Saturday of the Thirtieth Week in Ordinary Time (October 31st, 2015)

Saint Paul’s Letter to the Romans was not written to the general population of the city of Rome or to the Roman emperor, or to the citizens of the Roman Empire. The Letter to the Romans was written for Jews who lived in Rome, some of whom who had accepted the revelation of God in Christ, and others who may have not.

Understanding this makes a difference, because it helps us to make sense of the particular emphasis St. Paul places on the relationship of Jew to Gentile and Israel to the Church. This all might seem difficult for us to understand, but understand we must, if we are ever going to appreciate what St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans is all about.

In his Letter to the Romans, St. Paul is presenting an argument, he is making the case for his conviction that the God of the Israelites has done something extraordinary and unexpected in Jesus Christ- and what God has done has changed Israel forever and brought into existence this new reality called the Church.

In today’s excerpt from the Letter to the Romans, St. Paul is insisting that as a result of the revelation of God in Jesus Christ how Israelites understand God and their own identity as being a people chosen by God should change. This was an assertion that was as controversial then as it is now. St. Paul believes that God in Christ has created a new Israel called the Church and a new kind of Israelite called a Christian and this new Israel and new kind of Israelite will include people who were Jews and many people who are Gentiles. God has in Christ created a new kind of people and these people have a new mission that complete and complements the way of being an Israelite before the revelation of the Lord Jesus.

St. Paul insists that, though this transformation of Israel has happened, God’s love for the Israelites remains. God has not abandoned the Israelites, but he has done something new for them, and not only for them, but for the world. The revelation of God in Christ is not that the Israelites have been rejected, but that a new way of being an Israelite has opened up for everyone.

What I have just described to you is how the Church understands herself- her own identity and mission. The Church is a new kind of Israel and being a Christian means that you are a new kind of Israelite.

Thus, when you might hear the Church described as “the people of God”- that is a term that Biblically is used to describe the Israelites, but that now the Church uses to describe those baptized in Christ Jesus.

Being new Israelites is not meant to be an honorific title or kind of ethnic identity. Instead it means that if you are a new Israelite that you have a mission from God and your life is all about this mission. The mission of a new Israelite is to introduce people to Jesus Christ and invite them to share a personal relationship with Jesus Christ in his Church. This mission will effect how you think about the meaning and purpose of your life and the kinds of decisions that you make about how you are going to live. The mission of a new Israelite means that you share with others a unique way of life.

Many Jews did not accept what St. Paul presented to them as the revelation of God, but he was clear that this refusal did not mean that God would reject the Jews or that Christians should persecute those Jews who did not accept the revelation of God in Christ. Instead, St. Paul made an act of faith that one day God in Christ would sort things out and bring Jews and Christians together as one Israel. Until then, his mission was to introduce his Jewish brothers and sisters to Christ, not to coerce or threaten them into accepting the revelation that he believed to be God’s revelation.

Faith in Christ is a gift that some may not accept and this may sadden us, but faith in Christ is always an act of love, and as such, it cannot one cannot be compelled to believe just as one cannot be compelled against their will to love. In the end, Christ will measure our mission as new Israelites, not in accord with how many people either accepted or rejected the invitation we extended to people to know Christ. Instead, Christ will judge us in accord with our fidelity to our mission. St. Paul’s categories were never based on standards of worldly success or failure, but on his own fidelity to Christ and his own willingness to love what Christ loves and serve what Christ serves.   So may it also be for us.

Front of the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls - Roma - Italy

Front of the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls – Roma – Italy

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Solemnity of All Saints (November 1st, 2015)

Today the Church celebrates the Solemnity of All Saints. The Saints are the great heroes of our Faith. The Church describes a Saint as a person of “heroic virtue”.   This means that while many Christians might be willing to settle for lackluster accomplishments as disciples, the Saints engage their relationship with the Lord Jesus vigorous creativity and absolute dedication. Most often, the work of the Saints will go unnoticed and unseen. Saints are not celebrities, and those Saints who capture the attention of the world, view that renown as the imposition of a cross.

Most Saints will disappear into the mission of the Church.

In heaven, we will know the profound impact thousands of hidden Saints had on our lives, but here on earth, as I said, most of the Saints move about and work among us, and do so for the most part unnoticed and unseen.

The work of the Saints is not completed with their deaths. The Saints know better than most Christians that life here in this world is not merely an end in itself, but a means by which God prepares us for a greater and more important mission in heaven. No one who is in Heaven is indolent. Heaven is not a place of indifference to this world but one of interaction and intercession. This means that the Saints continue their mission as disciples of the Lord Jesus, supporting and sustaining the Church, acting to help and support all the baptized.

The first scripture for today’s Mass of All Saints is an excerpt from the New Testament Book of Revelation. The Book of Revelation is one of the most mysterious, complex, and misunderstood books of the Bible. It is a theological commentary on events from the past, present and future and it communicates important spiritual insights through fantastic images and symbols. The common impression is that the Book of Revelation is about the end of the world, and as such people are often terrified by its content.

But, properly understood, the Book of Revelation is not simply frightening, but reassuring, as it foresees the victory of God in Christ over all the dark powers, worldly and otherworldly that oppose him.

The Book of Revelation is not simply about the end of the world, but the beginning of a new world in which the great enemies of God, and therefore the enemies of humanity are defeated by the power of God in Christ. These enemies are sin, death and the devil.

The conflict between the dark powers of sin, death and the devil has consequences for the Church as it engages her mission in the world. The Church is opposed as Christ was opposed. The Church suffers as Christ suffered. And in all this, the Saints are on the front lines of the battle.

The Book of Revelation displays all that I just described in symbolic or metaphorical terms. What you heard about was a vast assembly of people from all over the world, clothed in white, who proclaim the coming victory of God in Christ. Who are these people? The text tells us- they are Christians whose heroism was revealed in their willingness to be killed rather than renounce their Christian Faith or cooperate with the dark powers.

Thus, our first scripture for today is about a particular kind of Saint- the martyr. We live even right now in an age of martyrs as multitudes of Christians in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East are persecuted and killed because they are disciples of the Lord Jesus. We might think that the greatest challenge to the Church today is whether or not we should conform to secular values, but far more important than this is the brutal fact that for millions of Christians, professing and practicing the Christian Faith can cost you not just your livelihood, but also your very life.

On this day when the Church celebrates the Saints, it would be good for us to remember, that what is demanded of us as followers of the Lord Jesus is often times far less than what it demanded of others.

We are not compelled by circumstances to die for our Faith in Christ, but are we willing to live for it? If our sacrifice is not to be that of a martyr, what is the sacrifice we will offer?

Our second scripture is a brief passage from the First Letter of John, in which the evangelist articulates an important insight about our identity as Christians. We are not as Christians merely members of a faith-based social club, an ethnic or cultural association, political action committee, or supporters of a 501C3 non-for-profit initiative. In the words of Pope Francis, the Church is not an “NGO”- a non-governmental social service organization.

What are we then? The evangelist John tells us- we are the children of God.

This means that God has made us in Christ his beloved children, and just as children are an expression of their parents love, so too Christians are meant to be for the world an expression of God in Christ’s love.

Being a child of God, means aspiring to be like the One who is revealed to be God’s only beloved Son- Jesus Christ. Being a child of God is not just some privileged title, but a responsibility, an identity, a mission that a Christian accepts. The Christian, as a child of God, is meant to be an expression to others of Christ himself. Thus, when a Christian is baptized, he or she is proclaimed to be what is termed an “alter Christus”, that literally means “another Christ”.

The Saints are expressions of Christ-likeness par excellence. The Saints “re-present” Christ to us and through the Saints Christ acts and introduces himself to us. Saints are not just nice, friendly people who do good things for society, but they are Christians who aspiring to serve Christ as disciples, are given the gift of becoming ever more and more like him.

And that observation brings me to an important clarification: when a Christian is baptized, what is happening to that person is not just inclusion into a community. No!

What happens when a Christian is baptized is that person is chosen as Christ to be like him- a person is chosen by Christ to be a Saint. The realization of your life as a Christian is not simply that you become a member of a faith based club or matriculate through faith-based institutions, but that you become a Saint. That’s what Baptism is all about, indeed, that’s what the Sacraments are about, indeed what the whole life of the Church is about. Being a Christian is about being chosen by Christ to be a Saint. “You have not chosen Christ, he has chosen you!” You will never begin to understand what the Christian life is all about until you understand this universal summons to holiness, this summons to be a Christian, which is God in Christ choosing you to be a Saint!

Finally, in his Gospel, the Lord Jesus presents what are known as “The Beatitudes”- a proclamation of those who are truly blessed by God and who enjoy God’s favor.

In worldly terms the blessing of God, the favor of God is many times construed in categories of worldly success or exemption from the harder facts of human existence. Some consider God’s blessing to being the recipient of prosperity and wealth, talent and good looks, power and prestige. God’s favor happens, according to some, when they are exempt from having to suffer or to struggle. Christ the Lord upends these kinds of expectations, and declares that the blessing of God and the favor of God is given, not to those who have the most, but those who have the least; not to those whom the world esteems as successful, but to those who seem to the world to have failed; not to those who have power, but to those who seem to have no power at all; not to those whom the world considers to be significant or influential, but to those who go mostly unnoticed and unappreciated.

In other words, in his Beatitudes, God in Christ announces a revolution!

Blessing is not getting what we want, but having the opportunity to give to others what they truly need. God’s favor is not an exemption from the hard facts of life, but God’s favor is found within the hard facts of life.

The Saints will exemplify in their lives the Beatitudes of the Lord Jesus, their blessing and favor will look like the strange blessing and favor that the Lord Jesus describes. The Saints will not only exemplify the Beatitudes in the decisions they make about the way they live, but also in whom they will seek to serve and choose to associate with. The Saints will seek the company of the kinds of people that Christ describes in his Beatitudes.

Consider the decisions you have made about your life. Have these decisions made you a person whose life looks like the life described in the Beatitudes? Consider the people with whom you associate and whom you esteem. Are these people like the people described in the Beatitudes?

And in our answers to these questions is the challenge for all of us would be saints, saints in the making- do our decisions make of us men and women of the Beatitudes? How many of the people that we seek the company of and consider to be our friends look and live like the kinds of people Christ describes as being truly deserving of his blessing and favor?

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Thursday of the Thirtieth Week in Ordinary Time (October 29th, 2015)

There are two factors that are usually at play when it seems the mission of the Church is faltering or failing. This might surprise you, but the factors I have in mind are not cultural pressure brought to bear on the Church from the outside, but they come from within the Church- from Christians. The two factors are indolence and fear.

I will speak about indolence at greater depth another time, but I will say it really is a deadly and pernicious vice and it is a real mission killer.

Fear is the great issue in terms of Saint Paul’s testimony this morning in today’s brief excerpt from the Letter to the Romans. The Christians of Rome to whom St. Paul is writing had good reason to be afraid- they were a tiny, drop of a minority immersed in a pagan culture that, if not openly and violently hostile to the Church, was brutal in its indifference.

In the face of real and evident threats, St. Paul insists on courage. Why? Because Christians are disciples of the Lord Jesus who faced down the dark powers of sin, death and the devil and proved himself more powerful than the combined forces of all three!

A disciple cultivates those habits that imitate their Master and a Courageous Christ compels his disciples to be courageous. St. Paul is brought to Rome in chains under a sentence of death and yet he still insists on giving witness to his faith in Christ and inviting people to know Christ in the Church. What are the Christians of Rome to whom St. Paul writes really afraid of? What are we afraid of?

The fear of Christians usually manifests in an unwillingness to appreciate the urgency of the Church’s mission, a “no” to the immediacy of the demand of love. The bold risk of the Gospel is downplayed and then replaced with a languid maintenance of institutions and an insistence that the Church exists simply to promote my own causes and fulfill my own needs.

A courageous missionary resolve is repudiated in favor of endless discussion and debates about what we want the mission to be. Being a disciple of Jesus becomes a matter of telling him what to do and getting the Church to do what we want. The end result is that the Church ends up doing little or nothing at all. As you can see, the movement from fear to indolence is made in but a tiny step.

The Gospels are filled with conflict and today’s excerpt from the Gospel of Luke highlights Christ’s conflict with Herod. The Herod mentioned in today’s Gospel was one of the sons of King Herod, who was in worldly sense, one of the greatest rulers of the Israelites. He was also a cruel tyrant and he had hoped to create a dynasty by propping up his claims to power with the lie that somehow he was the fulfillment of Biblical prophecy regarding the Messiah.

Herod’s kingdom fragmented at his death and was divided among his sons, of which one, who shared his name, is mentioned in today’s Gospel as an antagonist of the Lord Jesus. The scheming propaganda of Herod and his successors was exposed as a lie by the truth of Christ’s revelation. The Lord Jesus is the true Messiah, not the wicked dynasty of Herod. Christ’s ominous words in his Gospel signal the fall and destruction of the kingdom built and sustained by the lies of Herod and his successors.

The Messianic pretence of Herod continues to play itself out in the elevation of politics and other worldliness to our ultimate concern. The Kingdom of God in Christ is refused in favor of kingdoms of our own making- kingdoms of politics, economics and culture. Seeking our redemption and salvation in these things we create idols, and in our idolatry we display our refusal of the Kingdom of God in Christ. The same truth of Christ that exposed the lie of Herod’s claims, exposes the lies of the kingdoms of worldliness we create and sustain today.

Christ’s lament and warning in today’s Gospel is not just offered for the Herod’s of long ago, but for the successors of Herod who rule today.

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Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time (October 25th, 2015)

The Church’s first reading for today is an excerpt from the Old Testament Book of the Prophet Jeremiah, a prophet whose writings are made all the more beautiful because they are so sad.

Jeremiah spoke the Lord’s word of truth and cast his spiritual vision during a great cataclysm- the destruction of the city of Jerusalem in the year 587 BC. In that year it seemed that the God of the Israelites had abandoned his people as they suffered the loss of everything that they had thought mattered most- land, king, city and temple were no more. The armies of Babylon swept through the lands of the Israelites and left nothing but destruction in their wake. Those who had survived this catastrophe either fled to the corners of the earth or would languish as slaves.

Everything that had been foundational to the Israelite way of life was destroyed. The Israelites had given themselves over the false gods of wealth, pleasure, power and honors, and these gods had betrayed them into the hands of their enemies.

All hope seemed lost.

The prophet Jeremiah surveys this dire situation and foresees that what seems like an end will ultimately be transformed into a new kind of beginning for the Israelites. An old world has been swept away and a new world will begin. God is working out a new plan for the Israelites and though it does not seem possible, suffering will one day give way to joy. The story of the Israelites is not over, a new chapter has begun.

The lesson here is often confounding to the worldly. The pain and suffering of our lives might not be precisely the kinds of things that the Israelites endured in 587, but all of us have known or will know grief and loss. It may seem in these moments that things are hopeless and we may experience that terrifying feeling that God has abandoned us and that our prayers to him are met with indifference.

It is precisely in these experiences that the spiritual vision of Jeremiah can be our own, a vision that is informed not only by the hope of a Biblical prophet, but by the revelation of Christ’s suffering and death- a catastrophe that seemed to be an end, but was transformed by the power of God into a new and surprising beginning.

For the Christian, suffering and death are accepted realistically- no one evades these raw facts of human existence and the revelation of Christ insists that God saves and redeems, not by exempting us from the raw facts of being human, but through them. The cross of Jesus testifies that as we pass through all the realities of what it means to be human, God in Christ is with us, and whatever suffering and death we might have to endure, can also become a route of access to God.

The hope of a Christian in the face of suffering and death is not merely optimism or positive feelings, but an act of faith in Christ. Thus the images of the Crucified Savior that are so prominently displayed and reverenced in our churches and homes are not merely testifying to the death of Jesus as a victim of politics. Christ is not merely a martyr who died for a cause. Instead, they testify to our faith that even though we endure the worst, God in Christ remains with us, and in the end it is his power to redeem and save, not suffering and death, which has the last word.

In the face of suffering and death, what to the worldly seems a defeat and a bitter end, the final chapter of the book of life, is revealed on the cross of Jesus to be, not the end, but the turning of the page and an unexpected twist of the plot.

The Church’s second scripture is an excerpt from the Letter to the Hebrews. We have heard select passages from the Letter to the Hebrews for the past few weeks.

The Letter to the Hebrews is a densely textured theological essay that explores what the Church believes to be true concerning the identity and mission of the Lord Jesus- who the Lord Jesus is and what he is doing for us.

In these respects, the Letter to the Hebrews is clear that the apostles testified that the Lord Jesus is God and that God in Christ had done something quite extraordinary and unexpected- God in Christ had accepted a human nature and lived a real, human life. It was through this human nature that God in Christ had experienced suffering and death.

The Letter to the Hebrews presents the extraordinary and unexpected revelation of God become man in Christ in terms that would have been familiar to the Israelites, terms that have their reference points in the worship of the great temple of Jerusalem with its priests, altar and sacrifices.

Christ is likened to the High Priest of the new kind of temple (the temple of the Church) who makes his offering his own life. The benefit of this sacrifice is his gift to us, and the benefit we can receive is that through the offering of Christ’s life, we are given a route of access to God.

We might be less familiar with these references to the worship of the Israelites, but their reality and truth is in the midst of our experience whenever we participate in the Mass.

The Mass is the moment on earth when Christ the High Priest acts to offer to his Church the gift of his life. We receive this sacrifice in the Eucharistic Mystery, in the Blessed Sacrament, which is not just a symbol of Christ, but really and truly his divine life and presence- the Body and Blood of Christ, the Holy Communion of the Mass, is our route of access to God!

The worship of the Church, the worship that God in Christ wants, is not simply songs and stories and sermons that we create out of our own cleverness and talent, but the temple worship that God in Christ gives to his Church. This temple worship is the Mass.

In this temple worship (called the Mass), Christ acts as priest, makes himself the sacrifice, and gives us the benefit of the sacrifice he offers. This is what the Mass is about and why the Mass is important. There might be faith-based experiences that we find more edifying or enjoyable, but none of these experiences can deliver to us what the Mass delivers.

The Mass is unique in what it is and what it offers and it is also the worship that God wants from us and for this reason it is the Mass, not something else that is the “source and summit of the Christian life”.

Everything that the Letter to the Hebrews describes about the Lord Jesus as High Priest, about the temple, about his sacrifice is displayed to you each time the Mass is offered. What the Letter to the Hebrews delivers in words, the Mass delivers in signs, symbols, gestures and ultimately, in the Blessed Sacrament.

In his Gospel for today, the Lord Jesus manifests his divine power and identity (remember, the Lord Jesus is God) through a miracle- he restores sight to a blind man.

Our affliction might not be physical blindness, but a darkening of our spiritual vision, by this I mean an inability or unwillingness to see things as Christ wants us to see. So many prefer this darkness to Christ’s light!

Unlike physical blindness, spiritual blindness is self-imposed and manifests itself in a narrowing of our concerns to self-interest, in the stubborn refusal to change, in the limitation of what it is possible to what I can do or want to do. These dispositions impose a kind of darkness upon us, in which we grope about for a satisfying life, but all we experience is endless grasping, rather than fulfillment. Spiritual blindness ultimately culminates in isolation and leaves us bereft of hope.

Christ can liberate us from the spiritual blindness that we impose upon ourselves, but we must want him to intervene in our lives. He always offers us his healing power, but he will not coerce us to accept his help- for his offer to us is an offer of love and love is only effective if it is offered and accepted in freedom.

It is only when we relinquish our grasp on the darkness of self-interest that we impose on ourselves that Christ casts his light, the light that enables us to see and illuminates his way…

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Thursday of the Twenty-ninth Week in Ordinary Time (October 22nd, 2015)

The Church is moving us ever deeper into St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans (the Letter to the Romans has been the first scripture proclaimed at daily Mass for several days).

Remember, the Letter to the Romans is considered by many to be St. Paul’s “magnum opus”- his greatest work. The content of the letter is a sustained argument through which St. Paul attempts to clarify what he believes about God, about God’s revelation in Christ, and about the relationship of Israel and the Church.

The Church presents the Letter to the Romans in the lectionary excerpts, and this is not ideal. We have to listen carefully and be attentive to detail and nuance if we are to receive a spiritual benefit from what we hear.

Today’s excerpt from the Letter to the Romans can be understood as being about conversion- the non-negotiable necessity of the Christian life. The Gospel (“good news”) of Jesus Christ is not about self-help or self-actualization or self-affirmation, but about transformation. No one who meets Christ and gives their life over to him can simply continue their life with the same beliefs and behaviors. Christ means to change us and the disciple is a person who has been changed by an encounter with the Lord Jesus.

All are welcomed by Christ, but a relationship with him is on his terms, not our own. He meets everyone where they are at (so to speak) but he doesn’t just leave us in our status quo.

St. Paul insists that as a result of our relationship with Christ, a relationship that has as the condition for its possibility our conversion, we are freed from death. St. Paul refers here to physical death, which because of God in Christ’s passage into its reality, has been changed forever (no longer being an end, but a route of access to God). But more than just physical death he refers to those attitudes and actions that kill our souls, that make us less than vibrant in the new life we receive in our relationship with Jesus Christ.

Those attitudes and actions that mortally wound or kill our souls are all the ways we resist God’s will and purpose for our lives, a will and purpose that have been revealed to us in Christ.

One of the most dangerous ways in which we can mortally wound or kill our souls is to resist conversion, to stubbornly cling to those attitudes and actions that are essentially a “no” to Christ- a refusal of love, love of God and neighbor.

In each of us there lurks a “no” to Christ, and it is precisely in this “no” that Christ will come to us and insist that we change. The “no” to Christ manifests itself in our insistence that Christ conform to our expectations, that means that he change for us, rather than having to change for him.

Unfortunately, many would prefer to be ruined rather than change, but this is not what Christ wants. Our “yes” to Christ means we open ourselves to the way of life that he gives to us- a way that always and inevitably means conversion, a willingness to change, to believe what Christ reveals and to do what Christ commands us to do.

Because Christ insists that we change and accept a way of life that will be different from not only our own preferred status quo, but that of the world, the invitation to being Christ’s disciple, or living the unique way of life he gives us, will provoke resistance.

Not everyone who encounters Christ will like him and not everyone will accept the disciples who follow him. Christ is a “sign of contradiction” and so to are his followers.

Most people do not like conflict and the need to be liked is a nearly universal desire, because of these tendencies, disciples of the Lord Jesus may be tempted to soften the sharp edges of the Gospel, to create a facsimile of the Lord Jesus that conforms to better to the world’s expectations, to re-create the Church as a community of minimal expectation. These efforts may provide a short-term benefit, but because they are dishonest, the short-term benefit is quickly exhausted and the mission of the Church falters and fails.

Christ did not come to affirm us as we are, but to offer us a new way of life. Christ does not send his disciples into the world to accommodate the world as it is, but to effect the world’s restoration and renewal.

There is a legitimate inclusivity to the Church and the invitation of Christ is for all people, but there is a razor’s edge to both the Christ and the Church that cuts through all the insincerity and pretense that would make both into nothing more than a pleasant diversion.

The disciple of the Lord Jesus must be prepared, not only to be accepted and affirmed, but also to be refused, and even scorned.

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Twenty-ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time (October 18th, 2015)

Our first scripture for today’s Mass is an excerpt from the Old Testament Book of the Prophet Isaiah. The Book of the Prophet Isaiah is one of the lengthiest and beautifully written books in the Bible. It illuminates the meaning of events that take place over hundreds of years of the Israelite history- events which culminate in the fall of the Kingdom of David and the aftermath of this cataclysmic event.

Isaiah interprets these events with a keen spiritual and theological outlook. His purpose is not simply to describe history in the matter of a modern historian or journalist, but to interpret history theologically- this means he considers what is happening to the Israelites and seeks to answer what God is doing and why he is doing it.

Thus, for Isaiah and all the biblical prophets, God is not some kind of cosmic force that exists somewhere far away from human experience, but he is active, interested, engaged in what is happening in the world. How and why God acts in the world is mysterious, but God is acting in the world. The greatest power is not worldly power, the power of politics, economics and culture, but God’s power. When we attempt to interpret our lives, our history only through worldliness, through politics, economics and culture, we miss the point. For what God is doing and why is of far greater significance than what we are doing.

That’s not a truth we like to hear or want to believe. It pulls the rug out from under the pomp and pretence of our worldliness. Most who believe in God prefer to act as if he doesn’t exist. Many believers would prefer that God remain benignly interested in what we are doing, affirming us in our projects, plotting and planning. But that is not the true God- certainly not the God is biblical revelation.

What God is doing is far more important than what we are doing.

The prophets were keen on reminding the Israelites of this truth. They continue to remind the Church of this truth as well.

Today’s excerpt from the Book of Isaiah is from a mysterious part of his visions that describes what is called “the suffering servant”. The “suffering servant” is someone who accepts great suffering and even sacrifices his own life so that the Israelites can be reconciled to God. The great sages of Israel understood Isaiah’s vision of the suffering servant to be a description of the Messiah- a person of great power that God would send into the world to set things that had gone so wrong right.

It was considered to be alarming that the Messiah would accept the kind of treatment that the prophet Isaiah describes. In fact, for most, it didn’t make any sense until they saw with their own eyes the suffering and death of the Lord Jesus on the cross.

Therefore, when we hear the words of the prophet Isaiah today, we are meant to call to mind the suffering and death of Christ and consider the great mystery that it was in this terrifying event that the vision of Isaiah became real.

God acted and entered into history, into the real world, in Christ the Lord.

What was happening on the cross to the Lord Jesus was not simply a matter of politics, economics or culture, but God was acting to accomplish something more important than any of these things. Whatever human beings thought they were doing to the Lord Jesus in the cross was not as important as what God was doing.

And the prophet Isaiah tells us what God in Christ is doing- he is acting to reconcile us to God, to forgive us, to offer us another chance.

The cross of Jesus Christ is the most cataclysmic event in human history because it represents a darkness within each of us that refuses to love God, a refusal that manifests itself not just in rejecting God, but also in seeking to destroy him completely. How God in Christ responds to this refusal is the great surprise of the Gospel, a surprise that convinced the earliest disciples that the Lord Jesus was indeed the Messiah- the “suffering servant” whom the prophet Isaiah had foreseen centuries ago.

The Church’s second reading for today is about the suffering and death of the Lord Jesus on the cross. The insight comes from the New Testament text known as “The Letter to the Hebrews”, which is not simply a letter, but a densely textured theological essay about the identity and mission of the Lord Jesus- who he is and what he has done and will do for us.

In today’s reading from the Letter to the Hebrews, the Lord Jesus is called not just a priest, but also “the great high priest”- meaning that everything the Church understands about priests and priesthood has its reference point in the kind of priest the Lord Jesus is.

Priests are those who offer sacrifice, and the great high priest Jesus offers his own life as a sacrifice. This is what is happening on the cross, the Lord Jesus is offering his life so that he can reconcile humanity to God. That’s his sacrifice. That’s how he is a priest.

Offering his life as a sacrifice meant suffering, and ultimately death, realities that he didn’t deserve, but in order to bring God and humanity together as friends, he accepted suffering and death, and made that experience his sacrifice.

And that’s what priesthood is about- making your life a sacrifice so that people might be reconciled to God. Making your life a sacrifice so that God and humanity can be friends.

One of the master themes of the Letter to the Hebrews is God, in Christ, accepted a human nature and lived a real, human life. God did not need to do this, but we needed him to do it. There were profound implications for God to accept a human nature as his own, consequences that included that he experience for himself the raw facts of suffering and death. God in Christ accepted these implications and these consequences. This was his sacrifice. In his sacrifice, he showed that he loves us- for what greater love would there be for someone to accept suffering and death for his beloved?

This is also why the Letter to the Hebrews testifies that God in Christ can “sympathize with us in weaknesses”, and that we can approach him with confidence, and that he will be merciful to us and help us.

The great revelation of the Gospel is that God doesn’t need to love us but he does, and not only this, but that we all do things that would give God good reason not to love us, but he is still willing to love us.

And further, that God reveals that he loves us by accepting a human nature and living a real, human life. Because God doesn’t need to love us and we so often refuse to love him, his love for us is his sacrifice.

It is because of his sacrifice, that God in Christ is our great high priest.

In his Gospel, Christ the Lord’s disciples expose what happens when sacrifice is displaced by power as the ultimate end of Christian discipleship.

James and John aspire to power, not sacrifice. The power they aspire to is meant to serve their own ends, their own ambition. So great are their ambitions that they would even use God as a means to get what they desire.

Christ will have none of this and directs their attention away from themselves and towards him- particularly towards the visceral reality of his cross, where he will “give his life as a ransom for the many”.

True power comes from sacrifice, from acts of love, and not from the machinations of worldly ambition, no matter how successful or effective these machinations might appear to be.

So much of the vital energies of the Church have been consumed by arguments about power in the Church- who has it, who doesn’t have it, who deserves it and who doesn’t. The Body of the Church aches from all these neuralgic debates and in all these debates we are mimics of James and John.

The most powerful people in the Church are never those who aspire to be powerful as the world defines power, but instead are those who aspire to holiness, which means to be like Christ.

We Christians call these holy people the saints, and while the world esteems politicians, celebrities and financiers, the Church esteems the saints.

Today, in Rome, the Holy Father will declare two new saints- Louis and Zelie Martin. The Martin’s will be the first married couple to be canonized together as saints.

In the estimation of the world, Louis and Zelie Martin were insignificant. The cultural elites of our day would characterize the two as hopelessly irrelevant. Both sought to be Christ-like, to be holy, by living out their vocation as husband and wife as a sacrifice of love. They were the parents of nine children, of whom five survived to adulthood.

The purpose of the household the Martin’s established was to nurture disciples for Jesus and create future saints for the Church.

In this mission, God blessed them abundantly.

Their youngest daughter, a girl by the name of Therese, is herself one of the most powerful women in history of the Church- known to many as “The Little Flower”- St. Therese of Liseux.

The Church esteems Louis and Zelie Martin as exemplars of what it means to be husband and wife. If you want to know what the Sacrament of Marriage is about, St. Louis and St. Zelie Martin are your guides.

Their lives provide the thick description of what the Sacrament of Marriage really and truly is.

And what is the Sacrament of Marriage about?

It is about sacrifice.

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Thursday of the Twenty-seventh Week in Ordinary Time (October 8th, 2015)

The month of October is dedicated to the Mother of God as patroness of those who pray the rosary. By this is meant that the Mother of God, in her role as heavenly friend and intercessor for the disciples of Jesus, prays with the Church as the faithful pray the rosary. Our prayer is her prayer and she makes our petitions her own.

Yesterday, we celebrated the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary, and thus in two extraordinary ways, by dedicating the month of October and honoring Our Lady of the Rosary with a special day, the Church is signaling to us the importance of the rosary as a method of prayer.

The rosary is a prayer of repetition, which means that prayers are repeated and through these efforts the soul is brought to stillness and recollection. Through the repetition of the prayers of the rosary, we become accustomed to patterns of breathing and speaking that are of the Holy Spirit. It is hoped that through our acclamation to these Spirit directed patterns of breathing and speaking in prayer, our habits of speaking in ordinary conversation might be influenced and transformed. We might learn to speak to and of the Lord Jesus with regularity and our speech might become ever more conformed to his way of speaking.

The rosary is also a prayer of recollection, by which the mind and imagination are directed towards the great mysteries or revelations of the God in Christ. We are invited to become as intimate with these revelations or mysteries as the Mother of God is and like the Mother of God become bearers of the revelation of God in Christ into the world.

All the prayers of the rosary and the mysteries that are evoked in the performance of the rosary prayer originate or have reference points in the Scriptures. As such, the rosary is a biblical form of prayer, for through it, the events of God’s revelation in Christ, as they are presented in the scriptures are evoked, remembered, and in the public recitation of the rosary, proclaimed.

The rosary can be prayed privately or publicly and as a prayer it is eminently transportable- the rosary can be prayed almost anywhere and at anytime.

The rosary is treasured by the Church and its endurance over many centuries has happened, not because it has been imposed on people, but because the faithful themselves find in the rosary prayer great consolation and spiritual benefit. During this month of October, I encourage those who prayer the rosary to continue the practice and to help introduce people to the rosary prayer. If as a prayer, the rosary has helped you, give that gift to someone else who might be searching to deepen their own experience of prayer. We have a natural disposition to pray, but we learn to pray from one another. Sharing your positive experiences of prayer helps others to deepen their relationship with Christ and builds up the Body of the Church.

To those who have not prayed the rosary for some time, I encourage you to rediscover the practice.   The rosary is not a thing of the past that was discarded by the Church so as to bring us all spiritually up to date. It is precisely this attitude that has deprived many people of the opportunity to know Christ as a greater level of depth and hindered the Church’s in its missionary resolve. Instead, the rosary brings us, into relationship with Christ, who lives and acts through his Church to make his presence known and share his life with us.

Praying the rosary helps us to better know the Lord Jesus, which is the end towards which our lives as disciples are directed.

The Mother of God can only lead us to her Divine Son and this is the great dynamism of the rosary prayer- Christ’s mother, acting to lead us to Christ, witnessing to his revelation, teaching us who he is, bringing us to stillness in prayer so that we might be attentive and receptive to Him.

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