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THE FIRST SUNDAY OF ADVENT – B – November 30, 2014

 

Reading from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah 63:16-17, 19; 64:2-7

Reading from St. Paul’s first Letter to the Corinthians 1:3-9

Reading from the holy Gospel according to Mark 13:33-37

The legend of the Phoenix seems apt as we celebrate the Liturgy of the Word for this First Sunday of Advent, 2014.  The Phoenix rose out of the ashes to forge a new beginning.  Many people upon reflection recognize that they had to hit bottom before they could start rebuilding their lives and head toward their current success.  People who struggle with addictions often have to fall to that point of helplessness before they realize the strength they will find when they surrender to the grace of the Higher Power and begin a 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.  It is grace that empowers us to recognize that today is the first day of the rest of our lives.  It is not a bad thing to recognize and accept that that life is to be lived in continual conversion and a corresponding steadfastness of faith.

Here is a challenge.  Dare to consider where you are spiritually as this Church Year begins.  What do you think about the state of affairs in our world?  For some it will be difficult to consider the state of the important relationships, those with God, those with ones you love, and those with whom you are in relationship.  Then there is the question of your relationship with yourself.  Could it be that your faith has been tested to the point of wondering if you believe at all?  That doesn’t mean necessarily that there are great sins in your consciousness; but if there are, that recognition can be a good starting point.  On the other hand, you might have to conclude that there aren’t any great deeds of charity in your life.  You might have to admit that you are not praying with the regularity that you used to pray.  You might be going to Mass every Sunday.  Or, you might have to conclude that you are not that regular in practice.  When you are at Mass, is anything happening for you?  Or do you find yourself wanting the hour to get over so that you can get on with what really is important?  Don’t despair.  There is ample reason to rekindle hope.  You’ll see as we proceed through this Liturgy of the Word.

The sense of barrenness in relationship with God can be exacerbated by the reality of strained or broken relationship with those you consider closest to you.  To experience betrayal by someone you love is among the most devastating of life’s experiences.  So can be the realization that you have been the betrayer.  That should not be surprising if we remember that Jesus linked the two great Love commandments in the Law and made them one.  Love God with your entire being.  Love your neighbor as you love yourself.  Failure in either Commandment affects the other.

If you do not feel loved by those closest to you, your spouse, your family, your friends, 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 as a lover in those important relationships.  Self-absorption closes God out too.  It is hard to experience the Eucharist as transforming if you are not fully, actively, and consciously participating in the celebration.  We must be committed to being the Eucharist’s co-celebrants as we exercise our Baptismal Priesthood.  If we do not, it will be next to impossible to hear the call to put the Eucharist you have celebrated into practice as you move about in the market place.  Be bread broken?  Be cup poured out?  For what purpose if love is dead?

Then there is the World community to consider.  It seems as though countless wars are being waged and incredible horrors are being unleashed on the most vulnerable.  For so long now the evening news has been putting the horrors before us in such detail that we can become numb to them.  Are tortures and beheadings, abject poverty and Ebola to be expected as a regular part of life?

There is ample evidence that the intrinsic worth of each human being is being generally denied.  What has happened to the Church’s proclamation regarding our responsibility to exercise a fundamental option for the poor?  There’s little evidence of that in today’s society.  And when capital punishment is practice, our society is brought to the level of those who commit the basest of violent acts.

Are you tempted to despair?  Then you are in the right state of mind to hear the proclamation of the Word for the First Sunday of Advent.

In the first reading, Isaiah decries the conditions that surround him.  Horrified by the lapses of faith, Isaiah wants God to intervene as God did when the Jews were led out from Egypt’s slavery to the Desert’s freedom.  Perhaps if the mountains shook and the waters parted again the people would come to their senses and be restored to their faith.  Isaiah wants God to do it again so that the Jews might rejoice again in their calling.  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.  Is Isaiah, too, on the brink of despair as he remembers that 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.  In contemporary jargon, it is as though Isaiah is telling 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 to sin and been reborn in Christ through Baptism.  That is our lived reality.  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 through the witness to Christ that he bore them.  He sees that clearly because the Corinthians 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 faith, especially of the primacy of place Love had to play in their lives.  Love is the greatest gift of the Spirit.

That is the message Pope Francis proclaims to the Church today.  Live love.  Be the poor community serving the needs of the poor.  Shepherd among the sheep, not over them.  Recognize the dignity of all people.  Be an Assembly that proclaims: All are welcome here.  There are not a few who cry out in outrage as they realize that Francis proclaims the dignity and worth of all people and all faiths.  He wants to see compassion for those divorced and remarried Catholics.  Who am I to judge, he said, when it comes to homosexuals who strive to live lives of faith?  Some wonder what will happen to the Church if all start to take the pope’s words to heart?

So now we come to the Gospel, the first one 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 to be lived steadfastly.  More importantly, Christ has left the faithful, the Baptized, in charge.  Can you accept that you are the continuation of Christ’s presence?  Jesus puts it his way in John’s Gospel as he prays to the Father: 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 you in action will recognize Christ acting through you.  And me, too.  That is what Christ expects us to be doing until he comes again.

What is our starting point on this First Sunday of Advent?  In one sense it might be a nadir moment.  But we won’t linger there.  Our starting point is Love.  That is not inviting us to be 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.  Whether we 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 will that be?  Only God knows.  What Christ says to you and me and to all is: Be on your guard!  That is, live in the Mystery and stand in awe.  The when will take care of itself – in due time.

Sincerely,

Didymus

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OUR LORD JESUS CHRIST, KING OF THE UNIVERSE – November 23, 2014


A reading from the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel 34:11-12, 15-17

A reading from the first Letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians 15:20-26, 28

A reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew 25:31-46

The celebration of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe brings to conclusion another Liturgical Year.  We have completed the journey begun nearly 12 months ago on the First Sunday of Advent.   We have walked the Way with and been formed by Matthew’s Gospel.  Today we are given the opportunity to reflect on how we have done, on how we were transformed by the Word.  What did the Lord accomplish in us along the Way as we listened to the Good News?

On this feast it would be natural to expect readings that put forth images of a regal Christ.  There is something of that in the Gospel as we hear of the One who judges the sheep and the goats, but if we listen closely we will hear that in royalty, that is in the images of power and grandeur, is not where we will find the Christ.  Surprisingly, it is not the recognition of Christ that is rewarded.  Neither the righteous nor the condemned recognized him in those to whom they did or did not minister.  Our Messiah is not a power-filled monarch, regally clothed.  While it is true that some Evangelicals preach that kind of Messiah, one who doles out temporal wealth and success on those who acknowledge and give their lives over to him, I can’t identify with that, not when I have to process the readings proclaimed on this feast.

I wonder if it is the Holy Spirit that urges me to hear Pope Francis urging the Church, the People of God, to reform and be more evidently a poorer Church, serving the needs of the poor.  The image of the Shepherd in Ezekiel’s prophecy resonates with the pope’s urging the shepherds in the Church to be among the sheep, and even to smell like them.

Through Ezekiel, God says to us: 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, either you will find comfort in this prophecy or reason to tremble.  Why is God doing the shepherding himself?  How did the sheep become scattered?  The sheep are the House of Israel, God’s beloved ones, now defeated and brought to servitude in exile.  They are scattered because those who had the primary responsibility for shepherding had not been 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 poor before them.  In that preoccupation they failed to notice their own corruption and were content to take up with the pagan ways of those among whom they lived.  They became weak along the way and so fell to Babylon, were taken captive and lead out of the ruins of Jerusalem into exile.  Jerusalem was destroyed.  God’s judgment is harsh.  The sleek and the strong will be destroyed. God will gather and shepherd the vulnerable safely home.

Where are we in Ezekiel’s prophecy?  We make a mistake if we think that the prophecy addressed only those long-ago times and those leaders during the Babylonian Captivity.  In the Liturgy of the Word we hear the living Word of God.  The prophecy is for us now, for this Assembly of God’s people gathered at the Table of the Word.  What do we hear?  That depends on how we have been exercising our Baptismal Priesthood.

Paul raises the question with the Corinthians (and us) in the second reading.  All of us have been baptized into Christ’s death so 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 and subjects us to God’s rule in our lives.  Christ was the first to subject himself to that order and so is 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 are identified with Christ in Baptism, those who do in their daily lives what Christ would do.  All these Christ will present to the Father in the final restoration of the order God had in mind at the dawn of creation.

Hang on now.  We come to one of the most difficult readings in all of the four Gospels.  Matthew’s judgment scene is the parable that immediately precedes Matthew’s Passion Narrative.  I have never been able to hear this reading without cringing and wondering on which side of the aisle would I be standing were I part of that judgment scene.   It’s clear from the reactions of those in attendance on both sides that they wonder how they wound up where they did.  That should serve as a warning to the smug among us that think they are doing all the right things, all the while looking down on the inferior others.  Sheep.  Goats.  In which group will I find myself?

What does the judgment turn about?  It’s not what at first you might expect.  Notice that there is nothing about religious observance in what the Son of Man says to the assembled, nothing about their going to temple and keeping the Sabbath, nothing about going to Mass on Sundays and Holy Days, and nothing about keeping the laws of fast and abstinence.  Instead, the judgment turns about recognizing the needs of others and responding to them simply because they are in need.  It is in the judgment that those in the parable find out whether or not they ministered to the Son of Man.

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 the poor and the needy and the vulnerable among us have in God’s sight.  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 hear is that they are desperate and Sheep fed, clothed, and visited them.  Sheep probably buried them with dignity when they died.  (Burying the dead, a traditional corporal work of mercy, is not mentioned in the parable.)  The Sheep are stunned when they hear the Son of Man make all of those desperate conditions his own.  They are amazed when they are praised for having ministered to the Son of Man.  It is in stupefaction that they ask when they had cared for him.  It’s clear that they did not recognize him.  That seems to tell us that service of the Son of Man, of Christ, was not 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.

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 the leper and dressed his wounds.  In the process he recognized Christ.  Then he embraced the leper and kissed him.  Think of Blessed 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 ones she ministered to Christ in his passion.  Muggeridge listened to Mother Teresa and afterwards pondered what she had told him.  An agnostic, he pondered the message and in the process he found faith.

If there is a characteristic that dominates the Goats in the parable it is their religious orthodoxy.  They thought they knew the Law and had done all the right things through their observance of the Law.  They hadn’t acted on the needs of those in the streets crying out for alms because they did not recognize the Son of Man there.  Their conclusion probably was that the poor were poor either because of their own sin or that of their parents.  They saw poverty as God’s judgment and punishment.  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 summing up all that the Law and the Prophets proclaim.  What we have in Matthew’s judgment scene parable is the application of that commandment and its implications.  There is no greater evidence of Christ’s reigning in our lives than by our keeping the Great Commandment.  Not to harp on the issue, but isn’t that what Pope Francis is urging the Church to see and to put into practice?  And there are those raging against him, not wanting to hear that word.

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 it 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 unfortunately the Presider proclaims it as an aside.  Do this in my memory.

We will be judged on how we put Eucharist into action, how we live the Christ whose flesh we eat and whose blood we drink.  We are always sent from the Table to be bread broken and cup poured out until all have eaten and all have drunk – all – not just those assembled in the pew with 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.  If we don’t, we just might miss Christ when he comes again.

Sincerely,

Didymus

THIRTY-THIRD SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – November 16, 2014

A reading from the Book of Proverbs 31:10-13, 19-20, 3031

A reading from St. Paul’s Letter to the Thessalonians 5:1-6

A reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew 25:14-30

Another Church year is nearly over.  Again we have journeyed with Jesus along The Way.  Next Sunday is the Feast of Christ the King, the final Sunday.  It is not surprising that the readings for this week begin to focus our attention on the important things, on how we are supposed to live to be ready for the end times.  Our times seem to be cynical about purpose in life.  It’s all about youth, power, and wealth.  A really harsh judgment would say life is about cynicism and egocentricity.  What do you think?  What is life all about, really?

One thing seems to be clear from this Sunday’s readings, something that we can use as our starting point.  Life ought not to be frittered away by idlers with nothing to do.  If we are people of faith, we shouldn’t wish we could be among the idle rich.  There is work to be done, even if one is rich, as we prepare for the coming of the Kingdom.  Hear the first reading.  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, the woman’s value does not depend on her being married.  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 and Dorothy Day should come to mind.  Monica, Augustine’s mother, is another of our spiritual ancestors we can admire, and Mary Magdalene, too.  Do a search and you will find among the saints many women who put their fortune and themselves 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 called to that same 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 is seduced and convinced to drop everything and head for a 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 stars.  Sometimes the members drink poison in order to get there.  Sometimes they sit and wait.  When the appointed time passes by, the purpose of their being together also passes.  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.  For Paul, just the opposite is the rule.

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 the intimate relationship with God in Christ that begins in Baptism.  The difference is faith that contrasts 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 cower in fear and dread.  The faithful know that the Lord will return on the final day.  They watch and are ready.  They work with that day in mind.

It seems that in the early days of Paul’s preaching, he was convinced that the Lord Jesus would return and draw everything to conclusion in Paul’s lifetime.  Some got that message and stopped working, stopped planning for the future, stopped striving to hand on the Gospel to the succeeding generation.  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.  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 is the justice 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 impending crucifixion and death.  The journey will be the time between those events and Jesus’ return on judgment day.  Jesus is entrusting the Gospel to the disciples, entrusting himself to them to the degree or capacity of which they are capable.  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 put in the bank at least since there it could have earned interest, money is not what the parable is about, but the wealth of the Gospel and the impact belief in that Good News should have on the lives of believers.

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 the 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 that context.  Those looking on and marveling at love in action want to share in it.

Do you hear Pope Francis’s challenges to today’s Church resonating now, his call for a poorer church, serving the needs of the poor?  Hear his challenge to look at others, regardless of their faith or lack of it as brothers and sisters and think about the impact that would have on how we wage war, and how we would look at the aliens.  This might be why Francis has said that he does not rule over believers but serves among them, equal with them.  Getting the impact of his message, is it a wonder why some in the church condemn his message?

Now, who is the poor wretch with the one talent?  We are going to get a vivid picture of that one next week in Matthew’s Judgment Scene.  For now, 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 some years ago?  If you were accused of being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?  The lord expects that there would be.

So, it comes down to the attitude we bring to Eucharist.  Certainly there are those who come out of obligation, gather around the Table and watch the celebration.  They may even share in the meal.  But what happens afterwards.  If it all stops there for them, they may be the ones with the one talent.

What is the Eucharist supposed to be about?  The Eucharist, for the Baptized, is to be 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 are called to full and active co-celebration.  They gather to take and eat for this is my body.  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 break broken and cup poured out, to be Christ’s continuing presence in the World’s market place until all the hungry have eaten and all the thirsty have drunk and so come to know the love of God that comes to them in Christ.

What is important is the understanding of memory.  Do this and Christ is present.  Those Baptized who have eaten and drunk are the continuing presence of Jesus just as they are enabled through faith to recognize Jesus in those poor and hungry who are served.

In the end it is about love.  That is what Pope Francis reminds us to be about.  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.  And much more will be given you besides.

Sincerely,

Didymus