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THE FIRST SUNDAY OF ADVENT – A- December 01, 2013

 

The Book of the Prophet Isaiah 2:1-5

The Letter of Saint Paul to the Romans 13:11-14

The holy Gospel according to Matthew 24:37-44

 

There may well not be another time of the year when the faith community seems more out of step with the rest of society than during the season of Advent.  Actually, for some weeks now it has been that way; but it intensifies beginning Thanksgiving Day at midnight.  You have noticed in many of the major department stores that Christmas decorations have been up, in some stores since Halloween.  The lights and the sound of carols lure shoppers and at the same time, steep them in Christmas.  No wonder that all the signs of Christmas disappear from the malls by dawn of the day after Christmas.  The average person is tired of it all by then anyway.

Some think the twelve days of Christmas are the countdown to the day of Christmas itself.  Don’t you believe it!

When we enter the worship space this Sunday, things should be fairly stark.  Subdued lighting and the color purple and hymns summoning Emmanuel are in order.  It is not as somber a season as Lent might be, but it is definitely one of anticipation.  Advent stirs our hunger for Christ’s coming – not as an infant this time, but as the King of Glory claiming the Kingdom.  And the question for us is, of course, will we be ready to greet him?

It has been said that one of the things that stood in the way of many conversions to Christianity was that what seemed to have been promised, as coming through the Messiah would be the Messianic Age.  Listen to what Isaiah’s prophesy foretells.  Swords beaten into plowshares, spears into pruning hooks will indicate that one nation shall not raise the sword against another nor shall they train for war again.  These days one’s head would have to be in the proverbial sand to think that all that has happened.  As was the case for many after the Holocaust, and following the various wars of the 20th century, the question rose regarding the existence of God, how could God allow such horrors to happen?  And the same is the doubt that rages after every natural disaster.  Where is your God?

That is why Advent is meant to be a season of longing for, and not a prolonged celebration of Christmas.  There is still darkness, but the Light is coming.  By the way, that is why the date, December 25th, was chosen for the celebration of Christmas.  The longest night has past and the days have begun to lengthen.

The first reading from the Prophet Isaiah teems with hope, joy, and enthusiasm.  Splendid images of peace and accord, of all nations streaming toward Jerusalem, the mountain of the Lord’s house, the highest mountain.  And peace shall reign.  Would you believe that the Prophet proclaims as war and destruction loom for the people?  He has a double purpose.  One is to sustain hope in the hearts of the chosen ones during what could be the direst of times.  This too shall pass.  Second, and as important, Isaiah invites the people to walk now in the light of God’s love and know God’s embrace.  Ultimately there is the promise of fulfillment and the dawning of God’s reign.

The second Reading from St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans speaks of the imminence of Christ’s return in glory.  Paul was convinced that he and the first converts to Christianity would live to see that day.  That is why he urges a strengthening of faith and a conversion of life – throw off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.  He wants the followers of Christ to live different lives from those of non-believers.   In Baptism they put on Christ.  He urges them to live that life as imitators of Christ.

I remember the haunting question of some years ago.  If you were accused of being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?  It is not that Paul wants Christians to go around blowing trumpets and dressed in splendor, calling attention to themselves.  Imitate Christ.  That’s what it is all about.

It is humiliating in that light to look at some periods of the church’s history.  A church of splendor was evident from time to time, as was a church of tyranny.  It should have been difficult to reconcile burning people at the stake with Christ’s Gospel.  Christ shunned regal splendor and urged his disciples to put on poverty and carry his cross.  Pope Francis, in the estimation of many, is the prophet this age desperately needs, even as his message is hard for some to hear.  Francis is convinced that what the Spirit is inspiring in us is a poorer church serving the needs of the poor.  This should be a church that welcomes all, just as Christ did, even sinners.  Instead the message of late seems to have been one of exclusion and denouncing, one of quickly pointing out those who should not be welcome at the Table, and an ever narrowing of the number of those who will attain heaven.  Alas.  Those of that ilk must shudder as the pope states that even atheists who try to do good can get into heaven.

Matthew’s Gospel reading continues the call to watch and be ready.  Jesus talks about the suddenness of the flood and all those who ignored Noah’s warning and were washed away in the waters.  It is not difficult to think of current sudden disasters that have washed people away in the raging storms of destruction.  It was horrifying to read of 10,000 people dying in the typhoon that roared through the Philippines.  That number may be higher by the time you read this.  But I wonder if the Lord uses the image of Noah’s flood to get the attention of the listener in order to call them to something new.

Certainly watch.  Certainly stay awake.  But for what?  Could it be that we are to watch and listen for the dawn of faith?  I don’t believe that God sends horrors.  Jesus isn’t urging a people to live in dread.  I believe Jesus is speaking about our hearing the call to conversion and to being disciples so that we know God’s love.  The Advent longing is for the Light of Faith that comes with the birth of Christ in the human heart.

Tim Donnelly is a young man who survived an explosive device as a soldier in Afghanistan.  He lost both legs and the use of his right arm.  He sings beautifully.  He spoke of his experiences saying that he thought he understood the meaning of the song, Halleluiah that he sang, albeit a broken halleluiah.  He said he didn’t understand the song.  But then his whole life came down around his ears.  Every dream he had was broken around him.  He did not know where to turn in his devastation.  At his lowest point, he said, he heard God speak to him.   Do you still trust me?  Do you still think I have what is best for you?

Tim said, It was in that moment that I understood Halleluiah.

Now hear Jesus say, so too, you also must be prepared, for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come.  Perhaps everyone won’t believe.  A man may be left standing in the field and a women grinding at the mill.  But, please God, we will listen and respond as the Light dawns.

Sincerely,

Didymus  

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THE SOLEMNITY OF OUR LORD JESUS CHRIST THE KING – C – November 24, 2013

 

The second Book of Samuel 5:1-3

St. Paul’s Letter to the Colossians 1:12-20

The holy Gospel according to Luke 23:35-43

The Liturgical Year concludes with the celebration of the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ the King.  Through the thirty-three Sundays of Ordinary Time we journeyed with Luke’s Gospel in the Liturgy of the Word.  Once again, Ordinary Time concludes as we ponder the beginning of Christ’s reign.  The Feast of Christ the King is an odd one to celebrate in this country with a people who pride themselves in the fact that we do not have a king (or queen) ruling over us.  The only royalty we have are those celebrities of sports and entertainment before whom the commoners bow and adore and scream their hosannas.

I think of a painting portraying Jesus as king.  The figure is regally gowned, his head bearing a splendid, bejeweled crown of gold.  He carries an orbed scepter in his hand.  Perhaps that is how Jesus is adorned at the Father’s right hand, but I seriously doubt it.  There is nothing in the Gospels that would correspond to Jesus’ being that kind of king.  Clearly, the opposite is true.  Jesus, as the full revelation of God, might urge us to alter the image we have in mind of the Lord God Almighty.  After all, Our God is a god who pleads with us to let God be god in our lives so that we can be God’s people.  God, in Hebrew Bible, can rage and wreck havoc on the wicked.  That’s true.  Most often, however, God rushes to forgive even in anticipation of signs of repentance.  (Remember the parable of the Prodigal Son?)

It might be jarring for the newbie to hear the Gospel that is proclaimed on this solemnity.  If you could choose, which pericope would you select for this feast’s Liturgy of the Word?  Jesus walking on the water, calming the wind and the waves?  Or, perhaps, you would opt for Jesus cleansing the Temple, ridding it of the moneychangers?  Real kings are powerful, aren’t they with forces at the beckoning to mop up the spoils?  In the First Reading, David, Jesus’ ancestor, is a commanding presence, one who leads soldiers into battle and helps them be victorious.  The people give him power over them as they anoint him king.  Jesus is king in David’s line.

Is that what we hear as the Gospel is proclaimed?  Jesus hangs on the Cross, nailed to it with a mocking sign tacked above his head: This is the King of the Jews.  Those Jewish leaders gathered around and watching, taunt Jesus and dare him to give some evidence of the powers that were manifest in the miracles he was reported to have performed.  The soldiers, that is, the gentiles, the foreign rule, taunt him as they offer him wine to dull his pain: If you are King of the Jews, save yourself.

Crucifixion is a grisly, slow, and torturous form of capital punishment.  Fortunately we are spared the awful details.  But if this reading depicts Christ, the King, that must mean that the cross is his throne and his crown is of thorns.  In the 21st chapter of the Book of Revelation, Christ, the King, declares: Behold, I make all things new!  That applies what he thinks it means for him to reign as king.  There are ample implications for those who wish to reign with Jesus.

In the Last Supper scene in John’s Gospel, Jesus teaches the disciples what his being Lord and Master means.  He moves among them clad as a servant and washes their feet.  That is an image of Christ the King.  His command?  What I have done for you, so must you do for one another.  In other words, the highest aspiration Jesus’ disciples can have is to be sharers in Christ’s reign as feet washers.  Hear Pope Francis’s call for a poorer church serving the needs of the poor.  Witness his renunciation of the splendor of the regalia and residence of his predecessors.  And there are those bristling in resentment at the direction Francis is taking.

Don’t miss the manifestations of power and authority in the Gospel.  Jesus is crucified between two criminals, the bad thief and the good thief, as they are popularly called.  It is interesting that often times when stories are concocted about those two, tellers have no trouble assigning terrible deeds, capital crimes to the bad thief.  However, in their estimation the good thief must have really meant to be good all along.  He just traveled with the wrong company.  I don’t think so.  The good thief may well have been as bad as the bad thief and just as guilty of crimes.  This encounter may well be a proof for one of the accusations leveled against Jesus that merited his crucifixion.  This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.

Notice what the bad thief says to Jesus.  To revile means to berate, or, to insult.  That would be the tone in his voice as he said to Jesus: Are you not the Christ?  Save yourself and us.  How well did he know Jesus?  How much had he heard about him?  We don’t know.  But it can be assumed that he knew enough that he could taunt Jesus with the title of Messiah, or Christ.  Chances are that had Jesus performed the miracle the thief sought, he just might have become a disciple.  On the other hand, maybe not.  History has borne evidence to the fact that the enthusiasm of infant faith sometime does not perdure.

Now witness the exchange between Jesus and the other thief.  The difference is marked.  Rarely in the Gospels is Jesus addressed by his name.  Usually he is called Master, or, Lord.  There is no evidence of disrespect, but rather of a degree of familiarity when the thief, after admitting to the justice in the condemnation of the two thieves, says: Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.  Perhaps he had been in the crowd a time or two as Jesus taught.  Perhaps he had witnessed a miracle.  Perhaps there had been an earlier conversation.  We don’t know.  What we do know is that this is a moment of grace, a conversion moment.  The good thief makes a declaration of faith in the one dying with him, a faith that has nothing but grace to support it.  He is not scandalized by the degradation Jesus suffers.  That is what faith is like.  If there were ample signs of Jesus’ power and majesty, if he radiated God’s favor, it would not take faith for the thief to acknowledge Jesus’ authority.  You do not believe in something you can see clearly.  The saints in heaven do not believe in God.  They know God even as they are known.

A word about the word remember.  To remember means more than calling to mind a past event or someone no longer present.  When, in the course of the Last Supper, Jesus said over the Bread and the Wine: Do this in my memory, that is translated as, do this and I am present to you.  This kind of remembering makes the whole mystery present.  That is the implication of the thief’s plea.  He is begging to be present to Jesus when Jesus enters his reign.

Jesus answers the petition with these words: Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.  In other words, you have my promise that it will happen.  Today.  Notice that Jesus does not say, after you have spent some time in Purgatory atoning for your sins, then you may enter Paradise.  He says it will happen today.

Paradise is where the saga began, in the first book of the Bible.  In that myth Adam and Eve lived in close relationship with God in an ordered universe before sin disrupted everything and severed humanity’s relationship with God and with each other.  Jesus’ passion and death, his full acceptance of the implications of being human, his emptying himself of the powers of his divinity, this is our salvation that will be attested to by his resurrection.  The re-ordering of creation has begun.  Sin is forgiven.  That is the substance of the magnificent rhapsody that St. Paul sings in the second reading from the Letter to the Colossians.  For in (Christ) all the fullness was pleased to dwell, and through (Christ) to reconcile all things for (God) making peace by the blood of his cross through him, whether those on earth or those in heaven.  Christ’s reign begins.

Some things to think about as we celebrate the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe.  I know that I am not the first to say that we are living in very difficult times.  Perhaps the downturn in the economy and the slowness of the recovery are the sources of the pain.  But I wonder if the economic woes have become excuses for unleashing of vitriolic expressions – verbal and physical.  Otherwise civilized people hurl diatribes of racist remarks.  There is no reluctance to make blanket accusations of terrorism against all Islamic people.  The percentage of American people who remain convinced that President Obama is a Muslim and foreign-born in spite of his profession of faith as a Christian and a birth certificate that attests to his having been born in Hawaii is incredible.  I was appalled the other day to read a horrific statement on a bumper sticker on a car parked in a church parking lot.  I won’t quote it here.  The owner was probably at morning Mass and more than likely would receive Eucharist.

Conservative Christian Fundamentalists condemn those who are not Christians.  In the church there is evidence of rising anti-Semitism.  An alleged anti-Semitic pope is on the docket for canonization.  Members of the Assembly walked out of the church recently when they heard the priest preach that he believed that as long as they were sincere in their beliefs and wanted to serve God, Jews, Muslims and Protestants would make it to heaven along with their Catholic brothers and sisters.  (Pope Francis recently added atheists, sincere in their efforts to do good, to that list, by the way.)  Sexism survives and thrives.  How dare the pope say he didn’t feel able to judge gays!  And there is evidence of self-aggrandizing among the clergy.

As we gather to celebrate Eucharist on this Solemnity, may we assemble as a people who give clear testimony to our believe in Christ who reigns from the Cross and whose kingship is expressed in humble and loving service to little ones.  The Second Vatican Council declared that the Church is the People of God.  The Church is the Body of Christ.  As we eat of the One Bread and drink from the One Cup, may we attest to our belief that in Christ all people are brothers and sisters in the one family of God and that all have been saved through his dying and rising.

And then, of course, there is the need to acknowledge that Christ the King lives primarily in the poor, in the little ones, dare we say it, in the off scouring of society.  But, then, we have his word on that, (as Matthew’s Judgment Scene informs us).

If we didn’t get it right this time, don’t despair.  Next Sunday will be the First Sunday of Advent, the beginning of a new Liturgical Year.  We will begin the journey all over again, this time with Matthew’s Gospel.  It is possible that then we will get the message and be transformed.  You never know.  With Christ, all things are possible.

Sincerely,

Didymus

THE THIRTY-THIRD SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – C – November 17, 2013

 The Book of the Prophet Malachi 3:19-20a

St. Paul’s second Letter to the Thessalonians 3:7-12

The holy Gospel according to Luke 21:5-19

 

One more week and it’s over again.  Another Liturgical year will conclude with the celebration of the Feast of Christ the King.  Lest we get ahead of ourselves, this Sunday the Liturgy of the Word challenges us to consider the last things.  How will our history conclude?  How are we to live in the mean time?  It is a good time to remember that we are a people of faith.  As such, we live with the conviction that God is in charge.  As importantly, we believe that ultimately God will triumph over everything that is evil.

We believe that, don’t we in spite of so many signs to the contrary?  We believe that Christ is the ultimate triumph achieved through his passion, death, and resurrection.  That is implied in our response during the Institution Narrative.  Whichever form is used, what is proclaimed is: Lord, by your cross and resurrection, you have set us free.  You are the Savior of the world.  If we believe what we proclaim, there is no doubt about the final outcome.  We live in the tension between Christ’s ascending to the Father’s right hand and his return in glory.  No absence is implied.  Why?  We have Christ’s assurance that he is with us always, even to the World’s end.  Remember and be supported as we continue along the Way.

Apocalyptic literature has long been popular.  Have you noticed how many television series are Apocalyptic?  They tend to be pessimistic because they do not tend to be written from a faith perspective.  More of the authors should have read Dante’s Divine Comedy.  That literary journey begins in Hades but ends in Heaven.  Modern disaster films terrify and thrill audiences even as they depict the end of the world.  Then there was Orson Welles radio masterpiece based on H. G. Wells’ novel, War of the Worlds.  That eve of Halloween in 1938, some people tuned into late to the radio drama and thought they were hearing an alert to the nation’s disastrous invasion by Martians.  Panic ensued.  Some got into their cars and fled for some safe haven.  Others, in their panic, jumped from buildings in terror.  It’s one thing to be fascinated by the end times.  It would be another to find one’s self in the midst of them.

Lest we are tempted to despair, one thing to remember about things apocalyptic, while the literature does deal with the End, so to speak, in the end, evil forces usually are encountered and destroyed by the good.   Far from promoting fatalism and evil’s triumph, the Apocalypse gives reason to hope.  Give the ominous present times, that is a good thing to remember.

Remember that as you sit beneath the Liturgy of the Word for this Sunday.  While the readings are heavy, even dire, and speak of terrible events, each reading means to support faith and to encourage perseverance in spite of contrary signs.

As I write this, it occurs to me that there is no shortage of prophets of doom.  That’s no wonder given so many horrific events.  Then there is the gloom of the financial picture even though signs of recovery are evident.  How long have we been living with the reality of wars and rumors of wars?  Since 9/11, Terrorism has been a glowering cloud on the horizon.  Natural disasters from earthquakes and storms inflict unimaginable suffering on multitudes.  Insane people shoot weapons and kill young students and their teachers, audience members watching a movie, Navy personnel going about their ordinary business.  Unfortunately, it is probably safe to say that more such events probably will happen.  Alas.

So, when you hear the Prophet Malachi in the first reading and Jesus in the Gospel, it should not be difficult to visualize what they are talking about.  This is the Living Word, remember; it applies to today.  But remember also your reason to banish despair.

Malachi is a post-exilic prophet.  The people have returned from the Babylonia Captivity.  They have rebuilt the Temple.  The best of times have not followed.  Just the opposite seems to have been the case.  There is a general flagging of faith.  People do not live by the Mosaic Law.  Some are following pagan ways and sacrificing to Baa, hoping that in Baal they will find security.  In Malachi’s scathing language, the proud and all evildoers become towering weeds to be reduced to stubble as fire consumes them.  The source of Malachi’s warning is the Lord of Hosts who has said it.

There is a lack of specificity regarding when this conflagration will occur.  It might be a while away.  It might be tomorrow.  The prophecy is meant to inspire conversion and to encourage those who fear my name.  (A word about the word fear.  In this context, fear does not mean trembling or being in terror.  Here the word fear means to stand in awe of I AM.)  Through the prophet, God promises the faithful that after the holocaust, the destruction by fire, there will arise the sun of justice with its healing rays.  Those who are faithful will see it.

At first it might not be clear why today’s second reading is from Paul’s second Letter to the Thessalonians.  There is an obvious tone of reprimand and an urging of reform.  What occasioned the Letter?  In the Thessalonian community, not a few of the members had determined for themselves that The Day of the Lord, i.e., the day of Christ’s return in glory would be imminent.  Consequently, they had stopped working at their day jobs and were idling their time away, engaging in gossip and becoming dependent on, and a burden for the rest of the community as they waited for the Lord’s return.  Since they weren’t working, they ran out of money for food.  They expected the community to feed them.

Paul urges them to follow his example and imitate what he did while he was among them announcing Christ’s Good News.  Working as hard as he did, it would not have been an injustice for Paul to expect food and shelter from the Thessalonians as payment for his services.  That is not what he did.  Paul worked hard and earned his own keep.  He was not beholden to anyone.  Those lazy idlers in the community with no food as a result should face their own problem and solve it.  Those who are working in the community have to obligation to feed them.

That sounds harsh, doesn’t it?  Especially if we remember Christ’s urging us to feed the hungry.  We call that a corporal work of mercy.  It is a work of mercy when those hungry have no way to earn the money to by their food.  There is a communal responsibility to reach out to the poor who are trapped in poverty through no fault of their own.  Here, Pope Francis’s calling for a poorer church to meet the needs of the poor applies, even as he reminds us to recognize our common poverty and embrace it.  This might sound like socialism to some, but not everything about socialism is evil, not if you read the Social Gospel of the Church.  We do have the obligation to feed the poor and shelter the homeless until all are fed and all are sheltered.  Christ’s final coming in glory on the day of judgment just might be the motivation we need to keep shouldering the burden even as we urge the idlers who are content to live on the dole to get busy and work for their own keep or go hungry.

The word gospel means good news.  You might think that today’s gospel challenges that meaning.  Where is the good news?  Everything Jesus is saying sounds negative, the prediction of dreadful times to come even for the faithful ones.  What gives rise to the Lord’s remarks are the musings of the people about the splendor of the restored temple.  (We have to remember that Luke’s Gospel was written around 70 AD, after the Temple’s destruction.)  If you have stood in awe before some magnificent new building, the latest architectural masterpiece, you have had their experience, especially if you cannot imagine such a masterpiece ever falling to rubble.  For those who were dazzled by the glory of the temple, witnessing its destruction must have seemed like the worst event imaginable.  What worse could possibly happen?  Wouldn’t the Temple’s destruction seem to be a signal for the beginning of the last days?

Listen carefully to what the Lord says so that you can hear the Good News it contains.  First of all, there is no promise that it will be a short time until judgment day.  There may be those who proclaim themselves to be Christ reincarnated.  There may be those who warn that the end is near.  (Remember those who were convinced that the end would happen on December 20, 2012 when the Mayan Calendar and the prophesies of Nostradamus both ran out about that time?)  No matter how terrible the signs are, the wars, famines, earthquakes and plagues, all of which we have seen in recent times, no matter how terrible the signs may seem, they do not necessarily signal the end.  Disciples are called to remain faithful through it all, even as they anticipate the Lord’s coming.

Second, Jesus talks about what is in store for the disciples along the Way.  Luke is seizing upon the lived experience of the people as they are being expelled from the temple, excommunicated, as we term it today.  Remember Saul was on his way to Damascus to round up some heretical Jews who were followers of the New Way when he met Christ in that blinding flash, when he became Paul, the Apostle.  The Jewish converts were not only thrown out of the Temple, declared to be unclean, but they were being disowned by their families, suddenly finding themselves unemployed because their work was not acceptable for followers of Christ.  Similar fates happened to the Gentile converts.  Both Jewish and Gentile Christians became enemies of the state and were persecuted and put to death.  No wonder Jesus had said that if they were going to be his disciples they would have to take up their crosses everyday and follow him.

Third, those being persecuted for their faith will become prophets of the faith.  The Lord promises to give the disciples a wisdom that will amaze and refute their persecutors.  Some will rage in response to their witness and kill the Christians.  Others will be moved by what they hear and find themselves powerless to refute or deny what they see and hear.  It is undeniably true that in every age that the Church has been persecuted, the number of new believers has surged and the faith of the persecuted has intensified.  While there will be no shortage of those who hate Christ’s followers, there will be many whose hatred changes to admiration and from admiration to imitation, and from imitation to faith.

What is the promise for the faithful?  If they persevere through the difficult times, the worst of times, ultimately there will be for them salvation.  No matter how terrible the signs that confront the disciples, they will not be defeated.  Salvation will be theirs.  The Apocalypse will not end in despair, but in the defeat of evil when Christ returns in Glory.  Isn’t that the message that rings out when Pope Francis, in his simplicity, in the midst of the throngs, embraces the disabled children and kisses them?  Isn’t that what is contained in his invitation to the faithful to live in love, to love especially those they consider unlovable.  God does, after all.

Now you see why we are a Eucharistic people and Alleluia is our song.  Sunday after Sunday, the day of the Lord’s resurrection, we gather to give thanks to God in the breaking of the bread.  We renew Christ’s dying and rising.  Having eaten his body and drunk his blood, we are sent forth to continue the proclamation through word and action, until he comes in glory.

When will that be?  Only God knows.  Our part in these times is to be a sign of contradiction and to trust and to believe that one day it will happen.

Sincerely,

Didymus