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Catholic Bytes

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“It is of course horrible and scandalous what some in the Church have done and utterly reprehensible, but I can’t get past the fact that despite all the failings of the clergy, that Jesus Christ’s love for us is real and I need to cling to it with all my strength,” said Father Conrad Murphy.  (CLICK the picture to read the article.)

CATHOLIC BYTES

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.

Anniversary of St. Joseph on the Hill (Oct. 14, 1990)

Editorial Notation:  Given that St. Joseph’s Parish celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2018, how is it that Msgr. Awalt preached in 1990 for is 100th anniversary?  It is all a matter as to when one starts counting. The parish actually started in 1868. The old temporary church was built in 1870. St. Joseph’s School was built in 1890 and was used as the church while the present structure was being completed.  That is why there was a celebration in 1990 (associating the church with the school).  The current church was dedicated on January 18, 1891 by James Cardinal Gibbons.

The Setting

This homily was given at St. Joseph’s Church on Capitol Hill at the 12:00 Noon Mass on Sunday, October 14, 1990 by Monsignor William J. Awalt.  It was based on the readings of the day:  the 28th Sunday after Pentecost, Cycle A.  To understand the references, it must be read in conjunction with these Scripture readings:

  • Isaiah 25:6-10
  • Phil. 4:12-14, 19—20
  • Matt. 22:1-14

The occasion was the 100th Anniversary Celebration of St. Joseph’s Church, commemorating the contribution of the German people to parish life.

It was noted by the homilist that any positive effect from his words would rightly be attributed to three elements:  (1) the grace of the occasion, (2) the inspiring remembrance of contributions from German immigrants, and (3) the inherent efficacy of the Word of God proclaimed at Mass.

The Homily

As one comes up the River Rhine in Germany, toward the City of Cologne, a mammoth and beautiful church dominates the skyline. In admiring what is the Cathedral Church of Cologne, one might entertain the question, “Haven’t I seen something like this before?” Smaller, but inspired by that cathedral, is St. Joseph’s on Capitol Hill. This church was a gift of the German people who settled this area around the time of the Civil War, a very small replica of the cathedral that many left behind.

St. Joseph’s Parish was started to accommodate the German-speaking Catholics who thought it was too far to go to the German National Parish, St. Mary’s, at Fifth and G Streets, NW.  They dreamed of making this parish a national church for German Catholics of the United States. St. Joseph’s then became the second national church for Germans under the Jesuit, Father Wiget, who was Swiss, but like so many others, spoke German. The first three pastors were German. To find additional German-speaking priests, St. Joseph’s parish was staffed from the nearest source in Buffalo, New York. Cardinal Gibbons, whom a few might still remember, laid the cornerstone in 1868. The foundations are 7 feet thick, perhaps the reason they ran out of money for the superstructure in the way they envisioned it. The Cathedral of Cologne was 600 years being built. St. Joseph’s, a very small replica of the cathedral, was finished in two years. The total cost of the second structure on the old foundation was $68,854.52. One estimate is that 20,000 people from nearby and from Baltimore attended the dedication ceremonies. The parish was staffed by German-speaking priests from the Jesuit mission out of Buffalo, with the assistants more or less coming from the Maryland/New York Province.

In 1886, eighteen years after the cornerstone was laid, Father Valentine Schmitt, from the Archdiocese of Baltimore-Washington, a German-speaking priest, was to become pastor.  At his request, St. Joseph’s ceased to be a national German parish— one of the conditions of his coming here as pastor. The present church was built between 1890 and 1891, hence our celebration today and throughout this year.

The German people and their priests built this church on a hill, nothing compared to the Bavarian Alps, but a hill nonetheless, especially if taken in perspective with the other sections of DC like Swampoodle and Foggy Bottom. This hill today is known as Capitol Hill. From the point of view of our faith, this building is the more important building on the HiII. The mountain, mentioned in the first reading, Isaiah 2526-10, was not so much a topographical detail as a place where the Lord dwells: hence, Mt. Sinai, Mount of the Transfiguration, and Mount Calvary. The mountains are the places where God dwells and where God works. This use of the mountain was our human language trying to express the divine presence, transcendence and dwelling. Again, we speak of God “coming down” to earth and Jesus as “going up” to heaven; poor language attempts to express the Incarnation and the Ascension. The mountain and the hill are viewed as God’s dwellings. Ours is the great God who is not just one of us, except when Christ takes upon himself a human nature from Joseph’s spouse, Mary.  Here on the Hill, God has dwelt in a special way these many years; among his assembly, the parishioners, in the Eucharist, and in the proclamation of His Word.  St. Joseph’s Parish (the Church on Capitol Hill) is still a sign of God’s continued dwelling with His people.

I cannot point to anything extraordinary among the German people of those years other than that which is outstanding in itself, their fidelity, their obedience, and their observance of the law, both civil and religious. In that, they were like their patron, St. Joseph. They lived their lives as the yeast, the salt, and the leaven of the Gospel here at St. Joseph’s.  St. Joseph, himself, seems to come across in the Gospel, as we say today, “as laid back.”  But do not mistake that for indifference, weakness, or unfaithfulness. From the obscurity of the hidden life of Nazareth, St. Joseph under Leo the XIII becomes the patron of the universal Church. That makes sense. He, who is the protector of Mary, his wife, and the child, Jesus, is the protector of what we have called the family recently, the domestic Church. Now he is the protector of the Church Universal which is Christ extended into time. As Mary is patroness of the sister German parish and is Mother to us all; so too is Joseph charged with being Protector of the Holy Family and with us.

Scripture called Joseph the Just Man. That did not mean that he simply paid his bills.  The word “just” in this context meant he was an observer of the law. What a happy coincidence that a just man should be patron here on the Hill where our legislators are called upon to be men who enact just laws.  Joseph knew the law; e.g. that Jewish marriages take place in two stages: first, the betrothal and then the marriage.  In prayer he was given an answer to his dilemma.  He presumed that Mary was to be subject to the law because she was pregnant with the Christ Child before they came together. This also made her subject to the penalty that came with breaking the law.  Joseph’s answer was not to evade the law; rather his discovered in prayer that the law did not apply to the Blessed Virgin Mary— his wife that he had yet to take into his home.  He observed the law even when it was inconvenient.  Rome spoke: that everyone must go to the place of their origin to register for the census. The civil law was inconvenient for his wife was pregnant and near her time of delivery. Yet, he obeyed the law. For this just man knew that all authority came from God. Because he complied, we have the Christmas hymn, “0 Little Town of Bethlehem.”

Joseph knew the law. He fled the jurisdiction of Herod to go to Egypt when Herod wanted to kill the child.  Then from Egypt he took his family to another jurisdiction in the north, Nazareth.  In this he was not unlike the early parishioners of this parish. They came to a strange land, not knowing the language, and not having security.  Joseph, in all this, was a good patron for the German immigrants. Joseph taught Christ as the child grew in wisdom and age. He worked with his hands. He was a skilled laborer, probably something like a skilled cabinetmaker.  He was much in demand, for Herod had taken 1,500 carpenters to Jerusalem to work on the temple.  Joseph took Jesus to the temple on the Hill of Jerusalem to teach the child to pray. In this relationship of Joseph to Jesus, this wonderful experience of father and son, perhaps the seed of the prayer, “Our Father,” was planted.  Jesus saw a reflection of the heavenly Father in his protector, Joseph.  Jesus taught us to call God our Father by the affectionate name, “Abba.”  The German immigrants, like Joseph, kept the law, said their prayers, did their work, went to church, raised their families, and were good husbands and wives. What better patron could there be for these hard-working faithful people from Germany to choose than Joseph, protector of the Church?

Joseph died (as all of us will) before Christ entered into His public life of teaching, dying and rising from the dead.   We do not know much about Joseph during that private, hidden family life of thirty years. If Joseph were a German, I am sure, among his last words would have been that phrase that is so often on the lips of the German people, “auf wieder sehen” (till we meet and see each other again.  This is more than a perfunctory goodbye.  As Christians we believe we have here no lasting city in this world, but that “auf wieder sehen” in German is an expressed belief in eternal life and reunion. The Germans have a saying, “Those who live in Christ have not seen each other for the last time.”  Joseph, had he been German, could well have said this to his Holy Family. Those who preceded us in this parish could easily say that to us today, meaning, “I will see you again,” anticipating reunion, resurrection, family joy, and happiness. Joseph was a humane, compassionate, obedient, respectful, hard-working, powerful, and patient man.  He was one who found his place and his holiness in a simple or ordinary way of life.  What a patron for the Germans— indeed, for all of us!

One of my favorite insights into Joseph as a father, as a family man, a husband, and as the protector of Mary and Jesus, is a short literary piece dealing with the time between Jesus’ death and His resurrection, as the souls of the just throughout the ages wait patiently with Joseph for the news of their redemption. The piece is called “Limbo.”  It brings out the humanity of Joseph, patron of this parish and this Church. It is very characteristic of so many cultures and nationalities but also of the German parishioners who preceded us.

LIMBO by Sister Mary Ada

The ancient greyness shifted
Suddenly and thinned
Like mist upon the moors
Before a wind.
An old, old prophet lifted
A shining face and said:
“He will be coming soon.
The Son of God is dead;
He died this afternoon.”

A murmurous excitement stirred
All souls.
They wondered if they dreamed—
Save one old man who seemed
Not even to have heard.

And Moses standing,
Hushed them all to ask
If any had a welcome song prepared.
If not, would David take the task?
And if they cared
Could not the three young children sing
The Benedicite, the canticle of praise
They made when God kept them from perishing
In the fiery blaze?

A breath of spring surprised them,
Stilling Moses’ words.
No one could speak, remembering
The first fresh flowers,
The little singing birds.
Still others thought of fields new ploughed
Or apple trees
All blossom-boughed.
Or some, the way a dried bed fills
With water
Laughing down green hills.
The fisherfolk dreamed of the foam
On bright blue seas.
The one old man who had not stirred
Remembered home.

And there He was
Splendid as the morning sun and fair
As only God is fair.
And they, confused with joy,
Knelt to adore
Seeing that he wore
Five crimson stars
He never had before.

No canticle at all was sung.
None toned a psalm, or raised a greeting song.
A silent man alone
Of all that throng
Found tongue—
Not any other.
Close to His heart
When the embrace was done,
Old Joseph said,
“How is Your Mother,
How is Your Mother, Son?”

You heard in the Gospel today, God’s invitation not just to the chosen race, but to all mankind to come to the feast. The words used at the Mass before Holy Communion, “Happy are those who are called to His banquet” refer to the eternal banquet in heaven. Our communion is our food for the journey to that eternal banquet. With the invitation goes the clothing to be worn, freely given so that all are dressed alike at the feast, as was the custom. All are clothed with the same gift, God’s grace, freely given. During this year you heard about the Spanish, the Italians, the Afro-Americans, and now the Germans, all God’s children building up a living parish for these last 100 years. We are put on earth to be one family and yet look how we get along sometimes.  But God is optimistic. God keeps issuing the invitation and expects us to come and be together forever.

God invites us to his celebration. Don’t be too busy. Find time whether you are enacting laws, raising a household, earning a living, and making time for the kids.  Spend time with the Lord in prayer.  Accept one another regardless of culture, race, or economic condition. Christ sends out his invitation to all.  Put on the clothing of His grace. Freer accept one another. You’ll be surprised who is sitting next to you at the eternal banquet in heaven as you both turn to each other simultaneously and say, “I’m surprised to see you here.”

This is the mountain where God meets His people under the guidance and the example of St. Joseph.  Accept one another.  Invite others to come to the banquet. Be a living invitation to one another, calling them by your lives to come to the banquet. Remember you may be the only Gospel which that person may hear or encounter.

You cannot invite or come to the celebration if your heart is heavy.  God promises to wipe away the tears from all faces when the celebration begins.  But the celebration has already begun.  This Eucharist today is a foretaste of the final banquet. We don’t have to wait for God to come with the Kleenex.  God is here with us, waiting for us to start drying the tears of the grieving, the sick, the poor, the alienated, the lonely; and we do not have to look far to find them.  All of us:  Italian, German, Spanish, Back, Asian, all are invited as we have been for the last 100 years to God’s mountain on Capitol Hill on our way to the holy mountain where God will provide for all people. Let us go to the feast together.

“AUF WEIDER SEHEN”

Monsignor William J. AwaIt
Pastor, St. Ann’s Parish
Washington, D. C.

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.

Colman McCarthy Misinformed about Excommunication

Letter to the Editor

(Please note this letter appeared in THE CATHOLIC STANDARD dated July 19, 1990.)

Maybe the taking of human life in abortion is a kind of poker for Colman McCarthy (WASHINGTON POST, July 8, “Calling the Cardinal’s Bluff”), but for others, it is a deadly serious matter.

Looking at the secular newspapers, most reporters who write about religion do not have an informed understanding of the Catholic faith and, in Colman’s case,  what excommunication means.

Playing the minor theme of anti-life people, “Personally I am opposed, but…” and the failed Nuremberg defense, “My boss made me do it– I didn’t want to” (read “constituents” for “boss”), Colman says he is against violently taking human life, but he is in favor of keeping it quiet.  In other words, do not disturb the people, just the babies.

To understand a little of what excommunication is, one has to understand what the Church is.  It is not a building or a club or an agreed-upon philosophy or just a listing of tenets.  It is a union with Christ, and not just Christ the individual, but Christ the community.

St. Paul has beautiful references to Christ being the Head and we His members.  We are personally in relationship with Christ but also incorporated into the whole Christ, the Church.

The reading on Sunday, July 8, 1990 says that the Spirit of God lives in you.  Excommunication has as its purpose both healing and remedy.  What the Church is saying is perhaps you do not realize how far you have strayed from the Spirit of Christ.  How can you live in Christ and Christ in you if you advocate killing His children?  “Let the children come unto me.”

Excommunication is instructive.  What it says is that God cannot possibly live in you if you advocate the killing of His little ones.  Those who do so, in effect, excommunicate themselves.  They walk away (by their own choice) from the community, which is Christ.

A bishop has the responsibility to instruct.  Through his predecessors he was instructed by Christ to  “teach all I have commanded you,” especially if we do not realize how far we have strayed.  If we are to be our brother’s keeper, if we are to practice fraternal correction (Matthew 19:15-18), how much more responsibility has our father in faith, the bishop, as he lets his children know how far they have strayed by their own choice and conduct from Christ (the Church).  Of course, if you do not have the gift of faith, you won’t understand that at all.

As far as being harsh, I would accept the bishop’s warning as gentler and kinder than those of Scripture.  “You are whited sepulchres, attractive on the outside but inwardly full of dead men’s bones” (Matthew 23:27).  Because you “are neither hot nor cold… I begin to spew you out of my mouth” (Revelation 3:15).

Thank you, bishop, for taking on the added burden and criticism for cautioning your faithful as to just how far they have strayed from home.

Msgr. William J. Awalt
Pastor, St. Ann Parish
Washington, DC

Something about Candles

Notes from the Pastor [5]

(Please note this is an archival post that is decades old.  Msgr. Awalt passed away a number of years ago.)

Perhaps the most familiar object in our worship is the candle.  It is a visual illustration of that familiar phrase from the Canon of the Mass, “All creation gives you praise,”  The humble but hardworking bee contributes the wax.  The wax is also the work of human hands as it is given wick and shape.  The candle plays an important part early in our lives with the baptism of children.  Once lit, it is presented to our godparents and through them to us as we are admonished to keep the Faith burning as the flame of the candle.  Thus we become a reflection of the one who is the Light of the World.  At the Eucharist we find candles near or on the altar.   Long ago it was a practical necessity so that we could see.  Now with electricity, it is essentially symbolic.  The candle is consumed while giving off light.  This action is analogous to ourselves being expended in the work of Christ.

The lighted vigil candle marks the real presence in our church where it is positioned near the tabernacle as a silent witness.

The candle dispels the darkness as it is greeted at the Easter Vigil services as the risen Christ, the Light of the World.  All light their individual candles and spread the light, candle to candle, indicating that we are to transmit or share the Word of God.  The Easter (Paschal) Candle is greeted in song as it enters the church.  It symbolizes the risen Christ.  It bears signs of the wounds from the crucified and risen Christ.

William J. Awalt