Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time (June 17th, 2018)

Today’s first scripture is an excerpt from the 17th chapter of the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel, one of the most beautiful and interesting texts of the Old Testament.

Ezekiel is a priest who is trying to prepare the Israelites for what will be one of the most catastrophic events in their history.  In the year 587 BC, the lands of the Israelites will be invaded by the armies of Babylon, Jerusalem will be ransacked, the royal house of David put to the sword, the temple will be destroyed and the people scattered, enslaved and sent into exile.

In the 17th chapter of his book, Ezekiel offers an allegory which explains how an arrogant and foolish political decision was the turning point for this disaster.  The king will break a treaty with the Babylonians, attempt to form with alliance with the Pharaoh or the Egyptians, and in doing so will provoke Babylon to invade.

This is harsh for the Israelites to hear, because Ezekiel places responsibility for the catastrophe on the Israelites themselves, a reckoning he believes is necessary if they are to repent.  Truth sets us free- all the biblical prophets insist on this and it is especially coming to terms with the hardest truths we refuse to admit that do the most to free us from our self-deception.

At the conclusion to Chapter 17 is the scripture passage we heard this morning.

The meaning is that though the Israelites have been cut off, indeed, cut down, by the terrifying events of 587 BC

In this respect, the surviving Israelites are like the “crest of the cedar tree” that Ezekiel is referencing.  The Lord will take this remnant of a once great and now fallen tree and from it will renew its life.  In other words, the Israelites, reduced and humiliated, will, through God’s power, be restored.

The events of 587 BC haunt much of the Old and New Testament.  In fact, much of what the Lord Jesus has to say about the Israelites concerns the fulfillment of the promises and insights of prophets like Ezekiel.  We know little about the events of 587 BC and their significance, which is one reason why there is a tendency for the scriptures to sound strange, even unintelligible to us.

The sages and saints of the Church have understood that the story of the Israelites from the Old Testament has a great deal to tell us about the story of the Church.  And this is how we can try to understand Ezekiel’s insights.  Coming to terms with our own complicity in events that have diminished the Church is what a prophet like Ezekiel imparts to us.  Admitting the hard truth that if the Church is not flourishing, it is far too easy to blame someone else, rather than accept what we ourselves have done or failed to do, is a necessary crucible.  And further, remembering the Church did not begin as a massive international institution with seemingly unlimited resources and unassailable prestige.  How did the Church begin?  It began small.  And in every age, when through human wickedness the Church falters and fails in her mission, God preserves enough of what is good to assure that the Church continue.

It is most often through small movements, small communities, that the Church is reformed and renewed.  It seems that this is God’s favored way of doing things- he can even take the seemingly diminished and withered Church that is the experience of so many, and from that remnant, make the Church bloom with renewed life and vigor.

The second scripture for today is an excerpt from St. Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians.

The Apostle speaks about his body and our bodies and in doing so he makes a very important point about the Christian way of life- our bodies matter.  But why does the body matter so much for the Christian?

Because it is the Body of the Lord Jesus revealed in his Incarnation that saves us; it is into the Body of Christ, the Church, that the Lord Jesus gives his way of life to us, it is the Body of the Lord Jesus given to us in Eucharist that sanctifies and sustains us, and it is the suffering bodies of the poor in whom Christ dwells that we serve the Body of Jesus himself.

Knowing Christ, encountering Christ is not simply a matter of our mind or our emotions, but of our bodies and it is through our bodies, practicing the Faith of the Church in worship, Sacraments and works of mercy that Christ redeems us all.

Christ reveals himself in a body, a body like our own and in our bodies that his salvation happens to us.

It is mistake to reduce our faith to having the right ideas or thoughts or having the right kinds of feelings- as if ideas and thoughts and feelings are all that it means to be a Christian.  Christian Faith is about the significance of bodies, Christ’s Body, the bodies of our neighbors, and yes, even our own bodies.

This physicality of the Christian way of life is hard for many to take.  Bodies are, after all, messy, often times non-compliant, and very difficult for us to deal with.  A faith that is reduced to ideas and feelings is far less demanding than dealing with bodies.  But the significance of the body is a non-negotiable necessity for the Christian for God in Christ has chosen the significance of our bodies.  How so?  By accepting for himself a body, a human nature, and through that body, living like us, a real, human life.  In doing so, God made the body, our bodies an inescapable fact of our faith and a necessary route of access to him.

Finally, in his Gospel, the Lord Jesus speaks of the kingdom of God, testifying that it will always first manifest itself in what is small, like seeds sown, and as a particular example, a seed as miniscule as the mustard seed, which can produce an enormous plant.

Now, I know we Christians have a tendency to spiritualize the kingdom of God, thinking of it as being an otherworldly reality like heaven, but this is really a mistake.

Connect our first two scriptures with this Gospel: Ezekiel speaks of the restoration of an actual people in this world, the Israelites and St. Paul emphasizes the physical, bodily reality of our faith.  And in his Gospel Christ speaks about a kingdom, a kingdom that starts small and has the potential to grow and grow.

This kingdom of which Christ speaks is a new kind of Israel in this world, a kingdom composed of real flesh and blood, of bodies.  This kingdom is the Church and the Church has and will always start small, but it isn’t supposed to just stay small, because like the small seeds Christ references in his Gospel, the Church is filled with the potential to grow and grow and grow.

The Church is the kingdom of God.  And the seeds of the Church have been given to us to sow into the world.  The seeds of the Church are small, and as such, many Christians try to protect them, keeping them safe as if planting them in the world would mean they would be lost.  But this over protectiveness simply results in a Church that never realizes its purpose and the life that the Church does have ends up withering away and dying.

The task of every generation of Christians is to sow the Church, to plant the Church in the world, that is, to facilitate the growth of the Church and in doing so bring the kingdom of God to life- not just in heaven, but in the here and now.

This task is not something that can be delegated away to religious professionals, it is the mission of every Christian.  So, ask yourself now, because the Lord Jesus himself is going to ask each of us later, and our answer is going to matter more than anything else- are you sowing, planting the seeds of Church and helping the Church to grow?  Or are you missing in action in the fields of the world or worse, tearing up what he has already planted?

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Tenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (June 10th, 2018)

The scriptures for today all have a particular darkness about them, a raw honesty about what it means to be human that causes one to tremble, but then to exalt in the gift, the grace we are privileged to share in the Lord Jesus Christ.  Spirituality is not, merely the resolution of our problems in a way that pleases us, but the light God in Christ casts over the darkness as we move towards him through everything raw and real in human existence that cannot be so easily explained.

Our first scripture today is taken from the beginning of the Bible- from the Book of Genesis- and it describes a catastrophe.

The catastrophe is the first time human beings defied God’s will and purposes and in doing so brought great suffering upon themselves and all the generations that would follow.  The Church describes this as the “original sin”.  The great Catholic writer G. K. Chesterton once remarked that of all the doctrines of the Church it is only original sin for which the Church has empirical evidence.

Original sin inaugurates an inclination in all of us to believe that we know better than God what is right and wrong and that we can defy God’s will without consequences to ourselves or others.  It is the soul crushing illusion that we can choose evil over good because it is useful and somehow through our own will or power transform evil into good.  Our innate capacity to resist God is passed on generation to generation- it is that insidious, and neither innocence or vigilance can protect us from its effects.

The result of this original sin is described in today’s scripture from the Book of Genesis- turning against God we turn against one another, indeed against creation itself, and a world that was a paradise becomes hell on earth.  The sufferings of the world, of being human, are increased exponentially as a result of original sin and we cannot lift the crushing burden of that suffering by our own efforts.  What is needed is not a self-help program, but a revelation.

In other words, we can no more escape or evade the consequences of original sin than we can escape or evade our own bodies.  It goes that deep within us.  This is the meaning of the scripture you heard from the Book of Genesis, not just to identify a catastrophe that happened before recorded history, but to identify a catastrophe that resides in all of us- right now.  The defiance of God, the accusations, the divisions, the curse, and the exile described in our first scripture are not just a matter of the past, but of the condition of all humanity.

Thus, the lament of St. Paul in Chapter 7 of his Letter to the Romans “who can save us from these bodies of death”?

His answer is not, ourselves, for that is in fact what got us into this predicament in the first place.  Instead, the answer is God, who in Christ overcomes the curse of original sin with the blessing of his grace.  Uniting our compromised human nature with his divine nature, God in Christ gives us the revelation that can deliver us from catastrophe of original sin.  He is the answer to St. Paul’s question.

St. Paul expresses gratitude for this gift in the Church’s second scripture- from the New Testament- his Letter to the Corinthians.  In this scripture, the Apostle Paul not only sees Christ as the revelation that saves from the original sin, offering us a way through and beyond it, but also as a revelation that saves us from death.

The world is not only compromised by sin, but also by death.  All things pass away and we pass along with it.  The strength and vigor of youth gives way to the weakness and decline of old age.  The world offers us much, but in the end, what it offers is consumed by death.  The best we can do is to preserve what this world offers, prolong our experience of life, but in the end, we must yield- despite all our efforts, in the words of St. Paul; “our outer self is wasting away”.

God in Christ reveals to us a possibility beyond death.  This is the meaning of his resurrection and the purpose of his own suffering and death.  This is the reason that St. Paul has the audacity to identify our decline and death as a “momentary light affliction”.  He says this because of his faith that God in Christ has accomplished something in his death on the cross and in his resurrection from the dead which is to our benefit. God, who is Christ, accepted a human nature, and in doing so, accepted suffering, has also in accepting death, transformed what appears to be an end, into a new kind of beginning.

In this world, death will afflict us, but that affliction is not our end, because God in Christ has revealed his power as being greater than death.  The solution to the problem of death is not some power within ourselves, some kind of innovation, that simply prolongs life and insulates us from what is inevitable, but in the power of God in Christ.

God in Christ is greater than our sin and he is greater than our death.  This is why St. Paul acclaims in chapter seven of his letter to the Romans; “thanks be to God for Jesus Christ our Lord”.

Sin and death afflict us, but God in Christ reveals that he gives us greater possibilities than both.  And there is one more affliction into which God in Christ casts his light- the devil.

In his Gospel for today, an excerpt from the testimony of Mark, Christ is accused of being the devil himself or at the very least in league with her.

Christ will have none of this and he testifies that the words of his accusers betray not only their ignorance, but also their malice.  In many cases those who accuse others of being in the thrall of the evil one are themselves her pawns.

But more than this, Christ announces that the days of the kingdom of Satan are nearing their end.  One stronger than the devil and his minions has come into the world, and he has come to take back what the devil has stolen.

That which the devil has stolen are our hearts and our minds and through both the devil acts to usurp God’s purposes for his creatures and his creation.  His purpose is that we flourish in this world and enjoy his company in the world to come, and Satan will have none of this.  In his hatred of God in Christ he seeks to deprive him of that which he loves- us.  God in Christ signals that Satan’s plotting and planning is futile and he will run around and render useless every one of the devil’s schemes and deliver us from his traps.

God in Christ, who is more powerful than our sin and of our death, is also more powerful than the devil.

The Church teaches and insists that we believe that the devil is not just a myth or a metaphor, but a malign entity of great spiritual power that negatively impacts our lives and this world.  His plotting and planning is something with which we all must contend.  But at the same time, there is no equivalence between God in Christ and the devil.  Thus, her power is limited.  The devil is cunning enough to know that directly assaulting God is futile, and so he strikes at what God loves- us, but God in Christ that he is on our side and just as he will not abandon us to the power of sin or death, he will not let the devil have his day.  This is why the Church describes the devils overtures to us as “pomps” (or illusions) and his promises as “empty”.  The only power over us he has is the power that we give to him, but even this God in Christ will seize away.

As I noted in the beginning, there is a darkness that casts shadows over the scriptures for today- shadows of sin, death and the devil.  But the revelation of God in Christ insists that greater than those shadows is the light he casts into our darkness…  We Christians must learn to see not only shadows, but Christ’s divine light!

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The Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ (June 3rd, 2018)

Today the Church celebrates the great solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ, popularly known in Catholic culture as the Feast of Corpus Christi- Latin for “Body of Christ”.

The purpose of this day of worship is to highlight the Church’s Eucharistic faith, meaning the awe filled and wondrous truth that the Eucharist is what Christ declares it to be- the gift of his divine life and presence given to us as food and drink. This is why the Eucharist is called “Holy Communion”, because it is Christ that we receive- he gives to us his divine life and we in turn, in response to his gift, give our lives over to him.

Holy Communion would not be possible if God in Christ was not true to his word and gave to us something less than what God in Christ declares the Eucharist to be- his Body and his Blood, his divine life and presence.

For centuries the gift of Christ’s divine life and presence in the Blessed Sacrament, in the Eucharist, has been celebrated on the day of Corpus Christi, and this day has also been the occasion where the Church’s unique faith regarding the Eucharist has been affirmed.

We do not believe that Christ’s divine life and presence in the Blessed Sacrament is merely metaphorical or symbolic, but real and substantial. Nor is Christ’s divine life and presence in the Blessed Sacrament merely an emotional experience or a matter of cultural expression, but it is objective and it his divine life and presence that we receive, not an affirmation of community values.

Further, the Blessed Sacrament is what it is not because of the will of the priest or of the assembly to make it what it is, but because of the will of Christ to give to us a share in his own divine life. The Eucharist is Christ’s gift and it is by his will, not our will, that it is what it is. The Eucharist is given to us as Christ’s gift, it is not made and taken by us by force of our own will.

Thus, it is Christ that we receive in the Blessed Sacrament. This is why the manner in which we receive the Eucharist and the reverence with which we regard the Blessed Sacrament is meant to indicate how we should respond to and receive Christ himself.

Our attitude towards the Blessed Sacrament, expressed in our bodies, in our words, in our gestures, all profess our faith in what the Eucharist really and truly is- the life and presence of God in Christ.

If you believe that the Blessed Sacrament is less than Christ’s divine life and presence and yet you receive him, then you are receiving him in bad faith, by this I mean a kind of perjury, a lie. If our reverence for the Blessed Sacrament is lacking, then we are indicating with our bodies that we either do not believe that the Eucharist is Christ’s divine life and presence or worse, that we just don’t care.

Receiving Christ’s divine life and presence is not merely a perfunctory gesture, but it indicates a decision of life changing importance. Just to be clear- the word “Sacrament”, the word the Church uses to identify the Eucharist, literally means an oath. Receiving the Eucharist is akin to taking an oath. The oath we take is that inasmuch as we receive the divine life and presence of Christ, we agree that we will give our life over to him. In other words, receiving the Eucharist means that Christ gives his life to you and you agree to give your life over to him. That’s the oath. That’s what is at stake. This oath is ratified when we come forward and in response to the priest or minister’s declaration “The Body (and/or) Blood of Christ” we say “Amen”. Your “Amen means that you accept the terms- his life in exchange for your life. Christ gives you his life and you give him your life. That’s the oath. That’s the Sacrament.

The great challenge in that is are we telling the truth or telling a lie.

The Blessed Sacrament is Christ’s divine life, given to you as food and drink, but it is also Christ’s divine presence, given to you as consolation and hope. Thus the Eucharist, the Blessed Sacrament, is reserved in our churches with great reverence and love, for as long as the Eucharistic elements remain, Christ’s divine presence remains.

The transformation Christ effects is irrevocable- he keeps his word. We do not put Christ’s divine life and presence in the Blessed Sacrament and we do not take it away. What we can do is to choose to receive the Blessed Sacrament with reverence and love or not.

It is because of Christ’s abiding presence in the Blessed Sacrament reserved in our churches that our churches are not just assembly halls or gathering spaces or community centers. Our churches are temples- for just as the divine presence of God made his home in the Holy of Holies of the ancient temple of Jerusalem, so now, in our churches, in the Blessed Sacrament, God in Christ makes his home among us. This is what the tabernacle is indicating and why our deference and reverence of Christ in the tabernacle is so pronounced.

The Blessed Sacrament is not just a sacred object, like a statue or a crucifix. The Blessed Sacrament is the life and presence of the Lord Jesus. Placing ourselves in the presence of the tabernacle we place ourselves in the presence of Christ the Lord.

The scriptures for today all gesture towards the mystery and meaning of the Body and Blood of Christ, given to us in the Blessed Sacrament.

From the Old Testament Book of Exodus we hear of how the covenant of the Israelites with the Lord (a covenant is an agreement that initiates a relationship) is ratified in a tremendous sacrifice. Though the sacrifice of animals to God likely perplexes and may offend us, it was the manner in which the Israelites expressed in the most concrete, raw and realistic terms that there is no love in this world without sacrifice, and that our love for the Lord will inevitably place demands on us, cost us- it will mean a sacrifice. This sacrifice may not mean for us the slaughter of animals, but it will mean that we place our lives at the Lord’s disposal, making ourselves ready to do what he asks for us to do.

Our second scripture is from the Letter to Hebrews. The Letter to the Hebrews is not so much a letter (though it is called such) but a theological essay. This essay explains the meaning of the Church’s worship and how this worship is like and unlike the worship of the ancient Israelites.

The Church’s worship is like the worship of the Israelites inasmuch as there is a sacrifice, but unlike that worship because the sacrifice the Church offers is not animals, but God in Christ. God in Christ makes himself our sacrifice, giving up his life for us so that we might give up our lives for him. This is what is happening in the Eucharist. This is what the Blessed Sacrament really and truly is. This is also what connects the Eucharist eternally to the cross of Christ, what Christ offers on the cross, his life, is what we receive in the Blessed Sacrament.

Finally, in his Gospel, Christ the Lord himself testifies to what the Eucharist is- his Body and his Blood. Christ’s own testimony signals to us that what the Church believes about the Eucharist is not merely a matter of our own ideas or opinions, but an expression of what God in Christ has revealed. The Eucharist is a revelation from God and it is God, in Christ, who makes that revelation what it is and tells us what it is. On our part, we can, if we so choose, accept this revelation as a gift, responding to that gift with love and gratitude.

And this is the decision that each of us must make today.

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