The celebration of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe brings to conclusion another Liturgical Year. We have completed the journey begun nearly 12 months ago on the First Sunday of Advent. We have walked the Way with and been formed by Matthew’s Gospel. Today we are given the opportunity to reflect on how we have done, on how we were transformed by the Word. What did the Lord accomplish in us along the Way as we listened to the Good News?
On this feast it would be natural to expect readings that put forth images of a regal Christ. There is something of that in the Gospel as we hear of the One who judges the sheep and the goats, but if we listen closely we will hear that in royalty, that is in the images of power and grandeur, is not where we will find the Christ. Surprisingly, it is not the recognition of Christ that is rewarded. Neither the righteous nor the condemned recognized him in those to whom they did or did not minister. Our Messiah is not a power-filled monarch, regally clothed. While it is true that some Evangelicals preach that kind of Messiah, one who doles out temporal wealth and success on those who acknowledge and give their lives over to him, I can’t identify with that, not when I have to process the readings proclaimed on this feast.
I wonder if it is the Holy Spirit that urges me to hear Pope Francis urging the Church, the People of God, to reform and be more evidently a poorer Church, serving the needs of the poor. The image of the Shepherd in Ezekiel’s prophecy resonates with the pope’s urging the shepherds in the Church to be among the sheep, and even to smell like them.
Through Ezekiel, God says to us: I myself will look after and tend my sheep. As a shepherd tends his flock when he finds himself among his scattered sheep, so will I tend my sheep. Depending upon your condition and situation, either you will find comfort in this prophecy or reason to tremble. Why is God doing the shepherding himself? How did the sheep become scattered? The sheep are the House of Israel, God’s beloved ones, now defeated and brought to servitude in exile. They are scattered because those who had the primary responsibility for shepherding had not been diligent in their task. The princes, the powerful, and the elite in Israel, looked after their own needs, cared for themselves and watched out for their own profits, all the while ignoring the desperate and the poor before them. In that preoccupation they failed to notice their own corruption and were content to take up with the pagan ways of those among whom they lived. They became weak along the way and so fell to Babylon, were taken captive and lead out of the ruins of Jerusalem into exile. Jerusalem was destroyed. God’s judgment is harsh. The sleek and the strong will be destroyed. God will gather and shepherd the vulnerable safely home.
Where are we in Ezekiel’s prophecy? We make a mistake if we think that the prophecy addressed only those long-ago times and those leaders during the Babylonian Captivity. In the Liturgy of the Word we hear the living Word of God. The prophecy is for us now, for this Assembly of God’s people gathered at the Table of the Word. What do we hear? That depends on how we have been exercising our Baptismal Priesthood.
Paul raises the question with the Corinthians (and us) in the second reading. All of us have been baptized into Christ’s death so that we might live in Christ’s resurrection. Christ’s dying and rising is a timeless process of reordering creation disordered by sin. Baptism reorders us, if you will, by destroying sin’s power over us and subjects us to God’s rule in our lives. Christ was the first to subject himself to that order and so is the first fruits of the new creation. When Christ comes in judgment it will be to gather all those who belong to Christ, that is the baptized, those who are identified with Christ in Baptism, those who do in their daily lives what Christ would do. All these Christ will present to the Father in the final restoration of the order God had in mind at the dawn of creation.
Hang on now. We come to one of the most difficult readings in all of the four Gospels. Matthew’s judgment scene is the parable that immediately precedes Matthew’s Passion Narrative. I have never been able to hear this reading without cringing and wondering on which side of the aisle would I be standing were I part of that judgment scene. It’s clear from the reactions of those in attendance on both sides that they wonder how they wound up where they did. That should serve as a warning to the smug among us that think they are doing all the right things, all the while looking down on the inferior others. Sheep. Goats. In which group will I find myself?
What does the judgment turn about? It’s not what at first you might expect. Notice that there is nothing about religious observance in what the Son of Man says to the assembled, nothing about their going to temple and keeping the Sabbath, nothing about going to Mass on Sundays and Holy Days, and nothing about keeping the laws of fast and abstinence. Instead, the judgment turns about recognizing the needs of others and responding to them simply because they are in need. It is in the judgment that those in the parable find out whether or not they ministered to the Son of Man.
Listen to the Gospel. I was hungry. I was thirsty. I was naked, sick, and in prison and you responded to my needs. We are confronted again with the primacy of place the poor and the needy and the vulnerable among us have in God’s sight. Notice that no other quality other than their need is spelled out for us. There is nothing about their being deserving in every other aspect of their lives. There is nothing about their being Jews (or among the Baptized). There isn’t even anything said about their moral character. All we hear is that they are desperate and Sheep fed, clothed, and visited them. Sheep probably buried them with dignity when they died. (Burying the dead, a traditional corporal work of mercy, is not mentioned in the parable.) The Sheep are stunned when they hear the Son of Man make all of those desperate conditions his own. They are amazed when they are praised for having ministered to the Son of Man. It is in stupefaction that they ask when they had cared for him. It’s clear that they did not recognize him. That seems to tell us that service of the Son of Man, of Christ, was not their primary motivation – at least at first glance. Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of the least of mine, you did for me! Imagine.
Think of Francis of Assisi who was repulsed by leprosy coming to his senses in the presence of a leper pleading for help. Francis bathed the leper and dressed his wounds. In the process he recognized Christ. Then he embraced the leper and kissed him. Think of Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta trying to help Malcolm Muggeridge understand why she was so committed to the service of Calcutta’s poorest of the poor. In effect, she told him that when she ministered to those poor ones she ministered to Christ in his passion. Muggeridge listened to Mother Teresa and afterwards pondered what she had told him. An agnostic, he pondered the message and in the process he found faith.
If there is a characteristic that dominates the Goats in the parable it is their religious orthodoxy. They thought they knew the Law and had done all the right things through their observance of the Law. They hadn’t acted on the needs of those in the streets crying out for alms because they did not recognize the Son of Man there. Their conclusion probably was that the poor were poor either because of their own sin or that of their parents. They saw poverty as God’s judgment and punishment. When did we see you in these deplorable conditions and not respond to your needs? He will answer them, Amen I say to you, what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me.
Remember when Jesus was asked which was the greatest commandment in the Law? He said, loving God with one’s whole being and one’s neighbor as one’s self is the greatest commandment summing up all that the Law and the Prophets proclaim. What we have in Matthew’s judgment scene parable is the application of that commandment and its implications. There is no greater evidence of Christ’s reigning in our lives than by our keeping the Great Commandment. Not to harp on the issue, but isn’t that what Pope Francis is urging the Church to see and to put into practice? And there are those raging against him, not wanting to hear that word.
We are a Eucharistic people called to move from the Table of the Word to the Table of the Eucharist. We are to celebrate Eucharist and so enter into the Lord’s dying and rising. We attest to the Mystery when we take and eat: this is my body. We attest to it when we take and drink: this is my blood. But we had better hear and take to heart the challenge contained in the next phrase sometimes missed because unfortunately the Presider proclaims it as an aside. Do this in my memory.
We will be judged on how we put Eucharist into action, how we live the Christ whose flesh we eat and whose blood we drink. We are always sent from the Table to be bread broken and cup poured out until all have eaten and all have drunk – all – not just those assembled in the pew with us.
I begin to think that the challenge for us is to think of those we might be tempted to despise and make sure they become the primary objects of our ministry even if we are wounded in the process. If we don’t, we just might miss Christ when he comes again.
Another Church year is nearly over. Again we have journeyed with Jesus along The Way. Next Sunday is the Feast of Christ the King, the final Sunday. It is not surprising that the readings for this week begin to focus our attention on the important things, on how we are supposed to live to be ready for the end times. Our times seem to be cynical about purpose in life. It’s all about youth, power, and wealth. A really harsh judgment would say life is about cynicism and egocentricity. What do you think? What is life all about, really?
One thing seems to be clear from this Sunday’s readings, something that we can use as our starting point. Life ought not to be frittered away by idlers with nothing to do. If we are people of faith, we shouldn’t wish we could be among the idle rich. There is work to be done, even if one is rich, as we prepare for the coming of the Kingdom. Hear the first reading. The translation of the opening line is a bit unfortunate. When one finds a worthy wife could better be translated when one finds a powerful or wealthy woman. In other words, the woman’s value does not depend on her being married. It is her industry, her hard work, and the constancy of her care for the poor and the needy that cause her neighbors to marvel and her fame to grow. Mother Teresa and Dorothy Day should come to mind. Monica, Augustine’s mother, is another of our spiritual ancestors we can admire, and Mary Magdalene, too. Do a search and you will find among the saints many women who put their fortune and themselves at the service of the Gospel.
Of course gender is an issue in the reading, given the husband’s delight in the industrious woman, but gender is not the primary significance. The industry is. Women and men both are called to that same attitude. If the husband in the reading does nothing more than idle away his days rejoicing in his unfailing prize, there is nothing to be admired in him.
Every once in awhile it happens. A leader of a fundamentalist sect convinces the followers that the end is near. Judgment Day is at hand. The membership is seduced and convinced to drop everything and head for a designated place where the Messiah’s return will occur. The leader has interpreted the Book of Revelation. Or, he has read the configuration of the planets and stars. Sometimes the members drink poison in order to get there. Sometimes they sit and wait. When the appointed time passes by, the purpose of their being together also passes. They go back to whatever had lost attraction for them in the world. Such actions don’t seem to fit with Paul’s admonitions in the second reading. For Paul, just the opposite is the rule.
Stay alert. Stay sober. Of course the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. Some people can focus on that fact and become paralyzed by it. Paul is speaking to children of the light and children of the day. Paul is speaking to the Church, to the baptized living now the Priesthood of the Baptized, living now the intimate relationship with God in Christ that begins in Baptism. The difference is faith that contrasts markedly with those who are without faith. The latter are the ones who are surprised by disaster, the ones victimized by thieves in the night. They cower in fear and dread. The faithful know that the Lord will return on the final day. They watch and are ready. They work with that day in mind.
It seems that in the early days of Paul’s preaching, he was convinced that the Lord Jesus would return and draw everything to conclusion in Paul’s lifetime. Some got that message and stopped working, stopped planning for the future, stopped striving to hand on the Gospel to the succeeding generation. People sat and waited and sponged off the faith community. That’s why Paul, once he saw that the end might not be tomorrow, issued the edict that if they don’t work, don’t feed them. We do not know the day or the hour. As believers in the Lord’s return in glory, work for that day and earn your daily bread. Do your part to hasten the Day. Watch. Be ready. Work.
Once again we have a difficult parable for the Gospel this week. Nothing seems fair about it, especially in the lines: For to those who have, more will be given and they will grow rich; but from those who have not, even what they have will be taken away. Where is the justice in that?
Who is the man going on a journey? From the placement of the parable in Matthew’s Gospel, it would seem the man is Jesus. The parable can be heard in the context of a last word to the disciples before the impending crucifixion and death. The journey will be the time between those events and Jesus’ return on judgment day. Jesus is entrusting the Gospel to the disciples, entrusting himself to them to the degree or capacity of which they are capable. The questions are: how will they live with the gift? What will they do with it? By the way, in strictly monetary terms, one talent was a considerable amount. And although the parable plays out as a lesson in economics even to the Master’s asking why the one talent wasn’t put in the bank at least since there it could have earned interest, money is not what the parable is about, but the wealth of the Gospel and the impact belief in that Good News should have on the lives of believers.
Now go back and reread the first reading and the praise of the woman of industry. What she did with her position and power is what Jesus expects the disciples to do with what has been given to them until the day of his return. Work hard. Care for the family. Be mindful of and respond to others’ needs, especially the needs of the orphans and widows, all the while exercising a fundamental option for the poor, recognizing them as sisters and brothers in the Lord. Legend had it that during the time of Nero’s persecution of the Christians, the Romans looking on the slaughter marveled at how these Christians love one another. Perhaps that is why times of persecution often become times of great growth for the Church. The Gospel makes sense in that context. Those looking on and marveling at love in action want to share in it.
Do you hear Pope Francis’s challenges to today’s Church resonating now, his call for a poorer church, serving the needs of the poor? Hear his challenge to look at others, regardless of their faith or lack of it as brothers and sisters and think about the impact that would have on how we wage war, and how we would look at the aliens. This might be why Francis has said that he does not rule over believers but serves among them, equal with them. Getting the impact of his message, is it a wonder why some in the church condemn his message?
Now, who is the poor wretch with the one talent? We are going to get a vivid picture of that one next week in Matthew’s Judgment Scene. For now, suffice it to say that the man with the one talent stands for those who are given faith but do nothing with it. They do not live the Gospel. The Gospel is not translated into works of charity in their lives. Remember the question popular some years ago? If you were accused of being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you? The lord expects that there would be.
So, it comes down to the attitude we bring to Eucharist. Certainly there are those who come out of obligation, gather around the Table and watch the celebration. They may even share in the meal. But what happens afterwards. If it all stops there for them, they may be the ones with the one talent.
What is the Eucharist supposed to be about? The Eucharist, for the Baptized, is to be an exercise of the Priesthood of the Baptized. They gather with the Presider to celebrate and give thanks to God in the dying and rising of Jesus. They are called to full and active co-celebration. They gather to take and eat for this is my body. They gather to take and drink for this is my blood. But they do not stop there. They come also to be sent to do this in my memory. They are sent to be break broken and cup poured out, to be Christ’s continuing presence in the World’s market place until all the hungry have eaten and all the thirsty have drunk and so come to know the love of God that comes to them in Christ.
What is important is the understanding of memory. Do this and Christ is present. Those Baptized who have eaten and drunk are the continuing presence of Jesus just as they are enabled through faith to recognize Jesus in those poor and hungry who are served.
In the end it is about love. That is what Pope Francis reminds us to be about. Love as Jesus loves you. Make it practical. Do all in Jesus’ memory and you will have nothing to fear when the Lord comes again. You will have done your part to build up the Kingdom. And much more will be given you besides.
Again this Sunday we leave the Sundays in Ordinary Time, this time to celebrate the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica in Rome. The anniversary of the dedication of a church is always a major feast day for that church’s people. So, the anniversary of the dedication of the Lateran Basilica, (November 09, 324) the cathedral church of the bishop of Rome, the pope, is a major feast for the universal Church. According to the Ordo for the celebration of the Eucharist, the Lateran is the mother and head of all churches of Rome and the world. This was the residence of the popes from the 4th century until their moving to Avignon in 1309. The basilica was the site of five ecumenical councils and was dedicated to the Savior. Later the dedication named John the Baptist.
How will the Liturgy of the Word challenge us today?
Each of the readings takes us on a different track and points to a different aspect of church. Ezekiel’s vision of the temple should thrill us. It will if we remember that the prophecy proclaimed was a vision of a temple that had not yet been restored. Written at the time of the Babylonian Captivity, the Temple in Jerusalem lay in ruins with the Jews in exile. Ezekiel’s temple, you might note, is curiously void of people. Only Ezekiel and the angel conducting the tour of the Temple are there. This temple is splendid and the water flowing from the Temple makes the difference. This water flows into the Dead Sea whose waters become fresh and support water creatures allowing them to increase and multiply. Desert lands become fertile and fruit trees of every kind shall grow; their leaves shall not fade, nor their fruit fail. Every month they shall bear fresh fruit, for they shall be watered by the flow from the sanctuary. Their fruit shall serve for food, and their leaves for medicine.
Imagine hearing the prophecy while you are chained and in exile. Be wounded as you listen. Experience the longing to be home again. Feel the grief that would weigh on your heart as you pondered the news of the destruction of your homeland. Imagine the sorrow as you wonder if you will ever be free again, ever be restored to what once was, and able to walk those one familiar streets once more. To those in that state of near despair the Prophet speaks of grace, the steadfast and undying love of God that flows from the temple and will not fail to transform the desert of despair into a lush new Eden where every tree and its fruit will be accessible. Barren waters will teem with fish. No net will be cast and come back empty. Just imagine.
Now hear the prophecy in any situation that you think is hopeless. A dear relationship is broken and seemingly beyond repair. A child is estranged from the family. A war seems as though it will never end. Poverty envelopes multitudes and children are hungry. Earlier today I stood at the bedside of a dying man and prayed with his weeping family. The Prophet tells us that no situation is hopeless. We must remember that the restoration may be beyond on wildest imaginings, but we are the ones who limit the possibilities. Our God has greater things in mind. Even death has to yield before God.
The Church is Domus Dei and Domus Ecclesiae. The Church is God’s house and the house of the church as the people of God. The church building stands and serves as a reminder of on-going presence. Could that be why churches are often built on the highest hill of a city or town? The church can be a beacon in the direst of times reminding the faithful that God dwells in our midst. The building reminds us that it is there that we gather at the Table of the Word and the Table of the Eucharist, there to be nurtured, to be formed and transformed as the Body of Christ, even as we eat the Body and drink the Blood. Constantly we are to be pointed toward dying and rising and so dare to believe and have hope even as we are threatened by the darkest night. Grace flows in abundance, in rushing torrents, always.
Hear Paul in the second reading remind us of the implications of Baptism. In reality he reminds us of the implications of the Incarnation. Do you not know that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? The intimate union between God and human kind is forever. For us, it began when the Word, the Son of God, took on flesh. What we might fail to recognize is that that taking on of flesh goes beyond the individuated flesh that is Jesus’ body. Flesh is humanity. God in Christ has taken on the human condition. The union is forever.
God’s plea in Hebrew Scripture is to let God be our God and people to be God’s own is accomplished. In Baptism, we are plunged into the waters to die there to all that is not of God, i.e., to sin, and rise from the waters to the new life that is ours in Christ. Our identity with Christ, animated by the Spirit poured out over us, is complete. If the Spirit of God dwells in us, as Paul says, then it follows that God dwells in us. Who or what can separate us from the love of God? If we believe the reality, then the answer is: nothing. If God is for us, who can be against us? We sing the verse. Do we believe it?
Living that reality is the challenge of the Second Vatican Council’s Constitution: The Church in the Modern World. To live the reality of Church means to witness to love of God that comes to us in Christ Jesus through everything we say and do. It must have an impact on how we see our brothers and sisters in the human family, to see them as brothers and sisters in Christ. What does that say about racism? What does that say about sexism? What impact does that have on how we wage war? Is there anything in terms of human relationships that is not affected by the reality we are called to believe in and to profess?
It is hard for us to imagine the rage overflowing as Jesus cleanses the Temple in this pericope from John’s Gospel. The Passover is near. It will be during another Passover that Jesus will be crucified. The words are quite clear. (Jesus) made a whip out of cords and drove them (those who sold oxen, sheep, and doves, as well as the money changers) all out of the temple area. We are so used to insipid holy pictures of Jesus and plaster of Paris statues, that we might imagine a placid Jesus doing all this. He must only have seemed to be angry. Well, not if we hear John’s words. That whip Jesus swung stung. The tables crashed when he flipped them over. The coins zinged across the tiled floor as the moneychangers fled in panic.
But remember, those people were carrying out a necessary function. The sacrifices of Temple worship couldn’t happen without them and their oxen, sheep and doves. What is the problem? Take these out of here, and stop making my Father’s house a marketplace! The marketing has become an end in itself. Profit, the end of all marketing, has become what is important. Sound familiar? That kind of marketing can happen anywhere in any marketplace. Are they even aware of where they are and of what should be happening in that place?
In my mind, there is not question that Pope Francis challenges us to live this reality. Shortly after the Cardinal from Brazil became the Bishop of Rome, he celebrated the Chrism Mass, the Mass of the Oils, and challenged the clergy to change the way they are living and become shepherds living with the smell of the sheep. He spoke not only to the ordained priests, but also to all who live the priesthood of the Baptized. To heed Francis’s challenge we must cease being set apart from and become ones that live among. Elitism must be banished along with any lording over. Now we can understand why Damian of Molokai could rejoice with his leprosy and he could address the flock as his fellow lepers. In light of Pope Francis’s invitation Damian makes sense.
There are those even among the clergy who denounce Pope Francis and condemn his message, calling him a Marxist, a Communist. Perhaps. But if he is, he is only translating in to the vernacular the developing Social Gospel of the Church. It is one thing to speak of the fundamental option for the poor. It is another to be numbered among the poor. It is one thing to decry a palace the conditions in which the poor live. It is another to live in the conditions they do and to experience their want and hunger.
Pope Francis calls us as Church to live in the existential peripheries of pain, of injustice, of ignorance and indifference to religion. We are called to minister to those in every need and to journey with them. Like Simeon, we are to share the weight of the crosses they carry. If we do, the talents the Master has entrusted to us will multiply in those who see and dare to believe.
If you have followed the sad campus shooting in Marysville, WA, you must have been stunned. Or maybe not, since such events happen so regularly these days that we can become numb to them. But I am hearing a Gospel message like the shoot from the tree stump. One of the lads shot wrote a Tweet from his hospital bed that in effect told the shooter, himself a suicide, that he loved him like a brother, he forgave him, and will always miss him. I read the 14-year-old’s words and wondered if I, in similar circumstances, could do that. I could, if I take the Gospel to heart.
We come together as Church to hear these Scriptures on this Sunday as we celebrate the dedication of the Lateran Basilica in Rome. We come together as Church to be formed by what we hear and transformed by what we do. We must let the challenge in these Scriptures stir up and renew our faith. We must let the challenge remind us of who and what we are in this Body we call the Church. We are called to remember the continuing presence of Christ we are as Church in the world. And when we see the enormity of the task and wonder if we can rise to the challenge, then it is that we gather around the Table and remember. Then, having given thanks in Eucharist and shared in the Holy Meal, we can be sent to be the Church in the modern world and there to love in such a way that all might believe.