OUR LORD JESUS CHRIST, KING OF THE UNIVERSE – A – November 22, 2020

 

A reading from the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel 34:11-12, 15-17
A reading from St. Paul’s first Letter to the Corinthians 15:20-26, 28
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew 25:31-46

Dear Friends in Christ,

The celebration of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe concludes another Liturgical Year.  You have completed the journey we began nearly twelve months ago on the First Sunday of Advent.  We journeyed primarily with, and were transformed by Matthew’s Gospel.  How did you do?  How were you transformed?  What did the Lord accomplish in you along the Way as the Word poured over you?

From the title of this feast, you might expect readings that evoke a regal Christ.  There is some evidence of that in the gospel in the One who judges the sheep and the goats.  But the gospel will tell us that it is not in royalty, that is in the powerful, where we will recognize the Christ.  In fact, the recognition of Christ is not what is rewarded.  The righteous did not recognize him in those to whom they ministered.  Our Messiah is not a Superman like so many contemporary cartoon heroes who leap tall buildings in a single bound.  Although I must say that some Evangelicals seem to preach that kind of Messiah, one who doles out temporal wealth and power to those who acknowledge and give their lives over to him.  Sorry.  I cannot identify with that, not when we deal with the readings proclaimed on this feast.

In today’s reading from the Prophet Ezekiel, God says: 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?  How did the sheep become scattered?  The sheep are the house of Israel, God’s beloved ones, defeated and brought to servitude in exile.  They are scattered because those who had the primary responsibility for shepherding were not 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 they ignored the desperate and the needy.  In that preoccupation they failed to notice their own corruption.  They 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.  They were taken captive and lead off into exile.  Jerusalem was destroyed.  God’s judgment is harsh.  The sleek and the strong will be destroyed.  God will gather the vulnerable and shepherd them safely home.

As we hear Ezekiel’s prophecy we must ask where we are in it.  We make a mistake if we think that Ezekiel’s prophecy spoke only to those long-ago times and those specific leaders during the Babylonian Captivity.  We hear the living word of God.  Ezekiel prophecies to us now, in 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.

Pope Francis’s call must resonate as we hear Ezekiel.  The Bishop of Rome urges the Shepherds in the Church, to shepherd in the midst of the sheep, not over them.  He hopes they will smell like the sheep.  That urging has infuriated not a few in the hierarchy, as they wonder why the people do not listen to their preaching.  It is the people’s fault that the preaching doesn’t resonate, not the preachers’.  Or so they think.

Paul raises the question with the Corinthians (and us) in the second reading.  All of us have been baptized into Christ’s death 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 as we are subjected to God’s rule in our lives.  Christ was the first to subject himself to that order and is, therefore, 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 those Christ will present to the Father in the final restoration of the order God had in mind at creation’s beginning.

This brings us to one of the most difficult readings in all of Scripture, the Judgment Scene in Matthew’s Gospel.  This parable precedes immediately the beginning of Matthew’s Passion Narrative.  I can never pray with this reading without cringing and wondering on which side of the aisle will I be standing in the judgment scene.  It is clear from the reactions of those in attendance on both sides that they wonder how they landed where they did.  That should alert us and serve as warning to the smug who think they are doing all the right things.  Sheep.  Goats.  Among which ones will I find myself?

What does the judgment turn about?  Not what you might first expect.  There is nothing about religious observance in what the Son of Man says to the assembled; nothing about going to temple and keeping the Sabbath; nothing about going to Mass on Sundays and Holy Days; 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 only 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 have in God’s sight, those vulnerable among 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 is not even anything said about their moral character.  All we hear is that they are desperate.  The Sheep feed, clothe, shelter, and visit them and bury 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 did they care for him.  It is clear that they did not recognize him.  That seems to say 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.  He came 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 St. Mother Teresa of Calcutta as she tried to help Malcom 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 wretches, she ministered to Christ in his passion.  Muggeridge listened to Mother Teresa and afterwards pondered what she had told him.  He pondered 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.  They did not act on the needs of those in the streets crying out for alms because they did not recognize the Son of Man there.  Much less did they recognize the dignity and worth of the needy.  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 and sums 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 other way for Christ to reign in our lives than by our keeping the Great Commandment.

How should we respond to the children in cages at the boarder? How should we respond to those seeking refuge in our country?  What should be the response to the street people?  To those who are being evicted because they can’t afford their rent?  To the Black man with the policeman kneeling on his neck?  Why should we have to wear masks, and socially distance?  When did we see you hungry or naked or sick or in prison and ….

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 that 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 the Presider proclaims it as an aside:  Do this in my memory.

What we will be judged about will center 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 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.  Otherwise we just might miss Christ when he comes again.

Sincerely yours in Christ,

Didymus

THIRTY-THIRD SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – A – November 15, 2020

A reading from the Book of Proverbs 31:10-13, 19-20, 30-31
A reading from St. Paul’s Letter to the Thessalonians 5:1-6
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew 25:14-30

Dear Friends in Christ,

Another Church Year is almost completed.  We have journeyed with Jesus through Matthew’s Gospel all along the Way.  Next Sunday we celebrate the Feast of Christ the King, each Church Year’s final Sunday.  So you probably will not be surprised that the readings for this Sunday begin to focus our attention on important things, on how we are supposed to live to be ready for the end times.  Alfie asked: What’s it all about?  Many years ago, Peggy Lee sang: Is that all there is?  

I remember sitting at the bedside of a man who was near death.  He lay flat on his back.  His fingers clutched the edge of the blanket and held it tight under his chin.  His eyes seldom blinked as he stared at the ceiling.  Terrified of his impending death, he kept murmuring: “What will I have to show God?  What good have I done?  Alas.  Alas.”  The most hopeful is Alfie, depending, of course, on the answer to his question.  What is life all about?

One thing seems to be clear from the readings, one thing that we can use as our starting point.  Life ought not to be frittered away by idlers with nothing to do.  We should not wish we could be among the idle rich, not if we are people of faith.  There is work to be done, even if one is rich, as we prepare for the coming of the Kingdom.  Take the first reading for example.  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, her value does not depend on her being a spouse.  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. St. Mother Teresa may come to mind.  So, too, might Augustine’s mother, St. Monica, among many, many others.  Then there is Mary Magdalene, a woman of considerable means who put her fortune 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 to have her 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 about 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.  (Have you noticed how often apocalyptic imagery is used to describe these pandemic times?)  Members of the sect drop everything and head for the 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 they drink poison in order to get there.  And when the appointed time passes by, the purpose of their being together also passes.  Survivors go back to whatever had lost attraction for them in the world.  Such actions do not seem to fit with Paul’s admonitions in the second reading.  In fact, just the opposite seems to hold sway.

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 speaks to children of the light and children of the day.  Paul speaks to the Church, to the baptized living now the  Priesthood of the Baptized, living now this intimate relationship with God in Christ that begins in Baptism.  The difference is faith that contrasts so 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 live in fear and dread.  The faithful know that the Lord will return on the final day.  They watch and are ready and work toward that day.

It is said that in the early days of Paul’s preaching, he was convinced that the Lord Jesus would return and wrap everything up in Paul’s lifetime.  As a consequence, people stopped working, stopped planning for a future, stopped striving to hand on the truth to the succeeding generations.  People sat and waited and sponged off the faith community.  That is why Paul, once he saw that the end might not be tomorrow, issued the edict that if they do not work, do not feed them.  In other words, 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.

A caution: Do not take Paul’s words as his speaking against food banks and efforts to feed the poor.  Paul is speaking to idlers, not to those who cannot find work, or to those disabled or infirm.  Remember, we are called to be a poorer church, serving the needs of the poor.  We place the poor in primacy of place.  We recognize Christ in them.

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 fairness 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 coming crucifixion and death.  The journey will be the time between those events and Jesus’ return on judgment day.  Jesus is entrusting the Gospel to them, entrusting himself to them to whatever degree of capacity 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 at least put in the bank where it could have earned interest, money is not what it is about, but wealth of the Gospel and how belief in that Good News is to be lived out.

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 those 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 the context and becomes what it’s all about.  Those looking on and marveling at love in action want to share in it.

These times of COVID-19 give us all an opportunity to put love in action.  People are hurting from the isolation.  A smile or a phone call can do wonders.  Then we can take seriously the pleas of the specialists who urge us to wear a mask when in public.  It is sad to read of those who make a scene and declare that no one is going to tell them to wear a mask.  This is a free country.  Alas, yes.  But wearing a mask can protect others from contracting the disease.  It is a simple act of charity that has profound effects.

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 here, 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.  There was a popular question many 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.

What attitude do you bring to Eucharist?  Certainly there are those who come out of obligation, gather around the Table and watch the celebration and 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.  Is that all there is? 

What’s it all about?  The Eucharist is meant to be for the Baptized, an exercise of the Priesthood of the Baptized.  They should gather with the Presider to co-celebrate and give thanks to God in the dying and rising of Jesus.  They gather to take and eat for this is my body.  They gather to take and drink for this is my blood.  But it doesn’t stop there.  They come also to be sent to do this in my memory.  They are sent to be bread broken and cup poured out in the World’s market place until all the hungry have eaten and all the thirsty have drunk and come to know the love of God.  What is as important is the understanding of memory.  Do this and I am present.  That is what memory means.  Those Baptized who have eaten and drunk are the continuing presence of Jesus, just as they are enabled by faith to recognize Jesus in those who are served

For many now, it has been a long time since they have been able to gather in community and to celebrate.  During that now long time of missing Mass on Sunday, they have begun to wonder if they will ever return.  Reflecting on the past celebrations, they were hollow.  The new translation of the Liturgical texts does not resonate.  Clergy seem to be out of touch with the times and the people.  Their is no empowering of the faithful.  Faith survives.  Love of Christ survives.  Like those in the first centuries, they are living the Gospel in the marketplace and at home in their neighborhoods.  When this pandemic is over and things get back to normal and churches open up again, they are wondering if they will go back again.  Time will tell if there will be anything to draw them.

What will I have to show God?  What good have I done?  In the end it is about love.  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.

Sincerely yours in Christ,

Didymus

THE THIRTY-SECOND SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – A – November 8, 2020

A reading from the Book of Wisdom 6:12-16
A reading from the Letter of St. Paul to the Thessalonians 4:13-18
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew 25:1-13

Dear Friends in Christ,

We celebrate the final weeks of Ordinary Time for this Liturgical Year.  Strange as it might seem, this week’s Liturgy of the Word puts the basics before us again, inviting us to grasp what is essential if we are to be successful in reaching our faith-journey’s goal.  Looking back, we might remember that those truths were taught us from the beginning of the year when Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount.  But just in case we missed those basics, they are put squarely before us, reminding us, as it were, what should have sustained us along the Way now that we might be a little road-weary from the trek.  

Conversion stories always move me, be they stories from the lives of the saints or from ordinary people like you and me.  Some are dramatic, like Paul’s encounter on the Road to Damascus.  Others are quietly mystical like that of a friend of mine who woke one morning and knew her life would never be the same.  In every case, what begins in faith is not the result of anything the believer has done.  For each one, the conversion is impossible to explain.  Dorothy Day was an atheist one day and through a chance encounter became a seeker after Baptism the next.  Simon and his cohorts were fishermen until that day when Jesus invited them to leave everything with which they were familiar and follow him into the unknown.  They did it.  I believe that the secret that empowered the transformation can be found in today’s first reading from the Book of Wisdom.  Wisdom is the answer.

The reading speaks of the wonder that Wisdom is.  Notice that Wisdom is feminine, a woman who makes her rounds, seeking those worthy of her and graciously appears to them in the ways and meets them with all solicitude.  Sit with the reading.  Let the words wash over you.  See if you do not start thinking that the one called Wisdom does not soon begin to sound like the One we call Holy Spirit, that One who rushed down and enveloped that timid gathering in the upper room on Pentecost and transformed them into announcers of the Good News.  You would not know it from the English translation for Spiritus, but the gender is feminine.  Just as Wisdom is eternal, so too is the Holy Spirit of God, resplendent and unfading.

I invite you to reflect on your own experience of believing.  Most of us will conclude that the journey of faith is filled with the unexpected.  If you were adult when you began to believe, or if you were baptized in infancy, what may be common to both is that in the initial days, we thought that once we said we believed, there would be no stumbling blocks along the way.  We would see everything through the eyes of faith and it would all make sense.  That is what we may have thought; but many of us faced challenges along the way that made us cry out and wonder if we could still be believers, so hard to bear or understand was the onus we felt.  We could identify with what the person said when faced with a difficult decision as Jesus confronted him, I do believe, Lord; help my unbelief.

When we consider faith, we consider something that is gift.  Put more actively, the believer begins as one sought out by grace and the Spirit.  The believer is the recipient of that grace and is given the opportunity to respond.  As is true with everything that ultimately comes from God, the outpouring is lavish and even excessive.  Remember the language of Pentecost?  There was the sound as of a violent wind blowing where they were and tongues as of fire danced over their heads.  In another place, there were twelve baskets of food left over after the 5000 men, not counting the women and children, had eaten of the few loaves and couple of fish Jesus had blessed, broken and had distributed to them.

The reading tells us that Wisdom is available to those who love her.  The point for us to remember is that the Spirit who empowers faith is available to all who call upon the Spirit, to all who love the Spirit.  The Spirit (Wisdom) will respond and embrace those who seek her.  Sometimes I think that only those who are brought very low will understand the power of what is being said here.  Only those who are thrust into the darkest night of near despair will know what the transforming power of the Spirit means.  Some call those periods the dark night of the soul.  One thing is sure: the Spirit supports the dawn of deeper faith that follows for those who watch and wait.

Half of the young women in the parable in today’s gospel teach us what our faith journey is really about.  It is a time of watching and waiting, of being ready when the Lord comes.  Those five with the oil in their lamps and in their spare vessels were prepared when the bridegroom came and they entered the wedding feast with him.  The Lord expects us to be ready, too.  Paul supports this theme in today’s second reading.

As is true of most of the parables Jesus told, there can be various interpretations of their elements.  In the context of today’s parable, I would like to think that the oil in the lamp stands for faith.  The five maidens acquired their supply from the merchants near by.  The five foolish one’s did not bother.  None of us should think that we are on a solitary journey on this faith trek.  We are part of the Body of Christ.  We journey as a community and as Church.  We do not celebrate Eucharist alone.  We gather around the Table as a believing community and united give thanks to God in Bread and Wine as we renew Christ’s dying and rising.  Two things happen.  The oil merchants support the individual’s faith, that is, the faith-witness of the believing community.  We believe in God.  We believe in Jesus.  We believe the Spirit.  We believe Church.  Gathering with others and experiencing their witness of faith strengthens our own.  There were merchants who could have supplied the five foolish ones with oil  They just did not bother until it was too late.

The second thing that happens in our shared faith experience is that we come to know Jesus.  The Bridegroom’s words at the end of the parable are chilling, words we pray we will never hear from the Lord: Amen, I say to you, I do not know you.  To ensure that we do not hear those words, two things we must do.  First, we must come to recognize Jesus where he is.  We will hear more about this in the Liturgy of the Word for the Feast of Christ the King in a couple of weeks.  Here it is sufficient to remember that we are called to be a servant church, called to serve Christ in the poor and all those who suffer.  The Second Vatican Council, and now Pope Francis, challenge the church to grant primacy of place to the poor.  That is why we must be about working for their dignity and supporting their rights to the basics of human needs.  Those on one side of a border are just as much brothers and sisters as those on the other side.  Gender and  orientation do not determine who are our sisters and brothers, and neither does race.  We are all brothers and sisters in Christ.  With Christ and through Christ we strive for justice and peace. See what the Breaking of the Bread is about?

Then, and finally, to ensure we do not hear those dreaded words, we must spend time getting to know Christ personally.  We must spend time in prayer and reflection.  Relationship with the Lord is built gradually and over time.  Granted, it is all the result of grace working in us.  We still must have the industry to respond and let grace transform.  Take time to pray.  Take time to reflect.  Take time to listen.  It is the Lord who speaks in that silence to tell you of the Lord’s love for you.

May your lamp burn brightly and shine out particularly to those feeling most threatened by the darkness. Sometimes people need a reason to go on believing.  That reason might be you.

Sincerely yours in Christ,

Didymus