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THE SOLEMNITY OF ALL SAINTS

Revelation 7:2-4, 9-14

1 John 3:1-3

Matthew 5:1-12a

It is said that the experience of the extended family is not all that common today.  Many children are being raised in single-parent households.  Those growing up with both parents often have little or no experience of their relatives who live in other parts of the country or the world.  In the consciousness of most youngsters the day will dawn when they become aware of a desire to know their story.  From where did they come?  Who were their ancestors?  What were their stories?  Something about the human condition demands context.  There is an innate sense that no man is an island. No woman is, either.

That may be why we celebrate the Solemnity of All Saints, so that we can know the stories of our ancestors in the faith, and knowing the stories, be stronger in our desire to be their imitators.  After all, every saint became one in exactly the same way.  Each one imitated Christ.  Isn’t it odd that no two saints have matching stories?  Each one is unique.

Schoolchildren often times as part of this celebration of All Saints will be encouraged to come to Mass in costume, dressed like the saints whose names they bear or like saints they greatly admire.  It is a particular blessing if, as part of the preparation for the children’s celebration, they research or are told the story of the saints whose costumes they will be wearing.

What is the danger in this celebration?  The danger is that too ethereal a picture will be painted resulting in the saints seeming distant, remote, and only accidentally human.  Who can be like that? Who would want to be like that?  The fact of the matter is the saints are our brothers and sisters in the faith.  They are flesh and blood as we are.  They knew what it meant to struggle with faith, to experience temptation and even sin, and to doubt.  The struggle is an important part of their stories, just as our struggles will one day be important parts of our stories.  Of course they are saints because they continued on The Way to the very end.  One day, please God, so will we be if we do the same.

Don’t miss the leads in the first reading from the Book of Revelation.  The writer recounts a vision into glory.  144, 000 from every tribe of Israel stand around the throne of God.  Don’t make the mistake that some fundamentalists have of thinking that that number exhausts the count of those who will make it to heaven.  That is not the point.  In the writer’s mind the number is huge, limitless really, representing those from the New Israel caught up in glory.  Then later in the reading, notice those in white robes, those who have washed their robes and made them white in the Blood of the Lamb. These are the baptized that entered the Waters to die to sin and to everything that is not of Christ, to rise from those waters reborn to live Christ’s own life.  And they were faithful to the end and have received the reward for their labors in Christ.

If there is a verse of Scripture that should be committed to memory and repeated like a mantra it is the verse from the second reading from the First Letter of John.  Beloved we are God’s children now; what we shall be has not yet been revealed. If that is too long, stick to the first part and say it over and over again, especially in times of difficulty and trial.  Beloved we are God’s children now. Or if the situation becomes desperate for you, it’s okay to put it in the singular.  It remains true.  I am God’s child now.

I had the privilege of visiting Uganda and while there of visiting the place where the Ugandan Martyrs died.  I read the stories of the 23 young men, some newly baptized, some still catechumens, and of the gruesome, torturous, slow and agonizing deaths that one by one, in isolation, they died.  Read their stories for yourself if you are curious about the details.  My point in mentioning them here is that to a person, each one sang the praises of Jesus and the Father, convinced of where they were going, as each one slowly breathed his last.  How can anyone do that?  Only by being convinced that they had washed their robes white in the Blood of the Lamb and are God’s children now.  And there was not a doubt in their minds about what they would become.

Not every person is called to a martyr’s death.  That is not the only path to sainthood.  On the other hand, you never know.  I always remember St. Thomas More’s words to console his wife while he was in confinement in the Tower of London: This is not the stuff of which martyrs are made. This is the same man who, as he knelt at the block and as he lifted his beard over it asked the man about to behead him to be mindful of the beard since it had no part in the treason.  Who can do that?  Only one who is convinced that s/he is God’s child now.  Only one who is convinced that God’s love is unconditional and forever.

No Feast or Solemnity is celebrated just so that we can look back and be nostalgic about the past.  We gather to celebrate Eucharist, the word means to give thanks, and to remember, which in this context means to make present.  We enter into Mystery to be caught up and transformed in the ongoing process of conversion, of dying with Jesus and rising to live in his resurrection.  And we celebrate that we might be sent with thankful hearts to continue the tradition.

It has been said that the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s Gospel is the Magna Carta of the New Testament.  Or, if you prefer, the Constitution of the New Way.  Jesus preached The Sermon on the Mount, seated as one with authority and as the new Moses, the new Law Giver.

Twice-told tales have a way of becoming familiar and, therefore, lessening their impact.  You are not likely to gasp as the words of the Beatitudes wash over you.  In the midst of the Assembly standing to hear the proclamation there probably won’t be many who will be in jaw-dropping amazement wondering if s/he heard what s/he thought s/he heard.  There may even be many who know the Beatitudes by heart.  I hate to sound like a naysayer, but if that dulls the impact, it is not for the good.  The fact is that all those conditions we think of as deplorable are lauded in the Beatitudes.  Blessed are the poor.  Blessed are those mourning.  Blessed are the meek.  Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness. These conditions are blessed because they create in the sufferer a longing that only God can satisfy, an emptiness that only Christ can fill.  They are conditions that look to heaven for deliverance and forge a desire for the coming of God’s reign of justice and peace.  These blessed statements apply to those who are powerless in their circumstances. The remaining speak to those with power.

Blessed are the merciful.  Blessed are the clean of heart.  Blessed are the peacemakers.  Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness. In the midst of these positions of power are those with clean hearts.  What’s that all about?  Much more than chastity, which may be included here, the clean of heart are those who are single minded in their purpose, untainted by those values common in the world; they are those who do not lust after position, power, or prestige, those who do not give free rein to their tempers even if their tempers are short, those who are willing to imitate Christ in the pouring out of self to lift up the broken hearted, to give of their plenty that the poor might have something to eat and a place of shelter at day’s end, to work for justice and peace, to reverence the dignity of every living person and so condemn the unjust taking of any human being’s life, to create the bonds of love that bring about the realization of the human family.

Just when you are beginning to relax and foster images of all those who can do something about the evils in our times and others’ sufferings and admitting to their being blessed, Jesus turns from talking about them and addresses you. Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you falsely because of me.

The challenge before us is to take the Gospel seriously and to live as members of the Body of Christ.  Just as quickly as the proverbial blink of an eye, each one of us has been mandated to be merciful, clean of heart, a peacemaker. We’re urged to identify with the poor, those who mourn, the meek, and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.  We’re blessed only to the extent that we imitate Jesus so that our lives make uncomfortable those who exploit and demean others, those who deny the dignity of even the most abject, those who practice sexism, racism, or any of the other isms that debase and dehumanize.  Those kinds of witnesses down through our Church’s history often died martyrs’ deaths.  And so might we if we are faithful to the calling.  We address those who have gone before us as saints and celebrate them today. One day, if we are faithful to the end and witness as they did, we will be in their number and the Solemnity of All Saints will be ours as well.

Sincerely,

Didymus

THE THIRTIETH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – B

Jeremiah 31:7-9

Hebrews 5:1-6

Mark 10:46-52

The end of October brings with it the astounding realization that we are nearing the end of another Church Year.  The current Year began with the First Sunday of Advent on November 30, 2008.  On that Sunday the first words we heard from the Gospel of Mark were: Be watchful!  Be alert!  You do not know when the time will come. So began this journey we have been on Sunday after Sunday, intensified each time we gathered for the Liturgy of the Word and heard the Good News according to Mark proclaimed and had it broken open for us in the homily.  Each Sunday we had the opportunity to stand naked and vulnerable before the Word and let it penetrate our hearts to draw us deeper in relationship with Jesus with whom we journeyed as he transformed us and drew us to new life.  Our faith was challenged as, too was our hope, and we were challenged to live in love the way Jesus does.  There is something about faith that assures us that promises given will be fulfilled.  Along the way this year, were you watchful?  Were you alert?  What realizations crystallized?  How did you have to change?  How different are you today from the person you were last December?

Imagine yourself in that assembly before Jeremiah in today’s first reading.  There needs to be a context, of course, for his words to have their impact.  Judah, i.e., Israel, has been in exile and subjected to many trials during the captivity.  Many of their number wandered away from the Law and followed the ways of the pagan gods of Babylon.  Some were faithful, many, in fact.  Years later they were released and allowed to return to Jerusalem to reclaim and reconstruct their holy city.  Huge is the task before them.  And Jeremiah does his part to encourage them by that it is the Lord who has done this just as the Lord promised.  They departed in tears, but I will console them and guide them; I will lead them to brooks of water, on a level road, so that none shall stumble.  I am a father to Israel; Ephraim (a tribe of Israel) is my first-born. With God no situation is hopeless.  God, whose love is constant and unconditional, will not disappoint.  Do you believe that? It takes time to come to that conclusion.  Don’t despair if you are not there yet.  That is what this journey of formation with Jesus is about for us.

In the gospel we meet Bartimaeus, a blind man.  Mark tells us Bartimaeus is the son of Timaeus.  That kind of specificity usually means that the one cited is a believer.  Bartimaeus is the son of a disciple, not yet a believer himself.  He is in desperate straits, begging by the roadside when he hears the ruckus as Jesus and his disciples and a sizable crowd pass by on their way out of Jericho.  Notice that it is Jesus with disciples, i.e., those who have made a faith-decision about Jesus, and a sizable crowd, i.e., those who have not yet made up their minds about him.  Bartimaeus makes an embarrassing scene as he tries in desperation to get Jesus’ attention.  Jesus, son of David, have pity on me. Some try to quiet Bartimaeus, but Jesus, hearing the plaintive cries, says to hose near him: Call him.

This is a very important detail not to be missed.  Bartimaeus does not come to Jesus alone but is brought to Jesus by those who can see who urge him not to be afraid. After all, it is Jesus who calls.  (What does that say about our faith communities?  See the implications for the RCIA process?)  Another important detail might be missed if we do not listen attentively.  (Bartimaeus) threw aside his cloak, sprang up, and came to Jesus. He is willing to give up everything to come to Jesus.  It is much more than a garment that Bartimaeus gave up.  The cloak provides shade from the intense sun and shelter from the rain.  It is his tent under which he sleeps through the night.  More than likely, the cloak is all he has.

Have you ever wondered how you would deal with it were you to find that magic jug, rub it, and have the emerging Genie tell you, you have three wishes that the Genie will grant you?  What would you ask for?  Last week Jesus asked James and John what they wanted.  They asked for the most prominent positions in Jesus’ kingdom and withered when Jesus revealed the implications of their request, that they would have to drink of the cup from which he will drink and be baptized in his baptism.  In other words, following Jesus will not be about power and position, comfort and wealth, it will be about the pouring out of self in service and imitating Jesus in his dying.  Following Jesus will entail a cross.

This week Jesus asks Bartimaeus: What do you want me to do for you? And Bartimaeus’ answer is simple and straightforward with a second title for Jesus.  Master, I want to see. It would be easy to conclude that Bartimaeus is simply asking for the restoration of his sight.  But that would not necessarily result in his being able to see. Something deeper is happening here.  And it is all summed up in the terse conclusion to this pericope.  Immediately (Bartimaeus) received his sight and followed him on the way. Bartimaeus is changed to the core.  Whatever had kept him from sharing the faith of his father, whatever hurdle he could not get over, whatever it was that blindness falls away and he sees Jesus as Lord. He follows Jesus on the way that means he is willing to go where the way leads.  He will drink from the cup from which Jesus will drink.  He will be baptized in Jesus’ baptism.  Jesus will be his all-in-all.  You notice that nothing is said about Bartimaeus’ going back to pick up his cloak again.

It is important to ask yourself where you are in this gospel.  With which character do you most closely identify?  Jesus?  A member of the crowd?  A disciple?  Bartimaeus?  If the truth be known and we are honest with ourselves, we will have to admit that we can identify with each character.  There is something of each one in each of us.  The hardest to admit is our identity with Jesus.  Our pride gets in the way.  Not humility, but pride.  We’ll talk about that later.

We have to remember that as long as we are on the way we are in the process of conversion.  That’s why I asked at the start, where were you in your faith life last November when we began this journey with Mark’s Gospel.  That is why some days we wonder if we believe yet, if by our lives we can say Jesus is Lord of my life.  On other days something wells within us, we call it grace and the life of the Spirit, and we know we believe, that we are disciples willing to follow and try to imitate Jesus.  But what about Bartimaeus?  For that we have to journey back to the day we first knew we believed.  For many of us, that involved a struggle.  There were things we had to work through, life-decisions we had to make, emptiness we had to admit, cloaks we had to toss aside.  The day we recognized that we could not do this alone, that we needed others to support us and encourage us along the way because there was something preventing us from being able to see and, therefore, to believe, that was the day we were Bartimaeus.  So were we the day we had to let go of everything and let Jesus be Lord of our lives.

A couple of final points in conclusion.  The Church very wisely sees our faith journey as communal.  That is what distinguishes the Catholic (communal) Way from the Protestant (individual) Way.  We believe that the Church is the people of God.  We are united in the process of ongoing conversion along the way.  We assemble around the tables of the Word and of the Eucharist to be nourished and transformed, just as the bread and wine are, into the Body of Christ.  The assembly is the Body of Christ just as is the Eucharist.  And we are sent, as the Body of Christ, to continue Christ’s work until he comes again.

The RCIA process is a glorious expression of these convictions.  The one seeking faith comes to the community and in the midst of the community experiences what it means to worship and know the love of God.  It is through the experience of the community that they come to know what it means to be a servant church.  Through the community they experience forgiveness and reconciliation, a new faith and the renewal of hope.  The community supports the seekers through prayer and example.  The seekers come to know that the Church is always there for them even as they come to know that all are welcome here.  It is important that the seeker make the full journey, i.e., journey along the way through an entire Church Year.

Then, in that most holy of nights, when all the old has been consumed in the fire and from that fire came the light of the Easter Candle that proclaims Christ risen and glorious, surrounded by the faithful, Bartimaeus enters the waters to die there and to rise from there identified with Christ to live as Christ until he enters Christ’s glory forever.

Sincerely,

Didymus

THE TWENTY-NINTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – B

Isaiah 53:10-11

Hebrews 4:14-16

Mark 10:35-45

Have you noticed that for the last several weeks the Liturgy of the Word has been becoming increasingly difficult to hear without our wanting to make accommodations so that they will be more palatable?  The readings are hard to take and increasingly demanding.  Wouldn’t you think that neophytes and those struggling with faith should hear gentler readings?  And what about those who are thinking about being Baptized, those catechumens on the way to the Font?  Shouldn’t they be spared?  Their journey is difficult enough without their having to see the full implications of what being Jesus’ disciples will mean for them.

It’s clear that Jesus is not interested in selling a product.  Were he, he would paint a brighter picture replete with rewards and benefits for those who would sign up.  Watch the way products are pitched today.  Pay attention and you will wonder how you have lived life this far without whatever is being touted.  And look how often the sellers are celebrities.  Doesn’t their having the product make it all the more attractive?  But that is not what Jesus does.

Bette Davis, in All About Eve, invited those present for that evening to fasten their seatbelts because it was going to be a bumpy ride.  Annie Dillard opined that seatbelts and safety equipment ought to be distributed to everyone at the doors of the church as they came together to celebrate Liturgy.  What if it (the Liturgy) worked this time?  The readings for this Sunday are among the most demanding we will hear, outside those of Holy Week, and should leave us most vulnerable to their transforming power as we move into the Liturgy of the Eucharist.

The Lord was pleased to crush him in his infirmity. The reading is taken from the fourth of the Suffering Servant songs in the Book of Isaiah.  We will hear these words again on Passion Sunday and Good Friday.  How does the Servant’s suffering and that of God’s son Jesus please the Lord?  God is pleased because of their link to the scapegoat in the Book of Leviticus.  As did the goat sent out into the wilderness laden with the people’s sins, so do the Servant and Jesus bear the sins of the many.  It is not pleasure in suffering that the Lord takes, but in their willingness to sacrifice themselves and be atonement for others’ sins.  Remember the words: By their stripes you were healed?

When you are discouraged in your faith-walk, go back to today’s brief second reading.  So often popular religiosity of the evangelical type paints a picture of Jesus as a distant and transcendent Lord, seated in glory upon a resplendent throne.  Make no mistake about it.  Jesus is Lord.  Jesus is enthroned at God’s right hand.  But listen to what Hebrews proclaims.  Yes, Jesus is the Son of God who has risen to the high heavens to reign in majesty.  Yet he is the high priest who remains sympathetic to us in our weakness because of the intensity of his testing, that is his passion.  He understands our suffering and wants to support us in ours.  So let us confidently approach the throne of grace knowing that we will receive mercy and grace in our difficulties.  That is the Gospel in succinct form and ought to be the constant proclamation of the Church.  Sinners ought to be constantly reminded that with the Lord there is mercy and fullness of redemption.  They and we ought to hear that message far more often than we hear threats of judgment and condemnation.  Heaven has much more allure than does hell as motivator of repentance.

Can you identify with James and John in this Sunday’s gospel?  Haven’t you ever wondered what’s in it for me? That’s basically the point the two apostles are pushing.  They have listened to Jesus.  They have seen his mighty deeds.  Remember that when Jesus does something particularly significant he always makes certain that Peter, James and John are with him.  Having seen those powerful deeds and been awed by the raising of Jairus’ daughter, they have concluded that through Jesus will come the Messiah’s reign, the Kingdom.  They want to be next in command after Jesus when that reign begins.  Sure they seem ambitious.  Perhaps they are naïve.  Most of all they are human and normal in their desires for position and power.  The more you can identify with them the more powerful will be the impact of what follows after Jesus asks them if they can pay the price for what they want.  Can you drink of the cup that I will drink or be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?

James and John’s boast that they could drink from the cup and submit to a baptism, at this point in their journey, is not filtered through their experience of Jesus’ Passion and Death.  That hasn’t happened yet.  There is the youthful confidence that they can fight battles at Jesus’ side.  These two, remember, are known for their temper and are called Sons of Thunder.  Jesus affirms their declaration, assuring them that they will, indeed, drink from the cup and share the baptism, but the desired results may not follow since God is the determiner of position in heaven.

The other ten apostles are indignant following the exchange between Jesus and James and John.  Perhaps their indignation sprang from their own desires to have that that James and John sought.  Had they asked, they would have received the same response.  What is important is that this moment segues into the proclamation of a fundamental attitude that must be common to all who are disciples.  This should have served as a clear warning that their own attitudes had to adjust just as did their expectations for the type of Messiah Jesus would prove to be.

Jesus begins something entirely new, a new kind of kingdom unlike that experienced by the Gentiles.  Lording it over others can have no place in Jesus’ realm.  In Jesus’ kingdom, those who wish to be great among you will be your servants; those who wish to be first among you will be the slaves of all. In other words, among those who are Jesus’ disciples there can be no lusting after power.  All will have to imitate the One they follow.  That is how Jesus ministered, even to the shedding of his blood.  That is how the disciples must minister – even those who are in charge of the community.  Remember the pope’s revered title: Servus servorum Dei.  The servant of the servants of God. And that is what the Church should be all about, a servant people in imitation of Christ’s service.

A word about the cup and a word about Baptism follow.  You will drink of the cup that I will drink. Each time we come together to celebrate Eucharist and to share the meal we are invited to drink from the cup.  Jesus said: Take and drink, this is the cup of my blood… When we do that we enter more deeply into union with Jesus and those in Communion with him.  Our shared action is our pledge to be a people who see the full implications of the cup and are willing to live out those implications, even to shed our blood as Jesus did his.  And Baptism?  When we enter the Font, remember, it is to die there.  We enter into Christ’s dying.  We rise there to live in union with Christ’s resurrected life.  We put on Christ.  We are identified with Christ and called by name just as Jesus was in his Baptism.  That identification with Christ is so complete it is said that God loves the baptized with the same love God has for Jesus.  Think about that.  Personalize it.  And stand in awe even as you ask: Do I believe this?

Look back over the history of the Church.  We have to admit that there are dark periods in our history.  The Holy Wars, called the Crusades, were waged in the Holy Land to rescue the holy places from the hands of the infidels and resulted in the shedding of much blood and the taking of many lives.  The reign of the Inquisition resulted in many being burned at the stake.  The Church was wealthy during those periods when terror reigned.  Even so, in those terrible times Christ raised up those whose lives of poverty and service confronted the splendor of the Church and brought about reform.  Think of Francis of Assisi.  He started out to be part of the Crusades and came home to wed Lady Poverty and live a life in service of the poor.  Many followed him.  There are other sterling examples, too numerous to be mentioned here.  And isn’t it curious that the Church always thrives when the Church is being persecuted?  Watching those drink from the cup from which Jesus drank and being baptized with the baptism with which Jesus was baptized inspires others to want to come and do the same.  It never fails.

Perhaps that is why this Sunday’s readings are proclaimed even to those struggling with faith and to those on their way to baptism.  It is better to know the full implications of the call right from the start and then to remember that the one they will follow was similarly tested in every way and now invites all to approach even in their weakness and consciousness of sin, knowing their will be mercy and grace for timely help.

And those of us who have been on The Way for some time must remember, too, and remembering, pray for the grace to be faithful to the very end where life begins.

Sincerely,

Didymus