Second Sunday of Advent (December 10th, 2017)

The Church’s first scripture for today is an excerpt from the Old Testament Book of the prophet Isaiah. The Book of the prophet Isaiah is one of the longest books in the Bible and likely sounds cryptic, even unintelligible to our ears. The prophet speak of events, circumstances and people that have long since faded from the memory of nearly everyone except scholars and historians. As such most preachers will try to derive some abstraction from the text if they speak about it at all.

This can be helpful as far as it goes, but it just doesn’t go far enough. The Bible is not a book of abstractions but a book about how God acts in the real world, in real lives, in real events and circumstances. The God of the Bible (your God!) is not a cosmic force, feeling in your heart or idea in your mind. The God of the Bible is a living, active, divine person who seeks a relationship with his creation and in particular a relationship with us. This relationship happens, not just in a far away heaven, but in the here and now of this world.

And so, what is this first scripture about?

Basically, the prophet Isaiah is reassuring the Israelites in the face of one of the most cataclysmic events in their history. Around 720 BC the armies of Assyria invaded the territories of the Israelites, cutting the nation in two and driving 10 of the 12 tribes of the Israelites out of their ancestral homeland. These 10 tribes would be lost forever. In 702 BC the armies of Assyria were at the gates of the city of Jerusalem where the remaining Israelites had taken refuge. The Israelites were facing sure and certain destruction.

The prophet speaks words of courage and consolation to the Israelites, insisting that God would come to fight on behalf of his people. God would come to set a world gone wrong right. Isaiah presents God as a mighty warrior who hearing the distress of the Israelites, will come into the world with the full force of his power and deal with the enemies of Israel.

Oddly enough, the armies of Assyria would withdraw, forced into retreat by a plague that breaks out and takes the lives of many in the Assyrian army. Isaiah understood this plague to be God’s intervention.

What does this have to do with us?

This prophecy from Isaiah highlights one of the great expectations of Israel- that God would intervene in the midst of their real life struggles and set a world gone wrong right. The Israelites, who were so often besieged and beleaguered by other nations, hoped that God would come into the world as a warrior and fight on their behalf, defeating their enemies.

It is our faith as Christians that this is precisely what God does in Christ. God comes into this world in Christ ready for a fight, prepared for a showdown with all the dark powers that have opposed God from the beginning- the dark powers of sin, death and the devil (and all who serve them). Thus, this prophecy from Isaiah is proclaimed during Advent so that we Christians can remember just who Christ the Lord is- he is God the Warrior, who comes into this world to set wrongs right and wage war against the powers of sin, death and the devil.

This is why in a world in which so much is wrong, we Christians continue to heed to the words of the prophet Isaiah- and seek comfort and consolation in God who in Jesus Christ, fights on our side against the dark powers and comes into this world to set things right.

Christ coming into the world is the concern of our second scripture, an excerpt from the New Testament Letter of Peter.

In this letter, the apostle Peter warns us not to become too preoccupied and enamored of this world and the things in it. We are only here a short while and the things of world, being finite, will one day all pass away.

The apostle then evokes a dramatic and terrifying day when God in Christ will come in the fullness of his power and bring his creation to an end. But that end will itself be a new beginning, the occasion for a new creation.

This frightening text from the apostle Peter is meant to highlight for us one of the great truths, the great revelations of Christian faith- that God in Christ has come into this world, but this is not his last and final revelation. God in Christ will come again, and he will come, not as he did as the tiny baby of Bethlehem, but with the full force of his divine power, a power that made creation and can also unmake creation.

This would terrify us into complete paralysis if not for the truth Christ reveals that when he comes again in the full force of his power, and not as a baby, he still comes as he did the first time- as our Redeemer and our Savior. His final battle is not so much with us, but with the dark powers that continue to afflict us. We need only turn to him in the midst of this conflict and he will fight on our behalf and rescue us from the power of sin and death and the devil that rage against us. God in Christ loves his people so much that he will upend creation itself if that is what it takes to defeat the dark powers and to save us.

That’s the lesson from Letter of Peter.

Finally, in Christ’s Gospel, we hear the voice crying in the wilderness, the voice of the wild man himself- John the Baptist.

John the Baptist was a priest who had gone rogue. Distressed and disgusted by the ruling elites of his time, in particular, the dynasty of King Herod, who had presented himself as Israel’s long awaited messiah and the true successor to King David, John had left his service in the Jerusalem Temple and retreated to the wilderness, where he called the Israelites away from the Temple (which had been rebuilt and financed by King Herod as a sign to the Israelites that he was their one, true king) and insisted they repent- because John believed that God’s coming into the world was imminent and when he came, he would deal with the ruling elites of the Israelites and set what was wrong right.

And on that day the Lord arrived, you didn’t want to be between those elites and God- you wanted to be standing with God.

And so, John’s message is get away from Jerusalem, get away from the Temple, get away from the Herodians and the ruling elites, because when God gets here, he is going to deal with all that and you don’t want to be in his way.

It is John the Baptist who sees correctly that Christ the Lord is God who is come into the world to set things right. And in his own way, Christ the Lord will deal with Jerusalem, the Temple, the Herodians and the elites, but he does so in a way John did not expect. He wages his war against the powers that prop up all the world’s corruption- the dark powers of sin, death and the devil.

Sin, death and the devil are real, and God comes into the world in Christ to deal with them.

He comes into our lives to deal with them as well, for these dark powers do not just afflict the world, they afflict us, personally and individually. We cannot of our own power or will defeat them, and that is why Christ comes to us repeatedly, personally and individually, through the Sacraments of the Church to defend us and to defeat the dark powers that subvert us.

And there is the lesson of today’s Gospel. Get ready. Christ the Warrior comes. Get out of his way. He has sin, death and the devil in his sights. And he has come for a fight. On our part, we have to make a decision, when the fight against the dark powers comes close- whose side will we be on?

saint-john-the-baptist-in-the-wilderness-bartolome-esteban-murillo

Advertisements

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

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

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

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

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

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

But I digress…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marten_van_Valckenborch_-_Parable_of_the_wicked_husbandmen_(October)

 

 

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is the meaning of today’s first scripture.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The lesson?

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

 

faith-to-move-mountains-canaanite-woman-icon

 

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!

St_Peter's_Square,_Vatican_City_-_April_2007.jpg

Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time (February 7th, 2016)

Our first scripture is an excerpt from the Old Testament Book of the Prophet Isaiah. The Book of the Prophet Isaiah is one of the grandest and lengthiest texts in the Bible, providing insights regarding some of the most momentous events in the history of the Israelites. These events might seem to us to be irrelevant to our experiences, little more than historical details from long ago, but we are mistaken if we think this way.

The events the Prophet Isaiah presents to us and interprets for us are relevant to us as wisdom, for we too face similar moral decisions. But more than this, they help us to understand the world, the time and place, in which God would reveal himself in Christ, and through understanding that world, that time and place, we come to better understand Christ.

Today’s excerpt from the Prophet Isaiah mentions of the kings of the Israelites, a man by the name of Uzziah, who reigned as king for over fifty years. He was, in terms of the expectations of the world, a success. The Israelites were viewed as powerful and prosperous and the things that the world values, wealth, pleasure, power and honors were readily available to the Israelites.

Yet, despite all the power and prosperity, the soul of the nation was rotting from within. Wealth, pleasure, power and honors had been elevated to a quasi-divine status and the Israelites pursued these with fanatical zeal.

Uzziah would become so full of himself that he would commit sacrilege by usurping the priests in the temple and offering sacrifice in the temple in defiance of the Mosaic Law. The Bible testifies that after this sacrilege Uzziah sickened and eventually died.

Thus one of the greatest of the Israelite kings, as a result of his own grandiosity and pride, is remembered in the Bible as one who brought disgrace to the Israelites, a leader who in a time of moral and spiritual crisis, did nothing but think about how we could amass more power, and in doing this, created a scandal.

In the midst of this cultural crisis, the prophet Isaiah receives his calling as a prophet. It will be his mission to speak the Lord’s word of truth to the Israelites, insisting they abandon of the idolatry that values wealth, pleasure, power and honors above anything else, and accept conversion, a renewal of their relationship with God. This conversion and renewal would be expressed in actions. Conversion and renewal would happen when the Israelites practiced the commandments of God, rather than just paying lip service to them.

The mission of a prophet is not easy. Telling people what they don’t want to hear is not without peril. Yet Isaiah wants this mission- he burns with zeal to speak the Lord’s truth.

Isaiah’s desire should be a desire that the Church prays for. The Church has been created by Christ as the means by which the Lord’s word of truth will continue to be spoken to the world. Isaiah’s mission is our mission. It is not an easy mission. It means sure and certain opposition. But to be witnesses to God’s truth is the mission of the Church.

The idolatry of wealth, pleasure, power and honors is as pervasive in our own culture as it was in Israelite culture centuries ago. The temptation that ultimately destroyed Uzziah, to set oneself above the commandments of God is as strong an influence today as it ever has been. Into this culture the Church is sent with the mission of a prophet and to this culture the Church must bear witness to the Lord’s truth and boldly practice the commandments of God. Christ makes Isaiah’s mission the mission of his Church.

What is the Gospel?

If you were pressed to answer this question what would say? How would you respond?

Today’s second reading, an excerpt from St. Paul’s first Letter to the Corinthians gives you an answer- the Gospel is not a collection of manuscripts, but it is the astounding revelation of Jesus Christ risen from the dead.

Now this might surprise some who might think of the Gospel as being ethical demands or moral prescriptions. In this construal the Gospel means something akin to social service or some standard of propriety, like being polite and kind. But St. Paul, when pressed, does not mention any of this, emphasizing not what we should do, but what God in Christ has done.

What we do as disciples comes from what we believe that God has revealed in Christ. Being a disciple of the Lord Jesus is not a self-improvement project, where we fulfill our personal goals and invent for ourselves an outlook on life, all based on our desires. Instead, being a disciple of Jesus Christ is to live differently and in accord with Christ’s desires, and to do this because of who Christ reveals himself to be- he is God.

God in Christ reveals himself to the world, and the world, filled with worldly people like ourselves, oppose him. Why? Because he threatens our pride, our grandiosity that insists that our lives are merely a project of our own making and this world and everything and everyone in it exists for us to use as a means to satisfy our own desires. The worldly, like ourselves, threatened by Christ, wield the greatest weapon against him- the power to torture, to maim, to kill, and in doing so hope that our power over this world is protected.

But God in Christ demonstrates he is more powerful than the death we impose on him. And that is the Gospel preached by Saint Paul.

That is St. Paul’s answer to the question- what is the Gospel. The Gospel is Jesus Christ risen from the dead. Anything that we Christians do, our ethics, our morality, starts there. Anything we do as Christians can only rightly begin, and only makes sense, when considered from the vantage point of what God in Christ has done (for us).

It is only when we understand and appreciate what God in Christ has done that we can understand and appreciate what the Gospel is.

Our Gospel for today recounts an astounding miracle. Christ who proves himself to be the master of the winds and the seas, now also demonstrates that he is the Lord of what dwells beneath the surface of the waters. He provides the fishermen who would become his disciples with an extraordinary catch of fish. For these men, whose whole livelihood depended on their success catching fish, what Christ accomplishes with the little effort of only a word is evidence to them of his divine power.

But this miracle is about more than a manifestation of Christ’s power over creation, but it is an image of the Church- the Church represented by the boat, the fishermen representing the disciples of the Lord Jesus, who, to fulfill the command of Christ, seek to draw all people, represented by the catch of fish, into the Church.

Christ wants all people to come into his Church. He designates his disciples as the means by which this will happen. If disciples are following the command Christ then the number of people who will be drawn into the Church will be absolutely astounding- a real miracle and manifestation of Christ’s power.

But what if the efforts of disciples are not manifesting Christ’s power? What if the efforts of disciples are not drawing people into the Church?

Then what is required of us is the disposition manifested by Simon Peter in the story- humility before Christ, a willingness to admit our own insufficiency, a surrender to his will and to the mission that he gives his Church.

Often times, in our hubris, in our pride and grandiosity we become blocks, rather than bridges, set up walls rather than creating routes of access into the Church. Rather than cooperating with the mission Christ gives the Church, we reject his mission in favor of our own. The Church becomes a clubhouse or platform for our interests.

The Church ceases to be what Christ wants, and in becoming contrary to Christ, loses his power to attract.

Rather than trusting in the power of Christ we try to make the Church more palatable to our tastes. Rather than offering an alternative to world, an attempt is made to make the Church worldly. Rather than presenting Christ to the world as he is, an attempt is made to present Christ as we would prefer him to be.

All this results in ever diminishing returns. As the efforts of disciples become more self-directed, self-interested, and to use Pope Francis’ term self-referential, people don’t come into the Church. They drift further and further into the depths and disappear, moving ever more out of the reach of our efforts, ever more out of the reach of our nets.

Rather than attracting, we repel. Rather than gathering, we scatter.

Rather than a miraculous catch of abundance, our nets, which represent our efforts to draw people into the Church, remain empty.

Christ indicates to us that it is his intention that his Church grow. The Church is the privileged route of access to Jesus Christ- relationship with Christ, salvation in Christ, always happens by means of the Church.

Are our efforts bridges or blocks? Do we reveal Christ or obscure him?

Are we our nets full or empty?

V&A_-_Raphael,_The_Miraculous_Draught_of_Fishes_(1515)

Saturday of the First Week of Advent (December 5th, 2015)

Today’s scripture passage from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, hearkens to a time of catastrophe when it seemed to the Israelites that God had abandoned his people. The once mighty Kingdom of David was in utter decline and the Israelites were threatened from within by corrupting political, economic and cultural forces that served wealth, pleasure, power and honors and from without by aggressive foreign powers that wanted the lands of the Israelites to be absorbed into their empires.

Things were dark and were going to get even darker.

Isaiah the prophet offers words of reassurance, announcing that God had not abandoned his people and though for a time the Israelites would suffer, the day of their restoration would come and that God himself would come to their rescue.

The theme of desolation and restoration is prevalent throughout the scriptures proclaimed during the season of Advent. The fear that God has abandoned us, the afflictions of political, economic, and cultural turmoil are not merely experiences of the past, but endure even in the present. Dark powers continue to cast shadows and the cries for God to deliver us are as loud now as they were in the days of the prophet Isaiah.

In the midst of all the fear, affliction and darkness of the current moment, the Church bears into the world the consolation of Isaiah, reminding the world, that God has not only come, but he is here, in Christ and he comes to us to restore, to rescue and to heal.

Christ acts through the Church to do these things and in our fulfillment of this mission the vision of the Prophet Isaiah becomes more than just eloquent testimony, but living, real, and true.

In his Gospel, Christ the Lord summons the Twelve, his apostles, who will become the progenitors of the New Israel, which is the Church.

The Twelve Apostles act in the world as Christ acted (the Apostles do what Christ did), their mission is not self-directed, but it is given to them by Christ. They do not decide what their mission is to be, but they receive their mission from Christ.

So it is must be for all disciples. Our mission is not whatever it is we want it to be, but our mission is to do what Christ asks us to do. The Church is his Kingdom and he (Christ), not we, is the true and only King.

Santi9

Saturday of the First Week of Advent (December 6th, 2014)

The prophet Isaiah foresees that the God of Israel will allow himself to be seen by Israel, with their own eyes, and give his people the comfort of holy bread and living water, and through these revelations will impart healing and hope.

The Church understands this magnificent vision as an anticipation or foreshadowing of Christ. Christ is the God of Israel, who makes himself visible to his people by accepting a human nature. In Christ, Israel, indeed the world, meets God face to face. In Christ, the hidden, invisible God appears and makes himself visible.

As Pope emeritus Benedict so eloquently expressed “God became flesh and flesh became the habitation of God, whose glory shines in the human face of Christ”.

Christ is not a phantom or an idea, even less is he merely a feeling. Christ is not myth or a legend. In Christ, God enters the arena of history, of time and space. In Christ, God comes into our world- literally, in flesh and in blood- not as a symbol, but as a living, divine person.

The revelation of God in Christ is called the Incarnation, which literally means that God accepts human flesh as the means by which he reveals himself.

The holy bread God in Christ gives us is, as the Gospel of John attests “his flesh for the life of the world”. God makes of his Body and Blood food and drink and allows his divine life to nourish and sustain us. This holy bread is given to the Church in the great revelation of the Blessed Sacrament.

The living water, flows, as the Gospel of John attests, from the pierced side of Christ on the cross. Through these waters Christians must pass in Baptism and it is these living waters that carry us from life in this world and into a heavenly world that is yet to come.

The divine life of Jesus Christ comforts and heals an afflicted, anxious and sin-sick world. This is what it means for us to say that Jesus saves us, that he is the Savior of the world and that in Jesus the Savior that we have hope. Bereft of a Savior, hope becomes mere wishful thinking, without any reason to be believed.

We cannot save ourselves, not from sin, not from death, not from the devil, not even from ourselves, and in any attempt for us to do so, will inevitably end in our defeat. For this reason, and out of love for us, God in Christ enters into the human condition and saves us- even thought we are unworthy and so often unwilling to accept the salvation he gives to us.

The recollection or remembrance of what God has revealed in Jesus Christ is the purpose of Advent. The celebration of what God in Christ has revealed to us is the reason for the great solemnity of Christmas.

Much of the culture has forgotten this or just doesn’t care. We Christians are in the midst of this culture to remember and remind people about the revelation of Christ and to show people why they should care.

This mission is evident to us in today’s Gospel. If we are truly disciples of Christ, and not just spectators to the work of the Church, then accept that it is Christ’s will that we serve him by going out into the culture and introducing people to Christ and inviting them to share his divine life in his Church. Christ is not introduced to people through a kind of osmosis, but directly, through invitation, and that extending that invitation is what it means to be a missionary disciple.

The Church is off point in terms of this mission if the prevailing ethos of a parish or a diocese is that being a disciple of Christ is merely to be the passive recipient of faith based services. When this ethos takes over, the Holy Bread disappears and the Living Water dries up.

A church that makes itself unwilling or incapable of doing the mission Christ gives to us falters, fails, and passes away. We will either be Christ’s missionary disciples, or nothing at all.

painting1