With last Sunday’s celebration of the Feast of the Epiphany, we entered a new Liturgical Year. While this Sunday’s Gospel reading is from John, for most Sundays this year Matthew’s Gospel will be proclaimed. The purpose of the journey for Catechumens is to listen as the first hearers did and determine if they wish to respond to the invitation to be Jesus’ disciples. They will experience the reality of discipleship as they journey with a faith community, their parish, and worship with them. Their journey is to the Easter Vigil and the Font where, if they choose, they will enter the waters to die with Christ and to rise identified with Christ, clothed in Christ, to be anointed in the Spirit and complete their initiation in the celebration of the Eucharist. From there they will go forth to become proclaimers of the Good News they have received, accepted, and believed as they minister to Christ in the poor.
For the rest of us, this new Liturgical Year is an opportunity to continue to intensify our response to and transformation by the Good News. That is the journey for the rest of our lives. And then, we believe, we will experience the fulfillment of the Promise in Glory with the Christ in whom we have believed along the way.
Sit under the Prophet Isaiah’s beautiful proclamation in the first reading. Let the words wash over you as you come to understand that the prophecy refers to you and those with whom you believe. The prophecy is not to an individual person, but to Israel. Those who heard it the first time were not in the best of times. They were in the final days of the Babylonian captivity. Many had been broken by the experience even as they remembered the humiliation of defeat and enslavement. In that context Isaiah proclaims that through Israel I (the Lord) show my glory. It has happened in the past. It will happen again when Israel’s faith is restored and they worship and are willing to serve the Lord again.
There are those who would say that these are not the best of times. The faith of many has been challenged and even broken by scandals, the horrors of war, and the divisions and violence that divide the land. If you feel your own faith weakening, if you are reeling from one sad news story after another, hear Isaiah. God loves you and calls you God’s own. Catechumens will immerse themselves in that love in Baptism. Strengthened by that love you, the baptized, and your faith community can go forth and witness to the dignity of all, even those who are disparaged and deemed worthy of being excluded and exiled. (The Lord) will make you a light to the nations, that (the Lord’s) salvation may reach to the ends of the earth. Imagine that. Let the words sink in. It is your calling. Live it.
St. Paul reminds us of that calling in today’s second reading. You have been sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be holy, with all those everywhere who call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. We can hear Paul’s invocation reiterated in Pope Francis as he challenges the church to get back to the basics, if you will. It is not a time for a splendid church. It is time for a poorer church serving the needs of the poor. It is time for the shepherds to take off garments of splendor, to stop lording over, and to shepherd in the midst of the sheep. It is time for the church to be welcoming to all and recognize and proclaim the dignity and worth of all people whether believers of not, Christians, non-Christians, Jews and Muslims, even atheists. That declaration angers some who want the way to the Lord to be restrictive and narrow. Pope Francis wants the message to go out through you that God’s love that comes to us in Jesus is universal and unconditional, just as it is eternal.
With the Gospel on this Second Sunday in Ordinary Time we come back to the basics. Who is Jesus? What does the Father send him to do? How do we respond? John the Baptist, the one who many had begun to think was the Messiah, states clearly that Jesus ranks ahead of me. He is the one coming after me who ranks ahead of me. The Father revealed to John who Jesus was when I saw the Spirit come down like a dove from heaven and remain upon him…he is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit. John proclaims Jesus to be the Son of God.
We hear the Baptist’s proclamation. But like those first hearers, how do we respond? Do we believe?
The Catechumens make this journey following Jesus, listening to him, hearing his invitation to be disciples. The Word will form them along the way. Those of us who have been baptized and made our commitment make this journey to be refreshed in faith. The outcome for both is the same. Jesus baptizes them and us in the Sprit. That means we are drawn into the community of Love that is the Trinity. We begin to see more clearly with each step we take following Jesus, that it is all about love. The love that is God lives in us and in all and everything that is. Jesus will challenge us over and over to love in imitation of the love we have received. Love one another as I have loved you. And love your neighbor as you love yourself. And more challenging, love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you. And until we are plunged into a situation that demands this, we will be tempted to say, who can do this?
Remember, this journey that Jesus is on leads to the cross. He is the example of loving the enemy, doing good to those who hate. Father forgive them…
As we listen to the Word this Second Sunday in Ordinary Time, we take the readings to heart. Pondering, we will move to the Table of the Eucharist, there to celebrate as one Body, the dying and rising of Jesus in Bread and Wine. But it doesn’t stop there. If we enter into the celebration, if we share in the meal, then we must allow ourselves to be sent to continue the proclamation we have received until all have heard that they are loved and experience that love that comes through Jesus in acts of love done in Jesus’ name.
Few ages have needed this more than our own. Powered by the Spirit, we, the Church, the Body of Christ, can bind up the wounds and heal the divisions, stop the hate mongering and help all to know that they are loved even as we are. That’s the invitation we hear as we begin this new Liturgical Year.
Shall we begin? Directed by the Spirit, it will happen
A number of years ago, Didymus penned a series of reflections on the Sermon on the Mount. We are currently in Year A of the Liturgy of the Word cycle and in Matthew’s Gospel that contains the Sermon. Given the times in which we live and the vitriol that seems to dominate in the political scene, given the accounts of bullying, given the street violence and the terrorist attacks, it seems to be a good time to reflect on the basics that Jesus taught on that mountain top. The reflections have been amended to make them current.
Your responses to them would be welcome.
Why do you do what you do? If no one knew what you were doing, would you do it anyway? That is what Jesus invites us to think about now. Just how genuine are the good deeds that flow from you?
According to my dictionary, a hypocrite is one who feigns to be what one is not. Some are very good pretenders. For those who care about them, it is devastating when the mask that was assumed to be the true face is torn off and an integrally different visage is revealed. Dr. Jekyll’s alter ego in the beginning needed a potion to emerge. With time and through indulgence, Mr. Hyde dominated to Jekyll’s destruction. The story serves as an excellent allegory for the perils of living a hypocritical life.
The Sermon on the Mount is Jesus’ exposition of what is entailed in living as a disciple. Remember that a disciple is one who believes in Jesus as Lord and chooses to walk with Jesus on the Way. In the course of the Gospels, individuals will come to Jesus and ask to be disciples. To each one, Jesus will point out the demands of discipleship and insist that the demands are understood and accepted before the person can follow Jesus. “Go, sell what you have and give to the poor; then come and follow me.” “If you would follow me, take up your cross every day and follow me.” We hear Jesus say that disciples must love their enemies and pray for their persecutors. That is fairly demanding, isn’t it? It would be impossible to feign that response, don’t you think?
Jesus is telling us to be what we say we are. We must make sure that what we say and do are genuine expressions of who we are on the inside. We must do what we do whether our actions are praised or not. Acting in that fashion becomes more “natural” the more we allow ourselves to be conformed to Christ. The disciple must consciously strive to imitate Christ and love the way Christ Loves.
I’ve wished I had the funds to be a philanthropist. It must be thrilling to know that what you have given has resulted in a hospital or an orphanage or a school, an institution that will meet the needs of the underprivileged. Or, wouldn’t it feel good to know that your funds made possible a concert hall or an art museum? Then the Lord would ask me, “Would you give those funds to charitable causes even if your name were not to appear over the main door? Would you give even if no one knew you had given?” Of course I never had that kind of money, so I guess I don’t have anything to worry about in that regard, do I?
You will notice in the Gospels that often when Jesus is dealing with a person who is blind, lame, or sick with a major illness like leprosy, he will take the person off by himself to an out-of-the-way place and work the healing miracle there. At times he will say, “Don’t tell anyone about this until…” Jesus is doing what he does because it is the Father’s will, and the Father’s approval is the only one he needs. Disciples are called to act in the same way and for the same approval. If, on the other hand, one does charitable work for the praise and notoriety that comes to him, there will be no approval from the Father, nor any reward.
We are cautioned to shun pride as a selfish response to our charitable deeds. “Don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.” In other words, the Lord is telling us to do the good that we do for the sake of doing it, and then forget about it. We must not let the good done cause us to get a puffed-up notion about our selves. After all, all we are doing is cooperating with the grace with which the Spirit empowers us to believe and act.
A disciple is one who lives a life of faith, one who walks with purpose through everyday uncertainties, and believes that there is an end God has in mind for him. Ultimately, the disciple believes that at the end of this earthly existence a new life begins and that what we have seen dimly, as in a mirror, will be revealed in the face-to-face vision of God. I heard one holy man opine that if we spend our lives doing good and emptying ourselves of prideful and sinful things, what we are doing is in fact increasing our capacity for God. A cup is filled when the water poured into it reaches the brim. A ten-gallon container has much greater capacity. Maybe that is the way it will be in heaven. Good deeds done in secret and unheralded charitable acts carried out in union with Jesus just might increase our capacity for God and God’s love. Filling us to the brim will be our reward.
By the way, don’t miss the mention of “mercy” in the Sermon. “Keep your deeds of mercy secret.” Here is another part of the sermon I don’t have to worry about. Only the powerful can exercise deeds of mercy. Slave owners can be merciful towards their slaves. Prisons can be merciful to prisoners. The thug can be merciful to the little guy under his heel. Wealthy nations can be merciful towards developing nations indebted to them. It doesn’t work the other way around.
We lived through Pope Francis’s Year of Mercy. How does this fit with Francis’s urging a poorer church serving the needs of the poor? All we have to do is think of the days of the Spanish Inquisition to get the point. The church was powerful in that era and burned heretics at the stake. Is that what Jesus is urging us to do and be in the Sermon on the Mount? The Year of mercy was about welcoming all, recognizing the dignity of all, that we are all members of the one family of God and loved by God.
We can all live in the hope for God’s mercy.
It is safe to say that no one can be a disciple for long without an active prayer life. What the Lord derides boils down to hypocrisy. Praying in an exaggerated fashion so that others will notice and be amazed by the piety is not praying at all. Praying in a yada-yada fashion, running on and on, won’t cut it either. What is happening on the inside is what matters.
Prayer is relational and some of the best praying is done completely without words. Silence is necessary. So is openness. What happens when we pray? What are we doing? We stand in the quiet of our interior life and recognize the emptiness. We wait and God fills the void. I remember a story alleged to be about Matt Talbot. Talbot was a recovering alcoholic. Late in his life he used to spend long hours in his parish church. Apparently, after observing him for some time, someone asked Talbot what he found to pray about all that time. He is said to have replied, “Oh, I just look at him, and he looks at me.” It is through contemplative prayer that the one praying comes to know God’s love and is able to express his love for God. Words are not required.
Think about this for a moment. In some ways, prayers of petition don’t make sense. Do we think in prayer we are giving new information to God? Are we letting God know about needs we have about which God is unaware? “I have loved you with an everlasting love,” the hymn sings. “I have called you and you are mine.” We are the objects of God’s creative love. It is God’s love that sustains us and holds us in existence. Were God to forget us, we would cease to be.
In Baptism we are identified with Christ. Someone has said that that identification is so complete that God sees Christ when God looks at the baptized. And we add to that that God loves us with the love God has for Christ. That is why Jesus tells us, “Your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” If we are loved the way a parent loves a beloved child, what do we need to say other than, “I love you”?
Jesus will tell us to pray always. What does that mean? Certainly, prayer is a way of life that is learned. In the beginning we must seek out a quiet place, a prayer corner, where we can be silent and open to God. As the Spirit moves us and increases our facility to pray, we may experience an increased awareness of God’s presence as we come to know God’s love. The more we live open to God’s presence, the more we fulfill the Lord’s admonition to pray always.
Let everything speak to you of God. A rose bursting into bloom, a chick newly hatched from it’s shell, a volcano spewing lava and belching ash into the sky, the first rays of light in the east, the last glow from the sun fading in the west, the sound of a gentle breeze blowing where you are standing – all are awesome moments that speak of the grandeur of God. And God’s love
And in awe, we adore.
A few weeks ago we might have been singing about our need for Christmas, just a little Christmas. In light of that Feast, a strong case could be made this year for the need to celebrate more than a little the older feast of the Epiphany of the Lord. If we take our lead from the first reading from the Prophet Isaiah, you will see what I mean.
Isaiah’s glorious opening sets the tone for us. Rise up in splendor, Jerusalem! Your light has come, the glory of the Lord shines upon you. Splendor. Glory. Thrilling words, they conjure lush images in the hearer’s imagination. Then comes the proclamation that Jerusalem’s splendor will be so radiant and their riches so magnificent that foreigners from the East will come with their gifts and praise the Lord.
Hear the message in its historical context. Yes, the exile, the Babylonian Captivity, has come to an end. Cyrus has allowed the Jews to return to their beloved Jerusalem. But what did they find when they arrived home? Destruction and ruin everywhere they looked, the aftereffects of war and pillage. Even the Temple is destroyed. Imagine the tears. Hear the wailing. Grieve with those who weep and mourn. Now hear Isaiah’s prophecy in that setting. How would your heart respond?
We need a little Epiphany, or rather, a major Epiphany this year. These are difficult times, for some, desperate times. Hear of the destruction of Jerusalem and see the rubble that makes up the remains of Aleppo. Think of the refugees returning from Babylon and see the thousands of refugees fleeing the ravages of war hoping to find refuge. Remember the image of the little boy washed ashore, lying face down in the sand, or the shell-shocked youngster sitting stunned in the back of an ambulance. Who can remember those images and not weep? Rise up in splendor, Jerusalem.
In our own land, as we hear St. Paul proclaim that Gentiles and Jews are co-heirs, members of the same body and copartners in the promise in Christ Jesus, think of the hate-mongering and the resulting divisions many feel. Think of those that hear that they are not worthy to be part of the country and should be exiled. Think of the violence in our streets with racial tension as its source. Think of the rage spilling over into domestic violence, and the children being brutalized by their parents. You may be carrying the burden of poor health, advancing age, or the loss of a loved one to dementia or death.
Now hear Isaiah’s words and believe – which is another way of saying hope in the Lord. Epiphany is about hope and the revelation of God’s love for us in the One who is born among us. Hear the challenge for those of us who have heard to live that love.
No one ever said that living in faith would be easy. Jesus always said that those who would follow him would have to dispossess themselves and carry the Cross. Some of us might have concluded that we could choose the cross and temper the dispossession. These times and personal experience prove otherwise.
The word Epiphany means: manifestation, or, showing forth. For us, in the celebration of this feast, Epiphany means recognizing the glory of the Lord in the One who has come and chosen to dwell among us, the One who brings God’s love to embrace all people. Because of Jesus, the walls that separate and divide people have been torn down. Racial and gender differences have been bridged and healed. In Christ the human and the Divine have been united and all know the love of God as their dignity and worth are solemnized. Hear again Paul in the Letter to the Ephesians. The Gentiles are coheirs, members of the same body, and copartners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the Gospel. John said it another way. Beloved, we are God’s children now. What we shall become remains to be seen.
Do you see evidence of Epiphany’s reality around you? Please God, yes, especially when you gather for Eucharist. Please God then you experience the unity that is yours in the one Bread and the one Cup. Please God you recognize the wonder as you enter into and celebrate the Mystery. On the other hand, how would you hear the message if you were told you were not worthy to come to the Table? All but you are welcome here? Is diversity evident in your Assembly? Are you comfortable with that diversity? You know that embracing the unacceptable ones became the great accusation against Jesus that led to his crucifixion.
Epiphany is rife with challenge. The word means manifestation, remember. Who will do the manifesting? Ah, there could be the rub.
Stand under the Gospel reading for today. The first thing to note is that those who should have been most informed through their studying of the Scriptures should have rejoiced at the star’s rising and understood its significance. But that is not the case. Foreigners, nonbelievers, recognized the sign and immediately set out to follow where it led. There is nothing in Matthew’s Gospel that identifies the travelers as kings, much less that they were three in number. Matthew does say that they were astrologers; they studied the heavens and saw implications in stars’ configurations. Recognizing the implications, they came to adore and give gifts, to dispossess themselves of Gold, a gift for a king, frankincense, a gift for a god, and myrrh, the ointment of preparation for one’s burial.
Do you find it curious that when the Magi seek information from Herod’s court that will be specific in helping the strangers locate the newborn King of the Jews, Herod asks the chief priests and the scribes who know just where to go in the Scriptures. They determine that you, Bethlehem, land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; since from you shall come a ruler, who is to shepherd my people Israel. The Gospel is not always good news to those who do not want to take its message to heart and change their lives accordingly. Herod was quite happy being king of the Jews. The chief priests and scribes were quite comfortable beholden to him and did not want to rock the boat, so to speak. This king they knew. They had no idea what having a new king would mean for them, even if that king, that shepherd, were sent by God.
Herod sends the Magi off with instructions to return once they have found the newborn one so that he can go and likewise adore. No. So that he can annihilate the threat to his throne. Lest you curse Herod, remember that he is a figurehead, a symbol for all of those who will recognize Christ’s significance but not want to dispossess themselves, pick up their crosses, and follow him.
This takes us back to the feast we celebrate, Epiphany. We make a mistake if we think we are meant to be passive spectators at the proclamation of the Word, or at the celebration of the Eucharist. We are meant to be transformed by both and then to be sent. The Epiphany happens, the manifestation or showing forth happens through the transformed lives of service of those who have seen and have believed. This cannot be clung to for selfish purposes only. Certainly there is comfort and consolation in the hearing and in the Eucharist, but having been nourished, we are then sent to make a difference in the world, to be the star seen at its rising, that is, to live lives that make no sense except for Jesus whose other self we are. That can only be seen through the works that we do.
Did you see the video of the woman struggling and confused in the middle of a cross walk? A man stopped his car and put on his warning lights, got out of his car and took the woman by the hand to lead her to safety on the other side. Do you remember the young, developmentally challenged attendant for his high school football team? On a special evening he was suited up and got to be on the field for his one play. And all in the stands and all his teammates cheered.
Pope Francis celebrated his 80th birthday at a meal with several homeless people. From the pictures they all seemed to be having a wonderful time. The Holy Father made no one feel embarrassed or uncomfortable in his presence. It was clear he enjoyed their company, too. In so many of his actions, Francis exemplifies what it means to understand the Epiphany. That Epiphany continues as we recognize Jesus in the poorest of the poor and minister to him there.
And many will recognize the star at it s rising.