When I was a child, I used to have nightmares about Judgment Day. From the beginning of my life, my problem has been a vivid imagination. I can see clearly things that people describe. Even now it is hard for me to believe that in the days before television, I only listened to Inner Sanctum on the radio and didn’t watch the series on a screen. So, when I heard stories about the Last Day and what it would be like to have to give an accounting to God for one’s life, it was easy for me to see myself standing before a huge throne, all the while trembling. The funny thing is, I never saw who was sitting on the throne. All I could ever see was the base of it – heavy and black and forbidding. I lacked the courage to look up. And I saw myself alone and defenseless.
My perspective has changed. Obviously I am not a child anymore. But I still tremble when I think about giving the final accounting. The throne is still massive. Now I wonder about the judgment process. Will there be someone accusing and someone defending as we are used to in our civil court proceedings. Or will there be only Jesus and the cross leaving the compulsion to compare my life with Christ’s, the One with whom I am supposed to be identified. That’s what we believe happens in Baptism, isn’t it? We rise from the waters identified with Christ.
As bleak as might be our thoughts about Judgment Day, today’s feast should change our perspective. With the Exaltation of The Holy Cross, we celebrate our reason to hope. By his stripes we are healed, as we sing in the hymn. Jesus’ dying on the cross changed that grizzly instrument of torture and death into one of life and redemption. Why else would be wear crosses on chains around our necks, or hang them on our walls? Why do people clutch them as they struggle to draw their last breaths? Christ’s triumph over death through his resurrection changed the meaning of the cross forever.
There is a foretaste of this mystery in the first reading. The Israelites, wandering in the desert are wandering also from God’s ways when poisonous serpents invade the community. To be bitten is to die. The Israelites cry out to Moses to intercede with God for them as they repent also from their sinful ways. Moses makes a bronze replica of the dreaded snake and tells the people that if a snake bites them, if they look on the serpent mounted on the pole they will be delivered and live. The hated snake becomes a symbol of hope. See the connection between the snake and the cross? In both cases, the instrument of death becomes a means to life.
Paul speaks to us about the cross’s transformation. In the magnificent second reading we hear a summation of the theology of Christ as the one who was with God from the beginning, who in his humbly becoming human accepted all the consequences of sin we humans experience while he remained sinless. Paul says Jesus embraced the Cross that led to our salvation and to God’s exalting him in his resurrection and made him eternal Lord. The Cross is the means. So it is exalted.
But there is more for us to ponder today. Remember the Liturgy of the Word is always a means of our transformation. What should be clear to us today is that for us Christians our path to salvation mirrors Christ’s. We must embrace the Cross. Translated, that means we must live what we believe, confessing with our tongues that Jesus is Lord and living lives that translate that belief into action.
In the Gospel, Nicodemus has to struggle with that reality. Of course he could not possibly have known what Jesus meant when he said that the Son of Man must be lifted up so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. God sent his son, not to judge the word and condemn it, but the world might be saved through him. That is why we die with Christ in Baptism and rise with him to live his life, to imitate him in pouring out our lives in service that all might live.
With the passage of time and a degree of maturity I began to understand that Jesus has entrusted the Church to his followers, to his friends called Christians. It began to enter my consciousness that Christ expects those who choose to believe in and to walk with him to have a deep sense of responsibility for each other. We are to live different kinds of lives so that Christ’s Good News shines through us and lifts up the lowly.
That is not an easy task today, nor has it ever been. These are not the best of times. We live in a world that doesn’t seem to care that much about Gospel. In our country the church is in decline. Read the worldwide statistics and one could conclude that a powerful virus is spreading though believers and as a result faith, at least faith in organized religion, is dying. Do you wince when you read that the second largest “denomination” in the United States is Ex-Catholics? Disillusioned Catholics apparently are leaving the church in droves, some to become part of other faith traditions, others to simply go it on their own. Some friends who used to walk with me in this Catholic faith pride themselves now in being secularists whose ideas of salvation have everything to do with the acquisition of power and the amassing of this world’s fortunes. For them, wealth and success are signs of God’s favor and a foretaste of the heaven to come. Then there are those who call themselves atheists.
Again I am saddened when I read the ranting of those who blame the Second Vatican Council and the empowering of the laity that resulted for the collapse of faith. For some, seeing the Church as the People of God equates with secularism. They would have the church return to the pre-Council days of the Tridentine Liturgy, Latin, and a renewing of focus on the transcendence of God, not on God’s imminence. The Eucharist is to be adored, not celebrated. There are not a few who revile Pope Francis for what they see him doing to the church. They do not want a poorer church serving the needs of the poor. They want a return of the church of splendor and power.
Will God’s people really pray with greater fervor if the language in which they pray is stilted, no longer reflective of the vernacular of their everyday speech?
Fervent patriotism is the new secular religion. Being part of this land of plenty is a sign of God’s special favor. The realization of the American Dream is about as close to salvation as many of our contemporaries want to get. Some hedge their bets by singing “God Bless America.” But if we heard the Gospel’s proclamation of the universality of God’s love for humankind, isn’t their something wrong with singing “God Bless America” without invoking the same benediction on every other land on the globe and its people? Aren’t there implications here for the attitude we should exhibit toward those undocumented little ones coming across our borders, fleeing the violence of their homeland and dreaming of living in the land of the free?
So I begin to think abut my standing before the throne of judgment on my last day. I won’t be attempting to dodge accusations of failed attempts hurled at me by an angry prosecutor. Rather, I will stand in the shadow of the cross, surrounded by all the wonderful things this life has to offer. Somewhere, perhaps hidden in the midst of all that lavish wealth, will tremble the little ones, the poor and the disenfranchised. There will be those shunned because of their race or color or sexual orientation. It was the Second Vatican Council that defined the Church as the People of God always exercising a fundamental option for the poor. Do you hear an echo of that in what Francis says and does?
The question I will hear the Voice ask then will be, “Which choices did you make?” The reality I will have to deal with will be how closely those choices mirrored the ones Jesus made. Will it be clear that I chose to take up my cross every day and follow him? Will it be obvious that I recognized Jesus in the poor and poured myself out in service of him in them? Did all this dictate how I gathered with my sisters and brothers in Christ to celebrate Eucharist? Was it clear by attitude and demeanor that all were welcome at the Table?
That is a lot to ponder and pray about.
In the meantime we must strive to be faithful to Christ’s call and to do our part to bring the Good News to the poor. By our lives we must convince them that it is all about love – again quoting Pope Francis. The hymn urges lifting high the Cross. That is our hope and our life.
Does taking Christ and the call of the Gospel seriously make one irrelevant in these times? That just might be another aspect of the Cross. Christ died on it. So might we.
The Liturgy of the Word is communal, just as is the Liturgy of the Eucharist. We gather individually and as part of the Assembly to be nourished at the Table of the Word. We do the same as we gather at the Table of the Eucharist. In both cases we are to be formed and transformed by what we hear and do. That is important to remember because our natural tendency might be to center on being individuals before our Lord and God and forget that together as the Assembly we are the Body of Christ, the Church. Perspective will impact how we hear, how we celebrate, and how we respond.
This Sunday the Prophet Ezekiel proclaims the prophecy because God commands it. There are dire consequences if he does not. The call is to conversion, be it the call to the House of Israel or to the wicked one, as we hear in the first reading. Israel is in exile, in the Babylonian captivity, and needs to be renewed in fidelity to God’s Law and must be weaned from pagan practices that weakened them, resulting in Israel’s downfall and Jerusalem’s destruction. The conversion will happen one person at a time. God holds the Prophet responsible for the proclamation. The hearer must respond to the challenge and return to God’s ways or not.
Conversion is a lifelong process both for the individual and for the church. When the faithful gather at the Table of the Word, they are supposed to listen in order to be challenged, and being challenged, to be transformed by the proclamation. What response does the Spirit prompt in my heart as I hear the Word? What effect does the Spirit prompt in this community of which I am a part? We can be so used to standing behind defenses, masked and clad in armor that deflects the message and shields the heart lest the Word penetrate.
Most of us gather regularly with the same community of individuals all coming as we do from the same neighborhood and class of society, and with our accepted ways of acting. We have causes that we support in common. We can be insular in the comfort of our pew. Have you ever been unnerved when, coming into church, you find that someone with whom you are unfamiliar is in your place? Granted, you might have been a few minutes later than usual when you arrived. But that place is where you have knelt and sat for some time now. It might not be until after the Preparation of the Gifts that you relax and take a couple of deep breaths, swallow and let go of your resentment.
You might not be alone in liking the older hymns that the choir sings, even the Latin hymns, the Gregorian Chant. You might enjoy listening to a well-prepared Lector proclaim the reading. Do you like the comfort that comes from a well-delivered sermon?
Well, maybe something more than that is supposed to be happening. It might not all be about comfort. The experience of the Liturgy of the Word might also be confrontational.
The readings this week gave me pause. It’s one thing to think of other people who could benefit from the lesson. What unsettled me was the question that pierced through a chink in my armor and entered my consciousness: Could Ezekiel be speaking to me? And if the prophet were speaking to me, what response would be expected. A fortiori, could the prophet be speaking to my parish community? If that were true, how should the community respond? To what would I and we have to die in order to rise to the life that Jesus would have us live?
At first I thought there was something in what I heard that appealed to the judgmental in me. These readings would seem to call for that ability. I would have to know who the wicked are and the evils of which they are guilty before I could warn them for the Lord. Knowing their wickedness and confronting it, as difficult as that might be, would be better than my silence warranting my being responsible for their receiving God’s wrath.
I liked the Gospel’s approach even better. If I recognized that someone sinned against me, at least the process of confrontation could begin between just the two of us. That’s what Jesus said. If our conversation did not bring about reform, then I could garner support for my cause from a few of my friends. And if that didn’t work, I would have to put the matter before the whole parish. There would be some consolation if the offender failed to listen to the whole parish because then the sinner could be shunned. There would be satisfaction in that, in knowing that I was right and the other was wrong. Treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector, Jesus said.
No sooner was I satisfied with my interpretation of the message than I began to feel uneasy. Was that the Spirit moving me? To shun means to avoid deliberately and habitually. That is what the community did to Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter. There are some faith communities that endorse shunning. Something gnaws at me. Why am I thinking that the church ought not do that? It is one thing for an individual to decide that s/he wants to leave the community, but excommunication is quite another matter.
To be honest, I winced at the stories in the news about certain political figures being denied Eucharist for stands they took on certain issues, for example, freedom of choice regarding abortion. But other politicians whose stands seemed to be in opposition to the church’s social Gospel and our consequent responsibility to care for the poor suffered no such denial. That struck me as odd. I am convinced that it is not the minister’s right to make that determination. That decision is the prerogative of the one presenting self in the Communion Procession.
Treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector. Then I thought about the example set by Jesus’ own table fellowship practice. The great accusation made against him in the case for his crucifixion was: This man welcomes sinners and eats with them. Among those sinners were tax collectors. The judgers knew that he shared his table with prostitutes, tax collectors, and other categories of people of ill repute. He was known to converse with lepers and Gentiles. How can I reconcile Jesus’ attitude with shunning?
I was tempted to think that Jesus statement about Gentiles and tax collectors warranted my shunning of one deemed by me or the community with me to be a sinner. Then I remembered that Jesus’ own first attitude toward Gentiles had had to change. His mission and message in the beginning he thought was meant to be only for the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Remember his encounter with the Canaanite woman a few Sundays ago? The woman’s faith forced Jesus to see he had to include Gentiles when she reminded Jesus that even the dogs eat from the crumbs that fall from the master’s table. And Matthew, tradition has it, was a tax collector.
So, what impact ought these readings have on me? How should my attitude and behavior be affected? Certainly the desired response is not to be blind or indifferent to evils being perpetrated. The Church’s social Gospel, the universal call for justice and peace, attests to that. So does the Church’s proclamation supporting primacy of place for the poor, a fundamental option for the poor, attest to the call for justice. In the face of social evils it is not enough for me to shrug my shoulders, convinced, as I am, that I would never do such things and conclude that such evils will always go on. Do I really agree with some of those televangelists who say if the poor would just work harder they wouldn’t be poor any longer, thus absolving the wealthy of responsibility for them? Do I agree that their poverty is a sign of God’s disfavor with them and is a punishment for their sins – theirs or their parents’?
This is where my on-going conversion comes into play. The judgment scene at the end of Matthew’s Gospel ought to root out any indifference in me, that is, unless I won’t mind being banished with the goats that failed to recognize Jesus and therefore failed to respond to his needs evidenced in the poor, the hungry, the homeless and the naked. Ah, but that is for a discussion of another Sunday’s Liturgy of the Word.
My call is to live the Gospel that for Paul is summed up in this injunction: Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another. The commandments tell me all the things I should not do to my brothers and sisters. Such deeds ought not be part of my life. But not doing is not enough. What I must do is love. And that means loving in imitation of the way Jesus loved. That means forgiving, too. I must love even those I deem unlovable. It will be amazing what I will learn as I struggle with that process.
What I recognize as my call as an individual translates into a call for the community with which I gather. After all, we will move together from the Table of the Word where we received the call to conversion, to the Table of the Eucharist where the Spirit will accomplish the transformation of the Bread and Wine and of us.
Love demands the proclamation: All are welcome here. The words might be said, but does the attitude of the Presider and of the Assembly proclaim that to the ones who have known rejection because of their race, their gender, or their sexual orientation? Those who approach to celebrate Eucharist and to receive worthily must accept forgiveness in their own lives in order that having eaten and drunk they may be sent to proclaim that forgiveness and hope to all they meet.
As Church we must listen to Pope Francis and follow his example. Look at the amazing impact he had during his recent visit to South Korea. He as said over and over again during his papacy that the Christian call is all about love. And he is the first to admit that there is nothing more demanding than that. Obviously he has taken Paul to heart. Love does no evil to the neighbor; hence, love is the fulfillment of the law.
That’s what we must believe and put into practice.
The tone of voice used determines the shade of meaning. You duped me, O Lord, and I let myself be duped. The dictionary defines a dupe as one who is easily deceived or cheated; in other words, a fool. So, to be duped is to be made a fool of. Was Jeremiah raging with fist raised to the heavens when he spoke these words? Was he broken hearted, with tears streaming down his face, as he whispered them? Was there a wry smile, accompanied by a wagging head that left Jeremiah telling God that God had really pulled a clever one on the lad when God chose him to be a prophet? It’s all in how you hear the words as they are proclaimed. Regardless of how you hear them, the truth remains that for Jeremiah the dice has been cast. Even if prophesying costs him his life, he must do what God called him to do. Jeremiah is in love with God and God’s people, come what may. And he can’t be quiet about it.
Jeremiah’s feelings may mirror Peter’s in the Gospel. Remember last week’s reading? Peter proclaimed for the other disciples that they all are convinced that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. That means that, for them, Jesus is the Messiah of God, the anointed one God has sent into the world. Remember the praise that Jesus lavished on Peter for his insight? Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah…. And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. It is difficult to reconcile such generous praise with the dressing down that the Rock receives a few short verses later: Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me!
What has happened? Quite simply, it seems Peter has a lot to learn about what the term, Messiah, means. He must be disabused of some of the assumptions he has made. To this point, for Peter the word Messiah had rich meaning that included with it power and prestige in the here and now. Peter assumed that Jesus, as Messiah, would set up a mighty kingdom, a rich kingdom. Peter assumed that Jesus would drive out the oppressors who made life miserable for the Jews. And Peter could hardly wait, because when all that happened, the rewards would start pouring in. Who would be there in a position of favor to bask in the newfound luxury? You guessed it. That one would be Peter.
But those dreams are dashed in today’s Gospel when Jesus begins to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly… and be killed and on the third day be raised. What about the might and the glory? What about the throne? Where is the position of power in which Peter sees himself sharing? After all, Jesus had just said that Peter was foundational to the kingdom that Jesus was bringing.
There is a word in the text whose force we might miss. Peter took Jesus aside and began to rebuke him. To rebuke is to give a complete dressing down to. The word is harsh and severe in meaning. Maybe Peter shook his fist in Jesus’ face. The words might have hissed from Peter’s lips in his panic. The panic is born of Peter’s fear that Jesus has duped him. Peter has not forgotten the first words Jesus addressed to him and his brothers. Come after me and I will make you fishers of humankind. That’s a position of power, isn’t it?
When Jesus tells Peter to get behind me, Satan, he is not banishing Peter, excommunicating him, as it were. Rather, Jesus calls Peter a tempter in the same way Satan argued with God in the Book of Job. The order to get behind me tells Peter to walk in Jesus’ footsteps and learn from what he observes over Jesus’ shoulder. Jesus will not be a warrior Messiah. Jesus is a servant Messiah. This Messiah will associate with all the wrong people – the poor, the blind, the lepers – all those whose condition gives evidence to many that they are sinners and out of favor with God. That was the commonly accepted assumption of the times. How will Peter reconcile that assumption with the views of this Messiah who sees suffering and death to be at the very core of his mission? Rejection. Crucifixion. Death. There is nothing worse that can be imagined. And Peter probably missed the part about being raised on the Third Day.
What tone of voice do you imagine that Jesus used in the final discourse of this pericope? We probably would like to hear the gentle Jesus reassuring Peter and the other disciples. But could it be that Jesus used a stern voice with a hint of anger in it to shock the audience into hearing the new basic condition for discipleship? Those who wish to come after me must deny themselves, take up their crosses, and follow me. In other words, if one seeks discipleship for the good things that will follow, the prosperity, power, and position that will follow, that one is following the wrong Christ. The trappings of glory do not belong here. This is a servant church whose foundation is Rock (Peter).
You duped me, O lord, and I let myself be duped! Jeremiah’s words are now on Peter’s lips. What was true for Jeremiah is also true for Peter. Peter may have been duped, but there is no turning back. Life without Jesus would be no life at all. He may still have a lot to learn, even the basic meaning of discipleship, but the truth emerging is that for Peter to live is Christ and to die is gain, as Paul will say when he faces his own death.
People can come to Christ from various motives as they begin to walk with him on The Way. That walking takes time for the walking to be formational. Inevitably that walking necessitates denying self and giving up presuppositions. That walking must be in Jesus’ footsteps in order to learn lessons from watching over his shoulder and doing what Jesus does. Those who aspire to discipleship must accept being vulnerable. Jesus’ values are not the world’s values. This call to discipleship is not about power, but service, about serving the poorest of the poor and giving them primacy of place.
Pope Francis, from the first moments of his papacy, has been echoing this call as he urges reform in the church. Make no mistake about it. It is reform Francis is preaching when he yearns for a poorer church serving the needs of the poor. How else do you interpret his pleading with the hierarchy to get out and walk among the people and even smell like them? Let their shoes get muddy in the walking. Francis has put aside the splendid trappings of popes past. He has said that he is not over anyone, but stands beside. He wants the bishops to do the same, as they become those who stand in the midst as ones who serve.
Discipleship entails welcoming all and gathering with them at the Table to give thanks to God – the word Eucharist means thanksgiving. There, dying and rising happen as the Assembly breaks Bread and shares the Cup and is transformed into the Body of Christ in order to be sent to be broken and distributed until all the poor have been fed and lifted up. Being vulnerable servants might entail dying, too. It did for Jesus. It will for Peter. It does for all those who follow Jesus.
Don’t miss the promise. For the Son of Man will come with his angels in his Father’s glory, and then he will repay all according to their conduct. I think of St. Ignatius of Antioch who, as bishop, urged his people not to try to dissuade him from the Martyrdom, the lion’s jaws that awaited him. His plea was for them to let him be ground like wheat in the lions’ jaws, an allusion to the flour from which the Eucharistic Bread would be kneaded. For Ignatius, the death of martyrdom was not defeat but victory in Christ. So must it be for all who follow Christ. We may not be cast to the lions, but we may be abased in our service.
Sometimes I wonder if that isn’t how it is supposed to be. Sometimes I wonder if that isn’t the lesson to be learned and taken to heart by all those who let themselves be duped by the message.