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Prophets are Set on Fire by God

February 10, 2019

[75] Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Isaiah 6:1-2a, 3-8 / Psalm 138 / 1 Corinthians 15:1-11 / Luke 5:1-11

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The setting for the first reading is the temple, imaged as the place where God is both present and honored.  This is not dissimilar to how we regard the “real presence” of Christ in our churches.  Notice Isaiah speaks of seeing the train of God’s garment but no description is given about the deity.  Exodus 33:20 affirms that none could see the face of God and live.  This perspective will change with the coming of Christ who is regarded by Christians as giving a human face to God; he is the revelation of the Father.

Who or what are the Seraphim? While our angelic hierarchy differs from the Jews, the Seraphim are regarded in Christian tradition as angels of the highest rank. Angelology regards these six winged angels as essentially composed of fire and light.  It is in this sense that they share a special affinity with the LORD who is the greatest fire of all.  These angels are in close proximity to God.  They always keep their sights upon him. (A basic tenet of Scholastic philosophy is that when the veil is lifted between creatures and the absolute Good, which we associate with God, all are compelled to embrace it.  It is for this reason that we come to God in the mortal world by faith and not through sight.  At death our status becomes fixed, either sharing the beatific vision in heaven or rebelling to face the pains of hell.  Along these lines, some thinkers propose that a veil or cloud existed between God and his angels.  Tradition suggests that a third of the angels rebelled against God.  Existing outside of time their decision in obedience or rebellion is immutable.  The Seraphim bask in the light or fire of the absolute Good or the divine mystery.  Literally, “to see God” is “to worship God.”  That is why the catechism speaks of the angels and saints giving eternal glory to God in heaven.  The eyes of the saints are locked in awe upon the divine mystery forever.)

The prophet Isaiah acknowledges that he is a man of unclean lips and immediately in response a seraph comes to him with an ember taken with tongues from the altar.  We read, “He touched my mouth with it, and said, “See, now that this has touched your lips, your wickedness is removed, your sin purged.”  The prophet is not only chosen but he is enabled for his mission.  Isaiah receives his calling to which he accepts in the context of this worship.  Turning to Catholicism, the priest or bishop is ordained within the rituals of the Eucharistic liturgy.  Lay men and women are to live out their prophetic role in taking into the world that which they are given at every Mass, the message and risen person of Christ.

Notice the connection with worship to the fire of incense.  Just as we as Catholics speak of the Mass as our earthly participation in the marriage banquet of heaven; here there is a profound association or parallel between the worship of the temple where God is present and the heavenly adoration rendered by his angels.  The Seraphim offer a resounding hymn of praise, “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts.  This formula of worship, called the Trisagion, becomes an important element of Christian worship, East and West.  Some of the ancient Church fathers would even discern something of the Trinitarian personhood of God in the hymn.  The word holy is more than a descriptive adjective— it is the very name of God as all HOLY.  Isaiah associates holiness with the ember that touches his lips.  He is essentially burned by the fire of God.  Fire destroys the old to make room for the new.  There is no space between us and the HOLY God for sin.  Christians associate this fire with the purification of souls in purgatory that approach the throne of God.  As for believers in this world, there is an expression for fervent believers that carries forth this theme— that they are “on fire” for Christ and the Gospel.

The responsorial furthers the topic of collaboration between men and angels in giving glory to God. The posture of all creation, material and spiritual, is one of dependence upon God.  When we as Christians envision the communion of the saints, we list righteous men and women as well as angelic beings.  The pure spirits may stand before us in the natural hierarchy; however, we attain our own privileged status in grace because the LORD becomes a member of the human family.  While the angels might differ from us more than any hypothetical and fictional space alien; they have become our protectors and friends in the family of faith.  The word “angel” means messenger.  While we retain our human nature, those called by the LORD in the race of Adam are also messengers of God’s truth and mercy.  Note how Jesus and his apostles go out to the world.

The apostle Paul is a type of Isaiah.  He says that he gives what he has received— in other words, the message of the saving death and resurrection of Christ.  Those who receive this message are admonished to hold fast to the faith so as not to believe in vain. He does not hesitate to mention his own witness as one who persecuted the Church and now, by God’s grace, to be the hardest working of the apostles.  He attributes his success to the grace of God.  God formed him so that he might also make disciples of others.  This is not unlike the angel’s gift of a burning ember upon the lips of Isaiah.  God forms us and makes us into his instruments. The alleluia verse and gospel reading bring forward the theme:  “Come after me and I will make you fishers of men.”  Following the pattern of Isaiah, both Paul and the apostle Peter respond to the LORD’s call.  Isaiah confesses to being a man of “unclean lips.”  Paul acknowledges his past persecution of Christians.  Peter says, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.”  There is in each case a sense of unworthiness.   Jesus calls his first apostles, not within the confines of the religious temple, but while they are in their boats. There is no hesitation on their part.  Jesus tells them not to be afraid, the same words that he shares at the end of the Gospel.  Just like the great catch of fish, it is understood that God’s grace will allow an even greater catch for souls.

Where is Love?

February 3, 2019

[72] Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Jeremiah 1:4-5, 17-19 / Psalm 71 / 1 Corinthians 12:31-13:13 / Luke 4:21-30

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How well does God know any of us?  We are told in the first reading that God knew us before we were formed in the womb.  Like Jeremiah, we too have been dedicated to the Lord and appointed as prophets to the nations.  As signs opposed, the Lord says, “Be not crushed on their account.”  We must not surrender our commission.  We must not give up hope.  This message of protection and a fortified city fits in neatly with the psalm’s admonition to take refuge in the Lord.  The Lord will give comfort and save us.

The Lord manifests for us throughout the Gospel what it means to be a sign of contradiction.  Today’s reading has Jesus speaking at his hometown’s synagogue.  The men there know him or at least they think they do.  They know his family and have seen him grow up in their midst.  These were the neighbors and friends that he most loved.  Their amazement at his words makes them question.  “Is this not Joseph’s son?”  Our Lord challenges them to the full truth of his identity.  Indeed, he would invite them to a new way of thinking and loving.  But he knows their hearts.  He relates how Elijah was only received by a single widow in Zarephath and that Elisha cleansed only the one leper, Naaman.   Those who reject the prophets are convicted by their sins.  His listeners become immediately aware that Jesus is placing them under the same conviction.  They have hardened their hearts.  They will not accept the one who is truly in their midst.  These people who mean so very much to Jesus become angry, so much so that they seek to put him to death.  But it is not yet the appointed time.  Jesus has the power and is in charge.  He passes “through the midst of them” and leaves them with murder in their hearts.  There is a sad poignancy here that resonates with the garden when Jesus is betrayed by a kiss from one he loves.

We all like to be liked.  I know that I do.  But sometimes we must speak the truth in love, no matter what the cost.  The commandment of love takes precedence over being liked.  Our Lord says that we must take up our crosses to follow him.  This is precisely done in assuming his likeness, Jesus, the sign that is opposed.  Priests often embrace this role, even before their congregations, and sometimes with their knees shaking. The collect to the Mass today is beautifully expressed:  “Grant us, Lord our God, that we may honor you with all our mind, and love everyone in truth of heart.”  Ah, if only every priest lived out this as an element of his celibate or single-hearted call to service!  Now a minister must speak the truth at a time when the moral authority of churchmen has been direly compromised.  The two-fold commandment of love from Christ is the solution to all our ills and evils— not that it allows us escape from the Cross but rather that it allows our Lord’s victory to be illumined without blemish.

Too many people say they love others when they really do not know what love is.  Others corrupt the very meaning of love.  The parish church gives us many symbols of love, if we have eyes to see.  There is the poor box, a source of material charity for those in need.  We see a statue in the back with Joseph holding the baby Jesus and a picture of the Holy Family up front with Mary holding her child.  They are witnesses to love within the family.  Mary is the handmaid of the Lord.  Joseph is the protector of the Holy Family.  Families are called to nurture the love of fidelity and the love that gives life in children— receiving them as gifts from God, nurturing them, teaching them, clothing them, sheltering and protecting them.  Spousal and parental love finds its deepest meaning in the crucifix that we find in the center of the church.  True love is always sacrificial.  The beloved means more to us than we do to ourselves.  There is a mutual surrender.  That flies in the face of the self-absorption that mutates love into something foreign from the heart of God— treating children as mere commodities, reducing the miracle of marital intimacy to lust where bodies are interchangeable and both infidelity and pornography poison hearts and minds.  Genuine love always raises up the sanctity of life and the dignity of persons.  If it does not do this then it is counterfeit, not true love at all, not love “in truth of heart.”

 The apostle Paul writes to the Corinthians about true love.  Again and again, he asserts that without love we are nothing— just making noise— utterly impoverished.  It bears repeating:  “Love is patient, love is kind. It is not jealous, it is not pompous, it is not inflated, it is not rude, it does not seek its own interests, it is not quick-tempered, it does not brood over injury, it does not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails.”

These words inspire and move the soul.  However, when we seek to show the practical ramifications, the prophets of this genuine love will quickly find rocks thrown in their direction.  Many wrongly love themselves more than others.  I hesitate to trespass into the area of partisan politics.  But this topic compels me to stressed again that we must belong to Christ before any political party and/or social or humanitarian movement.

“Grandma is taking her time dying and she is so very uncomfortable in the hospital. Plus it is so expensive; there will be nothing left for us when she finally dies.  She has lived long enough.  Let us be compassionate and pull the plug or have poison placed in her IV.”  Is it an impossible scenario?  It is happening right now.  “Those people are uneducated mongrels.  How did they enter this country anyway?  They are all rapists and drug addicts.  We should send them back from whence they came!  At least give them contraceptives so that we will not have to suffer their mangy litters!”  Racism and prejudice of this sort is always a form of hatred.  Nationalism is a similar ailment.  Love can be misplaced. The Lord shows us how to love.

Someone complained to me that her party has no pro-lifers.  Well, I said, maybe it is time for you to run?  We should not be lemmings marching mindlessly into the sea.  When we had the Cemetery of the Innocents display in front of the parish grounds, I received a call from a person complaining about “that Republican display.”  I tried to explain to her that as a Christian community we love both the parents and the child.  We believe in women’s rights and some of those women are in the womb.  Finally I told her that as far as I knew most of the men and women who put up the display were themselves registered Democrats.  Despite the propaganda, one party does not own this issue, even if extremists and their money have taken over much of the leadership.  Of course the Knights of Columbus led this effort, and they are regularly derided despite their good works.  Speaking for myself, I would rather be a good Christian or Catholic before being labeled a good (or bad) Democrat or Republican.

This past week many of us were in shock at the news regarding recent abortion legislation.  A Democratic sponsor of a Virginia abortion proposal acknowledged it could allow women to terminate a pregnancy up until the very moment before birth (during dilation), for reasons including mental health.  Similarly the governor of New York (a so-called Catholic) signed a bill that essentially removed all restrictions from abortion.  Doctors were no longer required and children that somehow survived abortions could now be killed afterwards.  Again, children could be destroyed up to the moment of birth.  Many are demanding the excommunication of the governor.  Why is it that some people cannot see that it is wrong to kill a fully formed baby ready to be born?  Where is maternal love?  What will the future hold?  Can it get still worse?   Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva write in the Journal of Medical Ethics: “When circumstances occur after birth such that they would have justified abortion, what we call after-birth abortion should be permissible. … We propose to call this practice ‘after-birth abortion’, rather than ‘infanticide,’ to emphasize that the moral status of the individual killed is comparable with that of a fetus … rather than to that of a child. Therefore, we claim that killing a newborn could be ethically permissible in all the circumstances where abortion would be. Such circumstances include cases where the newborn has the potential to have an (at least) acceptable life, but the well-being of the family is at risk.”  They write that “There is nothing magical about passing through the birth canal that transforms it from a fetus into a person.”  Certain ethicists would extend the time range where one might destroy the unwanted child to as much as three years of age outside the womb.

Where is love in all this?  It is in Christ that we can find the true meaning of love in a world that has forgotten.  Love and life are as two sides of a coin.  Christian couples are drawn to each other in love and that love brings forth new life.  Christ is the love that conquers the grave and grants us a share in eternal life.  We must witness to the truth of this love.

God’s Law is a Cause for Rejoicing

January 27, 2019

[69] Third Sunday in Ordinary Time

Neh. 8:2-4A, 5-6, 8-10 / Psalm 19:8, 9, 10, 15 / 1 Cor. 12:12-30 / Luke 1:1-4; 4:14-21

The setting for the first reading is the reconstitution of Jerusalem under the authorities from Persia that have released the Jewish people. Ezra and Nehemiah are leaders in the Judean community.  They have been sent to provide both spiritual and political governance for the struggling group of returnees in Jerusalem.  Ezra is described as a learned scribe and as a priest.  He will teach them the commandments.  Later he will criticize their mingling and intermarriage with foreigners.  Many of these associations will later be broken to the lament of his people.  This disassociation with foreigners is the opposite of the gospel mandate that would make disciples of all nations.  Instead of the temple, the selection here has them gathering at the Water Gate.  This is a place where all approach so as to benefit from the natural water source on the eastern side of the city.  It is a familiar gathering place.  The Torah or the law is read with commentary by Ezra, illustrating his authority from God to give directives.  The pattern is one that will be revisited in the synagogue service where the Scriptures are read and explained.  Later it will be the same pattern for the Church where the Word of God is proclaimed and a homily is given by the priest.

God restores them to his holy city.  The people weep because they are cognizant of their infidelity to the commandments.  They fear the wrath of God.  Ezra tells them to rejoice instead because this is not a day of condemnation but one of restoration.  God is good and merciful.  The day is festive and holy, not one for fasting but rather for joyful feasting.  They are summoned to acknowledge their dependence upon the Lord.  While they are called to be faithful, salvation comes not through human arms or earning divine favor but because God is merciful and is their true strength.  God’s goodness is shown both in his creation and in his law; for having made the human race, he now establishes a renewed relationship with them and shows his people how to live.  This pattern is followed again in Christ where he would have the children of Israel rejoice in the law of God—the law of love— and not to suffer from the burden of the law as imposed by the Pharisees and elders.

The psalm response “Your words, Lord, are Spirit and life,” is the affirmation in the Gospel of John to the extended Bread of Life discourse where our Lord tells his listeners that we must eat his flesh and drink his blood if we are to have a share in his life. It is a colloquialism, not denying the real presence as certain non-Catholic exegetes attempt to do, but rather stamping his words as truthful, no matter how many might mumble and walk away.  The Spirit cannot deceive.  What seems absurd can be made real by the power of God.  We, as Catholics, appreciate that the Holy Spirit comes upon the gifts of bread and wine and makes possible their transformation into the risen Christ— the food that feeds the soul and grants us a share in eternal life.

Just as the giving of the law establishes a people for God; the giving of the Eucharist would institute a new covenant and people in Christ.  The Decalogue finds its true meaning with the two-fold commandment of Christ to love God and to love our neighbor.  It is this law that brings us to wisdom, putting on the mind of the Lord.  It is this law that moves us to a loving response to God— bringing healing, “refreshing the soul.”  The promise given to the ancient Hebrews will be echoed to all who believe in Christ, “Obey my voice, and I will be your God, and you shall be my people.”  The psalm gives us the acclamation, “O LORD, my rock and my redeemer.”  Jesus is the true Redeemer and the foundation stone for his Church.  He labels Simon as “rock” or Peter, because he will be the keeper of the keys for this new kingdom.  Jesus extends something of himself and his authority to his apostles, his first bishops and priests.

Paul speaks of the mystical body of Christ.  While there is a profound unity, the body has many parts, each with its own role and nobility.  The Gospel proclamation is given not to any one people but to all who would believe and follow Christ.  This appreciation is utterly revolutionary; indeed, it becomes a factor in the persecution of the Church by the Roman Empire.  The allegiance to Christ and his Church did not respect national boundaries or ethnicities.  Indeed, it calls into question many of the presuppositions of both pagan and secular culture and civilization.  There is also a seed planted that in time would acknowledge the right to life of the child, extend true dignity to women and a genuine emancipation to those who would be slaves.  How can one keep his brother in bondage?  If there is an equality of grace in Christ, then all life is sacred and all persons have an immeasurable dignity.  Many centuries and several millennia would pass for this seed to blossom and grow.  It is still growing.  Such is the hallmark of the Gospel, and the law of God, not as a stagnant message but one ever dynamic and alive.  It is as our Alleluia verse proclaims:  “The Lord sent me to bring glad tidings to the poor, and to proclaim liberty to captives.”  The law of God does not bring bondage but liberty.  We are called to joyful freedom in Christ.

Addressed to Theophilus (a name meaning “loved of God”), Luke gives us his narrative or gospel on the life of Christ.  It is said that Luke wrote in Greek for the Gentile world.  Theophilus is evidently a person of high rank, perhaps even a military officer.  The parallel we have with the first reading and today’s Gospel selection is with Jesus speaking in the synagogue of Nazareth. He opens a scroll from Isaiah and reads:  “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.”  Akin to a church homily, he sits down and teaches:  “Today this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.”  He is the fulfillment of the law and the prophets.  He is the good news of the Gospel.  The law of God is made real because God has the power and he has intervened in human history.  It is with Jesus that the face of God will be revealed.  He is forever and always the God of mercy and joy.  He reaches out to the poor, the oppressed and the hurting and he will make all things new.  Even the foreigner is embraced as a friend so as to become a member of the family of faith.  Unlike the first reading, it is not merely a holy day but a “year acceptable to the Lord.”  In other words, more than a calendar year, it is the season of salvation.

[152] Thirty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time

November 4, 2018

Deuteronomy 6:2-6 / Psalm 18 / Hebrews 7:23-28 / Mark 12:28b-34

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Moses exhorts that honor and obedience to God brings forth the blessings of long life and prosperity upon his people.  Indeed, if they expect the LORD to keep his promises for a land of their own then they must reciprocate with their own fidelity.  This illustrates a profound message about justice— God rewards faithfulness, punishes disobedience and protects his own who love him.  This appreciation is the glue that preserves the identity of the Jews as God’s chosen people, from the time that they were a family and tribe through their transition as a nation and then a religion.  Indeed, it may be argued that such an appreciation is the seed, first for the ordering of the Jewish community and later for the emergence of Christianity and a Judeo-Christian civilization.  Such a community, ordered around both divine truth and justice, is now in the wane as it is increasingly replaced by a secular culture that makes man and not God the measure of all things.  The Church today is ever more an isolated sign of contradiction in this modern world.  As such, power, money and politics manipulate the larger community even as its pawns endlessly belabor about invented rights and fraudulent freedoms.  It must be said that a general chaos reigns (everyone doing their own thing) and the error of subjective truth (disorientation around a false foundation) wrongly countermands what is objectively true.

The responsorial carries forward the theme of our dependence upon God.  Note that the psalmist calls the LORD his rock.  Many of the ancient pagan believers literally were idolaters.  While their statues over time came to represent false deities, initially the idols of metal or stone or wood were worshipped in themselves.  Certain anthropologists argue that next to the worship of celestial elements like the sun and moon, many early people actually worshipped rocks.  These rocks were eventually carved into various shapes.  Any visitor to the Holy Land will know that it is a place littered with rocks.  That is why stoning became a routine manner of enacting capital punishment.  The rocks took on an importance because they could be used in defense, hunting and building.  They were particularly effective in fighting, either against other people or in killing animals for food.  Indeed, heavy rocks were also used in crushing grain in the process of making life-giving bread.  Contrasted to the idolaters, the Hebrew people were called to follow an invisible God.  While he was the Creator, he could not be identified with his creation.  God’s people strenuously fought against the use of idols but it may be that they borrowed something of the language of their pagan neighbors.  Calling the LORD their rock, they were asserting that he was both their firm foundation and that he had sufficient power to protect his own.

Illustrated in both our first reading and the Gospel, the backbone to all the commandments is their relationship with the living God.  This is why idolatry was regarded as the vilest sin:  “Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD alone! Therefore, you shall love the LORD, your God, with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength.”  While we appreciate our saving faith in Jesus as the Son of God, this command retains its binding force for Jews and Christians, alike.  All sin or rebellion signifies a turning away from this truth— placing either persons or things before our allegiance to God.  Adherence to this command changes everything.  A failure to embrace this truth corrupts discipleship as a matter of external show or exhibition.  It is this love of God that should fuel all human charity.  It is the unseen element by which all souls will be judged.  St. Paul as the Pharisee-turned-Christian knew this truth well.  He wrote the Corinthians: “If I speak in human and angelic tongues but do not have love, I am a resounding gong or a clashing cymbal. And if I have the gift of prophecy and comprehend all mysteries and all knowledge; if I have all faith so as to move mountains but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away everything I own, and if I hand my body over so that I may boast but do not have love, I gain nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:1-3).  The fidelity of men is not like the actions of pre-programmed ants.  God wants our hearts.  He wants us to prize him as our treasure before all else.  He is a jealous God and does not want to share us— it is all or nothing!

Jesus adds as a corollary of the great commandment toward the Lord one that includes the neighbor:  “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The scribe that comes to him affirms the answer and Jesus tells him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” If we were to imagine this love as water in a cup it would be brimming over.  It cannot be contained.  That is why such a love of God must spill upon our brothers and sisters.

The courts order the removal of the Decalogue from the walls of courtrooms and from display on public grounds. (There was one notable exception when authorities said they would permit an edited listing that subtracted the commandments about God.)  The problem is, take God out of the equation and the commandments become mere suggestions.  We have faced similar problems in the public schools.  Efforts to teach virtues in public schools have collapsed because who is to say what is wrong if there is no divine command?  What are the consequences?  We can no longer even agree about questions of gender.  Despite obvious disordered elements, sexual orientation and behavior has become a free-for-all.  Children can celebrate the Wiccan and occult elements of Halloween but only the Easter Bunny and a sanitized Santa have survived the purging of Christ’s birth and resurrection.  Mother’s and Father’s Day has been removed from calendars or transformed so as not to offend those with no acknowledged male or female parents.  Instead of telling children to wait until marriage for sexual intimacy, school nurses pass out condoms and in some cases schedule abortions for the children under their care.  Nevertheless, they still cannot give those same children an aspirin for a headache.  Tired of teaching children to behave, many children are drugged for purported attention disorders (which they may or may not have).  When children are challenged for bad behavior their answers are quick and to the point.  “Who are you to tell me what to do?”

Note the first half of the traditional Act of Contrition:  “O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee, and I detest all my sins, because of Thy just punishments, but most of all because they offend Thee, my God, who art all good and deserving of all my love.”  The essential message from Moses to Christ was love; however, if love should be found wanting, then at least the fear of punishment would make possible contrition and help to insure proper behavior.  At a minimum, the fear of punishment (the loss of heaven and the fires of hell) protects the good from evil men and upholds a moral society.  However, today it could rightly be said that many people neither love God nor fear punishment.  It should not surprise us that this attitude has arisen at the same time as when atheism is claimed by a quarter of the U.S. population.  Worse than this, many who are believers live as if there were no God.  Separated from God, we do not know how to be good.

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As an aside to this homily theme, the second reading speaks about the priesthood of Christ.  Here we can also say something about the love of God and the fidelity we should show him.  While the priests of old could only serve until their deaths, Christ’s priesthood is eternal.  Indeed, his priestly service can save all who approach him for mediation.  While the Jewish priests daily offered a sacrifice that could not fully appease the dishonor of God caused by sin, the oblation of Jesus on Calvary makes true satisfaction and has lasting value.  Men ordained to the priesthood in the Church share in his one priesthood.  The Mass is a real and unbloody re-presentation of Calvary behind the sacred signs of bread and wine.  While ordained clergy stand at our altars, it is Jesus who celebrates every Mass.  Jesus is our high priest and our divine and innocent victim.  While our priests may offer the Mass daily, it is only because they live and minister in time.  The underlying truth is that every Mass participates in the onetime sacrifice of Jesus.  Jesus realizes the full meaning of the commandment of love.  Given his identity, he joins within himself the power of divine love with the fidelity that we are commanded to grant to the Father.  Jesus spreads his arms on the Cross as the offering of a love beyond measure.

  • Can you truly say that the priorities of your life illustrate fidelity to the two-fold commandment of love?
  • Can you really say that you love God while you hate your neighbor?
  • What competes with our intimacy and loyalty to the Lord?
  • What motivates our prayers and acts of charity?
  • Can people really love the Lord as they should if they fail to pray and to worship with the believing community of the Church?
  • Is it well appreciated that the priest is Christ and that the Mass is Calvary?
  • Can we really be good without God?
  • Are we moved more out of fear or love of God?

Mass at Mother Seton Shrine

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The deacons and I took a photo together after the 4:00 PM Saturday Mass at the Mother Seton Shrine in Emmitsburg. It was the Fall Meeting for the MD State Knights of Columbus.

October 28, 2018

[149] Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time

1 Jeremiah  31:7-9 / Psalm 126 / 2 Hebrews 5:1-6 / Mark 10:46-52

God’s people from the Northern Kingdom are returning home from their exile imposed first under the Assyrians.  The Lord has appeared to them on their return and the scene is reminiscent of the Mosaic exodus.  The prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled and Jeremiah shares with them their joy from God.  He tells them to praise God saying, “The LORD has delivered his people, the remnant of Israel.”

The Lord also calls to his children in the Church.  We are summoned as his new People of God from “the ends of the world.”  The apostles would preach the kingdom into the lands of the diaspora and the Gentiles.  We are made a new nation of prophets.  Just as Jesus went out to poor and the oppressed, healing the blind and the crippled; the Church is also commissioned to “console and guide them.” The Church is the New Israel. While the responsorial carries this theme of joyous restoration, in the Church it is so much more.  It is both a consummation and a new beginning.

Our fundamentalist friends often equate the New Zion with the institution of the current political state of Israel.  However, the Catholic Church sees herself as the New Jerusalem or Zion to which God calls his people.  Instead of liberation from the Egyptians or the Assyrians or the Babylonians or the Romans, God’s people are delivered from bondage to suffering, sin and death.  We are no longer the devil’s property but have been redeemed by Christ, the long-awaited Jewish Messiah and the Savior of the world.

While the only crown Jesus would wear in mortal life was one of thorns, it is in the Lord that the earthly or Davidic kingdom is united to Christ’s eternal or divine kingdom.  We are invited into this kingdom through faith and baptism.  More than simple subjects, we are anointed as a royal household— adopted sons and daughters of the Father, kin to Christ and with Mary as our Queen Mother.

The Christian ceremony of baptism for children has us anointed into Christ as “priest, prophet and king.”  The house of Jesus is a priestly one where we are called to take up our crosses and to follow the Lord.  Priests offer oblation.  It is within our baptismal priesthood that we render loving sacrifices to God and for others.  We join ourselves with the successors of the apostles, the ordained priests, so as to offer ourselves with the Lord at Mass to the Father as an acceptable sacrifice.  We seek to be transformed in surrendering ourselves with the eternal Lamb of God.

Paul’s letter to the Hebrews compares the Jewish priesthood with the priesthood of Christ.  It is clear that an old order passes away in favor of the new.  “You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.” Jesus is our true high priest before God and he offers the sacrifice of his very self for our sins.  This new People of God will have its own leadership and order.  The authority given to the apostles is quickly understood to have a sacerdotal dimension; they and their successors are sharers in the one priesthood of Christ.

The blind beggar calls Jesus by a messianic title, “Son of David.” The crowd is embarrassed by him and tries to silence the poor man.  He refuses to shut up.  Jesus stops and tells them to call him.  Their posture changes and they are suddenly supportive of Bartimaeus, saying, “Take courage; get up, Jesus is calling you.” Notice what he does— he threw his cloak aside and proceeded to Jesus.  This in itself demonstrates faith in the person of Jesus.  He trusts that he will be able to see so as to retrieve his cloak.  What Jesus does next might sound absurd.  He asks, “What do you want me to do for you?”  Was it not obvious? The man says, “Master, I want to see.”  Why did Jesus ask such a question? We must remember that the many miracles of Jesus always pointed to deeper realities.  Everyone healed would become ill in the future and die.  I suspect he was looking for a more profound response— like “I want to be holy” or “I want to follow you” or “I want to be saved.” Yes, the beggar immediately receives his sight; but again, we must notice the words of Jesus.  He says, “Go your way; your faith has saved you.” This man not only received a healing but absolution.  Light came to his eyes and his soul is also enlightened.  Jesus confirms his faith, even though he may have hoped for a more profound response.  Look at the text.  Jesus tells him to go on his way and we are next told that the beggar “followed him on the way.”

The expression “way” would come to mean the way of faith as a Christian, literally our Lord’s summons to take up our crosses and to follow him.  This walking with Christ is our participation in the new exodus of Jesus… as children redeemed to walk in the freedom of Christ.  We are called to leave our old lives behind and trust that Jesus will open our eyes to follow him in the Christian life.  Our saving faith in Jesus Christ is not simply a profession of faith but is one of transformative unity with the Lord.

The theme of exodus has the subjects both leaving something and moving toward something.  The elements of exodus are uttered in the cry, “Repent and believe.”  We move away from our former life of sin and move toward a new life of faith and obedience to God.  Every time the priest gives absolution to a soul that was in mortal sin, there is an exodus from bondage to freedom— from death to life.  This pattern is true for groupings of people and for individuals.  Missionary endeavors seek to bring the Gospel to whole classes of people.  The spiritual life focuses on a personal exodus experience for individuals.

It should also be noted that we are sometimes reluctant to participate in an exodus.  The Israelite community grumbled against Moses and Aaron: “If only we had died at the LORD’s hand in the land of Egypt, as we sat by our kettles of meat and ate our fill of bread! But you have led us into this wilderness to make this whole assembly die of famine!” (Exodus 16:3). Unhappy with the struggle of their journey, many wished they had never left Egypt.  Similarly, at the time of the restoration, many of the Jews refused to return to Jerusalem as they had integrated into their Babylonian exile and lived comfortable lives.  Indeed, some remained but sent resources with departing Hebrews so that they could rebuild. We can face similar struggles and temptations in the spiritual life.  People can become comfortable with their sins.  Bad habits or vices can direct lives and make it difficult for grace and virtue to change direction.  An important point is at play.  God makes possible the exodus, but you have to want to go.  This is not unlike the old anecdote, “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink.”  It is an unfortunate truth that some prefer bondage to freedom and thirst to the cup of salvation.

  • Are there things holding you back from being a true companion with Christ and his people “on the journey”?
  • The story of the exodus became an important part of the Seder celebration for the Jewish people. What is your own exodus and Passover story?
  • Unlike the people of Judah, the other Jews of the diaspora and exile were never formally given an opportunity to return to Jerusalem. Are there people or forces that would keep you in bondage and in exile from God?
  • As a sharer in Christ’s priestly love, what are the chief sacrifices that you have made for the kingdom of Christ?
  • As a member of the royal household of God, do you see yourself and others with God’s eyes— as having an “incommensurate” value in terms of human dignity and life?
  • Have you been faithful to the great commission as a prophet of Good News, witnessing for Christ and his Church? (Often this translates as practicing the faith and raising one’s family in the Church and in union with parish faith formation programs.)

[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?

[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?