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Posted by on Aug 28, 2022

Hard to be Humble?

Hard to be Humble?

Well over forty years ago, my husband and I liked to go square dancing once a week. We were with a club of mostly older couples, though there were a few younger ones too. The caller was an older man, rather small, with plenty of grey hair – truly ancient… As is done in square dancing, he sang the words of the song, as he inserted the instructions telling us all what to do next in the dance.

A new song at that time was It’s Hard to be Humble, by Mac Davis. We all enjoyed it as our caller sang the chorus, “Oh Lord, it’s hard to be humble, when you’re perfect in every way. I can’t wait to look in the mirror, ‘Cause I get better looking each day …” It went on in that vein for several lines, concluding, “Oh Lord, it’s hard to be humble, But I’m doing the best that I can!”

Humility, as exemplified in the song, is a tricky thing. There’s the false humility that has a person denying their talents and strengths, because speaking of them has brought, or might bring, charges of boasting. There’s the opposite of humility, in which people consider themselves or their talents to be so much greater than those of their peers that no one can possibly measure up to their standards. Humility does not mean denying one’s gifts and talents. Nevertheless, the fellow boasting of his humility in the song does not particularly impress his listeners as being all that humble.

Part of the challenge with humility is in the multiple meanings of the word when we use it in speaking of our relationships with God and with other humans. Sirach, a Jewish teacher of wisdom around 200 – 175 BC, wrote originally in Hebrew. When it was translated into Greek, the word for humility used is one that can include courtesy, gentleness, and consideration of the feelings of others as part of its meaning. It’s not just knowing one’s own strengths and weakness, it’s also being gentle and careful with the self-image and feelings of others.

Since humility is multifaceted, Sirach presents his insights through a series of proverbs. (Sir 3:17-18, 20, 28-29) He points out that those who behave with humility will be more loved than those who give a lot of gifts, but do it in a way that makes the recipients feel less worthy. It’s not necessary to seek wisdom in new ways of thinking or in philosophies from other cultures and traditions. Paying attention to the ways God reaches out through the lowly and through the wonders of nature will result in more fruitful growth in humility and wisdom. This is where the humility pleasing to God is to be found, because God is present with the poor. As the Psalmist points out, God is father of orphans, defender of widows, releaser of prisoners, and the one who provides a home for the needy and those who have been driven from their land. (Ps 68) It is with the humble of the earth that the blessings and rewards of humility will be found.

St. Luke presents Jesus speaking of humility in practical terms. (Lk 14:1, 7-14) Jesus has been invited to dinner at the home of a leading Pharisee, an influential man. Everyone is watching him closely to see what he will do. He, in turn, is watching the other guests, observing their efforts to select places of honor at the table. (The table was probably U-shaped, with the places of greatest honor being on the shorter side that joined the two longer sides. The places of lowest honor were at the far ends of the long sides.) As they select their places, Jesus tells them a parable – he presents a picture of a better way to behave both as guests and as hosts.

Imagine a wedding feast to which you have been invited, he tells them. Don’t make the mistake of sitting at the head of the table or other place of honor. If someone more distinguished arrives, you will be told to move to a place of less honor at the table. Do yourself a favor – select a place at the end of the table’s long sides. Then you may be the one instructed to move closer to the wedding party, to the places of honor. “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Then Jesus speaks to the host (and to the rest of us). Invite the folks who are normally ignored to celebrate with you at your banquets. They can give you nothing in return, but God will repay you on their behalf, because of the kindness you have shown, the humility of your service.

In all of this, it is God who lifts up and exalts those who act with kindness and compassion, those whose lives demonstrate humility.

The kingdom of God, according to the author of the Letter to the Hebrews, will be seen in “the city of the Living God, the heavenly Jerusalem.” (Heb 12:18-19, 22-24a) The old law was given to Moses in a terrifying manner at Mt. Sinai – with blazing fire, darkness, storms, and the blast of trumpets. The voice that spoke was terrifying and those who heard begged for it all to stop. But the new covenant is found at Mt. Zion, the heavenly Jerusalem. Angels are gathered at the festivities. So are those enrolled in heaven through baptism and those whose spirits have been made perfect through the experiences that purify their very lives. All are joined and reunited with God through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, whose blood “speaks more eloquently than that of Abel” (whose blood shed by his brother cried out to God from the earth).

It’s not easy to be truly humble. Fortunately, we get lots of opportunities to learn humility. As we come down off our pedestals and open our hearts to hear the stories of those around us, we grow closer to our God, who lives intimately with those at the bottom of our human societies. With quiet smiles, gentle words, patient listening, and generous hearts, we meet our God in those whom we encounter on our journey through life. May we be always open to receive God’s smile in return from those whom we serve.

Find the readings for the Twenty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time – Cycle C.

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Posted by on Apr 3, 2022

Doing Something New

Doing Something New

The readings for the Fifth Sunday of Lent in both Cycles C and A all speak of the ways in which God is doing something new. Once again, we have two possible sets of readings. Readings from Cycle A are used for celebrations of Eucharist in which those preparing for the Easter sacraments are present. Those from Cycle C are used for the others.

In the first reading for each cycle, we hear of God stepping in to do something new. In Cycle C,  Isaiah (43:16-21) speaks for the Lord, telling the people that although in the past the waters of the sea were parted so the people could pass through, now something new was going to happen. Forget what happened in the past, pay attention to what I’m doing now, is the essence of the prophecy. “I am doing something new!” There will be a way through the wastelands, rivers will flow in the desert, wild beasts will honor the Lord, and a new people will be formed to announce the praise of the Lord. All will be new again. A fresh start, so to speak.

The Cycle A reading is from the book of Ezekiel (37:12-14). The Lord promises: “I will open your graves and have you rise from them, and bring you back to the land of Israel.” He promises his spirit will settle upon them, so they will recognize their God. They will return and settle on their land once again. Something new is going to happen.

“The Lord has done great things for us; we are filled with joy,” sing the people of God in Psalm 126. We have gone forth from our homes in tears, but we return rejoicing. In Cycle A, the Lord’s mercy is celebrated in Psalm 130. “With the Lord there is mercy and fullness of redemption.” All can and will be forgiven. Call out to the Lord, trust in the Lord, and the Lord in his kindness will redeem Israel.

St. Paul assures both the people of Philippi (3:8-14) (Cycle C) and the people of Rome (8:8-11) (Cycle A) of the love of God and promise of new life for those who have faith in Christ. Sharing in the suffering of Christ, turning away from worldly pleasures and ambitions, the faithful believer will be raised from the dead because the Spirit of the Lord lives within them.

In the Gospels we see different stories, but in each God is doing something new. In Cycle C, we hear from St. John about the time the scribes and Pharisees tried to trap Jesus into breaking either Jewish law or Roman law. They brought a woman accused of adultery to him for judgement (Jn 8:1-11). They told him she had been caught in the act, so was clearly guilty as charged. The Mosaic law imposed the penalty of stoning for this offense. What should be done? The trap was subtle. The Romans did not allow the death penalty to be imposed by local authorities. Only Roman authorities could impose that penalty. If Jesus opted for stoning (in accordance with Mosaic law), he would be breaking Roman law. But would he advocate turning her over to the Romans for punishment? That would be unthinkable. What would he do?

Jesus did something unexpected. He simply bent down and began to write on the ground. The accusers kept insisting on an answer, so finally he spoke. “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” One by one, the accusers all left. No one condemned her. Jesus then spoke directly to her, “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on do not sin anymore.”

Something new. The possibility of forgiveness for what was seen as a terrible sin. There are several “I wonder” moments in the story. Where was the man who would logically have been present when the woman was seized by the authorities? Was her sin really what we would call adultery, or might she have been the victim of a different crime? If she had been outside her home without a male chaperone, would that culturally have justified an assault on her that could be called or perceived as adultery?

Many possible angles and unknowns in this story. The critical point, however, is that Jesus does not judge as others in his community would have judged the woman. He did not fall into the either/or trap. He did something new and different, something bringing joy to the woman in question and showing the kindness and mercy of God. “Neither do I condemn you.”

We see Jesus doing something new in St. John’s Gospel from Cycle A as well (Jn 11:1-45). Jesus and his friends have gone away from Jerusalem for a while after things got too hot politically. He was in danger of being killed, so he had gotten out of town for a while. Then word came that his good friend Lazarus was dying. The sisters of Lazarus sent word to him, certainly hoping he would come and heal their brother. But Jesus stayed where he was for two more days before traveling to the community near Jerusalem where Lazarus and his sisters lived.

His friends cautioned him that it was dangerous to return to Jerusalem and the nearby towns. But Jesus insisted on returning. Lazarus had died, but Jesus would still heal him. In fact, it would be an even more amazing healing than those performed earlier, so more likely to lead them to belief.

When Jesus meets Martha, Lazarus’ sister, she expresses her belief that Jesus could have saved her brother’s life. She also believes in the resurrection “on the last day.” It is then that Jesus makes an amazing statement. “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live…” Martha expresses her faith that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God come into the world.

This was truly a case in which God did something new. The name Lazarus speaks of God coming to the rescue at the last moment. Jesus called Lazarus forth from the tomb four days after Lazarus had died. There was no question about whether or not the man had died. It had been four days. Four days was a legal landmark. The person was not coming back. Possessions could be distributed. All was done and over. But God came to the rescue. Jesus called Lazarus forth from the tomb, ordering, “Untie him and let him go.” And Lazarus lived again.

The Lord has done great things for us too. What is the Lord doing that is new in our lives? What specifically needs healing in my life, in your life? Where will the Lord call us out of a desert into a rich land? Where will we rise from our tombs of anger, frustration, or apathy? When will we receive forgiveness for the wrongs we have done? Will we recognize and accept the kindness of the Lord come to redeem us too?

Lent is nearing its end. New things are coming. Let’s continue in hope and open our eyes to see the beauty of the new life coming.

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Posted by on Mar 13, 2022

Seeing the Glory of God – Deeper than at First Glance

Seeing the Glory of God – Deeper than at First Glance

A couple of years ago, a painting came home from school. It was a watercolor, folded in half, then in half again, and then yet again, until only 1/8 of the picture showed. The young artist was not happy with it and didn’t want even to talk about it. I looked at it and found it puzzling. There were blues and whites, with maybe a bit of yellow.   The colors had clearly run more than the artist had hoped. It looked like salt had been sprinkled on parts of the painting, resulting in irregular starburst-type shapes. There was a bit of red, some very light and some more streaked.

I didn’t understand what the picture was supposed to represent and he wouldn’t tell me. It was totally unclear to me which end was even supposed to be up! I put it on the side table with other things from school. There it lay for at least a week, probably longer, and I was still no closer to recognizing its theme.

I picked it up and turned it around once or twice to see if that made more sense. It still didn’t identify itself.

 

 

 

 

Finally, one day in early spring, I turned it one more time. And the image jumped out at me. My eyes, in a sense, had been opened to see its subject and its beauty. It was a snowman! I wondered how I could have not seen it all the other times I looked at it. It was so clear when my eyes looked at it from the right perspective.

It now proudly adorns our freezer.

The readings for the Second Sunday of Lent remind me of this experience with the snowman. In the first reading Abram and God have been talking. (Gn 15:5-12, 17-18) God has told Abram that he will have many descendants, even though both he and his wife are old and she has been unable to have children. Then God also promised that Abram’s descendants would possess the land into which they had traveled, following the Lord’s instructions. Abram and his extended family were not a lot of people. He questioned how they would ever possess a land belonging to so many other peoples.

There was a tradition among the peoples of the time to make covenants (legal agreements) in very visual ways. Animals were taken and sacrificed. The bodies were split in two and laid across from each other, making a pathway between them. Then the parties to the covenant would walk through the pathway. In this way they pledged that if they broke the covenant, the same thing might be done to them. It was not something to be taken lightly.

The Lord God told Abram to bring five animals – a heifer, a she-goat, a ram, a turtle dove, and a pigeon – and sacrifice them. He was to place their carcasses in such as way as to create the ritual pathway. As the sun set, Abram entered into a deep trance and saw the Lord, represented by a fire pot and flaming torch, pass through, entering into the pathway between the sacrificed animals. In this way, the Lord pledged himself to a covenant with Abram and his descendants. Abram did not have to pass through the pathway for the covenant to be established. Only the Lord passed through. The land from Egypt to Mesopotamia (current Iraq) was to belong to the descendants of Abram. (Today these lands are still peopled by his descendants – both Arabs and Jews.)

Abram saw the glory of the Lord that night, entering into a sacred covenant.

The psalmist sings today of the deep presence of the Lord. “The Lord is my light and my salvation.” (Ps 27:1, 7-8, 8-9, 13-14) Don’t hide from me, but hear the sound of my call. The Lord is a refuge, so there’s nothing to fear. “I shall see the bounty of the Lord in the land of the living…” All is focused on the presence and light of the Lord. All wait to see that goodness.

St. Paul writes to the community at Philippi (Ph 3:17-4:1) to encourage them to continue living in the way he taught them when he was with them in person. Controversies regarding whether it was necessary for Gentiles to become Jews in order to be Christians had reached them as well. Paul reassures them that all that is necessary is to believe and live in faith as they have first learned from him. As Christians, their citizenship, their loyalty, is in heaven. As such, all hope is in the saving power of Jesus, who will change our earthly bodies into heavenly, glorified ones, bringing all things to himself. At this point in time, all that is needed is to stand firm in faith and live as his followers.

The final reading, from St. Luke, tells of a very special experience of seeing. (Lk 9:28b-36)

Jesus went up on a mountain to pray. He took Peter, James, and John with him. As he prayed, his appearance changed, becoming filled with dazzling brightness. He was speaking with Moses (representing the Law and covenant) and Elijah (representing the prophets) when his friends woke up. They had fallen asleep as he was praying. They saw the glory that enveloped Jesus as he spoke with Moses and Elijah. Peter, ever the practical and impulsive one, offered to put up three tents, one each for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. As he spoke, a cloud appeared and a voice spoke from the cloud. “This is my chosen Son; listen to him.” Then the vision passed and Jesus was there alone. As they went back down the mountain, they were silent.

What was there to say? Who would ever believe it? Did they even see it? Imagine if you were witness to this kind of transformation of someone you thought you knew! You too might be at a loss for words or uncertain whether anyone would ever believe your words if you spoke of it.

We call this experience of Jesus the Transfiguration. A transfiguration is a complete change of form or appearance from the ordinary to something quite beautiful and extraordinary. In many ways, it’s a question of what is seen. On certain days, or in certain lights, or under certain conditions, we perceive quite ordinary things differently. Somewhat like the painting of the snowman.

How does Jesus’ transfiguration speak to me today? How does it speak to you? What wonderful things are there in life that are just waiting for me to see in all their splendor? Where does the glory of God peek through into my days and my world? How about yours?

May our eyes be opened today to see deeper than first glance – to see the glory of God present in our world.

Here’s an activity you can do with children to celebrate the Transfiguration.

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Posted by on Feb 20, 2022

Bearing the Image of the Heavenly One

Bearing the Image of the Heavenly One

“Just as we have borne the image of the earthly one, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly one.” (1 Cor 15:49)

St. Paul, in his first letter to the community in Corinth, provides a theme for the readings of the Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time. You will recall that there had been a great controversy in Corinth over the question of resurrection from the dead. Some said only Jesus rose, the rest of his followers would not rise. Others said only those who never died physically would have eternal life. Paul insisted that Jesus was the first human to rise, but he would not be the last. He is simply the “first fruit” of those who would rise. In the passage immediately before today’s reading, he speaks of the different kinds of bodies of various animals and of the transformation of seeds into grown plants. He explains that transformation from one type of body to another is common in nature and so should not be unreasonable to expect. Our earthly bodies, like those of the first human, Adam, will be transformed like those of the last Adam, Jesus, whose body became a spiritual one. This last Adam’s body was heavenly in origin.

Paul’s final statement in the set of parallel comparisons here between earthly physical humans and heavenly spiritual humans is a reminder of the great promise we have received from our Father. “We shall also bear the image of the heavenly one,” the risen Christ.

When and how does this transformation happen? Is there some sort of magic at the moment of death? What about those whose lives have not been exemplary but who have a great epiphany and die believing in the Good News of God’s love for all? Is it fair that they should have an equal share in the Kingdom? Can it really be true that the Kingdom is open to all? When does the Kingdom begin? Where is the Kingdom of God? Is it limited to our universe? Do we go somewhere else? So many, many questions have arisen since the Resurrection and first appearance of Jesus to his followers.

One thing is certain, none of us can earn an entrance into the Kingdom. That is critical to remember. No matter how well we live our lives, no matter whether we are blessed with earthly success and its trappings or are the poorest of the poor, none of us is guaranteed anything except the love of God. Yet the promise remains. “Just as we have borne the image of the earthly one, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly one.”

I suggest that the other readings this day offer a glimpse into this mystery.

Saul was the first king of Israel, anointed by Samuel, the prophet and judge of Israel, at the request of the people. Israel had long been under attack by the Philistines who lived to the west of their land. The Judges, including Samuel, had led the defense of Israel. But surrounding peoples had kings and the Israelites believed they would be stronger with a King. Samuel, following the Lord’s instructions, anointed Saul as their king. Later, Saul fell out of favor with the Lord because he and his men took animals and other valuable things from one of the enemy peoples whom they battled. They had been instructed to destroy everything living, but they kept the valuable things for themselves.

Samuel was then instructed to anoint Saul’s successor. A shepherd boy named David, son of Jesse of Bethlehem, was the one chosen as the Lord’s anointed to succeed Saul. Saul and David had a long history together, but as David became a popular leader in war against the Philistines and other enemies of Israel, Saul became jealous and decided to get rid of his rival. Saul didn’t know David had been anointed as next king already, and he didn’t want to take any chances his own sons would not succeed him.

As our story begins today, Saul has taken a break from the fight with the Philistines and gone after David in the desert of Ziph. (1 Sam 26:2, 7-9, 12-13, 22-23) Saul has 3,000 men with him. David has about 600. David is badly outnumbered and things don’t look good.

Then one night, as Saul and his army slept, David and his men found where they were camping. David and Abishai slipped into the camp, into the very tent in which Saul and his soldiers were sleeping. Saul’s spear was thrust into the ground near his head, ready for use at the slightest danger.

Abishai whispered to David that he could easily kill Saul with one thrust of that spear. But David refused the offer. “Do not harm him, for who can lay hands on the Lord’s anointed and remain unpunished?” Instead, David and Abishai took the spear and a water jug from beside Saul’s head and left the tent. Amazingly, no one in the camp stirred.

David and his men retreated to a hillside far across the plain from where Saul and his men were camped. David called out at dawn to Saul and his men. He spoke to Saul as well in a section of the account that is not included in this reading. Saul invited him to come to the camp and offered not to hurt him, but David kept his distance. Instead, he replied “Here is the king’s spear. Let an attendant come over and get it … Today, though the Lord delivered you into my grasp, I would not harm the Lord’s anointed.” Saul and his men retreated from chasing David. David and his men retreated into other territories and battled against enemies of Israel from the lands in which they were now living and raising families.

Eventually, David became King of Israel and established a dynasty of rulers. But those stories are for another time and place.

David’s refusal to harm his mortal enemy is the image that speaks to me today. This is the kind of behavior that is characteristic of God’s Kingdom as envisioned by Jesus and the early Christian community – a foretaste of the image of the heavenly kingdom and its inhabitants.

The Psalmist sings of the mercy and kindness of the Lord (Ps 103). The Lord’s willingness to forgive, heal ills, save his people from destruction and crown them with kindness and compassion. Again, a different response from the typical earthly human response to bad behavior or disobedience.

Finally we get to the Gospel, where St. Luke shares Jesus’ words with us. (Lk 6:27-38) This is a continuation of his instructions in what is known as the Sermon on the Plain. Jesus has already spoken of what makes people blessed and warned of the dangers of having earthly success and acclaim. Now he gets specific about behavior.

His is a culture in which Honor and Shame are defining characteristics of human interaction and the social standing of individuals and families. Families, large extended families, are the fundamental social unit. Individual members matter little as individuals. Their importance is as members of the larger extended family. What each person says or does contributes to the perception of the family as honorable or not. Bad behavior or failure to respond to insults from others is shameful and reflects badly on the honor of the entire group. People are killed for behaving shamefully. Honor is a REALLY big deal.

Now along comes Jesus with a totally different set of expectations. “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you … to the person who strikes you on one cheek, offer the other one as well…” These are totally counter-cultural expectations. It would be absolutely shameful not to respond in kind to an insult such as being slapped in the face. Conquering armies and occupying forces might strike a person with impunity, but an honorable person would only put up with that behavior because they are members of a conquered nation and then only from those soldiers and government officials. Whenever possible, efforts would be made to get even or overthrow them.

But Jesus changes the lens through which we are to look. Yes, humans would respond in kind, but God does not. He points out that even those far from the Kingdom forgive those who forgive them, love those who love them. Even sinners and Romans do that, for heaven’s sake! Those who are part of God’s kingdom must love their enemies and do good to them. They must lend without expectation of return. They must be merciful as their Father is merciful. It is in refusing to judge others and in forgiving and sharing generously that we become open to receive forgiveness and acceptance and everything else we truly need. As we learn to do this, the abundance of gifts which we will be able to receive from the Father will be unlimited – “good measure, packed together, shaken down, and overflowing … For the measure with which you measure will in return be measured out to you.”

Wow! Good news? Certainly worth pondering. The world might be a very different place if we all lived this way.

How open am I to trying to live this way? Does it matter if I’m the only one trying? If I live this way, would it be easier for others to live this way too? Can I remember a time when I received forgiveness that was totally unwarranted? How did I feel when that happened? Can I offer that tender gift to others now?

We bear the image of the earthly Adam/Eve, our first parents as humans. Now we are called by the Spirit to grow into the image of the second Adam, our brother Jesus, the Christ, the anointed one of God, the heavenly one. Together we go – onward on the journey of transformation, bearing the image of the heavenly one.

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Posted by on Feb 13, 2022

Like a Tree Planted Beside the Waters

Like a Tree Planted Beside the Waters

The readings for the Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time lay out a series of contrasting images. Jeremiah (17:5-8) speaks of the contrast between those who trust in human beings and those who trust in the Lord. Those who trust in human strength and turn from the Lord are like plants in the desert wasteland that bear no fruit and never see the coming of fertile soil and springtime. On the other hand, those who trust in the Lord are like trees planted beside streams of water. These are not harmed when the heat of summer comes or times of drought. They are still able to bear fruit.

As I read these words, I remember the orchards in the Okanogan Valley of Washington State where family friends lived. We spent many days there with our friends throughout my childhood. I worked in the orchard of a neighbor, thinning apples in early summer, to earn the money for a Girl Scout trip to San Francisco when I was in high school. The Okanogan Valley is on the eastern side of the Cascade Mountains. It’s a dry land, with sage brush covered hills. Yet beside the river, the orchards grow. Along the tops of the hills, there were channels built through which water from the river was diverted and flowed. We called them flumes. The orchardists opened the flumes to allow the water to flow down and irrigate their trees. Those trees produced abundant crops year after year. It didn’t matter that the weather was hot and dry in summer or cold and snowy in winter. The trees nearest the river didn’t need the irrigation water. The others got their water from the river too, but with help from the orchardists.

Jeremiah reminds us that the Lord is like the water that nourishes the trees, so long as we stay close in both good times and hard times.

Jesus too speaks of contrasting realities to a large crowd of disciples who gathered on a plain to hear his teaching (Lk 6:17, 20-26). His focus is particularly direct. “Blessed are you who are poor, for the kingdom of God is yours.” In Luke’s gospel, the words are not softened. He’s not saying poor in spirit here. He’s saying poor. Similarly, he says hungry and weeping in describing those who are blessed. In each case, they are blessed because they will receive what is needed. Even those who are persecuted, hated, and insulted are to rejoice, because the Son of Man (Jesus) was treated the same way.

These are hard words, especially for those of us who are not poor, hungry, weeping, or being insulted for our actions and beliefs. The next section, in which Jesus speaks of those who are rich and have all they need for “the good life” now compounds the discomfort. Those who have it easy right now will find that hard times will come to them. This certainly doesn’t seem to be the case when we look around our world today.

Yet Jesus is speaking of the Kingdom of God. In this Kingdom, everything is turned on its head, because God cares as much for the poor as for the rich, for children as for adults, for peasants as for kings. In many ways, those who are least able to fend for themselves are more precious, because they are more aware of their need for help. They can be more open to receiving the gifts that really satisfy our deepest human needs and bring joy.

Those who work for social justice, sharing what they have and living more simply are less likely to receive praise and honor from those who have much and wield power in our world. Jesus cautions against seeking or becoming comfortable with the praise of others, because all too often it was the false prophets who led the nation astray, away from their covenant with the Lord. The Kingdom is not about pleasing the rich and powerful. It’s about caring for each other, especially for those who cannot care for themselves.

St. Paul too speaks of contrasting groups of people (1 Cor 15:12, 16-20). For him, the issue is the resurrection of the dead. Some people were arguing that ordinary people would not rise from the dead. Only Jesus did that. But Paul is firm on the issue. If there is no resurrection, Christ could not have been raised either. If Christ is not raised, then their baptism meant nothing. They are still bound by sin and death. If that is the case, then it’s foolish to live as a Christian. Why not just live like everybody else? Why be fools?

Paul states very clearly his belief and that of the Christian community, “Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” in death. Firstfruits are the best and first products of the land. These were the gifts offered to God in thanksgiving for the harvest. The Risen Christ is the first, and we are the rest of the harvest, rising with him in turn.

So, paraphrasing the psalmist, blessed are they who hope in the Lord, who delight in the law of the Lord and meditate on his law day and night. Those who stick close to the Lord, like a tree growing near the river, will bear fruit for the Lord. And the Lord will watch over them and the Kingdom of God will be theirs.

Today let’s pray that we have the courage to be among the blessed, to sink our roots deep into the water of the Lord’s love and support as we reach out in service to those in need of love, acceptance, and help in our families, communities, and world. It’s all too easy to look at others who have less than we do and judge them unworthy of our respect and help. As we reach out in service, we discover the depth of faith and trust in the Lord that comes from truly depending on him for the basics of life.

How is the Lord calling me to service today? Will I go forward without worrying what others will think of me? Will I see the blessed among us and be part of the Kingdom with them? Will I let my roots go deep?

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Posted by on Dec 5, 2021

The Lord Comes in Historical Times

The Lord Comes in Historical Times

Once upon a time …  Many stories we tell begin with a reference to a time long ago and far away. These stories relate important truths, but the actual facts of what happened may or may not be true. As storyteller and theologian Megan McKenna likes to say, “All stories are true and some of them actually happened.”

The readings for the Second Sunday of Advent differ from many of the stories we encounter in the first books of the Bible. The first books were written hundreds if not thousands of years after the events they describe. Some of them are clearly not historical – “In the beginning …” Others present a picture of how things came to be, somewhat like fables we learn as children. Some tell stories of the first families from whom all are descended. Details of these stories are hard to document in terms of our modern understanding of history. But in the readings today we have historical details that support the narrative, the story being told.

The first reading comes from Baruch (5:1-9). Baruch was an aristocrat, a member of the court of King Zedekiah just before the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem. He was also a scribe for Jeremiah the prophet. We know this from a history written by Josephus, a Jewish historian in the first century. In the book of Baruch, Jerusalem is described as a woman mourning the death of a loved one – sitting in clothes that indicate she is mourning during the first seven days after the death. A woman “sitting shiva.” Baruch speaks words of hope. “Take off your robe of mourning and misery, put on the splendor of glory from God forever.” She is to put on a cloak of justice and wear a mitre (a special turban or hat) proclaiming the glory of God’s name, like that worn by Aaron when the Israelites traveled with Moses through the desert.

Jerusalem will see her children returning from exile, being led back by God. As they come, the mountains will be leveled and the gorges will be filled ahead of them, so the road back will be smooth and secure. Fragrant trees will protect the way and welcome the travelers, as Israel is led by God in glory, with mercy and justice personified as their companion.

What a glorious hope for a people suffering exile in the land of their enemies! This book was probably written long after that time described, but the person whose name it bears is known to have lived during the time just before and during the exile. It is a book of prayers, poems, and prophecies filled with hope.

Psalm 126 repeats the refrain of the joy of exiles returning from foreign lands. Those who watch them return marvel, “The Lord has done great things for them.” They return carrying the fruits of the harvest that has grown during their time of exile. They have not remained helplessly suffering and stagnating. During their time of exile, they have grown.

The Gospel of Luke begins before the birth of either Jesus or his cousin John, but today we hear some of the story of the prophetic travels and activities of John (Lk 3:1-6). This section begins with a long list of political rulers, the timeframe in which it occurs, the regions they governed, and their leadership positions. We get a very real sense of what was going on in the Roman empire, Palestine, and Jerusalem as John and Jesus come onto the scene – two cousins who will unexpectedly become influential in their world. Both men are from families that would not ordinarily have attracted any attention at all. John’s father was a priest at the temple. Jesus’ father was a tradesman in the town of Nazareth in the north of the country near the sea of Galilee. Yet both men played critical roles in the drama of reconciliation between God and humans – salvation history.

“In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea … the word of the Lord came to John the son of Zechariah in the desert.” John had been living as a hermit in the desert for many years, but the Lord called him to action. He began to call people to repentance, to change their way of behaving towards each other and move towards the freedom of living in God’s forgiveness and justice. As a symbol of this transition, he used baptism, a ritual of purification with water that was deeply rooted in his Jewish tradition. He spoke of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.” Valleys are to be filled and mountains leveled. Everything that can get in the way of those who seek the Lord is to be leveled. “All flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

Many years after John the Baptist announced the coming of the Lord, St. Paul sends a letter to the community of believers in Philippi (Phil 1:4-6, 8-11). This is a community to which Paul has brought the message of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. They are people he knows and loves. They are also people whom he is not likely ever to see again. He writes while he is a prisoner in Rome, awaiting the judgement that will result in his release or his execution. He shares the joy he feels in their faith and commitment to the life of the gospel. He expresses his deep-seated love for them and prays that their love will grow and deepen each day, so they will be pure and blameless at Christ’s return. Love in the sense of the word he uses is love with no limits and no strings attached. Love in the best and deepest sense of the word, a love that leads to purity of heart.

Paul’s words speak to us too. We too are called to this deep love and to growth in love throughout our lives. Hearing the word of the Lord is only the first step on the road to salvation, the road to the fullness of life in God’s kingdom. We grow each day as we practice loving and caring for each other and those whom the Lord sends our way. The child who bumps into us in the grocery store. The stranger who doesn’t know the roads in our town and makes sudden moves to get into the lane just ahead of us to make a turn. The family member who will never (insert your pet peeve here). The man on the street who cries out in madness, unable to find release from the illness that torments his mind. The uneducated woman who travels from another country with her young daughter, seeking a safe place to live and protection from those who would kill them both because her husband is a police officer.

Many opportunities open up each day, calling for us to reach out in love. God is coming. God has come. God lives among us. How do I make the ways straight for others to experience his presence? Do I notice the valleys that have been filled and the mountains leveled to help us to pass? Will I continue to grow in love? How will you and I spend our Advent time? Will we be bearers of peace and hope in our world?

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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 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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Posted by on Jun 27, 2021

“God did not make death…”

“God did not make death…”

“God did not make death, nor does he rejoice in the destruction of the living.” The readings for the Thirteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time begin with this surprising statement from the book of Wisdom (Wis 1:13). Furthermore, the world and its creatures are “wholesome” and justice (God’s design of the right order of things) “is undying.” Physical death is merely the result of the envy of the devil, not something that can stop God’s gift of life.

The Lord rescues his faithful ones, brings them up from the netherworld, changes mourning into dancing. We respond by giving thanks, in the words of the psalmist (Psalm 30).

St. Paul asks the community at Corinth and us as well, to share what we have with those in need. We the community respond to the gift of our Lord by sharing what we have received, just as Jesus, the Word of God, entered into our human experience and shared fully in it. As was the case of the Israelites in the desert, those who have much aren’t to have more than their share and those who have only a little ought not to end up with less than their fair share of the manna (or other gifts) needed for life.

Finally, St. Mark tells of two healings. Jairus, an official from the synagogue, asks Jesus to heal his child. Jesus goes immediately with him.

On the way to the child, in the hustle and bustle of the crowd, a woman who has suffered with a hemorrhage for twelve years touches his cloak. She is hoping for healing. Immediately power goes from him and she is healed. Jesus notices this and asks who touched him. The others are amazed. In such a crowd, lots of people were touching and bumping into him. But the woman comes to him, in great fear because she has broken several rules by touching him, and confesses what she has done. Jesus does not scold her. Instead, he tells her that her faith has saved her and that she may go in peace, cured of her affliction.

Jesus then continues to the home of Jairus, where the child now has died before Jesus reaches her. Yet Jesus takes her hand and tells her to get up. The original Greek words distinguish between what Jesus said and what she did. Our English version uses the same word, arise, for both what Jesus told the girl to do and her rising from death. But in the original, Jesus said she should “get up” and the child “arose,” the same term used to describe Jesus’ own Resurrection.

These readings speak of the great hope we share as Christians. It’s particularly relevant for me just now, as I have had to say goodbye to both my mother and father in these past 5 weeks. I find myself remembering another time when both loss and hope were very present in my life.

Birth and Death – Somewhat similar transitions

Almost 40 years ago, when I was pregnant with my second child, my grandfather passed away in December and my father-in-law (who was only one year younger than my grandfather) in January was dying as well. He had cancer and it was a slower, more painful process than my grandfather’s passing. I asked God why death had to be so hard. The response surprised me. I was reminded that birth is not easy, either for the mother or for the child. The child is happy and at peace in the womb. Every need is met, even those unrecognized. Nothing has to be done. It’s warm, peaceful, pleasant. It might be getting a bit tight, but it’s still possible to stretch and move around. Who would want to get squeezed and pushed and forced through a narrow opening into a bright, cold, and unknown world! Yet that is what must happen for life to continue. And, oh what a gift life here on Earth is or can be for us. I don’t think there are very many of us who would willingly return to the womb after tasting the joys of life outside.

Death is not an end, it’s a new birth into a life of even greater beauty and freedom. Our bodies wear out and we move on to new ones. Sometimes it happens after a long life. Sometimes things happen that make it impossible for our bodies to work anymore, and we move on. But, hard as it is for those of us who remain, life continues. We rise to a new way of living. The limitations of our aging or injured bodies are removed and we share in the life of love of our loving parent in the great dance of life.

“God did not make death, nor does he rejoice in the destruction of the living…”

We hold on to this promise.

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Posted by on Jun 20, 2021

Seas and Storms – In all Seasons of Life

Seas and Storms – In all Seasons of Life

The sea and its storms speak to us today, the 12th Sunday of Ordinary Time, of the power and love of God. We who live or have lived by the sea are intimately aware of its power and unpredictability, as well as its seasons.

Before I moved to Santa Cruz, I had no awareness of the subtle moods of the ocean’s seasons. But after over thirty years of living a block from the shore, I can tell from its colors, sounds, smells, and tides what season of the year is upon us. In winter, I can predict the coming of stormy weather several days in advance, even when the skies are sunny and beautiful. The ocean waves begin to roar about three days before a big storm arrives in the winter. (We don’t typically get storms in the summer on California’s Central Coast.)

We speak of stormy times in our lives too. Sometimes all is well and predictable. We know pretty much what to expect when we wake in the morning and as we go through the day. Other times are not.

Job (Jb 38: 1, 8-11) had just experienced many days and weeks of loss. His family, his flocks, his reputation, and his very health had all been stripped away. He called out in anger and frustration to the Lord, demanding an answer – “Why have you done this to me? What is the meaning of this?” (Not an exact quote, but that’s the sense of it.)

God’s response was to remind Job that humans are not the ones who set things up originally. Humans can’t control what happens in nature or their lives. It was foolish even to expect that they might! This was not a really satisfying response from a human perspective. Yet even so, by responding to Job’s cries of anger and frustration, God somehow reassured Job. By the end of the story, Job has recognized God’s place as the one in charge and he has received a new family, livelihood, and place in society.

Storms are both literal and figurative in our lives. The psalmist (Ps 107: 23-31) speaks of literal storms that blow across the waters and the rejoicing of those tossed around during the storm when the Lord answers their prayers and calms the sea. St. Paul (2 Cor 5:14-17) speaks more figuratively of the transformation of life as new life and a new creation have sprung forth from the death and resurrection of Christ. “Old things have passed away; behold, new things have come.”

Jesus and his friends experienced both kinds of storms. The one in today’s reading (Mk 4:35-41) was physical. A storm came suddenly while they were crossing the Sea of Galilee. The boat was filling with water. Drowning was a very real possibility. Then they woke Jesus. He shouted to the stormy seas to be still. In the original Greek, the word used was more akin to our “Shut up!” than to the more polite “Quiet! Be still!” of our translation. Jesus did what only God can do – he calmed the stormy sea.

Today, as then, we turn to him in stormy times. He may not calm or take away the hard things we are experiencing. Sometimes these things are a necessary part of life. But he is with us through them. We hold on to the life raft of his promise and presence until the storms die down and peaceful times return.

See you at Mass, as we give thanks for his presence with us, calming the storm!

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Posted by on Jan 13, 2019

Success or Significance?

Success or Significance?

The Feast of the Baptism of the Lord marks the end of the Christmas season.  Jesus’ baptism in the River Jordan signaled the formal beginning of His mission.

For today’s gospel scene we see the Holy Spirit descending upon Jesus in visible form.  For the evangelist Luke, contrary to the three other evangelists, the baptism of Jesus is not important in itself, for he does not even describe it.  He is more concerned with the coming of the Holy Spirit on Jesus.  And after this initial scene, Luke will be at pains to mention the Holy Spirit as often as possible in connection with the ministry of Jesus.  Seventeen times in his gospel he will mention the Holy Spirit in connection with Jesus.  This is Luke’s way of telling us that Jesus was inspired (inspirited) in all his actions, empowered with his heavenly Father’s energy, enabled always to act as a beloved Son fulfilling a beloved Father’s wishes. And so, it is not a mere coincidence that, with the appearance of the Holy Spirit in this baptism scene, the son-ship of Jesus is emphasized, “You are my beloved Son.”  Essentially, Jesus is a Son in his innermost being.  And the Holy Spirit is the burning fire of love which unites him to his heavenly Father.  For him to receive the spirit is to experience his son-ship at a new depth.  It is the Holy Spirit that leads Jesus to accomplish his mission and made the Father say, “with you I am well pleased.”

I remember two years ago, I was on a vacation back home in the Philippines.  After celebrating Mass at my home parish, one of my friends from high school came up to me for a small chat.  He grew up in a poor family but worked his way to success with sheer talent and perseverance.  He is a self-made man.  He heads four businesses today that are making good money.  “There’s nothing more I can ask for, Father. God is good.  He has given me everything that I need and more,” he shared with me.  But after a short pause he added, “except that I never knew if my father was proud of what I have accomplished.”  His relationship with his father has been strained since after college.  After that conversation, it hit me.  The human heart is not made for success.  It is made for significance.

Success is a matter of doing.  Significance is a matter of being.  And since we are not human doings but human beings, it makes sense that our heart yearns for something more than just success.  It yearns for significance — the significance of meaningful relationships, mission, and yes, affirmation.  Success does not always lead to significance, but significance always leads to a deep sense of success.  Like the voice from the heavens that affirmed Jesus in His baptism, every human heart longs to hear the words, “in you I am well pleased.”

Isn’t it a wonder that, according to studies, almost eighty percent of substance abusers are successful people, and almost fifty-five percent of these successful people end up committing suicide?  Without meaning to pass judgment, could it be that significance was missing on top of their successes?

The Baptism of the Lord reminds us not only about Jesus’ mission, but our very own mission to make a difference, to be a significance in the lives of others by showing them what really matters in our Christian lives.  So that like Jesus, the Father would say to all of us, “In you I am well pleased.”

Fresco by Giotto di Bondone in the Scrovegni Chapel – 1303

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Posted by on Oct 20, 2017

God’s Relentless Pursuit of Humanity

God’s Relentless Pursuit of Humanity

Jesus began to address them, once more using parables. “The reign of God may be likened to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. He dispatched his servants to summon the invited guests to the wedding, but they refused to come. … Then he said to his servants: ‘The banquet is ready, but those who were invited were unfit to come. That is why you must to out into the byroads and invite to the wedding anyone you come upon.’ The servants then went out into the byroads and rounded up everyone they met, bad as well as good. This filled the wedding hall with banqueters …” (Mt 22:1-14)

Today’s parable is a potent reminder of God’s relentless pursuit of humanity. A King prepared a banquet for the wedding of his son. Take note: It was the King who invited. When he invites, you are mandated to go. People were invited but they refused. Almost begging, the King sent another invitation and each had their own petty excuses.

Religion, they say, is man’s search for God. But the biblical God is different. He searches for man. He longs for him. He initiates. One of the very first words God said to man in the Scriptures are: “Where are you?” (Gen. 3:9). Those are not words looking for location and direction, but the words of a lover luring his unfaithful beloved back into the right relationship.

When the English poet Francis Thompson described God as the “Hound of Heaven” (a hound is a dog breed with a strong sense of smell, relentless in pursuing subjects), many were scandalized. But he was right. God is a Divine “hound” whose search for His beloved humanity is relentless and constant.

If the image of God as a hound in pursuit is scandalous, what more is God’s courtesy in His pursuit? He is God. He doesn’t need to ask. Instead, He invites, asks, and proposes. God risks the embarrassment of rejection. If you were in God’s place, I’m sure you would not take that risk.

I once saw a Korean guy who went to the flight attendants, asked for the microphone, and publicly proposed marriage to his girlfriend on the plane. The guy said, “I have something to ask you and you’re free to choose from the four possible answers. You can either say “Yes,” “Of Course,” “Why Not,” and “Absolutely.” So much for freedom, huh? The choices left no room for the possibility of rejection. God took the risk of rejection because that is the way of genuine love. If we were created in a way that we could not say “No” to God, then our “Yes” to Him would be of no value. God longs for our free and genuine “Yes.” For that, He is willing to suffer the embarrassment of an ignorant “No” from a worthless yet arrogant humanity.

God continues to invite us today, through the Holy Eucharist. This is God’s banquet, his wedding reception. That is why all the elements of a party are present in the Eucharist…

For all the beauty of the Eucharist, how many people truly understand the Eucharist so as to be excited to partake of it every week? How many of us who attend are always motivated with real rejoicing in being here?

October 15, 2017

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Posted by on Mar 30, 2016

God’s Relentless Pursuit of Humanity

You will always have the poor

Charity and Justice - Public Domain Image

Public Domain Image

A Reflection by Jerry Finney

Gospel Jn 12:1-11

Six days before Passover Jesus came to Bethany,
where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead.
They gave a dinner for him there, and Martha served,
while Lazarus was one of those reclining at table with him.
Mary took a liter of costly perfumed oil
made from genuine aromatic nard
and anointed the feet of Jesus and dried them with her hair;
the house was filled with the fragrance of the oil.

Then Judas the Iscariot, one of his disciples,
and the one who would betray him, said,
“Why was this oil not sold for three hundred days’ wages
and given to the poor?”
He said this not because he cared about the poor
but because he was a thief and held the money bag
and used to steal the contributions.
So Jesus said, “Leave her alone.
Let her keep this for the day of my burial.
You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

The large crowd of the Jews found out that he was there and came,
not only because of him, but also to see Lazarus,
whom he had raised from the dead.
And the chief priests plotted to kill Lazarus too,
because many of the Jews were turning away
and believing in Jesus because of him.

 

When I first read our Gospel reading for this morning, I thought it was about two things — Mary’s love and worship of Jesus who had raised her brother from the dead and Judas’ criticism of actions because of his greed and corruption. In preparing this reflection, I found that there is much more.

The scholar Fr. Raymond Brown points out that the anointing of Jesus’ head and feet is symbolic of his being prepared for burial following his crucifixion. It also is symbolic of what was believed by many at that time of what was necessary for resurrection. Rabbi’s would discuss the greatest act of mercy — almsgiving or burying the dead. Those who believed in proper burial thought it an essential condition for sharing in the resurrection. Spending large amounts of money for a proper burial, just like today in our society, happened and happens where people want the best for their loved one.

So there is a hidden discussion of the greatest mercy. Jesus tells Judas that in this case it is better to save the fragrant oil for his burial. Jesus was not negating the value and necessity of almsgiving. Jesus’ other statement to Judas of, “The poor you always have with you,” on its surface, might seem cynical or uncaring. But, that would not fit with the rest of Jesus’ manifest concern for the poor, the oppressed and those at the margins of society. Jesus is quoting from Deuteronomy and is reflecting a reality. Even if everyone started out even in life, sooner or later some will end up with more and others with less, much less. Chance, disaster, ill health, environmental changes, laziness, cheating, bad decisions — all will produce disparities.

Galilee, in Jesus’ day, was an occupied country, and the Hebrews were a religious minority. The mostly illiterate population, that flocked to Jesus’ teaching and healing, were barely surviving on subsistence farming and they were subject to the whims of the landholders and the powerful elite ruling from a distance. The poor and oppressed were the ones to whom Jesus ministered. He told those who had more than they needed to share their excess so as to bring about God’s kingdom.

Deuteronomy, reflecting God’s mercy and wisdom, recognized that disparities were inevitable and, to deal with it, proposed a system of periodic redistribution of resources and forgiveness of debt. It was a system of how people who had been rescued from slavery and given so much were to deal with one another.

It is certainly no less true today that all our resources are gifts. God gave his people the ability both to smooth out those inequities and prevent some of them altogether. That’s what’s behind Jesus’ reminder that we will always have the poor with us. That is why we must share and redistribute resources.

In his encyclical, “Laudato Si,” Pope Francis urges us to, “replace consumption with sacrifice, greed with generosity, wastefulness with a spirit of sharing, an asceticism which entails learning to give, and not simply to give up.” It is a way of loving, of moving gradually away from what “I want” to what “God’s world needs.” It is liberation from fear, greed and compulsion. As Christians we are also called “to accept the world as a sacrament of communion, as a way of sharing with God and our neighbors on a global scale. It is our humble conviction that the divine and the human meet in the slightest detail in the seamless garment of God’s creation…”

Pope Francis said that St. Francis’ actions and words “shows us just how inseparable the bond is between concern for nature, justice for the poor, commitment to society, and interior peace.”

The message — from Deuteronomy, from Jesus, from Pope Francis — is that those who have resources must use them wisely and must help those who have not, not out of generosity but out of responsibility. Jesus and Pope Francis did not say how to do, just to do it. Getting that sharing right is not easy. We each must work at it as best we can and where possible implant God’s values in our economic systems.

 

 

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Posted by on Jun 13, 2015

God’s Relentless Pursuit of Humanity

The Sacred Heart of Jesus: Source of Limitless Love

Sacred Heart by David Clayton Devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus originated as a meditation on the love that Jesus has for humanity.  In the 1500s, Jesuits and Franciscans promoted devotion to the wounded heart of Jesus. However, they did not stress the physical bleeding heart of Jesus crowned with thorns that has come down to us. This common  image does not necessarily help people feel closer to Jesus today. Presenting Jesus with a heart with flames of love and a face full of love and light emphasizes his limitless divine love in a very human way.

A Physical Organ or A Symbol of Love?

Sacred Heart - Pompeo BatoniThe devotion to the Sacred Heart has not always  included a focus on the suffering of Jesus and his actual physical heart. During the first ten centuries of Christianity, devotion to the humanity of Christ did not include honoring the wounded Heart of Jesus. From the 1200s to the 1500s devotion to the Sacred Wounds increased. However, it was private, individual, and of a mystical nature. The thorn crowned heart shows the change from honoring Jesus’ love for humanity to humans making reparation for sin. In the 1670s, the apparitions of the Sacred Heart of Jesus to  Saint Margaret Mary Alacoque,  moved the devotion into the public life of the Church and it became centered on sorrow for sin. Popular piety continued this emphasis and eventually promoted worship of the physical heart of Jesus to such a point that Pope Pius XII had to correct this. The pope explained that the Sacred Heart belongs to the “Divine Person of the Eternal Word” and is a symbolic image of his love and our redemption. (See Haurietis aquas). Eastern Catholicism promotes some devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. However,  the devotion is controversial because of the mixing of the theologies of divine love and human reparation for sin within it. Eastern Catholics do not share the Western preoccupation with the physical heart of Jesus.

Devotion to Love

SacredHeart Fanelli 1994Devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus is a devotion to His love. It is a response to the extravagance of Jesus.  His suffering and human sin are important for our consideration in other ways. However, this focus is not suitable for a devotion which focuses on love. This is particularly true today when addressing young people in first world cultures in which few symbols are shared. A heart in flames is a direct and simple symbol.

It is interesting that one of the main resources of devotion to the Sacred Heart, the Litany of the Sacred Heart of Jesus (1899), is anything but human, warm, or loving. The Litany is formal, monarchical and transcendent. There is little sense of the human heart of Jesus reaching out to humanity to give consolation, peace or special graces. The prayer is true to its historical context, a time in the Church of formality and a sense of distance from the divine.

Despite the turn towards human individual experience and emotion in the 20th and 21st centuries, many Catholics do not feel personally close to God or have a warm experience of God’s love for them. Many still relate to God as a judge and an enforcer of rules.  Contemplating Jesus in the Gospels gives us a richer mystical image of the truly divine and truly human Jesus Christ full of warm friendliness, compassion, and humility with a heart full of love.

Sacred Heart of Jesus, by David Clayton – used with permission
Sacred Heart, by Pompeo Batoni –  public domain
Sacred Heart of Jesus, by Joseph Fanelli – used with permission

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Posted by on May 22, 2015

God’s Relentless Pursuit of Humanity

Why Mary is Important

Hail Mary - F Fong

When we think or speak of Mary, the Mother of God, it is always important to keep in mind that she is best understood in the context of her relationship with her son, Jesus. Said formally, Mariology is always constructed in the context of Christology. This is so because Christ is the redeemer and the sole source of salvation. Everything in creation came to be through him. Mary, because of her role, participates in the creative and redeeming action of God in a special way.

Mary’s exceptional conception as sinless affords her the choice to live fully for God. She was not programmed to be good, but rather, Mary did not carry the deep fear of interference and resistance against God that exists in all other human beings. The rest of the human race has the grace and possibility to work with and overcome fear and anger, but we must work to limit our desire for control and instead surrender to God’s grace. We often do not choose right away to stop being resentful or angry. We often project onto others the responsibility for our own self-inflicted injuries. Mary had a clear vision of her place in life. She was born totally honest and prepared to grow. She chose to say “yes” over and over to these qualities, even when they brought suffering.

According to the Scriptures, Mary grew in her understanding of her son, herself, and the work of God in the world for salvation. We read more than once in the Gospel of Luke that she “pondered” how their lives were unfolding and what God was doing. She did not have a road map to reassure her of where they were going, but she had given her consent at the Annunciation and she trusted over and over. Her pregnancy was unexpected and controversial. The choices that Jesus made had consequences. His declaration in the synagogue that he was the Messiah brought immediate violence and ejection from the community. We find him and Mary later in the Gospel living in a completely new town, Capernaum, not a hill village like Nazareth but a fishing village.

Icon of the Wedding at Cana - Lucia 398 - CCWhen Jesus began his itinerant preaching and healing ministry we know that Mary, her sister and a group of women accompanied him as well as the crowds. This was not a normal lifestyle for first century Jewish women. Mary had to give up her reputation, village, old friends and the comforts of a house. In all of these ways she was an excellent listener of God as he called her out of the usual, the expected. She had to be quite aware of the danger that Jesus was in. In the Gospels, in village after village, the rage and jealously grew in the scribes and Pharisees. They hated his penetrating honesty, his clear perception of their air of superiority. They despised Jesus’ humility and closeness to the cast-offs of society. Mary must have constantly had to put her worries in the hands of God. She modeled an exceptional surrender to God and acceptance of His will. No one could have gone through this without being in deep prayer and interior connection to God all the time. She stood by Jesus from Cana to Golgotha and we have no reason to believe that she knew that “everything was going to be all right.”

Throughout the centuries Mary has been understood as the second Eve who reversed the willfulness and disobedience of the first Eve. Even when this story is understood metaphorically, Mary still is understood as the first human to be perfectly and happily obedient. She is also appreciated as the mother of the Church because she remained as the center of the early church community and loved them as her own. But it is her maternity of Jesus which stands out as the most important role she has because of its eschatological (future reaching) character. What is meant by this is that she is not just a person who did something unique in the past. Mary was and is “full of grace.” In the spiritual relationship which she has with her son and the whole of creation, Christ’s grace pours through her as the first disciple to all of humanity. Mary mothers us (protects and strengthens us) if we let her. Catholicism understands all of humanity, living and dead, to be in spiritual solidarity, a mystical body. Because of this solidarity or communion, Mary can help us to have a readiness to commitment, trust even in unbearable loss, and unimaginable joy when we are united to her son.

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