Archive for November, 2008|Monthly archive page

The First Sunday of Advent: B

 

Isaiah 63:16-17, 19; 64:2-7

1 Corinthians 1:3-9

Mark 13:33-37

 

Starting points can often be nadirs.  Sometimes people have to hit the bottom before they can start rebuilding their lives.  People who struggle with addictions have to reach that point of helplessness before they realize the strength they have in surrendering to the grace of the Higher Power to begin their recovery that will be lived one day at a time.  Whether it is self or the world that is being considered, evil, the reality of sin, must be recognized before conversion and restoration can begin.  The saying that became a cliché from overuse is apt as we listen to the Liturgy of the Word for the First Sunday of Advent.  Today is the first day of the rest of your life.  And that life is to be lived in continual conversion and steadfastness of faith.

Where are you spiritually as this Church Year begins?  What is your assessment of the World’s state of affairs?  How are your relationships, those with God, with those you love and with whom you are in relationship, and those with yourself?  It could be that your faith has been tested, or that you wonder if you believe at all.  There don’t have to be great sins in your consciousness; but there might not be any great deeds of charity either.  You might be aware that you are not praying with the regularity that you used to pray.  You might be going to Mass every Sunday.  On the other hand you might not be that regular in practice.  And when you are there, is anything happening?  Or do you find yourself wanting the hour to get over so that you can get on with what really is important.

The sense of barrenness with God can be exacerbated by the reality of strained or broken relationships with those closest to you.  That should not be surprising since Jesus linked the two great commandments making them one.  Love God with your entire being.  Love your neighbor as yourself.  The lack of either one affects the other.  If you do not feel loved by those closest to you, your spouse, your family, your neighbors, your brothers and sisters surrounding you in the pews, it is not a giant leap to that feeling of not being loved by God.  The same will be true if you are not doing your part in those important relationships.  Self-absorption closes God out too.  It’s hard to experience the Eucharist as transforming if you are not fully, actively, and consciously participating, if you are not committed to being the Eucharist’s co-celebrant in the exercise of your Baptismal Priesthood.   Much less can you hear the call to put the Eucharist you have celebrated into practice in the market place.  Be bread broken?  Be cup poured out?  For what purpose if love is dead?

Then there is the World community.  How long have we been at war?  Long enough to be used to the horror that each day fills the nightly news?  Long enough to assume that torture and the rescinding of basic constitutional rights are the presumed adjunct of strife?  Does might make right?  There is ample evidence that the intrinsic worth of each human being is being wholesalely denied – be that through acts of violence toward those in the first stages of life or those in final days.  When capital punishment is practiced our society is brought to the level of those who commit the basest of acts of violence. 

Are you tempted to despair?  We need another Anne Frank who wrote in the midst of horrors, at a time when there seemed to be no limit to the exercising of people’s inhumanity to people: In spite of everything that has happened, I still believe that people are basically good at heart.  That is a faith vision, faith in God and faith in those beings created in God’s image.

Isaiah decries the conditions that surround him.  Horrified by the lapses of faith round him, Isaiah wants God to intervene as God did in leading the Jews from Egypt’s slavery to the Desert’s freedom.  Maybe if the mountains shook and the waters parted the people would come to their senses again.  Isaiah wants God to do it again and then faith might revive.  We have all withered like leaves, and our guilt carries us away like the wind.  There is none who calls upon your name, who rouses to cling to you; for you have hidden your face from us.  On the brink of despair, Isaiah remembers.  God can act even in the darkest of times.  O Lord, you are our father; we are the clay and you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand.  Bluntly put, Isaiah tells God to have at us!

At the beginning of this Advent Season, we must remember.  God has called us.  The Spirit has inspired us.  We have died to the old and former life and been reborn in Christ through Baptism.  That is our lived reality and it is time to yield to Baptism’s grace.  Paul rejoices at the evidence that the Corinthians live in the faith that came to them through his preaching and the witness to Christ he bore them.  That is evident among them because they lack no spiritual gift as they wait for the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ.  God is faithful, and it was God who called you to fellowship with God’s Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.  But then, we know that the Corinthians had their faults, too.  They were not a perfect community.  They had to be reminded about the basics of the faith, especially of the primacy of place Love had to play in their lives, Love the greatest gift of the Spirit.

So it is that we come to the gospel, the first reading of the Good News for this Liturgical Year.  What does Jesus challenge you and me to do?  Watch and be ready!  The journey of faith is one day at a time and lived steadfastly.  More importantly, Christ has left the faithful, the Baptized, in charge.  They are the continuation of Christ’s presence.  We need to remember Christ’s words in his prayer to the Father from John’s Gospel: To them (the disciples) I have revealed your name, and I will continue to reveal it so that your love for me may live in them, and I may live in them.  So it ought to be that the World, seeing us in action will recognize Christ acting through us.  That is what Christ expects us to be doing until he comes again.

What is our starting point on this First Sunday of Advent?  It should be no surprise that the starting point is Love.  But that should not lead us to being dewy eyed with pulsing romanticism.  The Love we are commanded to live in acknowledgment of our identity with Christ is harsh, even terrible, because it is all demanding and all consuming.  Its perfect expression is Christ’s pouring out of self in service to the shedding of the last drops of blood and water flowing from his side on the cross.  Like it or not, its perfect expression in us must be the same. 

So, we come to The Table to Do this in memory of Christ, that is, to recognize Christ present.  The Eucharistic action is one of formation and transformation.  We take and eat what has been blessed and broken for us that we might be transformed and sent to be that presence in the world until Christ comes again.  When?  Only God knows that.  What Christ says to you and me and to all: Be on guard!  That is, live in the mystery and stand in awe.  When will take care of itself – in due time.

Sincerely,

Didymus          

THE FEAST OF OUR LORD JESUS CHRIST THE KING – A

Ezekiel 34:11-12, 15-17
1 Corinthians 15:20-26, 28
Matthew 25:31-46

And so another Liturgical Year comes to its conclusion in the celebration of the Feast of Christ the King. You’ve completed the journey begun nearly 12 months ago on the First Sunday of Advent. You journeyed primarily with and were formed by Matthew’s Gospel. How did you do? What did the Lord accomplish in you along the Way as you listened to the Word?

On this feast, wouldn’t you expect readings that evoke a regal Christ? To some extent you might find that in this Gospel in the One who judges the sheep and the goats. But the gospel will tell us that in royalty, that is in the powerful, is not where we will recognize the Christ. Our Messiah is not a Superman like so many contemporary cartoon heroes leaping tall buildings in a single bound. Although I must say some Evangelicals seem to preach that kind of Messiah who doles out temporal wealth and power if you acknowledge him. Sorry. I can’t identify with that, not when I have to deal with the readings proclaimed on this feast.

God says in today’s reading from Ezekiel: 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 will you 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, primarily the poor, the widows and the orphans, those specials ones of God. 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 ignoring the desperate and the needy. In that preoccupation they failed to notice their corruption and the weakness that came with it and so fell to Babylon, exile and captivity. God’s judgment is harsh. The sleek and the strong will be destroyed. The vulnerable God will gather and shepherd safely home.

As we hear Ezekiel’s prophecy we have to ask where we are in it. We make a mistake if we think that Ezekiel’s prophecy addressed only those long ago times and those specific leaders during the Babylonian Captivity. This is the living word of God. Ezekiel speaks to us now in this assembly of God’s people gathered at the Table of the Word. What do we hear? It depends on how we have been exercising our Baptismal Priesthood.

That is the question Paul raises 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 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 were identified with Christ in Baptism, those who did what Christ would have done in their daily lives. All these Christ will present to the Father in the final restoration of the order God had in mind at creation’s beginning.

All this brings us to one of the most difficult readings in all of Scripture, the judgment scene in Matthew’s Gospel. I have never been able to hear this reading without cringing and wondering on which side of the aisle will I be standing on that day. It’s 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 a warning to the smug that think they are doing all the right things. Sheep. Goats. Among which flock will I find myself?

What does the judgment turn about? Not what you might first expect. There’s nothing in what the Son of Man says to the assembled about religious observance, going to temple and keeping the Sabbath, going to mass on Sundays and Holy Days, keeping the laws of fast and abstinence. Instead, the judgment turns about recognizing the Son of Man and ministering to his needs. Where is the Son of Man found? For us, where is Jesus? 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 in God’s sight for the poor, for those most vulnerable among us. Notice that no other quality other than their need is spelled out for 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 isn’t even anything said about their moral character. All we know is that they are desperate and the Sheep fed, clothed, sheltered, and visited them and probably buried them with dignity when they died. The Sheep are stunned when they hear The Son of Man make all of those desperate conditions his own and are praised for having ministered to the Son of Man. They ask in stupefaction when did they care for him? In other words, they didn’t recognize him. Which means, I think, service of the Son of Man, of Christ, wasn’t 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.

I think of Francis of Assisi who was repulsed by leprosy coming to his senses in the presence of a leper pleading for help. Francis bathed and dressed the leper’s wounds and in the process recognized Christ. Then he embraced the leper and kissed him. I think of Mother Teresa of Calcutta trying to help Malcolm 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. Wow!

If there is a characteristic that dominates the Goats in the parable it is their religious orthodoxy. They thought they knew Christ and were doing all the right things. They didn’t act on the needs of those in the street crying out for alms because they did not recognize Christ in them, much less their dignity and worth. 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. What we have in Matthew’s judgment scene is the application of that commandment and its implications.

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 it seems 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 ate and whose blood we drank. We are always sent from the Table to be bread broken and cup poured out until all have eaten and all have drunk – all and not just those in the pew beside us.

I begin to think that 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,

Didymus

THE THIRTY-THIRD SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME

Proverbs 31:10-13, 19-20, 30-31
Thessalonians 5:1-6
Matthew 25:14-30

We have made it almost to the end of another Church Year. We have journeyed with Jesus all along The Way. Next Sunday is the Feast of Christ the King, each year’s final Sunday. So, you’re probably not going to be surprised that the readings for this week 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? 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 shouldn’t wish we could be among the idle rich, not if we are people of faith. There’s 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. Mother Teresa may come to mind. So, too, might Augustine’s mother Monica among many, many others. And 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 in 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. The membership drops everything and heads 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 the stars. Sometimes they drink poison in order to get there. Sometimes, they sit and wait. And when the appointed time passes by the purpose of their being together also passes and they go back to whatever had lost attraction for them in the world. Such actions don’t 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 is speaking to children of the light and children of the day. Paul is speaking 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 and 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 the future, stopped striving to hand on the truth to the succeeding generations. People sat and waited and sponged off the faith community. That’s why Paul, once he saw that the end might not be tomorrow issued the edict that if they don’t work, don’t 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.

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’s 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 of. 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 the 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 its all about. Those looking on and marveling at love in action want to share in it.

Then who is the poor wretch with the one talent? We’re 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. Remember the question popular in the 1970’s? 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 one talent. Is that all there is?

What’s it all about? The Eucharist is supposed to be for the Baptized, an exercise of the Priesthood of the Baptized. They gather with the Presider to celebrate and give thanks to God in the dying and rising of Jesus. They gather to take and eat for this is my blood. They gather to take and drink for this is my blood. But they do not 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’s 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.

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,

Didymus