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THE TWENTY-SECOND SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – B (2009)

Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-8

James 1:17-18, 21b-22, 27

Mark 7:1-8. 14-15, 21-23

Check Israel’s history in the Hebrew Scriptures and you will find that the strength and security of the people rose and fell depending on their fidelity to the Law.  When they were faithful in living out the statutes and decrees given by God and handed on to them by Moses, they were invincible.  But when they forgot the Law and became fascinated by alien gods they crumbled finally to the point of the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem and their being led off into slavery and into the Babylonian captivity.

Moses promises something remarkable that will flow from the observance of the Law.  The nations will marvel at the Israelites’ strength as a people, their wisdom and intelligence and it will be immediately apparent that no other nation has gods so close to it as the Lord, our God, is to us whenever we call upon him. In other words, through the observance of the Law it will be obvious that God is at the center of the people’s lives.  How can that be?  What is there about the Law that makes this come about?  The Decalogue is right-ordered living.  Put simply, the commandments call for primacy of place of the only God among the people that is expressed by reverence for God’s name and the keeping holy of the Lord’s Day.   Second, keeping the commandments imposes a right ordering of relationships among the people that results in their strength as a people.  In the end it is all about love.  Loving God with your entire being and loving your neighbor as you love yourself is an unbeatable combination.  Jesus will say that the whole Law and the Prophets are based on the summing up of those two laws of love.

Notice the final sentence of the second reading.  Don’t we tend to think of religion as being primarily about the expression of the people’s relationship with God?  James says: Religion that is pure and undefiled before our God and Father is this – to care for orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained by the world. The Christian religion must have an effect on our attitudes toward and relationships with our neighbors.  A discussion about who is our neighbor is for another time.  Suffice it to say that James warns us that it is not enough to know the texts of Scriptures, that is, to know the Law.  There is no virtue in mere erudition.  That knowledge must spill over into action.  Be doers of the word and not hearers only. And from one of the great parables it will become clear that I didn’t notice him/her will get us nowhere as an excuse.  Just ask Dives.  He might be a good example of the world’s values by which James warns us to keep unstained.

This brings us to the gospel and Jesus embroiled in controversy.  It seems scandal is rising from the fact that some of his disciples are not observing the minutiae of the Law.  A bit of an aside comes in here.  Over the centuries students of the Law became fixated on the Law and sought to spell out as part of the law governance of every possible human thought, word, or deed.  There were well over 600 laws that made their way into the Scriptures.  According to the Pharisees, the good and faithful Jew was bound to observe them all.  The scandalous behavior the Pharisees had observed was that some of Jesus’ disciples ate their meals with unclean, that is, unwashed hands. There is no arguing that sanitation is a good precaution for one’s health’s sake.  But what has happened is that multiple purifications only beginning with the washing of hands have become matters of law and therefore signs of one’s fidelity to God.  The lavations purify one who may have come into contact with someone unclean, a leper or a Gentile, for example.  They continue to the purification of everything imaginable and all with equal importance and weight.

This is what is behind the confrontation by the Pharisees: Why do your disciples not follow the tradition of the elders but instead eat a meal with unclean hands? Notice that Jesus’ response doesn’t touch upon the washing issue.  He goes deeper and returns the ball to the Pharisees court, so to speak.  First, he says, not all laws are of equal importance.  There are the great commandments that make up God’s Law.  Many of the other laws are merely human tradition, the result of students of the law arguing over the law.  Focusing on the Law and its observance says nothing about the human heart.  Scrupulosity is not an indication of a depth of faith.  Just the opposite may be true.  If God is a concern at all, the hope might be that if one does all these minutiae of the Law that one will find God.

The main question here is, where is your heart.  In other words, is preoccupation with the law actually an expression of the desire to know, love and serve God?  Does that quest result in the need to know, love and serve the neighbor.  It is, after all, Jesus who identifies one with the other.  One can’t love God without loving the neighbor.

There was a famous exchange between Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta and the British journalist, Malcolm Muggeridge.  At the time, Muggeridge had moved from atheism to agnosticism and was trying to find his way back to faith.  He had been observing Mother Teresa’s charitable work, her caring for abandoned babies and the dying poor.  It was messy and exhausting work.  Watching in silence for as long as he could, he finally asked Mother, “Why do you do what you do?”

Her simple answer was faith.  To which Muggeridge responded that there were many people of faith but they don’t do what she does.  There must be something more.

Then Mother Teresa, holding the hand of a dying, penniless man said, “Look at this man in his misery.  When I am ministering to him I am ministering to Christ in his Passion.”

There you have it.  Simple, isn’t it?  It is, when seen through the eyes of faith.  Jesus came to do something entirely new.  Taking on human flesh he forever united the human and the divine.  In the words of Genesis, God said, Let us make the human in our image and likeness. Through Jesus, God becomes identified with the human.  How one treats a human being is how one treats God.  That is Mother Teresa’s insight.  And that is what Jesus is trying to get the Pharisees and his disciples to see.  This is the attitude that will motivate people in the Kingdom Jesus is bringing when God reigns.  And in that kingdom, when it comes to law, there will be none more demanding than the law of love.

It is said that when the first Christians were being put to death for their faith in the Coliseum and elsewhere, those who looked on were stunned by the care the condemned had for each other and their desire to support each other.  See how these Christians love one another! Perhaps that is why the Church began to flourish in that time of persecution and has continued to do so in every other.  Many of those who first witnessed that Christian love sought that source of strength and purpose for themselves.

We come together every Sunday for Liturgy.  Certainly there is a commandment to do so.  But I would pray that that is not the primary reason why we assemble, that rather we come together to be united in the love of Christ that we celebrate in Word and Sacrament.  It is safe to say that the health of the parish rests on the strength of the love that binds the members together with each other and with Christ.  If the stranger who enters the assembly for the first time is struck by how these Christians love one another s/he will want to stay and be part of that love fest.  And if that celebration results in the transformation of that people into the Body of Christ, that is, if they are empowered to recognize the Christ within them whose Body and Blood they have shared, and in that recognition go out to bring Christ to the orphan and the widow and to the other poor with whom they come in contact, if it is clear that they are about love and their desire is to serve, others will marvel at the health of the Church and desire to be part of it.  We don’t even have to talk about the other side of that coin.

Suffice it to say, love is much more demanding than law and much more freeing, especially if you die in the process.

Sincerely,

Didymus

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THE TWENTY-FIRST SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – B

Joshua 24:1-2a, 15-17, 18b

Ephesians 5:21-32

John 6:60-69

“Why does it have to take so long?  Why can’t I just be baptized and get on with it?  Phillip was baptized after only a day of catechesis.  Why can’t I be?”

The earnestness is sincere and so is the impatience.  The readings this Sunday give insight to the Church’s recommendation that a catechumen, one journeying toward Baptism, should go through a full liturgical cycle before making the Lenten journey to the font.  The idea is that the catechumen will make the full journey through the gospel readings, experience a full year of worshiping with the parish community, and thereby be in a position to make the commitment that begins with Baptism, to die with Christ so as to live with Christ.

It’s clear in both the first reading and the gospel that beginning the journey of faith is one thing.  Committing to fidelity for the long haul is another.  That seems rather like marriage that is lauded in the second reading as the sacrament that is a sign of the union between Christ and the Church.  How many couples eagerly promise to live in faithfulness with their spouses until death do them part?  How many of those marriages end before five years are out?  And how many of the formerly married say in one way or another, “I had no idea what marriage would be like, or how much work it would be to live out a marriage commitment.”  Christ’s love for the Church is the model.  We must never forget that Christ’s love proved itself to the shedding of the last drop of blood and water that flowed from his pierced side.  No one ever said it would be easy.  Christ certainly didn’t.

Joshua in the first reading, near the end of his life and having brought the Israelites to the Promised Land of Canaan, challenges the people to renew their commitment to follow the Lord and not turn away to follow Baal.  Some of their ancestors had done that.  Will they?  Make the choice, he says.  Then Joshua testifies to his faith and that of his family.  “As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”  That means they will be faithful to the covenant, faithful to the Mosaic Law and faithful to Yahweh.  The people remember what God did for them through all those years of their formation in the desert.  “He performed those great miracles before our very eyes and protected us along our entire journey…Therefore we also will serve the Lord, for the Lord is our God.

For the past few weeks we have been listening to the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel that puts before us the discourse on the Bread of Life that Jesus claims to be.  We have heard how central to our lives the Bread must be.  Some may have been uncomfortable with the graphic and uncompromising language that Jesus used in the proclamation to the crowds and to his disciples.  “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you.”  That is a pretty clear either/or statement.  No room for compromise.

This Sunday’s gospel, (remember the word means Good News) opens with the disciples reeling from what Jesus has said, “This saying is hard; who can accept it?”  Notice that Jesus offers no sympathy to them in their stunned state.  Rather he presses further the point he is making.  To speak of the Son of Man ascending to where he was before is to bring in the whole question of the cross and how that event will be interpreted.  Wheat is ground in the mill to become flour.  Jesus will be crushed by the way and weight of the Cross.  In other words to be with Jesus on the Way will never be an easy walk – easy to begin, perhaps, but never easy to complete.

Every time we hear the Gospel we have to make a decision to believe or not to believe, to respond and so be strengthened in our conversion, or to say, “Who can believe this?”  At this crossroads point of the Gospel, to accept that Jesus is the Bread of Life or to turn away, Jesus reminds us that it all depends on grace.  Jesus knew that some to whom he preached did not believe.  And, worse, he knew that a disciple would betray him.  But he also knew that acceptance of his word depended on the gift of faith from the Father.  None have it within themselves to do this on their own.

Here I think it is important to reflect on your own experience, to ponder the moment you first believed.  Many can recall that moment with vivid clarity.  That aha moment is tantamount to the light that breaks on the horizon and puts an end to night.  What is as amazing is the awareness that often time faith came unbidden.  For others faith began after having long run from it.  St. Augustine’s experience is not unique in the history of the Church.  He marveled when he realized he was a believer having told his mother that he would never follow her ways.  “Late have I loved you,” he came to pray.  “You have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”  That’s hindsight speaking and amazing awareness.  Reflect on your own.

It is also true that some can go through the traces and never make that commitment, never realize that faith is not living in their lives.  They can be like the crowds who followed Jesus but never made the decision to be a disciple.  Even some of those in the pews on Sunday morning can be there out of habit or to keep peace in the family.  But do they believe?  Is Jesus the center of their being?  Having never been in crisis they have never had to confront the question, and so they continue on.

They, we all need to hear Jesus ask, “Do you believe this?”  Taking the question to heart, we need to make the response.  And if we wonder how, remember that grace is there for us in this venture that no one can successfully negotiate on his/her own.  This Sunday’s gospel gives us an ample opportunity to decide.

Notice that many who heard Jesus, many who were designated as disciples, i.e., many who had made the decision about him, returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him. The demands made by faith in Jesus were too much for them.  Alas.  Recognizing that fact, Jesus asks us today: Do you also want to leave? Have you ever thought about that, thought about life without Christ?  I know that I have and the thought always chills me.  Part of that realization comes from the importance that the community we call Church plays in my life.  I cannot imagine life without the Church, no matter how difficult that life becomes.

There is a realization that is important for us to take to heart.  The faith journey is not one we make alone.  Remember when we spoke of Catechumens earlier?  Part of the necessity for their making the journey through the full cycle stems from the importance of their learning what it means to be part of this faith community.  They learn by experiencing that community in worship and come to stand in awe of the wonder of being able to say, “We believe.”  The faith community prays for them, blesses them, and encourages them to continue to the font and beyond.

It is in that process, too, that we come to understand the centrality of Eucharist, why it is that every Sunday we come back to the Table, to gather around the Table, to give thanks at the Table in the sacrifice that is the Eucharist, and to eat and drink from the Table.  It is that food that is our strength for the journey.  It is in the sharing of that meal that we come to understand the truth that we are one in Christ.  It is in eating Christ’s flesh and drinking his blood that we realize we have come to believe and are convinced that Jesus in the Holy One of God, and in believing, know that we have life in his name.

Sincerely,

Didymus

THE TWENTIETH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – B

Proverbs 9:1-6

Ephesians 5:15-20

John 6:51-58

Wisdom is personified in the lush poetry of the first reading from the Book of Proverbs.  She has built a magnificent mansion and then prepared a lavish banquet, but for whom?  The elite tend to be the invitees of those who live in splendor.  But Wisdom sends out her maidens to gather all who happen along, the only qualification for the invitation is simplicity.  The haughty and the self-possessed will not enter.  The little ones, the meek and the lowly will be welcomed with open arms and invited to feast abundantly from the rich meats and fine wines that are laid out before them.  For what purpose?

First another question needs to be answered.  Who is this Wisdom?  A case can be made that the Wisdom of Proverbs is, for Christians, the second person of the Trinity, the One we call the Holy Spirit, the One Jesus promised to send after he had ascended to the right hand of the Father, the One who will remind the disciples of everything Jesus taught.  Wisdom challenges those who feast at her table to forsake foolishness that you may live; advance in the way of understanding. Wisdom empowers those who eat and drink to see things, not as the world sees them but as God sees them.  Wisdom makes it possible for people to hear the Word of the Lord and understand.  Humankind on their own are incapable of this.  Wisdom’s desire is that people, once they understand will live as God’s people and follow God’s ways.  Of course the downside will be that the wise little ones will still seem foolish in the eyes of the rich and powerful.

Paul’s instruction to the Ephesians in the second reading is apt here.  Watch carefully how you live, not as foolish persons but as wise. What will that mean in practice?  First, abandon ignorance as an excuse for living contrary to God’s law.  Be open to the Lord’s will and seek to follow it.  How are you going to do that?  By sitting under the Word and devouring it.  When Jesus challenged disciples to eat his flesh and drink his blood, in part he was talking about their need to take in his teachings.  There are two tables in our worship space, remember.  The first is the Table of the Word.  The second is the Table of the Eucharist.  More about the second later.

We come to the Table of the Word and as the Assembly, we gather around it.  We come hungry seeking meaning and understanding.  We listen to the proclamation of the word and the homiletic breaking open of the word.  As hearers of the word we ought always to invite the Spirit to open our minds and our hearts to receive the word.  Of course there is a danger there.  If we are open to the word and inspired by the Spirit, the word just might be confrontational.  There is a transformation possible that will result in our becoming more and more like Christ as we strive to put into practice what we have heard.

The journey we make through the Liturgical Year puts us on The Way with Jesus.  This year for the most part the Way is through Mark’s Gospel.  While it is the Year of Mark, these few weeks we leave Mark to be confronted by the sixth chapter of John and Jesus’ discourse on the Bread of Life.  In any event, Paul challenges us take in the word and strive to understand it and, understanding, to live it.

There is a clever play on words in the second reading.  Do not get drunk on wine, in which lies debauchery. We’re used to alcohol being referred to as spirits, aren’t we?  So Paul urges us to be filled with the Spirit, and being drunk on the Spirit, we will live differently in the community we call Church.  We will live the Liturgy of the Word by addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and playing to the Lord in your hearts. Then comes our call to Eucharist when we are admonished to give thanks always and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God the Father.  There is no better definition of Eucharist as action than that.  The word Eucharist means thanksgiving.

So, we move from the Table of the Word, having been confronted and called to conversion, to the Table of the Eucharist that that conversion might result in our being renewed and transformed into the Body of Christ.  The gospel puts all this squarely before us leaving us no wiggle room, if you will.  I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world…Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life and I will raise them on the last day. The crowds who heard Jesus were aghast.  They understood the words and probably were repulsed by them the way you would be at the thought of cannibalism.  That is exactly what Jesus’ words mean.  And if you want life you have to do what Jesus says.  Eat flesh.  Drink blood.  We’re not at the end of the discourse yet.  That will happen next week.  But you certainly can feel the tension mounting in the crowd who are going to have to make the decision whether to become disciples and follow Jesus or not.  Sensing that tension, Jesus does not soften his words.  What he is saying is, if we are going to be disciples, if we are going to be Christian, Jesus must be the center of our lives.  We must devour him, as it were, by ingesting his every word so that he can live in us and we can live in him.  The effects of the Meal we share in Eucharist where we eat his body and drink his blood are union with Christ and union with each other.  And living in Christ we have life with the Father.

Today it is important to go back to the first reading and be challenged by Wisdom’s example, i.e., by the Spirit’s example of table fellowship.  Jesus is our model.  Table fellowship was very important to Jesus.  He practiced it and encouraged others to do the same.  He was not reluctant to confront breaches in the practice where he experienced them.  He confronted hosts who were rude in their reception of him as their guest.  You gave me no water for my feet.  You gave me no kiss. You can be sure that no guest could ever say that to Jesus.  And he welcomed all classes to his table, the poor, the disabled, women and men, even lepers.

Herein lies the great challenge for us as a worshiping community.  Do all feel welcome?  Do all know that they are welcome at the table, the only prerequisites being Baptism, belief in what is happening there, and a desire to be one with what is happening?  It is never the prerogative of the minister of the Eucharist to determine someone is unworthy of reception and so deny him or her.  That is the responsibility of the conscience of the one approaching the table.

Second, it ought to be clear that all are receiving from the bread consecrated at this liturgy.  In other words, it bad form when the majority of the communicants receive from the reserved bread from the tabernacle when their desire is to be one with this sacrifice.

Third, the assembly ought to be able to receive from the cup and so have a fuller experience of the Eucharist.  No one is denying that Christ is fully present in the bread.  But the fuller sign is participated in when the assembly has the opportunity to receive both from the bread and the cup.  That is especially so this Sunday with Jesus’ words echoing in the assembly’s consciousness: Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you.

We must be challenged by Wisdom’s words in the first reading resulting in attitudes of hospitality that are experienced as soon as anyone, even the stranger, enters the place of assembly.  Come, eat of my food and drink of the wine I have mixed!  Forsake foolishness that you may live; advance in the way of understanding.

As a starter, a sign over the door might read: All are welcome here. And the warm acceptance of the Greeters at the doors translates that sign into action.

Sincerely,

Didymus