Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time (January 29th, 2017)

 

The first of the Church’s scriptures for today is an excerpt from the book of the

Old Testament prophet, Zephaniah. Zephaniah spoke the Lord’s word of truth in

the years preceding a horrific catastrophe- the destruction of the Kingdom

established by David by the armies of Babylon. This catastrophe is foreseen by

Zephaniah, but he discerns more than destruction- God will act, the prophet

testifies, God will act to effect the restoration of his people. But this restoration

will not produce an Israel like before, worldly, pre-occupied with wealth, pleasure,

power and honors, but an Israel that will manifest to the world their relationship

with God through humility and lowliness. The mighty kingdom of David will pass

away, but the remnant, what appears to the world to be nothing and nobodies,

will be precisely the means through which God reveals himself to the world.

 

In other words, Zephaniah understood the catastrophe that the Israelites would

face, the loss of everything the world considered to be important, to be not just a

loss, but an opportunity. Stripped of worldliness, Israel might become what God

had intended his people to be- true representatives to the world of the one, living

and true God. Bereft of the distractions of wealth, pleasure, power and honor,

the Israelites might better appreciate and understand what it truly mean to be

God’s chosen people.

 

The lesson in all this for us is properly understood by correlating or connecting

what the prophet Zephaniah says to the Israelites and to the Church. The

prophet’s words are for us- for the Church (and by Church I do not mean just the

hierarchy, but all the baptized). How are we enamored by worldliness? How

much of our time and efforts is spent in pursuit of wealth, pleasure, power and

honors? And what does our attainment of worldly things contribute to our

mission as representatives of God in the world? The prophet insists that the

chosen people of God will make him known in humility and lowliness- what would

the prophet make of us? What does God make of us?

 

The Church’s second scripture is from the New Testament letter of St. Paul to the

Corinthians. In this text, the Apostle Paul speaks of a reality that appears to the

worldly to be foolish and weak, a nothing and a nobody, contemptible and

despised. What is this reality of held in such contempt by the worldly?

 

It is Christ and those who belong to him- Christ and his Church.

 

However, what appears to so worthy of the world’s contempt, is in actual fact,

God and his chosen people. In other words, the worldly have got everything

wrong- what the worldly think is power is actually their own weakness, and what

the world thinks is glory, is actually their own foolish pride. What the worldly

think matters most, doesn’t actually matter all that much at all.

 

In Christ, God reveals himself to the world in a way that confounds and confuses

all the expectations of who God is and what he is supposed to do. In Christ, God

makes himself small, in fact, he makes himself seem like a nothing or a nobody,

going so far to allow himself to be maligned, tortured and executed, all so that he

can reveal his power over death, and in doing so, show the worldly just how

empty their own claims to power really and truly are.

 

As it is with Christ, so it is with his Church. Real power, divine power in the

Church is not revealed by those who manage her wealth, preside over her

bureaucracies, or who receive the most in terms of public attention. Real power,

divine power, in the Church is foremost revealed in her Sacraments and in her

Saints- for in her Sacraments and Saints, the Church is most like Christ. The world,

indeed many in the Church, think little of either the Sacraments or the Saints,

preferring the Church’s wealth and power as their preoccupation, but true power

resides in the Sacraments and the Saints. The worldly cannot see and appreciate

this, but to those who are faithful to Christ- they see things rightly and they

appreciate and they understand.

 

Finally, the Church presents to us a select passage from the Gospel of Matthew-

and it is one of the most cherished and renowned passages in the Gospel!

 

The Gospel for today are the Lord Jesus’ own words concerning beatitude or

blessedness. In other words, how does one discern God’s favor?

 

Whom does God single out for his particular attention? Who are the ones that

God chooses to be the means through which he reveals his will and his purposes?

 

The answer to this is revealed to us by God in Christ in today’s Gospel.

 

The worldly insist that divine favor is manifested in worldly attainments- in

wealth, in pleasure, in power and in honors. The worldly prize success in terms of

worldly attainments- who is the richest, who is the most powerful, who is it that is

recognized and rewarded, who is it that lives in comfort and security? The

worldly consider such success as blessedness, as beatitude. These things

represent God’s favor and having these things is the measure, the evidence of

blessedness or beatitude.

 

But God in Christ reveals something else entirely. God in Christ identifies himself

with those who often have little of what the worldly deem to be valuable and

important. In his beatitudes, in his revelation of who is truly blessed by God and

why, Christ overturns our expectations of who has divine favor and what it really

means to be in an authentic and true relationship with God.

Sermon on the Mount
Copenhagen Church Alter Painting

Second Sunday in Ordinary Time (January 17th, 2016)

 

Today’s Gospel is an excerpt from the Gospel of John, one of the most beautiful of all the biblical texts, indeed of all the literary texts of the world.

The Gospel of John presents testimony to the Lord Jesus- testimony to Christ’s identity and mission.

The testimony of the Gospel of John presents 7 great signs, each of which reveals something extraordinary about the Lord Jesus. The first of these seven signs is presented in the Gospel text you heard today- the transformation of water into wine that takes place at a wedding feast in the town of Cana.

The wedding feast is about to become a total disaster, when it happens that the hosts of the wedding banquet run out of wine. Saving the whole event from being remembered as the worst wedding ever, the Mother of the Lord Jesus intervenes and requests that her Son rectify the situation, which he does in a display of divine power- he transforms water into wine, and not just any wine, but the best wine.

What does this mean?

On a literal level, the testimony to this extraordinary event directs our attention to the truth that the Lord Jesus is speaking and acting in the person of God. Christ does things that only God can do- he effects the material world in ways that are absolutely extraordinary, in this particular case, transforming water into wine.

Testimony to the divinity of the Lord Jesus is what the Gospel of John, indeed all four of the canonical Gospels are all about. The revelation of the Gospels is not “here is an interesting teaching about ethics or a new theory about religion”. Nor do the Gospels present a self-help manual. Instead they provide the testimony of eyewitnesses to the extraordinary person, whom people came to believe, is God, who had in Christ, accepted a human nature and lived a real, human life.

While the literal meaning of this Gospel directs our attention towards the revelation of the Lord Jesus as God, it should not be reduced to this meaning alone.

The merely literal is always an incomplete explanation for the meaning the Scriptures. The literal is always intended to disclose a deeper meaning, a more significant truth than what appears to be obvious.

In the case of this Gospel, the deeper meaning is revealed when we consider whose wedding it is that took place in Cana- who was the bridegroom and who was the bride?

The answer is that whosever wedding it was, it was gesturing towards a wedding celebration that was heavenly, rather than earthly.

The bridegroom is God and the bride is his people Israel.

The understanding of the relationship of God and Israel as being like a marriage is referenced throughout the Old Testament. God’s relationship with his people is most like the relationship of husband and wife (and a very passionate and stormy relationship at that!).

Christ is acting to save a wedding celebration from disaster is signaling that God is acting in Christ to save his own wedding, indeed his marriage with his people from disaster.

I know this sounds deeply mysterious, but if you are impatient with mystery, you will never understand the testimony of the Gospels. The Gospels present the uncanny, the strange and the confounding, for this is how God’s revelation usually appears in our world. God is not just a bigger and better version of ourselves, but God is other than what we are and that is why his revelation is always mysterious.

 

Christ is the most mysterious of God’s revelations, and the most important, because he reveals God in a way that should be impossible, but nevertheless, God makes possible. God shouldn’t be able to accept a human nature and live a real, human life, but this is precisely what God does in Christ.

Through his human nature God makes himself accessible to us, but he in doing so he doesn’t make himself easy to understand, but all the more mysterious. Thus, while the Lord Jesus will always be receptive to us, and we can come to love him as one love’s a friend, there will always be a reality of our experience of the Lord Jesus that will be strange, off-putting, even at times frightening.

Christ the Lord is holy mystery through and through.

The relationship of God and his people, Israel, comes to its fulfillment in the relationship of Christ and his Church.

The relationship of Christ and his Church is best understood in this way as deeply personal as the relationship of bridegroom and bride, and husband and wife.

Christ is a living, divine person. He relates to his Church in the manner that a husband relates to his wife. He is not merely an idea or a feeling. Being in a relationship with Jesus Christ in the Church is not the same thing as belonging to a club that might honor him as a significant historical figure, someone who is dead, and who endures only in our memories.

Instead, Christ is alive (he is the living and true God) and being in a relationship with him is best understood as being in relationship with a person.

Today’s Gospel is in its own mysterious ways, gesturing towards all of this- how to best understand the Christ’s relationship with his Church. And the best way to do this is to understand the relationship of Christ and his Church who as a bridegroom and a bride, a husband and a wife. And Christ the Bridegroom will act in extraordinary ways to save his relationship with his Church from disaster.

We experience Christ’s intervention in our own lives in the Mass, where Christ effects a transformation that is far more mysterious and wonderful than his transformation of water into wine.

At the high point of the Mass, Christ effects a transformation- the bread and wine we present to him, he transforms into his Body and his Blood. This is what our Holy Communion really and truly is- we receive what Christ has transformed, bread and wine into his divine life and his divine presence.

Once this happens, he invites us to take his Body and his Blood, his divine life and divine presence into ourselves, consuming what he has transformed as food and drink.

When we do this, when we eat his Body and drink his Blood, we are opening ourselves up to be transformed by what we have received. The purpose of our Holy Communion is meant to make us ever more like what we receive.

Becoming ever more like Christ is what Holy Communion is all about. We receive him so as to become like him. What he is, we hope to be.

Thus, receiving Holy Communion is always a bold and risky decision. What we are offered in the Blessed Sacrament is not just a symbol of Christ, but the means by which we become like Christ. Anyone who receives the Blessed Sacrament faces a test of their sincerity- if you receive this, you are professing before Christ and the Church, that you want to be like him, that you want Jesus Christ to make you like him.

You are saying that you want Jesus Christ to change you, to transform you and re-make you, not more and more like yourself, but more and more like him.

The test of your sincerity is to ask yourself is becoming like Jesus Christ really what you want? Do you want to be like him? And further, if you are willing to receive him, while having no intention of letting him change you, then what you are doing amounts to what is called perjury.

You are telling a lie- to Christ.

Christ transformed water into wine, and through his Blessed Sacrament, he wants to transform you so you can be like him.

You see Christians, if we just remain like ourselves, resisting transformation in Christ, resisting becoming like him, we become like water that was supposed to be transformed into wine.

And in our resistance to being changed, being transformed, experiencing what the Gospel calls conversion, then we risk ruining the wedding feast of the Bridegroom and his Bride, the wedding feast of Christ and his Church.

But if we let him change us, transform us, what a wedding celebration we will have!

TV_Eucharist

Thirty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time (November 8th, 2015)

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

The First and Second Books of Kings detail the rise and fall of the Israelite Monarchy and reads at times like chapters that should be included in George R Martin’s “Game of Thrones”. The human pre-occupation with power (and its disastrous consequences) and the folly elevating politics to a quasi-divine status are both on full display. Eventually the weight of corruption brings the Kingdom of David crashing down, a fall from grace that was devastating in its impact.

The excerpt from the Book of Kings we heard today is about the prophet Elijah, who was one of the greatest and most fearsome of the Israelite prophets. Elijah was not just a speaker of God’s truths, truths he often expressed in threats and warnings, but he was also a wonderworker, whose power was manifested in both blessings and curses. Elijah was a force to be reckoned with and a corrupt king and his queen stood right in his path. The king was Ahaz and the queen was Jezebel, and both provoked the wrath of Elijah and would suffer terrifying consequences.

The lesson of the story of Elijah is simply and direct: Don’t mess with the prophets of the Lord.

Today’s story of Elijah presents the prophet seeking refuge with an impoverished widow and her son who are suffering because of a devastating famine. The two are at the limit of their food reserves and are literally preparing their last meal. Elijah begs the woman for some food and the woman, believing in the prophet’s assurances that the Lord would provide for their needs, surrenders the last of her food reserves to the prophet. As a result of this gift, Elijah works a miracle, multiplying the woman’s reserves of food so that what was a last meal, becomes enough food to feed the woman, her son, and Elijah for a year.

There are many directions that one can go in an interpretation of this story. One is that it is a moral exhortation, a story with a lesson, and in this case, a story about the benefit of treating the prophets of the Lord with deference and respect. Being kind to the prophets brings with it the promise of a reward.

Limiting the interpretation of this scripture to “be kind to the prophets” is not enough, for this story, like all the stories of the Old Testament, only really and truly yields up its meaning in relation to the revelation of Christ- of whom the prophet Elijah foreshadows, meaning, that in a mysterious way, Elijah is a kind of “stand in” for Christ in the story and when we accept this, the meaning of the story becomes very interesting.

Elijah is a stand in for Christ, whom we encounter in a world that is in the midst of a spiritual famine, a world that is starving for God, and without the necessary means to feed that hunger. Our own efforts to feed our souls are paltry and limited, as represented by the woman’s desperate food reserves. We haven’t the means to feed our starving souls and what we have leads us only to death. Into this situation comes Christ, who with a power greater than that of Elijah, transforms what we offer to him into something must greater- bread becomes his Body and wine becomes his Blood and with both Christ the Lord feeds our starving souls with the food of everlasting life.

This story of Elijah and the widow is a story that foreshadows the story of Christ and his Church, a story that we ourselves participate in each time our hungry souls gather for the Mass- for Holy Communion.

You see, we do not simply receive bread and wine at Mass, but the bread and wine that we offer is transformed by Christ into a reality much greater that anything ordinary and natural. What is offered as bread and wine is transformed by Christ into his Body and Blood so that what we receive in Holy Communion is life, and not just any life, but Christ’s own divine life.

The story of Elijah and the widow is meant to call to our minds the deepest meaning and most important purpose of the Mass, which is that Christ feeds our starving souls with his divine life and in doing so, saves and redeems us (just as Elijah saved the widow and her son from the famine and redeemed them from death, so also does Christ do this for us through Holy Communion).

The meaning and purpose of the Mass is also impressed upon our minds in today’s excerpt from the New Testament Letter to the Hebrews.

We have been listening to select passages from the Letter to the Hebrews for the past few Sundays. The Letter to the Hebrews is a lengthy essay about the identity and mission of the Lord Jesus- who he is and what he does, and it utilizes imagery from the temple worship of the Israelites to advance its presentation of who the Lord Jesus is and what his mission is all about.

Today’s excerpt from the Letter to the Hebrews references a sanctuary, that is a temple, that the Lord Jesus enters into as High Priest and from which he emerges with a gift for all humanity- this gift has the power to save us from sin and death.

All of this is mystical language, symbolic language, which explains how Christ the Lord acts during the Mass as our High Priest. You see, the worship of the Church is not merely some form of faith-based entertainment- it is not just stories and songs and sermons, but the Mass is something much more wonderful- the Mass is the privileged moment when Christ gives to us a gift that can save us from the power of sin and death, and this gift is his own life, his sacrifice, and this gift is given to us in the Blessed Sacrament.

It is during the Mass that Christ, the great High Priest, emerges from the sanctuary of heaven, and gives to his people his sacrifice- his divine life. This is what the Mass is for. This is what the Mass is about. The Mass, when reduced merely to entertainment, to songs, stories and sermons, quickly becomes boring.

Yet, when the Mass is allowed to do more for us than entertain us, the experience can become far more interesting. In this regard our expectations must change from the desire to be entertained (which may or may not happen) to the desire for Holy Communion with God in Christ.

The Bible has much to say about worship, especially the worship God wants. The kind of worship God wants, he reveals in Christ and Christ reveals this worship to us every time the Mass is offered. The Mass is the worship God in Christ wants. At times the faithful may be tempted to construct a worship that they feel would be pleasing to God, or worse, construct a worship that pleases our selves. This temptation is often times manifested in elevating an element of worship, like songs or sermons, which we “like” to a status they shouldn’t have. Elements of worship like songs and sermons are important, but they can only serve God, and be what he wants them to be, when they lead us to the Eucharist. When you leave Mass your take away should never just be “that was great music” or “that preaching was excellent” but instead “God in Christ give his life to me”.

Giving into the temptation of making worship into something God doesn’t want is very dangerous, for it ultimately deprives us of the very gift that God in Christ wants to give to us- his sacrifice- the gift of Holy Communion with his own divine life.

In his Gospel Christ identifies a gift that has little or no worldly value as being more significant and pleasing to God than gifts that the world would consider to be far more impressive. A poor widow’s nearly valueless pennies are esteemed by Christ as being of greater value than gifts of great extravagance and cost. What gives?

Christ is highlighting the sacrifice inherent in the contrasting gifts- the impoverished widow gives everything, while others give only something. The impoverished widow’s sacrifice is made in humility while others who give only something give not out of love, as the widow did, but out of an ulterior motive- the motive of making themselves appear important.

The great St. Therese of Lisieux once said that “love does not calculate” and there is great wisdom in this insight.

The widow Christ observes did not calculate the cost of her gift to herself- she made her sacrifice. So it is also with Christ. He does not calculate the cost of the sacrifice he makes for us, he makes his sacrifice, and for the sake of his love for us, his sacrifice is his own life.

The lesson of Christ’s Gospel is severe, especially for all of us who are willing to give only in the measure that what we offer is recognized or whether the sacrifice we make is ultimately for our own benefit.

Christ asks that we love without calculation and that we offer to him a sacrifice that is not just something, but everything…

(c) Glasgow Museums; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

(c) Glasgow Museums; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

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

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

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

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

All hope seemed lost.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crucifixion_1631

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In this mission, God blessed them abundantly.

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

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

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

And what is the Sacrament of Marriage about?

It is about sacrifice.

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Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (August 9th, 2015)

Today’s first scripture is an excerpt from the First Book of Kings. It describes how the great prophet Elijah was driven nearly to despair and begs the Lord to end his life. He falls asleep and is awakened by an angel, who offers him food and drink, and once nourished by this heavenly gift, he overcomes his despair, is renewed in strength, and continues his mission.

The prophet Elijah, perhaps second only to Moses in terms of his power and significance, was sent to proclaim the Lord’s word of truth during a perilous time.

The mighty Kingdom of David had been fractured by civil war, with two kings and two kingdoms now competing for the allegiance of the Israelites. Elijah is sent to the Israelite kingdom of the north ruled by King Ahab and his pagan queen, Jezebel. King Ahab, hoping to solidify his power and increase his wealth, sought to ingratiate himself with the pagan kingdoms that surrounded his territory. To do this, he introduced the worship of false gods and promoted their cults to the Israelites. Idolatry is recalled in the Old Testament as the greatest of evils, an evil that is at the root of so much of the cruelty and injustice that we inflict on one another. As such, the one, true God sends Elijah to warn the king that terrifying consequences await the worshippers of false gods.

Ahab and his queen were angry beyond description with Elijah, whom they believed, quite rightly, was questioning the legitimacy of their right to rule the Israelites and sowing the seeds of rebellion.

They acted with all the force they could muster to drive Elijah into the wilderness, hoping that exposure to the elements would do him in and rid them of an insolent prophet. If not for the intervention of the Lord, Ahab and his queen just might have succeeded.

The Church presents the story of Elijah in the wilderness as a kind of allegory for our own spiritual lives. We might never face the trials and tribulations of an Israelite prophet or have to face down wicked kings or queens, but all of us have a mission and all of us will face a struggle of some sort and be tempted to despair as a result of the demands our mission will place on us. What then will the Lord offer to us? How will he intervene?

Today’s scripture foresees that the Lord’s intervention will be somewhat like what he offers to Elijah.

The angel who brings heavenly nourishment to Elijah, food and drink to sustain him for his mission, is meant to be understood as a reference to the Blessed Sacrament- to the Eucharist.

In the midst of the difficulties of life with its temptations to despair, Christ sends to his faithful the gift of the Blessed Sacrament, making his own divine life food and drink to sustain us for the mission he asks us to accomplish.

This is important to remember. The purpose for which we gather together is not to be elated emotionally by entertaining talent or eloquent speeches, but to partake of heavenly food and drink, given to us, not simply by an angel, but by Christ himself.

In our second scripture for today, an excerpt from St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, the apostle warns us not to grieve the Holy Spirit of God by engaging in behaviors that would tear apart the unity of the Church and paralyze the Church’s missionary endeavors.

The apostle begs of us an examination of our own consciences in regards to how we are treating one another, and whether or not our actions are building up the Church or tearing it down.

Saint Paul highlights bitterness, anger, malice, and shouting as symptomatic of severe sickness of soul, qualities that are contrary to the Gospel and make us more like an anti-Christ and less like Christ.

There have been in the recent past ideologically driven movements in the Church that have sought to drive momentum for their agendas by inciting anger, inventing grievances and leveraging disappointment. These movements have left many communities of Christians in utter ruin and have so compromised the mission of the Church that in some areas, it seems the Church is in total retreat.

All this grieves the Holy Spirit and restoration of the Church is only possible when people repent of their anger, abandon ideology, and live with the same attitude towards their neighbor that Christ has for us- that attitude is one of self-sacrificial love. Much more momentum is possible for the Church’s mission to be accomplished if our attitude towards one another is one of self-sacrificial love. Unfortunately too many Christians just don’t believe this or just don’t want to do it, and prefer to use anger and ideology to advance their causes.

This grieves the Holy Spirit.

We are moving deeper into the sixth chapter of the Gospel of John. Remember, this year, the Church places emphasis on the sixth chapter of the Gospel of John. Why?

The sixth chapter of the Gospel of John is about the Blessed Sacrament, about the Eucharist. In the sixth chapter of the Gospel of John, the Lord Jesus tells us in his own words what the Blessed Sacrament is and why he is giving the Eucharist to us.

What he tells us about the Blessed Sacrament is truly extraordinary.

The Blessed Sacrament is the Lord Jesus himself- it is his own life, his own divine presence, given to us as food and as drink. What is revealed to us in the Eucharistic mystery is not merely a symbol of Christ or an expression of the values of the community, but the revelation of the Eucharist is the Lord Jesus himself.

Christ gives himself to us in the extraordinary way so that we can be sustained for the mission he gives us in this world, but today’s Gospel gives us another reason that Christ gives us the Eucharist- to prepare us for heaven.

This world and this life is not all that there is for us. Christ reveals this truth to us definitively in his resurrection from the dead. Life in the here and now is a passage to a different kind of life and the mission Christ gives us now is preparing us for a mission in a world that is yet to come.

The qualities that will be necessary for us to fulfill our purpose in heaven are those qualities that make us most Christ-like. Christ gives us the Blessed Sacrament so that by receiving his own divine life, we can become more and more like him.

This is the purpose for which Christ gives us the Blessed Sacrament, so that receiving his life we can become more like him.

Some folks don’t appreciate this truth or reject it entirely. A lack of appreciation for Christ’s purpose for giving us the Blessed Sacrament reduces the Eucharist to merely a symbol, an artifact of culture or an expression of ethnic identity. None of this compels one to become more like Christ.

Others recoil in horror at being anything other than what they want to be. Being like Christ is a detriment to a project of self-fulfillment and self-realization. As such, they insist that the Eucharist is only important inasmuch as it might advance their own causes or agendas, or satisfy emotional needs. If the Blessed Sacrament doesn’t deliver my best life now in terms of personal and emotional fulfillment, then the attitude is that Christ can keep his gift to himself.

Refusals of Christ’s gifts, or worse, accepting his gifts and using them for purposes that are contrary to Christ’s will, are not without consequences, and this is, bottom line, what Christ is insisting that we understand today in his Gospel.

Christ gives us his divine life in the Blessed Sacrament so that we can become more and more like him. Is this what we want from the Eucharist? Is this what we have prepared ourselves to receive?

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Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (July 26th, 2015)

With this Sunday, the Church begins a presentation of the sixth chapter of the Gospel of John. (Excerpts from the sixth chapter of the Gospel of John will be the Church’s Gospel reading for the next few weeks.)

The Gospel of John is in its elegant literary style, perhaps the most beautiful of the four Gospels. It begins with what might be described as a hymn of praise to God in Christ, who revealed himself to the world by accepting for himself a human nature and living a real, human life.

God is not presented in the Gospel of John as merely an idea or feeling, but as a living, divine person who offers his creatures (that’s us) the extraordinary possibility of sharing a relationship with him. This relationship imparts great gifts to those who accept it- foremost being the forgiveness of our sins and friendship with God.

John writes from the perspective of one who knew the Lord Jesus intimately, personally. His Gospel is not presenting a theory about the Lord Jesus, the kind of which historians create, but testimony to how the Lord Jesus revealed himself as God- a revelation that John himself encountered in real flesh and blood. The Gospel of John is not about how a man named John knew a figure of historical importance, but how he met and became friends with Jesus Christ who is really and truly God. Jesus Christ is not for John a symbol of God or a new kind of prophet, but he is God himself, who surprised everyone by revealing himself in the world as a flesh and blood man.

John insists that this privileged encounter with God in Christ is not the stuff of legends or myths, but of actual fact and real life circumstances. Thus he describes how not only his own, but how other people’s encounters with God in Christ transformed their lives forever.

John presents the revelation of God in Christ in the context of seven great events or signs. In each of these events, God in Christ speaks and acts in the person of God and what he says and does upsets the status quo, throwing people off, initiating total conversion in some and inciting great anger and opposition in others. In each case, the Lord Jesus compels people to make a decision about him, and if that decision is accepting him for whom he reveals himself to be, then that person’s life is transformed.

Whatever our decision might be, for or against, the encounter with God in Christ changes people’s lives forever.

The sixth chapter of the Gospel of John is about a great miracle through which God in Christ manifests his divine identity. This miracle is feeding a vast multitude of people with a small quantity of food.

Now I know, some preachers try to sell this idea that the great miracle is that people were provoked by the Lord Jesus to be generous, and there was no real multiplication of the food. This is not only a bad, corrupted interpretation, it is not what the testimony from the Gospel of John is about.

Sharing what we have with others, especially with those in need is a good thing for us to do, but the testimony in the Gospel of John you heard this morning is not first and foremost about us, it is about the Lord Jesus, and in this particular case it is testimony to a miracle that John believed indicated to him that the Lord Jesus was God. Precedents for this kind of miracle existed in the story of Israel’s great prophets, and one was referenced today, a story about the prophet Elisha from the second book of Kings, but as the sixth chapter of the Gospel of John progresses, it becomes clear that what the Lord Jesus has done in this miracle was about much more than showing himself to be a wonderworking prophet. Jesus Christ is acting and speaking in today’s Gospel in the very person of God!

I can’t stress to you enough that this revelation, the revelation of Jesus Christ as God, is what the Gospels, indeed, what the Church is all about.

Testimony to the revelation of Jesus Christ as God is extraordinary, indeed upsetting for many, especially now as God is viewed as little more than an idea or feeling, rather than a living divine person with whom we can relate to.

Ideas and feelings are our own, we make them and give them whatever significance that we prefer. Persons are different, as in every person we meet, there is always a potential demand placed on us, a decision- if this is the case with the human persons that we encounter, how much more so for Jesus who is a divine person, who is God.

It is because of the demand and decision that Christ places upon us that it seems easier for some folks to make him less that who he claims to be. It is for this reason that some folks take a Gospel, like the one we heard today, and want to make of it a nice, pleasant story about sharing, rather than a weird and wonderful miracle. Nice, pleasant stories are emotionally satisfying and let’s face it, place little if any pressure on us to do anything. Miracles are emotionally upsetting, and if accepted for what they imply, the pressure to change one’s life in response is immense indeed!

Jesus Christ is not just a maker of stories. Jesus Christ is a maker of miracles.

There is one more thing about today’s Gospel that is important to know about. John is up to something in the sixth chapter of his Gospel and if you miss this detail you miss the point of what he saying not only about the Lord Jesus, but also about his Church and how we come to have a relationship with God in Christ in his Church.

John presents this miracle story knowing that stories about the miracles of the prophets anticipated and foreshadowed the Lord Jesus. When the prophets worked wonders, they were signaling to the people what God would one day reveal in Christ.

John wants us to understand that what Christ does in this miracle anticipates and foreshadows a wonder that he will work in the Church- he will feed his people, with something greater than that of the multiplication of food. God in Christ will feed his people with his own divine life and this will happen in the Eucharist, in the Blessed Sacrament.

The miracle story you heard this morning is really a kind of introduction to a greater revelation that God in Christ will reveal in the Eucharist.

The remainder of the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel will provide startling insights from the Lord Jesus himself regarding the Eucharist, and like the miracle of today’s Gospel, what Christ the Lord has to say about the Eucharist will place a demand on us and compel us to a decision.

Demand and decision.

These two categories are likely not ways that many Catholics nowadays are accustomed to think relate to the Eucharist.

The Eucharist has become for many Catholics a nice gesture, a pleasant custom, a way of feeling good about oneself, that the Eucharist places a demand on us to change our lives and compels a decision for or against Jesus Christ is likely not what many might think when they come forward to receive the Body and Blood of Christ.

But more than anything else, this is precisely what the Eucharist is doing and compels us to do.

Why?

Because the Eucharist is not just an idea about God or a feeling about Jesus, instead, the Eucharist is an encounter with the divine life and presence of God in Christ.

And as the Gospel of John, makes it clear, the encounter with God in Christ will always and is supposed to change your life.

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