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TWENTY-SECOND SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – B – September 02, 2018

 

A reading from the Book of Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-8
A reading from the Letter of St. James 1:17-18, 21b-22, 27
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

 

Dear Reader,

If you follow Israel’s history in Hebrew Bible, you find that the strength and security of the people rises and falls depending on their fidelity to the law.  When they are faithful in living out the statutes and decrees given by YHWH and handed on to them by Moses, they are invincible.  But when they forget the Law and become fascinated by alien gods, they crumble, finally to the point of the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem, and they are led off into slavery and the Babylonian captivity.

In our first reading, Moses promises something remarkable that will flow from the people’s observance of the Law.  Nations will marvel at the Israelites’ strength as a people, their wisdom and intelligence.  It will be immediately apparent that no other nation has gods so close to it as the Lord, our God, is to us whenever we call upon him.  In other words, through the observance of the Law it will be obvious that God is at the center of the people’s lives.  

How can that be?  What is there about the Law that makes this come about?  The Law, the Decalogue is right ordered living.  Put simply, the Commandments call for primacy of place of the only God among the people that is expressed by reverence for God’s name and the keeping holy of the Lord’s Day.

Second, keeping the Commandments imposes a right ordering of relationships among the people that result in their strength as a people.  In the end, it is all about love.  Loving God with your entire being and loving your neighbor as you love yourself is an unbeatable combination.  Jesus will say that the whole Law and the Prophets are based on the summing up of those two laws of love.

Notice the final sentence of the second reading from the Letter of St. James.  Do we not tend to think of religion as being primarily about the expression of the people’s relationship with God?  James says: Religion that is pure and undefiled before our God and Father is this – to care for orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained by the world.  Christian religion must have an effect on our attitudes toward and relationships with our neighbors.  A discussion about who is our neighbor is for another time.  Suffice it to say that James warns us that it is not enough to know the texts of Scripture, that is, to know the Law.  There is no virtue in mere erudition.  That knowledge must spill over into action.  Be doers of the word and not hearers only.  From one of the great parables Jesus will tell, it will become clear that “I didn’t notice him/her” will get us nowhere as an excuse.  Just as Dives, the Rich Man in that parable.  He might be a good example of the world’s values by which James warns us to keep unstained.

This brings us to the gospel and Jesus embroiled in controversy.  Scandal rises from the fact that some of his disciples are not observing the minutiae of the Law.  A bit of an aside comes in here.  Over the centuries, students of the Law became fixated on the Law and sought to spell out as part of the Law governance of every possible human thought, word, or deed.  So came over 600 laws that made their way into the Scriptures.  According to the Pharisees, the good and faithful Jew was bound to observe them all.  

The scandalous behavior the Pharisees had observed was that some of (Jesus’) disciples ate their meals with unclean, that is, unwashed hands.  There is no arguing that sanitation is a good precaution for one’s health’s sake.  But what has happened is that multiple purifications, only beginning with the washing of hands, have become matters of law and therefore signs of one’s fidelity to God.  The washings purify one who may have come into contact with someone unclean, a leper or a Gentile, for example.  They continue to the purification of everything imaginable, and all with equal importance and weight.

This is what is behind the confrontation by the Pharisees: Why do your disciples not follow the tradition of the elders but instead eat a meal with unclean hands?  Notice that Jesus’ response doesn’t touch upon the washing issue.  He goes deeper and returns the ball to the Pharisees’ court, so to speak.  First, he says, not all laws are of equal importance.  There are the great Commandments that make up God’s Law.  Many of the other laws are merely human tradition, the result of students of the law arguing over the Law.  Focusing on the Law and its observance says nothing about the human heart.  Scrupulosity is not an indication of the depth of faith.  Just the opposite may be true.  If God is a concern at all, the hope might be that if one does all these minutiae of the Law, that one will find God.

The main question here is, where is your heart?  In other words, is preoccupation with the Law actually an expression of the desire to know, love, and serve God?  Does that quest result in the need to know, love and serve the neighbor.  It is, after all, Jesus who identifies one with the other.  One cannot love God without loving the neighbor.

There was a famous exchange between St. Teresa of Calcutta and the British journalist, Malcolm Muggeridge.  At the time, Muggeridge had moved from atheism to agnosticism and was trying to find his way back to faith.  He observed Mother Teresa’s charitable work, her caring for abandoned babies and the dying poor.  It was messy and exhausting work.  Watching in silence for as long as he could, he finally asked Mother, “Why do you do what you do?”

Her simple answer was “faith.”   To which Muggeridge responded that there were many people of faith but they do not do what she does.  There must be something more.

Then Mother Teresa, holding the hand of a dying, penniless man, said, “Look at this man in his misery.  When I am ministering to him, I am ministering to Christ in his Passion.”

There you have it.  Simple, is it not?  It is, when seen through the eyes of faith.  Jesus came to do something entirely new.  Taking on human flesh, he forever united the human and the divine.  In the words of Genesis, God said, Let us make the human in our image and likeness.  Through Jesus, God becomes identified with the human.  How one treats a human being is how one treats God.  That is Mother Teresa’s insight.  That is what Jesus tries to get the Pharisees and his disciples to see.  This is the attitude that will motivate people in the Kingdom Jesus brings when God reigns.  In that Kingdom, when it comes to law, there will be none more demanding than the law of love.

It is said that when the early Christians were being martyred for their faith in the Coliseum and elsewhere, those who looked on were stunned.  “See how these Christians love one another!”  Perhaps that is why the Church began to flourish in that time of persecution and has continued to do so in every other similar time.  Many of those who first witnessed that Christian love sought that source of strength and purpose for themselves.

We come together every Sunday for Liturgy.  Certainly there is a commandment to do so.  But I would pray that that is not the primary reason why we assemble, that rather we come together to be united in the love of Christ that we celebrate in Word and Sacrament.  It is safe to say that the health of the parish rests on the strength of the love that binds the members together with each other and with Christ.  If the stranger who enters the Assembly for the first time is struck by how these Christians love one another, s/he will want to stay and be part of that love fest.  And if that celebration results in the transformation of that people into the Body of Christ, that is, if they are empowered to recognize the Christ within them, whose Body and Blood they have shared, and in that recognition go out to bring Christ to the orphan and the widow, the poor, and the refugees, the children separated from their parents and caged, and all those deemed unacceptable by those in power, if it is clear that they are about love and their desire is to serve, others will marvel at the health of the Church and desire to be part of it.  Sadly, in many countries, including our own, the results from the other side of that coin are all to clear.

Suffice it to say, love is much more demanding than law and much more liberating, especially if you die in the process.

Sincerely yours in Christ,

Didymus

 

  

 

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TWENTY-FIRST SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – B – August 26. 2018

A reading from the Book of Joshua 24:1-2a, 15-17, 18b
A reading from the Letter of St. Paul to the Ephesians 5:21-32
A reading from the holy Gospel according to John 6:60-69

 

Dear Reader,

“Why does it have to take so long?  Why can’t I just be baptized and get on with it?  Phillip was baptized after only a day of catechesis.  Why can’t I be?”

The earnestness of the seeker is sincere and so is the impatience.  The readings this Sunday give insight to the Church’s recommendation that a catechumen, one journeying toward Baptism, should go through a full liturgical cycle before making the Lenten journey to the Font.  The hope is that the catechumen will make the full journey through the gospel readings, experience a full year of worshiping with the parish community, and thereby be in a position to make the commitment that begins with Baptism, to die with Christ so as to live with Christ.

It is clear from both the first reading and the gospel that beginning the journey of faith is one thing; committing to fidelity for the long haul is another.  That seems rather like Marriage that is lauded in the second reading as the sacrament that is a sign of the union between Christ and the Church.  How many couples eagerly promise to live in faithfulness with their spouses until death do them part?  How many of those marriages end before five years are out?  How many of the formerly married say in one way or another, “I had no idea what marriage would be like, or how much work it would be to live out a marriage commitment.”  Christ’s love for the Church is the model.  This is not about subservience, but mutuality.  Never forget that Christ’s love proved itself to the shedding of the last drop of blood and water that flowed from his pierced side.  No one ever said it would be easy.  Christ certainly did not.

Joshua, in the first reading, near the end of his life and having brought the Israelites to the promised Land of Canaan, challenges the people to renew their commitment to follow YHWH and not turn away to follow Baal.  Some of their ancestors had done that.  Will they?  Make the choice, he says.  Then Joshua testifies to his faith and that of his family.  As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.  That means that they will be faithful to the Covenant, faithful to the Mosaic Law, and faithful to YHWH.  The people remember what YHWH did for them through all those years of their formation in the desert.  He performed those great miracles before our very eyes and protected us along our entire journey…Therefore we also will serve the Lord, for the Lord is our God.

For several weeks now, we have been listening to the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel that puts before us the discourse on the Bread of Life that Jesus claims to be.  We have heard how central to our lives the Bread must be.  Some may have been uncomfortable with the graphic and uncompromising language that Jesus used in the proclamation to the crowds and to his disciples.  Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you.  That is a pretty clear either/or statement.  There is no wiggle room, no room for compromise.

This Sunday’s gospel, (remember that the word means Good News) opens with the disciples reeling from what Jesus has said.  This saying is hard; who can accept it?  Notice that Jesus offers no sympathy for them in their stunned state.  Rather he presses the point he is making farther.  To speak of the Son of Man ascending to where he was before is to bring the whole question of the cross and how that event will be interpreted.  Wheat is ground in the mill to become flour.  Jesus will be crushed by the way and weight of the Cross.  In other words, to be with Jesus on The Way will never be an easy walk – easy to begin, perhaps, but never easy to complete.

Every time we hear the Gospel, we have to make a decision to believe or not to believe, to respond and so be strengthened in our conversion, or to say, “Who can believe this?”  At this crossroads point of the Gospel, to accept that Jesus is the Bread of life or to turn away, Jesus reminds us that it all depends on grace.  Jesus knew that some to whom he preached did not believe.  And, worse, he knew that a disciple would betray him.  But he also knew that acceptance of his word depended on the gift of faith from the Father.  None have it within themselves to do this on their own.

Here I think it is important to reflect on your own experience, to ponder the moment you first believed.  Many can recall that moment with vivid clarity.  That transformative moment is tantamount to the light that breaks on the horizon and puts an end to night.  What is as amazing is the awareness that often faith came unbidden.  For others faith began after having run from it.  St. Augustine’s experience is not unique in the history of the Church.  He marveled when he realized he was a believer, having told his mother, Monica, that he would never follow her ways.  “Late have I loved you,’ he came to pray.  “You have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”  That is hindsight speaking and amazing awareness.  Reflect on your own.

It is also true that some can go through the traces and never make that commitment, never realize that faith is not alive in their lives.  They can be like the crowds who followed Jesus but never made the decision to be a disciple.  Even some of those in the pews on Sunday morning can be there out of habit, or tot keep peace in the family.  But do they believe?  Is Jesus the center of their being?  Having never been in crisis, they have never had to confront the question, and so they continue on.

They, we all need to hear Jesus ask, Do you believe this?  Taking the question to heart, we must make the response.  If we wonder how, remember that grace is there for us in this venture that no one can successfully negotiate on her/his own.  This Sunday’s gospel gives us an ample opportunity to decide.

Many who heard Jesus, many who had been designated as disciples, i.e., many who had made the decision about him, returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him.  The demands made by faith in Jesus were too much for them.  Alas.  Recognizing that fact, Jesus asks us today, Do you also want to leave?  Have you ever thought about that, thought about life without Christ?  I know that I have, and the thought always chills me.  Part of that realization comes from the importance that the community we call Church plays in my life.  I may be disappointed by the scandals, and there have been many through the centuries, but I cannot imagine life without the Church, no matter how difficult that life becomes.

There is a realization that is important for us to take to heart.  The faith journey is not one we make alone.  Remember when we spoke of Catechumens earlier?  Part of the necessity for their making the journey through the full cycle of the Liturgy of the Word stems from the importance of their learning what it means to be part of the faith community.  They learn by experienceing that community in worship and come to stand in awe of the wonder of being able to say, “We believe.”  The faith community prays for them, blesses them, and encourages them to continue to the Font and beyond.

It is in that process, too, that we come to understand the centrality of Eucharist, why it is that every Sunday we come back to the Table, to gather around the Table, to give thanks at the Table in the sacrifice that is the Eucharist, and to eat and drink from the Table.  It is that food that is our strength for the journey.  It is in the sharing of that meal that we come to understand the truth that we are one in Christ.  It is in eating Christ’s flesh and drinking his blood that we realize we have come to believe and are convinced that Jesus is the Holy One of God, and in believing, know that we have life in his name.

So it is that we continue together The Way.

Sincerely yours in Christ,

 

Didymus  

THE TWENTIETH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – August 19, 2018

A reading g from the Book of Proverbs 9:1-6
A reading from St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians 5:15-20
A reading from the holy Gospel according to John 6:51-58

 

Dear Reader,

There is an epidemic that has been stalking us for many years now.  Obesity attacks children and adults alike.  Others look on in anguish and wish there could be something done to stem this disease that brings with it diabetes, stroke and heart attack among younger and younger people.  To counter some in power propose banning giant-sized sweet drinks.  All those calories in one huge container equipped with a straw should not be allowed.  The same can be said for those whipped cream and caramel syrup sweetened coffee drinks.  At least for the latter the number of calories contained is posted to give fair warning to the purchaser.  But then comes the outrage.  How dare anyone limit freedom in this land of the free?  “Super size me” is a basic right, just like free speech and the right to bear arms, or ride a motorcycle without a helmet.  Or so it would seem.  Wisdom might try to inspire a change in thinking.

Wisdom is the theme that runs through this Sunday’s Liturgy of the Word.  It is not often that one theme links all three readings.  Often the second reading stands alone.  We cannot sit under this week’s readings without being confronted by the gracious gift of God that is Wisdom.  

Isn’t it interesting that given our discussion of calorie hefty food and drinks, the Book of Proverbs has Lady Wisdom inviting all to enter her house and partake of a banquet of nutritious rich food and fine wine, food that will sustain the diner?  Lush food entices especially those who are hungry.  The tickets to this sumptuous, healthy supper the feminine God provides are simplicity and a lack of understanding.  The invitation is universal.  Hear Jesus say, Come to me, all you who are hungry, and I will refresh you.  It is the same theme.

Lady Wisdom calls those who have wandered off and become entranced with Baal’s ways, to come back and relearn YHWH’s ways.  Relearn the ways of the Covenant from when YHWH led Israel out of slavery and into the Desert of Freedom.  Wisdom will enable them to see the foolishness of their errant ways and empower them to return to the Way that makes it evident that they are YHWH’s people and YHWH is their god.  It is a matter of grace, lavishly poured out and freely given.  Notice, too, that YHWH is the initiator.

Paul directs the Ephesians and us to make a change in course.  The Ephesians were, and we are living in dangerous times from a Christian point of view.  Then, just as now, the lure of debauchery and self-indulgence entices.  Promiscuity and over indulgence may be attractive, but such lifestyles inevitably destroy.  Paul says it: The days are evil.  We are called to something different.  That difference has to do with having a strong sense of community with others who believe in the God who called us out of slavery of sin to the freedom of the children of God.  This, through Christ.  The challenge is to be open to grace.

In this context, let the Word transform and put things in a new and different perspective.  If we are open to, and filled with the Spirit (Wisdom), we might come to see that we are all, every race, color, creed, gender and gender orientation, every nationality, a community of sisters and brothers in this human family.  We might be awakened to our responsibility for each other.  We might be able to see those fleeing violence and seeking freedom for their children in this country as our family.  The wealthy elite just might come to see their obligation to share from their abundance so that those who have nothing might at least have the essentials to survive.  If other motives fail to move us, then recognizing Christ in the other just might do it.  I was hungry and you gave me to eat. (Matthew 25: 35)

For several weeks now we have departed from Mark’s Gospel and have been listening to proclamations from the sixth chapter of John, the chapter on the Bread of Life, the Eucharist.  Read John’s account of the Last Supper and you will not find the distribution of Bread and Wine.  What you will find is the account of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet.  John puts before us an implication that follows from the shared Meal.  The sixth chapter of John’s Gospel contains John’s theology of Eucharist.

For the past three weeks the intensity has built as Jesus teaches the crowds the central role he is to play in their lives.  This is the reason he came into the world.  What do we long for?  Meaning.  Purpose.  Life that does not end.  These are what Jesus offers in graphic and dramatic terms.  Sometimes I think it is a shame that we have heard these texts before and have become used to them.  They do not shock us the way they did the crowds when Jesus identified himself as the bread that came down from heaven (hear Manna); eating this Bread will result in eternal life.  

There is more here than was in Manna.  Hear the sudden and jarring shift in the exposition.  In an instant, the bread is defined as Jesus’ flesh.  Why doesn’t it shock us to hear Jesus say that unless we gnaw on his flesh and drink his blood we will not have eternal life?  The point is, Jesus wants to make it perfectly clear that consuming every aspect of him is essential to our faith life.

There are two ways this happens.  First, we ingest Jesus when we devour the Word and let the Spirit, Wisdom, enlighten us to the meaning.  Wisdom will help us to stop compromising the Good News, and empower us to hear the clarity of the call to come and follow me.  The saints, those canonized and those not, give us plentiful examples of what that means in practice.  We are called to imitate Christ in every aspect of our being and in all our relationships.  We cannot learn to trust and do that unless we ponder the Word, become vulnerable before it, and allow ourselves to be transformed by it.  Isn’t it interesting that imitation of Christ is the one path to sainthood, and yet no two saints lives tell the same story.  I have always found that fascinating.

The second way we ingest Jesus is through celebrating Eucharist and sharing in Holy Communion.  The Eucharist is a communal experience of the People of God exercising the Priesthood of the Baptized as they gather around the Lord’s Table.  In the outpouring of Wisdom, of the Spirit that results, the bread and wine are transformed.  The Risen Christ becomes sacramentally present in this great act of thanksgiving as we renew the death and resurrection of Jesus.  The Eucharist is not a private, individuated devotion, the way some would have us experience Liturgy today.  The Eucharist is essentially communal, the People of God coming together, acting together, being transformed together through the outpouring of the Spirit, just as they were in that upper room on Pentecost.  One spiritual writer commented that she thought it was strange that safety belts were not given out to people as they entered the worship space, given the cataclysmic event that is about to happen.  Whether we recognize it or not, it is exactly that that results when the people pray, moved by the Spirit.

As the People of God, we approach the Table in the Communion Procession.  We stand together as a symbol of our support of, and union with each other as we make this treacherous journey.  We do not know what we will be like once we have eaten his body and drunk his blood.  Regardless of what else may follow, one thing is certain, if we eat from the banquet that Wisdom puts before us, we will live forever.  All we have to do is let ourselves be sent forth from the Table and go out and live what we have consumed.

What response does our celebration elicit from us as we read about the nearly three thousand children, wrenched from their parents’ arms and now housed in cages?  There is no paper work to assist in their being restored eventually to their parents.  What is our response as our sisters and brothers fleeing from violence and drug cartels seek to cross our boarders and find freedom for themselves and their children only to be arrested and returned to the violence from which they fled?  What does our participation in the Eucharist demand from us?

One final note.  There is a movement on the part of some to restrict access to the Cup.  That is a shame.  Jesus’ directive is to take and eat, and to take and drink.  There may be allergy reasons why a person cannot receive from one or the other form.  They do receive the fullness of Christ if they can take in only the Bread, or only the Wine.  But the fullness of the sign is in the reception of both.  It is drinking from the Cup that signifies our accepting of the challenge to live the love of Christ in the world.

Sincerely yours in Christ,

Didymus