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Posted by on Aug 7, 2022

Living in Faith – A Long-term Commitment

Living in Faith – A Long-term Commitment

A life of faith – what is it and how does it happen?

It seems to me that a life of faith is an adventure, begun by each individual person, with many companions discovered along the way. For some, it is a gradual experience of growing up in a family or community of others who are travelers on the way. For others, it’s a process of growing into faith through the example of friends or colleagues. Once in a while, it’s the result of an unanticipated encounter with the Lord that opens new worlds and paths.

Regardless of how a life of faith begins, it is a long-term commitment.

The author of the Book of Wisdom, spends many chapters reminding listeners of the history of faith of the Hebrew people. In the reading for this Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, he reminds his audience of the night of the Passover. (Wis 18:6-9) He is writing in the city of Alexandria, about 100 years before the birth of Christ to remind the Jewish community there of the ways God worked on behalf of their ancestors and how those ancestors responded. He has described the events leading up to the exodus from Egypt, including the many plagues. Now he reminds them and us that the Lord warned the Hebrews of the final blow against Pharoah. Families were to gather, offer a lamb in sacrifice, put its blood on the door frame, then roast and eat it together. The bread they would eat was to be unleavened, as if they were running away and there was no time to prepare a meal properly. That night, the Angel of Death passed over the homes of the Hebrews. The blood of the lamb on the door frames identified and protected them. This event was and is celebrated annually ever since that first Passover night.

The Hebrew people had held on to the faith of their ancestors for hundreds of years by the time of these events. They remembered the Lord’s promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. When they left Egypt, they took the remains of Jacob and his son Joseph with them to the Promised Land.

The Psalmist sings of the great blessing it is to be one of the Lord’s own in Psalm 33. The Lord has chosen a people for his own inheritance. “Exult, you just, in the Lord.” The Lord delivers his own from famine and death. He is a help and shield. “Blessed the people the Lord has chosen to be his own.” Not just in easy times, but also through the ups and downs, the hard times of life.

The faith of another ancestor of the Hebrew people is given as an example in the Letter to the Hebrews. (Heb 11:1-2, 8-19) It’s not at all clear who the author of this letter was or to whom it was addressed. It was written before 100 CE. It has been attributed to St. Paul, but most likely it was another of the early Christian missionaries. The author speaks of faith as something hoped for that comes to be – something that gives evidence for what cannot be seen. He gives the example of the lives of Abraham and Sarah.

Abraham and Sarah were from Ur, an area in modern day Iraq. They had traveled with family to an area north of Palestine. Then, following the Lord’s call, they moved south into Palestine. They lived there as traveling shepherds for most of the rest of their lives. There was a brief time in Egypt as well, but mostly they lived in Palestine.

Through a variety of encounters with the Lord, Abraham was transformed from a man named Abram to become the father of two great nations – Jewish and Arab. His descendants became “numerous as the stars” as the Lord had promised. But it was not without trials and difficulties along the way. The author of this letter points out, that the focus of Abraham and his wife Sarah was on the new homeland to which they had been led. They never owned the land themselves. They were always “strangers and aliens” there – much as Green Card holders are in the United States. If Abraham and Sarah had wanted to do so, they could have returned to the land of their birth, but they had found a new Lord and received the promise of a new homeland from him. They held on to that promise, even when it seemed the Lord was demanding the sacrifice of the son of their old age.

A life of faith takes many twists and turns. It’s not always easy. Things aren’t always clear. Some things can be very difficult.

“Do not be afraid any longer, little flock…” Jesus speaks these words of encouragement to his followers. “For your Father is pleased to give you the kingdom … where your treasure is, there also will your heart be.” (Lk 12:32-48) It’s not easy to trust that God will provide whatever is truly needed. He has just spoken of the rich man who built a new barn to hold his abundant harvest, but would die that night! Trust God, he tells them and all of us. Lilies in the field are beautiful. They don’t fret or work for their beauty. You are worth much more than the flowers. So don’t be afraid. God will provide what you need too.

Yet Jesus knows that it’s hard to wait sometimes. We can start out being very trusting and sure that we are ready for whatever will come in our lives as followers of the Lord. We want to be ready when we meet him in our lives now and later. But there is a danger too. It’s easy to get discouraged or distracted, to fall into the habit of doing things that benefit us personally rather than building up the kingdom. Jesus warns that those who are given more responsibility and greater gifts are expected to use them as intended by the one who gave them these gifts. “More will be demanded of the person entrusted with more.”

These are serious words. In a life of faith, the initial excitement and wonder of the encounter with the Lord is a great starting point. But excitement wears off and the realities and challenges of daily living creep up on us again. God’s time is much longer than ours. God’s plans take longer to bear fruit. We are part of the plans, and so are many other people. We travel together, encouraging each other, helping each other through the rough times, rejoicing with each other in the good times.

Faith is both a personal and a communal commitment. How can I help you in the journey? How do I depend on you for help? Will I be humble enough to ask and accept your help when I need it? Where do we see the Lord? Where do we refuse to see him? Rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief – an old rhyme, but perhaps important to remember. We might add, immigrant, refugee, invading soldier, LGBTQ neighbor or family member, woman, child, gang member, ex-convict, bossy relative … Where do we see the Lord?

Let’s pray for each other, that we be able to continue on this long-term journey of faith. Reaching out to our world and all we meet with eyes that see others as children of God, sisters and brothers, may we be people of patient, persistent faith. May we rejoice in the adventure as we discover the face of our God in so many others and in so many places. A life of faith is not to be something hard that weighs us down. “Do not fear, little flock!” The Father wants to give us the kingdom. May our eyes be open to see the kingdom, our ears be open to hear it, and our hearts be open to receive it as we move through the days of our lives.

Click for a lovely musical setting of Do not fear from Fr. Cyprian Consiglio, OSB Cam

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Posted by on Jul 31, 2022

Vanities of Vanities – What is Worth Holding On To?

Vanities of Vanities – What is Worth Holding On To?

“Vanity of Vanities, says Qoheleth … All things are vanity!”

Wow! Now isn’t that encouraging and uplifting! No? Well then, let’s see what more might be happening here.

Let’s start with a question. Who is Qoheleth and why is this person quoted in an entire book of the Hebrew Scriptures? Maybe a couple of other questions too. Why such a discouraging/depressing perspective? What does it mean to say something is vanity?

Qoheleth is the pen name of an unknown sage, a person recognized for wisdom. These words were written about 300 years before the birth of Jesus. The text of the book of Ecclesiastes has Qoheleth claiming to be the son of King David, presumably King Solomon, who was known for his wisdom. But in the time these words were recorded, the thoughts of anyone who wrote or taught about or with wisdom might be credited to Solomon. Qoheleth is a name meaning teacher or “speaker in an assembly.” Ecclesiastes is the Latin form of the name.

The word vanity also has a particular meaning. It refers to something that is quickly passing, a vapor or a breath. It’s short-lived, without substance, futile, mysterious, hard to understand.

Qoheleth tells us that everything is short-lived and passing. Things come and go. They flourish and then they are gone. We work hard and prosper, then we die and someone else benefits from our work. We fret and worry, but in the end our worry doesn’t change things. (Eccl 1:2; 2:21-23)

It’s not an easy message to hear, especially for folks, like most of us, whose culture says that if we just work hard enough, we can get ahead in life and have what we dream of having. Qoheleth says that this is just a dream that will certainly pass, regardless of how hard we strive.

The book of Ecclesiastes is a compilation of observations, proverbs, and reflections on the explanations commonly heard as humans try to account for the unpredictable nature of life and existence. The text ends with a repeat of the initial statement. “Vanity of vanities, says Quoheleth, all things are vanity!” Yet this is not the last word in the book. An editor adds a bit of explanation and hope in an Epilogue that follows this statement: “The last word, when all is heard: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is man’s all; because God will bring to judgement every work, with all its hidden qualities, whether good or bad.”

Many years after Qoheleth’s observations, a family was fighting over an inheritance, according to St. Luke in today’s Gospel. One of them appealed to Jesus to resolve the dispute. But Jesus refused to get into the middle of the conflict. Instead, he warned against putting too much value on riches and possessing them. He told the story of a man whose harvest was greater than expected. The barn was too small to hold it all, so he tore it down and built a bigger one. Then he rejoiced that he would have plenty for many years to come. But, as it turns out, his life was to end that very night! God asked the man, “the things you have prepared, to whom will they belong?” (Lk 12:13-21) Jesus commented that this will be the result for anyone who holds on to treasure but is “not rich in what matters to God.”

The Psalmist (Ps 90) sings of the relationship between God and humans – the difference in perspective and years as they play out in the relationship. Our days are short. God’s are long – a thousand years are like a watch of the night, a few hours. Yet we are invited and reminded to open our hearts when we hear the voice of the Lord. And we hope and pray that we will be filled with joy and gladness all the days of our lives.

So, if the things we seek and work for are not going to last or bring satisfaction and peace to us, what are we to do? Qoheleth is right. Our time passes quickly. When we are children, time seems to take a long time to pass. As we get older, it seems to speed up every year.

St. Paul reminds the Colossians and all of us that we have been raised to new life in Christ. (Col 3:1-5, 9-11) The things that characterize life without Christ are not to be hallmarks of our lives. No lying, taking advantage of others, running roughshod over our competitors, etc. Our lives are to be based on Christ and his life. That is where and when the difference will truly appear, a perspective foreshadowed in the Epilogue of Ecclesiastes.

What, then, are we to do? All things are passing. No matter how hard we work to get ahead in life, there are no guarantees of fame, long life, health, or comfort. What do we do? Just give up and laze around?

What do we hold on to? How do we hold on? To what do we hold? Many ways to phrase the question, each with a slightly different perspective. Is there a life raft of some sort to which we can cling? What can help us persevere in our lives? What do we value? What gives us hope and strength to continue? Where is the oxygen-mask we can use on this flight?

I enjoy listening to the stories told on The Moth Radio Hour when I’m out on errands in town. Each episode includes four to six stories of true-life experiences, told by the individual to whom they happened. Some are sad, some are happy, many include funny moments, some are incredibly beautiful.

I was out on errands again today and heard three stories. One was about a young man’s very funny experience presenting a science experiment to second graders. Another told of an incident of road rage that turned into a chance to re-evaluate his life and set a new course. One featured a woman injured by prejudice in childhood and the example of her father’s strength that now gives her strength to stand up and protect others today. In each story, there was a gem of wisdom and I found myself nodding and smiling at their insights.

Yes, Qoheleth is right. So is Jesus. Things that we work so hard to get in our lives may not actually be worth all the effort we put into getting them. Whether they are valuable or not, our lives are totally not our own. We cannot control or know how long we will live, when we will depart this window of life, or what will happen after our departure.  All things are Vanity! Ephemeral! Passing! Even the asbestos checks my father used to joke about some people needing to have ready before their deaths probably won’t go very far…

But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to hold on to. Many things are worth holding on to – laughter, joy, compassion, courage, hopefulness, community, shared efforts. As followers of Jesus, and hopefully as wise human beings, we reach out to each other. We offer a word of comfort or of hope when things are tough. We tell stories to lighten the mood. We remember the good times and search for seeds of hope in the hard times. We reflect on what we have learned through failure and hold firmly to the hope that we’ll continue to learn as we go along. We share what we have with those whose journey has left them needing the basics for life. We sit in silence with those who just need someone to be with them in time of deep loss. We share what we have learned with the children among us, preferably through stories, encouragement, songs, and humor. (Lectures just get boring…)

Life is not for the fainthearted. But life is good. It’s a marvelous gift overflowing from the great dance of LOVE that is our God. We hold on to the hope and promise of that love through thick and thin. Yes, what we see around us is passing and mysterious. That’s part of what makes it so wonderful. Each moment brings a new door or window opening, giving a glimpse of the underlying meaning of existence.

Here’s hoping you and I are able to hold lightly to the material things we need for our daily lives and keep in perspective the limitations of our efforts. Laugh frequently. Pray confidently. Hold close those with whom we share our lives.

The readings today are from the liturgy for the Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle C

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Posted by on Jul 24, 2022

Asking with the Confidence of a Child

Asking with the Confidence of a Child

A few weeks ago, a neighbor child was out with her father, walking the dog before bedtime. I was out pulling weeds in the front garden as they came by the house. As we were visiting, she noticed the sparkly glass mosaic gems we have in the curb around the front yard. She was entranced by them. “What are they?” “How did they get there?” “Can I have one?”

At the school my children attended, these gems are known as ‘dragon tears,’ so that’s the name I gave her for them too. Did I mention, she was entranced? I told her I had some extras and would bring one to her soon. They went on their way and I finished with the weeds.

The next week, I stopped by their house with a few things to share. Her parents were away, but I was welcomed as always. Later that evening, as I returned home from a walk, I met the children, dog, and sitters. The first thing out of the mouth of the child was, “You didn’t bring the dragon tears!” I had totally forgotten that she was expecting them. I assured her that it was a terrible error on my part and I would certainly get them to her and her sisters.

When I got home, I learned the rest of the story. The group of them had come to the front door and knocked. When I didn’t come right away, they began calling for me. Eventually someone came to the door and explained that I was out walking, so they went on their way too. She was hoping to find me while they were out. It was shortly afterwards that we met on the way.

The readings for this Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time speak of asking and receiving with the confidence of a child. When last we saw Abraham, he was walking down the road towards Sodom with his three guests. (Gen 18: 20-32) As they walked, one of the guests, who turned out to have been the Lord, thinks over whether to share his thoughts with Abraham. Deciding to do that, he shares that he has heard bad things about the behavior of people in Sodom. He’s going there himself to see whether they are true. If they are, he plans to destroy the city.

Abraham is dismayed. His brother and family live in Sodom. So Abraham begins to bargain with the Lord.  “Will you sweep away the innocent with the guilty? What if there were fifty innocent people in the city? … Far be it from you to do such a thing, to make the innocent die with the guilty.” The Lord agrees not to destroy the city if there are fifty innocent people there.

Abraham does not stop at fifty. He persists, asking about forty-five innocents, or forty, or thirty, or twenty, or ten. Each time, the Lord agrees not to destroy the city for the sake of those ten innocent men.

That’s as far as we go this week. Unfortunately for the city of Sodom, there was only one good man and his family in the city. He was warned in advance and left the city with at least some of his family before it was destroyed. But that’s another story for another time. The important thing to note this week is that even the Lord God is willing to listen to requests and change plans when one of his children asks, politely but confidently.

The Psalmist (Ps 138) sings of the Lord’s kindness, hearing “the words of my mouth.” The Lord strengthens us, preserves us from our enemies, exalts the lowly, completes what he has done for us. “On the day I called for your help, you answered me.”

St. Paul (Col 2:12-14) speaks of the death and resurrection of Jesus “obliterating the bond against us,” and removing all barriers between humans and God. This extends to the division between Jews and Gentiles as well. We are now all children of God because of our link and union with God’s Son, Jesus.

St. Luke (11:1-13) tells of the time Jesus’ disciples asked him to teach them to pray. This was and is a common thing. Students ask their teachers to show them how to do something. The teacher shares the way they have learned to do it in the best way they’ve found.

The words Jesus gave to his friends sound quite formal, maybe because we’ve heard them so often in formal settings. He begins with a single word in this version, Father.

The word Father sounds very formal in families in which that is not the title used to address the man who is the father of the children. In many families, there are affectionate names used to address this parent. Some of them include Dad, Daddy, Papa, and Pop. The term Jesus used is “abba,” an affectionate name like Papa or Daddy. It indicates the closeness of very small children with their male parent.

So, what do we say to our Papa God? May your name be holy (a power and strength of great wonderfulness). Your kingdom come (may your leadership and rule fill all of creation). Give us each day the food we need (very practical request). Forgive us our sins (we mess up regularly) for we ourselves forgive everyone in debt to us (uh oh, this is challenging). Do not subject us to the final test (don’t ask more than we can do).

These are very concrete instructions. Not a lot of fancy words. Pretty much covers everything that needs to be said, though.

We might be tempted to think it’s too much to ask. We might not believe that our heavenly Papa cares enough about us to hear our requests. And what if I want or need something more than bread?

Jesus continues with more encouragement to trust. We know that our friends and neighbors might not be willing to help if the time is inconvenient. Jesus reminds us that even in the middle of the night, when all are asleep and getting up to help is totally inconvenient and disruptive, persistent requests that could become even more disruptive will get a response from another human. Someone shouting at the front door is likely to be noticed. He continues, “ask and you will receive; seek and you will find.” Humans give good gifts to their children. God will do no less. He concludes the thought with, “How much more will the Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?”

We may not get exactly what we’re asking if it’s something material or if another person is not willing or able to grant our wish or be open to healing in a relationship. But we will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit present and living in our hearts and minds. Ask and you shall receive. Call God Papa, or Dad, or Pop or Father. Whatever affectionate name for a very special parent you would use, because that is who our God is.

Then ask for the blessings of seeing God present in all of creation and in our lives and relationships. Ask for practical things like food for the day, or impractical but wondrous things, like the mosaic gems my little friend is hoping to receive. Ask with the confidence and persistence of a child.

Will things materialize out of nothing? Probably not. Often there’s a basis from which the Lord works to respond. Then again, some things might not be for the glory of God or for your own best spiritual interest, so those requests may be answered differently than you expect. But you might be surprised where and how God’s answers to your requests appear. Sometimes, you might even be the one whose actions make the prayer of another answered.

Now where did I put those dragon tears?

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Posted by on Jul 17, 2022

Choosing the Better Part

Choosing the Better Part

Sometimes it seems there are not enough hours in the day to complete all the tasks expected of each one of us. We get up in the morning filled with hope that today will go as planned and expected. Then as we get started, something else pops up that demands attention, or someone calls who needs help. The entire day’s plan has to be set aside. Maybe tomorrow …

Yet sometimes, those disruptions lead to very special outcomes. I remember one afternoon many, many years ago when the front doorbell rang just as I was preparing to go out the other door with my very young daughter to buy groceries. A young man was at the door. He said he had come to meet with my husband. (As it turned out, he had a software program to present and my husband was expecting him.  I didn’t know he was coming, but he was expected.) I called my husband, who came out of the office to welcome him, and I went on my way.

When I returned home, groceries in hand, my sons asked, “Mom, did you bring a chicken and an onion? John (not his real name) is going to fix dinner for us.” I responded, “Who is John? And yes, I brought a chicken and an onion.”

That evening’s dinner was wonderful and the start of a long, rich, sometimes hilarious, friendship with John.

The story of Abraham and his three visitors (Gen 18:1-10a) which we hear in the readings for the Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time is similar in some respects. Abraham is sitting in the shade, near the door of his tent, on a very hot day. The location is described as “by the terebinth of Mamre.” For those hearing the story centuries ago, this was an important detail, telling quite precisely where the events about to unfold occurred.

For the rest of us, a bit of background. A terebinth is a type of tree that grows to be quite large – almost like a very large shrub, with many stalks growing from the same root, but like a tree because of its final height. The name Mamre is a reference to a specific area of land in southern Israel, west of the Jordan River. An ancient Amorite chief named Mamre lived in the area and helped Abraham when Abraham’s brother Lot was in danger. Travelers frequently passed through the area and eventually it became a pilgrimage site for peoples of many belief systems.

Three men suddenly appeared nearby. Abraham wasn’t frightened by their sudden appearance. Instead, he ran to greet them, bowing before them in welcome and asking them to stop for a while, wash their hot, tired feet, and have a bite to eat before going on their way. The men agreed to stop.

Abraham hurried to the door of the tent and asked his wife Sarah to prepare rolls for the meal, using their best flour. He chose a tender young steer from the herd to be butchered and prepared for the meal. Then he got out curds and milk to serve with it all. It was a feast, not just a quick sandwich and glass of water!

Abraham served his guests and waited under the tree as they ate. When they finished, they asked Abraham where Sarah was. They knew her name, though it would not ordinarily have been part of the conversation at that time. Sarah was in the tent – women did not come out to welcome strange men who were passing by their homes. One of the visitors promised Abraham that within a year, Sarah would have a son.

The reading for this day ends on this note. It doesn’t tell the rest of the story. Here’s some of the rest of it. Sarah laughed when she heard such a crazy thing. She and Abraham were both old. She was well past child-bearing age. She had been unable to have children. Such a thing was impossible. But such a thing came to pass. And when it did, she and Abraham named the child Isaac, a name meaning “I laughed.”

Abraham realized only later that afternoon, as he walked on towards Sodom while visiting with his guests, that the visitors were the Lord and two of his messengers. But that is another story for another day.

For Abraham and Sarah, that day’s time spent in service to unexpected visitors was blessed and rewarded bountifully. They chose the better part in welcoming their guests.

The Psalmist reminds us, those who do justice “will live in the presence of the Lord.”  (Ps 15) Where do we find the presence of the Lord? In acts of kindness and justice, in speaking truthfully about others, in refusing to hurt a neighbor or innocent ones, in lending resources freely without demanding payment of interest. These are the ones who do justice. This is where we find the presence of the Lord. Choosing the better part…

St. Paul points out to the Colossians (1:24-28) that in the hardships he has endured, the body of Christ is being built-up. As his words and his very presence have been rejected by his own Jewish community, the door has opened for Gentiles, non-Jews, to become believers in Christ and part of his body, the church. All peoples of the world can now become perfect in Christ. Again, the better part…

Finally, we hear the story of Martha and her sister Mary on that fateful day when Jesus and his friends arrived for dinner. (Lk 10:38-42) It is a story that has long troubled me and many others. Why, oh why, would Jesus have told Martha that Mary had chosen the better part? Who was going to make sure all of those people got something to eat if the women of the family didn’t get busy and prepare the meal? Why should one of them alone get to sit with the guests, when she herself (Martha) would love to have been sitting there too if it were not necessary for someone to behave responsibly and prepare the meal?

Yet Jesus said, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part…”

How do we choose the better part? Where does the time appear? Will everyone get a meal? Will the bills get paid?

As I move through the years, I’m beginning to be a bit more reconciled to the idea that taking time out to be with the Lord and listen is not necessarily a bad or foolish thing! (Now, please don’t laugh too loudly here! Some of us learn more slowly than others.)

I’ve come to believe that it’s actually possible to do some of both, maybe all of both – be with the Lord and have time to care for home, family, and those around us. A prayer when waking up and greeting the day, Morning Prayer (at some time before noon on really busy days), the Angelus at lunch time or when fixing dinner, a smile and thanks to God for the sunshine or a child’s remark or a meal shared, a call for help before speaking with a troubled friend, a recognition that God is present there in the kitchen as meals are being prepared and the dishes are being washed, a word of gratitude while falling asleep. All are times and places that God is found to be present. When we keep our eyes and ears open, we can hear God’s voice in the daily round of activities.

If we are able to slip away during the day or go away for a day or two on retreat, that’s a great gift. It can help refresh and renew us. But we mustn’t wait for those times. Find them during the day. Be open to the surprise visits the Lord will make during ordinary days. Visit with a friend who calls. Welcome and spend time with guests, expected or unexpected. Share a smile with a person at the grocery store. Wait patiently for the adult who is dealing with a tired, hungry, angry child. Use the time in the line at the store to pray for those around you and be grateful that you can be there yourself.

Choose the better part!

P.S. If you’ve got time for another story, here’s one from my life in 2009. https://blog.theologika.net/having-a-martha-like-day-on-the-feast-of-st-martha-july-29/

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Posted by on Jul 10, 2022

Something Very Near to You

Something Very Near to You

Reading these words, “something very near to you,” I find myself wondering, what is very near to me? What do I treasure most? What is a fundamental part of me that might not even be consciously mine? Do I even know what is very near to me?

As Moses and the Israelites approach the promised land after forty years of travels through the Sinai Peninsula and lands to the east of the Jordan River, he realizes that the time has come to pass the leadership of the community into younger hands. He is now old and the end of his days is at hand.

In this first reading for the Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Moses gives some final instructions and his final plea/dream to the people. “If only you would heed the voice of the Lord … and keep his commandments…” (Dt 30:10-14) He calls on them to return once again to the Lord, “with all your heart and all your soul.”

Early in their travels, Moses had gone up to the mountaintop and received the tablets containing the Law from the Lord God. He brought the Law down to the people and it became the foundation of their way of life and traditions. Sometimes they followed it well. Other times not. Always it was the basis of their agreement, their Covenant, with God.

As it becomes obvious that Moses will not be leading them when they enter the new land, they must have wondered, who will now bring the Law to us? Who will be the intermediary with God? Where will our leader need to go to find God and bring instructions to us?

Moses corrects the notion that the Law by which they live is something mysterious and remote that needs to be found in the sky or across the sea, or in some other far-off land. No one needs to travel far to retrieve and bring it back to the people so they will know how to live. He tells them, “No, it is something very near to you, already in your mouths and in your hearts; you have only to carry it out.”

What is written in the Law?

St. Luke brings us a picture of what it means to live according to the Law. (Lk 10:25-37) A student of the Law, a person who had spent many years studying Jewish laws and tradition, asked Jesus a question. “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus went right back to basics. “What is written in the law?” The man responded with a condensed statement of Mosaic law. “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your being, and with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.”

This answer was absolutely correct. No need to add anything more. No need to travel to the sky or across the sea. Love God and love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus assured the man that nothing more would be needed.

Then came the follow-up question, “Who is my neighbor?” This is one we all need to contemplate. Is my neighbor the person living next door, on my block, on the other side of the block, my village, my region of the country, my country? How far out do I need to go before those I meet cease to be my neighbor and I no longer need to love them?

Today we often hear, “There’s an app for that!” We might equally well say, “With Jesus, there’s a parable for that!”

Jesus told a story. There was a man who was traveling from Jerusalem down to Jericho. This was a mountainous area, with lots of bandits along the way. He was attacked, beaten, robbed, and left half-dead beside the road.

Two men passed by the wounded traveler, but moved to the opposite side of the road as they walked by him. Neither stopped. One was a priest, the other a Levite.

(Time out of the story for a bit of explanation. Priests were descendants of Aaron, brother of Moses, who offered sacrifice in the temple. They were subject to strict rules of purity and behavior because they entered the most holy places. Levites were members of the tribe of Levi, descendants of the third son of Jacob and Leah. Levites assisted with services and worship at the temple, but were not priests. They filled roles that we would call musicians, song-leaders, acolytes, lectors, greeters, administrators, guards/guides, artists, designers, and so forth. They were held to higher standards of purity in obedience to the Law, but not as high as those for priests.)

So a priest and a Levite passed the man. The story doesn’t say whether they were on the way to Jerusalem or on the way back, but it really didn’t matter to Jesus. The point was that they were people who had higher than average position and responsibility in society and in worship, and they did not stop to help.

Another traveler came along the road. This person was from Samaria. Samaritans were hated by Jews. They were descended from some of the people who had been left behind during the Babylonian exile. Their land had been conquered earlier and the survivors had adapted their religious beliefs and practices to include some of what came from the conquerors. They worshiped on mountaintops rather than in Jerusalem. Folks traveling between Judea in the south and Galilee in the north tried to go around Samaria or spend as little time as possible there. These were not folks one would expect to find as heroes in a story told by a good Jew.

Yet this is exactly the person Jesus presents as the hero of the story. The Samaritan sees the injured man and takes pity on him. He gives first aid, loads him on his own donkey, and takes him to an inn. He cares for him there overnight, then leaves money for the innkeeper to continue caring for him, with a promise to reimburse any additional costs as he (the Samaritan) returns along the way.

Jesus asks a simple question, “Which one of these three … was neighbor to the robbers’ victim?” The answer is clear – the Samaritan who was merciful. Jesus agrees and adds, “Go and do likewise.”

The command of the Law was closer to the heart of the Samaritan in this case than to the other two travelers. Care for the one in need of help, whoever that is, trumps ritual purity and practice or other societal norms.

Would it be closer for you or me? Hmmm.

How can all of this be possible?

A hymn from the early church, shared by St. Paul in his letter to the Colossians, gives a hint of how this can be possible. (Col 1:15-20) “Christ Jesus is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.” All things were created through him and for him, even the great principalities and powers of the spirit world. Everything is held together because of him. He’s the head of the church, his body. The fullness (God) dwelt in him, the human man, and reconciled all things through him. Peace between God and creation was achieved through Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross.

We are the body of Christ. We, the human members of the community. Jesus lives in us and we in and through him. Because of this, we have a real chance of living the law of love that he taught. The law that Moses says is “something very near to you” and Jesus presents as the foundation of loving a neighbor as ourselves.

Is living the law of love always easy? No. Is it always the popular thing to do? No. Is it always totally clear how to live? Not always, but there are hints if we keep our eyes and hearts open. Do our cultures and societies make this very easy? Not really. It’s much easier to love those who are like ourselves and with whom we share experiences, language, and culture. Do we have to love other folks anyway, even if we don’t like what we see? Yes. Can it just be an intellectual, “My heart goes out to you?” No. It must be practical.

“Go and do likewise.” “It is something very near to you … you have only to carry it out.”

Lord, help me to listen to your voice speaking through my heart. Help us to come together in loving service.

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Posted by on Jun 26, 2022

“All er Nothin”

“All er Nothin”

When I was a little girl, getting ready for first grade, my mother was quite worried. I loved to sing. This would not typically be an issue, but two of my favorite songs were from the musical Oklahoma. The songs in question were not something lovely like “Oh what a beautiful morning,” or something rousing like “Oklahoma.” No, my favorites were the ones sung by Ado Annie, the young woman with a less than stellar reputation for faithfulness or prudence in relationships. These songs, especially in the Broadway play version we had on our record, were quite risqué. Mom was afraid I would sing them to “Sister” and scandalize her (whoever she turned out to be). As soon as the movie version, with more family-friendly lyrics, was available, she bought it for us and that was the record I was allowed to enjoy.

Of Ado Annie’s two songs, “I Cain’t Say No” and “All Er Nothin,” the one that comes to mind and is running through my head after looking at the readings for the Thirteen Sunday in Ordinary Time, is “All Er Nothin.” Annie’s boyfriend, Will, has just returned from the big city, Kansas City, with tales of what “modren livin” is going to be – indoor plumbing, gas buggies goin by theirselves, buildings twenty stories high, etc. Will has heard rumors that Annie hasn’t exactly been the most faithful girlfriend while he was away. He confronts her in the song “All Er Nothin,” declaring “With me it’s all er nothin. Is it all er nothin with you?” She asks for clarification, and the song continues with examples and conditions. If you haven’t heard it, it’s worth checking out. (The same goes for “I Cain’t Say No”!)

In the first reading, Elijah the prophet receives instruction from God to anoint Elisha to be his successor as prophet. (1 Kings 19:16b, 19-21) Elijah has been in trouble with the rulers of the land off and on for a long time. He has just met God on the mountaintop, recognizing his presence in a gentle breeze. Now he has been sent to find the man who will succeed him as prophet in Israel.

When Elijah found Elisha, the latter was plowing the land. He had twelve yoke of oxen, the large team of a prosperous family. Elijah didn’t spend any time explaining why he had come or what his plans were. He simply approached Elisha and threw his cloak over him. In this way, he signaled that the cloak of prophet of the Lord was now his too.

Elijah didn’t stick around to explain what his action meant. Elisha understood immediately what had just happened. He ran after Elijah and requested permission to return to his family and tell them goodbye. Elijah didn’t refuse the request. He simply told Elisha to go back, adding, “Have I done anything to you?” At this Elisha makes his decision. He kills the oxen, burns his plowing equipment to cook the oxen, and gives the meat to the people to eat. Then he follows Elijah as an apprentice, learning to be the Lord’s prophet. All or nothing …

The psalmist sings in praise of the Lord, who is a refuge, gives counsel, is faithful, leads on the path of life and is his inheritance. With the Lord, nothing is lacking. (Ps 16)

St Paul writes to the Galatians (5:1, 13-18) with a similar theme. A huge controversy was raging over whether non-Jews (aka Gentiles) had to become Jews and be subject to the Law of Moses in order to become Followers of the Way (aka Christians). Paul said no and so did the leadership in Jerusalem when they were consulted. The reasoning backing up this decision included the understanding that the Law had been fulfilled in the coming of Jesus. The new Law of freedom to love took the place of the old laws that dictated what, where and when people were allowed to engage in particular activities. There were food prohibitions, rules about when and how work could be done, with whom one might speak, and many more. The new freedom to act in love superseded these old rules. If someone needed to be helped on the Sabbath, for example, then the new law required Jesus’ follower to help. No foods except blood, meat from strangled animals, and foods sacrificed to idols were prohibited. Women and men were equally children of God.

This new freedom did not mean license to do whatever one wished – that would be a question of acting according to the flesh. No, to act according to the Spirit required doing what would be best for the other person, what one would wish for oneself. Service in this new freedom is based on love.  Only in love can one live in the Spirit. It’s again a question of “All er nothin!”

Finally, we see Jesus as he sets out for Jerusalem for the final time. Luke (9:51-62) describes Jesus’ single-minded focus on this journey. If those in the Samaritan village didn’t welcome them, OK, move on to another village. No time to stop and try to change their minds or punish them either! If someone offers to follow Jesus, OK, but know that we’re not going to be settling down anywhere along the way. “The Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head.” (Son of Man was a term used in reference to the coming Messiah in Jewish tradition. Jesus used it to refer to himself.) Someone else wanted to go home and bury his father, but Jesus had no time to wait. “Let the dead bury their dead.” In other words, Let those who are not with me take care of each other. “No one who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what was left behind is fit for the kingdom of God.” It’s all or nothing!

These are strong words and images. How do we understand them today? Are we to take them literally? How do we act in loving freedom to address the pressing issues of our day? Wars are raging, between nations, between gangs, between religious groups… Refugees are camped at the borders. Some are allowed to enter. Others with equally horrendous stories of probable personal danger are turned away. Issues of protection of the vulnerable among us divide our communities. Who is to be protected and how far will we go to help? It’s all well and good to speak in generalities. Who will pay the ultimate price of decisions that are being made far away by folks who don’t know us or our situations?

It’s not an easy time. We are called to the Law of Love, to the Freedom of the Spirit. Let us pray today and in the days to come for the courage to respond wholeheartedly, in prayer and in compassion, to the needs of our sisters and brothers. Not relying on logic and rules, but on the requirements of loving support and accompaniment.

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Posted by on Jun 19, 2022

We remember, We Celebrate, We Believe

We remember, We Celebrate, We Believe

The second Sunday after Pentecost we celebrate the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ. On this day we remember Jesus’ words and actions at the Last Supper, when he took the bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to his disciples. He told them to take it and eat it. It was his body, given for them. They were to do the same in remembrance of him. He also took the cup of wine that would normally close the meal with a toast to God. He told his friends it was the cup of the new covenant in his blood. Again, “Do this … in remembrance of me.”

How, you ask, do we know this? It’s there in the Gospels, but they were mostly written later. Today, however, we hear one of the earliest voices telling of this event. St. Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthians, tells us of Jesus’ words and actions on this last night of his life. (1 Cor 11:23-26) Paul doesn’t say he was an eyewitness. He wasn’t and never makes that claim. But he tells us that he is passing on to us what he had been told by the eyewitnesses. This is what Jesus did and said.

It’s important to understand what it means to remember in Jewish tradition. Remembering means to enter again into the reality of what happened. When we remember, we are present at the event. When we share in the bread and wine at Mass, we are present with the disciples in that upper room when Jesus spoke those words and shared that bread and wine. A traditional Jewish saying goes like this, “Our ancestors crossed the Red Sea and our feet are wet.” Jesus gave that bread and wine to his friends, and we receive his body and blood just as they did. We are now part of the New Covenant with God.

OK, so why the emphasis on eating and drinking a sacrificial victim? And how can bread and wine take the place of a real animal sacrifice?

Humans have a long history of offering something of value as a sacrifice to their deities. It may be to ask for a favorable outcome in daily activities. It may be to ask the deity to have mercy and take away something that is causing hardship to the community. It may be to give thanks for blessings received. There are many reasons for offering a sacrifice.

In pastoralist communities, especially before money began to be used commonly, a gift of a young animal as sacrifice was not uncommon. The animal might be killed and the entire body burned in sacrifice. Sometimes, choice parts of the animal were burned and the rest was shared and eaten by the priests or together with the community. Blood of the animal might be poured on the altar and burned as part of the sacrifice too.

For the Hebrew people, the blood of a lamb held a powerful meaning. It was the blood of the lambs sacrificed for the meal shared by the people on the first Passover that marked their doors and protected their children from the Angel of Death who moved through Egypt, killing the firstborn children of people and animals. This truly was blood that marked a covenant of protection between God and his people.

We see a different tradition of sacrifice in the first reading, from the book of Genesis (14:18-20). Abram, not yet known as Abraham, had entered the land promised to him by God, along with his brother, Lot, and their extended family. They had been there many years already, including a time in Egypt. Abram was living in the western part of the land and Lot had moved with his family to the eastern side.

There were many kings in the area and a great battle broke out among them. Lot was captured by those in the east. Abram gathered a large group of men from his side and set out to rescue Lot. His actions were successful. It was quite a battle and a major victory for Abram and his allies. The victorious kings gathered to celebrate with Abram and praise his success. One of the men who came was Melchizedek. He was known as king of Salem and was a priest. Melchizedek brought bread and wine to offer in sacrifice to God. He offered the sacrifice and blessed Abram, describing him as “blessed by God most High, the creator of heaven and earth.” As was customary, Abram gave a tenth of what he had in thanks to the priest.

Melchizedek is remembered in Jewish history and celebrated in Psalm 110. “You are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek.” Jesus is also described as a priest forever, the new high priest who needed only to offer sacrifice once to redeem all the people – to restore harmony between the Most High and humanity.

We again see bread blessed, broken, and shared in today’s Gospel. St. Luke (9:11b-17) tells of the day a large crowd of people went out into the countryside to hear Jesus and bring their sick to be healed. At the end of the day, it was time to eat. Jesus’ disciples asked him to send the people to the local villages to get something to eat. But Jesus responded, “Give them some food yourselves.” This was not at all feasible to the minds of the disciples. There were around 5,000 men in the crowd! (That didn’t necessarily include any women and children.) They had among themselves only five loaves and two fish. Nowhere nearly enough to feed all of those people.

But Jesus was undeterred. “Have them sit down in groups of about fifty.” (Fifty people would be about like having a good family party.) He took the little bit of food he and the disciples had, offered a blessing, broke the loaves and fish, and gave them to the disciples to feed the crowd.

Who knows whether people laughed or stayed solemnly quiet at this bold action of faith. But food was in plenty for all. In fact, there was more than enough. After all had eaten their fill, the scraps were picked up and filled twelve baskets! Did people share what they had brought with them? Not at all unlikely. Does that make it less of a miracle? Not really. We humans don’t always share very freely.

One commentator on the Gospels, Stephen Wilbricht, CSC, in a series of explanations for Lectors and readers of the Gospels, has noted that this story is placed between the account of the time Jesus sent the disciples out in pairs to preach the good news and the first time that Peter professed his faith in Jesus as the Messiah. The preaching is followed by service (the feeding of the hungry). Out of that service, came the realization that the time of salvation was at hand. The Messiah had come at last.

The fact that there were twelve baskets of food left is also important. Twelve tribes of Israel. Twelve disciples. Twelve baskets of food. This is enough for all and represents all.

We remember. We celebrate. We believe.

Today we remember what Jesus has done for us. We celebrate and participate in it. We believe what we have heard. We also believe what we have seen and experienced. We have seen communities of peoples of all nations coming together as one family of God. We have seen resources shared. We see work for social justice. We hope for peace and security for all to return to our world.

This day we begin a three-year celebration of Renewal of our understanding and celebration of this mystery of Jesus’ gift of his Body and Blood. We celebrate this gift in our Eucharist. It is the “source and summit” of our lives as Christians, as taught by the bishops in Lumen Gentium – the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church – at Vatican II.

Marty Haugen wrote a song and Mass setting many years ago that sums it all up nicely. The refrain goes like this:

“We remember how you loved us to your death, and still we celebrate for you are here; and we believe that we will see you when you come in your glory, Lord. We remember, we celebrate, we believe.”

Let us remember today and in the days to come. Let us celebrate this great gift. And Lord, help us to believe always this great good news of God’s presence and loving entrance into our lives.

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Posted by on Jun 5, 2022

Filled with the Holy Breath of God – Sharing the Good News

Filled with the Holy Breath of God – Sharing the Good News

Fifty days after the celebration of Passover, Jews celebrate another great festival, Shavuot. Shavuot is a celebration both of the early summer harvest (in more southerly climes) and the giving of the Torah to Moses on Mt. Sinai in the early days of the 40 years the people traveled in the desert following the Exodus and before their entry into Palestine.

The first reading for Pentecost Sunday, fifty days after Easter, describes an event that forever changed the lives of Jesus’ followers. They had been staying together as instructed, spending time at the temple in prayer, and waiting to see what would happen next. It had been a pretty amazing set of weeks since the Resurrection. When would they see Jesus again?

That morning, as they were gathered for prayer together, they heard what sounded like a strong wind blowing. It filled the whole house. Then they saw what looked like tongues of fire that separated and rested on each of them. “They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in different tongues, as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim.”

The Holy Spirit – the holy Breath of God – came to each of these men and women who were close friends and family of Jesus. They experienced the love and joy with which God holds each one of us in this moment of deep union. The Holy Breath of God breathed in them, surrounded them, and set their hearts on fire with love.

Sometimes these experiences of the presence of God are very quiet and not externally obvious to other people. But this was not one of those times. The noise was noticed by people outside the building. A crowd began to gather. There were people in town for the festival of Shavuot from all over the known world. It was one of three annual celebrations that brought visitors to Jerusalem for prayer and celebration every year. But this was something different. What was the noise all about?

Then something even more astounding was noticed. These uneducated Galileans were speaking and each person could understand what was being said. There were no spontaneous translators. There was no need for translators. The words spoken by Jesus’ friends were heard in the language of the people who listened to them in the crowd. What words were they hearing? They were hearing “of the mighty acts of God.”

The reading from Acts for this Sunday stops at this point. But take a little time and read more on your own. You will hear about Peter speaking to the crowd, pointing out that it’s too early in the day for them all to be drunk. What the crowd is hearing is the fulfillment of an ancient prophecy about the coming of the promised one. Peter shares the good news of Jesus’ coming as Messiah, of his death and resurrection, of the new life promised to all. Many people believed what Peter told them and asked to become a follower of Jesus too.

There is a story in the early Hebrew Scriptures that is meant to explain how it came to be that there are so many peoples and languages on Earth (Gn 11:1-9). In this story, all humans spoke the same language and could understand each other. But they got too confident in their own ideas and ways. They decided to build a tower to the heavens so they could never be scattered. The Lord saw what they were doing and intervened, making them unable to understand each other’s words. Without a common language, they scattered to all parts of the world. The tower is known as the Tower of Babel.

The events of Pentecost were in direct contrast to what had happened at the Tower of Babel. Now peoples from all over the world understood the words spoken to them. It was not necessary for all of them to become one again. God came to them and met them where they were and loved them as they were. For this to happen at the time of remembrance of the gift of the Law, the Torah, is especially noteworthy. The Torah was/is the guide for living a life pleasing to the Most High. And now, the Holy Breath of the Most High is breathed out into peoples from all over the world, speaking many different languages, and living in many different ways.

All are one in sharing the love of the Father. And all can be different in the gifts and perspectives they bring to the community. God is Father to peoples of many lands. It’s not necessary for all to be identical.

The other readings explore aspects of this reality. There are two options for both the Epistle and the Gospel readings. St. Paul writes to the people of Corinth (1 Cor 12:3b-7, 12-13) about the variety of gifts given by the Spirit within the community. He notes, “As a body is one though it has many parts, and all the parts of the body, though many, are one body, so also is Christ.” Regardless of our background, we are all part of the same body and share in the one Breath of God as source of our life.

In his letter to the Romans, Paul contrasts the status of those who live only according to ordinary human ways with those who live in union with and according to the Spirit of God who raised Jesus from the dead. Without the presence of the Spirit, there is no hope for the deeper life and freedom of the adopted children of God. It is the Spirit, the Holy Breath of God, who bears witness to this and makes it possible for us to call God “Abba, Father” (or as we might say it, Dad).

Usually, the Gospel reading follows directly after the second reading, but on Pentecost Sunday, there is another prayer, the Pentecost Sequence, which traditionally has been sung. “Veni  Sancte Spiritus” Come, Holy Spirit, come! With this song we ask the Spirit to come into our lives too, with all the gifts and fruits of faith, hope, love, peace, joy, and richness that a life of faith includes. As we open our hearts to receive these gifts, we grow in faith. Our own individual gifts deepen and we know the joy of being loved by God.

The two options for the Gospel both come from St. John. The first option tells of Jesus’ visit to his friends on the evening of the Resurrection (Jn 20:19-23). After greeting them and showing them his wounded hands and side, he wishes them Peace and tells them he is sending them now as the Father sent him. He breathes on them, giving them the Holy Spirit (Holy Breath), to bring forgiveness of sin to those whom they meet.

The other option comes from a section of Jesus’ teaching at the Last Supper ( 14:15-16, 23b-26). Jesus promises to ask the Father to send another Advocate to remain with them forever. This Advocate will be the Holy Spirit, sent by the Father in the name (power, authority) of Jesus. When the Advocate comes, he will teach Jesus’ followers everything and remind them of what Jesus has told them.

Again, the Holy Spirit comes to enlighten the minds and hearts of the followers of Jesus. He doesn’t come to make everyone identical. He doesn’t expect everyone to do exactly the same thing or to think exactly the same things. What he will enable is for these many people to share their gifts and talents in love with the rest of God’s people in our world.

We celebrate the time of the Spirit at Pentecost. God lives within us now, breathing life and love into our daily activities. Teaching us new things as new situations and understandings of how creation works come to light, God does not expect us to remain frozen in time at some ancient date. We live and learn of the wonders of creation and of God’s presence in each person.

Come, Holy Breath of God. Fill our lives with your presence and open our eyes to see you in all the wonders of your world and the people with whom we share it.

May this day be filled with joy as you celebrate with your families and communities this great gift.

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Posted by on May 29, 2022

A New Act Begins – The Ascension

A New Act Begins – The Ascension

Forty days after Jesus rose from the dead, another milestone event occurred – he ascended to his Father, to heaven. We celebrate this event today – the Solemnity of the Ascension.

Historically, the Ascension occurred on the 40th day after the Resurrection. That would have been a Thursday. Until recently, it was celebrated on a Thursday, Ascension Thursday! It was a holy day of obligation (when everybody was supposed to attend Mass) and we had a school holiday to celebrate it. However, our modern way of life and secular society model in the United States didn’t recognize this religious feast as a reason to cancel ordinary activities, so relatively few people were easily able to gather for Mass. The decision was made to move the feast to the Seventh Sunday of Easter, the one just before Pentecost. This is where we have arrived this weekend.

Two of our readings this day tell the story of the Ascension. We begin with the very beginning of the Acts of the Apostles, written in around 75 A.D. “In the first book, Theophilus …” St. Luke addressed both of his account of the life of Jesus and that of the early church to Theophilus. The name Theophilus means “God’s friend.” It is equally important to remember that as we are God’s friends, it is also addressed to us.

A time period of 40 days, weeks, months, or years is also important in the Bible. Many things happened in 40 days or years, including the great flood during Noah’s time, the 40 years of traveling in the desert between Egypt and Palestine after the Exodus, the 40 days of Jesus’ fasting in the desert between his baptism and the beginning of his public ministry. This is a time of preparation for something that will be different, something better and long promised or awaited. Something new.

Jesus appeared many times to his friends during the 40 days following the Resurrection. He simply appeared in their midst. He didn’t come and go, knocking on doors and waiting for someone to let him in. The door was locked, but he was suddenly there among them. Then, just as suddenly, he was gone. They met him in the garden. They met him on the road to Emmaus. He joined them in the locked upper room where he had eaten that last supper with them. They met him at the seashore in Galilee.

The last time they met, he told them to remain together in Jerusalem and wait for the “promise of the Father” when they would be “baptized with the Holy Spirit.” (The word baptize means to be plunged into something.) Clueless as ever, the disciples asked Jesus when he planned to restore the kingdom to Israel. When would Israel again become an independent and mighty world power?

Jesus sidestepped the question of restoration of an earthly kingdom and spoke of the more important kingdom, that of the Father. “It is not for you to know the times or seasons…” The promise for which they are to wait is the coming of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit will empower them to become Jesus’ witnesses in all the land, even to “the ends of the earth.”

Once again, Jesus is taken from their sight after these words. This time, he is lifted up and a cloud “took him from their sight.” Many images show him standing on a cloud as if on an elevator arising into the sky. The text doesn’t tell us how it happened. Just that it happened. Two men dressed in white clothing appeared among them and promised that Jesus would one day return in the same way they had seen him leave. These words have been the basis for other images of the Second Coming which depict a victorious Jesus returning to Earth for a final judgement. They also led the early Christian communities to expect a relatively rapid return of Jesus and the end of days. After all, he had been coming and going a lot during the preceding 40 days!

St. Luke’s Gospel (24:46-53) tells of the same event, in a more compact manner. Luke tells us that after Jesus had blessed his friends and been taken up to heaven, they “did him homage” and then returned rejoicing to Jerusalem. There they spent their days in the temple praising God.

Two options are offered for the second reading on the Feast of the Ascension. Each is lovely in and of itself. Parishes have a choice which to include in the day’s liturgy. Here a few thoughts about each.

The reading from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians (1:17-23) is a lovely prayer of blessing that comes at the beginning of a letter which very well might have been written for sharing with several of the early Christian communities founded by Paul. According to tradition, it was written while he was a prisoner in Rome.

Paul asks that God give the many gifts of the Spirit to Christians who receive these greetings he is sending. “A Spirit of wisdom and revelation resulting in knowledge of him.” He asks that our eyes be enlightened to see and hope in the great riches of glory offered and promised to those who believe.

This is a beautiful statement of the wonders of God’s identity and promise of blessing in and through our lives of faith. All is possible because of the great might he worked in Christ, raising him from death and placing him as head over all of creation. Christ is the head and his body is the church – all of us in the community of Christians.

What an amazing vision and blessing for all of us!

The second possible reading is from the letter to the Hebrews (9:24-28, 10:19-23). In this reading the focus is on Jesus’ role as the high priest who offered the sacrifice that could bring final reconciliation and healing of the rift between God and all humanity. This sacrifice does not ever have to be re-done. It was a one-and-done event, unlike the annual sacrifice offered by the high priest once each year at the temple in Jerusalem.

No matter how badly we mess up, no one has to be sacrificed again to reconcile us with God. All we need to do is turn back to God in confidence that his love and forgiveness are unchanging. God’s promise is trustworthy.

Also an amazing blessing.

We know that the Second Coming didn’t happen right away. But the coming of the Holy Spirit did. Ten days later, on the Feast of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples with a sound like a mighty wind and tongues as of fire. Their hearts and minds were fired with the experience of the Spirit of God, the Holy Breath of God. And a new act in salvation history began. The public witness and sharing of the Good News of Salvation burst onto the world scene, beginning in Jerusalem

Today, however, we celebrate the promise. We anticipate the mystery to come. We recognize the puzzlement of the disciples, who really had no clue what was happening or why. We rejoice in the promise and blessing of the Holy Spirit living among us and of the great honor and gift of being part of Christ’s body.

So, how to celebrate? This is an important feast. Important enough for it to be moved from its usual spot to a Sunday, so we can take time to enjoy it.

Food traditions can be fun. Some ideas I’ve come across are in our Theologika website here: https://theologika.net/ofs-other-fun-stuff/feast-of-the-ascension/

I like to make orange meringue pie. Just use a regular lemon meringue pie recipe, but substitute orange juice. It doesn’t need quite as much sugar as a lemon one does and has a lovely flavor. I might just do that this year!

What will you do?

Whatever you decide to do, be sure to celebrate this day. Pray today and during the coming week for the Holy Spirit to come into your life in a special way as well. This is a time to open our hearts ever more deeply to receive Love. And next week, set aside time for Pentecost… Amazing things can happen!

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Posted by on May 22, 2022

A Guide into the Future – The Holy Spirit is With Us

A Guide into the Future – The Holy Spirit is With Us

“It is the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us …” (Acts 15:28)

Members of the early Christian community did not have everything figured out and standardized from the beginning. It’s important for us who look back from two thousand years later to remember this. These were a bunch of fishermen, farmers, tradesmen and women, and even some educated people like Paul. They had a message of amazing good news to share with the world. They had witnessed the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. They had come to believe in him as their Lord, a title reserved for God. But they were not in agreement on many other things that popped up in the years after the resurrection.

The first reading for the Sixth Sunday of Easter presents an example of one such disagreement that had to be resolved. The reading does not include the entire story of what happened, so here’s a quick summary.

Paul and Barnabas have just completed their first missionary journey in Asia Minor and returned to Antioch in Syria when this reading begins. Their message was mostly rejected by the Jews to whom they first presented it in these lands, but enthusiastically received by many non-Jews. These Gentiles had been welcomed into the Christian community by Paul and Barnabas, who returned to Antioch in Syria with reports of the wonders God was doing among the Gentiles.

Rather than welcome this news wholeheartedly, some members of the community wanted to put extra conditions on admission to membership – first the Gentiles must become Jews in order to be worthy of admission to the new community. Paul and Barnabas rejected this notion and went south to Jerusalem. (The text says they went up to Jerusalem, because that city was located in a mountainous region in the south.)

In Jerusalem, they consulted with the apostles and other elders of the community. The community was not in agreement on the subject. Some argued that only those who were Jewish could be saved, so converts must become Jews and live by Jewish laws. Others argued that becoming Jews was not necessary. Paul and Barnabas described the signs and wonders God had worked through them among the Gentiles. Peter spoke to the community about his experience as the one who baptized the first Gentiles, the family of Cornelius, a Roman centurion in Caesarea. When the Spirit of the Lord came upon Cornelius and his family before they were even baptized, Peter realized baptism could not be denied them based on being Gentiles. He reminded the community of this event and asked why anyone would think other Gentiles should be treated differently.

Finally, after much conversation, debate, and prayer, the community reached an agreement. Gentiles did not need to become Jews in order to be Christians. They needed to “abstain from meat sacrificed to idols, from blood, from meats of strangled animals, and from unlawful marriage.” The community sent two of its members to accompany Paul and Barnabas back to Antioch in Syria with the good news for the new Gentile Christians. (Acts 15:1-2, 22-29)

In this early example, we see the importance of several things in the decision-making of the early Christian community. These include consultation with the leadership, conversation among the members regarding the difference of opinion, reliance on the Holy Spirit to provide insight and guidance in selecting the correct path, and willingness to change accustomed patterns of thinking and acting when situations change and new opportunities open. In presenting their decision, the leaders in Jerusalem made it clear that it was not just their opinion, but that it was the decision of the Holy Spirit that was leading to this major change in an ancient practice.

Jesus, in his final teaching to his apostles the night before he died, made clear that not all would be easy to understand (Jn 14:23-29). He knew that unexpected things would happen in their future. He promised the Father would send the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, to be their guide and remind them of his teachings. They were to follow Jesus’ teaching, his word. In doing this, they would be keeping the word of the Father. Jesus and the Father would come to live within those who keep his word. He promised to give them peace, a deeper peace than any the world can give.

The disciples held on to this promise. Even after Pentecost, as they were fired with faith and courage to go out and share the good news, they counted on the guidance of the Spirit when difficulties arose. During times of persecution and as the years passed and Jesus didn’t return in glory during their lifetimes, this remained a constant.

The reading from the Book of Revelation (21:10-14, 22-23), written long after the events of the other readings, offers a symbolic view of the Church, the new Jerusalem coming down from heaven from God. This city gleams and is radiant with God’s splendor. Its features include twelve gates and twelve foundation stones. The gates, guarded by angels, are named for the twelve tribes of Israel – the chosen people of God who will come from all four directions to this new city. The foundation stones are named after the apostles, upon whose experience and faith the Christian community would stand. But there is no temple building within this new city. The Lord God is the temple himself, lighted by his glory. The Lamb is the lamp through which that light shines.

The presence of God in the Church, the new Jerusalem, the people of God, is the source of all that is to be and the foundation on which the life of the community is built.

We as a Church community have come through a time of great transition in our lifetimes and are seeing new pathways and new understandings of our relationships with each other and with God. It’s been a relatively short time since the Second Vatican Council and the development of the reforms and revised understandings of our relationship with God and the world that it brought. Conflicts among us remain. There is still much to do as we explore the ramifications of the insights of the Council, insights that surprised even those who participated. The Holy Spirit was at work, bringing/calling the Church once again into a newer and deeper presence in our world.

Will we be as brave as those first Christians were in hearing and accepting the guidance of the Spirit? Our world has seen major changes since the early days of the Church and the days of the Council. How have we changed. What have we learned? What areas need our attention and healing now?

We are currently in the process of the first Synod that has ever asked the opinions of lay people about the future of the Church – who we are, what we are called to be, how we are to live in our world. How will we respond as the Spirit speaks through ordinary women and men? Will we trust the Spirit? Are we open to change? Will we follow where the Spirit leads, believing the One who has loved and led us for so long will continue to be there for us too? Will we recognize and accept the peace of the Lord in our lives? The early Church community met, prayed, and discussed changes needed. The Church today continues the same tradition of Synodality. Where will the Spirit next lead us?

“It is the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us …”

Come Holy Spirit!

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