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THE THIRTIETH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – B – October 28, 2018

A reading from the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah 31:7-9
A reading from the Letter to the Hebrews 5:1-6
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Mark 10:46-52

 

Dear Friends in Christ,

Nearing the end of October should bring us to the astounding realization that we are coming to the conclusion of another Church Year.  The current Year began with the First Sunday of Advent on December 3, 2017.  On that Sunday, the first words we heard from the Gospel of Mark were: Be watchful!  Be alert!  You do not know when the time will come.  So began this journey we have been on Sunday after Sunday, and the weekdays in between, intensified each time we gathered for the Liturgy of the Word and heard the Good News according to Mark proclaimed, and had it broken open for us in the homily.  Each Sunday we had the opportunity to stand naked and vulnerable before the Word and let it penetrate the core of our being to draw us deeper into relationship with Jesus.  We journeyed with Jesus and he transformed us and led us to new life.  Our faith was challenged, as was our hope, as we were urged to live in love the way Jesus does. 

Something about faith assures us that promises given will be fulfilled.  Along the way this year, were you watchful?  Were you alert?  What realizations crystallized?  What changes did you have to make?  How different are you today from the person you were last December?

Place yourself in the midst of those gathered before Jeremiah in today’s first reading.  There needs to be a context, of course, for his words to have their impact.  Judah, i.e., Israel, is in exile and has been subjected to many trials during the Babylonian Captivity.  Some of their numbers have wandered away from the Torah and have begun to follow the ways of Baal.  Many remained faithful.  Years later they will be released and allowed to return to Jerusalem to reclaim and reconstruct their Holy City.  Huge will be the task before them.  Jeremiah does his part to encourage them by prophesying that it is the Lord who will do this, just as the Lord promised.  They departed in tears, but I will console them and guide them; I will lead them to brooks of water, on a level road, so that none shall stumble.  I am a father to Israel; Ephraim (a tribe of Israel) is my first-born. 

With God, no situation is hopeless.  God, whose love is constant and unconditional, will not disappoint.  Do you believe that?  It takes time to come to that conclusion.  Do not despair if you are not there yet.  That is what this journey with Jesus is about for us, our being formed in faith.

In the gospel we meet Bartimaeus, a blind man.  Mark tells us Bartimaeus is the son of Timaeus.  That kind of specificity usually means that the one cited is a believer.  Bartimaeus is the son of a disciple, but not yet a believer himself.  He is in desperate straits, begging by the roadside.  He hears the ado as Jesus and his disciples and a sizable crowd pass by on their way to Jericho.  Notice that there are in essence two groups with Jesus, one, his disciples, i.e., those who have made a faith-decision about Jesus, and tow, a sizable crowd, i.e., those who have not yet made up their minds about Jesus.  Bartimaeus makes an embarrassing scene as he tries to get Jesus’ attention.  Jesus, son of David, have pity on me.  (Son of David proclaims Jesus as Messiah.  Peter us the phrase in his declaration.)  Some try to quiet Bartimaeus, but Jesus, hearing the plaintive crying out, says to those near by, Call him.

Here is a very important detail not to be missed.  Bartimaeus does not come to Jesus alone.  Those who can see bring him to Jesus and urge him to be afraid.  After all, it is Jesus who calls.  (What does that say about our faith communities?  See the implications for the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults process.)  Another important detail could be missed if we do not listen attentively.  (Bartimaeus) threw aside his cloak, sprang up, and came to Jesus.  He is willing to give up everything to come to Jesus.  The cloak is much more than a garment that Bartimaeus gave up.  The cloak provides shade from the intense sun, and shelter from the rain.  It is his tent, under which he sleeps through the night.  More than likely, the cloak is all that he has.

Have you ever wondered how you would deal with it were you to find that magic jug, rub it, and have the emerging Genie tell you that you have three wishes that the Genie will grant you?  What would you ask for?  

Last week Jesus asked James and John what they wanted.  They asked for the most prominent positions in Jesus’ kingdom.  They withered when Jesus revealed the implications of their request, that they would have to drink of the cup from which he would drink and be baptized in his baptism.  In other words, following Jesus will not result for James and John in power and position, comfort and wealth.  Being a disciple will be about the pouring out of self in service and imitating Jesus in his dying.  Walking with Jesus will entail a cross.

This week Jesus asks Bartimaeus: What do you want me to do for you?  Bartimaeus’s answer is simple and straightforward and includes a second title for Jesus.  Master, I want to see.  It would be easy to conclude that Bartimaeus is asking simply for the restoration of his vision.  But that would not necessarily result in his being able to see.  Something more profound is happening here.  It is all summed up in the terse conclusion to this pericope.  When Jesus tells Bartimaeus to go on his way because his faith has saved him, immediately he received his sight and followed (Jesus) on the way. Bartimaeus is changed.  Whatever had kept him from sharing the faith of his father, whatever hurdle he could not get over, whatever it was, that blindness falls away.  He sees Jesus as Lord.  He follows Jesus on the way, which means he is willing to go where the Way leads.  He will drink from the cup from which Jesus will drink.  He will be baptized in Jesus baptism.  Jesus will be his all-in-all.  You notice that nothing is said about Bartimaeus’s going back to pick up his cloak.

It is important to ask yourself where you are in this gospel.  With which character do you most closely identify?  Jesus?  Someone in the crowd?  A disciple?  Bartimaeus?  If the truth be known and we are honest with ourselves, we will have to admit that we can identify with each character.  There is something of each one in each of us.  The hardest to admit is our identity with Jesus.  Our pride gets in the way of that.  Not humility, but pride.  We will talk about that later.

We must remember that as long as we are on the Way, we are in the process of conversion.  That is why I asked at the start, where were you in your faith life last December when we began this journey with Mark’s Gospel.  That is why some days we wonder if we believe yet, if by our lives we can say Jesus is Lord of my life.  On other days something wells within us, we call it grace, and the life of the Spirit.  We know we believe, that we are disciples willing to follow and try to imitate Jesus.  But what about Bartimaeus?  For that we have to journey back to the day we first knew we believed.  For many of us, that involved a struggle.  There were things we had to work through, life decisions we had to make, emptiness we had to admit, cloaks we had to toss aside.  The day we recognized that we could not do this alone, that we needed others to support us and encourage us along the way because there was something preventing us from being able to see, and, therefore, to believe, that was the day we could identify with Bartimaeus.  That was the day we had to let go of everything and let Jesus be Lord of our lives.  We had to find the humility to let go and let Jesus enter.

A couple of final points in conclusion.  The Church very wisely sees our faith journey as communal.  We believe that the Church is the People of God.  We are united in the process of ongoing conversion along the way.  We assemble around the tables of the Word and of the Eucharist to be nourished and transformed, just as the bread and wine are into the Body of Christ.  The Assembly is the Body of Christ just as is the Eucharist.  We are sent as the Body of Christ to continue Christ’s work until he comes again.

The RCIA process is a glorious expression of these convictions.  The ones seeking faith come to the community.  In the midst of the community they experience what it means to worship and to know the love of God.  It is through the experience of the community that they come to know what it means to be a servant church.  Through the community they experience forgiveness and reconciliation, a new faith, and the renewal of hope.  The community supports the seekers through prayer and example.  The seekers come to know that the church is always there for theme, even as they come to know that all are welcome here.  It is important that the seekers make the full journey, i.e., journey along the way through an entire Church Year.

Then, in that most holy of nights, when all the old has been consumed in the fire and from that fire comes the Light of the Easter Candle that proclaims Christ risen and glorious, surrounded by the faithful, Bartimaeus enters the waters to die there and rise from there identified with Christ, to live as Christ until he enters Christ’s glory forever.

Sincerely yours in Christ,

 

Didymus

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TWENTY-NINTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – B – October 21, 2018

A reading from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah 53:10-11
A reading from the Letter to the Hebrews 4:14-16
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Mark 10:35-45

 

Dear Friend in Christ,

We must be careful how we interpret the opening words of this Sunday’s first reading from the Prophet Isaiah.  The Lord was pleased to crush him in infirmity.  Taken literally, one could hear that God is sadistic and delights in people’s suffering.  It is true that there have been periods in the Church’s history that would seem to indicate that this was so.  How else explain the wearing of hair shirts or prickly wire tightly wound around the waist?  Why else would there be merit seen in extreme fasting?  Do we believe in a God who looks on people inflicting pain on themselves and delights?

Isaiah’s Suffering Servant songs are taken as prophetic texts that are fulfilled in Jesus.  We will hear the present reading proclaimed on Good Friday.  It is true that some commentators see Jesus’ passion and death on the cross in that light.  But what we ought to hear in this proclamation is God’s delight in the innocent One who takes on himself the sufferings of others merited by their sinfulness.  He is the one faithful to God when the others stray and give themselves to Baal and take up pagan ways.  He is the prophet challenging the Israelites to return to the Lord God and be faithful again.  In so doing, the prophet is rejected and scourged.  

Think of the Prophet Jeremiah who found himself hurled into the cistern, where he sank into the mud.  Why?  Because he warned the king and those in power that if they did not repent, Jerusalem would fall.  It is the Prophet’s fidelity that pleases God.  And God promises reward.  The Suffering Servant shall see the light in fullness of days; through his suffering, (God’s) servant shall justify many, and their guilt he shall bear.  The Suffering Servant becomes the source of blessings for those many others among whom he moves and announces what God wants the people to hear.  That is the charism of the prophet, to give voice to the divine message that calls people to reform their lives.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was one of those prophets.  Call to mind the marches he led in Alabama and his preaching from the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C.  God did not delight when King was shot.  God was pleased by the changes in attitude that followed from King’s death, changes that he saw from the “mountain top” the night before he died.

Blessed Oscar Romero was another of those prophets, one who shepherded in the midst of the poor ones and challenged the powerful to restore dignity to them.  Changes in El Salvador continue to emerge even as in death the voice of the Archbishop continues to be heard in the land through recordings of his preaching.  Romero was shot during a celebration of Eucharist.  The power of the sign resonates to this day.  The faithful believe that God lifted him up, fulfilling the promise of Eucharist.

The second reading from the Letter to the Hebrews invites us to consider Jesus, the Son of God, the great high priest who has passed through the heavens.  Priests were part of the tradition of the Hebrews, just as they are part of our own.  The priest stands as a mediator between God and the people.  In need of mediation and forgiveness themselves because they are sinners, invoking God’s mercy on himself and on the people with whom he gathers at the table in shared ministry.

The model for priestly ministry is our Great High Priest, the one who does not make us cower in dread, but one who sympathizes with our weaknesses, because he has been tested in every way we have.  Tempted might be a better translation than tested.  Temptation speaks more clearly of inner struggle.  It is important for us to hear in the three synoptic Gospels that Jesus’ public ministry begins with the struggle in the desert.  The implication is clear.  Jesus knew temptations to vary from the Father’s will all through his time of preaching, healing, and forgiving.  The difference is clear also.  Where as we know what it means to succumb to temptation, our Great High Priest did not sin.  The author of the Letter to the Hebrews wants us to know that Christ is sympathetic to our needs and to us, and is always a source of strengthening grace and forgiveness.  Through Christ comes mercy.

An embarrassing moment for James and John, the sons of Zebedee, opens the gospel reading for today.  It becomes clear that the brothers do not understand the kind of Messiah Jesus is.  They have witnessed the miracles, the feeding of the five thousand among those miracles, as well as the healing of the blind, the deaf, the mute, the lepers and the crippled.  Pondering these events and seeing the crowds gathering around Jesus, they have concluded that Jesus is a mighty Messiah about to establish an earthly kingdom.  They want to be in prominent and powerful positions when the kingdom comes.  Remember, they had left everything to follow Jesus.  This was their time to claim the reward they thought should be coming to them.  Grant that in your glory we may sit one at your right and one at your left.

Jesus does not reprimand them for their boldness and misunderstanding – dare we say, pride?  Rather, this becomes a teaching moment.  You do not know what you are asking.  Can you drink the cup that I drink or be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?  What did the brothers know about either?  All they knew was that they could see themselves playing prominent roles in everything they had seen Jesus do so far.  Without a moment’s hesitation, they said: We can.  They do not realize that when Jesus affirms their response that he is telling them that his cross will be a part of their lives.  Their being apostles will mean that they will be martyrs for the cause.  But as for the reward coming?  The Father will determine that.

The other ten are angry with James and John for what they have asked of Jesus.  Part of their anger may well have stemmed from their desire for exactly what the brothers had wanted, prominent positions in the coming kingdom.  So it is time for the Twelve to learn what the Kingdom will be like.  They know how Gentiles exert power by making others subservient.  That is not what it will be like in Jesus’ realm.  There, those who want, in today’s parlance, to be top dogs, will be the servants of everyone else, the exact opposite of what the apostles desired.  By the way, that is why the pope is called the Servant of the Servants of God.  In Jesus’ words, the pope should see himself as the slave of all, because that is how Jesus sees himself.  Pope Francis exemplifies this to the consternation of some who would rather align with James and John’s expectations.  Some do not want to hear that the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.  

See how Jesus is the fulfillment of the Suffering Servant in the first reading?  We who are disciples of this age must hear the lesson and take it to heart.  If we embrace discipleship, we rejoice in being feet-washers and will not be surprised if the cross becomes increasingly evident in our lives.  We might have to give our lives in union with Jesus as part of the ransom for the many.

When we come together for Eucharist, it is community that ought to be immediately apparent.  These people gather in Christ to imitate Christ in loving service, to be one in Christ and one with each other.  We gather for the proclamation of the Word, the prophetic voice forming us, calling us to ongoing conversion and the experience of the forgiveness that is ours in Christ.  The Priesthood of the Baptized gathers with the Ordained Priesthood to co-celebrate and give thanks to God in the renewal of Christ’s dying and rising.  Various ministries, Greeters, Ushers, Lectors, Altar Servers, and Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion, remind us that each of us is called to be the servant or slave of all.  We lord it over no one.  We are not passive spectators, but full, active, and conscious participants in the Liturgy.  Together we are Church.

I sat with a friend and listened to him as he poured out his soul in anguish over the news that he had just received that he had Alzheimer’s disease.  He had known success and had acquired considerable wealth.  He had been also a faithful parishioner and had given himself in service of others in the St. Vincent de Paul ‘Society.  I will never forget his words, even as tears welled in his eyes.  This (Alzheimer’s disease) was the last thing that I thought I would have to face.  Cancer would have been preferable.  I wonder how long I will be aware that my faculties are slipping away.  How long will I recognize my wife and daughters?  When will I stop recognizing you?  But I want you to know this now.  If this is the way I am supposed to pour myself out in imitation of Christ, I accept it.  I just hope that when I am completely dependent on others, they will be patient with me.  I pray that I will be able to remember that heaven is coming.

Sincerely yours in Christ,

Didymus  

 

   

THE TWENTY-EIGHTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – October 14, 2018

A reading from the Book of Wisdom 7:7-11
A reading from the Letter to the Hebrews 4:12-13
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Mark 10:17-30

Dear Friend in Christ,

Warning: At your own peril enter into this week’s readings and ponder the concepts they put before you.  Take them to heart and you will never see things the same way, nor make decisions as you did before.  Most demanding of all, what you used to take as signs of blessing and God’s favor may not appear that way ever again.

The author of the Book of Wisdom is taken to be Solomon, even though the Book of Wisdom was written centuries after his death.  Solomon has always been seen as the epitome of what it means to be wise.  In this Sunday’s reading, Solomon tells us that he prayed and prudence and wisdom were given to him.  In other words, neither is a natural talent; both are gifts from God.  When Solomon receives the gifts, he sees things the way that God does.  Nothing is as Solomon saw it before prudence and wisdom became reality’s filters for him.

Go down the list of items in the reading and you will find just about everything that society values today.  Wealth and its trappings.  Youth and beauty.  Power.  Even health.  None of them, seen through Wisdom’s inspiration, is as important as Wisdom herself.  The reading ends with these words: Yet all good things together came to me in (Wisdom’s) company, and countless riches at her hands.  Follow that line of thinking and you can see how it was that the rich were thought to be those blessed by God and would, therefore, be first in the Kingdom of Heaven.  We will see what Jesus has to say about this.  You will appreciate the shock registered by those who heard what he said.  Perhaps you will be shocked, too, even angered.  That is all right.  That is where prayer will come in.  Pray to see things the way Jesus does, if you dare.

We sometimes fail to remember that the Word of God is living and effective, sharper than any two-edged sword.  Reminded of that, we will not be surprised that from time to time, while sitting under the Word, that is, the Scriptures, we were unsettled as we wondered, How can this be?  What we might forget is that conversion is a life-long process that began when we first came to believe and concludes only when our loves have run their course.  Every step along the way, if we allow it, begins with grace and is supported by grace, as we are called into deeper union with Christ.  Put another way, it is God’s love that draws us.

We come to the gospel reading for this Sunday.  A man, perhaps a stand-in for you or me, runs up to Jesus and pays him homage.  Can you not identify with his question, at least when you are praying?  Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?  What do I have to do to get to heaven?  Jesus tells the man to keep the commandments.  Do what God requires.  Notice the man’s answer:  Teacher, all of (the commandments) I have observed from my youth.  That is a jaw-dropping avowal.  All of the commandments.  From my youth.  Not many people can make that claim.  It is clear that his claim is not idle boasting.  How do we know?  We know because of Jesus’s reaction.  Jesus looked at the man with love.  Jesus knows the heart and knows that the man has from his youth been single-minded in his desire to do God’s will.

The man asked Jesus how to get to heaven.  Jesus answered.  Now comes the offer of vocation, the invitation to move to a deeper realm and follow the new way.  You are lacking in one thing.  Go sell what you have and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.  Jesus challenges the man to have Solomon’s experience and dares him to see things differently.  Can the man stop seeing his wealth as the confirmation of God’s love for him?  Can he wrest himself from these things in which he finds his security and that may well blind him to the needs of others, or cause him to see the poor in ill light?  Remember in Jesus’ time, and clearly in our own present time, poverty was and is seen to be a punishment for sin, either this man’s or his parents’.  It is that perception that Jesus wants to change.  It is that perception that Pope Francis challenges us to change.  The poor have a prominent place in Jesus’ concerns.  They must occupy that place in the concerns of those who follow Jesus.  Could the rich man become a minister to the poor?

Clearly the man had come to Jesus awed by what he had seen Jesus do and heard him say.  Or, perhaps the witness of others drew him.  Something made him conclude that Jesus had the words of everlasting life.  The crowds and the disciples following Jesus attested to that.  But when the man heard Jesus say that he had to go and sell what he had and give to the poor and then come and follow Jesus, his face fell.  He went away sad.

Do not take from this that the man would no longer inherit eternal life.  Jesus assured him of that already.  That does not change.  What is lost now is the opportunity to rid himself of everything that is in the way of making Jesus the center of his life, of experiencing the emptiness that only Jesus and the love of God that Jesus brings can fill.  Jesus had wanted the man to become Jesus’ other self.  He wanted him to do what Jesus does, and to speak as he speaks, to enter the reign of God and so help others, especially the poor, the sick, and the disenfranchised to know God’s love.

Now we come to another of Jesus’ declarations that turns perceived reality upside down.  Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God!  It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.  We can discuss what the term needle means.  We will conclude that Jesus was speaking of the narrow gated entry into Jerusalem that was so low and so narrow that a camel could only go through it were its entire load removed before hand.  What we need to hear is that it is no simple endeavor to enter God ‘s kingdom.  It is not a matter of doing what comes naturally, as an old song had it.  If that were the case, from where would come the need for grace?  Where would be the difficulty?

As nakedly as Jesus has put the demands for entry into god’s kingdom elicits consternation from the disciples.  Then who can be saved?  In other words, they ask who can meet Jesus’ demands.  The answer is simple and straightforward.  No one can do this on her or his own.  But all can with God’s grace empowering them.

This brings us back to a sidebar, if you will, and the question of vocation.  The word vocation, as you know, means calling.  To consider vocation is to ask what it is that God is calling you to do or to be.  Most obviously, your state in life is your vocation.  If you are married, your marriage is your vocation and you serve the community in that vocation.  If you have chosen to be single, as a single person you serve the community in fidelity to that vocation.  If you are a priest, a deacon, or a vowed religious, through that vocation you serve the body that is the Church.  What we might miss is that in each of the vocations, in order to follow Jesus, it is self that must be emptied if one is to serve in imitation of Christ.  In each of those vocations, recognizing the totality that is Jesus’ call, each one can be overwhelmed by the demands and do what the rich man did.  Go away sad because it seems too much is being asked.  Who can do this?

This may be presumptuous of me, but I would challenge you at this point to take a moment to stop and pray, perhaps for the prudence and wisdom that Solomon prayed for.  That will result in your being able to view your situation, your gifts and blessings, as God does.  In that moment of prayer, ask Jesus what he would have you do.  What is Jesus calling you to do and to be in the community we call church?  The first thing you will notice is that if there is a vocation, it will be attractive.  You will be able to imagine yourself doing it.  Is Jesus inviting you to be a Lector?  An Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion?  A Greeter or an Usher?  Is Jesus inviting you to be a minister to the homebound?  Is there the possibility that you are being asked to go on mission to a developing country?  Could you minister to someone dying with HIV/AIDS, or to those in advanced years?  Could you minister to someone in dementia?  That is not an exhaustive list.  Those are just some suggestions that might prompt you to wonder, and wondering, to dare to say Yes if God will support that decision with grace.  Remember, there are primary vocations and avocations.  Marriage is a primary vocation.  Being an Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion is an avocation or secondary vocation.  The balance between the two needs to be kept.

One more question to ask while you are praying about vocation.  What will you have to give up in order to respond to the Lord’s invitation?  It is not without significance that we approach the Table to receive Eucharist empty handed.  What gets in the way of your taking up ministry?  It is interesting to wonder how the story would have worked out, who the man would have become, had he gone and done as the Lord invited and then followed Jesus.  You can only wonder the same thing.  When you serve, what will be the impact on your faith community, the broader community, the world?  How will others experience Christ through you?

A final note that you ought not miss.  When it comes to the question of reward for having given up everything to follow Jesus, do not miss that Jesus promises the restoration of everything given up and persecutions besides.  There may well be a share in the Cross that you cannot anticipate.  You may be rejected or even denounced by those who do not accept your ministry, or misunderstand it and find it threatening.  When you think about it that should not be a surprise.  You are imitation Jesus.  It is possible you will wind up the way he did.  But then comes resurrection and God’s eternal embrace.

Sincerely yours in Christ,

Didymus