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FOURTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – B- January 28, 2018

A reading from the Book of Deuteronomy 18:15-20
A reading from St. Paul’s first Letter to the Corinthians 7:32-35
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Mark 1:21-28

Dear Reader,

The fascination with fortunetellers and psychic readers is not new.  That interest escalates in times of uncertainty, vis-a-vis, these times.  People do not want the experience akin to being in a dark room, hearing sounds, and wondering what’s out there.  Someone please turn on the lights.  Someone please tell us what is coming.

As understandable as anxiety is, the role of the Prophet in Scripture is misunderstood if we think he is a seer who tells people with specificity what tomorrow holds.

The Prophet in Hebrew Scripture is one who speaks what God wants the people to hear.  The prophetic onus is tremendous.  No wonder some of the Major Prophets protested their unworthiness when they were summoned to the task.  No wonder some of them fled in terror from the thought of being called.  Fidelity to the vocation will not mean that the speaker will be heard and the message heeded.  Hear Jeremiah’s anguished cries as he sinks into the mud of the cistern where he has been cast because of his unpopular message.  Witness Jonah as he fumes in the whale’s belly.

Yet prophecy is something faith communities need in order to be reminded lest the way be lost.  Or, once lost, to help them find the way back.  Taken as a whole, what is the prophetic message?  Through the Prophet, YHWH says: Let me be your God.  You be my people.  People will know and marvel at our relationship unlike that between any other people and their gods when they see you following my ways.

Ah, as Shakespeare said, for some there lies the rub.  Every prophetic message is a call to conversion and to a change of life.  No one ever said that conversion would be easy.  It always involves dying and rising, dying to one way of life and rising to another.  Or, at least, it means going deeper into the faith-life being lived.

There are two ways to hear today’s first reading.  It is assumed by those in Moses’ audience that hearing YHWH directly would be too intense, just as would be the experience of looking on the face of YHWH.  No one can see the face of God and live.  The Israelites did not argue that point.  At the same time there is the desire to know the mind of God.  The Lord said to Moses: I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their kin and will put my words into his mouth; he shall tell them all that I command him.

There will be others like Moses who will speak to the people on God’s behalf.  That is another way of saying that YHWH’s presence among the people will be evidenced by the veracity of the message.  So many times, succinctly put, that message will be:  Remain faithful.  Come back to me with all your heart.  At other times there will be prophetic warning of the implications of infidelity.  Then their strength will be sapped.  Destruction and bondage could follow if they do not give up the ways of pagans.  But even then the prophecy will remind the people that YHWH is faithful and one day will bring them back and restore their city.  There will always be forgiveness.

Some hear in the promise to raise up for them a Prophet, the messianic promise.  Christians believe that promise is fulfilled in Jesus.  Mark says it quite clearly at the outset of his Gospel:  Here begins the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.  Jesus is the one through whom God speaks.  This is the one who shall tell the people all that God commands him.  As the Son of God, it is God speaking when Jesus does.

So it is that at the beginning of his ministry, Jesus observes Sabbath and enters the synagogue.  He teaches and so gives for the first time in the Gospel prophetic utterance.  Two words describe the moment.  Authority.  Astonished.  The first word describes the manner with which Jesus taught.  There was the professorial about him, a depth of understanding conveyed, so that those who heard could also understand.  The second, astonished, describes the people’s reaction.  Astonished.  Amazed.  Both words are used interchangeably in the Gospels and convey the picture of people standing with mouths agape in reaction to what they hear or see.  Neither word describes belief.  In other places in the Gospel, two quite distinct groups will follow after Jesus.  The crowds are those who may well be astonished, but who are unable to commit to Jesus.  The Disciples are those who have made their decision about Jesus and have chosen to follow.

See the importance that we witness the reaction of the unclean spirit Jesus casts out of the possessed man in the synagogue.  What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth, the spirit cries out.  Have you come to destroy us?  I know who you are – the Holy One of God!  The evil spirit recognizes the authority and from where it comes.  That is beyond what the crowd has perceived.  Jesus commands silence.  It will not be Evil’s witness that will convince the people who Jesus is, but the words he speaks and the works he does.  Quiet! Come out of him!

So the Gospel concludes with people marveling about what they have seen, the astonishing authority with which Jesus acts and a new teaching.  But to what does it all point?  What does it mean?  The people of the synagogue, the witness will tell others the story and help spread his reputation.  It will take the rest of the story, the rest of the journey with Jesus for the mystery to be revealed and for faith to begin.  Even those who call themselves disciples early on will have to let go of what they thought they understood, let go of their assumptions about the promised Messiah, and watch him die.  For many of the disciples and even the Apostles the crucifixion cannot be reconciled with their understanding of Messiah.

May I challenge you during this Liturgical Year’s journey not to be distant during the Proclamation of the Word?  Be present to it.  Be challenged by it.  Some of us still have some self to die to even as we experience ongoing conversion and, infused with the Spirit, rise with him.

Sincerely,

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THIRD SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – B – January 21, 2018

A reading from the Book of the Prophet Jonah 3:1-5, 10
A reading from the first Letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians 7:29-31
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Mark 1:14-20

Dear Reader,

This is the only Sunday in the three-year cycle of readings that we hear from the Prophet Jonah.  That shouldn’t be surprising when you consider that the book is short, only four brief chapters.  In some ways the Book is a comic opera, given the hapless and reluctant Prophet that is Jonah.  Reluctant is the operative word.  YHWH called Jonah to be a Prophet to the people of Nineveh.  A people of long standing animosity with Israel, Jonah wanted nothing to do with them.  He fled by ship, hoping to reach Tarshish and so escape YHWH’s call.  You know what happened next.  God sent a storm that threatened to envelop the boat and sink it.  The mates on board saw the storm as punishment from YHWH, but directed at whom?

Jonah acknowledged that he was fleeing from YHWH’s will, so the storm probably was directed at him.  He offered himself to be thrown into the sea so that the ship would be spared.  Overboard he went, only to be swallowed by a giant fish in whose belly Jonah would reside for three days.  From there, Jonah repented.  YHWH heard him and commanded the fish to spew forth Jonah.  Sputtering on the shore, Jonah heard YHWH’s message again: Set out for the great city of Nineveh and announce to it the message that I will give you.  The message?  In forty days Nineveh will be destroyed – the epitome of a sermon of fire and brimstone.  Jonah expected his announcement to be ignored by the people of Nineveh.  He looked forward to finishing the three-day trek through the city so that he could climb the hill on the other side and from there, watch the destruction of the detested people.

Imagine his consternation when, after a single day’s journey into the city, all the people heard the prophecy and repented, declaring a fast and all of them, great and small, put on sackcloth.  Even the king repented.  And the mind of YHWH changed.  Nineveh was spared, much to Jonah’s disappointment.  He had so wanted to see the fireworks.  Instead he witnessed YHWH’s mercy.  And finally Jonah experienced that mercy in his own heart.

So, what is the point?  When we hear the Word of the Lord, we ought to respond wholeheartedly.  But don’t you have to wonder what was in the hearts of the people of Nineveh that they repented so quickly and thoroughly?  For what had they been longing?  Wasn’t Jonah the epitome of the judgmental haranguer?  In spite of Jonah’s hardness, YHWH’s grace went out through Jonah’s message and found reception in the people’s hearts.  They heard a message of hope for them if only they changed their ways.

In the second reading, Paul urges the people of Corinth to continue in their conversion process.  They have heard Paul’s preaching and repented.  But Paul has heard indications that their conversion is not complete.  And so, because the day of the Lord is near, he wants them to live holy lives that will project Christ to the world.  The world as we know it is passing away to yield to a beginning of a new glory in the age to come.

After John the Baptist had been arrested, Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the gospel of God.  His message, similar to Jonah’s, is a call to repentance, but without the threat of immanent destruction.  The word gospel means good news.  Jesus invites all who hear him to bet ready for the time of fulfillment, what the Prophets foretold, the coming of the reign of God.  If they change their lives and return to God’s ways they will experience God in their lives – God living not only among them but also in them.  We sit under this proclamation of the Gospel, this living Word, and must hear it appealing to us to continue to change our lives and respond with open hearts.

The first thing we come to realize is that Jesus does not want to be the sole bearer of the Good News.  He invites others to take up his ministry.  He calls the fishermen, Simon and Andrew.  It would seem that at their first hearing of the message they respond wholeheartedly.  Come after me, and I will make you fishers of humankind.  They will still be throwing out nets, but not to ensnare fish.  Immediately Simon and Andrew abandon their former way of life and follow Jesus.  By the way, this does not imply that the brothers were living an evil life.  They were honest and hard working.  Jesus called them to something new and they held nothing back in responding.

The same holds true for the next pair of fishermen brothers, James and John, who hear and immediately leave their father, Zebedee, and the crew of workers, and follow Jesus.  One cannot help but wonder how thrilled Zebedee was with this turn of events.  But for the brothers, Jesus was the answer to everything that they longed for and desired.  For them there was nothing else to do but answer his call.

They abandoned everything and followed Jesus.  They left their father, Zebedee, in the boat along with the hired men and followed Jesus.  The call goes forth and the response is total.  The example is for us to do the same.

What did these men understand when Jesus invited them to follow him and become fishers of humanity.  Probably they did not understand much, and certainly not what they would come to understand to be the Gospel.  They had a lot to learn.  Jesus must have had a magnetic personality.  Everywhere he spoke, crowds immediately gathered.  Could this be the Messiah?  The one who would restore Israel to power and drive out foreign rule? And when that happened, perhaps they would become important personages in that coming realm.  Jesus spoke.  They followed and never looked back.  There would be moments of personal conflict, as they had to give up their presuppositions about the Messiah and experience God who does not want to be served but to serve.  Step by step, as they followed Jesus and listened to his preaching, they would come to understand that Jesus is the Messiah that invites all people to experience a new unity with God and each other, and a new peace.

For us, it is the same.  Whatever fascinates us about Jesus in the beginning doesn’t matter.  What does matter is that we recognize the call and dare to imagine that the message is for us.  What matters is our willingness to change our lives and conform them to Christ.  What matters is that we follow him and learn his ways.

That is what making this journey through the Liturgical Year can accomplish.  We hear the Gospel as living word.  We listen and let that Good News that is Jesus take root in our hearts.  We change and learn to do what Jesus does.  If Jesus is the norm, then walking in his footsteps must be our response.  Over time and with each Gospel’s proclamation we will come to know more and more what that imitation of Christ means and what in us has to change.  It is not fear that draws us.  It is love.

How long do we walk in Jesus’ footsteps before we realize that his call is never for ourselves alone?  When is it that we realize that the love that drew us must go out from us and draw others?  I believe that once we hear, the rest follows.  It is all about love.  It is all about pouring out of self in service.

That is why our lives soon begin to revolve around Sunday Eucharist.  We gather to be renewed in Jesus’ dying and rising, to take and eat the Body of Christ so that in the week ahead we find the strength and the courage to be fishers of people, catching them up in god’s love that comes to us through Jesus.  And inviting them to follow.

Sincerely yours in Christ,

Didymus

SECOND SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – B – January 14, 2018

A reading from the first Book of Samuel 3:3b-10, 19
A reading from the first letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians 6:13c-15a, 17-20
A reading from the holy Gospel according to John 1:35-42

Dear Reader,

With this Second Sunday we enter Ordinary Time, having concluded the Christmas Season.  There is a risk involved if we make this journey through Ordinary Time and complete the cycle of readings for the year.  We might not be at all the same at the conclusion as we were at the beginning.

Perhaps that is stating the obvious, because the fact of the matter is conversion is the risk we run each time we gather to celebrate Eucharist.  It always amazes me how casually and nonchalantly people come together for Liturgy.  What if the action works this time?  What if the Spirit rushes through the Assembly this time and accomplishes the same transformation of them that happens with the bread and wine?  The faithful are very ready to venerate the Body and Blood of Christ present in the Eucharist.  Are they ready to be the Body of Christ? Then should they have the same reverence for the Christ present in the Assembly?  If it works, the Liturgy, that is, then Christ is present in those who have gathered, who have eaten and drunk, and who are sent.  Maybe the realization takes time.  But how long?  If it works, about the same length of time it takes to transform the Bread and Wine.

The human experience is one of gradually unfolding and growing awareness.  The potential plant is contained in the seed.  Watch that seed sprout and the plant grow and blossoms burst forth.  You know that your understanding and appreciation have grown as well through each stage of the plant’s development.  That is what happens when we journey in faith and yield to the Spirit.  Our understanding grows with each step we take, with each proclamation of the Word, and each celebration of Eucharist, even as we are transformed.  Better put, that is if we respond.

Hear the first reading and marvel.  It is an account of growing awareness on the part of the boy, Samuel and his teacher, the priest and leader Eli.  Samuel is sleeping in the temple where the ark of God was.  The ark is a concentrated presence of God, if you will.  God’s presence is universal but especially so where the ark is.  Samuel, young and having been given to God’s service from infancy by his mother, Hannah, is awakened by the sound of his name on the night air.  Samuel!  Samuel!  Was it a whisper?  Was it a shout?  That doesn’t matter.  The response matters.  Here I am.  Twice the boy will wake Eli because he thought it was the teacher calling.  The third time he is awakened by the boy, Eli understands who it is who calls, that it is the Lord.  One wonders if Eli suffered pangs of jealousy for an experience he had never had as he told Samuel that the next time he heard the vice he should say: Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.

For Samuel it will be a call from the Lord to prophecy and the beginning of a relationship with the Lord that will bring him to anoint the first two kings of Israel, Saul and David.  But Eli will hear the first prophecy from Samuel, the promise of the coming destruction of Eli and his family for their lack of fidelity to the Lord.  The Word of God is a two-edged sword.

When Samuel said Speak that third time, how much did he understand?  Certainly not nearly as much as he did at the twilight of his life, and after the years of service and openness to the Lord.  At the beginning of each person’s faith walk, s/he is called by God by name as the seed of faith is planted in the human heart.  It is the role of the more experienced, the veterans in the faith, to help the neophyte understand who it is that is calling, and to exemplify what it means to respond.

The Rite of Christian Initiation (RCIA) process is meant to provide the atmosphere and means for those awakening to faith to understand the call to Baptism.  Along the way, through the experience of faith in the witness and action of the catechists and the parish Assembly, they will come to understand what believers do and how they worship.  It is a process that entails journeying with Jesus through the full cycle of readings in a Liturgical Year.  Sometimes it takes even longer.

That is how they come to understand who it is that is calling, what it means to follow, and to find the courage and faith to say: Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.  They will understand something as they stand at the Font’s edge and take their first step into the waters.  As they emerge on the other side, reborn in Christ, they will continue to grow, to be transformed, until, in the fullness of time, Christ comes to full stature in them.

The understanding of Christ is a growing one.  No one knows and understands at once.  Even Paul, after his blazing encounter on the road to Damascus, had to be led by the hand back into the city where he would learn how much he would have to suffer for the Name.

The two in the Gospel this week are seekers.  They had thought that John the Baptist was the one they sought.  But John, like Eli, like the RCIA catechist, points them in another direction: Behold the Lamb of God, as Jesus walks by.  Notice the question Jesus asks the two of them in their first encounter: What are you looking for?  Notice that they do not know the answer to the question because they know so little.  But they do know that something is here.  They hope that they will know better after some time and exposure to him, and so they address Jesus as rabbi and ask him where he lives.  Jesus’ response is: Come and you will see.

Do you remember later, bitter confrontation between Jesus and Peter, when Peter tried to dissuade Jesus from going to Jerusalem to suffer and to die?  Remember what Jesus said then?  Get behind me, you tempter, and learn from me.  What Jesus commanded Peter to do was to walk in his footsteps and observe what he does so that Peter can do the same and so come to understand.  That is the same thing, in gentler words, that Jesus said to the two seekers.  And they stayed with him that day.  That is the only way to know Jesus, being with him, walking in his footsteps and then doing what he does.

The next thing we hear is that Andrew, one of the two, goes to his brother, Simon, and tells him: We have found the Messiah – which translated means Christ.  Meeting Christ, believing in Christ, means to bring others to Christ.  Bring others to Christ and let Christ do the rest.  See how Simon is changed.  Jesus gives him a new name that in turn gives him a new significance.  You are Simon, son of John; you will be called Cephas – which translated is Peter.  And Peter is translated Rock.

In these traumatic times this new year of faith begins.  Does the Lord ask you at the outset: What are you looking for?  There may be many things you think you seek.  Ultimately, though, it is Christ you seek and your ongoing transformation in Christ.  So he says to you, come and see.  Listen as you stand at the Table of the Word.  Observe as you fully, actively, and consciously participate at the Table of the Eucharist.  Be transformed as you take and eat.  If it works, you will be transformed and newly convinced that you are sent to be the continuation of Christ’s presence in the world until all have eaten and have come to know.

Sincerely yours in Christ,

Didymus