Archive for May, 2008|Monthly archive page

THE NINTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME

Deuteronomy 11:18, 26-28, 32
Romans 3:21-25, 28
Matthew 7:21-27

A way back in February on the Sunday before Ash Wednesday, the gospel that was proclaimed was the beginning of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. We heard the Beatitudes that some commentators have said make up the Charter of the New Way, that summarize what Christ’s followers are all about. Jesus, on the mountain, the new Moses, teaches to new law, the commandments of the Lord, your God, which I enjoin on you today. The Beatitudes do not replace the Decalogue. They cast them in new light.

This Sunday we hear proclaimed the conclusion of that Sermon. It’s a warning. Entrance into the Kingdom just might depend on living the Beatitudes, on having that mind in you that corresponds to Jesus’ mind. And not just the mind in you, but acting in conformity with that mind. That isn’t going to be easy. The World will say it is utter madness.

People who live by the Gospel must resign themselves to being fools for Christ’s sake. Their lives, the decisions they make, will make no sense apart from Jesus and the Good News he announces. Of course the caution will always be, look where the lifestyle got Jesus. Are you willing to go there?

It’s all grace. By that I mean, the only way the message can be taken to heart and acted upon is by the grace of God. Paul reminds us that there is no distinction; all have sinned and are deprived of the glory of God. (We) are justified freely by God’s grace through the redemption in Christ Jesus. Left to our own devices, where would we be? Remembering that we are sinners gives us a perspective that prevents us from looking down on or judging anyone else. Wasn’t it St. Augustine who quipped, There but for the grace of God go I. The insight is that there is no evil that another human being has done that I could not do. It is the grace of God that keeps me from that. Some years ago, there was a popular bumper sticker that proclaimed: Christians aren’t different, they’re just forgiven. I haven’t seen that one for a while. But the truth remains. We’re sinners but redeemed by the blood of Jesus Christ.

So, what is the challenge confronting us in today’s gospel? Remember, each announcing of the Word is meant to confront us and call us to conversion. The proclamation is not meant to induce a guilt trip no matter how far from the ideal we might think we are. Rather, our experience is meant to be like that of the throng that sat at Jesus’ feet on the mountain. At the conclusion of the great Sermon they were spellbound, their hope renewed. Why? Jesus taught with authority. If he said it, it was possible.

Everyone who listens to these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise person who built a house on rock. On what does your life rest? What is the foundation on which you are built? Jesus is quite aware of the demands he has placed before the crowds. Jesus’ hope is that they will move from being members of a crowd, those who are looking on, asking questions about, and undecided about him, to being disciples, those who choose to walk with him. Jesus promises that if we live in, with, and through him, come what may, we will endure, we will not collapse. On the other hand, without Jesus, no one can live the way he wants people to live. The reign of God will be kept at bay.

We have to disabuse ourselves of the fantasy that in every situation we will be victors. There is a vulnerability to be lived in Christ that makes that impossible. Read the rest of the Sermon in Matthew’s Gospel and you will see what I mean. In this space, let a few examples suffice. It is quite clear that Jesus is not doing away with the Law. The Ten Commandments still apply. But isn’t it true that when we hear the commandments we are apt to interpret them minimally? Thou shalt not kill means just that. Murder is forbidden. Jesus says yes to that, but avoiding murder is just the beginning. Anger is not acceptable either, nor any of the other violations of charity that others might understand as being only normal. How does, if someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the left one to him go down with you? The Hebrew Scriptures endorsed the Eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth vindictive morality. That won’t fly with Jesus. In fact, if you listen carefully to Jesus, it seems quite clear that he is saying his disciples will offer no resistance to abuses. Hear the line from Isaiah that is applied to Jesus. Like a lamb he was led to the slaughter. Matthew’s Passion narrative tells us that (Jesus) was silent before his accusers. So, it isn’t that Jesus teaches one thing and acts in another way.

The Sermon on the Mount sets a high standard before us. That is why so often when we hear sections of the whole we accommodate, concluding that surely he can’t mean what I just heard. Ah, but I am afraid Jesus does mean what he says. He teaches with authority, remember.

If we apply the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount to several current moral dilemma what will be the result. Take the issue of war. Does vindication warrant the waging of war? Those committed pacifists would say otherwise. Think of the amazing witness the world had from Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. Or more recently, the witness of Sister Dorothy Stang. Each one was murdered for the cause championed. None bore arms. And none was silenced by the bullet or the blade. Their voices continue to resound, calling all to change their ways and bring justice to the oppressed.

Our country is embroiled in debate over the death penalty. The Catholic Church teaches that the death penalty should not be used unless there is no other way to protect innocent life in society. That would seem to eliminate any justification for the implementation of the death penalty on these shores. Of course the innocent in society ought to be protected from those who would harm them. The means for doing that is available. There is the sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole. I think Jesus would urge us one step further. What about forgiveness? Imagine that.

We could go on, but I do not want to weary you. And I certainly do not want to give you the impression that I would not have to struggle with these issues. It’s just that I know that I am a sinner. I know that I have not always acted out of love. I know the need for forgiveness. But I am coming to see that the need remains the same for me, to die to self and live in Jesus. If I can continue to pray for the grace to do that there is hope that I will live more and more securely on the Rock. Then, Winds, blow as you will. I will survive.

And isn’t that our hope each time we gather to celebrate Eucharist? That just as the bread and wine are transformed into the Body and Blood of Christ, so also will our transformation be complete – at least by the last day.

Sincerely,

Didymus

THE MOST HOLY BODY AND BLOOD OF CHRIST

Deuteronomy 8:2-3, 14b-16a
1 Corinthians 10:16-17
John 6:51-58

Even the most shocking statements, repeated often enough, can become mundane to the hearer. Take Jesus’ words in today’s gospel for example. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life and I will raise him/her on the last day. I’ve never heard anyone gasp when that message was proclaimed. I don’t think anyone ever stomped his feet and stormed from the assembly. No one ever put his hands over his ears and cried, “Enough!”

Why then, do you suppose, did the first audience have all those reactions and add to them cries that Jesus was a madman? John is quite clear that at the end of this discourse most who were present turned on their heels and departed until there were only a few, stunned, shocked, who remained with Jesus. Of them he asked, Will you also go away? We don’t know the thoughts that raced through the disciples’ heads as they watched the scene unfold. At the beginning of the discourse, there were crowds pressing in to catch every word that came from Jesus’ mouth. At the conclusion, near violence erupted and some may even have picked up rocks to hurl at Jesus, so revolted were they by what he had said. The few who remained with Jesus probably wanted to duck for cover lest they be put in harm’s way. What degree of confidence do you imagine was in Peter’s voice when he responded, Where can we go? We believe that you have the words of everlasting life. These were, after all, the ones who had given up everything to follow Jesus.

What’s so shocking in Jesus’ remarks? There is no wiggle room. Remember the line from the song? With me it’s all or nothin’/ it’s all or nothin’ at all. Crudely put, that is exactly what Jesus has said. Everything of importance depends entirely upon Jesus. Life today and for all eternity depends on gnawing at his flesh and drinking his blood. That’s the language he used. Jesus wants his disciples to devour him. I am the living bread come down from heaven.

Accommodation takes over after that for many of us. As we celebrate the Feast of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ, we immediately think we are celebrating the feast of the Eucharist. And of course that is part of the feast. With that, we objectify the meaning and mystery that Jesus puts before us. We think of a host. We think of a cup of wine. In the course of the Eucharistic Prayer, we look at the bread and proclaim the Body of Christ present. We look at the cup and proclaim the Blood of Christ present. And we adore. All well and good – but there must be more. To look and to adore keeps the reality at a distance. We focus on the transcendence and do not have to deal with the imminence. Nowhere in the gospels and certainly nowhere in the institution narrative does Jesus say, this is my body, adore it. Nor does he say that about the blood. Take and eat. Take and drink. Do this in my memory. Everything depends upon this.

Again, accommodation takes over. It always has. We look for more palatable interpretations for so much of what Jesus announced. The centrality of poverty in the Christian walk – surely he didn’t mean that literally. What, then, do you suppose he meant when he said, Go, sell what you have and give to the poor and come and follow me. What did he mean by the injunction: If you would follow me, take up your cross every day and follow me? Then there is the commandment Jesus voices in John’s Last Supper account that has nothing about the breaking of the bread and the sharing of the cup. There Jesus says, As I have washed your feet so must you wash one another’s feet. The operative phrase is, must wash. That’s quite a bit stronger than I think it would be a good idea if you would do this. No, basic to discipleship is total dependence on Jesus, simplicity of life, and the pouring out of self in service.

There is a term that you might hear frequently today in reference to people who are inactive in the practice of their Catholic faith. They are called Cultural Catholics. That means they were baptized into the Body of Christ, the Catholic Church, have never denied that they are Catholics, but the faith has no practical bearing on decisions made or lifestyle lived. I think it is safe to say that that is not what Jesus had in mind in issuing the call and challenge to be his disciples. Jesus expects us to live lives that make no sense were it not for our faith in him. And that only happens as a result of our eating his flesh and drinking his blood and devouring his every word. Today’s feast then is a call to action, formation and transformation. Did you ever ask yourself what difference it would make if Jesus were not in your life? Would there be any observable difference besides not having to go to Mass on Sunday?

One final note: the Feast of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ is also the feast of the Church. The Catholic Church is the Body of Christ. That is what the Church teaches. We, you and I, all one billion of us are that Body. What impact does that have on our lives? Certainly that is not something to boast about. Nor should the fact become an icon on a tall pedestal to be gaped at in awe. The truth is a call to action. The Body of Christ in every age is broken and distributed in loving service. It is all about love as the supreme call. The commandments by which the Body lives are reduced to one all encompassing mandate: As I have loved you, so must you love one another. What is more demanding than Love?

A few weeks ago in this space, I talked about my admiration for Dorothy Day. (I strongly recommend Paul Elie’s The Life You Save May Be Your Own. The book is intertwined biographies of four great Catholic writers of the last century, three of them converts to the Catholic Church. Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Flannery O’Connor (the born Catholic in the group), and Walker Percy. It was the reality of the Church as the Body of Christ that motivated Dorothy Day’s conversion. She lived the rest of her life witnessing to what acceptance of that reality meant in practice. The Catholic Worker movement and houses of refuge for the poor are only two examples. Her life of poverty and prayer are others.

Rejoice in the Feast of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ. Rejoice and be glad. But please don’t stop there. Embrace the implications. You’ll never be the same. You’ll never regret it. It’s not my word you have on this. It is the Lord’s.
Sincerely,

Didymus

THE MOST HOLY TRINITY

Exodus 34:4b-6, 8-9
Second Corinthians 13:11-13
John 3:16-18

It probably sounds presumptuous and who am I to quibble? Sometimes, I find myself wishing that the compliers of the lectionary had left readings intact. Gems seem to be left out for brevity’s sake. Today’s first reading is a case in point. What a magnificent moment! God comes to Moses on Mount Sinai and a courtship dance ensues as God reveals himself to Moses, proclaiming his name Lord (Yahweh) to Moses. The scene is reminiscent of their first encounter at the Burning Bush when Moses asked the Presence for a name to pass on to Pharaoh. Tell Pharaoh “I AM” sent you. And Moses knew to know the name is to know the essence of the being. I AM translated Yahweh becomes a name so holy that the Hebrews will not pronounce it and will use Adonai?.em> instead.

Now God, coming out of a cloud and dancing before Moses, gives his own commentary on the meaning of Yahweh. The Lord, the Lord, a merciful and gracious God, slow to anger and rich in kindness and fidelity. It’s the continuation of that line that I wish the Lectionary editors had left in. The Lord continues his kindness for a thousand generations, and forgives wickedness and crime and sin. Of course I have to admit that I don’t mind that the final phrase is left out – yet not declaring the guilty guiltless, but punishing children and grandchildren to the third and fourth generation for their fathers’ wickedness. Somehow, I think that is hyperbole rushing out of the emotion of the moment. God’s dominant attitude toward creatures is forgiveness. What’s left over after wickedness, crime and sin have been forgiven, anyway?

We celebrate The Feast of the Most Holy Trinity this weekend. It has always seemed a strange Feast since every Sunday and everything we do as believers centers in our shared life in the Trinity. Be that as it may, the Readings this Sunday give us an opportunity to focus on the Mystery and remember.

What ought we to hear? First, we ought to hear that this faith of ours is a result of God’s reaching out and embracing us. We were sought as God pleads with us to let God be our God so that we can be God’s people. This didn’t happen because of anything we did or did not do. This is not something that we earn. This is grace, pure and simple. I say that just in case there is a temptation to get swelled headed because you believe. Paul took care of that temptation once and for all when he challenged Christians to remember that no one can say Jesus is Lord except in the Holy Spirit. In other words, God empowers everything we do and everything we believe as followers of Jesus Christ.

We celebrate Trinity Sunday today. Not all people who believe in God believe in the Triune God. Our celebration of this feast reminds us of some particular implications of our belief and all of them are relational. If we believe in God as Father, and Son, and Holy Spirit, then we believe that God calls us to enter and live in that community of Love we call God. In our Baptism, we are given a new life, having died to the old one, and given a new identity – a union with Jesus that results in our being the beloved of God, sharing in God’s life. Never tire of thinking about that and pondering the mystery and wonder. Remember what John said? Beloved, we are God’s children now. What shall become remains to be seen. All this now and Heaven still to come!

But relationship with the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit is not the only implication of God’s reaching into our life. The other relationship is with each other. Paul says, Rejoice. Mend your ways, encourage one another, agree with one another, live in peace, and the God of love and peace will be with you. Greet one another with a holy kiss. In a nutshell, Paul tells us what it means to be Church. We are a people on a journey together. United in the one God we are united with one another. When we gather for Eucharist, we stand in awe at the Presence, The Body of Christ in the Bread. We ought not to forget another presence, The Body of Christ gathered to celebrate that Eucharist. Again, Paul, in another place in writing to the Corinthians, reminds us that the body though many in parts is one body. Division in the community we call Church is a scandal that denies that unity. Shunning individuals, even sinners, in the community is a scandal. Unless the proclamation that goes out from us gathered in worship is All are welcome here we are not living the reality. This faith life is not something we hoard. It is something we live to share.

Remember Eleanor of Aquitaine’s famous line in The Lion in Winter? At a moment of obvious tension and anger among them, she says, Every family has its ups and downs. But ups and downs not withstanding, the family remains. And if we believe that we truly are journeying together on The Way, than we must support and encourage each other along the way. There is no lording over anyone. The only attitude we share is one of service. There is no judging. The example we live in love is the call to conversion should someone need to mend his/her ways. And contrary to Thomas Wolfe’s title You Can’t Go Home Again, return and reconciliation are always causes for great rejoicing.

In the end, it is about love. God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life. That’s what Jesus proclaims this Sunday, too. Everyone – notice. We mustn’t be stingy with God’s grace. It washes over us in the same abundance as does Christ’s blood in which we are redeemed. And if we recognize that and experience the profound sense of awe and gratitude that ought to result, then the Eucharist we celebrate as the source and summit of all we do as believers ought to empower us to live our Baptismal Priesthood that translates into lives of loving service, loving each other as Christ has loved us.

Is there anyone you have left out of the circle for a while, anyone to whom you are content not to be speaking? Live what you celebrate this weekend and reach out, reconcile, and welcome home. Live the reality of One Bread, One Body, One Lord of all. Who knows, maybe there is someone who feels estranged from you who will want to reach out and welcome you back home again.

Sincerely,

Didymus