Archive for June, 2008|Monthly archive page

FEAST OF SAINTS PETER AND PAUL

Acts 12:1-11
2 Timothy 4:6-8, 17-18
Matthew 16:13-19

Today’s Solemnity of Peter and Paul replaces the Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time. The feast celebrating these two giants in the faith gives us an opportunity to ponder, to stand in awe, and to pray for a similar transformation in our individual lives and in the life of the Church. We may not see ourselves accomplishing the extraordinary fetes that these two did, but we might be able to identify with their weaknesses and so find hope.

It is unfortunate that when we contemplate the saints, the great ones in the Church’s Canon, we tend to see them in their iconic state, haloed and golden robed. To do so takes them out of the realm of the ordinary and makes them inimitable. The saints become part of the experience of transcendence, distant and remote. We lose sight of their humanity and the wonder of conversion that changed their lives in ways that grace can do for us if we cooperate and let go.

Both of these saints received a new name as part of their call. Simon the fisherman became Peter, petrus, Rock, the one upon whose witness Jesus builds his Church. How certain was Peter when he responded for the others to Jesus’ question: Who do you say that I am? He, like the other disciples, had to struggle with what people were saying about Jesus. Some said complementary things identifying Jesus with John the Baptist, or the great prophets. But some said he was mad, one who comported with tax collectors and sinners and, therefore, should be put to death. How firm was Peter’s conviction when Peter filled the silence that followed Jesus’ question with the declaration: You are the Christ, the Son of the living God? He may have been convinced that Jesus was the anointed one of God. But the expectations he had for what the Anointed One would do and accomplish for Israel had to be refined through disappointment after disappointment and had to rise phoenix-like from the ashes after Jesus was rejected and crucified. And Peter had to live with his cowardice as one who feared a servant girl and swore he did not know Jesus. Yet, Jesus called him Rock.

Saul of Tarsus, a zealot for Israel, wanted to stamp out the heretic sect that was growing up around the recently crucified Jesus. He stood with the robes of the executioners at his feet while Stephen was stoned to death. Stephen’s prophecy of seeing Jesus at God’s right hand did not move Saul. We are used to hearing the account of that life-altering encounter on the road to Damascus, the voice, the question, the lightning like flash. Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? We might miss how abased Saul was in that moment of meeting Jesus. Knocked from his horse, blinded, he had to be taken by the hand and led into the city to learn what he would have to suffer for the Name.

The lesson of utter dependence upon Jesus probably was not a difficult one for Peter. He had the memory of his weaknesses and blunders. He walked on water when his eyes were fixed on Jesus. He sank in panic when wind and waves distracted him. The difficult lesson for Peter was to comprehend the universality of God’s love in Jesus. He had to let go of the concept of unclean as it applied to creatures and gentiles. All things God created are good. All people are redeemed in the blood of Christ and are God’s beloved ones – even the Romans who dominated Jerusalem. Miraculously delivered from prison in today’s first reading, Peter proclaims: Now I know for certain that the Lord sent his angel and rescued me from the hand of Herod and from all that the Jewish people had been expecting. Perhaps it was then that he began to sense the meaning of what Jesus had told him that day on the shore following Jesus’ resurrection: I tell you solemnly: as a young man you fastened your belt and went about as you pleased; but when you are older you will stretch out your hands, and another will tie you fast and carry you off against your will. To walk in Jesus’ footsteps would lead to the same end for Peter – the Cross that is the entrance into glory.

Peter and Paul are celebrated in the same feast. But if they became friends, comrades in arms, so to speak, it was after an acrimonious confrontation over the imposition of things Jewish on Gentiles who wanted to come to Christ. Paul says that he withstood Peter to his face and got the concession he sought. We ought not miss the irony that Saul the zealot became Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles.

Hear Jesus’ great commandment: Love one another as I have loved you. Jesus loved to the shedding of the last drop of his blood. Near the end of his life, Paul said, in the words of today’s second reading: I am already being poured out like a libation, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith. In the last act of the lives of both Peter and Paul, the world might see defeat and utter destruction. But through the eyes of faith, Peter on his cross and Paul at his beheading would know that the Lord would rescue them from every evil threat and would bring them safe to his heavenly kingdom. To him be glory forever and ever. Amen.

As we celebrate Eucharist today, it is not enough for us to marvel at the lives of these two amazing men. We must recognize our common humanity and the wonder of Christ’s transforming love in the gift of faith. Paul said: I can do all things in (Christ) who strengthens me. Peter could say that, too. If we yield to the transforming power of this meal we celebrate, if we let go of our weaknesses and press on strengthened by the Flesh we eat and the Blood we drink, then we too can do all things in Christ who strengthens us. And that will always translate into acts of love. In the end, it is all about love.

Sincerely,

Didymus

THE TWELFTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME

Jeremiah 20:1-13
Romans 5:12-15
Matthew 10:26-33

Jeremiah was not in a foreign land in the midst of strangers as he cried out to God for vengeance. Those he hears denouncing him, hoping to witness his downfall are his own people, neighbors, family, perhaps, and former friends and acquaintances. He is among those who should be his own. What has turned them against him and brought Jeremiah to the brink of disaster? His fidelity to the prophetic call he had received from God. The great prophets like Jeremiah and John the Baptist essentially are not seers, predictors of the future or oracles. Their vocation is to tell the people what God wants them to hear. Their message is always the same. God loves you. Please let God be your god. Please be God’s people and don’t go dancing off after strange gods. Most often the prophet winds up being one who calls people back to this relationship. That’s why their catchword is repent. To repent essentially is to turn back.

Sometimes, the prophet’s role is to let people see the implications of their actions. Jeremiah saw the effects their corrupt way of life was having on Jerusalem. He was not the first to see that Jerusalem’s strength corresponded to the degree of their fidelity to God, to the degree they were faithful to the Law. He was not the first to see that as they drifted away and took up with other gods and failed to live as God’s people, they not only became corrupted but also weak. Jeremiah spoke out against debauchery. He condemned injustice for the poor. He railed against idolatry. That’s what God wanted him to do. That is what God wanted the people to hear, not to belittle them but to call them back to justice and truth and to right relationship reflective of the call they had received from God when God brought them out of slavery.

You will rejoice in the message, the truth that sets you free, if the message is one you want to hear. Nothing rankles more than a message that is unpalatable, a truth you do not want to recognize. That’s what Jeremiah found out and that’s how he wound up in the cistern, in mud up to his knees convinced he would die at the hands of those to whom he had prophesied. But notice also that in the midst of his dire straights, his confidence in God was undimmed. God would be faithful and rescue the poor, Jeremiah among them.

In the gospel last week, Jesus sent out those called to prophesy in his behalf. Their message? The kingdom of heaven is at hand. The sight of crowds wandering aimlessly like sheep without a shepherd moved Jesus to send the disciples to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Remember that this was early in Jesus’ ministry before the horizon of his care had grown to include the nations, the gentiles. So, focus on the word lost and hear all those people who feel alone and abandoned, purposeless and oppressed. It is to such as these that Jesus sends his disciples to announce God’s love for them and God’s desire for them to live as God’s people.

Paul reminds disciples of what they must never forget. All who are disciples must remember that their call is gift, the result of God’s grace, the result of the gracious gift of the one man Jesus Christ overflowing for the many. All who are disciples must remember that their call is to love those whom they serve so that that love will convince those ministered to of God’s love. Perhaps Paul is also saying that no one should go out in Jesus’ name until s/he is convinced about being a sinner, redeemed, but a sinner nonetheless. Shouldn’t that keep us humble – and grateful?

And shouldn’t that dictate the attitude of the Catholic Church in the modern world? Anyone can paint the history of the Church in lurid and sensational strokes. Anyone can go to various periods of the Church’s history and decry abuses of authority. The Spanish Inquisition was not the only period for which Pope John Paul II apologized. The more the Church distanced herself from the call of service and the Gospel’s call of simplicity in that service, the more obvious became the abuses. But never forget that in every age of corruption stood great saints prophesying, announcing what God wanted the Church and all people to hear. Repent and believe the Good News. The Commandment is to Love.

Francis of Assisi prayed in the church of San Damiano. He heard a voice coming from the crucifix: Francis, rebuild my Church. At first he thought the command to rebuild referred to the wreck of a chapel in which he prayed. But then he came to realize that Christ challenged him to prophesy and so call the whole Church to reform. The witness was one of poverty and service. It would have been difficult to distinguish the Papal Court he entered from that of any other temporal court of splendor. The three-tiered crown the pope wore made sure of that. And so did his throne.

The Church in the modern world is the people of God, the Body of Christ. The mission of the Church is to heal, reconcile, and cry out for justice for the poor and to announce that the Kingdom of God is at hand. But the Church must feel the need to listen to the message as well as to proclaim it. In other words, there must be evidence that those who proclaim are also recipients of the graceful promise of healing, reconciliation and peace. Heavy-handed authority has no place in that communion. The faith of the Church resides in the believers. That was always the role of the great Councils of the Church, to ascertain what the Church believed by checking on what the people believed. Sometimes those beliefs challenge assumed official Church positions. The Official Church needs to listen and not be threatened.

Years ago, a picture of Archbishop Hunthausen appeared in a Seattle newspaper. He was seen doing janitorial work in the apartment of a poor and mentally challenged little one of God. That kind of attitude and service ought to be ordinary among the Church’s hierarchy and among the faithful. One of the pope’s titles is, after all, the servant of the servants of God. Pope John XXIII exercised that attitude and was beloved for it. We are a people called to priesthood, to gather at the Table of the Word to be nourished by that Word – another way of saying to hear the prophetic voice and take it to heart. We are a people called to gather at the Table of the Eucharist, to give thanks in the renewal of the dying and rising of Jesus and to be nourished by his Body and Blood. But we must never forget that everything does not stop there. What we hear and what we do must always translate into action. We must reconcile and be reconciled. We must serve and be served in a community of love that embraces all. (Did you notice that in the list of the apostles last week, Matthew was still called the tax collector?) We must exercise a fundamental option for the poor even as we recognize our own poverty and utter dependence on the graciousness of our God and of Jesus Christ, the Lord.

One final note: Some of the most eloquent prophets in the Churches history may not have used words at all. The contrast between their attitude and actions and those of the world said it all. May that clarion call be heard around the world today. We have nothing to fear. God loves us. God counts even the hairs on our heads. And we are, after all, worth more than many sparrows – if our poverty attests to that.

Sincerely,

Didymus

THE ELEVENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – A

Exodus 19:2-6a
Romans 6:6-11
Matthew 9:36-10:8

The attitude we bring to the Liturgy of the Word will determine how we hear it. If the Word proclaimed is for us a solemn reading of historically important documents detailing the way God dealt with people in the past, we might wind up wishing we could have been there even as we wonder what all this has to do with today. On the other hand, if we come to the Liturgy of the Word hungry, yearning to be fed, longing to enter into this living Word and so not only encounter the God who sends Jesus, but be touched and be nourished and so find meaning for our lives. If we come with the former attitude, we are essentially observers and passive, making the Word transcendent, keeping it at a distance. If we come with the latter attitude, we are active participants in an action that is happening now. The Word is living. There is an action going on, an encounter with the Risen Lord that can change our lives and give us hope.

Each liturgical year is a journey for us. This year, we journey primarily with Matthew. I believe that journey is meant to be formative. As we place ourselves in the moment and open our hearts to the Word, we can be renewed in his call.

There are basically three scenes in this week’s gospel. You might play different roles in each scene. My dictionary defines pity as sympathetic sorrow, compassion. And compassion is defined as suffering with. The word is laden and powerful with implications. At the sight of the crowds, Jesus’ heart was moved with pity for them because they were troubled and abandoned like sheep without a shepherd. Do you feel the need to be one of the crowd in a pitiable condition? Or, are you willing to be Jesus and so be moved. Or are you meant to be both?

I think of the martyred Archbishop Oscar Romero. When he was ordained a bishop, he rejoiced that he was now a prince in the Church. He went back to his books and his study. Then the murder of a Jesuit friend, an activist in behalf of the poor, shook the very fiber of his being. In that moment, he came to understand that a bishop is meant to be a shepherd in imitation of Jesus, one who shepherds in the midst of the sheep. He went out of his palace and into the streets where he encountered the crowds and their suffering. And in their midst his response was compassion. Archbishop Romero let his baptismal identity with Jesus rule his life and determine his compassionate response. His voice was heard in the land, his cry for justice and relief for the poor. His witness was relentless. The authorities who had thought he would be a safe one to nominate for an Archbishop, one who would stay in his library and not bother them, were rankled by his demands. Sad to say, even the Official Church wished that he would be quiet. Of course the powers or the state stopped their ears against his voice and shot him to silence the din. One can’t help but wonder why his cause for canonization is taking so long, when others, barely dead are so proclaimed.

If you are burdened by a particular sorrow, if you are suffering from an injustice, then you may need to be in that crowd and know that Jesus wants there to be someone to act in your behalf, to comfort you in your distress, to ease the suffering, or, if you are oppressed, to demand justice in your behalf. Maybe, like Oscar Romero, you are meant to be another Jesus, someone who notices the beleaguered crowds and responds with compassion.

I think Jesus had something more in mind when he said to his disciples, The harvest is abundant but the laborers are few; so ask the master of the harvest to send out laborers for his harvest. There might have been a moment of relief for the disciples who thought that they were off the hook, so to speak, since all Jesus wanted them to do was pray. My reason for so thinking is that immediately upon the request for prayers comes the sending. Is this a case of be careful what you pray for? My point is that Jesus does not want distant observers like Romero was in his library. He wants us to do something more than pray. He wants us to see the crowds and to know them. Why? Only then can we be compassionate, that is be ones who suffer with and so be compelled to act. And we might recognize Jesus there.

I read a story about a Seattle man. The story is apt here. It seems he was disturbed one evening during a stop at Denny’s on Capitol Hill. A street person told the man he was hungry and asked if he could help him out. The man said he wouldn’t give money because he suspected that the street person would use it for something unsavory. So he bought the person a hamburger and was embarrassed to see how ravenous the poor man was.

Later that night, the man could not get the street person out of his mind. And as he reflected on the incident into his consciousness crept so many other destitute beings that are hungry and live on the streets. A few evenings later, the man returned to the same area with a pot of soup that was quickly devoured by a hungry few. And the man saw how many more needed to be fed. So began a ministry (my term, not his). With his own funds he makes large quantities of soup and dozens of sandwiches. Twice a week, at the same time and place, he feeds the poor, young, street people who rejoice in his kindness.

Don’t you wonder if those recipients of the man’s kindness and generosity don’t for a moment feel that their dignity is being recognized and that somebody cares? Maybe they wonder if the kingdom of heaven is at hand.

At the end of Matthew’s gospel there is a judgment scene in which sheep and goats are separated and their whole destiny is determined by how they responded to Jesus. The judgment begins: Come, you blessed of my Father. I was hungry and you fed me. And the amazing thing is the sheep’s question that follows: When did we see you hungry and feed you? You know how the Lord answers, don’t you? As long as you did it for one of these least ones of mine you did it for me. Imagine that and then ask yourself how this applies to your life and your response to this gospel.

Powerful, isn’t it?

Sincerely,

Didymus