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Posted by on May 15, 2022

Glory – One Step at a Time

Glory – One Step at a Time

I have long been fascinated by the term “glory.” It’s a word often heard in the Bible, but just what does it mean? What is the Glory of the Lord? What does it mean if something or someone is glorified? Are there different types of glory? Does a phrase like “Give glory to God” mean to offer praise in words like “Praise God” or “Thank Heavens?”  Or does it mean something else?

It’s a word that has many dimensions. Dictionary definitions include abundance, wealth, honor, treasure, majesty, brightness, and the presence of the divine. Other meanings include pride, arrogance, boastfulness, or taking great pleasure in something. It can be a personal quality that makes an individual worthy of praise. It can be described as a light shining from a being or person of great holiness. In art, we often see halos around the heads of saints and angels, visually indicating their holiness.

The word can also be used as a verb – the boxer gloried in his triumphs in the ring! Or, in a different sense, the teacher gloried in the success of her students. The mystic gloried in the presence of God in nature.

Phrases such as “Give glory to God,” when used in Scripture, can have another meaning that is culturally specific. For example, in the story of the man born blind and healed by Jesus, the authorities were demanding, “Tell us the truth – confess that you have sinned, that what you are claiming is not true!” The notion of praising God was intimately tied to being truthful. The man’s refusal to recant his account of the healing was actually totally consistent with what they were asking of him. They just didn’t recognize it as such!

The Gospel for the Fifth Sunday of Easter brought these reflections on the word glory to mind once again. In his account of the Last Supper, John tells us what happened after Judas left the table (Jn 13:31-33a, 34-35). In this Gospel, Jesus is very much in control of the narrative of what is happening and aware of his unique relationship with the Father. John quotes Jesus: “Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in him.” The relationship becomes mutual – “If God is glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself, and God will glorify him at once.”

There’s a lot of “glory” going on in these few brief words. Knowing what was coming up next for Jesus, it’s rather remarkable to think that his passion and death were the route to glory. And it will happen at once? A rather daunting image…

Jesus continues, making clear the crucial factor for his followers here. The fundamental characteristic of the followers of Jesus is to be their love for each other. In fact, it is so fundamental that it becomes the “new commandment.” To love each other as Jesus has loved us. That is the root of glory – a community of love.

But how can that happen? When will it happen?

The readings from the Acts of the Apostles (14:21-27) and Revelation (21:1-5a) give us a hint.

Last week we heard about the missionary journey of Paul and Barnabas to the city of Antioch in Psidia. Their preaching had mixed results. Gentiles were more open to their preaching than the Jewish community was and eventually they were expelled from the city. The moved on to Iconium, then to Lystra, and Derbe. In each city, they spent some time, teaching and sharing the good news. But it was not all sweetness and light. In one city, Paul was stoned and left for dead. In another they fled before the crowd could stone them. Nevertheless, by the time they retraced their steps to return to Antioch in Syria, there were communities of new believers in each area they had visited. They returned to each community of believers as they passed on their way, teaching and encouraging them. They selected and appointed leaders from among the members of the community and asked the Lord’s blessing on their behalf.

When they returned to Antioch in Syria, they reported on their journey and all that God had accomplished. They didn’t brag about their success. They reported on what God had done in opening “the door of faith to the Gentiles.”

One step at a time, for many years, Paul, Barnabas, and other Christians traveled through the known world, spreading the word of God’s love, building communities of followers of the way, and sharing the wonder of the Lord’s glory, reaching beyond Israel to all humans.

This mission was urgent for the early church. Jesus was expected to return very soon. They needed to be ready and to share the news of God’s love and reconciliation with all people as quickly and as widely as possible. There were many bumps along the way. Plenty of challenges and conflicts to work out. Much reflection on what had happened and what it meant. But under it all, there was a sense of urgency. The Lord is coming soon!

When the second coming didn’t come as quickly as anticipated, more reflection was needed. The reading from Revelation presents a deeper and newer understanding of what it means to say that Jesus is with us always. If he’s not visibly present, where is he and when will we see him? This reading presents a new reality.

A new heaven and a new earth – a new holy city, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God. In this great vision, John explains that God will now live with humans forever. They will be his people. He will be their God. Eternity begins here and now. Tears will be dried away. The old order is gone.

In the old Jerusalem, God was present in the Temple. In the new, there is no temple. The city, the community of believers, is the dwelling place of God.

The end does not have to come immediately. The One on the throne declares: “Behold, I make all things new.” It is already begun here and now.

Glory shines forth from the ordinary, the everyday, the one-step-at-a-time of our lives. When we care for each other, when we care for the earth and its creatures, when we notice and smile at another person, the glory of God shines forth.

We don’t consciously see the light shining forth in these encounters. Our eyes aren’t tuned to see it. But if we are attentive, we notice the love and affection and “a certain something” that is present. Similarly, at times when that love is blocked or denied expression, we notice that too. Again, we don’t physically perceive the loss of that “light,” but we feel it if we pay attention.

This week, let’s reflect together on the ways and times in our lives when the glory of the Lord shines through. Let’s rejoice in health, endure suffering patiently, and trust that with God among us, all will be well. One step at a time, we’re on our way and are taking our communities and our world along with us.

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Posted by on May 8, 2022

A Light to the Gentiles

A Light to the Gentiles

“Paul and Barnabas continued on from Perga and reached Antioch in Pisidia.” (Acts 13:14) These words describe an event early in the first missionary journey of St. Paul, formerly known as Saul of Tarsus. They caught my attention as I realized I really didn’t know where Perga or Antioch in Pisidia were located. So, I did a little research.

As it turns out, Antioch is the name of at least two cities in the ancient world. One is in what we know today as Syria. This is the Antioch in which followers of the way were first called Christians (Oil Heads). The other Antioch is a city in what is now Turkey, near the southwestern edge of the great central plains in the center of Turkey. This Antioch was known as Antioch in Pisidia (a region of Asia Minor and part of the Roman Empire).

Tarsus, the home city of St. Paul, is also in southern Turkey, but much farther east, closer to Syria. It was to Tarsus that Paul retreated for safety after his encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus led to his conversion. Following a time of retreat in the desert, he went to Jerusalem and gained acceptance from the community he once had persecuted there. But the authorities were angered by his conversion and he was not safe there, so the community in Jerusalem advised to go back to Tarsus, for everyone’s safety.

About eleven years after his conversion, the community in Antioch (in Syria) sent him on a missionary journey with Barnabas, one of the early followers of Jesus. They traveled to Cyprus and then to Turkey, landing at Perga on the southern coast in a region known as Pamphylia. From there they traveled over the mountains to Antioch in Pisidia.

The readings for the Fourth Sunday of Easter begin with the story of what happened in Antioch in Pisidia. (Acts 13:14, 43-52) As was their custom, when they first visited a new community, they went to the synagogue on the sabbath to worship. After the initial prayers, they were welcomed as visitors and asked if they would like to share anything with the community gathered there. A major section of the narrative is left out of today’s reading, but it’s good to know what it was. Paul stood up and went through the history of God’s dealings with the Jewish people, from the time of the exodus from Egypt to the present. He reminded them of the prophecies of the coming of a Messiah and of God’s care for them through the centuries. Then he presented the good news that the Messiah had come, had been put to death, and had been raised from the dead. As they left the synagogue that day, they were invited to return again the next week to tell more about these events.

The reading picks up again at this point, noting that many of the Jews and others who were converts to Judaism followed them and were excited to hear this news. Paul and Barnabas continued to speak with them during the week. The next sabbath, when they went to the synagogue, a large crowd, including non-Jews, gathered to hear them speak. Leaders of the synagogue became jealous and argued “with violent abuse” against what they were saying.

Paul and Barnabas did not back down in the face of this opposition. Instead, they boldly stated that although it was essential first to present this news to the Jewish community, they were now going to obey an ancient command of God – to become “a light to the Gentiles” and an “instrument of salvation to the ends of the earth.” This command is from the Book of Isaiah (49:6). It would have been well known to this community in Antioch.

Non-Jewish residents of Antioch were delighted with the news of salvation extended to them. But opposition from the Jews of the city, including some prominent women, stirred up enough opposition that Paul and Barnabas were tossed out of the territory. So they continued their journey to Iconium, another city to the southeast of Antioch. We are told that they “were filled with joy and the Holy Spirit.”

In this account, we see the beginnings of Paul’s mission to the Gentile world, to all of us who are not genetically descended from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Paul and Barnabas continued this practice of going first to the synagogue in communities they visited, and then to the Gentiles. They traveled extensively throughout Asia Minor (Turkey) and Greece. Eventually, they even went to Rome. Paul was martyred there in 68 A.D.

The second reading, from Revelation (7:9,14b-17) speaks of a great multitude of people “from every nation, race, people, and tongue” who stood in front of the throne of the Lamb. These people represent the entire world, gathered to praise the Lamb. They have survived a time of great suffering, washing their clothing in the blood of the Lamb, and thus being purified. The Lamb will provide all they need and lead them “to springs of life-giving water) as a shepherd. God will wipe every tear from their eyes.

Not long after Jesus described himself as the good shepherd who knows his sheep and whose sheep follow him, St. John tells us of an encounter between the authorities and Jesus at the Feast of the Dedication (the re-dedication of the altar at the temple in 164 B.C.). The authorities were pressing him to state clearly whether he was the Messiah or not. Jesus refused to say so directly. Instead, he pointed to his works and his teachings. “The works I do in my Father’s name testify to me.” (Jn10:25) Then he told them the reason they didn’t believe in his teachings was that they were not among his sheep.

John quotes Jesus in the reading today (10:27-30). “My sheep hear my voice …” He describes his followers as his sheep, given to him by the Father. Then he sates, “The Father and I are one.”

The Shepherd, who is also the Lamb, calls people from all the world, Jews and Gentiles alike. He cares for them and provides for all their needs.

This is the great good news which we receive each day as we join in prayer and reflection on the scriptures. Ours is not a faith that excludes anyone. All are welcome. All share in the gift of salvation. All are called to share this good news with everyone we meet by the way we live our lives. We are all the sheep of the Good Shepherd – cared for, protected, and guided by the One who loves us.

Do I really believe this? Do you? Does my life reflect this reality? How does the love of the shepherd/lamb shine through in my life? Do I care for others whom I meet? Am I gentle and loving in my dealings with others? Will others see His love because my life is a window rather than an obscuring wall? Much to consider, both as individuals and as a community of faith.

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Posted by on Mar 2, 2022

A Clean Heart Create for Me

A Clean Heart Create for Me

The holy season of Lent begins on Ash Wednesday. This is a time of preparation and growth. In just six and a half weeks, we’ll arrive at Easter. In the northern hemisphere, Spring is fast upon us. Here on California’s Central Coast, it is in full swing. Trees and flowers are blooming. Birds are getting ready to fly north. Butterflies bring flashes of color to the landscape. Citrus trees are heavy with ripening fruit. And while we don’t have the cold, cold weather seen in so much of the world during Winter, the longer and somewhat warmer days are awakening itchy fingers, ready to plant the warmer season flowers and vegetables. It is a time for growth and renewal.

The readings for this day speak of renewal, of God’s mercy, of recognition of our failings, and of ways to till the gardens of our hearts, making them fertile soil for receiving the gifts our Father has for each of us.

The prophet Joel (2:12-18) spoke at a time of swarms of locusts and a great drought that caused crop failure and famine in the land. This was seen as a time of loss of divine favor due to the sin of the people of Israel. But through Joel’s words, God calls the people back – to conversion through prayer and fasting. The reading concludes with the observation that the Lord took pity of his people, stirred to concern for his land.

Psalm 51 calls on God to be merciful, to wash away our offenses, cleanse us of our guilt, and put a new spirit within us. “A clean heart create for me, O God, and a steadfast spirit renew within me.” The joy of salvation and a willing spirit come as gifts from God. And we pray, “O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth shall proclaim your praise.” Praise and thanksgiving grow in the soil of a newly renewed heart.

St. Paul, in a second letter to the people of Corinth (2 Cor 5:20-6:2), begs them to be reconciled with God, for the sake of Christ. Christ gave himself so that humans could become the “righteousness of God.” But what is God’s righteousness? God is merciful and gracious. God is slow to anger, rich in kindness, relenting in punishment. These are characteristics of God, revealed by Joel in our first reading. This is the call of the followers, the sisters and brothers of Jesus. To be images of the God who loves and forgives. Again, something that can only grow from within the heart of each person. It doesn’t really come naturally to us.

Finally, Jesus gives us very specific instructions (Mt 6:1-6, 16-18). Summed up briefly: Don’t perform righteous deeds where people can see them! Be discreet in your life of faith. Give of what you have, but do it quietly, secretly. Pray quietly, by yourself. Wash your face, wear your regular clothes. Don’t do anything to draw attention and praise to yourself for your good deeds.

Why not be open and even brazen about doing these good deeds? Shouldn’t we be good examples to others? Because God is hidden and can only really be approached through the heart. God is love. God reaches quietly out to the heart of each and every person. It is only in the garden of the heart, just as it was in the Garden of Eden, that we meet and walk freely with our God. And when we are consistently meeting and walking with our God, there will be a certain something that is attractive about us, something that draws others to walk with God themselves.

“A clean heart create for me, O God, and a steadfast spirit renew within me.”

Pope Francis has some suggestions for us this year. More challenging than giving up chocolate or TV or desserts, perhaps. Perhaps not. Certainly worth considering. What fertilizer does my inner garden need? What weeds need to be removed? What flowers and fruits will grow from my heart this year.

Welcome to Lent – the season of growth and renewal as we prepare for the great mystery of redemption.

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Posted by on Jan 23, 2022

Anointed to Bring Glad Tidings to the Poor!

Anointed to Bring Glad Tidings to the Poor!

Glad tidings, new beginnings, a year acceptable to the Lord… The readings for the Third Sunday in Ordinary Time are rich in hope and new beginnings. They are also practical in their orientation – not the dreams of what could never be. These are focused on how to be part of bringing a new order into being.

The land of Judah had been conquered and its cities and temple destroyed. The people had been taken into exile in a great land to the east, Babylon. All seemed lost forever. How could they ever return and become a nation again? Yet by the time today’s first reading opens, a new ruler, Cyrus the Great, King of Persia, has conquered Babylon and ordered that the people of Judah be allowed to return to their ancestral lands. Furthermore, the peoples among whom they were living were to give them precious metals, jewels, and other valuable objects to help them on their journey – to pay their way and establish new homes. The items taken from the temple were to be returned to their priests, so the ancient form of temple sacrifice and worship might be restored.

As the first of the people reach Jerusalem, Ezra, the priest who accompanies them, and Nehemiah, the administrator who has come with them to help them rebuild a city, the temple, and a government, call all the people together. Ezra stands on a high platform, so all can see and hear him. All adults and children old enough to understand are present. Ezra reads the Law to them – the Torah.

The Torah is more than just the Ten Commandments. The Torah contains all the rules and expectations for life in Jewish families and communities. The story of creation and the history of their community through the Exodus to the end of their time in the desert before crossing the Jordan River into Palestine, all are included in the Torah. It is a foundational collection and sets up the standards by which this new community, just returned to the homeland of their ancestors, will live and govern themselves. The reading of the Law begins at dawn and continues to midday. It is overwhelming to hear the entire story. Many people cry in response.

Nehemiah and Ezra encourage the people to rejoice. It’s a time of new beginnings. A time of recommitment to an ancient way of life. A time to celebrate a day holy to the Lord, the One who accompanies them always and will be their strength as they rebuild their community. (Neh 8:2-4a, 5-6,8-10)

St. Luke also writes of beginnings in the Gospel reading today. (Lk 1:1-4, 4:14-21) This reading is a bit confusing because it includes two different sections of the Gospel, the formal introduction to the work and an early event in Jesus’ public ministry. Luke writes to Theophilus and addresses him as “most excellent.” He writes in the form and style of Greek used by the educated and upper classes. He wants Theophilus to know what has happened and that the events narrated are based on eye-witness reports.

We have already heard the stories told in the first three chapters of this Gospel – the announcement of the birth of John, the annunciation, Mary’s visit to Elizabeth, the births of John and Jesus, and all the things that accompanied these events. Jesus’ baptism and the time he spent in prayer in the desert are also skipped over in today’s readings, though we hear of them on other Sundays.

Today we hear that “Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit” and began teaching. News about him spread like wildfire through the region. When he returned to his hometown, Nazareth, everyone was excited to see and hear him. All gathered at the Synagogue that Sabbath to see and hear him. It was common for visitors to be invited to do one of the readings and share thoughts about it (as in, give a little homily). Jesus was invited to do just this.

The reading Jesus chose was from the writings of the prophet Isaiah. It immediately follows the description of the one the Lord declares will be his servant, one of the Servant of the Lord oracles. Jesus read the scripture: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me…” Anointed for what? To bring glad tidings to the poor, liberty to captives, sight to the blind, freedom for the oppressed. The Servant of the Lord proclaims through words and actions a year acceptable to the Lord – a year of forgiveness and new beginnings.

Jesus was only one individual person and his message not always happily received. In order for the poor to be helped, captives to be freed, and all the other promises of the year of the Lord, it would take more help and more time. His teachings attracted followers, some of whom he selected to take his teachings out to the world after his time on Earth ended. The Good News spread farther than just the people who walked with him through Galilee, Samaria, and Judea.

St. Paul took the Gospel to Corinth, a Greek seaport, and a community of followers of The Way grew there. It was not a community of people who always got along well with each other. As a result, some of the more important writings about living in community came from letters Paul sent to the folks in Corinth when the battles among them became too disruptive.

The image of the body as a metaphor for the Christian community comes from St. Paul. (1 Cor 12:12-30) He reminds us that our bodies have many parts and all are necessary. Then he goes a step further and speaks of the Body of Christ. We are all part of Jesus’ body here and now. Each of us has a role to play. Some are more highly respected, perhaps, but all are equally essential. In fact, we take extra care of the less respectable parts of our bodies, and we should do the same with those less respected members of Christ’s body. And just as no part of our body chooses which part it is to be, so too we don’t decide which gifts we will receive. The Spirit gives the gifts and each of us is called to use the one(s) received.

How does this tie in? Jesus, the Servant of the Lord, came to proclaim a year of the Lord’s favor. This year is not a calendar year. It’s the beginning of a new way of being, a new age in human history and the relationship between God and humans. Each part of Jesus’ body has a role in this. No part is unnecessary.

The relationship between God and humans, celebrated in the Torah, announced to the people upon their return from exile in Babylon, and brought to its fullness in Jesus, the anointed one of God, is our relationship too. We are the sisters and brothers of Jesus, children of God. We too are anointed to bring glad tidings to the poor, release to prisoners, sight to the blind, freedom to the oppressed, and a year acceptable, treasured, valued by the Lord.

How do we live out this call? Do we hear this call in the small details of our lives? Is there a smile for others waiting in line at the grocery store? Do we patiently answer a young child’s “why” yet one more time? Do we share what we have with others? Can we wait a bit for something we want but don’t really need if that will allow giving help to another? Can we still our tongues and patiently work with folks who might not see the same solutions to problems that we see? Are we willing to be bearers of glad tidings?

Let’s help each other along the way. We are the Body of Christ, anointed to bring good news to our world.

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Posted by on Jan 16, 2022

Scarcity or Abundance – The Transforming Presence of God

Scarcity or Abundance – The Transforming Presence of God

Exile, triumphant return, wine run out, empty water jars filled,  water changed into wine, brides and bridegrooms, a variety of gifts – many images are presented in the readings for the Second Sunday of Ordinary Time.

The readings begin as the exile of the Jewish people in Babylon is drawing to a close. People are beginning to return to Jerusalem and Isaiah speaks the Lord’s words of joyful triumph: “I will not be silent, for Jerusalem’s sake I will not be quiet, her vindication shines forth like the dawn…” (Is 62:1-5) Jerusalem, the remnant of those exiled to Babylon, will shine again before all the nations. The Lord will bless her with a new name – My Delight. She will be a beautiful crown held by her God. The Lord is as delighted with her as a bridegroom is with his bride. This is all fantastic news to a people who have felt abandoned by God in bitter defeat and exile from their homes and homeland. From the depths of loss to the triumph of the abundant love of God, their return home is filled with reasons for rejoicing. God is again present with the people of Israel and they are home.

We see another case of scarcity transformed to abundance in the story of Jesus at the wedding in Cana of Galilee, not too far from Nazareth (Jn 2:1-11). Jesus and his friends have been invited to a wedding feast. His mother is there too. It’s a wonderful party and all are having a great time. All, that is, except the hosts. The wine is running out. Someone miscalculated how much people would drink or how many people would be there, or something. It really didn’t matter. Running out of food or drink at a wedding feast is a terrible issue, a shameful thing, even today.

Jesus’ mother notices the problem. She’s probably been involved in planning many weddings and other parties with family and friends through the years. The families of the couple are friends or relatives. What can anyone do to help in such a situation?

In St. John’s telling of the incident, there is something important that she can do. She can tell her son and in so doing, she nudges him to begin his public life. Jesus essentially asks her, “What am I supposed to do about that?” Yet in John’s Gospel, Jesus is presented as one who is in control of what is happening in his life. He is God become human and very much actively in charge of events. He adds, “My hour has not yet come.” It’s not the point in his teaching and ministry to begin doing extraordinary things and showing forth the glory of God, at least he doesn’t think so. But Mary is not deterred. These people need help and they need it right now. “Do whatever he tells you,” she says to the servers.

And so, what to do? Jesus looks around and there are six water jugs in the room. These jugs were used for ritual washing ceremonies when people gathered. Jesus, using what was available, directs that the jars be refilled with water. When this has been accomplished, he instructs the servers to take some to the headwaiter. It was now wine. Not just any everyday, watered down wine, but really good wine. Better than what had been served earlier. The headwaiter even sort of scolds the bridegroom for not serving the best wine first. Folks who have been drinking for a while won’t fully appreciate how good this stuff is!

John ends this story with the comment that in this first of the signs of his coming (as the Messiah), Jesus revealed his glory to his disciples and they “began to believe in him.” He became more than someone John the Baptist thought was important. Maybe he really was someone different and important. Maybe the Promised One had come.

Scarcity had been replaced with an abundance of wine, an abundance of life. God’s presence is revealed.

St. Paul presents another image of abundance (1 Cor 12:4-11). He’s dealing with a community in Corinth that was very diverse and whose members didn’t think of themselves as all being equals. There were many divisions in their society and those divisions didn’t go away when they gathered as a community.

Paul reminds them firmly that there are many kinds of gifts, many kinds of service. All come from God. There is only one Lord. There is no need to argue over which gift or which service is more important. None is more important or more valuable than any other. All are important and all are distributed by God. The Spirit’s presence is seen in each person’s gifts as that person uses the gift for the benefit of all.

A list of different gifts is found here. Wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, mighty deeds, prophecy, discernment of spirits, tongues, interpretation of tongues. All of these are important, but only if they are used on behalf of the community. No one gets a gift because it is earned or deserved. Gifts are only given as they are needed and they are given to the person who will best be able to use them in service. Yet, there is an abundance of gifts within the community when they are all shared.

The key to each of these stories of scarcity and later abundance is the presence of God. We each have known times that are hard. Times when it seems like nothing will ever get easier. Little or no hope is visible, even on the horizon. Yet when we let the Lord into our hearts in those times, hope begins to blossom like a small flame. As we move forward in trust, serving the Lord and our fellow people with the gifts we’ve been given, however small they may seem, that scarcity falls behind us. We begin to see the abundance of love that fills the world, even when it is masked by “ordinariness” in our days.

Today let’s ask ourselves where the Lord is present, transforming the difficulties and challenges of our ordinary human lives into the beauty of new life, of diadems in the hands of God, of new love between bride and bridegroom, of joyful celebrations of love and new beginnings, and of the growth in wisdom, age, and grace to which we are all called in life.

The Lord has come. Where will we meet him today?

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Posted by on Nov 17, 2021

St. Elizabeth of Hungary

St. Elizabeth of Hungary

Today the Church celebrates the life of Saint Elizabeth of Hungary, who was queen of Hungary in the 13th century.

We don’t hear much about this inspiring woman, who was certainly a Mother Teresa of her time and place.

St. Elizabeth of Hungary was the daughter of King Andrew II of Hungary and his wife, Gertrude of Andechs-Meran, a family that produced many saints. St. Elizabeth married Ludwig, the duke of Thuringia and their joyous marriage produced three children. She was very generous, donating many of the couple’s possessions to the poor. After Ludwig’s death, St. Elizabeth joined the Third Order of St. Francis. At Marburg, she started a home for the poor, dying, and infirm, whom she personally tended. She was canonized four years after her death by Pope Gregory IX.

This morning’s Office of Readings in the Liturgy of Hours has a wonderful description of Saint Elizabeth by her spiritual director:

From a letter of Conrad of Marburg, spiritual director of Saint Elizabeth(Ad pontificem anno 1232: A. Wyss, Hessisches Urkundenbuch I, Leipzig 1879, 31-35)“Elizabeth recognized and loved Christ in the poor“From this time onward Elizabeth’s goodness greatly increased. She was a lifelong friend of the poor and gave herself entirely to relieving the hungry. She ordered that one of her castles should be converted into a hospital in which she gathered many of the weak and feeble. She generously gave alms to all who were in need, not only in that place but in all the territories of her husband’s empire. She spent all her own revenue from her husband’s four principalities, and finally she sold her luxurious possessions and rich clothes for the sake of the poor.“Twice a day, in the morning and in the evening, Elizabeth went to visit the sick. She personally cared for those who were particularly repulsive; to some she gave food, to others clothing; some she carried on her own shoulders, and performed many other kindly services. Her husband, of happy memory, gladly approved of these charitable works. Finally, when her husband died, she sought the highest perfection; filled with tears, she implored me to let her beg for alms from door to door.“On Good Friday of that year, when the altars had been stripped, she laid her hands on the altar in a chapel in her own town, where she had established the Friars Minor, and before witnesses she voluntarily renounced all worldly display and everything that our Savior in the gospel advises us to abandon. Even then she saw that she could still be distracted by the cares and worldly glory which had surrounded her while her husband was alive. Against my will she followed me to Marburg. Here in the town she built a hospice where she gathered together the weak and the feeble. There she attended the most wretched and contemptible at her own table.“Apart from those active good works, I declare before God that I have seldom seen a more contemplative woman. When she was coming from private prayer, some religious men and women often saw her face shining marvelously and light coming from her eyes like the rays of the sun.“Before her death I heard her confession. When I asked what should be done about her goods and possessions, she replied that anything which seemed to be hers belonged to the poor. She asked me to distribute everything except one worn out dress in which she wished to be buried. When all this had been decided, she received the body of our Lord. Afterward, until vespers, she spoke often of the holiest things she had heard in sermons. Then, she devoutly commended to God all who were sitting near her, and as if falling into a gentle sleep, she died.”

Prayer

O God, by whose gift Saint Elizabeth of Hungaryrecognized and revered Christ in the poor,grant, through her intercession,that we may serve with unfailing charitythe needy and those afflicted.Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,God, for ever and ever.– Amen.

Prayer from Liturgy of the Hours, Morning Prayer, November 17

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Posted by on Nov 7, 2021

Absolute Trust in the Lord

Absolute Trust in the Lord

“There is only a handful of flour in my jar and a little oil in my jug … when we have eaten it, we shall die.”

The prophet Elijah and a widow star in today’s reading from the book of Kings (1 Kg 17:10-16). Elijah has fled the wrath of Jezebel and Ahab, traveling to the city of Zarephath. Jezebel, as you will recall, has sworn to kill Elijah for his opposition to the decision of Ahab to worship the gods of her people and encourage the people of his kingdom to do the same. One would think Elijah would travel far from any lands connected to Jezebel. But the Lord sent him to the land of Sidon, ruled by Jezebel’s father! (Ever heard the phrase, the Lord’s ways are mysterious?)

Elijah arrives in Zaraphath, hungry, tired, and thirsty. A woman is gathering sticks there. Elijah asks her for a cup of water. When she starts off to get it for him, he asks for something more, a bit of something to eat. It is at this point that her situation becomes clear. She is a widow and has a child. In those days, there was no social safety net. No one was there to help her. Her husband was gone. His family was no longer responsible for her care. Her family had long since given up any responsibility for her. She was on her own. There was no way for her to go out and get a job to support herself. Many women in her situation had no option but to become prostitutes. The lives of these women were short and hard. Their children had no future either. They were left to become beggars, servants, thieves, slaves, or worse!

“Do not be afraid,” says Elijah. These words are so often heard in the scriptures. The Lord will take care of it! He assures her that there will be enough flour and oil for him to have a little cake/bread. The flour and oil will not run out until the rains come again. (This was a time of drought and supplies of food were scarce, making her situation even more precarious.)

We remember this woman because, though she was not a Jew, did not worship or know the Lord, and did not know this man who had come asking for her help, she took a chance and trusted him. She made the bread for him and hosted him in her home through the entire time he lived in Zaraphath, until it became time for him to return to his own land. The jar of flour did not go empty, nor did the jug of oil run out for the entire year they lived together.

Another widow caught the attention of Jesus in the temple in Jerusalem. On this Thirty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time, we hear the story often known as the widow’s mite. (Mk 12:38-44) As the story begins, Jesus was teaching in the temple. He warned those listening to him to beware of the scribes.

Last week we heard the story of the scribe who was praised by Jesus as a man not far from the Kingdom of God. That scribe had heard Jesus teaching when the widow in today’s story gave her gift to the temple. He asked Jesus the question about the greatest commandment and praised Jesus for his answer to the question. But this story came first.

The scribes to whom Jesus was referring here were educated men who served as recorders and lawyers. They knew the law and were careful to observe the letter of the law. Jesus did not criticize their knowledge or their position as specialists. However, he was incensed at the behavior of those who demanded high fees for their services as lawyers and justified the price by their apparent holiness. They recited elaborate prayers and accepted honors from all, then cheated widows and the poor.

Watching the people come and go in the temple, Jesus observed that many well-to-do people came and put large amounts of money into the collection boxes, the treasury. Checks were not used in those days, nor paper money or credit cards, so it was obvious when a large amount of money was being deposited. Then a poor widow came along. She gave two very small coins. These were something like giving two pennies. Not much to offer in comparison with the gifts given by most people. Certainly not enough to warrant attention or praise from bystanders. Yet Jesus noticed and praised her. He noted that those who were giving large gifts were not making any real sacrifice or putting any real trust in God. What they gave was what was left over after all their needs had been met. The woman, on the other hand, gave all that she had. There was nothing held back. She was now totally dependent on God. Her gift was much larger than that of the others, despite being such a small amount in absolute terms. With the psalmist, she could sing, “Praise the Lord, my soul!” The Lord who keeps faith, securing justice for the oppressed and food for the hungry (Ps 146): in this Lord she trusted totally.

Jesus sat in the temple and watched. He taught there. He prayed there. Sacrifices had been offered there on his behalf. That day, he would not likely have thought of himself as a High Priest. He was a carpenter who had received a call from God to tell everyone that the Kingdom of God was at hand. He was to bring good news to poor and rich alike. The Kingdom of God is at hand. Be good to each other. After his death and resurrection, the community reflected on what had just happened and tried to explain it in terms of their religious tradition. (Heb 9:24-28) They knew the High Priest offered sacrifices for himself and all the people. Day after day, year after year, sacrifices were offered in the temple. Yet Jesus had given himself and been raised up by the Father. Jesus had offered the perfect sacrifice to reconcile God and humans, giving himself as the faithful witness to God’s Kingdom and Love. This sacrifice would never need to be repeated. Jesus had promised to return to them. They awaited his coming eagerly.

It’s taken a lot more years than the early followers of Jesus thought it would take before his second coming. We’re not there yet, over 2,000 years later. Yet the stories of these two widows and the reflections of the psalmist and the author of the Letter to the Hebrews still speak to us of the call to absolute trust in God’s love and protection. There are times when we too must simply trust that enough material goods will come along to provide for what is needed, especially when we are asked to take precious time away from “earning a living” to help someone who is unable to fend for themselves. Or when we are asked to share the little bit extra we’ve set aside for something we want but don’t absolutely need. We don’t always get exactly what we might think we need, or when we think we must have it, but we get what is really needed, when it is needed, and not a second before then. I like to think of it as “God’s Just-In-Time Financing.” When the chips are down, something or someone comes through with the particular thing that is most needed.

Today I pray for the grace to continue to trust the Lord and the grace to be generous with my time and treasure, just as the two widows so long ago trusted in the Lord’s protection and care.

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Posted by on Sep 26, 2021

What If the Lord Bestows His Spirit on All?

What If the Lord Bestows His Spirit on All?

On this Twenty-sixth Sunday of Ordinary Time, we hear of prophecy, healing, and inclusion. We also hear words of warning, some quite harsh.

Moses, in the Book of Numbers, has his hands full trying to lead the people and deal with their complaints and concerns (Nm 11:25-29). The burden of leadership has rested heavily on his shoulders, and he is tired of carrying it by himself. He complains to the Lord, who promises to spread the burden around a bit, and to provide more meat for the people (addressing their chief complaint). Moses is to select a group of elders who will help him govern the people. They are to gather at the meeting tent. All but two of those chosen are present at the tent when the Lord takes some of the spirit shared with Moses and bestows it on the chosen elders. These men begin to speak the Lord’s word when the spirit comes upon them – to prophesy. It is a strong confirmation of their new role in the community.

While this is happening at the meeting tent, the two men who were late getting there also experience the coming of the spirit upon them. They also begin to prophesy, right there in the camp. A young man runs to Moses with the news. Joshua urges Moses to stop the men from prophesying, since they have not received this gift at the tent with the others. Moses declines to do so, asking Joshua if he is jealous for the sake of himself (Moses).

Moses declares a different vision than that of limitation of access to divine inspiration and exclusion of those not present when the Lord acts in a religious or other formal setting. He declares, “Would that all the people of the Lord were prophets! Would that the Lord might bestow his spirit on them all!”

In the context of the Hebrew Scriptures, the spirit of the Lord is the Lord’s very life breath! When the Lord shares his spirit with people, he is sharing of his own life. Moses wishes this sharing in the divine life and gifts could be experienced by all the people. Those who receive it speak out in praise the words of the Lord.

Jesus also dealt with misunderstanding of the breadth of God’s distribution of gifts (Mk 9:38-43, 45, 47-48). Someone else was successfully driving out demons in Jesus’ name. Perhaps wishing to protect Jesus’ reputation as a healer in the face of competition, John tried to stop the other from acting and then informed Jesus of the competition. Jesus surprised John by telling him not to try to stop the other person’s actions. He noted that it is impossible to perform mighty deeds in Jesus’ name and in the next breath speak ill of him. “For whoever is not against us is for us.”  And any who help those belonging to Christ, even with a small drink of water, will be rewarded.

So much for jealously restricting the gifts of healing and prophesy…

Now for the other side of the picture. A series of dire warnings concludes this section of the Gospel. The warnings are phrased dramatically and speak of drastic efforts to keep from causing others who believe in Jesus to sin. They were not meant to be taken literally, though in the course of history, some people have done just that. Jesus is not advocating physically injuring or maiming oneself or others, but rather emphasizing how important it is to be aware of what leads us to sin – what leads us to miss the target of loving behavior towards others and ourselves. He warns that it’s better to do without something deemed very important than to go to Gehenna, where the fire is unquenchable.

This reference to Gehenna is one that today is not at all understood in the context known by Jesus’ audience. We tend to think of Hell as the destination in the reference, but that’s not what Jesus was saying. Outside the walls of Jerusalem, there was a garbage dump. This dump was not like a modern landfill. It was a place where garbage was burned in open fires. The fires were kept burning day and night. The final line is a reference to the last few verses of the Book of Isaiah. Those verses too spoke of the garbage-burning fires outside the gates of the city. The prophet has just spoken of the coming victory of the Lord and the bringing together of good people from all over the earth to live in the city of the Lord. The bodies of the enemies, slain in a great battle, would be burned in the fires of the garbage dump.

These readings, and the reading from the letter of James (Jas 5:1-6), almost follow a parallel pattern. First Moses chides Joshua for trying to limit the Lord’s sharing of the spirit. Moses speaks of a broader sharing of the spirit among all the people. Then James cautions against making assumptions about the future or storing up riches for old age by taking advantage of the poor or treating workers unfairly. He reminds his listeners that the Lord hears the cries of those who are being harmed and will ultimately rule in their favor.  Finally, Jesus refuses to limit the power of healing to the small group of disciples who travel with him. He warns of the serious nature of sin and the importance of guarding against falling into temptation.

These readings are not just samples of the thinking of historical figures. They are intended to speak to us today. What do they say to us?

The first thing that comes to mind is the insight of the Council Fathers at the Second Vatican Council, when they declared that the Spirit has been at work in all cultures and times throughout the history of humankind. This was a major breakthrough. No longer do we say that only through faith in Jesus is salvation and everlasting life with God possible. We know that people of good will who have never received the gift of faith also share in life with God, both now and when they enter into eternity. The document, Nostra Aetate, (Declaration on The Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions), was promulgated on October 28, 1965. It is a short document, but its implications are profound for our world today and the religious strife which still plagues humanity.

The second point is perhaps more challenging. We absolutely must take seriously our own responsibility for our failures to live in self-giving love. And then we must do something about them.

What keeps me from a loving response? Is it the television show over which I get angry if I have to miss the final five minutes of the program? Is it the cell phone that keeps me distracted from family dinner conversation? Is it the sports event on television whose result upsets me so that I lash out angrily against my family? Is it taking on too many activities so that I can live up to an unrealistic picture of what a good parent does but then find I don’t have patience with a spouse or child who just needs a bit of attention and time from me? Is it social media? Do I really need to spend an hour or more each day catching up with my followers? What should I really be quietly doing for a friend today?

So many things can come between me and God. (The grammarian in me says it should be “God and me,” but the issue really is that God isn’t the one responsible here, so I will leave it with myself first here.) My challenge, and I think the challenge we all face, is to see what obstacles trip me up. Those are the ones I must address. They are the ones that need to be limited or dumped. Better they be dumped than that I end up in the dump – living apart from joyous presence of God.

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Posted by on Sep 12, 2021

Looking Good on Wood

Looking Good on Wood

The Babylonian Empire had replaced the Assyrians in conquering Israel by the time of the second author of the Book of Isaiah, whose work we hear today. The people had been taken to Babylonia and lived in exile there. Our first reading for this Twenty-fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time was written early in their long exile. It is one of four “songs” of the Servant of the Lord, also called the Suffering Servant (Is 50:5-9a). This person is one who has been called by the Lord and formed to speak the Lord’s words. Today’s song is the third one. The Servant has had a rough time. He has listened and followed the Lord’s word. He has not sinned or turned against God in any way. Yet he has met opposition from those around him. He has been physically assaulted and insulted in many ways. Nevertheless, he remains steadfast in trusting the Lord. He challenges his opponents to come before the Lord with him and see, trusting that because the Lord God is his help, none will prove him wrong.

Psalm 116 continues the theme. In time of trouble, the faithful one calls upon the Lord and the Lord responds. The faithful one is saved and “shall walk with the Lord in the land of the living.” In the time this psalm was written, the people did not believe in eternal life or heaven. The psalmist believed that after death all that remained was a shadowy netherworld from which no one could ever return. This psalm was one of praise for healing of a potentially mortal illness, but for Christians, it is also a reminder that the Lord God protects those who are faithful. “I will walk before the Lord, in the land of the living.” Christians extend the land of the living to eternal life, beyond that which we experience here and now.

St. Mark drew on the Suffering Servant prophecies in presenting the life of Jesus. In today’s reading, Jesus and his friends are on the road (Mk 8:27-35). Jesus asks them what they are hearing people say about him. Some think he is his cousin, John the Baptist, returned from the dead. Others think he might be Elijah, the prophet who was expected to return before the coming of God’s Anointed One, the Messiah, the Chosen One. The Messiah would bring reconciliation between God and humanity. When Jesus asked them who they themselves thought he might be, Peter responded for them. “You are the Christ.” The word Christ as used here means the Anointed One, the Chosen One.

It seems rather incongruous that the very next thing we hear about Peter is when Jesus rebukes him, calling him Satan, meaning adversary or enemy. What is going on?

Jesus knew that he had enemies in high places. His teaching about the importance of caring for each other and for God’s “little ones” – those of any age who were unable to fend for themselves – was a threat to the wealthy and powerful leaders of his people and to the Roman conquerors. Rome did not deal gently with those it perceived to be a threat. Nevertheless, he was on his way to Jerusalem, called to speak the truth of God’s care for all to the leaders of his people as well. He warned his followers that it would not go well for him. Most likely he would be killed.

Peter and most others were expecting a messiah who would deliver the country from the Romans. Not someone who would be killed by them. What kind of a messiah would not lead the people to triumph over their enemies? God was on their side, so they would triumph militarily as they had in former ages. Besides, Jesus was his friend. What kind of friend would not try to protect the companion he loved and followed?

But Jesus knew that violent revolution would not bring true freedom. He was not called to be that kind of chosen one. That was not God’s way. St. Mark has Jesus saying, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” This was written about 35-40 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, so it is from the perspective of one who knew what had happened to Jesus. The people were experiencing persecution and rejection from their communities. It was not an easy thing to be a follower of Jesus. Mark’s words were intended to encourage the community and make it clear that Jesus was the one to whom the Suffering Servant songs of Isaiah had pointed. This really was the one the Lord would raise up and whose faithfulness would be vindicated.

How does it all play out in everyday life for the believer? St. James speaks of this (Jas 2:14-18). Faith in the Lord is important. But for James, the proof of the pudding is in what people do, not in what they say. How do we respond to the poor in our midst? If we simply throw kind words but don’t include food, clothing, shelter, and other necessities, we are not living out our faith. Jesus healed the sick, fed the hungry, forgave those who hurt him. His followers must do the same. A life of faith requires commitment to sharing and serving those in need of help. The gifts and talents we have received must be shared.

Daniel Berrigan, SJ once said, “If you are going to follow Jesus, you better look good on wood.”

What wood will I need to look good on?

What am I called to do? Who am I called to help? What will my friends on social media think if I support an unpopular cause? Will my family support me or will they oppose my positions? Will they just write off what I say? Does it matter?

As we continue to live our daily lives, may we be ever more aware of the needs of those around us. May we choose to believe that they are trying hard and doing their best, even if they aren’t able to achieve “success” in the ways our family or friends would define it. May we meet them as companions in the journey, not as outsiders who intend to “save” them from their situation and then get on with our lives again. May we walk with the Lord in the land of the living, in all his many disguises.

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Posted by on Sep 5, 2021

Ears and Mouths Opened – What Do We Hear, Say and Do?

Ears and Mouths Opened – What Do We Hear, Say and Do?

Our readings for the Twenty-third Sunday of Ordinary Time begin with an oracle. It was very common in the ancient world for prophets, priests, or priestesses to speak the words of the gods as oracles. Both the person through whom the message is delivered and the message itself were known as oracles. Oracles as messages were often difficult to understand or required some time and effort to unravel.

The book of Isaiah is believed to include the prophecies of three persons over an extended period in the history of Israel. This reading is from the first section, as the Assyrians are invading Israel from the north and have neared Jerusalem (Is 35:4-7a). The assault on Jerusalem failed, fulfilling the prophecy that God would step in and protect the people in the end. How or when the miraculous healings might be seen is not addressed.

This oracle is pronounced while it is still uncertain that anything will stop the enemy’s advance and the total conquest of the nation. Yet the prophet speaks the words of the Lord boldly. “Here is your God … he comes to save you.” Still, the signs of the coming of the Lord are not what might have been expected. The blind see, the deaf hear, the lame leap like a stag, the mute speak. These promises can be seen as purely metaphorical. Or they can be applied to the actions of Jesus over 700 years later. The writers of the Gospels and the people who witnessed these things happening in real life took them as confirmation of the authority of Jesus to speak in the name of the Lord.

St. Mark tells us today that Jesus traveled to the north, outside the area where Jews typically lived, to an area in Gentile lands where there were ten cities, the Decapolis. (Mk 7:31-37) People there had heard of Jesus and brought a man who was both deaf and mute (unable to speak), requesting that Jesus lay his hands on the man and heal him. Jesus often touched people as part of healing them. However, it was forbidden for good Jew to touch a Gentile (non-Jew). Doing so resulted in ritual impurity that required offering special sacrifices and purification rituals before one could again worship with others or be in community with them.

Jesus took the man aside and, disregarding the prohibition, he touched him. He put his fingers into the man’s ears, then spit on his own fingers and touched the man’s tongue. We would react with “Eww” at the thought of doing this, but saliva was commonly used in healing in that time and place. Jesus used saliva in other healings as well. After touching the ears and tongue of the man, Jesus looked up to heaven, groaned, and ordered, “Be opened.” The man’s ears were opened and he could hear. He also became able to speak clearly.

Jesus, as he usually did, ordered those who witnessed his actions not to tell anyone. But as usual, they proclaimed it to any who would listen. Familiar with the oracle of Isaiah, they noted that Jesus “makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.” These things were known to be signs of God’s coming to rescue God’s people.

Jesus accepted people of all types who came to him for help or to learn from him. The same behavior is expected of those who are his disciples. St. James chides the people to whom he was writing for favoring those who appeared to be rich over those who obviously were poor. (Jas 2:1-5) This kind of response to those who joined the assembly for worship and community sharing was absolutely unacceptable for the followers of Jesus. He reminds them that God chose the poor to be the ones rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, the opposite of the values of their society and most others. He knew that those who depend totally on divine providence and the goodwill of others often have a deeper experience of God’s care than do those who might think their good fortune is the result of their own actions and worth.

This reading is especially noteworthy this year, since it falls on September 5, the Feast of St. Teresa of Calcutta. Mother Teresa was known for her dedication to caring for the poorest of the poor. When a man remarked that he would not do the work she was doing for all the money in the world, she informed him that she would not do it for that reason either. She did it because that was where and how she met and served Christ.

I won’t go into the story of Mother Teresa and her life here, but it’s worth considering in the light of today’s readings. If you’d like to know more about our family’s story of Mother Teresa’s work, take a look at https://blog.theologika.net/mother-teresa-love-is-left-alone/. Suffice it to say that Mother trusted deeply that when others knew of the needs of the people she served, they would find a way to help. She would simply inform them of the need, then sit quietly, with her hands in her lap, and wait for them to figure out how to meet it.

Our challenge today is similar to those faced in the time of Jesus and the early church, as well as those Mother Teresa faced. How do we respond to the needs of others? Do we see the faith of those left behind in our economy, our communities, and our world? Do we see Christ among them? Do we reach out in love? If we ourselves don’t have a lot resources to spare, we’re not off the hook. Who do we know and how can we work together to help?

We pray with the man Jesus healed today: Open our ears, Lord, so we can hear your voice. Then open our mouths too, so we can speak of the needs of our sisters and brothers here and around the world. Help us to respond to your love by sharing it in concrete ways with those we meet each day – rich or poor, native born or immigrant, man or woman.

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Posted by on Aug 28, 2021

Living in the Presence of the Lord

Living in the Presence of the Lord

I grew up in a Scouting family, with four younger brothers. Each month a new copy of Boys Life magazine arrived and we eagerly opened it to a page called “Think and Grin.” This was a collection of jokes and cartoons. Some were very obvious in meaning, others required a bit of thinking to understand the joke. But we all read them and usually then read them to our mother. She enjoyed them too, and especially she enjoyed the fact that we all, individually, read the very same jokes to her!

As I consider the readings for this Twenty-second Sunday of Ordinary Time, I am struck by the double meaning of a word. The first reading, from the book of Deuteronomy, begins, “Now, Israel, hear the statutes and decrees which I am teaching you to observe…” (Dt 4:1-2,6-8)  The word in question is “hear.” For us, hearing refers to the physical act of perceiving the sound and understanding the meaning of the word. But for the people of Israel, it carried an additional meaning. That meaning was to “obey,” as in “take it to heart and live according to what is being said.” In essence, this set of instructions should be called “Hear and Do.”

The context for this reading is that the Law is being presented to the people. It is a codification of how people are to interact with their God and with each other. The rules and codes grew out of a particular cultural context – that of a Middle-Eastern pastoral people. It codified a more merciful response to misfortune or injury at the hand of others. Today we look at it and see it as rather brutal, but the notion of balancing the taking of an eye with the penalty of losing an eye was actually a great improvement over the prior way of killing an entire family or village if one individual maimed, insulted, or injured a member of another stronger group. Jewish law was heavily influenced by the Code of Hammurabi, a legal text from Babylonia written down around 1755-1758 B.C. which pioneered this more humane legal code.

The instructions from Deuteronomy include another important point. Nothing is to be added or taken away from the Law as it is being presented to the people. Following this Law will show the wisdom and intelligence of the Israelites, a people who are close to their God who, in turn, chooses to remain close to them.

As the years and centuries passed, many new situations arose and solutions were found that came to be treated as essential parts of the Law. The Law as it was known by the time of Jesus was far more complicated than it had been when first handed down in the Sinai desert, particularly in terms of purity regulations. What made a person “unclean” and therefore ritually impure and prohibited from participating in religious rituals? A large number of guidelines had been developed, including specific ways and times for washing hands, kettles, jugs, and beds that explained what was impure and what was necessary to restore purity.

When Jesus’ disciples were seen eating after visiting the marketplace without first washing their hands in the ritually required manner before eating, the Scribes and Pharisees objected. Scribes were those who studied the scriptures. Pharisees were another group that focused closely on observing all of the specific requirements of the Law. Jesus responded with some aggravation. (Mk 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23) He quoted Isaiah the prophet who had noted that human requirements had been added to the commandments of God and God’s commandments were not being observed. “Their hearts are far from me…” Jesus declared, “Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person.” It is only what comes from the heart, the depths of the human being, that can defile a person.

St. James echoes Jesus’ point in his letter to Jewish Christians. All good things come from God and are pure gift. There is never any change in God’s relationship with humans from God’s side of the deal. We have been willed into being and are to be a sort of first fruits of creation. From the human side, the critical thing is to be doers, not just hearers of the word of God. “Hear and Do” again!

What are we to do? Care for orphans and widows. Just for them? Why these two groups? When these words were first written, it was because without a man’s protection, anyone could and did do whatever they wanted to do to women and children. They had no social status and were the most vulnerable members of any community.

Today we have social and legal protections for women and children. Orphans and widows are not necessarily the most vulnerable people today, though we certainly have a responsibility as a community to provide loving support for them. But who else needs our care now? Refugees, immigrants, asylum seekers, addicts, the unhoused, those with special needs. Many people still need a hand and a smile of welcome. How will we respond to them? How do I respond?

“Those who do justice will live in the presence of the Lord.” (Ps 15) It was so three thousand years ago and it is so today. It’s all about our relationship with the Lord and each other. Hear and Do!

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Posted by on Aug 15, 2021

Layer upon layer of meaning for the Feast of the Assumption

Layer upon layer of meaning for the Feast of the Assumption

The Feast of the Assumption of The Blessed Virgin Mary pre-empts the usual celebration of the Sundays of Ordinary Time when it falls on a Sunday as it does this year. It is a feast that has been celebrated by the Church for many centuries, but it was only officially promulgated as a feast in 1950. The Assumption refers to the belief that Mary’s body was taken into heaven at the time of her death. In the Eastern Church, the feast is called the Dormition and the belief is that she when she died, she simply went to sleep and was taken, body and soul, into heaven.

The readings begin with one from the Book of Revelations (Rev 11:19a; 12:1-6a, 10ab). This book is an example of apocalyptic literature, in which there are many layers of meaning. It is not to be taken literally, because the characters and events described are symbols of other realities. Numbers, colors, objects – all carried deeper meanings than their face value. Revelations was written during a time of persecution of the Christian community. Those for whom it was written understood it as an encouragement in time of trouble. Through all the suffering and trials, Christ and the Church would prevail, because God was on their side.

In today’s reading, first a sign appears in the heavens – a woman laboring to give birth. Then comes a huge red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, ready to devour the child. There were said to be seven diadems on its seven heads, each of which had ten horns. Seven and ten were numbers signifying completeness and power. Horns are symbols of power. The diadems also referenced power. Red symbolizes war, destruction, and bloodshed. This dragon symbolized the forces of evil, arrayed against the woman and her child. The woman herself relates to two layers of meaning. She represents both Israel, from whom the savior would be born, and Mary, the Israelite mother who would give birth to Jesus and the church.  The child born and saved from the dragon was both Mary’s son, the Christ, and the community of believers who form his body today, the Church.

The triumph of the forces of good does not appear seamlessly in this story. There are many ups and downs, many triumphs and tribulations. However, the focus is on the ultimate victory of God, brought to fruition through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus and the faithfulness of the Church. The inclusion of a woman in the mix, as the one giving birth, makes clear the importance of the feminine and of matter in the story of salvation. God is not one who despises matter or the feminine. God unites heaven and earth, male and female in the story of salvation.

The readings continue, with St. Paul reminding the people of Corinth that Christ was raised from the dead. Christ is the first of “those who have fallen asleep” and been raised to new life. (1 Cor 15:20-27) Death came through the first human, Adam. All humans die. Now, because Christ is the new Adam, all humans will rise as he did. This will happen at the end of time, when all enemies of life have been conquered, including death.

The role of women is again featured in the Gospel according to St. Luke (Lk1:39—56) In this story, a newly pregnant Mary leaves Nazareth shortly after her encounter with the angel Gabriel. Gabriel has informed her that her elderly cousin, Elizabeth, is having a baby and is now six months pregnant. This is a miracle because Elizabeth was past child-bearing age. Mary hurries to Elizabeth’s side to help her in the final months of the pregnancy.

When Mary approaches Elizabeth, her cousin cries out to her in the words we use in the Hail Mary: “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” The child in her womb had leapt with joy when Mary greeted Elizabeth. This child grew up to be the final prophet, John the Baptist, who pointed to Jesus as the one who was to come. Elizabeth praised Mary for believing the angel’s words and consenting to God’s request of her.

If you or I heard such a greeting, we might well focus on our good deed or we might be embarrassed and brush off the greeting as excessive. Mary responded differently. Her response takes the form of a Canticle, a song of praise to God. “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior…” This song is sung by the Church every evening as part of Evening Prayer. She sings of God’s great love and mercy throughout history, of the way the Lord comes to lift up the lowly and cast down the mighty from their thrones. She rejoices that the Lord has always come to the aid of his servant Israel and remembers the promise made to Abraham and his children forever. We too are children of Abraham in faith. She sings our song.

On this, the feast of the Assumption, let us rejoice in the courage and faithfulness of Mary, a teenager who met an angel, believed the messenger of God, and accepted a role that would bring danger, hardship, and sorrow, but also joy as she shared the journey of Jesus’ life. She understands what it is to be a mother, a wife, a faithful woman. She is ready to help all who ask for aid.

See you at Mass.

P.S. Many years ago I wrote another blog post for the Feast of the Assumption. If you’re interested, you can find it at:  https://blog.theologika.net/feast-of-the-assumption/

Image: Dormition of Mary – unknown artist – public domain

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Posted by on Jul 24, 2021

Grains and Bread in Abundance

Grains and Bread in Abundance

Barley loaves, the gift of the man from Baal-Shalishah to the prophet Elisha and the gift of a child to Jesus, share the spotlight in the readings for the Seventeenth Sunday of Ordinary Time. Both the first reading from the second book of Kings (2 Kings 4:42-44) and the gospel reading from St. John (Jn 6:1-15) feature a person who brings a gift of food to the prophet. The prophet receives the food and instructs that it be shared among the people who are present in the crowd. The crowd is large and the small amount of food offered would never be enough to feed everyone, but the prophet doesn’t back down, insisting that the loaves be shared among the people. There will be enough for all.

As it turns out, in each case there was indeed enough for all. There was even bread left over. In the case of Jesus, the amount left over was enough to fill twelve wicker baskets. Granted, you and I don’t know how large a wicker basket was in those days, but the five small loaves given by the child to Jesus would not themselves have filled twelve baskets when broken into pieces unless they were tiny baskets for a doll house, let alone after they had been shared among the crowd.

There are many layers of meaning in these narratives. The fact that the man shared twenty barley loaves with Elisha indicates that he had plenty of food. Sharing it might not ordinarily have been his first thought. The fact that he was identified by his place of origin indicates that what he did was noteworthy. Those with plenty often don’t think of sharing, especially if what they have would not be enough to feed everyone and still leave some for themselves. Yet God provided for all the people, as Elisha had declared would happen.

Barley, not wheat?

Barley loaves were the most common form of bread in Israel and most of the Middle East at that time. Barley has been cultivated in that region for over 10,000 years. It grows well in areas where water can be scarce. It ripens early in the spring, having been planted in the fall. It is higher in many nutrients than wheat and is easier to prepare for eating. (It’s also used in making beer – another common use for it even today – but that’s another story!) Unleavened barley loaves were a regular part of the diet of the people who listened to Elisha and to Jesus – the ordinary folk.

Wheat is also an ancient grain, though it was less commonly used in baking in Israel. It grew well in Egypt, where the annual flooding of the Nile provided a reliable source of water. It ripened later in the season and was less nutritious. It took more work to process it into a useable form. The Egyptians developed bread and ovens in which to bake it into leavened loaves. When the Israelites left Egypt, they were instructed to eat unleavened bread, baked in haste for the journey. Wheat bread was seen as the bread of captivity and of the wealthy and powerful. It didn’t become common anywhere else until the Romans conquered Egypt and took it home with them. Even then, it was still food for the wealthier classes.

The child brought five barley loaves and two fish to Jesus, willing to share his own lunch. With this gift of love, near the feast of Passover, Jesus was able to feed five thousand men, along with the women and children who accompanied them. For St. John, this was a sign of the true revelation of who Jesus is – God who has become one of us – Jesus who becomes the new Passover Lamb. This event was seen by the early Christian community as a foreshadowing of the Eucharist – bread is taken, blessed in thanksgiving, broken, and shared with all. There is always enough to share – God sees to that.

A Miracle? A Sign?

Did the miracles happen just as they are described? Were there really no more than twenty loaves in the first case and five in the second? That is not something that we can say with any absolute, 21st Century Western Historical-minded certainty. Stories such as these were never intended to be “historical” in our sense of the word. The important thing is that bread, simple, commonly eaten bread, was shared by all in the crowd. If others besides the man identified in the first story or the child in the second also shared what they had, would that not also be something of a miracle? If folks took food with them into the countryside when they went to hear a prophet, would that be surprising? You and I would usually take something with us when going out into the countryside to hear someone speak, right? Surely at least some of those who couldn’t expect a food truck to show up out there would have taken something.

Bottom line, God provides. How? God provides through the loving presence of a community who look out for each other. St. Paul reminds the people of Ephesus (Eph 4:1-6) that they are to live “in a manner worthy of the call” they have received – the call to be the children of God. Humble, gentle, patient, loving, sharing a unity of spirit through a bond of peace. They/we are to be one – one with each other and one with our God and Father.

So out we go into the field, each taking our few barley loaves and fish, our gifts and talents, to share with those we meet along the way. We share with those who are members of our community. We also share with those who are outside our community. No one is to be excluded from the love of God and God’s community, because God loves all of creation, including all of us.

See you at Mass,

Kathy

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Posted by on Jul 10, 2021

Kindness and Truth, Justice and Peace – Signs of the Kingdom

Kindness and Truth, Justice and Peace – Signs of the Kingdom

The readings for the Fifteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time (Cycle B this year) begin with an event in the life of Amos the prophet (Am 7:12-15). A priest from the temple in Bethel named Amaziah essentially tells him, “Get lost!”

This might at first glance seem like a clash between the roles of priest and prophet. Anthropologists have noted these clashes in many societies. The priest’s role is to uphold the religious system and offer the necessary sacrifices to the local deity. The prophet’s role is to stand outside the gates and call for changes in the status quo when things get too unbearable for the poor and others outside the favored classes. Once the changes have been made in a society, the priestly class re-establishes a new status quo and all moves forward peacefully again.

To a certain extent this is what we see happening here. But there’s more to it than meets the eye. The Promised Land has divided into two kingdoms. The northern kingdom is known as Israel. The southern is Judah. Bethel is in the northern kingdom which has been quite successful in expanding into lands we now know as Syria and Iraq. The nobles are doing very well personally. The religious leaders are also profiting from the elaborate religious ceremonies, including sacrifices to local gods of the conquered areas. The religious establishment is favoring the ruling class rather than reminding them to care for the poor as well, and that favor is being returned.

Roving bands of prophets move throughout the land, speaking in the style of oracles – using puzzling language and leaving people to figure out what the oracle means. These prophets earn their living as they move from place to place from people who want to know what the future will bring – much like “fortune tellers” today.

Amos is from Judah. He is a shepherd and “dresser of sycamores.” He is not a member of any band of prophets. He is a respectable man who earns a good living from his work. But God called him, instructing him to go to Israel (the northern kingdom) and call the rulers and people there back to the covenant. When Amos obeys, his message is not welcomed and Amaziah tells him to go home!

This might have been the end of the story, but Amos does not back down. He explains his professional background as nothing remotely resembling a prophet and makes it abundantly clear that he has been called by God to deliver the message. The very next sentence he speaks is: “Now hear the word of the Lord.”

The Book of Amos was the first prophetic book in the Hebrew Scriptures. It became something of a template for the prophets and prophetic books that followed, including Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. The primary offense of the Kingdom of Israel? Failure to care for the poor, the widows and orphans, the conquered, and foreigners.

Psalm 85 puts it very clearly: kindness and truth meet, justice and peace kiss. Truth springs from the earth, while justice looks down from heaven. Justice, the right order of things, is based on kindness to each other. Only when the conditions of justice are met can there be peace and salvation.

The letter to the Ephesians (Eph 1:3-14) begins with a reminder of God’s blessings for those called to the community of believers. All things are summed up in Christ, according to God’s plan from before the world was created. We are chosen to be the adopted children of God, through his son, Jesus.

Finally, we see Jesus (Mk 6:7-13) sending out his twelve closest followers two by two to heal the sick and drive out “unclean spirits.” They are not to take anything but a pair of sandals with them on the journey. Their mission is not to the rich. Those who judge the importance of the messenger by appearances only would never give these messengers the time of day! But to those who welcome them and their message of repentance (turning back to God), healing of the sick and deliverance from demons is possible.

Remember, in those days what we know as mental illness was attributed to possession by evil spirits. This is not to say that such spirits don’t exist. They can cause a lot of trouble for any who listen to them. However, healing of the hurts, anger, frustration, and divisions that plague human relationships and can make mental illnesses worse is truly a form of driving out unclean spirits/demons too. When minds and hearts are healed, it can lead to obviously changed lives.

Kindness and truth, justice and peace – all are signs of the kingdom. May they characterize our lives in this coming week and into the years to come.

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Posted by on Jul 7, 2021

God Calls “Ordinary” People

God Calls “Ordinary” People

The readings for the Fourteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time speak to us of the experiences of three “ordinary” people. These three men were seen by their families and communities as just regular folks. No one expected them to be any different than the rest of their group. They would grow up, have a trade or role in the community, marry, have children, grow old, and die – just like everyone else!

But that was not to be. God had different plans for them. Blessedly, these men listened and responded to the call they received.

Ezekiel

Ezekiel (Ez 2:2-5) lived at a time when Israel was conquered by the Babylonians – a people who lived to the east in an area we now know as Iraq. He was a priest in Jerusalem and was captured early in the war. He was taken to Babylonia and no one would have expected anything good to come of that. Yet that misfortune was the start of something special. In Babylonia, the Spirit came to Ezekiel, setting him on his feet and sending him on a mission. The mission? To tell the people of Israel in exile there that God was still their God, despite their refusal while still in Israel to live by the ancient covenant and rules of their faith. He was to speak using very specific language, “Thus says the Lord God!” These words identified him as a prophet – one who spoke the word of God.

A prophet in the Bible is not one who foretells the future. The prophet is the one who speaks the word received from God. Typically, that word proclaimed by the prophet is not one the people want to hear. It calls them back to a life that might seem to be more restricted and controlled. Often the prophet meets great resistance. But for those communities who respond and obey the word proclaimed by the prophet, it can become a life leading to inner peace and to justice in the community and among the nations.

The Psalmist

Does this mean all is well for the prophet or for those who try to follow the Lord’s call? Not at all. The psalmist speaks  in Psalm 123 for those who have had their fill of the mockery and contempt heaped on them by people who have rejected the Lord’s ways. “Have pity on us, O Lord, have pity on us.” Show us your mercy and end this suffering! Enough already!

Saul of Tarsus – Paul

The second ordinary man is Saul of Tarsus. Saul was originally trained as a tent maker, but he had studied the Law and was a teacher in Jerusalem. He sincerely believed the followers of Jesus were unfaithful to their Jewish roots and traditions. They were the kind of folks who got everyone else in trouble – the kind of trouble that led to them being conquered by neighboring nations. Saul set out to arrest Jesus’ followers and root out this dangerous group. But Jesus met him on the road to Damascus and called him personally to go out and tell the world the good news of the Resurrection and the Kingdom of God.

Saul, now known by his Latin name as Paul, set out to do just that. He traveled all over the Middle East and Greece. Eventually he ended up in Rome and died as a martyr there. His letters are some of the first documents we have from the early Church, earlier even than the Gospels.

In today’s reading from his second letter to the people of Corinth (2 Cor 12:7-10), Paul speaks of his weakness. He has received a tremendous gift in the experience of his calling, but he is still an ordinary guy. He battles physical and spiritual weaknesses just like everyone else does. He has asked to be relieved of these weaknesses, but that is not how grace works. The Lord’s gift of life and love works through the weakness of those who witness to him. Paul declares to the people of Corinth and to us, “When I am weak, then I am strong.” The same deal applies to us.

Jesus of Nazareth

Finally, we hear what happened when Jesus went home to Nazareth (Mk 6:1-6). He has had a tremendous experience of being called at his baptism in the Jordan River and the time in the desert. He has seen people healed of physical and psychological ailments at his touch. Yet when he goes home to his family and religious community, no one is willing to believe he should have anything to say to them. He is not a trained, certified religious teacher. He is a carpenter and the son of a carpenter. An “everyday Joe.”

In response, Jesus quotes a traditional saying: “A prophet is not without honor except in his native place and among his own kin and in his own house.” He was unable to work wonders or heal people at home, because they were not open to receive the gift he had to offer.

Prophets in our midst?

We look back on these men and their experience. How easy it would be to say, “I would never do that to a prophet that came to me!” Yet it is all too easy to overlook the gifts of those we love – the ordinary people who come to us with a word or insight that might well help us on our way to holiness.

Let’s pray today that we be open to the prophets in our midst. The ordinary folks who speak God’s word to us.

Photo: Michael and Marjorie Brewer – Two ordinary people of faith

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