Twenty-seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time (October 8th, 2017)

The Church’s first scripture for today is an excerpt from the Old Testament Book of the Prophet Isaiah.

The Book of the Prophet Isaiah is one of the longest and most elegantly written books of the Bible. It interprets hundreds of years of Israelite history in light of what God was accomplishing through particular events. Remember, the God of the Israelites, the one, true God, does reveal himself as a distant cosmic force or merely a feeling in our hearts, but as a living, divine person who chooses to act in history, in our world. Prophets like Isaiah interpret the how and why of God’s actions. The Church reverences texts like the Book of Prophet Isaiah, not because they have literary or historical value, but because the Book tells us who God is and what God wants.

Further, by considering how God has acted in history, we have a frame of reference for how God is acting right now and may act in the future.

Today’s Scripture passage from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah is the kind of Biblical texts that makes preachers wince and congregations shift uncomfortably in their seats. Why? Because it is about a recurring theme of Biblical revelation that contemporary Christians find uncomfortable- God’s judgement.

Though we live in a culture that is relentlessly judgmental and ever more unforgiving, we find God’s judgment to be hard to take. Former generations accepted God’s judgment as natural and deserved. Our culture judges God and weighs him in the scale of our expectations.

But I digress…

The Prophet Isaiah turns the gaze of his keen spiritual vision on the Israelites and offer to them an image of a vineyard owner who finds his vineyard to be a bust- the fruit of the vines is unworthy of its purpose- to create fine wine. In fact, all that the vines produce are grapes that are repellent to the taste.

This image of the failed vineyard is interpreted as Isaiah as an image of Israel itself- God established Israel with a particular purpose, and instead of achieving that purpose, Israel has been a disappointment. The purpose of Israel had been to reveal to the nations of power and presence of the one, true God and to invite the nations of the world to know him. But the Israelites had been distracted in this purpose by the pursuit of wealth, pleasure, power and honors and thus the fruit of their relationship with God had soured.

And here is where it gets uncomfortable for the Israelites: God weighs the Israelites in the scales of his judgment and finds them wanting. He will withdraw from Israel their God given mission and purpose- and without that mission and purpose, the vineyard of Israel will be laid waste, become a ruin.

Biblical prophecy testifies that this dire prophecy, the destruction of the vineyard, will come to fruition in the terrifying events of 587 BC, when the armies of Babylon will invade and lay waste to the lands of the Israelites and the city of Jerusalem. The Israelites will lose everything that God had given them that was supposed to lead the nations to God- their land, their king, the temple, their way of life. They had given these things over to pursuit of wealth, pleasure, power and honors and now they would reap a bitter, sour harvest of desolation.

What are we to make of this? What might this mean for us?

The Church presents the Old Testament to us, not just to teach us about the past, but to illuminate the present. The story of Israel has become for us Christians the story of the Church and thus when we hear about Israel and the Israelites our reference point for understanding is the Church.

The meaning of this text is discerned in reference to the Church, which in Christ is the new Israel with us Christians being new Israelites. Thus, the vineyard in Isaiah’s vision is understood as the Church and the warning of judgment is for us.

Are we allowing the Church to fulfill her mission and purpose, not a mission and purpose that we think it should be, but the mission and purpose Christ has given us? Do we use the Church to get what we want or to serve our ideological, political, economic or cultural interests? Is the Church simply a means to our own end, our objectives, our goals? If so, the vineyard is in danger. The warning of Isaiah is for us!

Our second scripture is an excerpt from the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Philippians.

The Apostle Paul testifies that our anxiety about the world, our lives, our salvation, can be assuaged if we seek those attitudes, behaviors, ideals that are Christ-like. Truth and honor. Justice and purity. Beauty and grace. Peace of mind and heart comes from these things.

The lesson? The world testifies that peace comes and anxiety is assuaged if we order our lives in accord worldly attitudes, behaviors, and ideals. These attitudes, behaviors and ideals do not seek to know and emulate Christ, but possess wealth, pleasure, power and honors. Rather than Christ, we esteem the politician, the celebrity, the financier and order our desires accordingly. Would we not be happier if we had what they had? Less anxious? At peace?

It is all a lie and deep down we know it. There are perhaps no other things in the world that generate more anxiety and conflict than wealth, pleasure, power and honors. How many lives are wasted and destroyed by these things!

St. Paul testifies that there is another way- the way of a disciple of the Lord Jesus- and he invites us to accept this way as our own. Wealth, pleasure, power and honor can all be redeemed by Christ, but in order for this to happen, we must know him, and prioritize in our lives, not the attainment of worldly concerns, but knowing and serving Christ.

Finally, Christ the Lord echoes the words of the Prophet Isaiah, for he speaks of the vineyard, yes of Israel- for he testifies to his rejection by his own people, but like the text from Isaiah, the vineyard of which Christ speaks is not just for our understanding to be Israel long ago, but of ourselves.

Christ testifies that the vineyard of the Lord is unproductive because of unproductive workers. These workers would do violence to God’s prophets and would even harm God’s beloved Son.

We may understand ourselves as those workers. Christ’s judgment falls on us.

The owner of the vineyard knows if we are unproductive or hostile.

Some might protest: That we as Christians might be inclined to do violence to Christ, to refuse him, to reject him, seems absurd. How could we ever hurt him?

But remember: Christ’s Body does not dwell simply in a heaven far away, but he is with us as he promised- in the suffering bodies of the poor, in the Sacraments that bear his life and presence into the world, and in the Church, which is not merely an institution or a corporation, but his Body- the continuation of his Incarnation in the here and now.

How do we treat the poor? Christ suffers in those bodies? Do our actions and attitudes demonstrate reverence for Christ in his Sacraments? We do not receive in the Sacraments mere symbols, but Christ’s life and presence. How do we treat the Church? The Church continues to bear the revelation of Christ into the world?

The judgment of God is never popular or easy, but it is necessary because it tells us the truth that we might be content to ignore- the very truth that can save us and set us free.

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Twenty-sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time (October 1st, 2017)

Today’s first scripture is a small excerpt from the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel.

The prophet Ezekiel was not only a prophet, but a priest. During his lifetime he would witness the terrifying catastrophe of the destruction of Jerusalem and its great temple. He writes his magnificent book as an exile, a refugee- displaced by war. Ezekiel envisions that God will one day act to effect the restoration of the Israelites, and that they would receive from the God of Israel a king, a land and a temple greater than what they had had in the past. As such, Ezekiel is a prophet of hope, insisting that the Israelites, who had lost everything, should not despair. God was acting to accomplish their restoration- for their part the Israelites had to trust and to believe.

Today’s particular scripture from the prophet Ezekiel concerns divine justice and punishment and mercy. What should God do to those who while having repented of their sins, remain still responsible for having perpetrated great harm? Why should it simply be enough for God to forgive them if they repent? Should they not expect the full force of his wrath despite their contrition? Why should God forgive rather than justly rendering to the sinner what they should have coming?

Ezekiel’s answer is that God’s way of dealing with sin and sinners is his own way and he does not need of our advice or counsel to act. What is it to us then if in the face of human sinfulness God chooses to be merciful, to forgive and to dispense with punishment, even if that punishment seems to us to be deserved?

Ezekiel is testifying to God’s mercy, his willingness to forgive and if need be, set right, circumstances that we cannot in our own power change.

At times, it may seem to us, that God’s mercy resists the kinds of standards that worldly justice would impose, but in these cases, it is most likely that our standards of justice are distorted and what God’s mercy effects is actually the proper standard of justice that our own narrowness and sin prevents us from seeing and understanding.

This is hard for us to understand. Concretely, Ezekiel’s words find their fulfillment in the cross of the Lord Jesus, in which God allows his mercy to set right a terrible injustice that humanity could not of their own efforts ever remedy. Remember, the cross of the Lord Jesus is not simply a martyr dying for a cause, but a direct and vicious assault on God himself. God came into this world in Christ and humanity demonstrated just how callous, cruel and stupid we can be- God came into this world in Christ and he was tortured and killed. What should God do to a humanity capable of such a horror? What reason would God have to forgive us? What could humanity ever do to set such a wrong right?

God answers these questions with a display of his mercy, the gift of an undeserved and unexpected second chance.

God’s response to the cross defies worldly characterizations of justice- we don’t get what we deserve. Instead, we get what we truly need- mercy.

That’s the lesson we can take from the Church’s first scripture.

Our second scripture us from the letter of St. Paul to the Philippians.

In this scripture, the apostle Paul references a poem, really a hymn, that recounts the mighty deeds of God in Christ.

What God accomplishes is to empty himself of his great power and to live as one like us. Remember, the great revelation of God in Christ is not merely an ethical ideal, but that God has in Jesus Christ, accepted a human nature and lived (like us) a real, human life. This is what the apostle Paul refers to when he testifies that God has in Christ “emptied himself and taken the form of a slave”. God’s acceptance of a human nature in Christ is so total and complete that he even allows himself the experience of suffering and death.

Because the story of God in Christ may be so familiar to us, we may have lost an appreciation for just how strange and off putting this peculiar revelation really and truly is.

 

Worldly expectations would assume that when God appeared he would reveal himself in worldly power- he would assume the position of highest status, cloth himself in prosperity and success. He would fill himself up with those things that to the world, matter most- wealth, pleasure, power and honors and take the form, not of a slave, but of a politician, a celebrity, a financier- someone who instantly capture our attention and admiration.

But in his revelation, God is Christ does none of that- he takes the lowest place and does so that he can raise us up. And he raises us up not so that we can conform to the standards of the world, but so that being transformed in him we might change the world with him- by emptying ourselves, and taking the form of his slaves.

God, who in Christ, put his divine life at our disposal, asks that we place our human lives at his disposal.

That is the lesson of our second scripture.

Finally, the Gospel- Christ offers us a brief parable, a story of a father with two sons- one who tells his father what he wants to hear, but does not do what his father asks him to do. The other son, tells his father what he doesn’t want to hear, but he does what his father asks (him to do). The father in the parable is God, the two sons are stand ins for us, and the vineyard is the Church, and through the Church- the world.

Christ is asking us to consider whom we think is more pleasing to God- someone who identifies himself as a Christian, but does not live in accord with the commandments of God or someone who rejects Christ, and yet comes to repent of their refusal and seeks to follow God’s commandments.

Christ’s concern is hypocrisy- a willful disconnect between our profession of the Church’s faith and the manner in which we live.

Christian Faith, the Church’s Faith, being a disciple, a Catholic is not about merely giving an assent to propositions or ideas. It is not enough to merely think correctly about the content of the Church’s teachings or to consider them in the abstract. Instead, the Christian faith, the Church’s faith, being a disciple, a Catholic, is a way of life and this way of life only becomes intelligible, it only makes sense to us, if it is practiced, enacted, lived.

There are many we claim the title Christian and that is all that being a Christian means- claiming a title. It’s as if being a Christian for some is like preferring one consumer brand over another, wearing a shirt with a logo or clothes from a designer. This is the way of appearances. Appearing to do God’s will is easier than actually doing God’s will and thus what is easier is preferred to what it actually true.

There is another way- repenting of a superficial appropriation of the Church’s Faith and actually, intentionally, deliberately practicing the Church’s faith as a way of life.

Only one way is pleasing to God. Which way have we chosen? Which way will we choose?

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Twenty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time (September 3rd, 2017)

Our first scripture for today is an excerpt from the Old Testament Book of the Prophet Jeremiah.

Jeremiah spoke the Lord’s word of truth during the terrifying time of the total and complete collapse of what had once been the mighty kingdom of David. The armies of Babylon were poised and ready to strike. The Babylonians would unleash a destructive power upon the Israelites that haunts the people of God to this very day. In 587 BC the armies of Babylon laid siege the city of Jerusalem and with lightning speed conquered the mighty city of David.

Jeremiah saw all this coming. He repeatedly warned the Israelites, but the distractions of wealth, pleasure, power and honors made them indifferent or hostile to the Lord’s prophet. When the end finally came, and the Babylonians had destroyed everything that the Israelites held dear, the Israelites turned on Jeremiah and killed him. Thus are the rewards of the prophets.

In today’s scripture, the prophet Jeremiah laments that his mission as a prophet has brought him nothing but suffering. He told the people the truth, but the people did not want the truth- what they wanted was affirmation. What the people wanted was for the prophet Jeremiah to tell them what they wanted to hear, to confirm them in their opinions and their prejudices.

And so the prophet Jeremiah is tempted- he could alleviate his suffering. He could profit from his prophecy, all he had to do was accommodate his message to his audience and tell the people what they wanted to hear.

All he had to do was lie.

But he cannot. The Lord’s word of truth is like a fire burning within him and when he speaks it is as if he is breathing that fire.

What is the lesson?

The mission of prophecy now resides by Christ’s will in his Church. And so it is that the Church must, like the prophet Jeremiah, tell us, not what we want to hear, but what the Lord commands his Church to preach. The Church is not ours, it is Christ’s, and the voice with which the Church is compelled by Christ to speak is Christ’s voice, not our own.

If it is not Christ’s voice with which the Church is speaking then the Church is faltering and failing in her mission.

The word of the Lord is as uncanny and off putting now as it was in the days of the prophet Jeremiah. In a world that prefers as its gods, the idols of wealth, pleasure, power and honor, the words of one true God, Jesus Christ, will always incite opposition. A world enamored by idols will tempt the Church to be silent or insist that it will reward the Church if her words simply sanction the opinions and prejudices of the people. Some in the Church will acquiesce to all this. Others, like the prophet Jeremiah, will breathe fire.

Our second scripture for today, an excerpt from the New Testament Letter of St. Paul to the Romans, insists that Christians not be conformed to the times in which they live, but rather offer to the times (to the world) an alternative, a different way of life. This unique way of life is one which has been transformed by one’s relationship with Christ in his Church.

This does not mean that one lives as if one’s way of life is merely a screed against the world, but instead as an invitation to a different way, one that is ordered by love of Christ and in his name, love of neighbor, a way of life that entails sacrifice, but that ultimately makes the world a better and more hopeful place.

The Church has as its mission to bear the power and presence of Jesus Christ into the world it does this through word and sacrament, but also through a way of life. Christian faith is not something that can only be preached, it must also be practiced if it is to deliver its true meaning and purpose.

The Church is attractive in every age of its long life, not because it accommodates or imitates the values of a given time, but because her way of life is unusual, different, and unique- like the Lord Jesus.

In his Gospel, the Lord Jesus testifies that his mission is to be publicly humiliated, to suffer and to die, and in doing so reveal God’s power in an extraordinary and unexpected way.

Peter will have none of this. His opposition to Christ may rise out of concern for his friend, but it more likely arises out of his expectation that Christ would reveal himself as a mighty conqueror and worldly king, who would crush his enemies with violence and rule through the force of his will. In the distortions of his spiritual vision, divine power is equated with worldly power- he doesn’t understand the difference. And so he misses the revelation.

Christ’s rebuke of Peter is brutal. He chastises him not just for missing the point, but for acting like the worst creature in the universe- Satan. What Christ is saying is that Peter doesn’t just want what he wants; Peter wants what the devil wants.

And lest his disciples think they are off the hook, he turns to them and informs them that everything he said would happen to him will likely happen to them as well. God in Christ means to transform the world through the power of love and true love manifests itself in suffering and in sacrifice.

And there is the harsh lesson- not just for Peter, but for all of us.

Most of us think at some point in our lives that we have God all figured out and the universe would be a far better one if only God would do what we want him to do and place his power at our disposal. Of course, in all this egoism and posturing, we are both flattering and fooling ourselves. Be honest: what would most of us do with God’s power?

That God’s ways are not our ways seems to many to be merely a cliché, but it is also true. And this truth is revealed in the most extraordinary way in the unusual, and at times disconcerting, revelation of Jesus Christ.

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Monday of the Twentieth Week in Ordinary Time (August 21st, 2017)

The Church’s first scripture for today is an excerpt from the Old Testament Book of Judges.  The Book of Judges presents an interim period in the history of the Israelites, the years between the Exodus from Egypt (remember, the Israelites had lanquished in slavery in Egypt for generations until the God of Israel defeated the gods of the Egyptians and liberated the Israelites from bondage) and the establishment of the monarchies of Saul and David.

The Judges are the men and women who provided leadership during this critical juncture in Israelite history.

Today’s scripture from the Book of Judges warns us against the sin of idolatry.  Idolatry is truly the capital sin of the bible.  There are more warnings about idolatry than any other transgression in the Bible and of the Ten great commandments, it is a warning against idolatry that is given priority.

Our understanding of idolatry should not be limited to that of the worship of pagan gods and goddesses.  Idolatry happens when we take any finite reality and elevate it to our ultimate concern and give it a place in our lives that should only properly belong to God.  Our idols can be such things as wealth, pleasure, power and honors, but it can also be things like ideology or the need to be right or to have things our way.  Many contemporary ideologies are the elevation of feelings to our ultimate concern.

The Bible is clear that nothing good comes from idols.  False gods allure us with false promises.  False gods destroy those who would worship them and thus does the one, true God burn with passionate intensity to warn us about idolatry and deliver us from their power.

The Book of Judges tells us that the best of the Israelite judges opposed the idolatry of the Israelites, thus also it should be with the leaders of the Church.

The Lord Jesus encounters a young man who asks him what he must do to attain eternal life?  Christ responds that fulfilling the precepts of the Ten Commandments will suffice.  The young man presents himself as willing to do more than this and Christ then asks him to abandon the pursuit of wealth, giving what he has to the poor, and placing his life wholly and completely at Christ’s disposal.

This the young man will not do and his refusal results in much grief.

The highest expression of the Christian spiritual life is expressed in the rigorous demands of what are called the evangelical counsels- poverty, chastity and obedience.  These values constitute a way of life of total and complete dedication to Christ, not just in some things, but in all things.  It is not an easy way, and not all will be able to live out the evangelical counsels in their fullest expressions.

Those who are able are Christ’s great athletes.

All of Christians must accept the evangelical counsels, even if it means we accept them at less than their fullest expression.  Wealth should not be squandered, but given over to help the needy.  A Christian recognizes that no one is simply a means to satisfy our base desires.  Adherence to the command of Christ to love God and neighbor is not merely an option.

The Christian spiritual life demands more of us than adherence to the 10 Commandments.  Living a way of life integrated by the 10 Commandments is basic to the Christian life, it is ordinary not extraordinary.

The extraordinary way takes us where the young man in the Gospel would not go- accepting less for ourselves so that others might have more, disciplining our desires and ordering them to Christ’s will and purposes, and seeking to live in communion with Christ, not just in those things that we choose, but in all that Christ chooses for us.

 

Hofmann Christ and the rich young ruler 1889

 

 

Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time (August 20th, 2017)

 

The Church’s first scripture for today is an excerpt from the Old Testament Book of the Prophet Isaiah.

The Book of the Prophet Isaiah, one of the lengthiest in the Bible, expresses God’s perspective in regards to some of the most momentous, indeed troubling events in the history of the Israelites.  Kings and nations and fall.  The people suffer triumph and tragedy.  Hymns of praise and lament are sung.  Monuments are raised and brought down. The prophets speak.  And God acts.  He acts in the midst of real world circumstances in ways that surprise and confound us.

Today’s excerpt from the Book of Isaiah speaks of a holy mountain upon which all Israelites will one day gather, but not the Israelites alone will be assembled in this sacred place.  The Israelites will be joined by foreigners, those whom had been previously been excluded from the Israelite way of life and worship.  This is God’s plan.  This is God’s will.  He means to gather his chosen people along with all the nations of the earth and once gathered, he will offer them the opportunity to worship him as he intends for them to worship.

The holy mountain that the prophet envisions is coded language for the temple, the great sanctuary in Jerusalem, where the divine presence dwelled and that was the singular place where the Israelites gathered to worship.  But the holy mountain of Isaiah is a new kind of temple, established by the Lord not just for the Israelites, but for the nations.  In this new temple, God’s presence would reside.  In this new temple, the nations would be gathered for worship.

Christians believe that this new temple is the mystical Body of Christ which we experience as the Church and the worship of this new temple is the Mass.  In these ways do we see and understand that the vision of the Prophet Isaiah is being fulfilled in reality, in the here and now.  The house of prayer for all peoples is the Church and the prayer of the people is the prayer of the Mass.

Thus, do we believe that God in Christ is bringing the prophecy of Isaiah to its fulfillment.

The Church and its worship, the Mass, are not just constructs of culture, artifacts of history, or expressions of ethnic identity.  The Church does not gather for worship to celebrate itself or express appreciation for the good deeds of the community.  The Church’s worship is not intended as a form of peculiar religious entertainment.

Instead the meaning and purpose of the Church and the Mass is discerned in reference to the prophecies of the Old Testament and the Revelation of God in Christ.  It is only in reference to these that meaning and purpose of the Church and the Mass can be understood.

The prophet Isaiah testifies today that the Church is to be the gathering of the nations for worship in a new kind of temple.  God in Christ reveals that this gathering of nations is his Church, and the worship he gives to this assembly, the worship he wants, is the prayer of the Mass.

This is the meaning of today’s first scripture.

The Church’s second scripture for today is an excerpt from the New Testament Letter to the Romans.  The author of the Letter to the Romans is the apostle Paul.

The great theme of the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans is the extraordinary way God has acted in Christ to draw both the Israelites and the Gentiles into a new kind of communion with one another, a new kind of communion the Apostle speaks of as a new kind of Israel, a new kingdom with a new king- a kingdom that is God’s that is meant to include all the peoples of the earth and a new king who is God in Christ himself!

This new kingdom and new king is offered to all people by God as an extraordinary opportunity, but while it is offered to all, God in Christ imposes it on no one.  Our acceptance of communion with God’s new Israel, his new kingdom and the new king, God in Christ, is meant to be a free act of our will.  God chooses us all for his kingdom, but then we must choose what our relationship to the king and the kingdom will be.

It is deeply mysterious to the Apostle Paul that some, who have been offered communion with the new Israel, with the new kingdom and the new king, have refused God in Christ’s invitation.  Many refused in the time of the Apostles.  And many refuse God’s invitation today.

St. Paul ponders this refusal in today’s excerpt from his Letter to the Romans.  He wonders what such a refusal means and testifies that God must permit it to reveal something extraordinary and wonderful.

What this extraordinary and wonderful thing must be is that God reveals in the face of our refusals to accept an offer of his mercy.  A mercy is an act of compassion that is undeserved and inexplicable.  It seems, that God in Christ remains faithful even when we are unfaithful, and willing to forgive us, when we do not deserve his forgiveness.  God’s mercy in Christ is revealed, not as a willingness to accept us simply as we are, but as a prompt for us to change. In his mercy, God in Christ does not meet our refusal with a threat, but with an open invitation.  His offer of the gift of the new kingdom and the new king still stands, even should we refuse to take it.  Christ reveals that God in his mercy offers us the possibility of another chance.

It is God’s mercy that is for St. Paul so extraordinary and wonderful.  God reveals himself in Christ as being capable of an uncanny generosity, of giving to us his forgiveness, even when we do not deserve it, and imparting mercy, when what simple justice would require would be his wrath.

As believers in Christ, we accept that the privileged moment of God’s mercy, the sacred encounter where God offers us another chance, happens in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.  In this Sacrament, God in Christ acts to meet our refusals with the extraordinary gift of his mercy.  This Sacrament is a privileged encounter with Christ and the means by which his mercy meets and overcomes our refusals.

Finally, Christ speaks to us in his Gospel, which presents an extraordinary encounter between the Lord Jesus and a Canaanite woman.

 

The details that the woman Christ meets happens to be a Canaanite is not incidental.  This person belongs to a nation that was one of the great enemies of the Israelites.  Emnity and hatred between Israelites and Canaanites was ancient with both peoples bearing grudges and tearing open old wounds that went back generations to time immemorial.

And yet, this woman, an enemy of the Israelites, comes to Christ, who is himself the God of the Israelites, seeking his aid, confident of his help.

And to her surprise. and the surprise of Christ’s Israelite companions, Christ, the God of the Israelites comes to the aid of the woman and answers the pleading of a Canaanite.

The God of Israel will help.  He will even help those who have been his enemies.

This confounds and confuses many Christians today as much as it confounded and confused the Israelites who knew God in Christ face to face.

Many believe that the power of God is a power that we can wield against those who might oppose us.  Many believe that God will justify us in our hatred and sanction us in our pain filled unwillingness to ever forgive.

But God in Christ reveals something else about God.  He is not a totem to be carried into our battles against our enemies or a power to be leveraged on behalf of our causes.  He is not a force that we are to apply to those who disappoint us or a sentence of condemnation we pass on those who might disagree with us.

He trivializes our worldly divisions with the offer of his grace.

He intends to do to our enemies what he did for the Canaanite woman.

The lesson?

God in Christ intends to gather the Israelites and Canaanites (enemies) together for worship on his holy mountain.  He wants to gather us there too…

 

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Friday of the Second Week of Easter (April 28th, 2017)

Our first scripture, an excerpt from the New Testament Book of Acts, describes the Church in crisis- facing a persecution that threatens its young life.

An unexpected advocate emerges who intervenes on behalf of the persecuted Christians, insisting that the Church’s opponents stand down and let the Christians alone. Time will tell if this new movement survives, and as the Church is beleaguered and weak, it poses no real threat. And besides, if the Church is, as the adherents of this new Faith testify, a work of God, no merely human power will be able to stop it.

This advice seems to be accepted and the persecutors relent, at least for a time.

The Church has known persecution in every age of its life. Hatred from the outside oppresses the Church while wickedness from the inside subverts her mission- and yet the Church mysteriously endures. Why? Not because of merely human ingenuity or accident. But, instead, the Church endures because the Church is not merely an institution, a construct of our own making, but instead is mystically Christ’s Body, the continuation of his Incarnation in space and in time. The Church is Christ’s life and presence enduring in history. Like his earthly body, the Church is afflicted and suffers, but this affliction and suffering cannot overpower the divine power of God that the Church, as the mystical body of Christ, bears into the world. And because the divine power of Christ resides in the Church, affliction and suffering can become redemptive.

The early Christians knew and believed this. Do we?

Today’s Gospel is a brief selection from the Gospel of John, testimony to the divine power of Christ to work miracles. What does Christ do? He multiplies mere fragments of bread and fish so as, to satisfy the hunger of a vast crowd.

Christ does what only God can do, and in doing what God can do, he gestures towards the mystery of his identity- that he is God.

But today’s mysterious revelation in the Gospel does not just signal to us Christ’s divine identity, but also presents a type or foreshadowing of the mystery of the Eucharist.

How so? The Eucharist is a marvelous intervention of God in our lives, bearing into our lives a power that effects a surprising change- mere fragments of food and drink become Christ’s Body and Blood, imbued with his divine power to reconcile us to God and draw us into an extraordinary relationship with him.

The Eucharist is no more just a symbol or metaphor than it is merely bread and wine. The Eucharist we receive is Christ’s life and presence, given to us as food and drink, given to us, to satisfy the hunger of our souls for communion with God, but also given to us, so that partaking of his life, our life might become like his.

May we who partake of this holy mystery of Christ’s Body and Blood, appreciate what Christ is giving to us, and permit ourselves to become like the One that we receive.

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Funeral Homily

(The following text is the notes for the homily I delivered at the funeral Mass for my father. May all the blessed dead know the solace of the beatific vision and help us as we make our own pilgrim way to a world that is yet to come).

The Church’s first scripture proclamation was an excerpt from the Old Testament Book of the prophet Isaiah. The prophet Isaiah spoke the Lord’s word of truth centuries before the revelation of Christ, and in his spiritual vision, foresaw Christ’s revelation.

In this scripture, the prophet Isaiah envisions a holy mountain, upon which God will act to destroy the power of death and deliver his people from power of their sins. Is this holy mountain an actual place or merely a dream? When will God act to accomplish such wonders?

The holy mountain the prophet foresees is the place of Christ’s cross, for it is in this place, and at that moment, that God acted in an extraordinary way to impart an undeserved forgiveness and to transform death forever. Remember, the revelation of Christ is not merely that of a kind teacher of timeless spiritual truths, but of the one, true God, who surprises us all, because he does something God should not do- he accepts for himself a human nature and lives a real, human life.

God in Christ does this, not for himself, but for us, so that he might create for us a possibility beyond death and so that we might know that his power is manifested in his willingness to love us and forgive us, even when that love and forgiveness is not deserved or appreciated.

Christians believe that God in Christ enters into death on the cross so that when we die, as all mortal creatures do, what we encounter in that experience is not merely an end, but a new and mysterious beginning. Death has become in Christ a route of access to God because God in Christ has permitted himself to die.

In that moment of his experience of death (on the cross), God in Christ does something remarkable, and again, surprising, he demonstrates his willingness to forgive us and this act of generosity, for his forgiveness is undeserved, gives us hope that what we encounter after death is not a cold rebuke, but a merciful Savior, the one who will, as the Gospel testifies, “save us from our sins”- from what we have done and what we have failed to do.

The prophet Isaiah foresaw all this in shadows and suggestions. God would reveal centuries later in Christ the Lord what the prophet Isaiah foresaw, what we know and believe in Christ.

The second scripture is another excerpt from the scriptures- this time from the New Testament, from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans. In this text, the Apostle Paul testifies to the power of the Sacrament of Baptism to change us, to transform us. St. Paul illuminates God’s purpose for Baptism.

Baptism is not, as many have made it, merely a quaint cultural custom. Instead it is an act of God, a revelation and through this act of God, this revelation, a Christian is changed, not by human choice or merely an act of our will, but by God’s choice and God’s will. God chooses us and through Baptism he changes us, making us his members of his family, giving us the identity that the Lord Jesus himself has- the identity of a child of God. In other words, through our baptism we belong to God in a way that a child belongs to his parent or a person belongs to her family. What Christ has in his own relationship with his Heavenly Father, the baptized are also given.

The significance of this is profound. Throughout our lives we grasp at (or are grasped by) identities that we might be tempted to treat as being of ultimate importance- family, nationality, political affiliation, race, ethnicity, class etc. And while these identities have worldly importance, they are not all that important to God. And God signals the relative importance of these worldly identities by making these things temporary, passing away, we take none of these identities from this world to the next. These things are inevitably left behind.

Worldly identities, or things of worldly importance, like beauty, youth, athletic prowess, academic degrees, bank accounts, real estate, (all the things the world believes matter most) pass away and do so by their very nature. We can enjoy these things for a time, but all these things have an expiration date and they will not pass with us from this life to the next.

What does last is that relationship given to us in Baptism, our identity as a child of God and a member of God’s own family. When we meet Christ face to face, this is what he sees, this is what we bring to him.

This is the meaning of St. Paul’s testimony to us today.

Finally, in his Gospel, Christ testifies that he will give his divine life to us as food and drink. He does not come to us merely to teach us ideas about God, but he comes to be for us a living source of holy communion with God. What we receive in Christ is not merely an insight or an opinion, but God himself- and how will God in Christ give himself to us?

Christ will give himself to us through the mysterious reality that we know as the Eucharist, the Sacrament of his Body and his Blood. The Eucharist is mysteriously God in Christ, not merely a symbol of Christ, but God in Christ himself. God’s life is not far from us and his presence is not off somewhere at a distance. God reveals himself, not merely in ideas or opinions, or as a vague cosmic force, but he places himself in our midst in the Eucharist and then through that Eucharist, asks us to receive him, in the manner one receives food and drink. This is the Eucharist- God in Christ gives us a share in his divine life and presence as food and as drink. Thus, in the Eucharist, we do not simply remember Christ as a historical reality from the past, but we encounter Christ in the present. The Eucharist is Christ’s revelation in this world, in our lives, in the here and in the now.

Receiving God as food and drink we have an opportunity to become ever more like him. Receiving God in the Eucharist we have an opportunity to become more that what believe that we are- we can become ever more like Christ.

This is the great mystery, and the great meaning of the testimony we heard from the Gospel of John today.

Over eighty years ago, **** ****** was baptized. (Whether the motive for this Baptism was custom or something else is not as important as the gift that he received). This gift, this Baptism, indicated that God in Christ had chosen **** as his own and given him a mission, a meaning and purpose for his life.

Over time, the mystery of **** Baptism would unfold, leading him through the other Sacraments, of Eucharist and Confirmation, and what was given to him through these Sacraments was the startling revelation that God reveals himself in Jesus Christ to be Love.

The revelation that in Christ God is Love is given to us in a way of life called the Church. In the Church, we do our best to become for others an experience of the love that God in Christ has given to us. The Church is meant to be a way of life, a way of love.

Love is not for the Christian merely a sentiment or a feeling, but a way of life. Love is what we do for others by doing what God in Christ asks of us- willing for others what is good, testifying to what is true, appreciating what is beautiful, and giving to others what merciful.

The way of love, the Christian way of life, takes the form of a unique mission or vocation and **** accepted this in the Sacrament of Marriage and through his relationship with his wife, *****, and in communion with his children and grandchildren, family and friends, he sought to give to others the gift he had received in his own Baptism- the way of love.

We would know, through him, through sacrifices great and small, through a low-key death to self (that would set the needs of others as more important than his own needs), how God in Christ loves all of us.

Love in any of our lives is never perfect in its expression or motive, but **** sought, as best he could, to impart to others what God imparts to us- what is true, what is good, and what is beautiful- the gift he has received from the Lord he gave to others.

St. John of the Cross, one of the Church’s greatest mystics, remarked that in the evening of our lives, we are examined by love. This means, as years pass, and worldly concerns and pre-occupations become ever less important, it is our love, for God and for others, that remains, and it is this love that we take with us as we make our way from this life to the next.

Concluding Remarks

(These remarks were offered at the conclusion of the Funeral Mass)

On behalf of my mother and my brothers, I would like to express our deep appreciation for all the gestures of consolation and kindness that we have received. These past two weeks have been the occasion for both grief and grace and the support that we have experienced from family and friends has been gracious indeed.

I cannot do a better job testifying to the life and interests of my father than my brother did in the text of the obituary that he wrote. My father was a thoughtful and kind man, who was faithful to his wife of nearly sixty years and whose quiet influence is manifest in the lives of his children and grandchildren. We will miss him, but his faith, faith that believed that life is not ended but changed, enlivens us with a hope greater than mere memory, a hope that believes that he is still with us in ways that are unseen, and that he awaits us in a heavenly life that is yet to come.

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