Ash Wednesday (February 14th, 2018)

This year, on February 14th, the celebration of a saint of popular interest and devotion and the beginning of Lent coincide. February 14th is the occasion (since 469 AD) for the commemoration of the martyr, Saint Valentine and it is also Ash Wednesday.

The Festal Day of Saint Valentine has not, since 1969, been part of the Universal Calendar of the Church (a calendar that assigns particular days in the course of year to honor the witness of the saints). This does not mean, as some continue to insist, that the Church has declared that Saint Valentine did not exist, but instead it means that the commemoration of the saint is not obligatory for the whole Church, but can happen locally on February 14th. In terms of his existence, Saint Valentine remains enrolled in the Roman Martyrology (which is an official list of saints recognized by the Church for liturgical celebrations and promoted for popular devotion). The historicity of the saint may be questioned, and the specific details of his life may be lost, but the Church continues to mark his martyrdom as worth honoring.

In terms of Saint Valentine himself, it has been hard to determine which saint bearing the name Valentine is the martyr being commemorated on February 14th (other than the martyr Valentine, there are at least a dozen saints with this name). There are three likely candidates for the February 14th designation- one a priest, the other a bishop, the other is a martyr, who the specific details of his life have disappeared into the past. The medieval text entitled the Legend Aurea (or the Golden Legend) has a priest by the name of Valentine killed by the Roman emperor Claudius the Goth in 269 AD. The story is that Valentine had the audacity to try to convince the emperor to accept the Christian faith and paid for this attempt with his life. It is a later text, the Nuremburg Chronicle, from 1493, that provides the detail that the priest Valentine was killed for marrying Christian couples when forbidden to do so by an imperial edict (ours is not the only era where marriage is a point of political tension, or where insistence on the Christian understanding of marriage is controversial).

It is the story of the priest Valentine, uniting Christian couples in holy matrimony that is likely where the association of the festival day with romantic gestures originates. Though some trace the practice of sending notes to one’s beloved on Saint Valentine’s Day with a miracle associated with the saint, his restoration of the sight of a blind girl, who is graced with a note from the saint on the day of his execution. Other scholars note the proximity of Saint Valentine’s Day with the pagan feast of Lupercalia, which was celebrated on February 15th. Pope Gelasius established the commemoration of Saint Valentine in the year 469 AD and it is surmised that he was offering a Christian alternative to the sybaritic and sexualized displays of Lupercalia, romantic, marital love sanctified by the Church rather than unrestrained desires running amok in the streets. It seems that if this is actually the case, Pope Gelasius’ calculated decision actually worked, though Lupercalia has of late made its own kind of resurgence in the popular culture.

Ash Wednesday commemorates the beginning of the Church’s Lenten observance. Lent is a season of the Church’s year during which the faithful are to prepare themselves to receive the mysteries of Holy Week, mysteries which recount through acts of worship and prayerful devotion the suffering, death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus. Preparation for Holy Week during Lent is threefold- prayer, fasting and almsgiving and to commemorate the beginning of these observances, the faithful receive ashes. In the United States the ashes are used to mark the foreheads of the faithful with a cross, creating one of the few moments in American public life when one’s identity as a Catholic is visibly displayed. In other parts of the world the ashes are sprinkled on the top of the head (which is a far gentler reminder, I suppose, than having the ashes thrown in one’s face).

The coincidence of St. Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday has resulted in several dioceses publicizing directives that are intended to remind the faithful that the observances of Ash Wednesday take priority over the celebration of Saint Valentine’s Day. This would not likely not be necessary should the date of Ash Wednesday coincide with most any other saint. Why? Few saints have the resonance in the popular culture that St. Valentine does. Customs that promote feasting and reverie continue to be celebrated on St. Valentine’s Day. February 14th is a day reserved by the culture to celebrate romantic love and affection. These gestures are usually expressed through gifts or celebratory meals. The actual relationship of these customs to the martyr Valentine are lost for most, but he is one of the few remaining saints whose feast day still has some cultural traction. It is for this reason that there is the concern that the preference for the customs of St. Valentine’s Day might supplant the penitential character of Ash Wednesday. It is believed, that most would prefer a party and a box of chocolates to a penitential sermon and forehead full of ashes. We will know on St. Valentine’s Day, I mean Ash Wednesday, which preference prevails.

While the cultural celebration of Valentine’s Day seems contrary to the practices of Ash Wednesday, the commemoration of the witness of the martyr Valentine remains in sync with the beginning of Lent. A martyr gives witness to his faith in Christ through an act of self-sacrifice, that is, an act of love. Love is not, contrary to the many of the pretenses of the popular celebration of Valentine’s day, reducible to romantic affection. Instead, love which is authentic and true, always demands a sacrifice, the gift of one’s very life for the sake of one’s beloved. This is what is supposed to happen in Christian marriage, indeed in every Christian vocation, and it is what the martyr displays par excellence in their willingness to suffer and die rather than to deny or repudiate their love for Christ.

The practices of Lent, though low key in their sacrifice, have the same intentionality, they are sacrifices intended as expressions of love for Christ and appreciations for his own self-sacrifice for our sake. A martyr does not need the practices of Lent to prepare them to receive the mysteries of Holy Week, for in their suffering and death they embody these mysteries in their flesh and blood. Making up in their own bodies for what lacked in the sufferings of Christ, as St. Paul testified, the martyr reveals that Christ’s Body in the world, his mystical body in his Church, continues the revelation of the Incarnation itself. This witness is in sacrifice and in suffering.

This Incarnation of God in Christ does not merely manifest God’s glory in heaven, but such radiance is still on earth embodied in the glory of the Suffering Servant, who because there is no love in this world without sacrifice, revealed the extent of his love for his creation in the sacrifice of the cross. The martyr recapitulates this sacrifice and this love, revealing that God’s glory in his Church is manifested in the willingness of Christians to accept, that for the sake of their love for Christ, they are willing to become like him, suffering servants, for the sake of the world.  It is in this way that the witness of the martyr Saint Valentine and the commemoration of Ash Wednesday will always coincide.

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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

 

 

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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Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (July 3rd, 2016)

This morning’s scripture from the Old Testament prophet Isaiah presents the city of Jerusalem personified as mother, feeding and nurturing her children. Remember, Jerusalem was not just a city, but instead it is a representation of the spiritual heart of the Israelites. It was in the temple of Jerusalem that the one, true and living God made his home and shared his life and presence with Israel, and through Israel, with the world. Isaiah imagines Jerusalem as the mother of all the Israelites.

This imagery is understood by Christians as now an image of the Church, which is not merely an institution, but is properly likened to be our mother, for it is from the Church that we are reborn in Christ through Baptism, fed and nurtured with Christ’s Word and Sacraments, and when mature in our faith, sent out as witnesses into the world.

Many Christians have sadly come to have an impersonal, institutional understanding of the Church- she is no longer a nurturing mother, but an “it”- a non profit corporation whose resources are meant to be leveraged on behalf of our causes. The “it” Church produces little in terms of life, if any life at all and cannot nurture us as no one is ever nurtured by balance sheets, actuarial tables and procedural manuals. Some prefer the “it” Church because, unlike a mother, there is no moral demand placed on us to love her in return and no reason to care for her as one would care for one’s own mother.

Instead, the Church as an “it” or as a corporation is a thing to be used, and if no longer useful, cast aside. This would not be as easy if one considered the Church to be one’s mother.

But the Church is our mother. And we are diminished when we try to make the Church into in “it” rather than accept her for who she really and truly is.

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

In this text, the Apostle Paul testifies that he boasts (celebrates) in the cross of Jesus Christ. To us, Christians, perhaps over familiar with the cross of Jesus Christ, and so often accustomed to the cross as merely a vague religious symbol or as a religious trinket, it might seem that the Apostle Paul’s boast is unintelligible. What does he mean? Why does he boast in the cross?

Remember, for St. Paul, the cross was not a universally recognized symbol of Christianity, it was an instrument of torture upon which human beings were killed in the most shaming and brutal way possible. Nothing was worse than the cross and no one in their right mind would boast in the cross- the cross provoked only derision and fear.

Not for St. Paul. And not for us. Why?

For St. Paul, the cross represents the unimaginable- God in Christ descends into shame, into suffering, into death. The cross is not simply the occasion in which Christ dies heroically, merely as a martyr for a cause, but it is a startling revelation that illuminates God’s willingness to identify himself with humanity, not just in some things, but in the midst of all the events and circumstances of life- even shame, even suffering, even death.

The entry of God into our shame, our suffering, our death, transforms the reality of these experiences forever. However these things might feel or seem, God is with us in the midst of them, and he is there with all his power to save, to transform and redeem. We may not be exempt from the experience of the hard facts of being human, but we are not alone as we make our way through them- God is with us. How do we know?

The cross. Christ’s cross.

If God can transform his cross into an occasion for hope and resurrection, we can trust in his promise, that he will not allow our shame to be without vindication, our suffering to be devoid of meaning and our death to be our final end. The Christian does not believe in a God who remains aloof and distant from the world or who engages with us as some vague cosmic force.

The Christian believes in God in our flesh, God in Christ, the one, true God who accepts a human nature and lives a real human life. The God who unites his divine nature to our own nature, and through the power of that divine nature, penetrates to the depths of all that it means to be human- even the experiences of shame, suffering and death. And because of the God in whom we believe, do we Christians, along with St. Paul, boast in the cross of Jesus Christ.

Today’s Christ presents Christ the Lord appointing seventy two disciples to go out on mission, sharing with others what they have received from Christ.

This Gospel passage mirrors Moses appointing elders for the Israelites in the Old Testament Books of Exodus and Numbers (Numbers 11:16 and Exodus 18:25). In other words, we are to understand Christ as acting as a new Moses, having founded a new kind of Israel, he calls forth from this new Israel, servants for the mission of the new Israel.

The new Israel is the Church.

Pope Francis aptly refers to Christians who are mature in their faith as being missionary disciples. We are as disciples the servants of the Lord Jesus and our service to the Lord Jesus takes the shape or form as a very specific mission.

This mission is to introduce others to the Lord Jesus and invite people to share a relationship with Christ in the Church. In other words, our mission is to increase the numbers of the new Israelites, going out, as these first 72 disciples, as missionaries.

To be a missionary seems to many Christians to indicate oversees social work in third world countries, but this is really the wrong way to think about what it means to be a missionary. Christ calls people into relationship with him in the Church so that they can be his missionaries. Which means, missionary is not the work of a privileged few in the Church, but all the baptized. Missionary is to happen, not just as social work in countries far away, but in our own neighborhoods.

The public (and private) spaces right outside the doors of this church, indeed, right outside the doors of your own home, (including the family that dwells within your home) are the people that every baptized Christian has a responsibility to introduce to Jesus Christ. This missionary task is not a job for someone else- it is your responsibility and it is Jesus Christ himself who has asked you to do it.

Are you ready for this mission?

For many years, parishes, have been considered by many Christians, as branch offices of a corporation church from which a person can receive faith based services if the requisite fees are paid and the correct procedures are followed. This understanding of the parish has dominated people’s perceptions and the spiritual poverty it has inflicted on people has left the Church in a state of precipitous decline.

The work of the Church was limited to paid professionals and the mission of the Church reduced to matriculating through institutions and programs.

All this has been contrary to the nature of the Church as presented in the great Second Vatican Council, the Magisterium (teaching authority of the Church) and the modern popes from Pius XII to Pope Francis (and most importantly, but the Lord Jesus himself). The Church is not merely an institution, but a mission, and a parish is not merely a branch office of a faith based corporation, but it is mission territory- it is the area that a community of missionary disciples has been assigned in which they work to introduce people to Jesus Christ and invite them to share a relationship with Jesus Christ in the Church.

Is this how you understand what a parish is and does? Is this how you understand who you are and what Christ wants you to do?

To be a Christian is to be a missionary disciple- and unless this is who you are and what you aspire to be, the Church will falter and fail.

But if you will to become the missionary disciples Christ desires you to be, that like the 72 chosen to be missionaries in today’s Gospel, you will witness a Church that flourishes and grows!

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Thursday of the Thirteenth Week in Ordinary Time (June 30th, 2016)

The prophet Amos spoke the Lord’s word of truth during the reign of King Jeroboam II, one of the most effective of the Israelite monarchs. Jeroboam’s long reign brought great prosperity to the Israelites, he brokered lucrative deals with foreign powers and filled the royal treasury with gold and silver. The wealth and power of the Israelites left the prophet Amos troubled and unsettled. Whilst he saw the positive benefits afforded to the elites of the Israelites, the needs of the poor were ignored and they languished, crushed under the burden of their poverty.

Amos warned the Israelite elites that wealth could not buy God’s favor and their power could not deter God’s wrath- the Lord hears the cry of the poor, and in response to their cries acts to cast the mighty down from their thrones.

If wealth and power had been granted to the Israelites, then these gifts were meant to serve a divine purpose, not self-interest. Amos testified that the Israelites had chosen the latter, not the former, and the consequences would be severe. Even their worship of God had been corrupted, tainted by grandiosity and self reference- it would not save. It was not leading the people to works of mercy, it was leading the people to celebrate themselves as the recipients of prosperity and power.

Of course, the testimony of the prophet Amos was not popular and it was resisted. He spoke the truth, but the truth was not something that the people wanted to hear.

As it was then, so it is now.

The words of the prophet Amos, indeed all the biblical prophets, addresses, not a people from long ago, but the Church right now. The Church is the new Israel, and the Old Testament is proclaimed to illuminate God’s truth in our current circumstances.

The desire for the prophets to tell us what we want to hear, to reduce their mission to that of affirmation and consolation is a perennial temptation. But prophets are not sent to affirm us as we are, but to speak God’s word of truth, so that we might repent and be saved.

Repentance means that we are willing to change, to order our lives in accord with the commandments of God that we have either chosen to ignore or have rejected. God is the great giver of another chance, but we must be willing to take the chance he offers to us.

The opportunity that God offers to us is the forgiveness of our sins, mercy for what we have done and what we have failed to do.

This opportunity is revealed to us in all its holy radiance in Jesus Christ, who comes, so that we can be forgiven, reconciled to God, and once reconciled to him, reconciled to one another. Those who accept the forgiveness of God in Christ are filled with a joy that manifests itself in a willingness to offer to others what they have received- forgiveness. We who have been forgiven much will be willing to forgive much.

The great school of God’s forgiveness is the Sacrament of Reconciliation, where God in Christ offers to us what he offered to the paralytic in today’s Gospel. The paralysis of the poor man in today’s Gospel was physical, and God in Christ relieved him of his distress. Our paralysis might not be physical, but for many, it is moral, a paralysis of the soul burdened by the refusal to love and to serve. God in Christ can alleviate our misery and he offers this chance to us in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

But is this a chance that we are willing to take?

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Saturday of the Twelfth Week in Ordinary Time (June 25th, 2016)

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

The Book of Lamentations expresses the profound grief experienced by the Israelites as a result of the terrifying events of 587 BC. Remember, it was that year that the Kingdom of David came to a violent end. The armies of Babylon invaded the lands of the Israelites, placed the city of Jerusalem under siege, and once they overcame the defenses of the City of David, they desecrated and destroyed the temple, massacred the royal family (David’s descendants), tore down the walls of the city and exiled and enslaved the city’s inhabitants. It was for the Israelites the end of the world.

In all this, the Israelites turned to God, appealing to him in prayer for deliverance, but there was, it seemed, no answer. The God of the Israelites seemed silent and this apparent silence was interpreted by many Israelites to indicate that he had either abandoned his people or had been defeated by the power of the gods of Babylon. The Israelites had lost everything that they had valued most and in the midst of this catastrophe, God seemed alarmingly absent, indifferent, aloof.

The prophets insisted that despite how the Israelites felt, God had not abandoned his people, but was leading them through a painful period of purification that would result in renewal and new possibilities. This message was hard for the Israelites to take in the immediacy of their circumstances, and the Book of Lamentations expresses the anger, pain and grief that the Israelites experienced as they came to terms with the terrors of 587 BC.

This past Thursday, I spoke about how God’s response to not only the terrors of 587 BC, but also all the raw facts of human experience, is revealed in the cross of Jesus Christ. God may not exempt us from all the difficulties of life, but he redeems us through our experience of suffering and death by entering into that experience himself.

This is what the cross of Christ reveals- God is with us, not just in some things, but in all things and his power is such that it bring life out of death, hope out of despair. Even something as terrifying as the cross can be transformed into a reality that saves and redeems.

Christians have for centuries read and interpreted the Book of Lamentations as not only an expression of the pain and grief of the Israelites, but of the pain and grief of God in Christ as he suffers and dies on the cross. God in Christ experiences on the cross what we experience in our own suffering and death, including that terrifying feeling of being abandoned and alone.

God in Christ allows himself this experience, he descends into our darkness, so that when we face the harsh facts of human existence we can cling in faith to the revelation that no matter how things might feel, the truth of what is happening is much more profound than feelings- God in Christ has gone into darkness of suffering and death before us and his divine presence accompanies us still. His presence signals to us that suffering can be redemptive and death is not our ultimate end. Earthly grief gives way to heavenly joy. All this is what constitutes the strange, unique Christian act of faith- an act of faith that does not originate in our ideas or feelings or opinions or causes, but in the revelation of the cross of Jesus Christ.

Christ the Lord manifests his divine power in his Gospel, delivering the servant of a centurion (a Roman military commander) from suffering and death. Remember, the Romans were the enemies of the Israelites, a foreign power that occupied their lands and imposed their will with ferocious cruelty. And yet, this enemy of the Israelites proves himself capable of an act of faith in the Lord Jesus.

Christ rejoices in this act of faith, testifying that it represents the fulfillment of God’s will- God desires that all people enter into communion, into friendship with his divine life and presence. Even the enemies of the Israelites are invited to become the friends of God!

The centurion’s act of faith in Jesus Christ opens him up to an experience of reconciliation that blossoms into healing and hope. This can happen for us in a particular way in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, which is not a negative experience of condemnation, but offers to us what the centurion received from the Lord. Many of us, like the centurion, live in estrangement from God and many of us, like the centurion’s servant, perhaps not physically ill, but so many of us are soul sick, paralyzed in fear and regret, we languish, hoping for God to set things right.

God in Christ can and will set things right, but we must let him. Letting him help us happens when we can make an act of faith in Christ- an act of faith that trusts that he need only say the word and we will be healed.

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