Wednesday, August 29, 2012

A good reminder

A good reminder:  The Bishops of the Church make no attempt to speak for all Catholics; they never have. The Bishops speak for the Catholic and apostolic faith, and those who hold that faith gather around them.

The Passion of St. John the Baptist

Wednesday: 29 August, 2012 –– 21st Week in Ordinary Time
The Passion of St. John the Baptist

I’ve “borrowed” this from my friend, John Michael Talbot. It was on his Facebook page this morning and I edited it a bit for today’s homily.

John the Baptist lost his head, not because he bore witness to Jesus, but because he spoke out against the sexual perversity of a politician, Herod, who had married his brother's ex-wife. Some would say it was unwise, or none of his business, or outside of his purview, but Scripture holds him up to us as the greatest prophet of the entire Jewish era.

We also speak out on societal issues that the world does not understand as being “religious”.  Catholic teaching speaks not only about religious faith, but morality. Therefore the Church speaks to the cultures in which she finds herself. 

Today we speak out on a wide range of issues: from pro-life to global poverty, from the right to natural birth to the right to natural death, from the right to education and employment to healthcare. The list is long, and all interrelated in one golden chain of the gospel of life in Christ. 

Speaking out may cost us much. It might cost us social acceptance. It might cost us jobs. It might cost us our financial wealth or our freedom. It might even cost us our life.  Cardinal George of Chicago has said, "I expect to die in bed, my successor will die in prison and his successor will die a martyr in the public square".  I sincerely pray that he is wrong!

Today, John the Baptist reminds us that faithfulness to God extends into the public arena.  Christian faith has political implications (and repercussions). 

Monday, August 27, 2012

The Power of a Praying Mother

Monday: 27 August, 2012 –– 21st Week in Ordinary Time
Feast Day of St.  Monica
The Power of a Praying Mother

On this Feast Day of St. Monica, I am reminded of the power of a praying mother.  Monica is remembered for the way she prayed for her son Augustine when he was running from God and embracing the pleasures of sin.  The effect of those prayers are illustrated by the Church calendar tomorrow: the Feast Day of St. Augustine.

This is especially meaningful to me because of my own praying mother.  Throughout my life my mother told me that from the time she learned of her pregnancy, there had never been a day she had not prayed for me and given me to the Lord.  Some of my earliest memories are of my mother kneeling beside her bed each morning, sometimes for 30 minutes.  Evenings were always times of family prayer. When I was in my mid-teens, running from God and hungering for all the things that marked Augustine’s sinful dissipation, Mom discerned the perilous state of my soul and prayed mightily for me.  My capitulation to the Lordship of Jesus and my call to vocational ministry are a witness to the power of a praying mother.

My mother died in 1996 after a nine-month battle with a malignant brain tumor.  When she died one of my first thoughts was “I’ve lost the prayers of this godly woman.”  But as soon as the thought crossed my mind it was followed with another: “No! My mother can now pray even more powerfully for me because she has entered into the fullness of reality.”  At that moment I knew that I had sensed the Communion of the Saints.  This was not part of my own tradition, but I knew about it from my theological studies. Suddenly it was part of my reality.

Over the couple of years that immediately followed I began to have a dissatisfaction with my personal prayer life and intimacy with God.  There were some “thorns in the flesh” deeply rooted  in my spirit that needed healing and suddenly there was a corresponding deep desire to face them fully.  I had an intuition that Mom’s prayers were leading the way into spiritual renewal.

It was during this time I began to pray The Liturgy of the Hours.  The Lord used the Psalms to put my soul in touch with feelings long buried.  As I got into the Office of Readings I discovered a centrality of the Eucharist that offered to fill an ill-defined hunger I’d always had for what I came to see as the historical Liturgy of the Church.  The result of what turned out to be an eight year process brought me into the Catholic Church.

In early 2008 I was on EWTN’s The Journey Home.  Near the end, when people phoned in or emailed questions, a listener wanted to know what my mother would think about me becoming Catholic.  I answered that the woman my mother was as a provincial Southern lady might not understand, but that the person I believe my mother is, in the presence of the Beatific Vision, is a major reason I am where I am today. I believe Mom prayed for my renewal and my enlargement of Faith –– the power of a praying mother.

I would encourage any of you who have children who have strayed away from the Lord to pray.  Follow the example of St. Monica and take heart.  I hope my story of a mother’s prayers will encourage you.

And then remember: our Lord has given us his mother as our own to pray for us. On this Feast of St. Monica, we are invited into the fullness of the power of a praying mother.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Recognition & Fame

Friday: 24 August, 2012 –– 20th Week in Ordinary Time
Feast Day of St Bartholomew
Revelation 21:9-14 / John 1:45-51
Recognition & Fame

On this Feast Day of St. Bartholomew I become aware of how little we know about this apostle.  He did not leave any writings. Like several other of the apostles, he did not have the prominence of Peter, James and John. Did Bartholomew struggle with relative anonymity? Did he ever resent  not being in the inner circle? Perhaps he did not; John records Jesus saying he was a man in whom there was no duplicity. Bartholomew was whole-hearted, and Tradition says he gave his life in faithfulness to his Lord.

Yet, I cannot escape the implications of relative anonymity. Recognition and fame are awkward things in the Church. The Litany of Humility asks Jesus to “free me” from the desire of being.... esteemed, loved, acclaimed, honored, praised, preferred, consulted, approved, and valued. It continues that request from the fear of being.... humbled, despised, dismissed, rejected, defamed, forgotten, ridiculed, wronged, and suspected. When I pray that, I am always so conscious of how good it feels to be praised and how horrible it feels to be ignored.

We generally recognize it is a good thing to notice competency and faithfulness in others and to express overt appreciation.  When we receive such, it can sometimes make our day.  A word of encouragement can give us the strength to go on when we are feeling like giving up.

I often think of how few people in the Church get recognition.  For all the millions throughout history who belong to Jesus, the list of names we recognize –– even though it would be in the thousands if an exhaustive tally were possible –– is just a few drops of water in the ocean.  I have absolutely no expectation that the Church will remember “Deacon Hall” by name a few decades from now (I’m hardly recognized now apart from a small circle of acquaintances and an even smaller geographic area).

St Bartholomew reminds me today that having top recognition is not the important thing.  It is faithfulness that is important. Whether anyone else ever sees or gives the slightest recognition, we first live unto our Lord, and he sees and knows all things.

Trust and obey.... and leave everything else up to the Lord. If we get some recognition along the way –– fine.  If not, that is not why we give ourselves to Jesus.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

You Are What You Eat

Sunday: 19 August, 2012 –– Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Proverbs 9:1–6 / Ephesians 5:15–20 / John 6:51–58
You Are What You Eat

We’ve all heard the old adage “you are what you eat”, but have you ever stopped to think exactly how true that is?  Super Size Me is a 2004 American documentary film that follows a 30-day period during which Morgan Spurlock ate only McDonalds’s food three times per day, and eating every item on the chain's menu at least once. The film documents this lifestyle's drastic effect on Spurlock's physical and psychological well-being. As a result, the then-32-year-old Spurlock gained 24½ lbs., his cholesterol level rose from a healthy level to 230, and he experienced mood swings, sexual dysfunction, and fat accumulation in his liver.  It took Spurlock fourteen months to lose the weight gained from his experiment. You are what you eat!

The Wisdom writer gives an invitation from the Lord: Come, eat of my food, and drink of the wine I have mixed. The Psalmist sings: Taste and see the goodness of the Lord. It is true spiritually: You are what you eat!  The effect may not be as evident to those who have not been taught to discern spiritual cause and effect, but it is no less true. This is one way to understand Paul’s admonition to the Ephesians: do not get drunk on wine.... but be filled with the Spirit....

We live in a spiritually rebellious world that seeks to blind us so that we do not recognize who God really is.  We live in a spiritually rebellious world that seeks to seduce us so that we do not perceive the connections between belief and behavior.  We live in a spiritually rebellious world that seeks to deceive us so that we deny the connection between breaking God’s Commandments and experiencing both personal and societal dysfunction and pain.

How can we keep our bearings in this world that so discourages faithfulness?  One way is to stay in touch with reality, and that happens when we faithfully receive Jesus in the Eucharist (and I mean faithfully).  This is the most important practice Jesus left his followers as an outward expression of our union with him and our unity with one another.

Most of you know I am a relatively “new” Catholic.  My wife and I came into the Church after more than 30 years of pastoral ministry in Evangelical churches. Although I had no idea at the time, my journey into the Church started in 1999 when I began to use The Liturgy of the Hours for my daily prayers. Here I read things from the Church Fathers I had never heard before (after two Masters degrees and a Doctorate); I remember thinking “these guys sound so Catholic!” One theme was the centrality of the Eucharist in Christian worship, with evidence that the Real Presence of Jesus had been the understanding of the Bread and Cup from the beginning.

I am among you this way today because I came to see Jesus in the Eucharist, and I want to follow Jesus Christ above all other things in this world.  How can we keep our bearings in this world that so discourages faithfulness?  One way is to stay in touch with reality, and that happens when we faithfully receive Jesus in the Eucharist and remember that he said, in this most explicit and literal section of what is called “The Bread of Life Discourse” –– For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him. Just as the living Father sent me and I have life because of the Father, so also the one who feeds on me will have life because of me.

I know that a fifteen-minute homily is not the place to try to develop all that is here. This passage calls for careful interpretation, looking at Old Testament covenant background and the earliest writings in the Church. The Didache (or, “The Teachings of the Twelve Apostles”) is one of the earliest Christian documents following the New Testament, and it gives this explicit witness: “On the Lord’s Day, when you have been gathered together, break bread and celebrate the Eucharist....”  Ignatius of Antioch, who died in A.D. 107 is a very early post-New Testament witness to the meaning of Christian Communion:

But consider those who are of a different opinion with respect to the grace of Christ which has come unto us, how opposed they are to the will of God.  They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they confess not the Eucharist to be the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins. . .” (Epistle to the Smyraens, VI, VII; in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 1 [Grand Rapids: William D. Eerdmans Publishing, 1979], p89 ― underlined emphasis added).

When Jesus died on the cross it was the ultimate sacrifice for sin. We enter into that sacrifice when we come together to the Lord's Table. We are proclaiming that the Son of God gave his life’s blood for us and there is no condemnation! Jesus Christ has done a perfect work that goes beyond time, and yet Jesus has given us a tangible and ongoing way to bring the temporal and the eternal together.

In the next section John tells us that when Jesus said Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood... the people took offense. Some who had followed him to that point turned away. The same rejection and offense happens today. Even among Christians who are passionate in their commitment to Jesus there is objection and sometimes hostility. The usual “explanation” is that Jesus is speaking figuratively.  It is said that just as he is not a literal “gate” or “vine,” neither does he mean this literally.  But.... first, the idioms are very different, and second, Jesus offers no correction to the crowd’s response, but rather he intensifies it as the dialogue progresses.  I considered these things in my own journey.... and then I had this epiphany: Christian Faith is based on the belief that Almighty God, the One who is both Creator of the universe and yet greater than the universe, was able to come into our world in a human body and still be fully God. Yet, people saw Jesus and did not recognize God. If that is true, then it is not such a different miracle and mystery that the Incarnate Son of God can be physically present in what appears to be bread and wine. Neither is it surprising that unbelief cannot “see” it.  But for those who believe, the Eucharist draws us into Jesus’ death for us and gives us his life. God wants us to become what we eat!

That itself is sometimes the basis for skepticism and unbelief.  If the Lord Jesus Christ is truly present in the Eucharist and physically enters us when we eat, then why isn’t there more spiritual power and glory in our lives? The answer is, You are what you eat!  How many of us feed on Jesus once a week, in a hurry and possibly rather absent-mindedly?  How many of us “feed” on other things through the week–– things which hinder and even kill the life of God in us? What does it do to us to take into ourselves the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of our Lord and then try to mix in the list from last Sunday’s epistle reading: bitterness, fury, anger, shouting, reviling and malice (Eph 4:31)? What about the immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire and greed that Paul adds to the list in his letter to the Colossians (see 3:5–9)?! We do not receive the intended benefit from the Eucharist if we are casually embracing sins that choke the life of our Lord in us. Disobedience can cause what God gives for blessing to turn into impediment. Paul even warns the Corinthians that anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body, eats and drinks judgment on himself (1Cor 11:29).  This does not sound like carelessness with a mere “symbol.” Jesus says here: unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you (6:53).

We need to take care and pay attention. People brought up in the Church can develop an immunity to worship. It’s as if we get inoculated so that we’re dulled to the reality of God.  Jesus can become a mere mental association, some historical figure we know about, but not a living person close to us so that our day to day lives are truly changed.  “Church” gets reduced to something we “do” ― something to scratch off our to-do list so we can get on with the things we really want to do (get to the restaurant or watch the ballgame –– which has something to say about the things we think are most important).

When we come to Mass we are treading on holy ground.  "But it's so repetitive," critics say. "It is so mechanical. It gets so boring just doing the same thing..." Love is what keeps beauty and wonder from becoming "repetitive" and "mechanical." Like little children who cannot get enough of a father's playful attention, we come into the mystery of the Eucharist with the need to say to our heavenly Father, "Do it again, Daddy, do it again." This is not boredom with the "same old thing."

What I wish for you for the rest of your lives ––and what I hold before myself –– is that when doubts come or when the world offers us its meager fare of spiritual junk food, we'll find a time and place to pray:   Lord....  I’ve been going too often to the wrong table and not coming to your Table with clean hands and pure heart.... Feed me, Lord, with your Body and Blood and let it fill my soul....  

Remember: You are what you eat!

Friday, August 17, 2012

Marriage and Harlotry

Friday: 17 August, 20102 –– 19th Week in Ordinary Time
Ezekiel 16:1–15, 60, 63 / Matthew 19:3–12
Marriage and Harlotry

Our social fabric is being pulled apart. There are various ways to explain why and to describe the warring camps. I hardly hear of any which address the root issue, which has aptly been termed worldview.  How we understand reality and truth (or the absence of it) makes all the difference.

One way of seeing starts with a human point of view and has this visible world as the focus, and particularly the here-and-now. Tradition and ancient wisdom are questionable because as Moderns, living in such a technological “Information Age,” we supposedly know so much more than previous generations that preceded us. Happiness is a central value; immediacy, convenience and comfort are ways we measure happiness. Good and bad, right and wrong are hard to nail down; such things are judged situationally and pragmatically. The final arbiter of authority is, at best, the collective human wisdom of the day. Human “freedom” is autonomous.

The other way of seeing starts with a two-fold confession: first, the belief that God –– a Being  beyond far beyond our own consciousness, individually or collectively –– exists;  second, there is an awareness –– an attitude, even a confession –– that our “good” is dependent on understanding the purpose(s) of God.

It should be obvious that if we start with human wisdom and autonomy, the answers we get to life’s questions will be different than the answers we get when we start with God. The Bible gives us extended stories which show that difference –– the difference between choosing to seek and obey God, or choosing to go our own way and do whatever we think might most conveniently make us happy.

This is the framework in which to understand the Ezekiel reading. It was God’s intention to show mercy and kindness to Israel, but the people collectively chose to take God’s gifts and use them for their own temporary convenience and pleasure –– the very way our culture is choosing to use God’s gift of sexuality. The sexual image Ezekiel uses perfectly illustrates both the people of his day and much of our own.

It should not be surprising then, that the Gospel is Jesus giving a teaching on marriage. Marriage is one of God’s gifts. The sexual relationship is meant to be understood within the parameters of God’s character and purpose. The depth and purity of sexual union is meant to be a sacrament of God’s relationship with his people.

As we live in a society that increasingly dismisses the idea of God having any kind of practical reality, it again should not be so surprising that the popular discussion of marriage is based on human opinions of transitory sexual happiness –– one of today’s so-called “human rights”. Like Israel so long ago, our culture has turned God’s gift of sexuality into harlotry. Dismissing God, the conversations that get attention are talking about marriage without even knowing what it is –– at least from the perspective of people who have faith. It is little wonder that the fabric of our society is being ripped apart.

I am not sure what the solution is. First, those who are able to “see” God’s ways simply need to  live them.  We have no respectable voice and witness unless we are living the Truth. Second, we need to realize that those who do not “see” are unable to comprehend our real concerns. They are choosing to live in what Jesus calls “the hardness of your hearts.”  Again, our witness needs to be one of love and distinctiveness, and not a focus on cognitive arguments (which is not to say we shouldn’t be able to explain why we believe what we do). Third, we need to pray that the Spirit of God will, in mercy, move with a conviction of sin and a give a spiritual understanding to our world.  We need the life of God breathed into our society, our nation and our world. The path before us is either one of true marriage or harlotry.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Distinctive Witness

Thursday: 16 August, 2012 –– 19th Week in Ordinary Time
Ezekiel 12:1–12 / Matthew 18:21–19:1
Distinctive Witness

I wish all Christians understood their calling to be different. God’s people are to have distinctive lives.  I like to use the word “distinctive” (in the context of belonging to Jesus) because it seems to be a good way to express the meaning of holy in contemporary idiom.  Our calling as Christians is to be holy –– distinctive, for Jesus’ sake.

One reason is that faith makes a difference in a person’s life. Faith is a way of seeing.  Faith is being able to “see” what people without faith do not think is there. So if one facet of Christian Faith is believing we are accountable to a holy God, then Christian life will be distinctive –– different than the life of a person who does not believe such a thing.

Christian Faith calls us to say and do what often is not understood. As we reflect on Ezekiel’s story, we realize that sometimes God asks his people to say and do what is threatening and even offensive to the onlooking society. The more rebellious a culture is to God, the greater the misunderstanding –– and also the more intense the offense when God’s people faithfully speak and practice truth.

When faithful witness is received as threatening, there is one crucial way to give distinctive witness that is not so confrontational. In the Gospel, Jesus tells those who would follow him that the way to give a most distinctive witness is to forgive.... again and again and again.  Christians are to be people who seek to forgive in such a way that people without faith can’t help but notice and ask, “How can you do that?”

The answer is found in our faith. Because faith is believing we are accountable to a holy God, each of us should never be able to escape the implication: We forgive much because we have been forgiven much.

As we hope to be witnesses of God’s truth –– as we seek to speak and act distinctively for Jesus’ sake –– our starting point should always be the awareness that we ourselves have the privilege of knowing God only because we have begun to understand what it took for God to forgive us. This is a distinctive witness of Christian Faith.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

What must I do to have eternal life?

Sunday: 12 August, 2012 –– 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time
1 Kings 19:4–8 / Ephesians 4:30–5:2 / John 6:41–51
What must I do to have eternal life?

Belief in a world “beyond” this one is almost universal in human nature. Rising out of this inherent faith comes the question common to all sensitive souls, and it is a question people asked Jesus again and again in one form or another: What must I do to have eternal life?  Isn’t that a key concern for each of us? Isn’t that the motivation for us to come to church and listen to what we hope will be an interesting homily? What must I do to have eternal life?

There is a reason people asked Jesus this question, and it is the reason people still turn their attention to Jesus today.  A few chapters later in John’s Gospel Jesus explicitly says: I have come that they may have life....  In the previous section of this sixth chapter –– this Bread of Life Discourse –– Jesus has told the people: I am the bread of life; he who comes to me shall not hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst.  Then Jesus says, This is the will of the Father, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in him may have eternal life.

The people did not understand what Jesus was saying. There were questions. There was misunderstanding. There was disagreement. There was offense and anger. If we take an honest look around today at all who claim to be listening to Jesus, it seems that not so much has changed. There are questions.  There is misunderstanding. There is disagreement. Unfortunately, there is still offense and anger. And yet there is an underlying unity; we all want an answer to our deepest anxiety: What must I do to have eternal life?

In the eleven verses of today’s Gospel reading we can find Jesus giving the answer to this question three different ways. Hear this carefully: Jesus is not giving three different answers; Jesus is giving the answer three different ways. It seems not everyone understands this. I say this because the three ways Jesus speaks of eternal life have been separated into different emphases of Christian expression, as if one is more important than another.

The first is what we do. This is implied when Jesus says: Everyone who listens to my Father and learns from him comes to me. The natural context for this saying would be the Commandments (which Jesus quoted when questioned another time by the Rich Young Ruler). Some denounce this approach to God as “salvation by works” (as if faith and good works are opposed to each other).  It’s meant to criticize the idea that our good deeds will be weighed against our bad deeds, and if there are more good deeds we get into heaven –– but the Bible does not teach that anywhere. To that particular way of thinking, perhaps a little story will provide a correction. A man dies and goes to heaven. St. Peter meets him at the pearly gates....

St. Peter says, "Here's how it works. You need 100 points to make it into heaven. You tell me all the good things you've done, and I give you a certain number of points for each item, depending on how good it was. When you reach 100 points, you get in."

"Okay," the man says, "I attended church every Sunday."
"That's good,” says St. Peter. "That's worth two points."

"Two points?" he says. "Well, I gave 10% of all my earnings to the church."
"Well, let's see," answers Peter, "that's worth another 2 points. Did you do anything else?"

"Two points? Whoa! How about this: I started a soup kitchen in my city and worked in a shelter for homeless veterans."
"Fantastic, that's certainly worth a point, " responded Peter.

"Hmmm...," the man says, "I was married to the same woman for 50 years and never cheated on her...."
"That's wonderful," says St. Peter, "that's worth three points!"

"THREE POINTS!!" the man cries, "At this rate the only way I get into heaven is by the grace of God!"
Peter says, "Come on in!"

That story would be applauded by those who want to emphasize what Jesus says next: Whoever believes has eternal life. This is a major theme in John’s Gospel and St Paul’s letters. It was Paul’s answer to the Philippian jailer: Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved...  This is the emphasis among Evangelicals today, who say that believing is simply “accepting” that Jesus did it all for us. There is a great truth here. Christian Faith is indeed a total trust in Jesus. There is indeed a strong personal –– individual –– factor to our faith. The danger, though, in emphasizing “belief” more than anything else is that Christian Faith is reduced to an abstraction –– a cognitive “head-trip.”  Believing in Jesus is more than a mental check list.

The third way Jesus answers the question of eternal life is familiar to Catholics, but just as puzzling to many others today as it was when Jesus first said it: I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever....  Catholic Faith, from the earliest testimony of the Church Fathers, teaches us that when we come to Communion we are literally partaking of Jesus. This was one of the compelling realizations that drew me into the Catholic Church. Yet it is important to understand that eating the living bread is more than a mechanical gesture.

So, the question remains: What must I do to have eternal life?  Is it by “listening and learning”? Is it by “believing”? Is it by “eating the living bread”?  Surely when asked this way we can see immediately that it is supposed to be all of them! “Believing” means we will “listen and learn”.  As we “listen and learn” we will discover that part of Christian Faith is a mystery –– a union with Jesus’ very Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity. These three answers which Jesus gives to our quest for eternal life all interface with and support each other.

Now, how do know this is true? The other two readings for today give an important clue.  It was when Elijah believed, listened to and obeyed God that he was fed in a supernatural way. Then –– notice what the Scripture says –– he was transformed: strengthened by that food he walked forty days and forty nights to the mountain of God....

You and I are on a journey. We want to get to the mountain of God: eternal life. How do we know that we are believing and listening and learning (which is another way of saying “obeying”)?  What results can we expect?  What should be the effect in us when we eat the living bread? We find that answer in the Epistle reading: we are to be transformed.

When we feed on Jesus –– when we receive Jesus in the Eucharist (in true faith, as the Church teaches, and not holding on to unconfessed sins) –– we are nurturing the life of his Spirit in us. And when the Holy Spirit of God is freely at work in us, we are being transformed into different people.... distinctive (holy) people, in the name and power of Jesus.

What does that look like? It looks like the life of Jesus (that’s what eternal life is: the life of Jesus, because only God is the source of Life –– and our eternal life is simply being united with him). Again, what does that look like? St Paul gives us some practical images.  First he mentions some things it does not mean.  The eternal life of Jesus released in us will not result in: bitterness, fury, anger, shouting, and reviling.... The eternal life of Jesus released in us will result in causing us to be kind to one another, compassionate, forgiving one another....

What must I do to have eternal life?  Believe.... listen and learn.... eat the living bread.... expect to be transformed.  Jesus is always wanting to release into us his eternal life.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Jesus On Vacation

Wednesday: 8 August, 2012 –– 18th Week in Ordinary Time
Feast Day of St Dominic
Jeremiah 31:1–7 / Matthew 15:21–28
Jesus On Vacation

Dominic was a mighty preacher. He urged the brothers to study constantly the Old and New Testaments.  He always carried with him the Gospel according to Matthew and the epistles of Paul, and he almost knew them from memory.

One of the strong witnesses to the unique nature of Scripture is its unplumbable depth. As one would expect of God’s Word, the Bible can be read and re-read and studied, and yet never exhausted.  This simple story in today’s Gospel illustrates that.

This section of Matthew’s Gospel reveals a peak of popularity for Jesus’s ministry.  Wherever he goes the people follow and gather in the hope of benefitting from his mighty words and deeds. Jesus was almost continuously inundated by people.  He seeks places and times of solitude, but the people keep following. So here we find Jesus going on vacation.  It’s a wonderful picture of the humanity of our Lord.  When we are physically weak and mentally on edge, we are much more susceptible to temptation and spiritual depression. Sometimes the best thing we can do for ourselves spiritually is to take a vacation.

All of this can be read into what we are told in v21: At that time Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon.... In his parallel account Mark tells us Jesus entered a house and did not want anyone to know it. Jesus went on vacation! Tyre was Gentile territory forty miles north-west of Capernaum. Jesus went to a place where people were not likely to recognize him, where a Jewish man would usually be ignored or even avoided.  Isn't that the kind of place you want to go on vacation? Perhaps not everyone is like me, but I always want to go to some mountain cabin where I will not even see anyone else. I seldom get to do that, but I understand what Jesus was trying to do.

Yet Jesus could not keep his presence secret: A Canaanite woman of that district came and called out, “Have pity on me, Lord...” I'm reading into the situation here a bit, but Jesus was the same person on vacation that he was in public ministry. Are you ever tempted to let your spiritual commitment take a vacation? We can rationalize and say things like: "I don't have to have my quiet time while I'm on vacation" or "No one here knows me, I can..." (the rest of this sentence depends on what is temptation for you). Jesus was on vacation, but he was still Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

So here was Jesus, in a place trying to find rest, but what actually comes is something of a test. How will Jesus respond to the request of a needy person while he's taking a break from ministry? The first thing Jesus does is give the woman a test. Is she sincere? It's also a test for Jesus himself. His primary work was to accomplish salvation in the context of God's Old Testament promises, and that meant ministry to and through Israel. The woman was asking something outside the parameters of what Jesus was doing at the time.

The exchange between Jesus and the woman is loaded with insinuation. When he says I was sent only to the lost sheep the house of Israel, Jesus is affirming his commitment to his primary task from the Father. He was not going to start a broader "ministry" in Gentile territory; that would be disobedience because it would detract from what he came to do. And yet we find that Jesus, even "on vacation," is still the loving and compassionate Savior of people who recognize him and their own need.

A common way for Jews to speak of Gentiles was with a derogatory connotation of “dog.” But when Jesus used the word dog, he did not use the common derogatory word, but a diminutive word meaning the pet of the family. The woman, picking up on the softer meaning, showed both her humility and her sincerity by accepting Jesus' word and reading a positive hope in it: even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters. She was not asking Jesus to change his commitment to what he was doing in and through Israel, but she did want an incidental blessing since he had come into her territory.

This story is a tremendous reminder that the response of one's heart ultimately qualifies one's relationship with God. The Son of God never refuses the heart-cry of a person who recognizes him in the context of his or her own need. 

This story also gives us a model as we seek to follow Jesus and be like him. The Gospels show us a real Jesus. He was a man with the need to get away from demands and stress. He was also the Son of God, who would not say "No" to any needy person who turned to him. And everything he did was worthy of the word best.

We need to do two things in response. First, we need to recognize Jesus for who he is. When we do that, we cannot help but turn to him, admitting our need, our hurt and our sin. To those who come to him, Jesus turns no one away.

The second response flows out of the first. What we find when we give ourselves to Jesus is that he gives himself to us. And when Jesus comes to live in us through his Spirit he begins to change us so that we become like him. We're still human; we need to take vacations and such things to meet our human needs, but we do not take a vacation from Jesus. Instead, we take Jesus on vacation with us... and everywhere else we go.

Monday, August 6, 2012

The Transfiguration as Reality

Monday: 6 August, 2012 –– 18th Week in Ordinary Time
The Transfiguration of the Lord
Daniel 7:9–10, 13–14 / 2 Peter 1:16–19 / Mark 9:2–10
The Transfiguration as Reality
The Transfiguration always triggers in my mind the phrase, a brief picture of reality.  I often think of things the world around us presents as “reality.” People are obsessed with circumstantial pleasure, convinced that is the way to happiness.  We also seem to think that the big threats in life — the weakness of poverty and physical limitations and what is assumed to be the finality of death — are the most horrific things possible.  How can we dare believe anything differently? Christian Faith says the reason is the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Yet how can a “modern mind” dare believe this is true? The Transfiguration offers us a picture of the bigger truth.

When Jesus was on earth, what people saw when they looked upon the Incarnate Son of Man was.... a man. Sometimes they saw him do some amazing things, but he was still a man who dressed like them, ate like them, walked the roads and paths like them.... a man who the Scriptures and the Church confess to be fully human.  But one day — one time on one particular day — three of the disciples had their world expanded. Peter, James and John saw his glory as he was transfigured before them: his face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light. This “brief picture of reality” helped lay a foundation for understanding the greater reality to follow in the crucifixion and resurrection. Peter gave this clear witness and exhortation in his second letter:
....we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty....when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain....
Jesus let three of his disciples see his glory once during those ministry days. It was enough to pave the way for a Faith that would change the world. We can believe today because there is a credible eyewitness record that has been established as an Apostolic Rule of Faith. Peter and John both wrote that they saw.... and they testified that these things are true.... and then they lived — in such a contrasting way to who they previously were — so that people looking at them took notice that they had been with Jesus.
The Transfiguration calls us — warmly and powerfully invites us — to “see” the glory of God. The glories of this world do not last. The threats of this world do not have the last word. There is a glory promised to all who follow Jesus.... a glory that was fully realized in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Those who follow Jesus will know the power of the resurrection — the glory of the Son which is the inheritance of all who belong to him — but not apart from, first, the cross with the accompanying darkness of not having everything yet fully visible. Christians live in the hope of glory, knowing that Jesus is the way. On this day when we are reminded of the Transfiguration, I commend to you this this brief picture of reality.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Humility and Pride

"When I contemplate a God who, from his Incarnation unto the cross, led only a life filled with abasement and ignominy, ought I to be afraid of humbling myself?  A God seeks abasement.  I, a worm, should exalt myself?  My God, destroy this pride, which separates us so much from Thee!" ...St Augustine

Friday, August 3, 2012

Familiarity Breeds Contempt

Friday: 3 August, 2012 –– 17th Week in Ordinary Time
Jeremiah 26:1–9 / Matthew 13:54–58
When Familiarity Breeds Contempt
You have likely heard the saying "familiarity breeds contempt", which means the more you know something or someone, the more you start to find faults and dislike things about it or them –– or merely take them for granted. We find an example of this in our text. When Jesus returned to his hometown he was criticized on the basis of what was familiar.  The people looked at Jesus as a boy who had grown up among them. They saw the outward identity of family vocation –– he was a carpenter. If you think about it, they were looking at Jesus the way we size someone up today: family, education, vocation, wealth and social status…

The people were looking at Jesus with such fixed ideas that they could not see past their own presuppositions. This meant that Jesus could not do for them what they would not allow.  This may seem puzzling. How can God not do whatever he chooses? It seems that God has chosen to limit himself, at least in the context of relating to us personally, to what we choose. Our attitude can restrict the work of God!

How can this affect us today? We in the church can become overly “familiar” with what we hear and do. We can easily develop familiarity today with the Scriptures and think, "I've heard that before." The Eucharist itself can become “common” through repetition.  Haven’t you heard some church-goers complain of the Liturgy being “boring”? When this happens we cut ourselves off from what our Lord desires to do in us: The Gospel tells us: He did not work many mighty deeds there because of their lack of faith.

Taking God and his grace for granted can easily turn into an attitude of contempt, even if we are not consciously intending it. Because of contempt, we can grieve the Spirit of Jesus and miss good things the Lord wants to give us.

If we realize our spirits are often dull, could it be we are coming to the mysteries of grace with a familiarity of habit? Have we allowed commonality to become routine?  How easily we can recite the confession of sin and repeat The Lord’s Prayer! How easily our minds can wander during the Eucharistic Prayer! How easy it is to receive the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of our Lord and not expect to be transformed!

Jesus, help ME –– and help all of us –– to see beyond what is familiar to our senses.... to be open to the power of your Cross and Resurrection, which is always working powerfully for our salvation.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

When We Don’t Understand

Thursday: 2 August, 2012 –– 17th Week in Ordinary Time
Jeremiah 18:1–6 / Matthew 13:47–53
When We Don’t Understand

“Do you understand all these things?”  They answered, “Yes.”
Haven’t we all been in situations where someone asks us if we understand.... and we say “yes” (because we know they so want us to understand, or simply because we don’t want to look stupid), but we know we don’t understand?!
I think the disciples did this here. Again and again they proved they did not understand.  Sometimes they would be honest and ask. Other times they simply showed their lack of understanding by their attitudes and responses, such as Jesus foretelling his passion and their essential reply of  “No way!”
It is human nature to want to understand. Seeking understanding has driven the disciplines of philosophy and science, just to name two major contexts. We live in a time where knowledge has increased exponentially; we hear the term “Information Age.”  We get impatient when answers do not come quickly.  There is often an attitude that any source of information that is not modern is suspect, as if the people from centuries ago –– or even a couple of generations –– have little to offer us.
But if we are honest, we know there are some things we do not understand. In spite of our modern “advances” (and perhaps sometimes because of them!) we can find ourselves up against circumstances and issues that leave us asking Why?  We do not understand.
The prophet Jeremiah gives us one answer, but it’s one that modern ears, coupled with sinful human nature, does not want to hear.  When hard things come.... when ultimate questions are thrust upon us, and when intricacies are too complex, we need to take refuge in what God tells Jeremiah:  I am the potter and you are the clay....
Then we need to trust.  In our relationship with God, trust always trumps understanding –– especially when we don’t understand.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012


Monday: 1 August, 2012 –– 17th Week in Ordinary Time / Feast Day of St Alphonsus Liguori
Jeremiah 15:10, 16–21 / Matthew 13:44–46
Throughout Scripture we find that God asks us to give him “all.”  If we believe God –– that his his revelation to us is true –– it is right for us to give all we are and have. We belong to him twice over: First, he is our Creator; he made us. Second, he is our Redeemer; he bought us with the blood of Jesus.
In the Old Testament God is teaching his people what it means to give him first place –– to give him all we are. It is hard for us to know how to give God everything; it’s a rather abstract concept. It is easy to say we are giving God “all” while in practice we actually give him little or nothing.  To help his people grapple with this, God gave the Law. So, for example, in order to teach his people to give him first place, he gave the law of the tithe –– giving to God a tangible ten percent. Ten percent is not much for a person who truly gives everything to God from the heart, but if one’s “faith” is mostly words and outward show, then ten percent is an irritation and a source of grumbling (or an issue of outright disobedience).
Jeremiah is a picture of someone who gives God “all” : When I found your words, I devoured them; they became my joy and the happiness of my heart because I bore your name, O Lord, God of hosts...  And there was a price to pay: I did not sit celebrating in the circle of merrymakers.... I sat alone.... Jeremiah was rejected and persecuted, as Jesus would be centuries later.
Jesus says that putting the Kingdom first and giving God “all” does not happen without a price.  The field with the treasure could only be bought after the finder sells all that he has. The merchant could only buy the pearl of great price after he sells all that he has.
How do we know if we are giving God “all”?  One Christian writer who had a great impact early in my spiritual formation said two things which apply to this theme:  First, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”  You might have to think about that one a bit, but he is restating Jesus’ warning about trying to gain the whole world and yet losing one’s soul. There is a reason for us to give God “all”.  But how do we do that?  The second quote is more practical: “One does not surrender in a moment what takes a lifetime to live out.”
St Alphonsus Liguori (b. 1696) was a doctor of both canon and civil law. By all outward appearances he was successful and a good man, but he did not stop with that and rest on his laurels. He became a great preacher and theologian in the Church, founding the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer.  Always pursuing a growing love for God, his passion for Jesus became the mark for which he is known.
When I was fifteen years old I realized I had found the ultimate treasure and I totally surrendered my life to Jesus Christ. Out of that came a call to vocational ministry, so over the following decades I sought to give Jesus “all” of me.  And while that attitude of heart –– that orientation toward life –– had a specific beginning, it is taking all of my life to make it true.  There is a sense in which we are always “selling all we have in this life” in order to obtain what is ultimate and eternal.
This is how I understand what happened in my life five years ago when I turned loose of “all” that I was as a Protestant Evangelical. I stepped out of my vocation and gave up my salary. I accepted the rejection and hurt of people dear to us who did not understand.  I had discovered that the pearl of great price which I had found years earlier was far bigger than I initially knew; my pearl of great price needed a larger context.  Or, to switch to the first parable’s metaphor, the field needed to be expanded.
At the heart of this is the question for all of us: what does it mean for God to have first place?  What does it mean, continuously and always, to give God all?  Is there anything you are not willing to give up?

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