Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Wonder of the Word of God

Sunday: 27 January, 2013 –– 3rd Sunday of Ordinary Time
Nehemiah 8:2–4a, 5–6, 8–10 / Luke 1:1–4, 4:14–21
The Wonder of the Word of God

What happens when the Word of God is proclaimed? Do you have any expectations? What does it mean to “proclaim the Word of God”?

One basic way is when Scripture is read. That happens in every Mass (and most other Christian worship services). Do you ever think about why this is such an integral part of Christian worship? What should we expect when Scripture is read?

Another way the Word of God is proclaimed is through preaching. Preaching has such an exclusive role in Catholic Faith that only those who are ordained can “preach” in the technical sense of the word. Why is preaching so important that it has this level of protection? What do we expect to happen when a sermon is preached?

Luke tells us about a time that Jesus read Scripture and gave commentary as he began his public ministry. There are two significant things here. The first is the specific Scripture that Jesus read: The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings.... The second is the response of the people: the eyes of all in the synagogue looked intently at him –– he had captured their attention.

Well, after all, this was Jesus! We might expect a bit stirring and excitement in this situation, but should we always expect something exceptional when the Word of God is proclaimed? The Old Testament reading suggests that perhaps we should. The Jews were recently returned from their captivity in Babylon. They had been away from corporate worship for a long time. Ezra the priest assembled the people so he could read to them from the Scriptures: he read out of the book from daybreak till midday.... How about that for the proclamation of the Word?! And look at the response: all the people listened attentively.... There is precedent here for reading Scripture from an exalted place: Ezra the scribe stood on a wooden platform that had been made.... he was standing higher up than any of the people...  Ezra also added to the reading, interpreting it so that all could understand....

So, I ask again:  What do we expect when the Word of God is proclaimed? This is a great question for lectors. I am happy to say that I often hear lectors mention their preparation, going over their readings in advance and making sure they are comfortable with difficult pronunciations. Yes, they want to do a good job, but I also think they understand that they do not want poor reading to get in the way! You see, when the Word of God is proclaimed, it is not so much the person who is doing the speaking –– the lector becomes the medium for the voice of God!  Do we pay attention to the closing words, “The Word of the Lord”? It can be easy for our response to be a mechanistic “Thanks be to God.”  How often do we truly think: I have just heard the Word of God!

The Lord gave me a vocational calling to proclaim his Word when I was sixteen years old. Since then I have given myself to what Paul, in writing to Timothy, calls rightly handling the word of truth (2Tim 2:15). Maybe you are familiar with the Lord “giving a verse” to people in a special way that goes beyond the general meaning so that it speaks personally in a particular way. I have a number of Scriptures which are “personal” to me, and one of them is what Jesus read from Isaiah on that day in the synagogue: The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me.... When I proclaim the Word of God I am often very aware that what happens goes totally beyond who I am and what I do. The proclamation of the Word of God can itself bring the anointing of the Spirit. God gives this promise through Isaiah:

For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
and return not thither but water the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and prosper in the thing for which I sent it.  (55:10,11)

It is an awesome thing to proclaim the Word of God. It is an awesome thing to hear the Word of God.

Critics might say the effect is simply the charismatic personality of a speaker or the gift of oratory. Those things certainly can produce an effect, but usually immediate and short-lived. The proclamation of the Word of God changes lives. Again, many people have life-changing experiences through events or circumstances which can be explained psychologically. Why do we as Christians believe the incredible story of God becoming Man in Jesus Christ? Why do we hope in the resurrection of the dead? Why do we proclaim such things as the Word of God?

I began preaching a series of what turned out to be 88 sermons through the Gospel of Luke back in 1986. The first one was on the first four verses of chapter one (which is the first part of today’s Gospel reading), and it was a twenty-five-minute sermon. This is one way to say it’s a bit frustrating to try to “interpret” today’s readings (to use Nehemiah’s description of Ezra’s proclamation) in one short homily. Remember that Ezra took most of the day for his reading and comments!

When I first looked at the Gospel for today I wondered why the first four verses of chapter one were juxtaposed with chapter four about the synagogue. Then I saw a great connect: the wonder of the Word of God is based on the reliability of what we believe about Jesus Christ.

Using today’s jargon, Luke was an educated professional. He was a physician. He also came to faith from what was likely a pagan-Rome background, and he traveled with St Paul. Luke’s Gospel is the product of someone who looked at the sources, looked at the evidence, and came to the conclusion that the apostolic message about Jesus Christ is true.

The disciples were eyewitnesses (Lu 1:2) to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. It is critical to grasp the implications of this.  The New Testament is a record written by men who had first-hand accounts of these events that turned the world upside down. First, though, the eyewitnesses ran away. Then they hid in a locked room for fear of the Jews (Jn 20:19); they did not want to be treated as Jesus was. But two things happened: the risen Jesus appears to them (coming through locked doors, and yet eats with them), and the Spirit that Jesus promised comes upon the disciples at Pentecost. The formerly cowardly Peter boldly proclaims the death and resurrection of Jesus (Acts 2:22–24).

It was these “uneducated, common men” (Acts 4:13) along with the well-educated Paul who spread over the Roman Empire and preached Jesus. Their preaching was accompanied with spiritual power, and it changed others’ lives even as theirs had been changed.  Yet there was a price to be paid; Jesus is Lord was a message too threatening for the status quo (it usually is).  Those who confessed and preached Christ were persecuted, often losing their lives. Numbers of people do not give their lives for a known lie. If Jesus had not been the risen Son of God, those disciples would have folded.

This is the wonder of the Word of God. Jesus, the Living Word, died for our sins and came back from the dead never to die again, but to lead us to eternal life (1Cor 15:3,4). The primary way this wonderful message is propagated is by proclaiming the Scriptures, the Written Word.

When we hear Scripture being read, we are hearing the voice of God. When we hear Scripture being preached, we are hearing an extension of the Apostolic Faith that has gone throughout the world changing lives and giving hope.  We are part of that right now, because the Word of God is going forth. Are you open to the wonder of the Word of God?

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Living the Truth –– Boldly

Wednesday: 23 January –– 2nd Week in Ordinary Time
Mark 3:1–6 / Feast Day of St Vincent
Living the Truth –– Boldly

Jesus enters the synagogue. It is the sabbath, and there is a man with a withered hand. They watched Jesus closely to see if he would cure him on the sabbath so that they might accuse him.  Jesus did cure the man –– and gave a lesson in goodness and life. [They] went out and immediately took counsel….against him to put him to death.

Today is the feast day of St Vincent, a deacon during the days of the emperor Diocletian and a martyr who was subjected to awful torture before he died. Vincent was hated and killed simply because of his loyalty to Jesus Christ and living the truth of the gospel.

The New Testament warns us that all who want to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted (2Tim 3:12). I sometimes think of a line I heard years ago: "If you are not being persecuted in some way for your faith, you are likely being seduced."

The Office of Readings for St Vincent has part of a sermon from St Augustine in which he says: "if our personal pleasures do not hold us captive, and if we are not frightened by brutality, then the world is overcome. At both of these approaches Christ rushes to our aid, and the Christian is not conquered."

We live a world where an oppressive spirit is starting to be openly hostile to Christians who respond to –– let's call it what it is –– sin that popular opinion wants to justify and say is right.  There is a growing intolerance for Christians who cannot give their blessing to abortion and homosexual practice.

It has been widely reported that Chicago's Cardinal Francis George 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 often wonder if, assuming I live a normal life span, whether I may someday face criminal charges for proclaiming Christian truth that has been legally proscribed.

As we think of our Lord –– doing what was right and good even as his enemies looked for a reason to kill him…. 
As we think of St Vincent –– suffering a horrible death for an ultimate loyalty that he would not compromise….
As we think of ourselves –– living in a world that is no friend of grace…..

May our Lord give us wisdom, fortitude, and the grace to follow…. to the cross, and to the resurrection that follows.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Religion and Spirituality

Tuesday: 22 January, 2013 –– 2nd Week in Ordinary Time
Mark 2:23–28
Religion and Spirituality

Critics say “religion” stifles spirituality. It’s almost become a cliche to hear, “I’m spiritual, but not religious.” People use “feelings” of spirituality to tear down the boundaries of religion. Are these the only two options?

Some see Jesus as a champion of spirituality over religion; this story of gathering and eating the grain on the Sabbath is one of the imagined justifications. Yet, as the story concludes, Jesus is affirming a true meaning of the Sabbath –– a “religious” boundary. The Hebrews letter says that Jesus is a high priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.  That sounds religious!

Religion without spirituality is lifeless, but spirituality without religion is not properly grounded; it dissolves into personal opinion and sentimentality. The Incarnation of Jesus Christ anchors a healthy spirituality in a sustainable religion. God gives us religion to guide spirituality, and spirituality to enliven religion. We need both.

Jesus knows and quotes Scripture, and engages in ritual worship. Scripture or ritual itself is not the issue. We are given the Apostolic Faith that was once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3) to keep us in a healthy balance. Neither "religion" nor our own opinions of spirituality should obstruct God's life in us!

Friday, January 18, 2013

That You May Know

Friday: 18 January, 2013 –– 1st Week in Ordinary Time
Mark 2:1–12
That You May Know 

Why did the disciples come to believe that Jesus was the Son of God? It is because what he did lived up to what he said. This comes together in Mark's story of the paralyzed man who was lowered through the roof to be healed by Jesus. Mark is telling the story of Jesus Christ, the Son of God for a reason: to convince his readers that God has come into our broken world in a special way, and that God's action in Christ calls for our response.

No one was prepared for what Jesus said that day. As the paralytic was lowered to Jesus, he said to the man, “Child, your sins are forgiven.” The story continues, of course: But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.... He then told the paralytic to get up and walk, and the man did.

Faith is validated by works. God shows us the unseen through the things that can be seen. Jesus proves that what he says is true because of what he does.

That is why the disciples came to believe. It is also one reason why we should believe. What God says to us through Jesus Christ “fits” with the reality of life in this world –– our innate sense of right and wrong, the problem of evil, our need for forgiveness, our hope for things to be made right and our deep desire for a never-ending life in a better world. The answer to all these things is found in what Jesus Christ has done.

Mark says this incident ended with the people amazed and praising God because of Jesus. That's a great test to gauge the truthfulness and “rightness” of Jesus. When Jesus was on earth, he turned the hearts of those willing to hear and see toward the Father.

Jesus spoke and acted so that people could know Truth. We who follow Jesus through the grace of his forgiveness are to also speak and act so that people can know that unseen things are true as they see our visible lives. The invisible gets its credibility through the visible. Jesus lived that way, and he calls us to follow him.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Truth and Immediacy

Tuesday: 15 January, 2013–– 1st Week in Ordinary Time
Hebrews 2:5–12 / Mark 1:21b–28
Truth and Immediacy

Religion can be rendered seemingly irrelevant by two opposite approaches. One is to conceptualize issues so that religion is abstract and distant. The other is to sentimentalize religion so that it appears nothing more than a deeply personal emotive experience.

Two classic words which have been used to describe this are transcendent and immanent –– “far away” and “close at hand.”  In religion this has meant that God is either so big and distant that we cannot comprehend, or it means that “God is (in) everything” (which is pantheism).

This is one reason the Incarnation is so important in Christian Faith. In the Incarnation we have the transcendent God brought close to us, both safeguarding the truth and breaking down the errors of each extreme. This is what the writer to the Hebrews describes with various applications.  The One who is God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father “for a little while” was made “lower than the angels,” that by the grace of God he might taste death for every one.

This is why, when Jesus read the Scriptures in the synagogue, he taught them as one having authority and not as the scribes.  The scribes too easily made religion irrelevant by conceptualizing the issues so that everything seemed abstract and distant, formal and sterile. But Jesus did not simply, in turn, tell a little story to touch their emotions.  Being the very Word of God, Jesus proclaimed the Word with a conviction of both truth and immediacy. Religion becomes moral authority when it is so relevant that, out of conviction, we are willing even to suffer for it.

Christianity is Jesus Christ.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Following Jesus in Baptism

Sunday: 13 January, 2013 –– The Baptism of the Lord
Isaiah 40:5, 9–11 / Titus 2:11–14; 3:4–7 / Luke 3:15–16, 21–22
Following Jesus in Baptism

Catholic identity is grounded in Baptism. I have found that many Catholics do not have a good understanding of what the Sacrament of Baptism means (especially its personal and practical implications), but they know it’s important and young Catholic parents want their children baptized. 

Some seem to think Baptism is a free ticket to heaven. It’s as if it’s the corollary to the Evangelical question: Have you accepted Jesus as your personal Savior? What does Baptism mean for our salvation?

On this Sunday the Church celebrates the baptism of Jesus Christ. It's an event that is recorded in all four gospels, so we know it's important. But there's a question that has puzzled Christians all down through the ages: Why was Jesus baptized?

Baptism does not have a strong Old Testament context. John’s baptism of repentance was a bridge. There is the inherent message that we need to be cleansed.

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, baptismal grace means forgiveness of original sin and all personal sins, and birth into the new life by which a person becomes a temple of the Holy Spirit and incorporated into the Church, the Body of Christ....  [CCC 1279].

Jesus didn't need any of those things! So, why was he baptized?

The whole life of Jesus is ultimately a mystery. Christian Faith confesses Jesus Christ as fully God and fully Man, but how the two inter-relate has been the basis of two major heresies and remains a mystery. It does seem that at his baptism, the man Jesus entered more fully into his identity and embraced his mission.

We can be sure of one thing: the baptism of Jesus is part of his mission, and his mission is clearly stated in the Scriptures: The angel told Joseph: he will save his people from their sins (Mtt 1:21).

How does Jesus save us? The Scriptures give more answers than I can include here. Today’s epistle reading is an extended treatise on salvation. More succinct verses tell us:

[God] made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God (2Cor 5:21).

In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses (Eph 1:7).

....all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death (Rom 6:3)
This last verse from St Paul’s fullest teaching on salvation gives an explicit connection with a Christian’s baptism, which is meant to portray dying to sin and rising to new life. But again, why did Jesus himself need to be baptized?

Here is the “heart” of what I want you to grasp: To save us, Jesus goes ahead of us and gives us a path to follow. Particularly, in his death he was taking upon himself our death. In his resurrection Jesus destroyed the power of death. When we follow Jesus, we too die to sin and thus have the hope of resurrection to eternal life.

This is the way we understand Baptism.  To take our sins upon himself and die our death, Jesus submitted to baptism to take the initial step of identifying with sinners so he could take the path to the cross to be our Savior. It was one more way the Son of God humbled himself to do for us what we could never do for ourselves.

Hear what the Church says in the Catechism: “Baptism is the first and chief sacrament of forgiveness of sins because it unites us with Christ, who died for our sins and rose for our justification, so that we too might walk in newness of life” (CCC #977). Jesus became like us in every way but sin so that we could become like him. Baptism is the first step in the process of becoming a saint! This is the highest calling in the world.

It is important to know, however, that Baptism is not an end in itself; it is the “gateway to life in the Spirit and the door which gives access to the other sacraments” (CCC #1214, emphasis added).  Unfortunately, not all baptized people live up to their baptism –– “the grace of Baptism delivers no one from all the weakness of nature” (CCC #978). But here is the issue for us on this day that we honor the baptism of the Lord: Am I living out of my Baptism?  

Being baptized into Jesus Christ is our highest calling. Nothing is greater than being identified with Jesus Christ. The implications are eternal.

As I progressed in my journey into the Church –– as I began to understood more of the tangible things that mark Catholic life –– I was pulled into the power of the Sacraments. I began to think more about my own Baptism (which, until then, had merely been some almost forgotten event in my past history). When I came to understand that entering the church and making the sign of the cross with holy water was a recall of my Baptism, I really started to take notice.

I want to challenge you to do something I have done ever since I learned this lesson. I use that simple gesture to consciously renew my Baptism. I try to enter the church early enough not to be hurried, so that I can focus on what I am doing, and then as I dip my finger into the water, I offer a prayer that goes something like this:  I belong to you, my Lord. I give myself to you fresh and new. Let the power of your baptismal waters again make me clean and totally yours. In your grace, never let me make this a mindless, mechanical gesture.

Jesus Christ gave his life for your salvation. He suffered death for you. He rose from the dead for you. And he initiated it by being baptized for you. Christian Baptism marks who we are.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

How To Love

Tuesday: 7 January, 2013 –– Tuesday after Epiphany
First John 4:7–10 / Mark 6:34–44
How To Love

Biblical scholars like to segment Scripture. They focus on each book as a stand-alone text, which is appropriate and helpful on one level, but not to the extent that the unity of Scripture and the interdependence of one book with another is lost.

In the New Testament the Gospels give the story –– the historical setting and the mighty words and mighty deeds of Jesus Christ. The epistles (letters) give Apostolic interpretation to the story found in the Gospels. Neither stands alone.

When we read the exhortations in the letters we can be both bewildered and overwhelmed. In today’s epistle we are admonished to love one another. Then John gives the model: God sent his only-begotten Son into the world.... We are given the big picture. We are told what it means: [God] loved us and sent his Son as expiation for our sins.

That can seem a bit abstract, but what does love look like in our real world? There are so many opinions and distortions. Here is where we turn to the Gospel as it gives us a picture of God’s love in action: When Jesus saw the vast crowd, his heart was moved with pity....

Jesus knows the hunger of their hearts, so he began to teach them many things. But as the day wore on and the crowd had nothing to eat, Jesus also knew the hunger of their stomachs. So the One whose name is Love extended that love through a multiplication of fish and bread. There is no enmity between the spiritual and material –– the love of God loves the whole person.

Jesus is still extending his love as he gives himself to us in the semblance of bread, and as his very life enters ours we are transformed so that John can say: love one another.

In the Gospel we see it: In this way the love of God was revealed to us.

In the Epistle we have it identified and explained: In this way the love of God was revealed to us.

We are called to love –– like Jesus –– because he first loved us.  Just like the New Testament is written, there is interdependence.

This is how to love.

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