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    Fr. Joseph Jenkins

  • The blog header depicts an important and yet mis-understood New Testament scene, Jesus flogging the money-changers out of the temple. I selected it because the faith that gives us consolation can also make us very uncomfortable. Both Divine Mercy and Divine Justice meet in Jesus. Priests are ministers of reconciliation, but never at the cost of truth. In or out of season, we must be courageous in preaching and living out the Gospel of Life. The title of my blog is a play on words, not Flogger Priest but Blogger Priest.

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[35] Fifth Sunday of Lent

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Readings:  Jeremiah 31:31-34 / Psalm 51 / Hebrews 5:7-9 / John 12:20-33

Our first reading selection today is taken from what is called the Oracles of the Restoration of Israel and Judah.  Jeremiah’s writings would be an inspiration for the prophet(s) Isaiah; indeed, they proved more beneficial after his death in that they gave hope to a vanquished people.  He promoted religious reform and fought the idolatry that plagued Judah.  With the apostasy and fall of the nation, he suffered arrest, imprisonment, public disgrace and exile.

The prophet speaks of an impending new covenant, different from before, in that faithfulness will replace their current infidelity.  God’s law will not be upon tablets of clay or rock that might be lost or broken, but rather placed within them and written “upon their hearts.”  The words once spoken to Abraham will be made everlasting:  “I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”  While arguably ambiguous, it sounds like the language of grace.  It deeply resonates with Christ’s words about his new and everlasting covenant.  Just as the admonition of the Gospel was “repent and believe,” i.e. “obey,” the prophet writes in the persona of the Almighty, “I will forgive their evildoing and remember their sin no more.”  Our Lord came into the world for the forgiveness of sins.  He heals the breach between God and man.  The new Israel and the New Judah is the Church.

The responsorial similarly speaks of God’s law imprinted upon human hearts:  “Create a clean heart in me, O God.”  The two-fold commandment of Christ emphasizes the love of God and of neighbor.  We are to have the Lord’s heart in the priorities we set for ourselves, in regard to that which we love and in how we demonstrate or witness compassion, generosity and forgiveness.  Jeremiah was of the priestly class— priests offered sacrifice— they sought to make atonement for sin.  The prophet lamented how hard-hearted were both the rulers and the people that followed them.  They invited their doom by forfeiting divine favor and protection.  No doubt our Lord had Jeremiah in mind when he spoke about how the leaders and crowd even rejected him.  We read in Matthew 23:37-39:

“‘Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how many times I yearned to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her young under her wings, but you were unwilling! Behold, your house will be abandoned, desolate. I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’”

God is faithful.  Both God and man will be faithful in Christ.

What is a clean heart?  It is pure for sure, but it is also undivided.  It is a heart with a single purpose.  Do we want this heart?  If so then I would recommend the prayer that the apostle Paul gave the Ephesians:

“For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that he may grant you in accord with the riches of his glory to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in the inner self, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the holy ones what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Now to him who is able to accomplish far more than all we ask or imagine, by the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen” (Ephesians 3:14-21).

The second reading presents Christ as the one High Priest of Christianity.  Our Lord did “offer prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears” to the Father on our behalf.  Jesus is faithful to his mission given him by the Father unto the Cross.  He does what no other priest had ever accomplished, he offered perfect atonement and “became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.”  When our Lord beseeches us to take up our crosses and follow him, he is appealing to us as his priestly people in baptism.  It is within the oblation of Christ that our sacrifices and self-offering can be made to the Father.  This merits for us a share in the Lord’s reward or victory.  Every disciple is to believe, love and serve with a priestly heart.  The measure of all love is in terms of surrender or sacrifice.  We belong to the Lord.  He is a jealous God.  He will not share us.  He abides in us by grace so that we might live in him forever.

There are several times (both explicitly and in veiled symbolic language) that Jesus prophesies about his coming betrayal, passion and death.  He asserts in today’s Gospel, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Amen, amen, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit.”  After making a reference to his coming death, his attention turns to his followers.  “Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will preserve it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there also will my servant be. The Father will honor whoever serves me.”  How would you advertise for such an ordeal?  Imagine you were reading the HELP WANTED ads and your eyes ran across the following:

“WANTED… men and women willing to give up family, position, wealth and power… yes, absolutely everything so as to follow a prophet who claims to be God.  Note that you must be willing to follow him in being betrayed, mocked, tortured and murdered.  He promises to give you eternal life.”

Sounds crazy, does it not?  Who would answer such a thing?  And yet, that is precisely the call of the Gospel.

  • What does it mean to have a sacrificial “priestly” heart?
  • What must we do to show that we belong to the Lord and his kingdom?
  • How might we be prophetic instruments in bringing reform to our society?
  • Have you ever prayed for someone or something to the point of tears?
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[32] Fourth Sunday of Lent

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Reading:  2 Chronicles 36:14-16, 19-23 / Psalm 137 / Ephesians 2:4-10 / John 3:14-21

The first sentence of our reading from 2 Chronicles gives us the setting:  “In those days, all the princes of Judah, the priests, and the people added infidelity to infidelity, practicing all the abominations of the nations and polluting the LORD’s temple which he had consecrated in Jerusalem.”  God’s people had broken their covenant with the Almighty and thus had forfeited divine favor and protection.  Israel had fallen and now the same fate would come to Judah.  The demise of the remaining Jewish kingdom of Judah extends through the apostasy of their last four kings, culminating in the Babylonian invasion and the exile of God’s people in the Jewish diaspora.  They had lost everything and were no longer a nation of their own.  Many years later the Persian king Cyrus the Great would conquer the Neo-Babylonian Empire and authorize the restoration of the Temple in Jerusalem. Many of the exiles would then return to their homeland.  The history of salvation had seen God’s people start out as a family and then become a tribe and still later a nation.  Now there is a transitioning into a religion.  They would have limited rule of their own, but only as supervised or oppressed by others— a situation which would last through the Roman acquisition of their territories and the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD.

It was in light of the diminished power of the tetrarch Herod (who imagined himself a king) and the Sanhedrin, many who were fearful stooges for the occupying power that the Jewish people longed for a Davidic Messiah who would vanquish their foes by force of the sword.  When Jesus entered the stage of world events, the religious leadership saw him as a threat to their position.  Many of the people were drawn to him and yet they quickly became despondent when he emphasized a heavenly kingdom over an earthly one.  He was not the kind of Messiah they wanted.  His message of loving and even forgiving their enemies infuriated the zealots.  When it came to the legal requirement of carrying a soldier’s armament, he urged them to do so for two miles (while the law said no more than one).  They wanted someone who burned with hate like themselves.  It seemed that instead of a military liberator, Jesus was a friend of Romans.  Indeed, the Roman procurator Pontius Pilate wanted to set him free, but though bribery, disappointment, and fear, Jesus would be condemned to death.  The cry of the crowd, “We have no king but Caesar!” would ironically signal how the fall of Israel and Judah were now complete.  A new people would come forward, made up of not only the Jews, but from all the nations— all who would believe in Christ and in his kingdom.

The second reading emphasizes how this new kingdom comes in the person of Christ.  “God, who is rich in mercy, because of the great love he had for us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, brought us to life with Christ.”  The Church as the Mystical Body of Christ is also one with the kingdom— the New Israel or New Zion or New Jerusalem.

The psalm echoes the longing of God’s people in Babylonian exile.  They struggled to maintain their identity while surrounded by pagan believers and their stories about false deities. The Babylonians worshiped several gods, the chief one being Marduk.  Much to the chagrin of the Hebrews, the Babylonians were true idolaters, positing the presence of their deities in their statues and temples.  As they became increasing enculturated, many were tempted to abandon the faith of Abraham.  The prophets urged them not to forget and to stay faithful to the true God that had called them.  The exile would last some seventy years.  “Let my tongue be silenced, if I ever forget you! How could we sing a song of the LORD in a foreign land? If I forget you, Jerusalem, may my right hand be forgotten!”

Turning to the new dispensation, while much of the Jewish leadership would renounce Christ, there were a few that did not.  Among them were Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus.  Jesus told Nicodemus that “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.”  This was and is the essential Christian kerygma.  When God’s people were sick and dying from snake bites, Moses had crafted a serpent on a staff or pole.  Those who looked upon it were healed.  The serpent was a sign of death; but this sacramental changed it into a means for hope and life.  Jesus would be lifted up upon a cross, also a sign of despair and death.  Nevertheless, the redemptive work of Christ and his subsequent resurrection changed it for us into a sign of hope and eternal life.

Salvation is based upon an acceptance of Christ.  He is the source of grace.  There is no other way to the Father.  We are saved, not because we are good or faithful but first because Jesus is goodness and is faithful to the mission given him by his Father onto the Cross. He is the LIGHT in the darkness.

The darkness is Satan and yet he masquerades as light.  Indeed, one of his names is Lucifer, meaning light.  He is the false light that would lead us astray.  He is the dark force that numbs consciences to the truth.  Jesus gave sight to the blind, healed cripples, gave hearing to the deaf, restored lepers, raised the dead and yet the hearts and minds of the religious leadership were closed to him and they rejected him.  Indeed, they wanted him dead and gone.  How blind could they be?  How deaf to his message?  Is it any different today?  The Church speaks out for the sanctity of human life and for the dignity of persons— and yet the leaders of this world are still quick to hate and so selfish that even babies are disposable.  Many people say they believe or are enlightened but they remain in the grips of bigotry and violence.  Many say they care and yet they promote pornography and an industry that reduces people, especially women, to the level of meat or flesh.  Separated from God, we do not know how to be good.  The devil exploits this darkness.  He distracts us from Christ.  He breathes his cold breath over hearts that should be warmed by sacrifice and grace.  There are all sorts of attacks against the Church and believers who witness with conviction.  Why?  “For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come toward the light, so that his works might not be exposed.”

We must shine with the LIGHT of Christ, even if it should illumine that which in ourselves still needs repentance and conversion.

  • Have we ever blamed God for problems and faults of our own making?
  • Do we really believe that God is always faithful and ready to forgive us?
  • Do we place greater confidence in the world than in the values of the Gospel?
  • Are you stumbling in darkness? What is the true light of our lives?
  • What forces around us desire to extinguish the light of Christ in our souls?
  • How have we helped others to find their way as believers or are we stumbling blocks?

[29] Third Sunday of Lent

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Readings: Exodus 20:1-17 / Psalm 19 / 1 Corinthians 1:22-25 / John 2:13-25

Our first reading from Exodus has the presentation of the Decalogue, and so I would like to present some of my reflections on the Ten Commandments that I usually share with those taking formal religious instructions.  I will also speak to the catechetical over the Scriptural listing, as the incarnation of Christ has abrogated the prohibition against graven images.  Christ is the human face of God.  He is the revelation of our heavenly Father.

The first commandment reminds us that ours is a jealous God; there is no other before him. He is the one and only! He does not want us wasting our lives on false gods or empty superstitions. Even though there may not be many traditional worshipers of idols cast in stone or bronze, or of figures from nature like the sun or animals, this prohibition is still violated. We see this in dangerous occult toys, like tarot cards and Ouija boards. These things are hazardous to our souls because they sidestep God’s dominion over us and his will for us. They might even invite spiritual evil to penetrate our lives. This commandment also condemns sacrilege whereby persons, places, or things sacred to God are defiled. Even interest in the popular horoscopes can sometimes escalate beyond simple curiosity and become habitual false guides. God wants us to follow him alone.

The second commandment urges us to treat God’s name respectfully. This necessarily prohibits blasphemy, making false oaths in God’s name, and cursing.

The third commandment tells us to make the Sabbath day holy. For Christians, this obligation is transferred to Sunday. (It is interesting that most Protestant religions accept at least this one precept or legislation of the Roman Catholic Church. Otherwise, along with our Jewish brethren, they would respect it on Saturday.)  We sanctify this day by prayer, worship, avoiding unnecessary work, rest, and joy. Therefore, something like failing to participate at Mass on Sunday is not merely a violation of the laws of the Church, but in a very direct manner, an infringement upon this commandment to give God his due.

The fourth commandment exhorts us to respect our parents by loving and helping them, especially when they are in need. While young and under their immediate authority, children must obey their parents. Reciprocally, parents must give a Catholic education to the children entrusted to them. Their spiritual and material welfare is essentially in their hands. The parents may extend or endow school teachers and others with something of their own authority. This commandment speaks to us in a less direct way about authority in general. All just authority comes from God. We are called to obey spiritual and civil authorities when they make legitimate demands. However, if there is a conflict between the laws of human beings and those of God, God comes first.

The fifth commandment prohibits us from either harming our own bodies or those of others. This commandment expands beyond murder or suicide to the various partial degradations: including such things as mutilation, striking another, harmful drugs, drunkenness, and carelessly taking risks with our lives. Abortion is a direct violation of this commandment. Our right to choose should never be deemed a higher priority than another person’s right to life.

The sixth commandment, taken alone, forbids all external sins against chastity. Once sexual activity is condoned outside marriage, as in fornication, it is logically difficult to confine afterwards, as in adultery. The premise is already adopted. Some fifty percent of the couples who live together prior to marriage eventually get divorced. The seed for failure is already planted. Sin is a mighty poor preparation for the nuptial sacrament. Considered with the ninth commandment, all interior sins against chastity are likewise condemned. The human sexual powers are given for the propagation of children and for the fidelity of a man and woman in marriage. Outside of marriage, it is a great evil to exercise these powers, which are not simply expressions of our flesh, but of our very persons— who we are! Inside marriage, these powers must not be distorted in their purpose or in the motivation of two people in love drawn to union. Lust, even in marriage, is a sin and degradation to what it means to be truly human. It re-categorizes the beloved from a personal subject to an impersonal object. Instead of self-sacrifice and surrender— thinking of the other’s needs and happiness— we selfishly treat the other as a disposable thing with which we can seek our own gratification. If the beloved is no more than an object, then the stage is set for adultery because objects are interchangeable. This is the antithesis of the Gospel. Marriage is called to be a permanent union. Adultery is a gross violation of that permanent union which is to reflect the fidelity between Christ and his bride, the Church. The adulterer plays the role of Satan who would lure us away from our divine groom and from the wedding banquet of heaven.

The seventh commandment rejects stealing and dealing unjustly with another. Even if we accept stolen goods, we have broken this commandment. All sorts of things fall under this heading: idling, charging unfair interest, not paying debts, not giving a just salary, and stealing someone’s good name. Restitution is demanded in cases where we have stolen or damaged the goods of others. This last matter draws this commandment to the eighth.

The eighth commandment would have us be a people of truth and good will. We are not to lie or to slander others. If we stumble into this sin, then we need to repair the damage caused by our falsehoods.

The ninth commandment, as mentioned under the sixth, requires us to be mindful of our thoughts. To occupy ourselves with sexual fantasies regarding others, not only breaks down our will in reference to actions, but degrades the one whom we are imagining. This is destructive to the dignity of the person who is reduced to an impersonal object in obscene films and other pornography.

The tenth commandment, like the ninth, reminds us that God wants our conversion, both in external action and in our internal disposition. To be open to the grace of his presence, we must free ourselves from within, of those persons or things which we might covet before God. In actuality, we might not commit a sin against justice, but we might “want” to do it. Even this needs to be weaned away. We need to reach a point in our spiritual life where we do not WANT to steal from or to hurt another.

God establishes his law with his people.  Fidelity to the commandments realizes the covenant with God.  Disobedience is more than breaking rules; it severs a saving relationship with the Lord.  The full revelation of God and the expansion of his covenant relationship, as the apostle Paul says in the second reading, are in Christ Crucified.  The Gospel gives us the shocking scene where Jesus whips the money-changers out of the temple and upsets their tables.  He complains that the temple which is a place for worship and sacrifice has been made into a marketplace or even worse, a den of thieves.  When asked by what authority he casts them out, he in return challenges them, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.”  They mistakenly think he is referencing the building around them when he really means his body.  Long before, the actual tablets of the law and the ark had been lost.  Jesus is the new covenant but he is not made at home in the Jewish temple.  Within seventy years the temple will be demolished by the Romans.  Two thousand years later it is still gone, all but the retaining or wailing wall.  Jesus was crucified but the temple of his body rose from the tomb.  As mentioned last week, Jesus is the fulfillment of the law and the prophets.  We are all called as believers to be obedient to Jesus and to enter into his temple, the Mystical Body.

  • Are there certain commandments that we routinely violate?
  • Do we give God his due in daily prayer, Mass participation and witness?
  • Do we follow the commandments mechanically or within Christ’s command to love?
  • While expressed negatively, how might you make the commandments into positive statements?
  • Do we respect the new temples of the Lord: Christ present in us by grace, in our homes by holiness, in our tabernacles as sacrament, in the Scriptures as the living Word, and in the Church as the Mystical Body of Christ?

[26] Second Sunday of Lent

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Readings:  Gen. 22:1-2, 9a, 10-13, 15-18 / Ps. 116 / Romans 8:31b-34 / Mk. 9:2-10

An important traditional demarcation of the ancient Jews from their pagan neighbors was the repugnance they felt toward human sacrifice.  Rather, they offered the grains of the field or animals like goats, sheep, bulls and birds.  However, more recent archeological evidence shows that the early Jews did at one time offer the oblation of human beings.  The remnant texts that point to such behavior are the testing of Abraham and the story of Jephthah’s daughter. The story of Jephthah’s daughter can be found in Judges 11:29-40.  Like our passage today, it is deeply disturbing.  The Hebrew general pledges that the first who steps out the door of his home, he will sacrifice. He immediately laments his pledge because out steps his young daughter. She requests a short time to mourn her virginity and then we are told he did as he promised. Unlike the story of Abraham and Isaac, it appears that God does not stay his hand. The young girl had courage and her father kept his promise to God; but as Christians, we are aware that some promises should not be made. The child mourns that she will never know the joys of being a wife and mother. It is a poignant and terrible story.

Just as the story of Abraham and Isaac prefigures God’s surrender of his Son; the story of Jephthah’s daughter is connected to the Virgin Mary.  Mary gives herself to perpetual virginity and undergoes a vicarious martyrdom in witnessing the passion and death of her Son. Jephthah was a great Jewish general. He was successful against tremendous odds. He was victorious not because of his oath, but in spite of it. As St. John Chrysostom would tell us, his repugnant act would move the Jews to renounce all such blood-oaths from that time forward. Regarded as a testing of Abraham’s faith, a messenger from heaven intervenes and God directly prohibits the sacrifice of Isaac.  This would plainly show that God does not delight in such sacrifices.

Abraham certainly did not comprehend the command to sacrifice Isaac.  It seemed to violate providence, itself.  The patriarch was elderly and his son was the child of promise from which he was supposed to generate many descendants.  He did not understand but he remained faithful.  It is that element and not the shocking act that we should fully reflect upon.  God stays the hand of Abraham but he would not spare his own Son, the child promised from the dawn of creation.  Our heavenly Father did not directly will that his Son should be tortured and murdered; but he did desire faithfulness.  Jesus is faithful to his mission unto the Cross.  Abraham substitutes the oblation of a ram.  When God spared us (signified by Isaac), Jesus substitutes himself for us as the divine Lamb of God.  The sacrifice is no longer a ram caught in the briars but a Savior crowned with thorns.

The sacrifice of human beings by the pagans would be regarded by the early Christian community as a feeding the bloodlust of demons. We might think that we are morally better and enlightened, but over a million unborn children are aborted in the United States annually.  Many ministers regard this as a return of the demonic sacrifices of old.  Are we feeding demons the blood of our children?

The responsorial speaks to our conviction as believers during the season of Lent: “O LORD, I am your servant; I am your servant, the son of your handmaid; you have loosed my bonds. To you will I offer sacrifice of thanksgiving, and I will call upon the name of the LORD.” Catholics readily make the connection between Christ as the suffering servant and Mary who declares herself as “the handmaid of the Lord.”  Jesus offers his life that we might be released from the bonds of Satan.  Our Lord will pay the price of his life to set us free.  Mother and Son will meet on Calvary.  The sacrifice of Jesus will do what all prior oblations failed to do— make true and lasting atonement for sin.

The second reading reiterates today’s theme:  “If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but handed him over for us all, how will he not also give us everything else along with him?”  Paul is speaking about the gift of hope that comes with faith.  The victory over sin and death has already been won.

The Gospel reading gives us the scene of the Transfiguration.  Our Lord is dressed in dazzling white and beside him stands Elijah and Moses.  This signifies that Jesus is the fulfillment of the LAW and the PROPHETS.  The transformation in Jesus might be interpreted as a sign of things to come, notably the resurrection.  Lest it should be misunderstood, Jesus tells his three apostles not to speak about what they have seen until “the Son of Man had risen from the dead.”  We are told that they questioned what was meant by “rising from the dead.”  The apostles really could not get their heads around our Lord’s prophesies about his passion and death.

There is an important but sometimes overlooked element to the reading that we today should take to heart.  The heavenly Father’s voice beckons from the cloud, “This is my beloved Son. Listen to him.”  Jesus is the ultimate term for salvation.  It is his sacrifice that is saving.  Given that he buys us back with his own life, we belong to him.  If that be the case, then it must be realized with faith and an abiding obedience.

  • What sacrifices have you made in your life to realize your discipleship?
  • Do you appreciate that every Mass is a re-presentation of the oblation of Calvary?
  • Have you placed limits on your faith and what you would do in response to God’s calling?
  • How have you died for Christ and others, brushing aside selfishness?
  • Do you listen and obey God’s Son or have you substituted other authorities?
  • Do you put a premium upon human life, both in and out of the womb?

[77] Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time

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Readings: Leviticus 13:1-2, 44-46 / Psalm 32 / 1 Corinthians 10:31-11:1 / Mark 1:40-45

The Levitical law about lepers was intended to protect the community from contagion; however, the individual sufferer was both physically ostracized and stigmatized as one who was punished by God.  The leper lost everything:  his place in the community, his job, his family, etc.  Indeed, failure to abide by the regulations about proximity could result in his execution.  By appearance and by proclamation, “Unclean, unclean!” he announced his coming into the local vicinity.  Sometimes the healthy villagers or families had locations where food was left for the afflicted.  Later, those suffering from leprosy would also ring a bell, particularly if they had trouble speaking.  Just as the Jewish priest passed sentence for the expulsion, if cleansed a similar process of washing and examination might allow a (former) leper to return to his family and community.  Lepers often traveled alone although some gathered for companionship or formed their own colonies.  Most were intensely afraid of any association with them.

The situation with leprosy reminds me of what was encountered by those afflicted with AIDs in the early 1980’s.  As a priest working at a hospice in Washington, DC, I quickly saw the cancer patients outnumbered by those dying from AIDs.  There were few drugs to treat it back then and the disease quickly killed its victims.  Many of the patients I visited were young men in their 20’s.  Certain rigid fundamentalists asserted that it was God’s condemnation upon the homosexual community.  Even children and others who contracted the disease through blood transfusions were vilified and segregated.  The virus was found in all the fluids of the body, even sweat and tears.  I recall one young man who wept when I anointed him with the holy oil.  Everyone who approached him was dressed up like an astronaut and wore rubber gloves.  Much to the chagrin of the staff I insisted on applying the oil with my bare hand.  When I asked the poor man why he cried, he responded, “Father, everyone is afraid to come near me.  You are the first person to actually touch me with his bare hand in over a year.”  I was summoned to another dying patient by his parents.  As I approached the door, a young man stood before me and angrily shouted, “I am George and I am his boyfriend!  What do you think about that?  He was angry and wanted a fight.  I was not going to give it to him.  I replied, “My name is Father Joe and I am so sorry about the situation.  I have come to bring the mercy and healing of Jesus, not to debate.”  I prayed with him and the poor man’s parents.  I gave him the Last Rights.  Upset at the situation and anger at the Church seemed to disappear.  This was the real face of the Church.  Jesus did not put conditions on his love.  Our Lord said that he came not for the righteous but for sinners.  He did not shy away from others but deliberately went out to the poor, the sick, the sinners and the marginalized.  How could I or any priest do any differently?  St. Paul said in the second reading today, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.”  This was the manner in which we bring salvation to others.  When family and friends learned of my hospice ministry, I was assigned my own plate, fork, spoon and a cup (with my name on it).  Because of my ministerial association with modern-day lepers, many became afraid to immediately relate with me.  Fortunately, such a hysterical response has long since subsided; but it is nothing that I will ever forget.  I took comfort from the Scriptures, knowing that our Lord was condemned and spurned because of his outreach to God’s alienated people.

The responsorial exhorts, “Blessed is he whose fault is taken away, whose sin is covered… ‘I confess my faults to the LORD.’”  We are all sick.  We are all sinners.  Nevertheless, we often look down upon others as less or as more afflicted than ourselves.  Believers are always tempted to be like the self-righteous Pharisee, seeking to justify ourselves as better than others or at least not as sinful as someone else.  But sin is sin, no matter if great or small.  We are all broken and need healing.  The Church, like Christ, does not close her doors to those afflicted by sin.  Yes, we have strong views about right and wrong.  We should never compromise our moral truths.  But likewise, we should appreciate that we have all fallen short.  We live in a messy world.  We invite God’s grace to forgive and to transform us.  This process begins in the here-and-now but for some it will not be complete until the purification in the life to come.  As vehicles or prophets of grace, we need to open the doors of the faith to all who are searching for meaning and reconciliation with God.  This is a hallmark of Pope Francis’ notion of accompaniment.

The leper in the Gospel takes a terrible chance, as does our Lord.  He approaches Jesus and begs to be healed.  This “approach” itself is forbidden by their law.  Our Lord is not worried about such things.  We read, “Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand, touched him, and said to him, ‘I do will it.  Be made clean.’” The Scriptures are deliberate here.  Our Lord “touched” the untouchable leper.  He made himself unclean in the sight of the religious leadership.  This is a whole magnitude more serious than eating and drinking with tax collectors.  Even the religious leadership would partake of Matthew’s food and hospitality, although without sitting at the same table with him and other condemned sinners.  The leper was absolutely off limits.  Jesus tells the man to show himself to the Jewish priest.  This is the same process we read about in the first reading.  This man is not merely physically healed, but this act of mercy restores him socially to his community and family.  It is no wonder that he could not keep secret about this great blessing in his life.  However, word of the event causes the crowds to balloon.  Such intervention would also further harden the hearts of those who oppose Jesus.  They are more concerned about rules and their standing in the Jewish community than about the plight of the poor and hurting.

  • Are there people with whom we refuse to associate?
  • Have we ever felt abandoned or rejected?
  • Are we ever afraid to become involved or to witness Christ to others?
  • Have we belittled others through stereotypes and bigotry?

[74] Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time

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Readings: Job 7:1-4, 6-7 / Psalm 147 / 1 Corinthians 9:16-19, 22-23 / Mark 1:29-39

Job speaks of life as “drudgery” or as a battle to survive.  Like “hirelings” we must work to live and to put food on the table.  This is not our true home and we are wayfarers in a foreign land.  We are a “slave” to the mortal condition, longing for leisure and comfort from our toil.  One might summarize his remarks thusly:  life is hard and life is short. When he speaks about the lack of hope and that he “shall not see happiness again,” he is speaking about the fleeting joy or satisfaction this world offers.  Job is not spurning God but he does indicate that there is something about the mystery of pain that remains unintelligible.  Any of us who have endured loss or grown old or know sickness and pain can add our voices to the truth of what Job says.  We get older and know that there are more days behind us than before us.  We appreciate that our bodies fail us and there are some ailments from which we will not recover.  Pain becomes the constant companion to many of us.  While as Christians we trust that the Lord can restore all that the world takes away, the world will not let go of us until it has killed us.

The Book of Job is not a testament to despair, but rather is a witness of faith against the harsh truth of existence in the mortal world.  I am reminded of St. Teresa of Avila and her appraisal as a Christian of hardship. She was on her way back to the convent during a torrential storm.  She tumbles down an embankment into a pool of mud.  Dragging herself out, she looks up to heaven with this address to the Almighty:  “If this is how you treat your friends, it is no wonder that you have so few of them!” Perpetually in conversation with God, her assessment is no affront to the deity, but is a tenacious expression of an existential truth in facing the mystery of suffering.

Visitors to his home attempt to convince Job that his dire plight must be a punishment for some crime or sin.  The Jews saw this view as safeguarding God’s goodness and divine justice.  Suffering is perceived as self-inflicted or as the price for sin.  That assessment also feeds into our notion of original sin.  God as the creator is good and in no way can be the source of evil.  Sin is the consequence of our violation of freedom— a transgression of the moral law— and is an offense against God, the divine lawgiver.  It follows that God as the just judge rewards good and punishes evil.  This reckoning of the moral order would have us interpret suffering as “justified evil.”  However, the story of Job, while not invalidating this stance, shows that it is overly simplistic.

Pope John Paul II writes in Salvifici Doloris that Job is “the story of this just man, who without any fault of his own is tried by innumerable sufferings… loses his possessions, his sons and daughters, and finally he himself is afflicted by a grave sickness.” Job honestly reflects upon his life and upon the good he has done.  He can see no grounds upon which he deserves the punishment that comes to him.  “In the end, God himself reproves Job’s friends for their accusations and recognizes that Job is not guilty. His suffering is the suffering of someone who is innocent and it must be accepted as a mystery, which the individual is unable to penetrate completely by his own intelligence.”  The notion of an innocent victim will find its prime paradigm in Jesus Christ.  The setting for the testing of Job is one that emerges from the devil’s provocation.  “And if the Lord consents to test Job with suffering, he does it to demonstrate the latter’s righteousness.”  Francis Bacon once wrote, “In order for the light to shine so brightly, the darkness must be present.”

While life can be hard and suffering comes to all, we are admonished not to despair.  The psalm tells us, “He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.”  The Church realizes this promise by extending the message and mission of Jesus.  Our souls are healed and we know forgiveness.  One day we will be restored, body and spirit.  While we live in a world where some seem to suffer more than their lot, we are also told that “The LORD sustains the lowly; the wicked he casts to the ground.”  The innocent might sometimes suffer and the wicked may appear to flourish.  But God sees everything, and the innocent will be gifted with mercy while evil doers will merit justice.  The early Jews largely defined divine reward as wealth, power, property and children in this world.  The question of Job and suffering would move them to consider life after death.  There has to be an existence where the scales are balanced in favor of the innocent.

Most eulogies celebrate life and leave unspoken certain truths that make us fearful.  We selectively remember someone as fun to be around or who knew how to have a good time or who did not make too many demands upon us.  Nothing is said about a general lack of charity or a failure to sacrifice for others or one too self-preoccupied to worry about anyone else.  We extract a list of secular virtues that would make one well-remembered in this world but still largely unknown in the next. We mention his favorite food, that he was a fan for the local football team, and that his dog will miss him.  “We will never forget him.  He will always remain in our memories.” That is what we tell ourselves. Of course, life goes on and a short time later most would have put him out of mind.  His name will go unspoken.  Photos will be filed away in an album that will one day be opened by relatives not yet born.  They will look at his picture and wonder, who is that?  People of faith tend to focus on the positive.  They figure that we might as well imagine he is in heaven so as not to distress his family and friends.  After all, if he is in hell, who among us  will know until we are dead?  Catholics might pray for his soul as one in purgatory, but are fearful of asking others to pray with them since it means that judgment after death is real.  We are attracted to Christ as the Divine Mercy, but not so much to the Lord as Divine Justice.  Nevertheless, they are both truthful assessments about his identity. Love is stronger than death.  Love is forever and in Christ it has conquered the grave.  God will love us forever and thus he gives us a share in his life.  This is the great consolation for believers.  But we must not forget that just as the beatific vision and the joy of the saints is eternal, so is hell-fire.

St. Paul tells the Corinthians, “To the weak I became weak, to win over the weak. I have become all things to all, to save at least some.” The Christian kerygma is one that challenges basic Jewish presumptions about social position reflecting divine favor.  The apostle is literally saying that he is making himself a slave for others.  He is fulfilling the summons of Christ to take up the cross in following him.  That is fundamental to the sacrifices made by priests and religious to celibacy, poverty and obedience.  They embrace for the kingdom that which is traditionally regarded as punishment or curse.  The Christian meaning of suffering would forever be associated with the Paschal Mystery of Christ.  If we die with Christ then we can live with him.  We offer ourselves as grafted to the crucified Savior.  We take all the struggle, sickness, pain, loss, and hurt we experience and make them redemptive in the Lord.  Catholicism emphasizes that even the dark things of life can come to God’s glory.

It was this message about suffering that was a hallmark in the witness of the late Mother Teresa.  It was also a truth about which her critics despised and maligned her.  Those who saw no value in pain hated Mother Teresa.  They are the same voices that speak in favor of abortion and euthanasia, today.

Turning to the Gospel, Jesus heals Simon’s mother-in-law. Later, we are told that “the whole town was gathered at the door. He cured many who were sick with various diseases, and he drove out many demons, not permitting them to speak because they knew him.”  Everyone he healed would get sick and die.  All his miracles and healings pointed to the lasting healing of the soul, in the forgiveness of sins.  He will give us a share in his Easter mystery.  Jesus is the revelation of the Father, the face of God.  When our Lord acts, it is always to heal and to liberate.  All who suffer can find solidarity in Christ.

  • When we cannot escape pain, do we become frustrated and angry?
  • Have we ever embraced suffering and discomfort as mortification and penance?
  • How do we take up our crosses in following Jesus?
  • Can we add our struggle to the passion of Jesus as an offering to the Father?
  • Do we place our hopes in what this world offers or in the kingdom of Christ?
  • If we should die today, are we prepared for judgment?
  • Have we experienced cases where the wicked flourished and the innocent suffered?
  • While we believe that the scales of justice will be balanced in the world to come, what is our obligation to building up the kingdom in the here-and-now?

 

[71] Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time

This homily will not be preached Sunday as it will be replaced by the message for the Cardinal’s Appeal…

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Readings: 1 Deuteronomy 18:15-20 / Psalm 95 / 1 Corinthians 7:32-35 / Mark 1:21-28

Moses tells his people that prophets like him will be taken from their number and will lead them.  If we are to properly understand what he is saying, then we must look to the prior verses not included here against false worship and divination.  We read: “Let there not be found among you anyone who causes their son or daughter to pass through the fire, or practices divination, or is a soothsayer, augur, or sorcerer, or who casts spells, consults ghosts and spirits, or seeks oracles from the dead” (verses 10-11). Moses is emphasizing several important points:

  • They must not corrupt their faith with the worship of other or false gods.
  • They do not have to look outside of themselves as the chosen people for prophets (God speaks to them through their own).
  • They trust the providence of God and do not seek forbidden knowledge.

Echoing the commandments, any violation of these points is condemned as an abomination before the Lord.  Fearful of any direct confrontation with almighty God, the people will be guided by the Lord through his intermediaries.

This pattern is still pursued today in the Christian community.  The new People of God or the Church is called by God and given shepherds who govern and speak in Christ’s name, empowered to extend the ministry or work of Jesus.  The Mass is our great worship where the sacrifice of Calvary is re-presented in an unbloody manner at our altars.  The bishops in union with the Pope constitute the authentic teaching authority of the Church.  We are anointed at baptism into a nation of prophets.  It is that commission that makes us missionary disciples.  Outside the Catholic community, there is no guarantee to any message proclaimed and no assured efficacy to divine mysteries or sacraments.  Catholic Christians, like their Hebrew counterparts of long ago, are warned to steer clear of false worship and the occult.

True religion signifies the end of magic.  Judaism (a natural religion) and Catholic Christianity (a supernatural religion) are both instigated by the same one true God.  We are forbidden to engage in voodoo, oriental mysticism, new age religion, naturalist religion, and conventional witchcraft or Satanism.  Divination of the future is interpreted as a distrust of God’s will for us.  Black magic or spells is condemned because one invokes the demonic spirits.  Similarly necromancy is condemned; an important admonishment when there is a new fascination with ghost hunting.  Christians are warned to avoid Quiji boards, tarot cards, palm readers, and séances.  All of it violates the first commandment of the Decalogue.

The Canaanites worshipped Molech, a false deity judged by the fathers of the Church as a bloodthirsty demon.  Indeed, sometimes his name is still mentioned in Christian circles in regard to the sins of abortion and infanticide. Molech demanded child sacrifice.  Heated with fire, the idol was a bronze statue into which the victims were thrown. The pagans believed that favors and special protection could be merited by such sacrifices.  Might the abortion of millions of children constitute the return of the demon Molech’s reign?  Just another name for Satan, it may be that the devil hides his thirst for human blood behind the semantics employed to disguise the true nature of abortion.  Consciences are numbed to the terrible truth that we are murdering our children.  There is no pro-Choice or pro-abortion Christianity.  Such opposition to the Gospel of Life is not only immoral but renounces the Christ and the God of Abraham.  It assumes the mantle of idolatry. The responsorial psalm also speaks of the need to replace rebellion with fidelity and idolatry with right worship.  Our minds must be opened and our hearts softened to the truth. We are admonished, “Harden not your hearts as at Mariah….” God’s people of old turned away as faithless, fearful and selfish. People today are also tempted away from true faith.  They are afraid to take responsibility for their actions, even parenthood.  They give preeminence to their own wants, even over the needs of others, as with the dignity of persons and the sanctity of life.

The second reading mentions some of the fears or anxieties that can afflict us. While they should be an occasion for heightened fidelity, the opposite is what often occurs.  People forget the goodness that God has shown them. Others get angry or doubt when God does not answer their prayers as they would like.  They wrongly postulate prayer as a demand instead of as a humble request.  It is just such a situation that led people of old astray.  St. Paul urges that believers should be “free of anxieties,” as the concerns of the world might distract us from the Lord and from his service.

The Gospel chronicles our Lord’s visit to the synagogue in Capernaum. He encounters someone possessed by a demon.  Jesus immediately rebukes him, “Quiet! Come out of him!” The “unclean spirit” makes a loud cry and leaves.  The onlookers are amazed both at his power and that he speaks with authority.  As prophets, we can invoke this same authority and power in casting out the demon that secretly devours the lives of our children in abortion.  As prophets, we can proclaim that Jesus is Lord and invite others into the Catholic community of faith.  We are summoned to speak the truth about justice and charity to an oppressive and selfish world.

  • Do we place confidence in the Lord who calls us to take up our crosses and to follow him?
  • Are we prophets— faithful, courageous and strong in proclaiming the truth?
  • Have we been the voice for the voiceless, especially the marginalized and the unborn?
  • Do we avoid the occult and any “false gods” that would compromise our witness?
  • How have we sought to bring the light of Christ against the darkness or demonic in the world?