Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time – A – August 20, 2017

A reading from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah 56:1,6-7
A reading from St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans 11:13-15, 29-32
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew 15:21-28

Dear Reader,

Some people, even Catholics among them, are no comfortable with the word catholic.  They are much more comfortable with protestant or sectarian, at least in practice.  To be catholic is to be universal.  Like it or not, God is catholic.  Granted, that might not seem apparent in the early books of Hebrew Scripture when God is busy about calling and forming the Jews as a people set apart as God’s own.  Many are the mandates of separatism that, of course, can quickly translate into elitism.  Ritual impurity resulting in exclusion from temple worship could be incurred through contact with Gentiles, just as it could from touching lepers, or anyone or anything deemed unclean and therefore to be avoided.  Living in fidelity to God’s law will result in a relationship between the Jews and God that will make all the other nations marvel.

Then come proclamations of God’s catholic call like the one found in today’s reading from the Prophet Isaiah.  (Read the skipped verses and you will find even the formally and formerly excluded eunuchs, along with the foreigners are included in the call.)  Through Isaiah, the Lord invites all to enter into this relationship of love, celebrated in formal worship and in lives lived in fidelity to the Covenant.  The burnt offerings and sacrifices of these once unclean will be acceptable on God’s altar.  My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.

Even Jesus had to change his mind, or rather, had to grow in the understanding of what the Father called him to do.  There is no shortage of quotes that state clearly during the early stages of his ministry that Jesus knew he was sent for the lost sheep of the house of Israel.  In proclaiming the Good News, his initial intent is to restore fervor to the faith life of the Jews.  In the beginning, Jesus would have been careful about incurring ritual impurity through contact with foreigners, or any other class of people declared unclean.  Then came the encounter between Jesus and the Canaanite woman in today’s Gospel.  Translate Canaanite foreigner, and foreigner, unclean and you will see the power in their exchange.

The woman came to Jesus in the midst of a crowd and in desperation.  Her daughter was tormented by a demon.  It doesn’t matter whether this refers to a possession by the devil, or some disease that ravished the girl.  The situation, in the mother’s eyes, was catastrophic.  If you are a parent, put yourself in the mother’s shoes.

The woman was not self-conscious, much less was she concerned about what her neighbors would think of her when she cried out to get Jesus’ attention and inform him of her plight.  It is painful to hear that Jesus paid her no heed in spite of her persistence.  She embarrassed the disciples who also seemed to feel no inclination to respond to her concerns.  They wanted Jesus to silence her and get rid of her.  Remember when the disciples were confronted by the hunger of the 5000? They saw the great need then.  They wanted Jesus to send them away so their needs could be met elsewhere.  Unlike that time, Jesus did not tell them to do something for the woman themselves.  Ignoring the woman, Jesus said his call was only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.  The woman heard him and persisted.  She called him Lord, and added, please help me!

Jesus’ reply should make us wince.  It is cruel.  It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs. (Dog was the pejorative term Jews applied to the Gentiles.)  Undismayed, the woman turned the insult to her own advantage as she reminded Jesus that even if she is a dog, dogs get the leftovers from their master’s’ table.  Wow!  That, in effect, was what Jesus said, too.  He recognized that in this foreigner he found the faith response that he had been searching for from the lost sheep of the house of Israel.  Jesus assured this giant of faith that she was not a dog, but a woman.  The crumb she sought was given to her.   And the woman’s daughter was healed from that hour.

We hear a major turning point in Jesus’ ministry.  Now his invitation begins to be catholic and will include tax collectors, prostitutes, Samaritans and Canaanites.  Jesus begins to reflect the catholicity of God’s love.  That should be a comfort to most of us who are Gentiles.  If his vision had remained unchanged, despite the woman’s plea, we would be outside the pale of Jesus’ concern.

Dare I ask the question: How Catholic are you?  Before you answer, think a moment.  Whom do you think should be called to the table?  Or, rather, who should be excluded?  A great scandal from the Church in various ages, including our own, is the willingness on the part of some to exclude.  It ought not be the prerogative of any minister to refuse Eucharist to someone who presents him/herself.  I hope we are sad when we remember how recently in our history Catholic churches were segregated – and not just in the south.  Harlem had that experience.  Move beyond racism to any other classifications to which humankind are sorted.  With which of these people would you be willing to stand in solidarity at the table?  Would the presence of any of them scandalize you?

The challenge today remains the same as it has been from the beginning.  Love.  Jesus said, Love one another as I have loved you.  Love with the love that expresses itself in service.  Love with a love that is universal.  If there is an individual or class or category of people that you abhor, imagine yourself to be one of them.  Be a black, or a gay, or a transgender.  Be a Muslim or a Jew.  Be a Democrat or a Republican.  Hatred drives and divides our society.  The first few minutes of the nightly news will confirm that.  It is love that will heal and restore unity and bring peace.

Our call is to love with a love that imitates Jesus’ and is universal.  It is that love that brings the kingdom Jesus promised, the kingdom whose coming we pray for each time we pray: Our Father…

Sincerely,

Didymus

VIGIL OF MARY’S ASSUMPTION INTO HEAVEN – August 15, 2017

 

A reading from the first Book of Chronicles 15:3-4, 15-16; 16:1-2
A reading from the first Letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians 15:54b-57
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Luke 11:27-28

 

Dear Reader,

The solemnity of the Assumption of Mary is an ancient feast in our tradition.  Going back to the 5th century, the feast celebrates the completion of Christ’s triumph over death for, and the restoration of life to all who believe in Christ.  A favorite icon, Mary’s dormition, proclaims the core mystery.  The scene before us that we ponder depicts Mary at the end of her earthly journey.  Notice that I did not say that it depicts Mary at the time of her death.  The word dormition means sleep, not death.  We gaze upon the apostles and patriarchs, prophets and others gathered around the reclining Mary.  Overhead, the Father, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit watch in anticipation, ready to welcome the Mother of the Lord into glory.

In anticipation of the completion of the Paschal Mystery, Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection, the Church proclaims that Mary, who would bear in her womb the Word Incarnate, was preserved from sin from the first moment of her existence.  Death and sin have an inextricable link.  Mary does not have to die because Mary never knew sin.  We call that mystery the Immaculate Conception.  When her life had run its course, Mary reposed into dormition and transitioned into glory.  We rejoice and celebrate because there is hope in the mystery for all of us who have died with Christ in Baptism and have been raised to live in union with Christ.  Our bodies may die for a time.  We believe that at the end of time, our bodies will be raised.  Body and spirit, we, too, shall live with Christ in glory.

None of the readings for today’s Liturgy of the Word is lengthy.  That may delight many.  Forgive me.  I don’t mean to be sarcastic, but it is unfortunate that so many of us do not have the attention span to accommodate lengthy readings – to say nothing of lengthy homilies.  We are so used to quick cuts in film and short sound bites in audio that many cannot tolerate longer takes.  Well, if the Lector isn’t careful, the proclamations of the first reading will be over before the Assembly settles down to listen.  Lectors, beware!

In the first reading from the first Book of Chronicles, we are party to a great celebration as King David assembles all Israel in Jerusalem to welcome the Ark of the Lord to its dwelling place, the tent he had prepared for it.  The Ark is the sign of God’s presence among the people.  The Ark contains the tablets of the Law, the Covenant carved into stone.  The Ark that carries these holy contents is itself holy.  God is present there.  No mortal can touch it without committing sin.  So the Ark is carried on poles and borne on the shoulders of four porters to its place of veneration.  Music and dancing accompany the transition.  We don’t hear this in the edited reading, but David is so elated by the wonderful event that his enthusiasm gets the better of him and some are embarrassed to see him leaping and dancing about before the Ark.  How indecorous.  Expressions of joy should be more restrained.  At least some think so.

Mary is the Ark of the New Covenant.  She carried in her womb the living Word made flesh.  The Son born of her will bring about the new and eternal Covenant with God.  She is the Mother of the Church, the Body of Christ.  On this day we gather with Mary and sing her praises, rejoicing because she is our mother as well.  I remember a Marian celebration while I was in Uganda.  I’ll never forget the singing and the clapping and the group of Liturgical Dancers moving their bodies in praise as we entered into worship, rejoicing with Mary now enthroned as Queen of Heaven and Earth.

In the second reading there are more truths for us to ponder.  Some things seem too good to believe.  Some of the Corinthians have already decided that there was no resurrection from the dead.  They wonder about Christ’s resurrection.  Paul steadfastly proclaimed Christ, risen from the dead and living in glory.  In the great Pascal event, Paul taught that death has been conquered and sin, forgiven.

There is baptismal imagery in this brief reading.  When we were baptized, we entered the waters described both as tomb and womb.  When the waters were poured over us, or we were immersed in the waters, we died there to all that was of sin and opposed to God.  We came out of the waters, born to a new life, clothed in Christ.  The white robe we were clothed with then symbolized that rebirth and new life.  If we believe that then we will thrill when we hear Paul taunt the once invincible Death.  Death is swallowed up in victory.  Where, O Death, is your victory?  Where O Death, is your sting?  After her Son, Mary is the first to experience that victory.  She is the sign that one day that victory will be ours as well.  If death cannot triumph over us, what is there left for us to fear?

The way the Church celebrates funerals helps us to experience consolation in a time that could break our spirit and shatter our faith.  That is why the body of the deceased is treated with reverence.  See the signs that proclaim life, not death.  The Easter Candle, the principal sign of Christ’s resurrection, stands burning by the casket and attests to the life that is coming.  The coffin in clothed with the pall, a reminder that at one time this person came out of the waters and was clothed in a white baptismal gown, a symbol that s/he had put on Christ and would live in Christ forever.  A crucifix rests on the coffin as a reminder that the cross is for us a sign of hope.  If we have died with Christ, we shall live with Christ.   (Adaptations can be made for cremains to proclaim the same truths of faith.)

There is no denying of the reality of death, only a proclamation that death’s victory is temporary.  The bodies of the dead will rise again, just as Christ rose from the dead.

The word tragedy, at least in its strict meaning, ought to have very limited use among Christians.  The word means an event that has catastrophic consequences and brings about ultimate defeat.  Faith empowers us to look into the face of the worst of events and recognize their horror.  But though people die in such an event, those deaths can never be forever.  There is no ultimate defeat.  Where, O Death, is your victory?

I remember being chastised because I refused to use the word tragedy to describe the 9/11 disasters.  It isn’t that I was not appalled by the horror nor moved to tears by the sufferings of so many.  When the stories of the final moments of so many of the valiant people killed in the plane crashes and the collapsing towers began to emerge, we heard tales of heroic actions that attested to a belief that went beyond the powers of terrorism to quash.  These were stories of incredible bravery and unbridled love, expressions of people pouring out their very lives in loving service.  Where, O Death, is your sting?

Finally, we come to the very brief Gospel that praises Mary’s true wonder.  A woman cries out praise for the woman whose womb bore Jesus and whose breasts nursed him.  Lovely sentiments of exaltation.  Already there was a long-standing tradition of honoring the queen mother during and after the reign of her son.  That is what the woman in the Gospel is voicing.  Jesus does not deny what the woman proclaims.  Rather, he heralds the true greatness of his mother.  She is the one who heard the word of God and kept it.

Think back to the account of the Annunciation earlier in Luke’s Gospel.  When the angel asked Mary to be the mother of God’s Son, once she had determined that it was God’s will for her, and even though she did not understand how it would come about, Mary said:  Let it be done to me according to your word.  From the first moment of her existence, yes was her constant response to God’s will in her life.  That is why Mary is the model of discipleship.  We who believe in Christ are called to live the will of the Lord in our lives, to learn from Mary’s example, to learn through our desire to imitate Christ, and so always say yes the way Jesus did.  My desire is to do the will of (the Father) who sent me.

One more note: the Feast of the Assumption, in the Northern Hemisphere, is celebrated at the beginning of the harvest season.  The Ordo entry for the feast makes this suggestion: Today, where it is customary, or on another appropriate day the produce of fields, gardens, and orchards may be blessed.  In keeping with that theme, today would be a good day to pray a special grace of blessing and thanks for the bounty on your table.  Praise God for the beauty of flowers in vases and their scent in your home.  Praise God from whom all blessings flow.  Praise Mary, assumed into heaven, the Mother of the source of all blessings.

Sincerely,

Didymus

NINETEENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – A – August 13, 2017

A reading from the first Book of Kings 19:9a, 11-13a
A reading from the Letter of Saint Paul to the Romans 9:1-5
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew 14:22-33

Dear Reader,

A theophany is a moment in which God reveals his presence.  Think of Moses’ experience with the Burning Bush.  Think of all those other encounters combined that climaxed in the Israelites marching out of slavery into the desert’s freedom where they would be formed into a people, God’s chosen ones.  Throughout their desert sojourn God would be before the people in a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night.  God’s presence is constant.

What did God have in mind for the Israelites?  Let me be your God and you will be my people.  Were that to happen all other people would marvel and say that no other people has such a relationship with their gods as Israel has with YHWH.  How will others recognize this marvelous relationship?  Israel will live by the covenant, the Law received by Moses on Sinai.  We think of the Law in terms of the Decalogue.  In reality, the fullness of the Law is summed up in two commandments: Love God with your entire being and love your neighbor as you love yourself.  Jesus said that in these two the whole Law is contained and the Prophets as well.  Lived to perfection, the result would be a theophany, too.

All of Scripture is a theophany.  God’s love song begins at the dawn of creation and concludes with Jesus, the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the last, the Beginning and the End, at God’s right hand in glory singing a hymn to Baptism and promising to return on the Last Day.  Scripture is an epode encouraging a people who know suffering to live in hope and so come to share the glory.

What do you think the experience would be like were you to have your own theophany?  Given all the possibilities for special effects in sight and sound, you might imagine that moment to outdo anything anyone has ever seen or heard in the cinema.  The fact is that attempts to render such moments on film tend to be ludicrous at best and saccharine at worst and ultimately unsatisfying.  Think of Cecil B. DeMille’s, The Ten Commandments.

Elijah is on a theophany quest in our first reading.  He is heavily burdened.  His world is collapsing.  The people to whom he was sent as Prophet have turned against God’s ways and spurred on by Jezebel’s wrath, they want to kill Elijah.  He flees to Mount Horeb (also known as Mount Sinai) and takes shelter in a cave.  The Lord says to him: Go outside and stand on the mountain before the Lord; the Lord will be passing by.  Violent wind, an earthquake, and a forest fire follow in rapid sequence.  Elijah expects the Lord will be manifest in the fire, the wind, or the earthquake.  Moses met God in fire and in violent wind that divided the sea.  But it is when Elijah hears the sound of a zephyr that the he hid his face in his cloak and went and stood at the entrance of the cave.  Elijah knew then that he was in the presence of God.

People do not tend to think of earthquakes or hurricanes or forest fires as Theophanous, unless, of course, they blame God for, or see God’s judgmental wrath in such calamities.

God is in the whisper.  Think of those moments in which you were transported by the sound of a wren’s song on the evening air.  Think of the brilliance of the palette used to paint the sky to accompany the sun’s rising or setting.  Think of the cooing of a baby suckling at her mother’s breast.  It is in times of great angst that we need to be open, to stand in awe and in silence, lest we miss the enveloping presence of the God who loves us into creation and will not be satisfied until we are safely with God in the glory that is Eternity.

A moment at the end of the movie, The Thin Red Line, is the finest capturing of a theophany that I have ever experienced in film.  After havoc of war and hundreds of lives lost, the camera focuses on the beach and lapping waves.  There, too, is a coconut on the beach.  From its split husk rises a green sprout that is resurrection and life.

Listen to God’s whisper.

The Gospel this Sunday opens with the words, (a)fter he had fed the people.  The phrase should tweak our memories and remind us of a theophany that occurs in all four Gospels.  Jesus took a few loaves and a couple of fish.  He gave thanks, blessed, broke, and distributed the loaves in order to feed the five thousand men, not counting the women and children.  Isaiah’s prophecy was fulfilled that promised when the day of the Lord comes the poor will be fed with abundance and have the Good News announced to them.  Now Jesus sends the disciples off in a boat and then dismisses the crowds.  Exhausted, he climbs a mountain alone to pray and recover.  Prayer is conversation with God.  Silence is its shroud.

All four Gospels have accounts of Jesus’ coming to the disciples as they bob and weave through waves in a storm-tossed boat.  It is night and the winds rage.  The disciples are terrified at the first sighting of the figure coming toward them on the water and think it is a ghost.  Jesus speaks: Take courage.  It is I!  Only in Matthew’s Gospel does Peter ask for proof when he urges Jesus to command him to walk on the water himself.  Jesus voices the command and says, Come!  Peter obeys and all goes well until he becomes distracted from Jesus and instead concentrates on the winds and the waves.  Peter sinks, only to be rescued by Jesus who stretches out his hand to peter and helps him regain his footing.  For how long afterwards did Jesus’ words to Peter ring in his ears: O you of little faith, why did you doubt?

It is one thing to imagine you are in that boat in the midst of that storm.  You are as you hear this Gospel proclaimed.  Here is a challenge.  Remember times when you were personally storm tossed, times when you felt yourself being swamped by events surrounding and threatening you.  See the horrific events of our times, the storms and fires, the furies of war, the horror of famine and disease.  What this Gospel implores us to remember is that no terror will ultimately destroy us.  With the boat as an image of the Church, we must remember that persecution will not end the Church.  Neither will division from within destroy.  None of the evils – not even death – will triumph unless we forget Jesus.

If you are devastated by the death of a loved one, be supported in your grief as you remember that Jesus is the Resurrection and the Life.  If it is your own failing health that terrifies you, again, remember Jesus whose dying and rising destroyed death’s finality.  If it is your own vilification that threatens to break you, remember that Jesus stood silent before his accusers and the Father raised him up.  Ultimately Jesus will be your vindication.

Then there are the catastrophes and the panoply of suffering they reveal.  Remember the feeding of the 5000.  In the presence of the starving multitude, all Jesus has to offer are five loaves ad two fish that a youngster brings forth.  If we are willing to share our all, Jesus, who comes to us in the midst of the storm, of the persecution, of the grief, the trauma, and the vilification, can take that little bit we offer and make it more than enough.  We must keep our eyes fixed on Jesus and repeat the homage that concludes this Gospel: Truly, you are the Son of God.

We will hear that declaration about Jesus again near the end of Matthew’s Gospel when the Centurion voices it as he looks on Jesus nailed to the cross.  It was the Centurion’s theophany moment.

Another one is coming for you as we celebrate Eucharist and the Bread is broken and the cup poured out.

Sincerely,

Didymus