, and most of the problems are innocent misunderstandings. Because of the stresses of modern life, family life has to bear those burdens as well. Jesus is suggesting, however, that, even with the burdens and stresses of modern life, family life can become clearer if we all understand who we are in the eyes of God.
We are all about our Father’s house, all about extending our acceptance of God’s love, all about living with the freedom of the children of God. Once it’s clear that each one of us is living for God, and to bring God’s Kingdom, the Father’s house, into greater fullness, then at every age we can see our deepest identity. Some of us may be bankers, others plumbers, others doctors or nurses, or accountants or teachers. Whatever we do, Jesus is inviting us to have the same mentality that he shows today, the clarity of knowing who we are before our heavenly Father.
Maybe this doesn’t make growing up any easier, but it can make it clearer for us: Because it can help us see that, wherever we are in life, we are hardly lost: rather, we are growing up in the Father’s house, and growing into God’s Kingdom.
Advent 4 C
Who am I? How is it?
Sometime as the next few days unfold, we may find the words of Elizabeth coming to our mind, and maybe even our lips. Who am I, she says. Maybe we’ll be at a dinner and look around at the faces of those we love, or maybe it will be a child’s excitement under a Christmas tree, or maybe it will be at night, after the lights are out, and we reflect on our day. Who am I? Who are we? How does it happen that such joy comes to our lives?
Accomplished, as we are, at being disappointed, something in this Christmas season may well break the protections of cynicism we often erect. We will be astonished at the blessings that have come to us . . . astonished at the grace we have received. And then what?
Here’s where an old Latin phrase from ancient thinkers come to mind—one that the Franciscan tradition really loved to quote: Bonum diffisuvum sui est. The good naturally shares itself. We can feel the energy from Mary and the baby just conceived in her womb to Elizabeth and the child growing in her womb. “The baby inside of me leapt for joy! So when we sense the grace that comes into our lives, it shines on those around us, it radiates, and it wants to multiply. No bah humbug and Mr. Scrooge allowed!
Notice, though, what Mary does when the messenger from God has given her words that still astonish us today. She doesn’t go into her bedroom and lie on her bed. She doesn’t run around town talking to people about her blessing. She runs to Elizabeth, to acknowledge the wonder taking place in her, and to help with her needs over the next several months. When she experiences wonder and joy, it shows in the way she has to give herself.
We’ve had something of a culture war going on over whether we Christians can say “Merry Christmas.” It raises for us the whole issue of how we, as believers, relate culturally to those who do not accept Christ. And, of course, it’s easy for all kinds of people to feel dismissed and offended. But maybe the issue isn’t about being politically correct, but rather being ambassadors of Christ’s joy in the world. Rather than making a statement about what we stand for and who is against us, we need to be witnesses of the coming of Christ.
For if Christmas comes to us, in the sheer grace of our realizing God’s love, God certainly wants Christmas to come to all people, in whatever way they can hear it and experience it. Christmas is not something to be kept to ourselves. Christmas is God’s announcement to the world.
“You think you are little and insignificant, just like the town of Bethlehem. But I have news for you. I have come into your midst so you will ever know my divine love, and so that love can transform the way that you lift each other up in our humanity, in our hopes and dreams, in our ability to receive and acknowledge the grace of God in our lives.
Mary listens to the will of God, and it fills her with joy. All of us here are saying that we want to listen to God’s will as well. And what is God’s will? That his love be spread and shared throughout the world, that all of our hearts will quake with wonder, and that all humankind will come to experience the transforming love of God.
Advent 3 C
Don't worry. I have your back.
We might hear these words when we are playing team sports. Soldiers or sailors might speak them to each other. We might even feel we’ve heard them on television or in the movies, something that one gangster might say to another. “Don’t worry. I have your back.”
Initially it sounds reassuring, especially if the one saying this is big or powerful. But as we think about this phrase, it almost always is pointing to a very different and difficult environment—a situation of extreme stress or extreme fear. People are against us. Life seems to be against us. We look around and feel very unsure. So strong words of reassurance help take away the fear.
On the Sunday when we emphasize joy—Gaudete Sunday—it might be hard to hear the background fear. But it’s there. Zephaniah’s words are “I’ve got your back” words from God to a people who have suffered severe stress. Do not worry, the Lord is in your midst. He has removed the judgment against you. Do not be discouraged.
I think about how life must have been back then, how you never knew who would be riding over the hill and coming toward you, how you had to build walls around your city to begin to feel safe. I think of how, when you traveled, you were always at the mercy of robbers. Or how, at the time of Jesus, it would not have taken much to get a Roman soldier to bully you. They’d rather be in Rome eating and drinking Roman wines instead of being stuck in a very hot and dry no-place surrounded by foreigners.
Just imagine how much fear is in the air from the kinds of people who are going to the Jordan to be baptized—the crowds, but also soldiers, and even those at the bottom in terms of respect, the tax collectors. People coming from all areas and all segments of society to ask for baptism so they can begin all over again, so the bad karma might be erased from their lives. But John knows he can do only so much; one mightier than he is will come, bringing God’s vindication and hope.
“Have no anxiety,” Paul tells us in the second reading. Oh sure, Paul didn’t have to worry about Christmas cards and presents, what to cook and how many people to invite, or whether Aunt Mildred would make a sour face when she opened her gift. But, seriously, Advent invites us to be in touch with all the anxiety with which we live—fears for our children, our loved ones; and bigger fears for our country, our culture, and our whole environment.
“Don’t worry. I’ve got your back.” This is what the mighty one speaks to us. We might think our anxiety keeps us on our toes, but more likely it blinds us to the loving presence of God. Rejoice, God is in our midst—in its beauty and its ugliness, in its achievement and its failures, in its noble striving and its cynical calculations. Rejoice because we are not alone, wondering when the next monster might show its face. The mighty one has baptized us with the Spirit of his love; and, with the fire of that same Spirit, can burn way the fears of our hearts.
Thank you, Lord, for watching our backs, and for showing us the way.
Advent 2 C
At what stage do I think I am in life? Our first instinct is to respond in terms of age, that I’m a teen, or a young adult, or I just got my Medicare card. Or we might think in terms of work, that we are looking for our first job, or we are changing careers, or we have made it to where we are comfortable, or we have entered retirement. We might even think in terms of health, particularly if we have come through a crisis. “Yeah, I beat cancer and expect to add another ten years.”
Most of our images of life, however, have an arc: we arise, we get near the top, and then we start down, until we’ve run out of gas, out of air, out of life. We live with a kind of resignation, hoping to grab from life some sweet things even if we have to eventually let go of them. The ancient Greeks and Romans pictured pagan gods that represented our span of life: one who weaves the thread, one who pulls it along, and then the final one who cuts the thread.
When we look at the Scriptures today, we see various stages going on. Of course, we meet John the Baptist whom Luke shows as emerging right out of human history and society as he gives all the names of the regional governors. We hear the poetic words of Baruch, in quite a contrast with his other words of lamentation. Today Baruch is singing because the Jewish people have gone through a massive defeat, experienced humiliation and exile, but now they are returning after three generations in a foreign country. They had, of course, begun as wandering tribes; then they built a kingdom and a temple; all that collapsed, but it was not the end.
Given this history, you wonder what John’s listeners made of his message. Did they see this as a new beginning? When they went into the waters and denounced their sin, did they then believe they were free from the consequences of sin, from destruction? If John was a harbinger of the Kingdom, how would that be different than the kingdom that was destroyed? Where are they in life’s cycle?
For that matter, where are we in life? Because we modern people have a very different image from the typical life cycle from St. Paul. When we tend to think of life in terms of an arc, we proceed upwards only to begin a decline at some point. Paul, writing to the Philippians, prays that God will bring to completion what he began in them. More particularly, he prays that their love may increase in scope until it comes to the very Day of the Lord, until our lives find completion in the Risen Christ.
Paul is saying that God has a very different trajectory for us. However we begin—and all of us begin in need, incompleteness, and sin—God has begun a life in us that, by its very nature, is to grow into total richness for us. God has put into us a seed that grows differently—toward greater fulfillment of life and love. Nothing can stop that growth except our own renunciation of God’s grace.
We have big pictures in our heads—evolution, for example, or the history of our country, or stories that shaped our families—of immigration, of struggle, of acceptance even in the face of difficulty. This Advent we have the opportunity to have an even greater picture in our heads—the life that has been implanted into us which, whatever we have to face, can grow into a fullness that we can only glimpse now.
Where are we in life? In some ways, when it comes to faith, we are always just beginning because of all that God has yet in store for us.
Advent 1 C
This is the season when we are bombarded with promotions for all kinds of things, especially luxury items. Of course I want a Land Rover; it’s only slightly more to lease than a BMW! Yes, electric razors are on sale, and jewelry, and golf equipment. But the gift the psyches me out the most is the VR devices which you wear over your eyes. People put them on and seem to go into another world.
This seems like a device that I just would never want. Being in control of my world, knowing exactly what’s there and where everything is, being able to predict what’s coming—that’s the best way my mind works. That I could put on a device and feel like I’m in another world, or the world of someone else, a world that someone else might control, would be so disorienting. I get spooked with 3-D movies, let alone a trip into virtual reality.
But are there no alternatives to the reality that comes before us? Are there no alternatives to the get-up-at-6 and work until 5, then watch TV, and go to bed? Are there no alternatives to a world where nations seem to get into endless wars, where we see pictures of millions of people starving, or being forced into exile? Are there no alternatives to the endless political divisions presented before our eyes every day?
Of course there’s an alternative, and it’s not virtual reality. The alternative is the vision that comes from hope rather than from despair, from a future that God is preparing rather than a present that we seem to always mess up.
Jesus gives us some frightening scenes; we have heard words like this in recent weeks, words that speak of cosmic disasters, of the sun and moon disappearing, and stars falling from the sky. He presents these words, though, so that his followers can see just how different the experience of his disciples will be from all of this disaster. “When you see these things happening, raise up your heads, because your redemption is near at hand.” It’s not a time of fear, but a time of hopeful expectation.
For Jesus, the worst has already been overcome, and those who have union with him have no need to fear . . . even the final days of judgment. Rather, the big fear that worries Jesus is the way his followers will tire, become drowsy, not truly believe, take their faith for granted, and live without the hope he has instilled in them. Jesus is giving us an alternative to doom-and-gloom we are always hearing, but many of us refuse his vision of hope. Jesus’ biggest fear is that we will live as if he made no difference in the world, or in the lives of his followers.
As Advent begins, we are offered a new vision, one of hope based on what God has done in Jesus and what God will do because of Jesus. God offers this to us not as some alternative virtual reality, but as a vision that can transform the reality of our daily lives. God invites us, further, to be people of hope in our all-too-depressing world—to proclaim a future in which life and love come in their fullness rather than a present which always disappoints us.
Christ the King B
“I wonder what the King is doing tonight.” So begins one of the memorable songs in the famous musical, Camelot, which tried to depict an ideal but long-gone world. The peasants are singing this song. It’s as if the King is a different kind of being: doing, feeling, and enjoying things that are beyond the scope of lowly people. How instinctually we envy royalty, even the rich and the famous, as if their lives were untouched by the daily grind and limitations of our puny lives.
All of this, of course, is an indirect way of putting our own lives down. If kings and queens, if actors and singers, live these fabulously wonderful lives, that’s a way of saying that we don’t think much of our own lives. We have to do things, we have to work, we have to live within boundaries. If only we could live like Kings where we can do anything we want.
Perhaps we can be tempted to think that when we call Jesus a “king,” that in some way we are removing him from our everyday experience as well. It’s been quite easy, over twenty centuries of Christian life, to make Jesus something other, often to forget his very humanity. A superstar, as superman, a super being, Jesus cannot be like us. And yet the very reason Jesus came among us was to live our exact lives, to show that God is not distant and abstract, but rather as close to us as we are to ourselves.
“Then you are a King?” Pilate asks. We can almost hear his sarcasm, his irony, that this prisoner standing before him from a backwater province dares to speak as an equal. “You say that I am,” responds Jesus, as if Jesus were dismissing the very category. You can play with political and regal titles, but I have more important things to do. “I have come to testify to the truth.” And what is the truth that Jesus testifies to? The love of the eternal Father now revealed in him, and now given to his followers by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.
Jesus comes among us so he can be like us, and his ministry is to help us be like him, to radiate the glory that comes from being servants of the Father’s love. We so much resist the doctrine that Jesus was “like us in all things but sin,” because the more we think Jesus was not like us, the less we feel an obligation to be like him. “Greater works than I you will do,” Jesus tells his disciples. He is not talking about his miracles, though some of us can do that; he’s not talking about raising people from the dead. He’s talking about us being witnesses to the Father’s love in the simple humility of our lives.
What does humility do? It acknowledges the earthliness that belongs to all human life, and it treats others with a grace-filled equality. It’s the opposite of pomp and power, the pretense of royal robes, the sparkle of golden crowns. Humility sees that I am just like the other, and the other is just like me. We are all bound by our limitations but, with love, we begin to erase those limitations and lift each other up.
Jesus is a totally different King. He comes as humble servant. He comes not to claim the treasure and taxes of others, but to give himself even to the point of death. He didn’t need to grab the headlines, or show off his power, or claim that he was smarter or richer than others. He came, rather, to shine a light on all of us lowly humans, to shine the light of God’s love, that we might be Kings with him if we walk in his humble servanthood.
It’s a bad translation. Even Pope Francis doesn’t like some of it. At the end of the Our Father we say, “Lead us into temptation.” Pope Francis insists that God does not lead us into temptation, that’s problem one. And the word “temptation” means something very different; the word refers to the final testing and desolation that the world will experience as it comes to an end. The far better translation would be: “do not let us be led into the final period of testing, but deliver us from the Evil one.”
This helps us think about the context in which we live our everyday lives. We have, of course, the context of your families, both immediate and extended. We have, many of us, the context of our work and our responsibilities. We have the context of our close relationships with friends. Also the context of the Church. But behind all of these there is one ultimate context, namely the ultimate conflict between God and evil, which is represented by the readings we have today.
When we hear about the torments of nature which Jesus refers to, our most natural reference would be the fires in California, or the floods in Italy, or the earthquake in Mexico City two years ago, or Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, or the tsunami in Indonesia last month. We hear Jesus talk and we recognize how easy it is, particularly in the unsettled climate of today, for any of us could be in dire situations. When we add to this endless wars overseas, the tortures of ISIS, the threats of terrorism, and the constant fear of another economic collapse, we might conclude that we are always living in the end times. The world seems to be always coming to an end.
What does Jesus, however, gain by increasing our fear? More, I think Jesus wants to intensify our awareness of the present moments that we have. Because we can make them very trivial, moments of distraction or entertainment. We can think that our actions do not account for much or make much of a difference. But Jesus is saying that all of our actions are part of this ultimate conflict between God and the forces of evil, between hope and despair.
This ultimate conflict came into full view when Jesus was condemned to death, when he hung suspended between heaven and earth, scorned by religious leaders and feeling abandoned by his Father. This was the definitive battle between hope and despair. Jesus’ loving trust in his Father—“into your hands I commend my spirit”—opens for humankind the dimensions of resurrection. When we receive the Holy Spirit, we have the power of resurrection already implanted within us.
This is the power of life, love, and reconciliation—a power stronger than the forces of nature, and a power stronger than the forces of Evil because the Holy Spirit ties us into God’s unending life of love. The Holy Spirit places us already on the side of hope and life.
Our problem is that often our actions do not show this. We run around with fears and anxieties which make it look like we have no idea what Christ’s victory is about. We live as if driven into the conflicts of the final times rather than freed from them. Instead of being disciples of hope, we show ourselves students of fear and despair.
Christ spoke strong language not to discourage his disciples but to show them just how strong he was, and how strong they would be in him. God doesn’t lead us into temptation. Rather, we lead ourselves into conflicts and anxieties when we turn away from being the people of hope that God has made us.
One of the ongoing debates in almost all non-profit organization concerns whether to get people to pay, and how much. One side says that giving people services is the mission of the organization. The other side says that if we just give people things, and it costs them nothing, they never really buy in. Things are only important to us if it costs us, and if we have to pay. So fees become ways of getting buy-in. Vacation Bible School. Religious Education Fees. Adult education events.
But how much are we willing to give? What are the limits that we set? It depends on what we are interested in. We’d give so much for a class, but we might heavily invest if a child had the potential to become a professional athlete. We’d give so much to cure a headache, but we might give almost everything we have if it meant the life someone we loved. Compare what it costs us to come to Mass with what it might cost a Christian in Egypt . . . which one values Mass more?
When Jesus points out the widow, we need to make sure what his point it. It isn’t that she was poor. It isn’t that others were given more that she could. It was that she gave everything that she had. And in doing so, her gift was a statement about God. She could give everything she had because she had come to a trust in God so strong that God meant everything to her.
It's the poor widow, in the first reading, who shows similar trust. It’s during a drought, there’s hardly water in the house, let alone anything else, and yet the widow uses what is left in the house to feed the prophet Elijah. “We’ll have our last meal and then die,” she thinks. But Elijah says that her trust in God would be rewarded by an abundance that she could not have imagined. We can perhaps be tempted to see this as some kind of bargain—I give to God and God then owes me and gives something back. But the lesson is much more fundamental: until we have given everything to God, we do not know God, nor what does in our lives. Until we come to trust, we do not know life’s meaning.
Our world hardly runs on trust. The extent of distrust in contemporary life is absolutely clear after yet one more ridiculous process of electing leaders—the endless succession of expensive advertisements that play on our fears and insecurities. Perhaps our hysteria about elections, or the economy, or our schools, or our health—all legitimate worries—help us to see what we should be most preoccupied about: putting God, and our trust in God, first in our priorities. We know what we might pay for this or that; but what are we willing to give, from our very selves, for a full relationship with God?
The Letter to the Hebrews gives us a sense of what God is willing to pay. The death of Jesus was not just the gruesome murder of God’s all-loving son; it was also a sign from God to us, the extent to which God loves us, and how much we are worth. Christ offers himself, as a sign of our love for the Father, but also as a sacrament of God’s love for us—the sacred act which we participate in every time we come to worship.
God continues to trust in us, in our coming to full acceptance and reconciliation with divine life. The widows in today’s Scripture ask us how much trust we have come to have in God.
So why do we have to love God? After all, we think of God as totally complete, totally perfect, in need of nothing. Doesn’t that mean that our love would be wasted?
For many of us, it isn’t clear why love of God makes sense. That’s because we haven’t really begun to grasp just how God loves us. We think of God as some formless cloud, a force, that stays above and away from our small existence. So we need to rediscover God’s love for us.
To do this, we have to think of how we love each other, which would be the smallest image of God’s love for us. How does the love of young lovers feel? How they can barely be apart from each other . . . how they seek nothing else but union. Even more, think of how parents love their child. They would do anything for their child. There’s no cost they would not pay. They would easily give their lives if it meant life, and richer life, for their children.
This human experience has to be the starting point for our understanding of God’s love. We can only begin to grasp God’s love if we begin with the unconditional love that we show for each other. For this love—unconditional and unquestioned—reveals to us the kind of love that God has for us. We love this Lord with all our heart, soul, mind, and spirit, because we are just echoing in our lives the total love that God has for us.
If we compare the first reading from Deuteronomy with the Gospel passage, we’ll notice one difference. Jesus adds a phrase to the traditional Jewish description of loving God: “and love your neighbor as yourself.: This is Jesus’ particular teaching: we understand God’s love by understanding how we love each other. It isn’t one love for God, and something entirely different for others. It is one love, getting its power from our love and God and spilling out, in turn, on our brothers and sisters.
If God’s love, which we begin to see in how we love those closest to us, is the norm of our loving, then Jesus insists that we cannot make useless distinctions when it comes to love. How can I love someone while ignoring the love that God has for that person? Do I think God loves me more than God loves someone else? Do I think God loves the rich, the pretty, the strong, or the smart more than God loves the least among us? Our love of God, reflecting God’s love for us, must drive us toward a universal love.
The scholar questioning Jesus begins to get what Jesus said. “You are not far from the Kingdom of God,” Jesus says, seeing how his heart is opening, how he has been able to begin to grasp what Jesus is teaching us. Authentic love brings us to the Kingdom; selfish or limited love keeps us from seeing the Kingdom in its fullness.
We get the impression that today much of modern society is, sad to say, far from the Kingdom. The universal love of God seems far from a culture that thrives on divisions and judgment. Are not we Catholics and followers of Christ called to be prophets of another vision, a vision that sees love as the root and the fruit of human action. Who else will bring our culture closer to the Kingdom unless we, believers in Jesus, go forth with a different power, a power that comes from God’s love for us, our experience of this love in grace, and our extending that love to every human being?
I’ve seen veterans arrive to great honor at Reagan Airport, but nothing like a few Saturdays ago. Not only were special people designated to greet the veterans when they arrived, but they hired a band which must have played for over an hour. Great American classics from various regions of the country—“Just direct your feet to the sunny side of the street”—blared out as veterans were wheeled or walked out of the airport to their waiting busses. I imagined them later in the day, veterans from Vietnam and even Korea, visiting the memorials around the Mass.
They came to see the memorials, but I’m sure they saw much more than that. It wasn’t a scene that they saw, so much as a vision . . . of what it was like to leave at 17 or 18 years of age, to go with thousands of others to a vastly different land, to imagine coming home or maybe not, and how their lives were part of something larger, some quest for peace or justice in the world. I imagined them seeing their buddies, at least in their memories, from a half century and more, thinking of how this experience shaped their lives, thinking of what it cost in terms of life and materiel.
We are naturally very concerned with our eyesight because seeing is so essential for modern life, all the more so with the screens we have to read and touch all day. But are we just as concerned with the vision with which we live, those large patterns that allow us to see meaning and purpose?
When we hear the story of Bartimaeus, it seems straightforward. Here’s a blind man that Jesus healed. But there are elements that should strike us—how they tried to shut him up and keep him from Jesus, how he insisted, how he jumped up when Jesus called him, and how Jesus asked him, in particular, what he wanted Jesus to do. At the end of the Gospel we have a line that we can easily miss: that Bartimaeus started following Jesus. It wasn’t just his eyesight; Bartimaeus was looking for a way of life.
Jesus tried to give the world a vision, a comprehensive way to understand ourselves. His vision was about the Kingdom of God. The hope and excitement we see in Jeremiah, in the first reading, seemed to flow through Jesus. The great prophets painted a vision of a restored Jerusalem; Jesus takes that vision and paints for us a panorama: the sweep of divine love coming upon us to transform the very image that we have of ourselves. Jesus wants to give us a new way to see ourselves, our world, and our destiny.
It's tempting for all of us to settle for the little peeks that make up life—the alarm clock in the morning, what we see from our windshield when we drive to work, the screens flashing at us throughout the day, the agenda items we have to accomplish. It’s tempting, too, to make our faith into little peeks—a quick prayer, our rushing off to church, a faint memory of a bible passage. But Jesus gives us more: he gives us the vision of the fullness of life and love, for ourselves and for humankind.
This was the vision that made Bartimaeus follow Jesus. He could have stayed in Jericho, made a big thing of his being healed, and developed a new routine. But he saw something when Jesus healed him, something he’d been searching for so vigorously no one was going to stop him. When he received his sight once again, he received a vision of God’s power and love, and how that vision could transform human existence itself.
“What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asks. I suspect Jesus is hoping that we would not respond with little categories, but think of the depth of our hearts, and think of the breadth of all human suffering and longing. “You dream too little,” I can hear Jesus say. “You want too little. Don’t you know what God would give you? Open your eyes and be amazed at God’s dream, and God’s gifts, for all humankind. Why ask for something less than the Kingdom?”
Some things are made to be given away. Jose Andres was a noted chef in his own right. But in 2015 he started responding to various disasters, first to the earthquake in Mexico City and, famously, to the onslaught of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico in 2017. He continues to respond to disasters by organizing chefs, restaurants, and volunteers to help people who otherwise would have no resources. How does he help? He prepares wonderful meals, carefully cooked in large quantities, and organizes their distribution. In Puerto Rico alone, he prepared over 2,000,000 meals, and has done something like this ever since.
Of course, there’s only one thing you can do with food—eat it. You have to give it away, or else the whole thing is nonsense. As we go through life, we find many things are like this, from the smiles we exchange to the love that we have for each other. For it to have meaning, you have to give it away.
We are right to be scandalized by James and John who, in front of the other disciples, ask for special places in the Kingdom of God. Jesus immediately points out the consequences of their request: to take the bath of baptism into his suffering, to drink the cup of his sacrifice—obvious references to the sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist, and also obvious references to the meaning of being baptized and receiving the Eucharist. Can you do this, Jesus asks them. Can you follow me in faith, indeed, in sacrifice?
Because faith is meant to be given away. These disciples still did not know what Jesus’ was all about. James and John, but all the rest of them too, though it was about prestige, of having power in some new political society, of reigning on either side of their King. But it’s not about you, Jesus says; it’s about others, about them being served and loved, about the Kingdom coming to the poor and broken. Only when we live for the Kingdom will we be able to enter into it. And we only enter the Kingdom the trust that springs from faith.
Almost instinctively we think of faith as something for ourselves, as something personal. In our Catholic language, faith has been a way for us to make sure that we go to heaven, or, more precisely, as a way not to go to hell. We don’t think of faith as a way of together building the Kingdom of God, nor do we think of faith as way to help others enter the Kingdom of God as well. So keeping faith to ourselves makes sense to us, even though faith is meant to be given away. Paradoxically, it’s only when we give faith away to others that we discover it’s power in our own lives.
Pope Francis gave us “The Joy of the Gospel” as his first message to us and to the world. It’s about the joy that comes only from coming to know Jesus Christ and living his life. It’s not the same thing, he says, as not knowing Christ and knowing him, of living without faith and living with faith, of being fed by Christ’s Eucharist and hungering without it. Yet we often live as if it is, indistinguishably from everyone else on our block, driven by the same fears and often trivial desires.
Jose Andres prepares meals for many people, expecting the food to be given away. Jesus has prepared a meal for all of humankind. We celebrate that meal when we come around his altar. But his food, like his faith, only gains meaning when it grows, in our hearts, in our parish community, and in our world. James and John help us know how not to approach our faith. Rather we reflect on the power of giving and sharing. That is so we will grow even more in knowing what Jesus’ bath and Jesus’ chalice mean in our lives, making us more open in sharing the faith that was not given just to me, or just to us, but, really, to all the world.
The word of God, like a sword, penetrates between soul and spirit, joints and marrow, in the image of the second reading today. . This is because the Word of God is able to reveal the thoughts of the heart. It’s true, of course, that often we don’t know our deepest thoughts, and often the only choices we face are whether to root for the Red Skins or the Orioles, whether for Boston or just about any other team that’s not Boston. But classic opera often gives us almost impossible choices, whether Madame Butterfly will give her child away, or what Tosca is willing to pay to save her beloved. Choices such as we went through as a nation last week leave most of us unsettled.
But the Word of presents choices to us that reveal what is deepest in our hearts. We are seeing this in the Gospel we have today, this man who runs up and kneels before him, asking the most important question anyone can ask. “What must I do to enter the Kingdom of God?” We know, in the end, he walks away sad because Jesus told him to sell all his goods and follow him. Jesus wielded a sword that cut open this man’s heart. He didn’t like what was inside, but he couldn’t change it either. He walks away sad.
We might ask ourselves what the problem was with the man. What was God asking of him? Because it involved money, but wasn’t primarily about money. After all, do you think Jesus asks little of people who are poor? Do you think Jesus plays favorites with those for whom he is willing to open the Kingdom? No. The problem was that the man’s need for riches obscured his ability to see the Kingdom. His money got in the way. He wanted the Kingdom, but just not enough.
This kind of Gospel choice surely leaves most of us feeling somewhat shamed. But the point of the Gospel is not shame, but insight. Every single person is invited into the Kingdom of God—a Kingdom in which our relationship of profound love and trust for God frees us up to give ourselves in service to others—rich and poor, powerful and weak, secure and insecure. And every single person has something that can keep them from entering this relationship with God.
What, then, blocks and blinds us? We may not be rich, but we may be quite vain and selfish. We may not have much money, but we can act as if the world owed us something and live in resentment because we do not get it. We may seem like the average Joe or Jane, but never really see the people around us, and never truly respond. Indeed, each of us can put our love of money, power, politics, position, vengeance, or self in place of the Kingdom of God. When we do this, we are the losers.
When we come to Mass, we hear the Word of God, a Word that encourages us to seek true Wisdom, that is, the undistorted view that puts God, others, and self into proper perspective. In some way, every Gospel cuts at our heart. In some way, we can all feel tempted to walk away sad, like this rich man. But Jesus insists that we stay, unite ourselves with him, and, week-by-week, deepen our knowledge of the Kingdom, and our response to it.
The man walks away, for sure. But we don’t know that he didn’t, at a later point, return.
In a society where 40% of marriages end in divorce, it’s far too easy to dwell on divorce and its consequences. But maybe we need to dwell on what divorce breaks apart, the daring dream of a life-long committed relationship.
Of course we are ecstatic when a young couple marries; we see them walking down the aisle and we imagine the years ahead. But I suspect we are ecstatic in a different way, a more reverent way, when we meet a couple that has been married for decades and has become, as the Scriptural ideal puts it, two in one flesh. They have become one as much as two individuals can become one.
Look at what is involved in this: the total trust one has to have to give one’s heart, one’s vulnerability, to someone who, in turn, as given you his or hers. The risk is astonishing. When people today will not go to a restaurant until they check out the Yelp reviews, here are people daring to merge their uncertain histories together, certain only of the bond they are creating between themselves in God.
Of course life is frail and unpredictable. Of course our own heads spin us around because we think one thing one day, and then think something else the next day. Of course the unpredictabilities of health and financial fortune mean we don’t know what life will be like a year from now, let alone a decade from now. But still people look each other in the eye, hold each other’s hands, and dare to pledge everything to each other—because they know they cannot be themselves any longer without the love of the other.
St. John Paul II said that the love of a couple for each other is like the love they have for God—it’s unconditional because it’s not a question of control but a question of faith and trust. In fact, the love we have for each other, particularly in marriage, is not really possible without the reality of God being in the middle of that love. For we can bond in love only because God has bonded with us, given us Jesus as our bridegroom, and sealed that bond with the Holy Spirit of God’s divine love.
As Catholics, we uphold marriage because we uphold the priority of faithful, unconditional love. We uphold this vision of love because this is the vision that God has given us, the only standard according to which we can live: to love as God loves, to love as Jesus loves, to love with the Spirit of God. In a world in which connections, so easy electronically, have become so difficult personally, we Catholics need to witness the love of God by the way we live that love with each other. What God has joined, let no one put apart. Love cannot be torn any more than God can be torn.
Before we think of divorce, we need to reflect fully on love. Before we think of hate, we need to grasp how vital love is to our very human existence. Before we divide and dismiss each other, we must put before our eyes this God who loves us so much that he gives us his Son, to mingle with our flesh and our hearts, because that’s exactly how intimate God’s love is with us.
Jesus makes some interesting statements today which should raise some probing questions for us. He mentions what might keep us from the Kingdom—a foot, a hand, an eye—and how we should prefer to lose an appendage rather than risk not entering the Kingdom of God. The question this might raise for us is this: what do I think I should lose in order to enter the Kingdom of God? Jesus mentions parts of our bodies, and he clearly is speaking metaphorically, even though some people in the history of the Church took Jesus literally. You could guess what parts of their bodies they wanted to go.
But what if Jesus’ imagery is metaphorical, and that parts of our bodies were not the problem. It’s not my hand or foot that actually leads me to sin; I have already formed an intention in my mind before I use my foot to kick someone, or my hand to punch someone. It’s the disposition inside of me that is most likely to keep me from the Kingdom. So which one of those gets most in the way?
You might think, given the reading from James, that it was our love of money that most gets in the way. James rants against rich people who hold onto their money as much as any ancient prophet ever did. Indeed, our desire for wealth, given the way it distorts our lives, would be a huge candidate for attitudes that keep us from the Kingdom especially when, as so often today, it can easily lead us to ignore others, particularly the poor. Money can easily make us feel guilty, and more of us should surely take the hint.
But the Scriptures this Sunday actually point to an attitude worse than greed. And that’s the attitude of exclusivity, of an almost tribal sense of possession that wants to exclude others or deny anything good others might have. We see it in the first reading when two men were absent from the gathering of elders who received Moses’ spirit, his gift of prayer and leading others. “Who do these two men think they are?” they grumble. “We are the only ones who have these gifts”, they say. Even when the evidence is right before their eyes.
Likewise in the Gospel, John comes complaining that someone is driving out demons in the name of Jesus. “Who is he to do that?” argues John. “Only people who belong to our group have that gift.” And it’s a natural instinct, that we form clubs and groups, and look to exclude others because we haven’t authorized them. But just as Moses says that he’d be happy if everyone had the gifts of the Spirit, so Jesus says we should rejoice when we see goodness being done, even if it looks different than the way we prefer. “Whoever is not against you is for you,” Jesus says. Take any support you can get.
This attitude of exclusivity plagues us, especially in politics and in religion. We have come to the point where political opponents cannot even see each other, let alone find common solutions—even though the problems are right in front of our faces. And how long have we thought of religion as something that divides us by excluding others, rather than as something God brings about to further God’s mission.
But you will say that this means all religions are the same and our faith makes no difference, right? Not at all. Rather, the certainty of the faith that we have should make us feel even more secure when we see it echoed in the lives of others. Faith needs communities that explicitly uphold the Good News, the truth of Jesus, and the love of the Spirit. But faith also needs communities that recognize when others are led to exercise our values even though they might not belong to our group. God is nowhere as stingy as we can be.
What, Lord, should we cut off in order to enter the Kingdom? The Lord says back: cut out your jealousy, your divisiveness, and your exclusivity. Then you might see how broad the Kingdom actually is, and how important your place is within it.
I was struggling to find the word I wanted in Spanish. Some folks were helping me learn, two Cubans who had escaped Cuba during the time of Fidel Castro. “Ambioso,” I said, trying to say someone was positive and looking for success. “Oh, no, Padre. You can’t use the word. It sounds terrible.” They explained that, unlike English, “ambioso” almost always has a bad connotation in Spanish—someone out for himself, someone willing to do anything to get ahead.
In some sense many of us admire ambitious people as we use it in English. We have the mythic image of Horacio Alger, who wrote about very poor people, with odds against them, who rose to become successes. We love to hear how people overcame disease, poverty, or racial prejudice, because it fills us all with hope that we can defeat the odds that may be stacked against us.
But it’s sometimes hard to know when ambition is primarily about the success, or about the person. When politicians talk about themselves, we’ve become skeptical. When successful executives making hundreds of times the amount of most of the company’s employees start to lecture about life values, our eyes glaze over. When clergy are always looking for the next big assignment, or the next rank, it makes us turn away.
“What were you talking about as we walked along the way?” asks Jesus. And the disciples are too embarrassed to answer. Because they were talking about themselves, and who was going to be the greatest among them. We have to wonder when this conversation started, who instigated the rivalry, who kept thinking that the Kingdom was all about power and prestige, even about wealth, rather than revealing the love of the Father.
When Jesus puts a child in front of the disciples, we might get skeptical ourselves. Because we’ve known children who are pests, bossy, pushy, and show-offs. In fact, we often think that a lot of bad adult behavior began in childhood. But that’s not Jesus’ point. He puts a child into the midst of his disciples and talks about how they should be serving the child—the very kind of person who cannot reward them, the very kind of people who needs to be served and cared for themselves. The child teaches the apostles that it’s not about them and what they can get.
In our readings over these weeks from the Letter to James, we have been hearing the same message, repeated in a variety of settings. James wants people to examine themselves and their motives. Two weeks ago it was why we treat some people better than others; last week, about how our actions don’t match our words. This week, it’s an exploration of where violence and hatred come from. Our passions, our jealousy, our greed--these are the cause of so much violence and strife. And they are rooted in our pride, our overestimation of ourselves, our thinking we are too good to serve some helpless child.
Entitlement—that’s a fancy word for a syndrome that describes when we think it’s the job of others to take care of us, that somehow we are exempt from working, that we should sit in the easy chair while others have to work. In the Gospel passages we have been reading, Jesus does not offer his followers an easy chair. Only when we have become servants to each other, only then do we begin to see the reward that comes from reflecting in our lives the same love that God shines on us in Jesus.
It seems pretty clear the future of our Catholic Church in the United States will be less glorious than some of its past moments. Some of this is because our leadership did not lead with the clarity of moral vision that it should have. And some of this is because modern society has a need to distance itself from faith and knocking us Catholics down a notch or two more than accomplishes that purpose.
This Sunday has us with the apostles of Jesus at Caeseria Philippi, an area named after the Emperor Caesar Augustus and devoted to various pagan shrines. It’s a much simpler, starker, story than the one we usually recall from Matthew’s Gospel. We do not have Jesus saying, “You are Peter” and that his Church would be built upon Peter’s faith. Rather, we have Peter proclaiming Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, and Jesus immediately clarifying what Peter said.
The word “messiah” or “Christ” has hardly been used before this in the Gospel of Mark, and Mark goes out of his way to make sure that Jesus’ disciples understand what it means. Here, on the first of three occasions, Jesus says that he must be rejected, tortured, and crucified before he will rise, after three days, from the dead. Peter hears this and immediately starts telling Jesus off. “There must be some other plan,” he insists.
But Jesus says there is no other plan. To follow him is not to have the glory of the emperors, the might of their legions, the gold of their crowns. To follow Jesus is to accept the path that he shows, the path of humble service, even humiliation, because this reveals the true power of God, the power of the vindication of love and life. “Whoever wishes to be my follower must take up his cross every day. . . “ It’s not about glory, power, influence, or wealth. It’s about service and self-giving.
It's so tempting to have a faith that doesn’t cost us, to say “Be well” to people without lifting a hand to help, to say “I follow Christ” without being willing to suffer. This temptation was there from the beginning, in the eyes of disbelieving apostles and would be Christians. But Isaiah teaches us that a costless faith is not the pattern of God: God’s power and life can only be shown when we risk everything, even suffering, to follow his way.
We are now, as a Church, in an intense period of suffering and grief. We are watching leaders of the Church attack each other, and attorneys general dig up things we thought we dealt with sixteen years ago. So we all face a nagging temptation. Why do I stay with this Church? Let me join the rest of culture and just get out. So Jesus is looking at our generation and asking, “Who do you say that I am?” And he’s waiting for us to recognize him for who he is, “The Christ” who knows God’s glory does not consist in running away from pain, but trusting it to purify, to transform, to lead to eternal life.
With you, I affirm Jesus as Christ, not because of the golden vessels and silk vestments, of the social and political prestige, which many associate with the Church. I affirm Jesus as Christ because, for twenty centuries, he has been suffering with and in his people, and, through this, teaching us what it means to serve, and what it means “to rise from the dead.”
“I’m not a sensate,” one of my Paulist brothers frequently says. In saying this, he refers to a kind of personality-type, the kind that do not notice exterior things very well. Someone could move a couch from one place to another; it doesn’t dawn on him. “Oh there’s a new rug?” he asks. His attention to the visual world has limitations. Of course, in some ways this is true of all of us, in terms of one or another human sense. Some of us can smell shades of wine that leave the rest of us puzzled; some people can tell a certain kind of cloth just by touching it. Musicians hear things that do not register on most people.
What would it mean, then, for all our senses to be opened? Jesus heals this deaf and dumb man, in one of the most graphic descriptions in the scriptures, as a sign of more: just as Isaiah saw a vision of the deaf hearing, and the blind seeing, of the captives released, and of exile overcome, so Jesus heals this man of his impediments as a sign of how God would open everything blocked in our lives.
After all, do we not all have blockages? Some of them come from our natural limitations—our backgrounds or genetic makeup. But many of them come from our own choosing—we close off what we do not want to face, we put blocks before people who do not suit us very well. I’ve sat at meetings where, time after time, one person literally has his back turned to the person next to him. Body language sometimes says more than our speech.
Jesus says to the deaf man: “Ephphatha”—be opened—and it obviously was such a powerful word, and so frequently spoken, that Jesus’ community remembers it in the original Aramaic language of Jesus. “Be opened”—“Be unblocked”—be liberated from what limits your life and keeps you from seeing, healing, feeling, and sensing the fullness of life.
If Jesus asked us what part of our lives we would like unblocked, what would first come to mind? Some of us have sensual limitation; I’ve long wanted to get rid of my eyeglasses. But what about the deeper blockages? Our spiritual and emotional blockages? What about our blindness to others, and sometimes our blindness to our own situations.
One blindness that seems to dominate modern life in America is the insecurity we have about money, and the need we have to spend it as a compensation. Although people worry about a retail slowdown in shopping stores, Amazon seems to be making up for that. Behind this is an assumption that the world is there for us to take, use, and dispose any way we want. That our lives are about acquiring and keeping what comes to us, and maybe showing it off.
In reality, this is a massive distortion. Our worship, every Sunday, opens for us the reality of our lives: the bread we have is God’s gift; the wine we present, also a gift from God. Everything we have is a gift from God, well before our sweat and labor. We give back to God as a recognition of this ultimate religious truth: we have been blessed by God’s generosity; and that blessing only increases by our own generosity to God and to others. Stewardship is the fancy name we give this, but, basically, it’s the simple truth of our lives.
“Be opened” says Jesus. Recognize the truth of our lives. Recognize all that God gives us, and how our blessings are amplified, one way or another, by our imitating God’s generosity in our lives.
All sports have rules, but none has rules like golf. In other sports, we might argue about a strike, or whether a ball was inside or outside the line, or whether a pass was proper nor not. In golf, however, for those of us who are brave enough to watch it, an incident calls for a rules-official. After an interminable amount of time, someone determines that the golfer must drop his ball, drop it again, and then place it somewhere else, citing strange numbers from the Rules of Golf. All this as expert commentators give their opinions about what should or should not be done. Please . . . we say.
Of course rules are important. The idea of sports, and many other parts of life, is that things be fair, that no one gets an unfair advantage of an opponent. Just as we New Yorkers go crazy when someone jumps the line, so athletes get very upset when the playing field isn’t even. But eventually we recognize that the point of the game is the game, not the rules that govern it.
Our Gospel is speaking about the place of rules. Jesus’ disciples have eaten with the ritual washing of hands. This washing is not like the signs we see in restaurant rest rooms that say all employees must thoroughly wash hands. This is long before the days of Purell and antibacterial soap. This is a ritual gesture done out of reverence, not a case of life and death.
Jesus comes back at the legalists who are attacking him and his apostles. He is pointing to what religion is all about, not what the rules of religion are about. He gives a compelling explanation of what clean and unclean might mean—it’s not what we eat, nor how we eat it. Rather, the kind of cleanliness we have to strive for is the basic integrity of our lives. Clean is when our lives lead to virtue, to putting God and others first; unclean are the selfish and undisciplined impulses that lead us to hurt and abuse others.
In no way is Jesus saying that law should be ignored or violated. Rather, Jesus wants law to do what it is supposed to do, lead us to the deeper values according to which we live, and help us be faithful to those deeper values. For Jesus, as we know, and for many Jews at that time, the deepest values were summarized as loving God above everything and loving one’s neighbor as oneself. These are the essentials of our relationship with God. This was the heart of the Law of Moses which the first reading encourages us to follow.
Unless we keep law in its proper role, our faith becomes a legal game. We get into the game of seeing if we can get away with breaking a rule, if we can out-lawyer the lawyers, or if we can pick our favorite laws and try to ignore the rest of them. We imagine our judgment as a legal battle between us and St. Peter, and we figure we might win the argument if we are clever enough.
But of course there is no basis for argument. There is only the relationship that we have with God and with our conscience. Ultimately, the games we can play with God come at our own expense, for the God who loves us pours “all good things upon us,” and shows such grace that we, in the end, can only look like selfish fools not to see that. What defiles us is thinking we have to play games with, and try to trick, God at all.
“No one is above the law,” we hear. We’ve had non-stop politicians running on the “law and order” platform for many decades. We need laws and honor them. But laws are not the ultimate. For our judgment will not be what laws we broke, but whether we have, in our lives, reflected the generous and compassionate face of God.
When it comes to taking tests, some of us prefer essays because we have the gift of gab and usually can shovel words pretty well. A few of us like “fill in the blank” questions because we are good at memorization. Many of us, though, like multiple choice tests. We can often look at the options and guess the correct answers by eliminating the improbable ones.
And we like multiple choices in life. We want a large menu of things to choose from—where we might go to school, what kinds of careers we might be interested in, lots of people from which to choose a life-long mate. One of the complaints of modern politics is that it does not give us the breadth of candidates we would like. We feel cornered into a choice, we say.
I think this multiple-choice pattern also fits our religious views today. Often popular culture expresses it this way: “One religion is as good as another. They all teach us how to be good.” A more radical version of this even suggests that believing or not-believing makes no difference, so long as you are decent to other people. Even within a faith however, we want multiple choices. Sometimes we want a strong and personal faith that takes over our lives; sometimes we like Jesus to be a bit further away because we feel like he’s crowding us out.
The Gospel does not give us multiple choices. It comes as the climax of the sixth chapter of St. John’s Gospel which we have been reading for give weeks. Jesus, having fed the people as a way to show them the kind of true and eternal feeding God wants to give them, sees people walking away from him. How can they do that? we ask. “Cannot they see the intimacy and total love Jesus is offering?” But is it not the case that modern life produces many people who at least distance themselves from the faith, or say they abandon it altogether.
Peter clarifies things for us, just as Joshua clarified things for the ancient Jewish people. Where do you stand? What is your choice? Peter says to Jesus, in some of the most memorable lines in the Gospel, “Lord, where shall we go? You alone have the words of eternal life.” In doing this, Peter shows the real motives for religious choice: we are drawn to what is absolutely good, and what satisfies us totally. Nothing else is going to fulfill the needs of Peter except the gift of God given by Jesus Christ, who is God’s gift to humankind,.
It may feel that we never get to make choices like Peter’s. But that’s why this series of Sundays when we have reflected on Jesus as the Bread of Life is so helpful to us. Every time we come to Mass, every time we gather at the Lord’s altar, every time we approach for communion, are we not saying what Peter said—“Lord, we have to come to you because you alone are the One who gives us true life.” Every time we come to worship, we are making the same choice that Peter and the apostles made. We are choosing Christ as the food of our lives.
Multiple choice exams help us see the wrong responses. But often our human lives do not work the same way. We keep thinking that this choice or that choice will fulfill us. We treat one or another thing as if it is absolute in our lives. “Will you also depart from me?” asks Jesus. “Will you starve yourself because you have not chosen my way of life?” We worship to help us remember which is the one and only true answer in life. To go anywhere else is to be confused and lost.
It used to be easy to identify wisdom figures. There was the counselor at high school that help us figure out how take the next step. We all had a grandparent who had lots of experience, or an uncle or aunt in whom we could confide. Sometimes ex-presidents or famous leaders from business seem to be experts that want to help others. But today there’s a proliferation of people giving others advice or warnings. People are posting, tweeting, Facebooking, blogging nonstop, all with messages for someone else.
So how do we identify wise people? The Gospel seems to suggest that we should look at what people do, and not just at what they say. Because it’s easy to say things; some people say profound things lots of times. But the wise person is not the one who talks, but the one whose talk lines up with life. When people are living their messages out, and showing us the consequences, then they deserve special attention.
Jesus describes himself as the bread of life, he qualifies it right away. “The bread I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.” In other words, what Jesus has to give us is the gift of himself—but that gift comes as the selfless love that he shows in his death and resurrection. “How can this man give us bread from heaven?” they ask. Because he shows God limitless love—the sacrifice he is willing to make for the sake of all of us. Jesus is God’s true food because Jesus gives himself to show what his life, and all life, means.
The second reading talks about people being foolish, that is, people without a sense of wisdom. We have a choice of living foolishly or living authentically—and we are often tempted to live inauthentically by the culture around us. Our culture often makes life look like a process of getting and keeping as much as we can, whereas Jesus says true life is to give oneself to others in service. The images we often see around us suggest aggrandizing egos—wealthy business people, powerful politicians, famous popular actors—and some of these people are the first to offer their wisdom, to give advice. I’m always surprised at how often we think entertainers have so much to tell us . . . because they sold a lot of hits or made a lot of money in the movies, they are now going to tell us how to raise our children?
We come to eat the flesh of Jesus. This means more than going to communion and feeling close to Jesus. It means that his flesh becomes our flesh, his wisdom becomes our wisdom, his way of life forms the way we live. Just as people can talk without backing that up with their actions, so we also can call ourselves Christians and Catholics without backing that up by the way we live. More than 50 years ago, Pope Paul said that the world needed witnesses more than teachers; and it would listen to teachers only insofar as their lives witnessed what they said.
As we eat the Bread of Life, the living Word of truth who comes into our hearts, we need to accompany this gesture with a very simple prayer: Lord, make us wise with the Wisdom of Jesus. Help us to give ourselves in love for others as Jesus did, so we become living words of your gospel, witnessing not only with lips but, most of all, with our lives.
“How did they ever do it?” we ask. Most recently it was with the soccer team and their coach lost in the cave in Thailand. The cave flooded with water from torrential rains; only their bikes, left outside the cave, let people know they were lost. Ten days—with barely anything to eat. Ten days starving; each kid lost an average of 4 pounds. Ten days wondering if they would die. This story reminds us of others—the plane that crashed in the Andes over 30 years ago, and the 33 miners trapped underground in Chile 10 years ago. How did they do it?
We cannot imagine such desperation. Most of us live with the enormous convenience of refrigerators filled with items from Costco or Safeway. If I feel thirsty, I just wander over to the fridge, grab a soda or a juice, and drink away. If I feel a little twinge of hunger, well I can go to the pantry and snack away, call Dominos for a pizza, or just get in the car for McDonalds. So readily available is food, and all kinds of food and drink, that we can barely imagine what we would do if we were desperate—desperate for just a tiny morsel on which to nibble.
Our first reading shows a pretty desperate Elijah. He is so hungry he says, in effect, he could just die. “I give up,” he says. “Lord take my life. I’m no better than my fathers.” Elijah is in the desert, hungry and thirsty, with no relief in sight. But God took care of him, with messengers bringing bread and water—enough so Elijah could complete his mission of prophesying to Israel.
Perhaps all this talk about being desperately hungry seems curious to us, but not compelling in view of all we eat. But the Scriptures present these images so that we will not be superficial. The relative ease we feel about having the resources we need should not deceive us about the underlying desperation of our own lives. Every human being is born desperate, and every one of us will die desperate. And, while we live, we will also be desperate because not one of us can secure a moment of his or her life. We live desperate for life, and desperate for love as well, even if we protect ourselves from seeing this.
Jesus is trying to get this desperation across to his listeners, all of whom he fed with the few loaves of barley. “I am the bread of life,” he says. Everyone eats this or that, your ancestors ate in the desert, but what you ultimately need is what I alone can give you. You are desperate for God’s life, and I give that to you in abundance. “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.”
For us who come to church on Sunday most of the time, there is a temptation. We can presume on the food, the Word, and the grace we receive. Coming to Church can feel a bit like driving to McDonalds—something we do out of custom or want. A recent survey of religious practice said that 81% of Americans go to Church to “feel closer to God.” But such sentiments can obscure a much more fundamental reason for coming to Mass—because we are desperate for life, we hunger for love, and only God can satisfy these wants. Jesus comes to satisfy our deepest hungers and needs. The more we see these, more we know just how hungry we are.
Plato might like this idea—suppose we are all like those soccer kids in a cave. Suppose we are all stranded and only pretending to be fed. Suppose all we do to fill our stomachs is only a sign of all the rest of us that needs to be filled. Jesus is telling us we don’t have to stay in the cave of make-believe. If we come to him with all our hungers, we can discover the real food that he wants to give us.
Suspicion is the name of the game—that is, we have learned to be suspicious about the motives of just about anyone. A few years ago, it was normal to see the motives of teachers questioned—do they really care for their students or is this a comfy way to stable income and early retirement? The motives of politicians come under question all the time as election commercials tear into the reputations of opponents. The police are wrapped in so many suspicions it is sometimes hard for them to even to accomplish the basic job of protecting the public. And we all know the multiple suspicions we’ve come to have even about our clergy.
But what about ourselves, and our own motives, when it comes to God and our worship of God? During these weeks of reflection on Jesus’ feeding the crowd in the desert, and our reflection on the gift of the Eucharist, Jesus asks the crowd about their motives: “Did you look for me because you had your bellies filled, or because you have seen the sign that I performed?”
Of course we need to be fed . . . and we know God marvelously fed the ancient Israelites as they made their way to the promised land. But even there, God questions the insight of the Israelites. God asks why people are grumbling, worrying about whether God would care for them, when God has given them the greatest gift they could ask for, liberation from slavery. “Do you want to be slaves again?” God asks. In fact, the Israelite’s motives are not clear. Perhaps the onions and vegetables of Egypt are more desirable than freedom.
This provides us an opportunity to reflect on our own motives for worshipping, for coming before God each week. What are we seeking to accomplish? For generations, the motive was avoiding mortal sin, and we celebrated most masses as quickly as we could, “to get it over with”—all the more so when we fasted from midnight. But that’s Jesus question—is your motive about yourself, or is your motive about God?
When Jesus says we should eat his food because we have seen the sign, he is telling us that, far more than anything we get for ourselves, we need to see what the Eucharist is saying about God. What is the sign? Not the immediate gratification of hunger, but the ultimate gift of life in and with God. Not the solving of this or that problem, not the addressing of this or that issue, but the total love and support that God gives us because of God’s total love for us. This may sound obvious or even trite, but the truth is that many today, going and not going to church, have not grasped the sign of God’s total love for us. And only when we see this can our deepest hungers begin to be met.
The second reading gives us quite an image: “the futility of their minds.” Paul is talking about Gentiles, people who have yet come to faith, people who don’t really know why they are alive. How can I know the meaning of my life without faith, without seeing God’s sign? The Gentiles run from one thing to another, one feeling to another, one thought to another, trying to fill up their emptiness, when only faith can do that. We prefer the taste of the onions of personal slavery to the taste of God’s fullness.
At the very least, while we question and purify our own motives, we should become clear about God’s motives—to share divine live, to give us the fullness that we crave, and to address, in the end, the deepest needs we have. Indeed, God not only wants to feed us; God wants all the world to be fed with the food everyone desperately needs, the food of sharing in God’s own life.
Sunday started early for my mother. After early Mass, she would begin making the sauce for whatever pasta we were going to have. Most of the time we had rigatoni, but sometimes we’d be surprised by another kind of pasta. But the sauce was what held it together. Of course, meatballs came standard, but there might be a bracciole now and then, or a piece of pork, or even a bit of steak. But the next big day after Sunday was Tuesday, when my mother would produce the left-overs from Sunday. “It tastes even better,” my father would regularly say.
While most of the time we think eating leftovers is something desperate, I’ve seen people get very excited about how they were going to eat cold pizza for breakfast, or bring their box from the Chinese restaurant to work for lunch. Jesus gives us leftovers today, twelve wicker baskets full of leftover bread, when they thought they had none to begin with. Apart from the fact that Jesus is recalling the ministry of Elijah which we saw in the first reading, Jesus also is reassuring the people of the abundance of God’s care.
After all, the bread came from sharing, and the leftover bread is meant to be shared as well. God is so good that his gifts spill into our lives, so that they can spill over into the lives of others. In fact, in the mystery of God, the more that we share, the more that seems to come into our lives. Those people who have to hoard everything they have, absorbed with the amount they have and who might steal it, never seem to have enough. Those most generous among us never seem to worry and always seem to have plenty, no matter how much they give away.
The bread that Jesus gives arises from the hunger of his people—hunger not only for food, but hunger for the Word of God. They were the ones whom we saw last week, who had seen the wonders of Jesus and heard his teaching, and then raced ahead to catch him, even though he wanted some time to rest. “They were like sheep without a shepherd,” we read last week. They hunger for God’s Word, which is a hunger for the certainty of God’s care, and for knowing God’s directions in their lives. Now he feeds them, and he give them leftovers—in effect, he is challenging them to give what they have received to others.
For the leftovers of God are as good as the original meal that God served. God’s love does not diminish as it is shared; God’s Word grows even louder and clearer as it passes from person to person. As we will see for the next Sundays, the bread that God gives is the very life and person of Jesus. When we hunger for God’s Word in our lives, we are actually hungering for a share in God’s own life. This is what God gives us in his Son Jesus, and in the ongoing celebration of the Eucharist. God’s leftovers are the unending gift of God’s life, given to us, and given to the world through us.
We who come and eat regularly at the table of the Lord, we surely are eating far more than those ancient followers of Jesus. They ate barley loaves. We eat the body and blood of Jesus himself. So what are we going to do with the food we receive? Because we are not eating just for ourselves. Through us, God is feeding all of humankind. How is this happening in our lives?
First, it happens through the care we show each other. While we do this mostly in our families, sustaining those we love, we also do this through the generosity we show everyone. There is a piece in our culture which teaches us to hold on to what we have and be cautious about others. Jesus teaches us that caution is not God’s style. Secondly, it happens through the way we share God’s Word with each other. Just as we all hunger for what God would give us, so does the world, whether it know it or not. How can you and I share God’s Word—primarily a word of divine love and grace—with everyone around us? This does not mean harping on others, as if we are the goody-goodies and show off our faith. It happens in those moments when people show us their hunger, their needs, their fears—and we have the privilege to feed them with the Word of God we have heard and has become our way of life.
The young boy in the Gospel had no idea of all the things his loaves of barley bread would bring about. But, in a sense, isn’t that true of all of us? We look upon our lives as so little and so weak, as almost nothing. But in the hands of Jesus, revealing the abundant power of God, so much can come from us if we don’t hold back, if we offer what we have and are as gifts to be shared in God’s love.
Perhaps there is a crisis of leadership in the world; at the very least, there’s a crisis on our inability to pick leaders that transcend particular points of view. Many people worry that the European Union is breaking up because sections of voters are electing leaders who represent minority opinions. We are fixated on our own 2018 elections—will this party or that party take over one of the houses of Congress, all the while knowing that our deadlocked political pattern will continue on no matter who gets elected. We reach back into the past—if only we had a leader like this one or that one—even though we forget the political obstacles they faced. Every time I visit the Lincoln Memorial, I stare into the face of Lincoln, wondering how he kept steady in the face of the obstacles and the vast human costs of the civil war.
Leadership was not easy in ancient times, and certainly not in Israel. Samuel was something of prophet-leader and people pressed him to start a kingship in Israel. He is reluctant, but eventually he anoints Saul as the first of many kings, almost all of whom were disappointments, almost all of whom did not keep their covenant with God. Jeremiah, in our first reading, speaks of the failure of this leadership—shepherds who cared only for themselves, not for their people. “I myself will lead them,” God says through Jeremiah. “I will feed my sheep.”
There is no clearer example of God leading and feeding the people than the One he sent to us, Jesus Christ. In today’s Gospel we find Jesus just before he will feed the multitude with wondrous bread; he tries to escape with his disciples for a break. The people will not let him go; they run to the other side of the lake to greet him when he disembarks. “They were like sheep without a shepherd.” And so he taught them.
We need to get into our own experiences of confusion and fear in order to try to see what drove the people to Jesus. For in our own lives, how often have we been without a rudder, drifting this way and that way, wondering what we should do? We go over the options again and again, but there comes no breakthrough. In some ways we do not yet know the deepest needs of our hearts, so we cannot find direction. Only when we find those deepest needs can we find a path forward in our lives. Often there arise leaders in our lives who help us sort out the confused options we face—so that we could find direction.
We often think we don’t need much direction. We have it all figured out, or, if we need to, we can Google this or that website in order to find an answer. But the truth is that we are in profound need of direction. Answers do not come easily inside of us, and the biggest answers, the greatest clues, come from beyond ourselves, from a God who created us, who guides us, who sustains us with the gift of his Holy Spirit. We don’t find these answers by treating God as a magician, pulling us mysteriously from the messes we make, or sending us secret clues. We find these answers by opening our hearts in prayer, and by being willing to discern with those wise people God sends our way.
Paul today shows us one of the pressing functions of leadership. He talks about the divisions in Christian life in the first century—how Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians often felt divided. Christ, Paul says, is the leader who unites us, “destroying in his very body the divisions between us,” because Christ takes on the brokenness of us all and brings them to a new resolution because of his union with God, and because of the resurrection for which we all hope. A leader brings together and unites. How much leadership just like this we need today!
Political and communal life perhaps inevitably has divisions and tensions. So conflict, like confusion, comes as part of the package of life. But these tensions and distractions are not to keep us where we are, spinning like pet gerbils in a cage. Rather, they can drive us outside ourselves, and beyond ourselves, to encounter the One waiting to lead us to a new vision, to new hopes, to eternal life—Jesus Christ.
It’s very wise advice: never skip a committee meeting or leave early. Because that’s when the group will vote for you to do something that you really never wanted to do. We need a secretary? Mary’s not here, but she’d be great. We need a social media coordinator? Kevin would be great! We need a new vice president? I think Shirley mentioned that to me once. Then they will talk in detail about all the gifts you have—and, presto, you got a job you never planned on getting. You were volunteered.
We can feel that way about our faith, too. That we were volunteered. We were baptized as babies, we say. But even those who join the church as adults can feel like they bit off more than they bargained for. We hear Amos in the first reading echoing something that we often think. “I was a shepherd; I took care of sycamore trees.” We immediately think of our limitations, that we are just ordinary Catholics, that we never studied theology or got ordained. Leave me alone. What do you want from me?
Something like this might have flashed through the minds of the disciples in the Gospel. They were happy enough to see Jesus doing wondrous signs. They left their ordinary lives and followed Jesus, preparing for his visits and marveling at the wonders he was doing. But now he wants them to do some wonders . . . heal the sick, drive out demons, proclaim my Kingdom. I can just see them looking at each other saying, “Did we sign up for this? I thought Jesus was going to do it all?”
But then we see Amos and the disciples accept their call. Amos says, “Maybe I was just a shepherd, but God has given me a message to proclaim, and I am going to proclaim it!” And the apostles go out, two by two, visiting people, facing the prospect that they may even be rejected, but empowered by Jesus’ clear invitation. Once they knew they were called, they knew God gave them strength to live it.
Paul gives us a powerful line today: “In him you were also chosen.” Paul is not writing to wealthy people, or people learned in the Hebrew Scriptures, or people schooled in public speaking. He was speaking to ordinary Christians like you and me. We were chosen in Christ. We have the mission Christ’s mission to accomplish. We have been sealed with the Spirit who has imprinted God’s Word in our hearts: this is why we can be Christ’s ambassadors in the world.
But, we want to say, but, but . . . We are only housewives or secretaries, mechanics or office workers. What do you want from us, Lord? And Jesus wants to say back to us: haven’t you received my Spirit? Haven’t you met me? Then why are you afraid of the mission I have given you? Even if they give you a hard time, which rarely happens, it’s not going to hurt you. I have sent you as my prophets and my proclaimers in your everyday world.
Sometimes we imagine this as something nuts, being a religious fanatic or holy roller. But every one of us is capable to saying to another what our faith does for us. Every one of us can put into simple words why we come to worship. Every one of us is capable of showing sympathy, or spending some time with someone in need, of encouraging people who are discouraged. Every one of us, at some moment, can say to another: You know how much God loves you, right?
We may think we were “volunteered” against our will when we were baptized, but every time we have come to Mass, we are saying to Christ: I am your disciple. I want to be united to you. I want to hear your word and I want to be sent out into the world. We were more than “volunteered” in faith. No, we were, and always are, invited, personally by Jesus Christ, to his agents in transforming the world.
Of course there are many obstacles in our lives. For whole regions in our country, just getting to work is a major obstacle. New Yorkers dread a subway tie-up; Washington trembles at the thought of the Beltway blocked; some people would rather die than get on the 405 in Los Angeles. More broadly in life, how many people never finished their studies because money ran out, and how many people left their dreams behind because no one around them gave them any encouragement?
But for all the external obstacles in our lives—the Gospel, today, shows us how Jesus’ own townspeople discouraged and rejected him—we are more than intrigued by one of the most puzzling sentences in all of scripture—the one where St. Paul talks about the thorn in the side of his flesh. What was that? we ask. Although scholars speculate that Paul might have had bad eyes, or even suffered from epilepsy, the truth is that no one knows.
That’s why the idea of “the thorn in the flesh” can be very helpful to us—precisely because we do not know its exact meaning. This phrase can represent anything that holds us back, especially those things that come from within. Because our main obstacles do not always come from those around us, or our broader environment. When we think about it, our main obstacles are from within—the things you and I carry around in our hearts and heads. These are the factors that often zap our energy and destroy forward movement in our lives.
We can learn from Paul how these inner obstacles can help us. First, they taught Paul that, as gifted as he was, he could not do it by himself. Paul was not the complete person, the perfect saint, the one totally in control. Paul had to confront his weakness, just as you and I have to confront ours—sometimes weaknesses that last our whole lives. In fact, if we ever think that we have it all together, everything wrapped up perfectly, we probably are due for a huge downfall. There is no greater blunder than thinking we have everything in order.
Secondly, Paul’s condition taught him his true inner strength. There is not a career or skill that has succeeded without overcoming limitations. Our most honored baseball players have had to play through periods when it seemed like they lost all their gifts. Some of the people I admire most are the older folks who come to Mass every Sunday with walkers and wheelchairs. They are stronger for having to fight their obstacles. Indeed, aren’t we all strong when we come to that point in our experience and yell back at the world: “You’re not going to keep me down. No sir!”?
Lastly, Paul’s limitations taught him that he absolutely needed God. The words even today make us quiver: “My grace is sufficient for you.” Our weakness is made powerful because it leads us to come to see, and come to totally rely on, God’s grace in our lives. But what is God’s grace? Sometimes we think of it as some kind of magic God puts mysteriously in side of us. But God’s grace is God’s infinite love, surrounding and healing us, bringing us into union with God. When we see and accept this giving dimension of God, present in our lives, we begin to be transformed. As Paul would say in another setting, “it isn’t I who live,” but Christ lives inside us.
We dwell on the obstacles in our lives because they give us something and someone to blame. Often we are tempted to dwell on our inner weaknesses because they give us the false comfort of self-pity. But neither obstacles from outside or from within matter much to God who has called us and loved us even with our limitations. God can use any of us if we trust enough to let God do it.
What will desperation drive us to? It makes some people willing to experiment with a treatment or medicine that is not yet approved for wide usage. “I might as well try, because I have no alternative, do I?” It leads some people to commit crime because they have no money, and no prospect of getting a job. “I do what I have to do,” I’ve heard people say. And it obviously leads some people, often poor women, to walk hundreds of miles with very little in their pockets, taking a child or two, just for a chance to get asylum. Desperation—which technically means to be without hope—leads us to actions we would not otherwise contemplate.
We have desperate people in the Gospel today, the two Mark’s Gospel presents to us. He tucks one story inside another, the story of the woman within the story of the synagogue leader. Each of them has nowhere to go. The woman has been suffering for non-stop bleeding. We need to understand what that meant in her culture. Blood was where the Jewish people thought life existed. To suffer with this kind of non-stop bleeding meant that one was ritually impure, perpetually dirty, always something of an outcast. “If I but touch his garment,“ she thinks. But Jesus wants to teach her, and us, something essential. When we deal with God, we don’t go sneaking around, as if God were some magic machine. “Who touched me?” Jesus asks. “I want to meet you face-to-face, because that’s where I can teach you about faith and love.”
The synagogue leader, Jairus, has no problem speaking directly to Jesus. After all, it’s not his illness, but the illness of his daughter—won’t we do far more to help someone we love than we often would for ourselves? Most of us would move heaven and earth for a child or a parent. He comes initially because his daughter is sick; we can imagine the look on his face as he talks to Jesus. But later in the story he learns how desperate he truly is. Can we not seek his face when they bring him news that his daughter now is dead? Can we imagine something more deflated—his hopes, his daughter, now are taken from him.
But Jesus pushes the issue because he wants to teach us that we may be desperate, but God is not. “Your daughter is not dead but sleeping.” And everyone mocks Jesus because they know a dead person when they see one. They know when to throw in the towel, when to give up. Jesus makes the scene even more intimate—only the parents and his disciples are in the room with him. He takes the girl by the hand and speaks directly to her. Just as the bleeding woman had to look Jesus in the face, so also must this seemingly-dead girl deal directly with Christ. That’s the only path to what Jesus can do for us. “Little girl, arise, get up.” And now we can imagine, yet again, the look on Jairus’ face. He dared to look at Christ, Christ dared to look upon his daughter—and that’s what brought them from desperation to joy.
Christ himself would know desperation. We will see him weeping in the garden. We will see him caught in another, far less friendly, crowd. We will hear him cry on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” But Jesus has beheld the face of his Father, and has come to reveal that Father to us. His final words are ones that form the basis of all Christian spirituality: “Father, into your hands I commend my Spirit.” Because once God has beheld us, do we think God stops? Once we have dared to look upon God, do you think the relationship ends? Our desperation leads us to more than God. It leads us to a vision of what makes life possible, God’s unending fidelity to us. “Just have faith,” says Jesus. Just keep looking for God.
Of course, people look for almost anything but God today. We are inclined to trust chemicals and social studies before we trust faith. In doing this, we just grow more and more desperate. Surely, science, medicine, psychology, and social studies can improve our lives. But they cannot save us from our desperation. Only faith, that is, only by turning to God from the deepest core of our being—only faith can ultimately provide a foundation for our lives.
The truth is that all of us are desperate. Sometimes we can hide that desperation, but the synagogue leader and the bleeding woman are saying something different. We don’t have to hide our desperation. We can use it to drive us to Jesus, where he makes us look him in the face, and intimately shows us what divine assurance is all about.
Birth of John the Baptist
From my vast observation of announcements of pregnancies on Facebook, I know that a few couples do not announce the gender of their baby. In fact, a some of them refuse to even learn the gender of their babies. But almost all of them start working on the names right away. “If it’s a boy, it will be this; if it’s a girl, it will be that.” Some cultures put off naming a child for a year, but most of us can’t wait to name, or offer a name, to the child. “O, you were born when Tiffany was a hot name!”
We have a naming in the Gospel today, on this feast of the birth of John the Baptist, although there seems to be some confusion. The family expects something. The mother expects something else. The father cannot speak. But they eventually revert to the name the angel gave to the baby: “You will name him John.” The name means “God has shown favor.” The name is meant to be, as we hear it said today, disruptive.
God is disrupting something in human experience. Generations come after generations; fathers and sons, even if they do not share the same name, at least share the same assumptions about life. But here God is doing something different. Into the seemingly endless and relentless cycle of human begetting and being born, God will do something new, represented in the life of this baby who will have the task, and privilege, of preparing the world for Jesus Christ. God’s favor will be clearer because of his work.
And what was the work of John? It was to be harbinger of hope. When John is finally born, his father, Zechariah, recites a chant which the Church prays every morning. It’s called the “Benedictus” from the first word in Latin. But the ending of the chant has quite a punch line: this child, the chant says, will proclaim a new day for “all those who sit in darkness and death’s shadow.” To these people John will show a “way of peace.”
Every morning when I recite this chant, I think about this phrase which so often captures much of human experience. Indeed, how many people sit in darkness, not knowing the light that God has shown upon us in Jesus? How many people live in depression, if not despair? What does the uptick in suicides say to today’s absence of hope? What does the epidemic of opioids and other death-bringing drugs say to us? We are living without hope, without a sense of purpose, without a vision of where we are going and why. Some people blame this on economics, some on social status, but these are occasions which reveal the deeper problem: for all the wonders of technology and medicine, we cannot solve the problem of despair. Only God can, with the gift of hope.
John is called to be a prophet to bring hope to a desperate people. Maybe this feast is saying that to us, we followers of the one John baptized—that our basic mission today is to bring hope to our world. How do we do this? Through the faith that we have which has clarified this truth for us: that we have come from a God of boundless love, that we move forward to experience fully this God of boundless love, and that our everyday lives can reflect just this scope of limitless love. You and I, by the way we live, and the attitudes we have, and the words we speak—we can bring hope to a world dying of cynicism.
When I think of this passage, and other sections of the bible where people receive new names, I sometimes want to challenge people: if you were to name yourself today, knowing what you know of yourself, what name would you pick? But, even more, if you heard God naming you again, what name do you think God would give you?
This is a way of saying that every one of us has been given a mission, and that mission is grounded in the same hope God gives to all those privileged to be God’s followers.
Well we’ve had a lot of hype, and it’s still going on. We had the hockey and basketball championships going on at the same time. There was so much energy around the Capitals, and the final victory seemed to bring the whole city out in celebration. We watched the Golden State Warriors swept Cleveland, even with their powerful Lebron James. This weekend is the US Masters on Long Island. The Nationals are keeping up their hopes for playoffs. And, even more than the usual hype in politics, we’ve witnessed our president talk economics in Canada and talk potential peace in Singapore.
Sometimes I wonder if we get excited about these big games and big events because, apart from this, our lives seem so ho-hum. If we wrote down what we did every day, how many days would look just like other days . . . up at the same time, the same cup of coffee from the same device, mostly cereal but maybe toast, the same drive in the same traffic, the same desk or workspace, the same routine for lunch . . . I think you get the idea. So in this world of everyday things, almost monotonous, we look for the hype, something big, something to bring zest into our lives.
In a way, our Gospel warns us against just this kind of thinking when it comes to faith. Jesus gives us two parables, and each one seems, well, ho-hum. The one who plants the seed and just lets it grow; he doesn’t know or care how. He just waters it and lets nature, and the seed, do its work. Or the mustard seed, the tiniest of them all, but it grows all by itself into a large bush where all the birds can find rest. Jesus is telling us, in effect, that the Kingdom grows of its own dynamism, and we don’t need a lot of hype to make it happen.
These images contain an important message for us, particularly in these times of constant hype and hoopla. Because the hype can lead us to think that our faith needs to be hyped up, and we need lots of hype for the Kingdom of God to grow. And this can make us all feel pretty inadequate. How am I supposed to make the Kingdom grow? What is God asking me to do? I’m not trained to be a scholar or religion or a preacher . . . what does Jesus expect of me?
Well, the parables are telling us, to plant the seeds that we can plant and to trust that God will make things happen. But we have to plant the seed—which comes down to living our faith sincerely and without hiding it, and sharing with others as they are open to hearing the words we have to say. It’s in the little things of our lives, especially the little things we do at home and with the family, that the Church will grow, that the Kingdom comes about. Sometimes we want to see the whole process, but perhaps we only get to see what the farmer sees, growth happening almost imperceptibly.
When I look back at my life, I discover something that others have also noted. The greatest growth took place when I felt nothing, when I thought I was not making progress, when I felt farthest from God. Growth is not up to us, but to what God does in us when we give God permission. We can block growth; indeed, often we do. But we can’t make growth happen. On this Fathers’ Day, I’m sure many fathers will receive items with the logo of the Caps or the Nats, or some other team. And fathers will appreciate the attention they get. But I suspect what fathers will most appreciate, as they look around the table or sit in the back yard, is how their children are growing or have grown. “Wow, it happened so fast. I don’t know where time went. I don’t know how they grew so quickly.” God, of course, knows how it happens . . . but perhaps God is no less astonished.
Living in a town as political as Washington, we know how the blame game works. People try to set it up so that no matter what another group does, it can get blamed. Politicians try to give others something like a poison pill: vote for this bill with something that you desperately want, and we’ll stick in something that will make you look like hypocrites. And then we’ll blame you!
We can see from the first reading, the blame game goes way back. Through all the mythology of this very early story in the book of Genesis, everyone is pointing fingers. Ultimately the defense comes down to: the devil made me do it. In fact, we see this defense at play in a variety of ways in our readings today.
The serpent gets the blame for the bad choices made in the Garden of Eden, and the devil gets the blame for the good things that Jesus is doing in the Gospel. We can use the “devil” to try to absolve ourselves, or to try to demonize someone else. But in each case, the whole point is to evade responsibility. When will we take responsibility for our lives and actions?
On the one hand, we don’t want to accept responsibility for our own bad choices in life, even when we had perfect foresight about what would happen. So we overspent, or we deliberately got ourselves into a compromising situation, or we hung around folks who we knew were bad influences, or we promised something we knew we couldn’t fulfill—yes, we could easily foresee what would happen, but we did it anyway. We did it. I did it. I am responsible.
On the other hand, we can do the responsible thing and acknowledge what God is doing in the world and in my life—but, irresponsibly, we refuse. We see good, but question the motives. We see people try, but we still have suspicions. We receive good invitations but do everything we can to avoid responding to them. We say things like, “It’s boring,” or “I don’t want to” even though God is offering us his greatest gifts. Whoever blasphemes the Holy Spirit—that is, whoever refuses to see the good that God puts into our lives—cannot be forgiven because he or she has written God right out of the system.
Jesus, of course, takes responsibility. His driving out demons is his way of saying that in God’s Kingdom the forces of evil will have no power, that good and fullness will reign. When he liberates people from what is trapping them, he shows how God would free us from all the things that trap us and hold us back. Jesus takes responsibility and calls us all to be responsible. Indeed, we can be responsible in him, and in his grace.
Mark shows us that Jesus’ actions confused even his family; the Gospels always want to make a point that physical kinship can never be stronger the spiritual kindship. “Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is brother and sister and mother to me.” But being spiritually kin to Jesus means that we accept the responsibilities that Jesus places on his followers: to be masters of our own lives by putting them into God’s hands, and, as masters of our own lives through grace, to work with Christ to defeat the forces of evil.
Paul urges his Corinthian community members not to be discouraged. The grace of Jesus has come upon them. They can undertake their role because they are assured a place in Christ’s resurrection. Discouragement is often a way to take the pressure off us and put it somewhere else. “No,” says Jesus. “I have conquered your fears. Be strong. Believe. Live my way of life and serve the Kingdom of God as I do.”
Corpus Christi B
Blood is thicker than water. We hear that all the time. Our connections with blood relations are stronger than our connections with those who are not our family members. But, even so, that might not be very thick. How many people haven’t spoken to their sisters and brothers in years, and don’t intend to? How often do parents throw their children, in effect, out of the house, or out of their will. I was once with an elderly lady who was dying. Her son had flown in to see her. But she didn’t want to see him. “Why?” I asked, astonished at her attitude. “He married a woman I told him not to marry. I’ll never forget that.”
So it isn’t blood as such, but what we make of blood. Blood becomes important when it is connected with deep love and unfailing loyalty. Those who would do anything for their children, or those who would risk anything for their country, even their lives, give blood a very distinct meaning: it stands for a love that is even stronger than life. In the first reading, we see blood represent religious loyalty. We are hearing one of the important passages in which he Jewish people are sealing a covenant with God. God has pledged enduring love for his people. Now, sprinkled with the blood of their animal offerings, they are saying that they will follow God with their very lives. They pledge loyalty back to a faithful and loyal God.
Jesus renewed this covenant and applies it to himself at the Last Supper. He has come to Jerusalem, the city where he said the prophets had to die. Seated with his closest friends, he asks them to share in the love of his commitment: my body will be given in love—be part of that commitment with me. My blood will be poured out in love—will you join me in that sacrifice. The apostles receive, as if they understand what’s happening. But they will only begin to understand what Jesus is doing after they experience him risen from the dead. He shows them his wounds, now no longer bloody, but now eternal proof of the love he showed when he poured out his blood.
What did the outpouring of his love mean? Two things. First, it was a sign of God’s love for every person, blood shed for “the many”—all who see God’s grace in their lives. Secondly, his love cries out to God for mercy and peace. Think of how often we consider that the shedding of blood demands justice, and probably even revenge. This leads us to an endless cycle of blow for blow, fight for fight, war for war. Jesus breaks this cycle. The Letter to the Hebrews tells us that Christ’s blood is more eloquent than that shed by Abel, symbolically the first human murdered. Abel’s blood cries out for vengeance; Christ’s blood cries out for mercy. “Look at my blood and see what your anger and sanctimoniousness brings about. In my blood, may all put aside the anger in their hearts.”
As we celebrate the Feast of the Body and Blood of Christ, we recognize the greatness of this gift God has given to us. In it, we see the covenant of God renewed again and again, as God’s life is given every time we celebrate the Mass. But in this feast, we see the gift that God gives us precisely because he gives us a way to be part of that eternal covenant ourselves. Christ’s signs God’s love with his blood, and lets us be part of eternal commitment which says that God’s faithfulness can be imparted to us even though we doubt; and Christ’s eternal love can strengthen even our often-wavering love.
Some blood is thin, much blood is thick. But Christ’s blood is the thickest of all. It binds us to each other, and it binds all of us to God’s unfailing faithfulness.
It was a strange question, but it made me think. Would we be willing to have someone play a role in our life, if we had no one else? Would a relationship with someone who is an actor be able to take the place of a family relationship? The question was part of a story about some businesses in Japan who will rent people to take part in your life if you were missing someone. Your son is away? Rent someone like your son to visit. You are divorced and lonely? Rent someone to play the part of your husband. You cannot see your grandchild? You can have someone bring a child over for an afternoon. It’s not cheap, but maybe worth it. $400 for a friend for an afternoon? $1,000 for someone for the whole day
This story gave me in insight, that relationship is so important to us, we’d prefer any relationship to an absence of relationship. And maybe it doesn’t have to be much. People were renting daughters to come once a month! Far better this than nothing at all. Yet all around I see is almost taking our relationships for granted . . . children playing video games alone, parents too busy to pay attention to each other, let alone their children. Parents unvisited in their nursing homes for weeks or months at a time. Yet the passion to connect with others, to have relationships, remains a drive that we cannot red from our hearts.
Where does this come from, this drive to belong? Today we learn that it comes from God, because the heart of God is to be in relationship. We’ve often thought of God as some kind of formless brain in the sky. Today we summarize all that we have heard over the past four months about the death and resurrection of Jesus, and the sending of the Holy Spirit. All of this was to help us see who God is more clearly. And we learn that is endless, outflowing love.
For the Father lives for the Son; and the Son lives for the Father. Their existence is to live for another. In their life and love, we have the very Spirit of God given to us, God’s life shared now with us, to bring us into that endless stream of love that is the heart of God. Because we come from this God of endless love and ongoing connection, we have that same destiny ourselves. Either we live as God does, or our lives are frustrated.
The love that God showed ancient Israel was an image of the love that God showed all humankind in Jesus Christ. The “Lord our God is Lord alone. There is no other,” we hear in the first reading. Because we want to base our lives on so many false ideals and images, but only the image of God shown us in Jesus and his Spirit will work as true images of God. Paul says that when we have false images of God, we fall into a kind of slavery. And, surely, we are slaves when we think the purpose of life is to run around acquiring things more than giving ourselves in love to others.
Jesus sends his disciples forth to make other disciples. That is, we, who have learned the secret of God’s love, help others learn this secret too. We do this not so much by teaching people as by being witnesses of this kind of love. Pope Francis recently told us that we don’t have to look at heroic or exceptional examples; this kind of love can be part of our daily lives. Especially in our families, but also beyond. We remember St. Terese of Lisieux saying that her vocation was to love. She learned that from contemplating the heart of Jesus. Love is our vocation too, of course.
He started slowing down with all social media, but he absolutely gave up Twitter. I was curious about this because I’ve never been tempted to subscribe to Twitter and always wondered why anyone would. In fact, I have a dark hope that Twitter will have come and gone before it ever lands on my phone. He talked further: “There’s just so much anger and ranting, I can’t stand it. For the little bit you learn, you have to put up with a lot of distortion and hate.”
We are, of course, questioning social media, because, while acknowledging the benefits it brings to people, it can be captured and manipulated by others. In fact, we have pretty solid evidence that foreign nations used social media to amplify the already substantial differences we have with each other, feeding different people so-called news that would agitate them even more. Social media, in other words, can widen our divisions and distort our choices as a people.
So what does Pentecost have to say to us today? It’s a tremendously powerful image of the vision that God has for us. As the Spirit comes down upon the apostles, as they are led to speak to the crowds outside, people from all nations begin to hear them in their own languages. In other words, the Spirit is reversing the divisions which the Bible traces back to the book of Genesis, the Tower of Babel, when human ambition led God to create different languages and cultures. This is, of course, a metaphor for how our competition with each other leads to divisions which lead to violence. The Spirit, instead of dividing people, is bringing people from everywhere into the one body of Christ.
We can compete in many fields. Indeed, we can even compete within the one body of Christ. Made one in the Spirit, we can begin to divide up Christ’s body by our own ambition, and our own misestimation of ourselves. When St. Paul writes to the Corinthians, he’s putting his hand into a bee’s nest. Corinthians have been putting each other down in many ways—We’re smarter than those folks, we are more spiritual than those folks, and we have more gifts than those folks. Paul says that any gifts we have come from the very same Spirit, who is God’s gift to everyone to bring us all into one.
It is a Spirit that brings reconciliation—that is, the ability to let go of our grudges and stubbornness to make room for a new experience of each other. Right after bestowing the Holy Spirit in the Gospel, Jesus speaks of forgiveness and reconciliation: “Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them.” For if the Spirit is the one life of God given to each of us, then it is clear that we are called to live this one life together, as brothers and sisters, because we belong to Christ’s one body, and we breathe Christ’s one Spirit.
Pentecost, then, asks us whether we are willing to do to express the unity that God wants of us. Because we get comfortable with our positions, our arguments, our prejudices, and our politics. And we can begin to make these into silos that keep us distant from each other. We puff these up beyond all the available evidence, bestowing on ourselves an infallibility that even the Pope doesn’t have! Can we put as much energy into uniting with others as we do into dividing people? Can we decide to heal our social bodies—our country but also our Church and our parish—by working to hear and understand each other?
Can we be people of Pentecost and not people of partisanship? Come Holy Spirit!
Where do we get our energy from? Our first response is likely to veer in the direction of food because we’ve been disposed by the eat-healthy movement to think that certain kinds of foods give us plenty of energy and stamina. We love those $3.00 protein bars, and look for the healthiest of nuts. Yes, dark chocolate is great for the heart. It’s fun to watch the fads in eating, and also how we resort to Red Bull and other stimulants when we are really desperate for energy.
But if we pushed deeper, we’d find that a lot of energy comes from people we care about. Look how an employee who can barely stand her job will limp out of bed, but an employee who can’t wait to get to the classroom or the rehab clinic will jump from bed, to shower, to breakfast—can’t wait to get going. How many fathers have said to me, “If I have to, I’ll add a job so my child can go to college”? And how quickly parents will move to embrace their kids if they’ve been away for a few days. How we celebrate mothers for their non-stop care for their families.
Indeed, our love and care of others give us enormous energy. On the one hand, it provides the motive for our acting; on the other hand, it makes sure we have the resources so we can keep on giving.
The feast we celebrate today, the Ascension of the Lord, is the source of our energy as believers. This may not seem so obvious. We are, after all, puzzled by the phrase “sits at the right hand of the Father,” because we don’t think of God as sitting, and don’t think God has a right, or left, hand. So this phrase, which we will recite in a few minutes in the Creed, is a metaphor. What does it mean? That Jesus, because of his death and resurrection, now distributes God’s power into our lives through the Holy Spirit. To sit at God’s right hand is to exercise the full range of divine love in the lives of all people.
This shows us, first, what the motive of our Christian lives are: to show the fullness of God’s love to everyone whom we encounter. Look at how God’s love for us was the driving force of the life, and death, of Jesus? He lived for us! He lived to bring us the Kingdom! He lived to bring us the fullness of life and love! And that is the motive of every one of his followers—our motive for being disciples—to radiate this love throughout the world. Yes, we know people who deaden every moment because they lack love and hope. And, yes, we Christians are to be the opposite of that. Salt and light . . . love and grace!
But this feast also shows us where we get our inner nourishment. Because it invites us to adopt the kind of contemplation and prayer whereby we experience God’s life more deeply. We know with people, it’s one thing to do something with them; another thing to attend to them in love. As Jesus goes into the heart of God, and reveals the fullness of divine love to us through the gift of the Holy Spirit, he gives us the ability to attend to God’s life so fully that we come to share in it. At Mass we experience the sacramental reality of this sharing; but we also have to experience the personal absorption of this sharing by turning to God, quietly letting God touch us and renew us, and letting the overflow of God’s life spill into our daily lives.
Energy is one of our biggest questions, both in our personal lives, and also given our limited environment. Jesus, however, has exposed the nature of spiritual power: the might that God showed in Jesus he will show also in and through us. This is the power that comes from the Spirit: a love without end, extended to every person without limit.
Easter 6 B
Blue lives matter. Black lives matter. All lives matter. But blue lives matter in a particular way because policemen—and firemen for that matter—knows that they may have to give up their lives as part of doing the job. Fortunately, in spite of some recent despicable ambushes, this does not happen so often. But it can. Anyone who has friends serving as police or firemen flinches at every emergency; it may be my friend who dies this time . . .
“No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends.” These words of Jesus echo in our heads; we have heard them many times. But they seem exception, like the small number of policemen and firemen actually killed. They seem like words only for a few exceptional people. But when Jesus calls us his friends, and when we realize that he laid down his life for us to make us friends, then we know he talking to us, and about us.
What does it mean to lay down a life? Think of the core of our mind and our soul. We instinctually would do anything to protect this. We run away from things that threaten our deepest selves; the survival instinct kicks in as soon as the threats come. How could we give this up—our central, inner self? Jesus says we do this only out of true love.
The nature of love is not only to like someone, or to receive pleasure from them, or to try to please and help them. The nature of love is not only to be totally committed to a person, faithfully and fully. Rather, Jesus is saying that the nature of love is to be willing to give up this central core of our existence, our very self, because we so love and care for another.
How is this possible? Only with the realization that Jesus shows us: the thing we prize the most, the thing we dread losing, our very lives—this is only an illusion. Because once we have given up ourselves, we learn the secret of God’s life and love: that God’s love for us will carry us into the fullness of life. That our true selves will never be lost because they have been grounded in God’s eternal love.
Jesus tells his disciples that, as his friends, they know what he is all about. He tells them that he has shown them what God is all about. What has heard from his Father? That God’s love is such that it can never be defeated. It can always bring life. It can always be given away. Jesus shows us this in his death; he shows us the Father’s love in action, both in his dying, and also in his being raised. To experience Easter is to experience this boundless love of God in such a way that it frees us up to love just as Jesus loved.
In the first reading, the Jewish Christians are astonished to see that non-Jewish Christians, Gentile converts, have experienced the Holy Spirit just like them—they were speaking in tongues and praising God. But this would only be the start of what would prove them to be Christians. More than speaking in tongues, more even than praising God, loving as God loves, and giving ourselves as Jesus gave himself, is the true sign of being a follower of Jesus. “God is love” we hear in the second reading; but then Jesus says, “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you.” As the Father has shown his boundless love in Jesus, so Jesus shows his boundless love in us, in and through our love.
A friend put a posting on Facebook that went like this: Do not cross and ocean for people who would not cross a puddle for you. No, do it! Do cross oceans for people. Love people, all people. No conditions attached, no wondering whether or not worthy. Cross oceans, climb mountains. Life and love isn’t what you gain, it’s what you give. This reflects the essential message Jesus gives us about true love
A few weeks ago the world was astonished when a French policeman, Lt. Col. Arnaud Beltrame, convinced a terrorist to swap a woman he was holding for himself. He knew the risks and, bitterly, they came true when he was killed. I wonder what was going on in his head. Surely it was a policeman’s sense of duty, but I also think the image of Jesus giving his life had a lot to do with it. Beltrame was a practicing Catholic. He was someone whom Christ made a friend. So he had learned Jesus’ intimate secrets, secrets that come from the Father, secrets about sacrificial love being the source of true life.
Easter 5 B
When Stephen Hawking died a little over a month ago, there was a universal outcry. Part of it was for his amazing achievement in theoretical astronomy and physics. But most of it was because he refused to be defined by is limitations. Afflicted by ALS in his 20’s he continued, despite the odds, to not only live into his 70s but also to grow. He was a living sign that growth is always possible in our lives, despite the blocks that life throws toward us. Adapting to machines and technological advances, he could think, learn, write, and communicate virtually until he died.
In some ways, Hawking challenges many of us because it is easy to stop growing and just coast in life. We stop, for example, growing intellectually—not only do we not read books or download them; even worse, we stay in our own circles and dare not risk an idea that might challenge us. We also cease growing relationally, settling in to patterns of friendship and affection that often grow blasé or even stale. We go through the motions when we deal with others instead of delving deeper into the connections that are all around us in our lives.
Jesus gives us yet one more Easter image of himself today, the image of the vine and the branches. The vine’s purpose is to give life and growth to the branches. With this image, Jesus is saying that his presence, his Easter reality, has to continue growing inside of us and around us. Easter is not a moment we experience, but a way of growth in God’s love, a path that finds fulfillment in eternal life.
We see his growth in the first reading: Paul, having outgrown the narrow categories with which he grew up, now explodes with joy and Good News. And as he expresses God’s Word, the community around him grows, people being caught up in the proclamation of Christ raised from the dead. His resurrection shows there is no limit to life, and to growth; not even the seeming limitation of death. He rises that we may continue to grow.
One of the ways we are called to grow is in our moral lives. For much of our Catholic tradition, morality was and is presented in terms of the Ten Commandments, laws that we have to fulfill. This might work on some level, but it doesn’t work very well in other levels. It makes us think that o moral life is about law, and about punishment; it also makes us think that our moral life is up to our own effort. We have to strain to keep the laws, or else we’ll be in trouble.
Actually our moral life arises from Easter itself: Christ bestows upon us his Holy Spirit as a gift of his Risen life; it is the Spirit, at work in our hearts, that produces our moral life. The Spirit brings us the gifts of faith, hope, and love. These gifts empower us to act in a new way, in an Easter way. We can see these gifts at work throughout our lives, from our being present at Mass this morning, to the way we selflessly care for others, to our absorbing the Scriptures, to the vision of hope that we have, and to our desire to love even as God loves. Our moral lives are Easter lives, empowered by the Holy Spirit.
We can all begin to coast along in life, taking life for granted, and not pushing the edges. Because that’s how we know growth is happening—edges are being pushed. At this time of year, we see flowers pushing aside soil and stone because of their growth. Christ’s resurrection, which fills us with God’s own life through the Spirit, invites us not to settle for the ho-hum, but to push ahead as a sign of our moral life, and our Easter life, and our eternal life.
Easter 4 B
“Everyone has his price,” we would often hear on TV. Whether it was a poor farmer being forced to sell, or lawyer negotiating a deal, or a mobster forcing submission from another gangster. One of the most famous lines in all of entertainment history: I’m going to make him an offer he can’t refuse. Everyone can be bought. Everyone wants something. Money and greed are what motivate people.
Of course, a lot of modern economic systems work on the principle of buying people to get something done. In a way, this is what having a job means—I’m willing to do something for the paycheck I’ll get. Long before all the bruhaha about our southern border, we had the Bracero program—starting in 1942, Mexico and other countries would send people to work primarily in agricultural areas in exchange for a guaranteed wage and somewhat decent conditions. Large technology companies use the labor of thousands of Asians so we can have our phones, tablets, and other devices.
Jesus insists to us that he cannot be bought. He is not like the hired hand who is doing it only for the money. Because the hired hand has his own gain as the primary motive; but Jesus says that his prime motive is the love that he has, a love that reflects the love of God, authentically and totally, for all of us, including the least significant. “I am the Good Shepherd,” Jesus says. He lays down his life for his sheep because they belong to him. Anyone who hears his voice, who responds to this Shepherd’s call, belongs to him. Anyone, that is, who knows how God loves and takes on that way of loving as well.
John tells us in the second reading that the reason the world does not know us is because it does not know him—doesn’t know the self-less love of God that motivates all of existence. When we see the God who loves us, the God who sent Jesus, and the way Jesus gives his life—when we see this and accept this as the true reality of God, then we become God’s daughters and sons, because we love in accord with God’s love. Someday the full meaning of this love will be revealed; when that happens, we shall see how we have become like God because the love of this God is the prime motivation of our lives.
We were all raised with the idea that there would be a reward for our being faithful Catholics and Christians. We’ve been told about the fires of hell and the joys of heaven. Doesn’t this reward make us all mercenaries, people working because of what we will get in return? But Jesus’ point is finer than that: we aren’t disciples because of what reward we may eventually get from God. We are disciples because this is the way to truly know God’s love. When we live in and for God’s love, we aren’t waiting for a reward like some payment. No, when we live as disciples, the fullness of life is built into the arrangement itself. We are already living God’s life.
This is what discipleship is all about—living God’s life, now and forever. We do not often think of ourselves as disciples, but that’s the invitation we have at this point in our spiritual journey. Peter makes a powerful appeal in the first reading, to lead a life of salvation because, ultimately, salvation can only happen when we have discovered, and accepted, that love which Jesus shows us.
God doesn’t make us an offer we cannot refuse. Indeed, we see more and more people refusing what they think is their faith, or at least some cultural religious form. God never forces faith on us. But God draws faith from us because when we have seen who Jesus is, why he lives, and what he offers, then the fullness of his life begins to pour into ours. It’s not a question of getting something. It’s a question of who we choose to be forever.
Easter 3 B
If you were invited to someone’s home for a few days, and they put you in the guest bedroom, and then they said that an uncle had died there a few years ago, how would you feel? And if your host mentioned casually that sometimes the uncle seemed to return to his room—that they heard noises or sounds of his favorite song—would that make you feel even stranger? Many times we think of ghosts with fear, as if they were dangerous things. Sometimes we think of ghosts as friendly creatures; remember Casper the Friendly ghost?
When Jesus appears to the apostles in today’s Gospel, their first reaction was to think that they were seeing a ghost. They clearly felt something like fear, or at least astonishment. This is exactly what your or I would feel if we walked into a living room and suddenly saw a deceased parent smiling at us and gesturing for us to sit down. But there’s another sense of the idea of “ghost.” A ghost is something unreal, something only part of its real self, a pale image.
One of the temptations of Easter is for us not to take it for real. We have images of Jesus dressed in white, hand uplifted in victory, reassuring his disciples, as if it’s a magical end to a gruesome story. But often that’s as far as Easter goes in our lives. We don’t live as if Jesus had been raised from the dead, as if human destiny had been changed, as if the final times had finally begun to dawn upon us. We don’t live with the hope, the confidence, the sense of victory that Easter should give us. After the lilies have given up their blossoms, we hardly think of Easter at all.
Instead of the disciples wondering if Jesus is a ghost, maybe we need to let Jesus ask if our faith is sort of like a ghost, a pale imitation of what it should be. In the first reading Peter invites people to believe in Christ, to accept him unlike their leaders who rejected him. In our day, we look back at our parents and grandparents for whom faith was central in their lives. So often for our generation, faith is something we kind of subscribe to, not to mention the millions for whom faith isn’t even important for them.
John tells us in the Second Reading that we show our faith in Jesus, and our love for him, by the way we keep his commandments. He doesn’t mean the ten commandments, although we should certainly keep those. John is referring to the central command of Jesus, that we love one another as Jesus loves us. But so often our love for each other is forced and tortured. We stay with the people who make us comfortable, and we pull back from anyone who seems too different. We take on the assumptions and prejudices of the folks around us, often not even seeing people who are around us.
Jesus eats and drinks with his followers, telling them how the scriptures are the key to knowing Jesus more deeply. Yet is not our presence at the Eucharist often only a distracted encounter with Jesus? We do not prepare ourselves by reflecting on the Scripture before we come. We sometimes even approach Holy Communion without a focus on what we are doing. Do we think Jesus is less present to us today than he was to his disciples? Our faith is only a shadow of what it should be. We come as ghosts to eat with Jesus, whereas he came in his real and Risen body to eat with the disciples.
I suppose our faith is always less than it could or should be. And we can easily grovel in guilt which is the last thing Jesus wants from us. Jesus visits his disciples to challenge them to a richer and fuller faith. That’s the opportunity we have every Easter: to realize once again that Jesus is risen, that he has actually transformed our lives for, and that Easter’s power can bring us more fully into the reality of the Risen Lord. He is not a ghost; nor should we behave as if we were.
Easter 2 B
Can human behavior be predicted? This was the premise behind a long story that involved a woman who, up to the age of forty, had a difficult life, one that included living in poverty and being assaulted, and one that included some violent behavior. Now she had finished law school and was applying to join the bar. Would they let her join? It went to the supreme court of the state of Washington where her supporters argued that you could not predict the future on the basis of bad prior behavior. They even interviewed someone who did a mega-data study of 15,000 people, with hundreds of observations on each person. They kept running the program but could not sustain that one’s behavior would tend to get your child into college, while another would insure our child’s health.
We have a test in this classic gospel from John which we read every Sunday after Easter from John. Was there something in Thomas’ background that skewed him toward skepticism? Why did the eleven accept the vision of Jesus on one Sunday, but Thomas reject the Easter message until Jesus actually appeared to him? We run into people who say, “I’m a scientist, and I just don’t accept this or that.” Is there something that destines us to doubt?
Here the Gospel seems to speak more directly to human experience than to theories of who is designed to be more one way than another. Because Thomas could have kept on doubting. I don’t see him putting his finger into the side of Jesus. I see him admitting the dare of Jesus—“be not unbelieving but believe”—by falling on his knees in worship.
Easter, the Gospel is saying, is open to anyone who has not closed his or her heart. And hearts that appear to be closed can open in surprise, and in worship, as soon as resistance falls. What does it take for resistance to fall? It doesn’t take a miracle, or a surprise visit from Jesus. It takes the ability to conceive of a world where Easter makes the most sense, where Easter’s reality suddenly appears to have always been the premise of our lives and hopes.
“Thomas, you believe because you have seen. Blessed are those who believe without having seen.” Jesus means this with reference to his physical body, because there are so many ways to see Easter, to accept the Resurrection, without gawking at Jesus’ wounds. One obviously is the power of the Holy Spirit, where divine love enters our hearts and takes them over. “Receive the Holy Spirit,” says Jesus. Another obviously is the experience of forgiveness—“Whose sins your forgive, they are forgiven them.” Because reconciliation shows that there is always the possibility for a new beginning with God. Easter is the new beginning of human life, and forgiveness is the new beginning of restored life.
A third sign are the sacraments we celebrate because Jesus eats at table with his disciples after he rises, as he eats with us whenever we gather. But perhaps the most powerful sign of Easter is witness: “As the Father sends me, so I send you.” When we witness to the reality of Easter, people have the chance to believe it. When we keep Easter hidden behind layers of cynicism, we hide Easter from the world around us.
It seems we cannot be programmed. But we can make choices. The Gospel today invites us to just such a choice. Not merely to acknowledge Christ risen from the dead—the great reversal of human failure and despair—but, just as much, to choose to be people of hope, to be an Easter people. For when his risen joy fills our hearts, we make Easter so much easier to see and to be accepted.
Since it’s Easter morning, it’s time to pull out one of my favorite jokes, taught to me by one of my aged priest mentors in the Paulist Fathers many years ago.
So two men are going duck hunting, and each have dogs that they are proud of. They find the place where they will wait for the ducks and the dogs are raring to go. Finally ducks start flying over, and one man shoots a duck and orders his dog to go for it. The dog immediately swims out and retrieves the duck and the owner is smiling proudly. The second shooter also gets a duck and sends his dog out; only this time, the dog walks on top of the water, retrieves the duck and brings it back. The second shooter is waiting for some reaction from the first one . . . but, nothing. Finally the second shooter says to the first: notice anything different about my dog? And the first one smugly says, “Yes. Your dog can’t swim.”
In other words, we all have the ability to deny and blind ourselves to whatever we want, even the things that are obvious in our lives. Even more, then, the extraordinary, the exceptional. What we have on this Easter morning is something so astonishing that the Gospel knows we can hardly see it or accept it. The women come to the tomb, asking themselves, “Who will roll back the stone?” These same women had seen their would-be messiah put into this tomb two days before. They expected to see the same thing. A borrowed tomb with a defeated savior.
That’s why the women needed messengers to help them see what was happening. On their own, they would never had had the vision, to opened eyes, to see something undreamed of happen in their own ordinary experience. They were still traumatized from Jesus’ death. It took all their hope to even follow him; what hope was left for anything else, let alone the unimaginable.
“You seek Jesus of Nazareth. He has been raised. He is not here. Do not be amazed!” If any of us visited the grave of our loved one and heard a stranger say that to us, we would certainly be amazed. Shocked. Astonished. Blown away. For if Jesus is raised from the dead, then there is no such thing as “ordinary” any more. Heaven testifies to the new meaning of earth, of life, of human meaning: we are destined for the fullness of life and love.
These poor women hardly knew what to do, and perhaps we are like them as well. We hear the Easter message, we blink a few times, but then go on to the everyday lives we have shaped with their small entertainments and petty annoyances. We miss out on the eternal drama Jesus shows us, in his Resurrection—the eternal drama behind every moment of our lives.
Yes, let’s be amazed. Let’s be astonished. Let’s see and admit what seems at the same time so totally natural and so totally incredible. The dreams that you and I have of life, of fullness, of healing, of peace, of a transformed world—these dreams are not illusions. Jesus shows us, in his Resurrection, that these are what’s real about our lives, far more so than the cynical half-truths we share most of the time.
Notice anything different? This Easter morning, we can say “Yes.” We notice an empty tomb, a risen Savior, and the messengers of heaven assuring us how precious we are to God, and to each other.
Passion of the Lord B
It’s not unusual to see someone post a message to this effect: when I die, please do not come to my wake, or bring me flowers, or talk about how great I was. I don’t want you there. If you never visited me while I lived, or brought me any gifts, or said a word or two on my behalf, why should you do it when I’m gone? Do us all a favor and just stay home.
But in the passion according to Mark, which we just read, almost all the affection comes after Jesus dies. We have the woman at Simon’s house, lavishing oil on Jesus; but then we next have the women at the end, looking to bring oils for anointing, and Joseph of Arimathea, volunteering a tomb. Apart from that, there’s no consolation, and not a speck of sentimentality. No wife of Pilate worrying, no women meeting Jesus on the way, no thief finding salvation, no Mary and John at the foot of the cross. Mark’s scene could hardly be bleaker.
It's as if Jesus would not have it any other way. He has predicted this turn of events. From his entrance into Jerusalem to preparing his final banquet, it’s as if Jesus has it all under control. Mark’s account of the Passion is fully in accord with his Gospel: the nature of Jesus is to be a servant, humble and humiliated. His disciples can think about thrones and Kingdoms, about what religion is going to do for them. Jesus has only one thought: to bring the fullness of the Kingdom through taking on the bleakness of humankind’s evil and death.
The kindness shown Jesus, however, after his death, by Joseph and the pious women, are a good clue to where Mark would take us. Jesus needs no sentiment from us, but he needs us to continue his humble service. The tomb is provided; the body is anointed. But his mission continues in the world—a mission that will be made all the more powerful by his rising and sending the Holy Spirit. More than our tears and pious feelings, Jesus wants us to enact his service to others though the care we show them, the hope we give them, the peace we bring.
Indeed, we can do little to brighten this tragic story. But we can do everything to fulfill his mission. What happens after Jesus dies, in our lives and in the world, is more important than the lack of kindness in Jesus’ death. His death, as stark as it is, is not the bitter end but rather the blessed beginning of the world’s transformation.
Lent 5 B
No one has explained to me the phenomenon of a song getting stuck in our heads. We hear some piece of music and, somehow, it just won’t stop. It makes no difference the kind of music. Sometimes it will be a jingle I heard as a child—you wonder where the yellow went when you brush your teeth with Pepsodent—or maybe a tune from a Broadway show. In my holier states of mind, I hear pieces of the hymns and psalms we sing in Church. But the hardest music to get out of my head is from Opera; some of those melodies haunt me for days at a time.
In Opera, often the music can be tied up with a character. The heroine, often in trouble, sings in a high, soprano voice, while her more mature advisor sings at a lower pitch. The bad villains almost always have deep voices, but the heroic men are tenors, singing their hearts out. It always makes me wonder if each of us has a song that we sing, even if we are often unaware of it.
Something like this being haunted is what the first reading feels like to me. We have, week after week, read about covenants God made with God’s people, with the sad legacy of how often God’s people did not live up to the covenant. Now God says, through Jeremiah, that God will place law right inside of us, in our hearts, like a song we cannot forget. So deep will the law be that we won’t even have to speak of it. It will be present like the air we breathe.
Jesus also seems to have a song. He talks about what makes him tick, what is central in his life. To glorify his Father by his actions is his purpose in life. But that glory means that he will show us, in his self-giving love, what the Father is like. Jesus’ glory flows from reflecting the heart of God. By giving himself completely, he will receive the Father’s glory. “When I am lifted up,” he says, “I will draw all people toward me.”
Jesus is saying that his love is magnetic, that the song he sings is so catchy, so melodic, others can learn it too. “Where I am, there my servant will be.” Just as the Father honors the Son, so also will the Father honor all those who associate with the Son by living as he lived, by bringing people to God through lives of service, that is, lives that seek to lift up others in their suffering and pain. This image differs sharply from the direction of many of the voices in modern life. Our culture tells us to take, to push, to be on top, to be number one. For all the pleasure one can experience by being successful in this way, Jesus, in contrast, offers us the much deeper joy of living for others.
At times we have all come close to experiencing this—when children spontaneously help someone who is hurt, when teens rally to support a friend, when parents move heaven and earth to find healing for a seriously ill child, or when a spouse lovingly accompanies their husband or wife through the dark days of aging, dementia, or terminal illness. These moments not only show us at our best; even more, they incarnate the kind of love which is the heart of Jesus. He carries our pain to the cross so he can lift us beyond that pain and reveal the glory that can only come from this kind of love.
To sing the song of Jesus, to have him at the center of our hearts, means accepting the discipline of learning to love selflessly not only at special moments, but more as an entire way of life. When we are all in tune with Jesus’ song, then we will be singing the hymn of all eternity, the songs of heaven, the music that will fill us with perfect joy.
Lent 4 B
It’s one of most haunting songs in the history of American Music, Peggy Lee’s song called “The Party’s Over.” I probably remember hearing this when I was 11 years old; earlier in my life, I’d not have the emotional experiences that make hearing this song possible. It is, of course, about loss, because not only is the party over, so also is the relationship with my beloved, the relationship that was the focus of my life. We can relate to this song on so many levels: not only the end of a relationship, but also the disruption in our careers, the moving away that we did in life that we didn’t want to do, and the death of people close to us.
The party’s over. Nothing speaks more graphically about the party being over for the Jewish people than this passage in the firs treading—from the Second Book of Chronicles. We have been hearing about covenants all through this Lenten season; now we see the results of the Jewish people not living up to the covenant—Jerusalem is destroyed and Jewish leaders are forced into exile.
But sometimes we learn a lot when a relationship falls apart. Most often we learn about ourselves, as the Jewish people did in their repentance. But sometimes we learn about another, the one who was the focus of our lives. The Jewish people learned more about God when they were in exile than before, because they had the prophets to teach him. They may have broken the covenant, but God will be faithful to the covenant. God will send the pagan leader, Cyrus, almost as a savior, to lead them back home. God is a God of faithful love.
Nothing captures this more poignantly for us than the famous words we hear in the Gospel today. God so loved the world that he sent his only Son, gave his only Son, showed his faithfulness in and through his only Son—so that we might have life—so that we might have eternal life because of the enduring relationship with have with God. So often we think our faith is all about us—what we have to do, the obligations we have, how we have succeeded or failed. But, far more than us, the covenant is about God, and what God would do in our lives to heal us and bring us to fullness.
St. Paul waxes powerfully about Jesus, the fullness of God given to us, a fullness we can never comprehend. But that fullness is a dimension of God’s love—infinite and unbounded, now given to us to empower us if only we let it. Our lives as disciples are charged just with this boundless love of God, so that where we are short, Christ makes up for it, bringing us along as ambassadors of his Gospel. Our message is exactly the love God has shown us in Christ, and given us in the Spirit.
We face so many changes today—in our world, in our employment, in education, in communication, our neighborhoods, in our families. It’s easy to feel dislocated and disoriented. It’s easy to feel that the party’s over, that we’ve lost something important.
That’s when we need to recall just who is in charge, and just whose covenant this is. God has taken charge in Christ. And God makes the covenant again and again with us, as often as we turn to God in faith, reflecting back to God the love and grace we have been given.
Lent 3 B
Judging from the number of commercials I see on TV and hear on radio, I have to believe that renovating bathrooms and kitchens must be a huge business. It seems people cannot get enough marble counter tops, shiny tiles on their bathroom walls, or kitchen cabinets that can finally hold all those spices we have acquired. There are two downsides, of course: one is the price, and the other is the way it messes everything up around the house. “I don’t want to be without my kitchen for two months,” I hear people say. The poor contractors; no matter what they promise, no one believes they’ll finish when they say.
Even short of renovation, we have spring cleaning. It’s a great idea until we think how disruptive it’s going to be for the routine of the house, how much we have to tear apart to get to all the items we feel need to be freshened and cleaned. Under the couch, behind the curtains, the recesses of the pantry!
Perhaps we think of our spiritual and our Lenten practice lives this way. God wants us to tear apart the house of our souls, to go digging deep to find all the dirty spots, to disrupt the assumptions we have about ourselves and our lives. Look at what a ruckus Jesus causes when he visits the temple; look at what happens to the comfort zone of the Samaritan Woman when she meets Jesus at the well.
Let’s face it, we humans don’t like disruption. We like to get into our groove and just keep coasting alone. Inertia is our favorite virtue. We finally get used to our lives, get comfortable with where we are, and now we should shake things up? Now we should reshuffle everything? Now we should dismantle and rearrange our lives?
But maybe God doesn’t want to dismantle our lives . . . so much as direct them. The problem with the Temple wasn’t that it was a Temple; it was that people directed the temple to their own purposes, and not primarily to God’s. The Ten Commandments, as we call them, are not laying down rules and laws so much as providing direction to our lives: God comes first, then other people, and, at the end, there’ll be plenty for me. The Samaritan woman was basically being invited to place her longing for God above all her other longings; only in this way would her true thirst be quenched.
How are we directed in our lives? Primarily by opening ourselves up to the Holy Spirit. God would direct us by showing us the depths of God’s personal love for us, by putting his Spirit of love right into the center of our souls. The Spirit is poured out upon us, generously, abundantly. If we give ourselves to the contours of God’s love, we’ll have plenty of direction in our lives. Having experienced this love, we would act from it at every moment of our lives.
Discipleship fundamentally means following the Spirit God pours into us. God’s Word shows us the nuances of God’s Love; the sacraments show our openness to receiving and celebrating that Love—and God’s desire to bestow it again and again. This love forms our community of faith, the family we are as a parish. And it directs us to be servants to others, in humble imitation of Jesus. Follow me, says Jesus, and I will direct your steps, show you the way, give you a way of life, and lead you forward.
Ugh, we think; do I really want to tear everything apart, put out the time and money, and get things squeaky clean and new? The message of Lent is that God has done the work, God has borne our dirt and dysfunction in Jesus. And God makes us new in his Spirit. Having done all that, God waits for us to accept what God has accomplished for us out of love, and let it lead us forward.
Lent 2 B--The Transfiguration
How powerful are the voices around us and within us. I’m not talking about a psychotic condition in which we hear strange voices. I’m talking about the things that you and I tell ourselves every single day. One of the most common fears is public speaking—75% of people have that fear. But what is this fear except the way we listen to one part of our brain instead of another—instead of thinking about what we want to say, we focus instead on ourselves, what people will think of us, and how poorly prepared we feel.
Just as we can have destabilizing voice in our heads, so we can have destabilizing voices around us—rivals who put us down, or friends who play to our weaker side rather than to the stronger side. “I don’t think you should try that,” they say. “You might not be good enough.” Or, “don’t take that course; it’s too hard for you.” As we go through life, one of the key decisions we make revolves around who and what we listen to.
Our readings today deal with hearing, or the difficulty of hearing. In one case, Abraham mishears God; in the other case, the three apostles are not ready to hear Jesus. Each of these readings ask us to examine our own ability, or desire, to hear God’s authentic voice in our lives, particularly as we progress through Lent.
The apostles, however, seem to have an even harder time than Abraham. Jesus brings them to a high mountain; mountains, in Jewish thinking, brought us close to God. There Jesus transfigures himself, showing the divine life and power that were behind everything he said and did. The apostles are so astonished that they want to stay there; Peter wants to erect tents there on the mountain. Mark tells us that Peter was so shaken, he didn’t know what he was saying. Finally, Jesus’ Father makes things clear: from within a cloud that cast darkness, the apostles here a voice that says: “This is my beloved Son. Listen to him.” In other words, they haven’t begun to open their ears to hear what Jesus is about. The glory of this mountain precedes the drama of another mountain, Calvary, where Jesus would be crucified. There they will finally see who Jesus is.
In our spiritual lives, we can easily be like the apostles. Although we want to focus, in our reflection today, on the glory of Jesus, we need, instead, to focus on the confusion and obtuseness of the apostles. Because, so often, that is who we are: hearing only what we want to hear, thinking our faith is all about making ourselves comfortable, and not trusting God through the dark periods that inevitably come to every life. “Listen to him,” God tells us . . . listen to Jesus and learn to walk, and serve, and give, just as Jesus did.
God invites us this fourth Sunday of Lent to review the voices that we pay attention to, and the ones we ignore. How easy to fall for the voices that feed into our selfishness or self-pity, and how hard to attend to the voices that call us out of ourselves in service! If the disciples cannot listen on this mountain top, they will have to listen on another, when Jesus commends his life in trust to the Father’s love. For this placing ourselves into the hands of God begins our true transfiguration, when the glory of God is revealed not through the comfort of a faith that doesn’t challenge us, but through the figure of a Son who shows us the way of trusting love.
Lent 1 B
I am not a huge fan of the Olympics, especially all the nationalism and cranked-up hoopla. But I do think about the athletes, how hard they train, the sacrifices their families make, and how all this effort comes down to a very short time in which to perform. I’m sure it’s a privilege for any of them to even appear in the Olympics, representing their various nations; but I’m sure that the drive for gold, and fame, and perhaps even money, often clouds the picture. It’s patriotism, but it’s more, too!
The life of these athletes must be relentless: the hours, day by day, to try and perfect every technique, to get that extra advantage, to shave off a few seconds. But, if they really want to excel, then they cannot let anything distract them. They must keep their eye on the goal or else they will sure not attain their dreams.
Jesus, of course, is not Olympian, but he too has to keep his eye on the goal. This first Sunday of Lent we always begin with Jesus in the desert, with wild animals and angelic consolation, being tempted. Mark gives us a very short version of the temptations, but Jesus’ temptations were all the same—to take his eye of his goal, to muddy the waters about what his purpose in life actually is, and to distort what God wants to do.
What was his purpose? We hear that in the final lines of the Gospel today: to announce, and begin to bring about, the Kingdom of God. This is what God wants, and this is why Jesus was sent into our midst: to announce a time of grace and favor from God who wants to bestow his Kingdom upon us. In the first reading we see God making a covenant with Noah, which was really a covenant with all creation. Now we know that not only will God not destroy creation, but God wants to bring creation to fulfillment through the Kingdom.
Jesus will live for the Kingdom, die for this Kingdom, rise from the dead for this Kingdom, and send the Holy Spirit to bring his followers into the Kingdom. This Kingdom is a relationship of love with God, who shows divine goodness through mercy and grace. This relationship transforms us, and helps us live with self-less love for others. Through repentance, that is, through conversion, we now see the world in terms of the Kingdom that God is bringing about even now.
This should clarify what Lent is about for us. This season of the Spirit is about coming to see as Jesus saw, and coming to live for the same purpose for which he lived. Our biggest temptations, as Christ’s disciples, is being distracted from this, thinking that life is about money, or power, or pleasure, or some other goal which will only evaporate and will never satisfy. Lent invites us to turn our eyes more deeply in conversion to live exclusively in the love God shows us, and bring that love into every relationship and situation in our lives. Everything we “give up” for Lent is only to clarify our vision in the vision of Jesus.
The athletes will have their moments of struggle; some will have moments of glory; a few may even have moments of long-time fame. Their focus is for some record that maybe people might occasionally remember. Our focus is not for a memory, but for a future—one in which God breaks more fully into our lives because we have learned to live, as Jesus did, for his Kingdom.
There are all kinds of reasons people are ostracized. Sometimes it’s a health situation, as we see with the lepers in the Gospel today. Or else their language. Or perhaps their social status—they come from the “other side of the tracks.” We ostracize many people for crimes they commit; look at all the people our nation imprisons! When we are afraid, we’re also likely to isolate people—the Japanese living in the US during the Second World War; or our attitudes of fear, many unjustified, toward Islam.
But what about ostracizing people because of their goodness? This, eventually, would be what happens to Jesus, on the cross, because he reached out to the isolated and condemned. Because he brought healing and mercy. For this reason, he was himself condemned and became like a leper for us all.
In the Gospel account from Mark, we have an astonishing scene. First of all, a leper comes up to Jesus. As we learn from the first reading, this is totally unwarranted. How is it possible for a leper to walk up to a wandering preacher and prophet? They are supposed to stay aside, and cry for a few pennies as beggars from far away. But here’s this leper coming right up to Jesus. Even more, Jesus not only lets the man approach, but he touches him. This would have been an astonishing act of impurity and uncleanliness. Yet Jesus does it
By this gesture, Jesus tells us that he is not going to be put off by any barriers, social or political, that people place before him. He’s not going to let isolated people stay isolated. He intends to break down the barriers that we erect between each other, because the barriers we set up in some way represent barriers that we imagine that God has. Jesus is saying to us, God has no barriers.
When Jesus touches the leper, he sends a signal to us about how we are to come to him. Because we imagine that we have to come all dressed up, our Sunday best, if you will, hiding our warts and wounds, hiding our soil and our sins. Jesus touches that leper because he is saying that he wants us to know that he loves us so much we don’t even have to pretend in his presence. We don’t even have to put on false faces and pretend pieties. Come, show me what you think keeps you away from me, and I will tear it down.
Just as Jesus is condemned for his goodness, so we followers of Jesus run the same risk. We know that in parts of the world, Christians are indeed persecuted for their faith. Every day we see images of Christians in the Middle East with their churches blown up; modern culture sometimes makes it seem like faith is under attack. But this hardly means that we are to put on our own boxing gloves and beat people up. When Jesus dies as an outcast, in shame, he defeats the forces of evil, because his death leads to risen life for him, and for his followers. Evil is already overcome.
No, St. Paul shows us another way. As much as he will suffer, he will not himself be a source of conflict. To the Jews, to the Gentiles, to all people, he avoids giving offence because he wants to win all for Christ. As Jesus wins by giving himself in the face of persecution, so Paul wins by giving himself in the face of opposition. Christians win not be undertaking crusades, but by showing God’s love and peace in every situation, even if that costs us.
In Christ, God pronounces all people have a place at the table, be they lepers, sinners, the ridiculed, or the scorned. Look how he invites us to his table! Look how Christ would invite many more, through us, to his table! Indeed, Christ touches us in healing so we can touch as many as we can, showing mercy and grace to all.
“For better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, till death do us part.” There are probably no other sentiments as powerful and as generous as these. By them, couples who marry are saying that they commit themselves to each other despite any circumstance. Unconditionally. And, frankly, most of our everyday experience is very much conditioned by circumstances.
For example, we have the phrase “fair weather friend” to describe those people who appreciate us when we have something to give them, but disappear otherwise, or even turn on us when we are down and out. It’s like how people describe winning the lottery: all of a sudden, every day, someone else emerges from our past who just desperately needs our help. When things are good, they’re around; otherwise, they aren’t. Conditional love.
I wonder if it works just the opposite with God. I wonder, that is, if people cling to God when things seem desperate, when they have no alternative. But otherwise, when things are going well, we kind of forget God. We hear these mournful words of Job that seem to capture the very essence of human frustration; “Remember that my life is like the wind; I shall not see happiness again.” Yet Job, in his pain, is complaining to God, and even praying to God, because he has no alternative. We know the saying, “There are no atheists in a foxhole.” Our desperation makes us believers.
So often, though, modern human experience seems to be saying that we can do without God quite well. Yes, a few people say they are atheists; but far more of us act is if we are atheists; that is, God seems to have hardly any impact on our lives. Things are good—my job, my family, my health. I can take care of myself. God is only a hazy thought in my head.
However, Jesus wants to teach us something very different. His life will show that however we think things are going, whether very well or very poorly, God is intimately present to us. As much as Job cries out in desperation, Jesus cried out even more, on the cross, expressing the pain and brokenness of all human experience. But on the cross Jesus shows that the Father’s love transcends all our bitterness, even our death. Jesus shows that we can make no sense out of life without attending to God our Father. Fair weather, bad weather: God is always there.
After Jesus relieves the pain of Peter’s mother-in-law, after he spends the evening healing people as a sign of God’s eternal care for them, Jesus then goes off, by himself, to pray. We might ask, “Why did Jesus pray? He certainly didn’t have to.” But his human mind and heart sought to be reoriented again and again, just as our does, to the horizon of God’s presence and love. Prayer was his way of acknowledging this, and helping others acknowledge it to. However it seems, the Father is always with us. Without prayer, we miss seeing this.
For better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and health: just as we can be there for each other in marriage, so God is there for us at every moment of our lives. Paradoxically, it may be a wealthy and pleasant world that needs God the most, because it is then that we are most at risk of forgetting God. And, once we forget God, we quickly forget what our lives are all about.
Indeed, we Americans love power. That’s why football is our favorite sport, and the Super Bowl our most hallowed championship. That’s also why, although militarily the strongest country in the world, we keep spending money on the military, just to make sure. I think, too, that we keep pushing our economy further because it must be the strongest in the world: the mighty dollar and the surging stock market.
But what is the strongest force on the earth? It might sound shmaltzy, but I think we would all, given time to think about it, say that self-less love is the greatest force in all of creation. More than nuclear power. More than any military. More than any ambitious drive.
In the first reading, Moses is talking about a prophet to come after him. Then he gives some background. When God appeared to the Jewish people, God seemed too powerful, and they shuddered in fear. So God gave Moses as God’s prophet, so they could deal with God through Moses, and not directly. Moses says that yet another prophet will arise, one greater than him. Obviously, this prophet will represent God even better than Moses did. “This is what you begged for,” says Moses.
In the Gospel, we see Jesus as the great prophet that the Jewish people dreamed about. Everyone is astonished at Jesus. He goes to synagogues to teach and demons shriek in his presence. “We know who you are!” they yell. He commands them to be silent and they obey; it’s not their job to tell people who Jesus is, but Jesus’ job to reveal his life and mission. People are astounded. “What is this? A new teaching with authority.”
Now this word “authority” can be translated in many ways: force, influence, or even power. Clearly the Gospel means it as power because Jesus is arrayed in battle against the forces of evil. But the power by which Jesus wins against evil is not a physical power, but a spiritual one. Jesus has power because he represents in his life the hidden power of God’s infinite love now appearing before our eyes, now active in our world. Jesus doesn’t give us verbiage or legalese; Jesus shows God’s power of love active and present in our midst. Jesus’ selfless love shows us the true power of God, given to us in the Holy Spirit.
This selflessness might show itself in a variety of ways. Paul talks about an early tradition in the Church, one that has grown into the Catholic witness which our priests, sisters and religious brothers undertake: they forego marriage for the sake of the Kingdom. As Paul points out, it’s a way to focus one’s energy more fully on the Kingdom, God’s power of love in our world. This witness helps all of us think about how we are all living for the Kingdom. I’m sure many of Paul’s friends pointed out to him that married people often live lives far more selfless than professional religious who rarely have sick babies crying in their ears all night!
Here’s a thought experiment. Think of who or what has influenced you most in your life. I bet it’s been a person who loved you, gave you time, and set interests aside for your sake. Someone who loved you selflessly. Or think, on the other hand, of those you have cared for most in your lives: how you expected nothing back from them because loving others was the greatest joy you could experience. That’s the love Jesus unleashes on the world—the one power that truly can change everything, the power of selfless love, revealing the heart of God.
Jesus doesn’t need the demons claiming they know who he is. Jesus needs us to know who he is, the God he is and shows us, and the infinite love that is the inner power of his life—and, hopefully, ours as well.
We can think of headlines that changed our lives. My parents talked about the bombing of Pearl Harbor. I remember the headlines around the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. Pictures of Nixon’s Resignation, with his salute as he entered his helicopter, were sent everywhere. The NY Daily News could not express enough shock and grief after the World Trade Center was attacked. Headlines catch our attention, and the biggest ones announce that things will never be the same.
Then we have what modern people call “clickbait”—the eye-catching headline that proves to be nothing but a gimmick. “I lost fifty pounds in five days.” “These five foods will help you live to 100.” “One can of soda can end your life.” We learn pretty quickly to ignore these teasers because they change nothing in our lives. They have the substance of vapor.
What kind of a headline do we have in the Gospel today? It is Mark’s opening presentation of Jesus, the very first time we see Jesus and hear his first words. John the Baptist, Jesus’ kin and spiritual mentor, has now been arrested. Jesus steps forth to advance the work of John in a dramatic way. “Now is the time of fulfillment,” Jesus says. “The Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe in the gospel”
You would think these to be among the most world-shattering words ever uttered. Particularly in view of what we see Jesus doing in the rest of the Gospel, and how his death and resurrection inaugurate the Kingdom for which Jesus lived. You would think Christ’s opening headline would turn heads everywhere. If the mythical Jonah can convert the vast city of Nineveh, Jesus certainly can convert the world.
But the sad truth is that we pay attention only to what interests us, and, more and more, we ignore things we do not want to hear. Jesus proclaimed a Kingdom that would amount to the transformation of humankind. But particularly modern people just yawn at Jesus’ message and pass on to something else. Perhaps it’s because we no longer think we deserve something like a Kingdom. It seems totally out of our reach.
Because once we believe in the Kingdom, everything changes. Paul shows us in the second reading that we cannot have the same attitudes toward life as before because the Kingdom overwhelms everything else we think is important. But we have been seduced to think so little of ourselves, and so little of our destiny, that the Kingdom seems less real than Disneyland, and the shorter aims of life look more compelling.
So let’s make money, and have a party or two, and win a ball game, and maybe even have a great wedding now and then. Let’s take care of our careers, have a tight set of friends, try to be faithful to our beloved, and maybe have a steak every once in a while. Let’s live for these moments because who knows what comes after these moments . . .
But Jesus still proclaims a Kingdom coming into our lives, whether we can see it or not. His ministry is to convert us—that is, to give us the eyes to see the Kingdom. This is a Kingdom whose mercy will shatter us, whose compassion will sweep us away, whose universal love will make friendship pale, whose promise of life, all by itself, makes the moments of our life have the meaning they crave.
How tragic for us to treat as clickbait the one announcement we cannot afford to miss. And how tragic to live these fragile moments as if these were all we’re going to get, because these are all we think we can ever be worthy of. The future apostles, Peter and Andrew, James and John, drop everything they are doing; this is the news for which they have been waiting.
Hawaii shuddered at the flashing of a fake headline last week, one about an impending nuclear threat. And who knows what the next headline will be that gets us spinning, whether true or not? But no headline is more important than the one we hear today, that God’s time is being fulfilled, and God’s Kingdom is sweeping over our lives.
There has always been the risk of anonymity—people who can accuse other without being accountable—but this risk gotten worse, I think, with the Internet. I often wonder how many Facebook accounts are fake, just made-up weird names behind which people can hide. In fact, around Christmas, I got a friend request from someone called Walter Faker. Really? Couldn’t you be more imaginative than that?
But anonymity gives us a lot—the ability to do something and not be responsible for it. “They’ll never know who I am,” we think; so, we send a message that’s foul, things we’d never say face to face. How many people in history have been part of nameless mobs? I was reading how in Renaissance Florence they had boxes throughout the city; people could make anonymous accusations about their neighbors. How many repressive societies have thrived on anonymity?
What about God? Can we be anonymous with God? We find a bunch of names in the Gospel today, but the biggest name is the one that starts the Gospel passage off, when John the Baptist calls Jesus the “lamb” of God. We will only find out later the full meaning of this name, but clearly John is talking about someone who comes in gentleness and vulnerability, as meek as a lamb. This intrigues some of John’s followers, who then proceed to follow Jesus.
As the Gospel unfolds, each disciple is named, with the finale at the end, when Jesus renames Simon, calling him Cephas, or Peter, or the Rock. He wasn’t going to be a wrestler, or a movie star, like Dwayne Johnson. Peter would be a rock in other ways! It’s as if Jesus will not let us be anonymous with him. He insists on knowing our name, and relating to us directly and personally. “Come and see,” he says to the disciples; after this moment, they never forget him, and he never forgets them.
Samuel, in the first reading, hears his name called; instead of reassuring him, it puzzles him. “Who called me?” he asks. He runs to Eli again and again until Eli sets him straight: when you hear your name called again and again, it has to be God, because only God calls and never lets you go.
We wonder what Samuel’s life would be like if he never identified God? If he just heard a voice and didn’t respond, or didn’t know how to respond? Yet I think that can be so many people in our modern culture who have a kind of half-awake relationship with God. God speaks and we don’t hear. Or God speaks and we pretend not to hear. God wants to enter into relationship with us, but we are not sure on our end. Our faith is half-asleep.
There are many of us believers who do pretty well with anonymity. Our faith is comfortable to us, so long as we are part of a crowd, nameless, not called out, not fingered. But, ultimately, this is an illusion. At our baptism we were all given a name, that is, we were all brought into relationship with God. You cannot be an anonymous believer. And part of the renewal of our Catholic Church, over these past fifty years, is realizing that we are personally called into discipleship, called to know Jesus as the most intimate person in our lives, and called to reveal Jesus in our daily lives, beginning with our families, but not stopping there.
“Come and see,” says Jesus. Renew your discipleship. Understand what it means to be participate in the Eucharist, to receive the Eucharist, to live the Eucharist. Believe it or not, Lent is just six weeks away, and Lent is the perfect time to renew our following of Jesus, not anonymously but as part of this parish community. You will hear an invitation, just like Andrew and Simon. “Come and see”—the message is the same. Think about how you will answer.
A friend of mine, an actual Facebook friend, posted on New Year’s Eve that 2018 would be different. “No excuses” was his theme. In the image he presented, he had all the excuses we usually make—too old, too tired, too sick, too young, too depressed, too excited—all these excuses were depicted and then crossed out. 2018 was going to be a year to attain goals, with no excuses keeping him back.
As we get into 2018, we might think about our goals for this year and, indeed, be discouraged. We think of past years, things we wanted to accomplish, but somehow never could. As we reflect on this, we realize that, despite any goal we set, it’s very easy to give up. We can pull our own favorite collection of excuses from the shelf and then use them to give up the path we have chosen.
We have the daunting image of the Magi, the Three Kings, given to us today. In Latino countries, this is the dominant image of Christmas, not Santa Clause. The image is daunting because we realize what their symbolic journey entailed, but also how strong their optimism was. They were on their way and nothing was going to stop them.
Royalty from the East—that is, from countries that did not have the benefit of Jewish revelation; from countries where people spoke, ate, and looked different. Were they from India, or China? Were they Manchurian or Malaysian? It makes no difference; the image is saying that they were from everywhere. A star rises and these pilgrims from afar will not ignore it. The star rises for everyone, and is seen by all who search.
We imagine their journey, how steep the hills, how dusty the roads. We can guess how many times they asked themselves, “Do I really want to do this?” They could have stopped half-way and pronounced their journey complete. But, no, they saw something; it was enough to get them on the road; and it was enough to keep them going. So trusting were they that they brought gifts ahead of time. They knew they would meet the one they sought; royalty bring gifts to greater royalty.
These Magi represent the religious longing in every human heart. They represent a part of us that is easy to hide, but almost impossible to eliminate. Their persistence, their faith, stands as a challenge to the frequent fickleness of our journeys. But it also stands as a sign of hope that everyone of us is being touched by God’s grace, and God gives up on none of us.
St. Paul says it: now the Gentiles are included in God’s plan, just like the Jews. Now God makes one family from folks from East and West, from continents North and South. Now God invites all to gather with their gifts and to be generous because all our gifts look pale compared to the Gift God gives us in Jesus.
The wise Royalty from afar bow down in adoration, as we do at Mass today. They found what they sought because God has already found them. Epiphany says we can find what we see, if we do not give up, because God has already wrapped us in the grace of Jesus, and that grace is present as God’s Gift, Jesus, who draws into the fullness of life.
I can predict it infallibly. Every Sunday at about 6:00 AM an email appears in my inbox. Every Sunday, without fail, that email is from Thrifty Car Rental. I don’t know what algorithm they have developed that leads them to think that Sunday morning is the very best time to tell me I have 10% off the next time I rent. But there it is. And just like I can predict the email, websites predict me. They know that I might buy certain kinds of movies, or books about religion, or when it’s time to replenish my supply of razors. And the more they can predict me, the more successful they are considered.
But prediction is usually difficult. We hear all the predictions of the New Year, but who knows what’s going to happen? The stock market has been going up, but will that continue? And how will the 2018 elections go? Will they invent a treatment for some intractable disease? Will my senior in high school get into the preferred college? To all of these, we have the same response: Who knows?
When Simeon in the Gospel receives the newl-born Christ, we are surprised at both his recognition of Jesus, and the predictions that he makes. How does he know? How can he make the pronouncements he makes? But perhaps we have a clue when Luke tells us that he was an old man and had longed for the salvation of his people.
It might be like an older and very skilled doctor who can tell things from the patterns the patient presents. Or a very skilled therapist who knows how issues tend to unfold in human consciousness. Simeon knew his people, and he knew God; he could tell in his bones that something was going to happen.
We are a bit surprised when we hear that he calls Jesus a sign of contradiction. Of course, we immediately think of how Jesus would be rejected in his ministry. But Simeon had plenty of reason to see contradiction and conflict as business as usual. He had long meditated on the contradictions of his people: even though given revelation, law, and prophets, they still were stiff necked and resistant. They still wanted God on their terms. And he surely had meditated on the contradictions of his own life, just like the contradictions of every human heart. No matter what we say, it seems impossible for us to change. No matter what we promise, we continue to do the same thing anyway.
In Jesus’ case, those contradictions would amount to something because, after he was rejected as the spokesman, not to say the Son, of God, God raised him from the dead. Jesus becomes the sign of contradiction that changes everything because his resurrection means that the cycle of defeat in our lives is broken. Jesus rises to send the Holy Spirit upon us, a Spirit whose consolation and power can bring change into our lives. Instead of resisting God, the Spirit shows the deepest acceptance of God on our part—God dwelling within us and filling us with new life.
So New Years is around the corner, with all of the resolutions we make and hardly ever keep. More evidence of the contradictions of our lives. But maybe we should resolve again, not through our own determination, but through the determination of the Spirit of Jesus given to us. One place we might focus our resolutions could be our own families, because so often our family life shows little evidence of faith, prayer, and support. We think coming to church on Sunday is how we live our faith life. But coming to church is primarily to give strength to all the other ways we live our faith life. In our households, can we pray daily and regularly? Share some lines of the Scriptures? Go out of our way to help another? Or, as a family, commit ourselves to helping others
There are many things we cannot predict. But here’s a prediction that is safe: if we prayed and lived our faith more fully as a family, our family life will undoubtedly be transformed. If we show the faith that the Spirit has already given us, more fully and openly, inevitably that faith will grow in ways that will astonish us.
The Tension of Christmas.
The shepherds are in the fields; the angels are in the skies. Earth and heaven—now each connected by the infant born in a manger.
How often earth seeks for heaven. We gaze upon stars. We ogle at eclipses. We smile at moons when they are full. We send rockets into the sky, affirming, in some way, that we think our answers come from “out there” and “above.”
But Jesus comes to earth, enfleshed among us, as vulnerable as the dust from which we are made. “Take me to heaven,” we cry out. But Jesus says, by his appearance among us, that there is no heaven apart from earth. He spans earth and heaven, easing and bridging the tension, showing us that, in faith and trust, the things of heaven can be found within us and among us. “The Kingdom of God is within you,” he says.
Really? We ask the emptiness of night, “Really?” Our earth looks so limited, broken, confused, unfair, weighed-down; our earth looks so despairing with the wars, the famines, the injustices, the pain. “But I come to take all that on,” says Jesus. “I come to show you a Kingdom you can have because in place of your brokenness, I bring wholeness. In place of your despair, I bring hope. In place of the emptiness you feel, I bring the fullness of God.”
So it happens, slowly but inevitably, from that Christmas manger to Calvary; from an empty tomb to the Spirit poured out; from an infant church to a world-wide communion of love and life; from a community of believers to the fullness of time. Slowly it happens; Christmas grows. From within our earth, within our flesh, God brings forth a new realm—one in which each person can have, in faith and hope, the fullness of life and love.
The tension of Christmas, between earth and heaven, is now resolved in the Kingdom that he brings.
ADVENT 4 B
He’s been hospitalized for weeks, and probably has weeks more to go. After an unbelievable auto crash, he had broken bones everywhere. So now he lies in the hospital bed where everything he needs has to be brought to him, or done for him. “This is almost impossible to take,” he says. But sometimes in our lives we have to learn how to receive, how to accept.
In our first reading, David wants to do something big for God. He has subdued the ancient tribal region of Judah, established Jerusalem as its capital, and built a palace for himself. Now he wants to build one for God. So Nathan, the prophet, approaches David and tells him that he’s gone it upside down. It’s not David who builds a house for God; rather, God is the one who gives David a house and a kingdom.
There is probably no more basic instinct we humans have than to do things for ourselves. Grace is a very hard idea concept for us: to be loved, gifted, graced without any action on our part. That just sounds crazy. What would I think if someone came down the street and handed me $100? “What’s this for?” I’d say.
So today, the Sunday and day before Christmas, we have to find a corner in the room where Mary is; she’s probably quietly praying or maybe humming a psalm to herself. Mary is the greatest recipient of grace in human history; and it astonishes her to realize this. “Hail, highly favored one,” says Gabriel, and Mary wonders who he is talking about. “Blessed—Graced—are you among all women.” Mary is totally amazed: how can this be? I have done nothing.
But the Holy Spirit comes upon her, as the Holy Spirit comes upon all those graced by God, but in a way so intense and complete that she begins to bear in herself God’s Word now made flesh. Mary had one role: to receive, to accept, to give herself completely to the gift God was giving her and the world. “Be it done unto me,” she says. On behalf of us all, she receives the gift.
This Sunday teaches us that everything in our Catholic lives begins with grace. As humble Mary receives the grace of being the Mother of Christ incarnate—she calls herself a handmaid—so she shows us the ultimate posture we must have in our lives: to receive as deeply as we can the grace and love God pours into our hearts as a gift.
Because, in the end, we do not make Christmas; God makes Christmas. And God gives us Christmas as the greatest gift we can receive. Emmanuel—God is with us—Wait, wait, we say. We want to do things for ourselves. But so often, when we try to save ourselves, we only make things worse. We do not do well as Messiahs. That’s why God sends us Jesus to be Messiah for us, and for all humankind.
We hear St. Paul use a phrase—“the obedience of faith”—in today’s reading at the end of his letter to the Romans; he also starts his letter off with that same phrase. What Paul is talking about is what Mary shows us: to obey is to surrender; to surrender is to accept; to accept is to receive—to receive God’s gift!
So often these days we wrack our brains looking for the perfect gift for a family member or a friend. We do this because we love the person. God sends us Jesus as our perfect gift—because God loves us, and because God knows Jesus, our Messiah, is the one gift we absolutely need.
ADVENT 3 B
“Why’s the sky blue, Daddy? Why’s the sky blue?” So asks a little girl of her father. Older folks among us will remember this question which was part of a non-stop ad that ran on TV and radio in the 1950s. We heard the ad so often, after a while we just wanted the kid to shut up. This was part of a campaign to sell encyclopedias, so that parents would not be humiliated by the endless questions of their children.
Sure, we have questions that children ask, like when they turn 5 and ask “why” non-stop. Then also questions about relationships which emerge in teen years. When we go to college, being questioned is part of the drill, determining whether we get credit or not. And then we have the super-questions, those asked by members of congress as they depose people before TV cameras. So many questions; so many meanings.
I wonder what motivates the tons of questions that we hear coming from the religious leaders when they go to John the Baptist in the desert. Of course, this reminds us that asking questions is part of our growth in faith; Jesus is always waiting to reveal himself more deeply to us. But sometimes our questions are just ways to put things off. As long as I keep asking questions, I keep you on the defensive; as long as I keep you on the defensive, I have the power, I have the ability to look superior to you.
Today we are invited to not only look at our questions, but to look at what’s behind them. Because we can love our questions so much—we keep hearing about the growth of doubt in today’s world—that we often overlook what they mean. Do you think it was just curiosity that brought these people to the desert? Or do you think this was their way to show John who was the boss when it came to issues of faith back in those ancient days? Or do you think it was fear that now people might have to acknowledge their need for God—and stop hiding behind their questions?
Because at some point the questions must stop and we have to deal with the realities we face. I cannot wonder forever what my career will be because I need to earn a living. I cannot ask if this or that one is the right person for me, because I cannot live alone. I cannot spin theories endlessly, raising questions about society and its people. I have to take a stand and show what I believe. And I cannot spend my spiritual life questioning God about this, and Jesus about that. I have to stop and behold: I have to let God reveal God’s answers to me.
Doing this means not being afraid of contemplation, of powerful moments of deep quiet in our lives. And it demands that we get out of our pride and listen humbly to things that might be hard to hear. It means recognizing that we ask questions because of the deep longing in our hearts, and recognizing that those deep longing demand an equally deep answer. As Augustine put it, our hearts are restless until they rest in God.
Our faith is all about the real. Jesus comes to fulfill Isaiah’s prophecy, to be anointed with the Spirit that he might bring vision, and healing, and freedom, and Good News. This is the One for whom we long, and the hungers of our hearts reveal that every day.
In a world of scrolling and clicks, are we prophetic enough to acknowledge that Amazon and Google cannot answer our deepest questions? We may want to know why the sky is blue, or why the market keeps going higher. But what we need to know is who will satisfy our need to be loved without limit, and how only God can answer that question for real.
ADVENT 2 B
I think about prisoners all the more because I help direct Paulist Prison Ministries. I wonder how people hold it together while they are in prison, how isolated they are, especially from their families. So I concretely imagine when it’s time for them to leave prison, what it must be like, how they count down the days, the images they have of their children, their wives and partners. The closer the time comes, the more excited, and frustrated, it must be until the final papers arrive, the guard leads them through the various steel and bolted doors, and finally they step outside, their eyes gazing around for the family or friends who will take them home. Their exile is over.
This is only an shadow of the feeling that Isaiah gives in today’s first reading. “Comfort, Comfort,” he sings. Indeed, these chapters in Isaiah are called the “Book of Comfort.” And what was the consolation? Finally, after 60 years of exile, the Jewish people were going home. Their feeling of isolation and exile was ending. The scriptures talk about the walk through the desert, on their way home, almost as if it was a new creation. That’s what it’s like when exile is ended.
Sometimes, however, the biggest exile isn’t one of distance of place. Sometimes the biggest exile we experience is one of relationship. We feel cut off from others; or, strangest of all, we feel cut off from ourselves. John the Baptist “appears” as the Scripture puts it; he appears in the desert, the same one that the Jewish people crossed on their way home. John comes as a prophet to lead people from the exile they feel today. John wants to lead people back to God and, in the process, restore them to themselves. “The voice of one crying in the desert, make straight the way of the Lord.”
How does this happen? Through conversion and moving to a different place in our lives. It says that John preached a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin.” But the words here mean more than they seem. “Repentance” means a changing of our minds and hearts—a whole other way of seeing things. John is offering them an opportunity to see their lives and the world in a different way, in relationship to God. And this re-seeing of one’s life in terms of God leads us to a new space. In the original Greek, the words literally are “into the forgiveness of sin,” as if forgiveness was more than an act—it’s as if forgiveness is a state in life, a way we live, a new reality. And that reality, forgiveness of sin, means that we are no longer exiled. No, we finally have found ourselves at home with ourselves, with others, and with God. We’ve had a lot of news lately about sins being revealed; media and lawyers seem to be reporting someone accused every other day. I even see people joking about who might be revealed next. But all of that is a way to deal with terrible hurt that created terrible distances between people. By recognizing our sins, our brokenness, our exile, then reconciliation and healing can begin. Because then we have learned only God can free us from exile. Advent invites us to this—to inventory our lives, to note the exiles and distances we have caused or tolerated, and to begin overcoming that alienation through a new experience of God’s love. John only baptizes with water, as a sign of forgiveness. Jesus, however, bestows the Holy Spirit, God’s life now given to us—to heal, to bridge, to build, and to transform.
ADVENT 1 B
“You better watch out . . .” Of course, we naturally want to add this time of year, “You better not pout.” We often take the word “watch” as a warning. “Watch your step,” we say. Or “You better watch your back.” There’s the sense of some future dread that demands our alert. Jesus, in the Gospel, even gives us the sense of being on watch, as if we were posted somewhere, on guard.
But we also say things like, “Watch your mail for something special!” And “Here’s something great I want you to watch.” A mother might say to her child, “Go to the window and watch for grandpa, he’s on his way.” Here, we do not have a sense of dread but one anticipating something great. We can barely wait.
So, in what sense is Jesus telling his disciples to watch? When we read the scripture, it isn’t entirely clear. Yes, the Master has gone. We know he’s coming back. It could be at any time. So often in our Catholic history, it seemed like a terrible moment of judgment was coming. Just remember what Michelangelo painted in the Sistine Chapel—Jesus coming like a buff wrestler in judgment on us all. It’s hard not to be afraid of that.
But is that what Jesus’ coming is about—his first or his last? When he walked among us, did he not walk in love and grace? Did he not look for people whom society dismissed or ignored, so he could bless them? Did he not say that his kingdom was for the poor, the weeping, the lowly? In fact, Jesus came, and will come again, for the same thing: for the sake of his Kingdom, which is the universal experience of the fullness of love and life.
You mean, you are asking, Jesus isn’t coming in judgment? Of course he is! But the judgment is this: the fullness of Love will be right before us, and what will we say? What will we do? What will we see? Because every time we chose a direction other than true, authentic, divine love, we make it harder to see Love in its fullness. And some of us choose a direction so at odds with God, that we have totally blocked the ability to see and experience the fullness of Love.
This means that the time you and I have right now is precious. Paul tells us it is a time of encouragement, so we can wait in faithfulness for a totally faithful God. Jesus’ worry is that we will forget what we are waiting for, forget the Master’s love, and live our faith only half-way, only in name. Jesus worries that we will go through the motions of waiting, but not really live in longing for his Kingdom and its life. And to live this way—without yearning and anticipation—is to already be obscuring, and missing, God’s love. If we are not excited about God’s love, we certainly do not know it!
We see enough of this around today: the taking of faith as a merely social, exterior form; the pretense of faith; seeing faith as a hobby, or as a purely personal exercise of choice. Yet our being involved with Jesus, in his sacraments and his way of life, in our parish and our serving other, says we want to stay excited; we want to stay faithful
We can look back over one-hundred years as see the different ways faith has been lived. But the invitation this Advent, at the start of a new Church year, is to look ahead—not only to the upcoming Church year, but to the future of how we are going to live our faith as a renewed parish community. Can we live it as the disciples we are called to be? Because unless we become more fully disciples, filled with longing and hope, this modern world will gobble us up.
But if we watch with expectant joy, then the modern world may see in us exactly what it needs: not a vision of fear and warning, but one of joyful hope.