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TWENTY-FIRST SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – A – AUGUST 27, 2017

A reading from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah 22:19-23
A reading from St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans 11:33-36
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew 16:13-20

 

 

Dear Reader,

Over the past few weeks, two groups have been present in the Gospels – the crowds and the disciples.  We have noted that what differentiates the two groups is that the crowds watch what Jesus does and listen to what he says and wonder about him.  The disciples, on the other hand, have made the decision to follow Jesus.  In this week’s Gospel, Jesus presses for clarification about that decision, the decision we must make and remake each day of our faith lives.

At this point in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus’ reputation has spread throughout the land, even through the region of Caesarea Philippi.  Judging by the name of the area, there must have been a strong Roman influence in this place some distance from Galilee.  Think back on what we have witnessed in the Gospel proclamations of the last several Sundays.  We witnessed Jesus feed the 5000 with a few loaves and a couple of fish and had 12 baskets left over.  Jesus came walking on the water to the storm-tossed disciples.  The wind and the waves obeyed him and calmed. Then Jesus had the mission-altering encounter with the Canaanite woman.  In light of all this, now hear the question Jesus asks his disciples and us among them: Who do people say that the Son of Man is?

Each year as Church, we make a journey through Ordinary Time via the Gospel of Matthew, Mark, or Luke.  We hear from John’s Gospel from time to time.  Some of us have been making these journeys for many years; from the time we died with Jesus in the Font and rose to live his life.  Some of us are making this journey for the first time in a decision making process called the Catechumenate.  For all of us the journey through Ordinary Time affords us the opportunity to deepen and strengthen our faith, or rather, to be influenced by the Spirit and so be strengthened.

Who do people say that the Son of Man is?  The Son of Man simply means I.  Jesus is asking: Who do people say that I am?  Taking in all that the people have seen and heard, what is their decision?  That is what Jesus asks the disciples.  There is no question that people recognize his greatness.  Look at the company into which they have put him – John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.  That is another way of saying that the people, the crowds, know that God worked through those giants in the tradition and they suspect that God is working through Jesus now.  And remember what the Canaanite woman called Jesus last week.  She had observed.  She had listened.  She had decided.  She called him Lord.

As always with Jesus, it is not enough what others think.  (Notice that Jesus does not deny his being identified with any of those icons people are saying he is.) Who do you who have been with me for this time, who have witnessed the miracles and heard me preach and teach, who do you say that I am?  How have the signs spoken to you?  Would you believe that that is the question before us each time we come together as Church?  That is the question each of us must answer each time the Gospel is proclaimed, each time we assemble, and each time we celebrate Eucharist.  That decision makes all the difference in the world.

Peter speaks for the disciples: You are the Christ (the Messiah) the Son of the living God.  Peter declares that Jesus is the one God has sent, the one anointed by God as David was, the one who will establish God’s reign.  In other words, Peter says that Jesus is the embodiment of all of Israel’s dreams and aspirations, especially as they applied to deliverance from foreign rule.  Through Jesus the people will be free again and the disciples will share in the splendor.  Or so they thought.  But notice now that Jesus orders them not to tell anyone about their conclusion yet.  They will have to alter their understanding of Messiah because of what is yet to happen.  Will they be able to see Messiah in one who is rejected, who suffers crucifixion, and dies?

Remember that the faith decision is beyond the powers of our own ability to make.  The Spirit inspires.  Grace empowers.  In our second reading, Paul has marveled everyday at the experience of that reality in his own life, from the initial encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus until the day Paul died.  He knew, as he said, that no one could say Jesus is Lord except in the Holy Spirit.  For from him and through him and for him are all things.  To him be glory forever.  Amen.

Jesus marvels at Peter’s declaration.  It is beyond mere human powers to discern.  Jesus’ heavenly Father revealed the truth to Peter.  It will be that witness that will be the foundation for the Church Jesus establishes.  Don’t miss the important name change in this passage.  Simon here becomes Petrus; the name means rock.  You are Peter and upon this rock (Petrus) I will build my church.  Look how strong it will be on that foundation and how long it will endure.

As the Baptized, we gather in the Mystery that is the Christ.  Our actions translate our understanding of that Mystery.  Each of us must profess that faith through what we say and do.  As church collectively we must profess that faith through what we say and do.  In response to the proclaimed Word we celebrate Eucharist.  Giving thanks to Jesus’ heavenly Father and invoking the Spirit, the transformation goes on: the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ, and the Assembly into that same Body and Blood.  Strengthened in the decision we have made about Jesus by the meal we share, we are sent to be sign so that others may come to know that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God.  That sign is Love, loving service to the poor, the disenfranchised, the outcast, all who need to know the universality of God’s love that comes to us in Christ.

But, as we will see next week, sometimes saying it is just the beginning.  We may have a long way to go before we understand what kind of Messiah (Christ) Jesus is and what that will mean for disciples.

Sincerely,

Didymus

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Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time – A – August 20, 2017

A reading from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah 56:1,6-7
A reading from St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans 11:13-15, 29-32
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew 15:21-28

Dear Reader,

Some people, even Catholics among them, are no comfortable with the word catholic.  They are much more comfortable with protestant or sectarian, at least in practice.  To be catholic is to be universal.  Like it or not, God is catholic.  Granted, that might not seem apparent in the early books of Hebrew Scripture when God is busy about calling and forming the Jews as a people set apart as God’s own.  Many are the mandates of separatism that, of course, can quickly translate into elitism.  Ritual impurity resulting in exclusion from temple worship could be incurred through contact with Gentiles, just as it could from touching lepers, or anyone or anything deemed unclean and therefore to be avoided.  Living in fidelity to God’s law will result in a relationship between the Jews and God that will make all the other nations marvel.

Then come proclamations of God’s catholic call like the one found in today’s reading from the Prophet Isaiah.  (Read the skipped verses and you will find even the formally and formerly excluded eunuchs, along with the foreigners are included in the call.)  Through Isaiah, the Lord invites all to enter into this relationship of love, celebrated in formal worship and in lives lived in fidelity to the Covenant.  The burnt offerings and sacrifices of these once unclean will be acceptable on God’s altar.  My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.

Even Jesus had to change his mind, or rather, had to grow in the understanding of what the Father called him to do.  There is no shortage of quotes that state clearly during the early stages of his ministry that Jesus knew he was sent for the lost sheep of the house of Israel.  In proclaiming the Good News, his initial intent is to restore fervor to the faith life of the Jews.  In the beginning, Jesus would have been careful about incurring ritual impurity through contact with foreigners, or any other class of people declared unclean.  Then came the encounter between Jesus and the Canaanite woman in today’s Gospel.  Translate Canaanite foreigner, and foreigner, unclean and you will see the power in their exchange.

The woman came to Jesus in the midst of a crowd and in desperation.  Her daughter was tormented by a demon.  It doesn’t matter whether this refers to a possession by the devil, or some disease that ravished the girl.  The situation, in the mother’s eyes, was catastrophic.  If you are a parent, put yourself in the mother’s shoes.

The woman was not self-conscious, much less was she concerned about what her neighbors would think of her when she cried out to get Jesus’ attention and inform him of her plight.  It is painful to hear that Jesus paid her no heed in spite of her persistence.  She embarrassed the disciples who also seemed to feel no inclination to respond to her concerns.  They wanted Jesus to silence her and get rid of her.  Remember when the disciples were confronted by the hunger of the 5000? They saw the great need then.  They wanted Jesus to send them away so their needs could be met elsewhere.  Unlike that time, Jesus did not tell them to do something for the woman themselves.  Ignoring the woman, Jesus said his call was only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.  The woman heard him and persisted.  She called him Lord, and added, please help me!

Jesus’ reply should make us wince.  It is cruel.  It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs. (Dog was the pejorative term Jews applied to the Gentiles.)  Undismayed, the woman turned the insult to her own advantage as she reminded Jesus that even if she is a dog, dogs get the leftovers from their master’s’ table.  Wow!  That, in effect, was what Jesus said, too.  He recognized that in this foreigner he found the faith response that he had been searching for from the lost sheep of the house of Israel.  Jesus assured this giant of faith that she was not a dog, but a woman.  The crumb she sought was given to her.   And the woman’s daughter was healed from that hour.

We hear a major turning point in Jesus’ ministry.  Now his invitation begins to be catholic and will include tax collectors, prostitutes, Samaritans and Canaanites.  Jesus begins to reflect the catholicity of God’s love.  That should be a comfort to most of us who are Gentiles.  If his vision had remained unchanged, despite the woman’s plea, we would be outside the pale of Jesus’ concern.

Dare I ask the question: How Catholic are you?  Before you answer, think a moment.  Whom do you think should be called to the table?  Or, rather, who should be excluded?  A great scandal from the Church in various ages, including our own, is the willingness on the part of some to exclude.  It ought not be the prerogative of any minister to refuse Eucharist to someone who presents him/herself.  I hope we are sad when we remember how recently in our history Catholic churches were segregated – and not just in the south.  Harlem had that experience.  Move beyond racism to any other classifications to which humankind are sorted.  With which of these people would you be willing to stand in solidarity at the table?  Would the presence of any of them scandalize you?

The challenge today remains the same as it has been from the beginning.  Love.  Jesus said, Love one another as I have loved you.  Love with the love that expresses itself in service.  Love with a love that is universal.  If there is an individual or class or category of people that you abhor, imagine yourself to be one of them.  Be a black, or a gay, or a transgender.  Be a Muslim or a Jew.  Be a Democrat or a Republican.  Hatred drives and divides our society.  The first few minutes of the nightly news will confirm that.  It is love that will heal and restore unity and bring peace.

Our call is to love with a love that imitates Jesus’ and is universal.  It is that love that brings the kingdom Jesus promised, the kingdom whose coming we pray for each time we pray: Our Father…

Sincerely,

Didymus

VIGIL OF MARY’S ASSUMPTION INTO HEAVEN – August 15, 2017

 

A reading from the first Book of Chronicles 15:3-4, 15-16; 16:1-2
A reading from the first Letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians 15:54b-57
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Luke 11:27-28

 

Dear Reader,

The solemnity of the Assumption of Mary is an ancient feast in our tradition.  Going back to the 5th century, the feast celebrates the completion of Christ’s triumph over death for, and the restoration of life to all who believe in Christ.  A favorite icon, Mary’s dormition, proclaims the core mystery.  The scene before us that we ponder depicts Mary at the end of her earthly journey.  Notice that I did not say that it depicts Mary at the time of her death.  The word dormition means sleep, not death.  We gaze upon the apostles and patriarchs, prophets and others gathered around the reclining Mary.  Overhead, the Father, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit watch in anticipation, ready to welcome the Mother of the Lord into glory.

In anticipation of the completion of the Paschal Mystery, Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection, the Church proclaims that Mary, who would bear in her womb the Word Incarnate, was preserved from sin from the first moment of her existence.  Death and sin have an inextricable link.  Mary does not have to die because Mary never knew sin.  We call that mystery the Immaculate Conception.  When her life had run its course, Mary reposed into dormition and transitioned into glory.  We rejoice and celebrate because there is hope in the mystery for all of us who have died with Christ in Baptism and have been raised to live in union with Christ.  Our bodies may die for a time.  We believe that at the end of time, our bodies will be raised.  Body and spirit, we, too, shall live with Christ in glory.

None of the readings for today’s Liturgy of the Word is lengthy.  That may delight many.  Forgive me.  I don’t mean to be sarcastic, but it is unfortunate that so many of us do not have the attention span to accommodate lengthy readings – to say nothing of lengthy homilies.  We are so used to quick cuts in film and short sound bites in audio that many cannot tolerate longer takes.  Well, if the Lector isn’t careful, the proclamations of the first reading will be over before the Assembly settles down to listen.  Lectors, beware!

In the first reading from the first Book of Chronicles, we are party to a great celebration as King David assembles all Israel in Jerusalem to welcome the Ark of the Lord to its dwelling place, the tent he had prepared for it.  The Ark is the sign of God’s presence among the people.  The Ark contains the tablets of the Law, the Covenant carved into stone.  The Ark that carries these holy contents is itself holy.  God is present there.  No mortal can touch it without committing sin.  So the Ark is carried on poles and borne on the shoulders of four porters to its place of veneration.  Music and dancing accompany the transition.  We don’t hear this in the edited reading, but David is so elated by the wonderful event that his enthusiasm gets the better of him and some are embarrassed to see him leaping and dancing about before the Ark.  How indecorous.  Expressions of joy should be more restrained.  At least some think so.

Mary is the Ark of the New Covenant.  She carried in her womb the living Word made flesh.  The Son born of her will bring about the new and eternal Covenant with God.  She is the Mother of the Church, the Body of Christ.  On this day we gather with Mary and sing her praises, rejoicing because she is our mother as well.  I remember a Marian celebration while I was in Uganda.  I’ll never forget the singing and the clapping and the group of Liturgical Dancers moving their bodies in praise as we entered into worship, rejoicing with Mary now enthroned as Queen of Heaven and Earth.

In the second reading there are more truths for us to ponder.  Some things seem too good to believe.  Some of the Corinthians have already decided that there was no resurrection from the dead.  They wonder about Christ’s resurrection.  Paul steadfastly proclaimed Christ, risen from the dead and living in glory.  In the great Pascal event, Paul taught that death has been conquered and sin, forgiven.

There is baptismal imagery in this brief reading.  When we were baptized, we entered the waters described both as tomb and womb.  When the waters were poured over us, or we were immersed in the waters, we died there to all that was of sin and opposed to God.  We came out of the waters, born to a new life, clothed in Christ.  The white robe we were clothed with then symbolized that rebirth and new life.  If we believe that then we will thrill when we hear Paul taunt the once invincible Death.  Death is swallowed up in victory.  Where, O Death, is your victory?  Where O Death, is your sting?  After her Son, Mary is the first to experience that victory.  She is the sign that one day that victory will be ours as well.  If death cannot triumph over us, what is there left for us to fear?

The way the Church celebrates funerals helps us to experience consolation in a time that could break our spirit and shatter our faith.  That is why the body of the deceased is treated with reverence.  See the signs that proclaim life, not death.  The Easter Candle, the principal sign of Christ’s resurrection, stands burning by the casket and attests to the life that is coming.  The coffin in clothed with the pall, a reminder that at one time this person came out of the waters and was clothed in a white baptismal gown, a symbol that s/he had put on Christ and would live in Christ forever.  A crucifix rests on the coffin as a reminder that the cross is for us a sign of hope.  If we have died with Christ, we shall live with Christ.   (Adaptations can be made for cremains to proclaim the same truths of faith.)

There is no denying of the reality of death, only a proclamation that death’s victory is temporary.  The bodies of the dead will rise again, just as Christ rose from the dead.

The word tragedy, at least in its strict meaning, ought to have very limited use among Christians.  The word means an event that has catastrophic consequences and brings about ultimate defeat.  Faith empowers us to look into the face of the worst of events and recognize their horror.  But though people die in such an event, those deaths can never be forever.  There is no ultimate defeat.  Where, O Death, is your victory?

I remember being chastised because I refused to use the word tragedy to describe the 9/11 disasters.  It isn’t that I was not appalled by the horror nor moved to tears by the sufferings of so many.  When the stories of the final moments of so many of the valiant people killed in the plane crashes and the collapsing towers began to emerge, we heard tales of heroic actions that attested to a belief that went beyond the powers of terrorism to quash.  These were stories of incredible bravery and unbridled love, expressions of people pouring out their very lives in loving service.  Where, O Death, is your sting?

Finally, we come to the very brief Gospel that praises Mary’s true wonder.  A woman cries out praise for the woman whose womb bore Jesus and whose breasts nursed him.  Lovely sentiments of exaltation.  Already there was a long-standing tradition of honoring the queen mother during and after the reign of her son.  That is what the woman in the Gospel is voicing.  Jesus does not deny what the woman proclaims.  Rather, he heralds the true greatness of his mother.  She is the one who heard the word of God and kept it.

Think back to the account of the Annunciation earlier in Luke’s Gospel.  When the angel asked Mary to be the mother of God’s Son, once she had determined that it was God’s will for her, and even though she did not understand how it would come about, Mary said:  Let it be done to me according to your word.  From the first moment of her existence, yes was her constant response to God’s will in her life.  That is why Mary is the model of discipleship.  We who believe in Christ are called to live the will of the Lord in our lives, to learn from Mary’s example, to learn through our desire to imitate Christ, and so always say yes the way Jesus did.  My desire is to do the will of (the Father) who sent me.

One more note: the Feast of the Assumption, in the Northern Hemisphere, is celebrated at the beginning of the harvest season.  The Ordo entry for the feast makes this suggestion: Today, where it is customary, or on another appropriate day the produce of fields, gardens, and orchards may be blessed.  In keeping with that theme, today would be a good day to pray a special grace of blessing and thanks for the bounty on your table.  Praise God for the beauty of flowers in vases and their scent in your home.  Praise God from whom all blessings flow.  Praise Mary, assumed into heaven, the Mother of the source of all blessings.

Sincerely,

Didymus