Wednesday of the Second Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 313

You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.

Yesterday I wrote of the liturgy as an anchor of faith. With the cable of prayer that reaches through the veil our storm-tossed vessel holds its position in a turbulent sea.

As wave after wave of unexpected, unprecedented change falls upon us – the Atomic Age, the Computer Age, the Internet Age, the social media age – Catholics celebrate a ritual that remembers the 20th century as well as the first century and innumerable centuries before Christ.

Our calendar of prayer recalls saints of both recent and ancient past; in many cases we find their disciples – Benedictines, Franciscans, Sisters of Charity and so forth – are still among us. Faulkner might have been speaking of the Church when he said, “The past is never dead; it’s not even past.”

In today’s readings I find another critically important link to a past that is, for all practical purposes, prehistoric; that is the cryptic verse from Psalm 110: “You are a priest forever in the line of Melchizedek.”
Soon after King Solomon’s death in the ninth century bc, his kingdom split in two. King Jeroboam and the more prosperous “northern kingdom” of Israel separated from Judah. The southern kingdom with King Rehoboam, the legitimate heir of David, was poorer but retained the Holy City of Jerusalem, its fabulous temple, and the most sacred Ark of the Covenant.

The “Jerusalem establishment” of priests and prophets with their Davidic king denounced the worship of the northern kingdom as pagan idolatry. Jerusalem claimed to be the only legitimate place to offer sacrifice to God. A thousand years later it was still a sore spot between Jews and Samaritans. You’ll recall the Samaritan woman asking Jesus about that controversy.

The religion of the northern kingdom disappeared long ago, especially with the Syrian invasion and the deportation of the "lost tribes of Israel." The Jerusalem tradition continued in the Temple until 70AD. Some people might see that as the victory of the Establishment over the Spirit but we see the hand of God in that accident of history.
Jerusalem’s based its religious authority on the Ark of the Covenant and Solomon's temple, the Levitical priests who settled permanently in Jerusalem, the promise made to King David and his descendants, and on Genesis 14 and the story of Melchizedek:
When Abram returned from his defeat of Chedorlaomer and the kings who were allied with him, the king of Sodom went out to greet him in the Valley of Shaveh (that is, the King’s Valley).
Melchizedek, king of Salem,
brought out bread and wine. He was a priest of God Most High. He blessed Abram with these words: “Blessed be Abram by God Most High, the creator of heaven and earth; And blessed be God Most High, who delivered your foes into your hand.” Then Abram gave him a tenth of everything. Genesis 14:17-20
The psalms were the official hymns of the Jerusalem Temple; and Psalm 110, a “royal psalm,” describes homage to the king. It is addressed by an inferior official to the king:
The LORD says to my lord: “Sit at my right hand, while I make your enemies your footstool. The scepter of your might: the LORD extends your strong scepter from Zion. Have dominion over your enemies! Yours is princely power from the day of your birth. In holy splendor before the daystar, like dew I begot you. The LORD has sworn and will not waver: “You are a priest forever in the manner of Melchizedek.”

Do you follow me so far? At the time of Christ, the official Jewish religion “anchored” its priesthood partly in Melchizedek, the priest-king of Salem (Jerusalem) who blessed Abraham and received a tithe of his trophies. He had neither children nor parents -- no descendants or family to link him to the present City -- but remained as a sacred presence in the Holy City. His priesthood preceded Levi and the levitical priesthood! A priest of Jerusalem was also a priest in the line of Melchizedek. 
So Jesus was crucified and raised up and revealed as the Son of God. There was enormous upheaval as many Jews joined with gentiles to create a new religion. But the authors of the New Testament insisted that Jesus did not represent a break with the past. They used innumerable citations from the Hebrew Scriptures to demonstrate Christian continuity with the past. 

On the contrary, Pharisaic scrupulosity, based in the synagogue rather than the temple, was not the true tradition. Christianity was not a kind of protestantism attempting to reform an unfaithful Jewish church; it was the true Church which was abandoned by pseudo-traditionalists who had lost their way. 
The Letter to the Hebrews recognizes Jesus not only as the Son of David and legitimate heir to the throne; he is also the high priest who enters God’s presence in the heavenly sanctuary to offer his own body and blood. Although Jesus of Nazareth was not a Levite he is a priest by way of his spiritual ancestor Melchizedek who, not incidentally, offered bread and wine. The Author of Hebrews saw in the King of Salem a critical link to Abraham, the Father of Faith, who preceded even Moses the Lawgiver. 

The Church, following Hebrews, has always capitalized on this prehistoric icon. When I was ordained in 1975 a choir of one hundred voices raised the roof with, “Tu es SacĂ©rdos in aeternum secundum ordinem Melchizedeck!” (You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedeck.)

The priesthood in the Catholic Church, like all our sacraments, is anchored through the veil of time to an ancient past. Despite the bewildering changes of the present moment, including the superficial changes in our religious practice (Latin to English, etc) the priesthood of the Catholic Church remains in aeternum as a witness to God's fidelity. 

When I bless a wounded warrior in the VA hospital, I reenact in a not-distant way the King of Salem’s blessing of the victorious Abraham. When I offer bread and wine on the chapel altar, I recall a ritual that has been presented millions of times through hundreds of years to the One God who presides over our history and remembers everything. 

Times have changed but our faith has not. Melchizedek still offers bread and wine, his body and blood, to the God of Abraham. 

Memorial of Saint Anthony, Abbot

Lectionary: 312

This we have as an anchor of the soul, sure and firm, which reaches into the interior behind the veil, where Jesus has entered on our behalf as forerunner, becoming high priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.

I went fishing with two old buddies of mine several years ago. Reaching a promising spot, Leo asked me to throw the anchor into the water, which I did with all competence. A half-hour later, finding that the fish weren't biting here, Leo told me to pull the anchor up. But there was no rope. The anchor and rope were lost in six feet of water. 
Leo could hardly believe I tossed the anchor without checking to see if it was tied to the gunwale. I was equally surprised that it hadn't been. Apparently he didn't keep it in the boat at night. In any case I was the goat and we were adrift.
Denizens of the Mediterranean world were far more familiar with anchors than this midwestern kid. At that time, without so much as a compass to navigate, sailors kept in sight of the shore as they sailed. When there was a friendly city nearby they went into port at night; if there wasn't they anchored the craft and waited for sunrise. 
As the anchor sinks it seems to disappear "into the interior behind the veil" of the watery surface. Its flukes will dig into the sandy bottom and hold the ship against wind and sea currents. Waking in the morning the sailors will be reassured to see the same coastline they knew the night before. 

The world is a lot less familiar to us today than the Mediterranean was to antique sailors. Even as demagogues assure us they have a plan and know where they're leading us, we go to bed each night with the sinking feeling that we are adrift.

I look to our faith. I ponder the "law of Moses, the prophets and psalms." With the Church I sing psalms, hymns, and inspired songs. I pay particular attention to the liturgical feast days and seasons. 
In the hospital I administer the Sacraments to our Veterans, assuring them that they have not been lost in the sight of God or the Church. 
I like to recite the Franciscan Crown -- our version of the Rosary -- daily; remembering the joyful, luminous, sorrowful and joyful mysteries. 
This is not the first time in history that God's people have felt uncertain of the future. Read the Prophet Jeremiah for that, and especially his 29th chapter

So long as we're anchored by the Spirit of Prayer, we are not adrift. I don't know the Plan but I am sure God has one, and it's beautiful:
For I know well the plans I have in mind for you.... plans for your welfare and not for woe, so as to give you a future of hope. When you call me, and come and pray to me, I will listen to you. Jeremiah 29

Monday of the Second Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 311

Jesus answered them,
"Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them?
As long as they have the bridegroom with them they cannot fast.
But the days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them,
and then they will fast on that day.

In today's first reading from the Letter to the Hebrews, we learn of Jesus' priesthood. I am astonished by: 
No one takes this honor upon himselfbut only when called by God,just as Aaron was.
Surely, if anyone could "take this honor upon himself" it was Jesus. At one time, European kings were accustomed to bow down before the Pope while he placed the crown on their heads. The emperor Charlemagne established the custom; it gave his authority a certain elan. It made him look humble before the Priest and pleased devout Christians; it also gave his government the appearance of heavenly endorsement.
For hundreds of years rulers followed his example, until Napoleon, coming before the Pope, snatched the crown and placed it on his own head. By that time, the Church was weak; it's endorsement meant nothing; the ritual was a joke.
Perhaps Charlemagne got the idea from Hebrews 5. If Jesus was so humble, the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire should at least make a display of humility.
Today's gospel reveals Jesus' humility more clearly. It's not just a pretense of piety. Jesus knows "the days will come when the bridegroom is taken away." 
He is most certainly the "bridegroom" who deserves all honor. As we feast on Christmas after the fasting of Advent, so do we eat heartily in the presence of Christ. During the Mass we do not hesitate to eat and drink, receiving the Body and the Blood of Jesus. The Bridegroom has placed this banquet before us; only rudeness would turn away from it.
But the day will come when the Bridegroom is taken away. On that day we will fast. When he is humiliated by arrest, denunciation, condemnation, torture and death his disciples will mourn, losing all appetite for food or drink. They will feel in their bodies his indignity.

Traditionally, the Church has experienced the liturgical times of the year incarnationally; that is, with feasting and fasting. In some European countries even the sexual acts of husband and wife were deferred during Lent out of reverence for the Lord's Passion.
If those customs are largely forgotten during this decadent moment in our history, the Spirit remains. As we enter 2017, realizing that our world is changing and our Christian values are needed more today than ever before, we will do well to embrace the Spirit again with appropriate practices of feasting and fasting.

Second Sunday in Ordinary Time

It is too little, the LORD says, for you to be my servant,
to raise up the tribes of Jacob,
and restore the survivors of Israel;
I will make you a light to the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.

Because Saint John baptized “for the forgiveness of sins” the four evangelists dance around the issue of Jesus’ baptism. Saint Mark, the earliest gospel, simply declares that he “was baptized in the Jordan by John.” Saint Luke admits he was baptized but immediately draws our attention to what happened next:
After all the people had been baptized and Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, heaven was opened and the holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”
Saint Matthew deals more directly with the problem:
John tried to prevent him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and yet you are coming to me?” Jesus said to him in reply, “Allow it now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he allowed him.
The Fourth Evangelist simply ignores the incident and the controversy; he focusses on what the others attested, the Appearance of the Holy Spirit. In his account the Baptist declares, "I saw the Spirit come down like a dove from heaven and remain upon him.” There were no reporters there to harass the prophet about a question he deemed unimportant.
The Four Evangelists appear to worry about why Jesus should be baptized when he was so clearly the sinless Lamb of God, pure and unstained, who would offer himself in sacrifice for sin.
 Saint Paul gives us the best explanation for Jesus’ baptism, by way of an exhortation:
We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who did not know sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him.
Jesus was baptized like any sinner. He knew John's objection but he saw no reason not to be. 

We cannot forget Paul’s plea when we consider that Jesus has taken our sin, guilt and shame upon himself. If I will only consider the trial and trauma Jesus suffered, I will surely be reconciled to God and to those around me.
Nor will I dare to blow off Jesus’ sacrifice as if he only appeared to suffer, or he did it “because he had to,” or unwillingly. Was there any shade of reluctance in Jesus’ sacrifice? Did he allow himself a private reservation or skeptical distance from the cross?
The scriptures don’t allow such an interpretation nor would it make sense. Nothing less than his total immolation could satisfy the depths of our guilt. Anyone who has suffered an atrocity -- or perpetrated one -- can testify to this ultimate demand. We cannot be satisfied with half-measures, not even by God.
Clearly, Jesus began his ministry with a shocking act; he was baptized by John. Matthew says he insisted upon it although he was clearly without sin. He allowed no distance between himself and us. Are we happy? Then he is happy. Are we grieving? He grieves with us. Are we guilty of barbaric, senseless cruelty to one another? He stands with us before His Father, guilty like everyone else.
In the faceless mass of sinful humanity, covered in shame, only the Father could pick him out. But the Father accepts Jesus’ demand; he will not be set apart from us. The Father does so because that’s the very Spirit in which he sent him.
Because Jesus has paid such a price the words of our first reading from Isaiah are fulfilled in him:
It is too little, the LORD says, for you to be my servant, to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and restore the survivors of Israel; I will make you a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.

Saturday of the First Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 310

Since we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens,  Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has similarly been tested in every way, yet without sin. So let us confidently approach the throne of grace to receive mercy and to find grace for timely help.

Soon after the original documents of our New Testament were written, but before they were compiled into a single canon, the Church began to speak of her bishops and presbyters as priests. The idea had not come to the letter writers (Paul, James, Peter et al.) nor to the evangelists. They didn't think of Jesus as a priest. 

Only the later authors, especially anonymous writer of Hebrews and John of Patmos (Revelation) thought of Jesus as a priest. Hebrews, fully aware that he was of Davidic (royal) descent rather than Levitic, insisted he was "of the line of Melchizedek," an insight both astonishing and brilliant.  

Centuries later, Protestants ministers disavowed the title, but it made sense to the early church that the "president of the assembly" should be called a priest. Our ritual of the Mass is not so unlike the one we imagine as Jesus enters the Heavenly Sanctuary through the "veil" of his passion and death. As the priest holds the body and blood of Jesus, so does the Anointed Christ bear his broken body into the Presence of God. As the congregation holds fast to its confession of faith, so does the whole church offer this sweet-smelling sacrifice in the Heavenly Temple.

As Jesus has offered himself totally, without stint, in God's presence, so must our earthly pastor and his congregations offer themselves with -- not despite -- our history of sin.  If he is not ashamed to call us his brothers and sisters, we cannot be ashamed to stand with him as he presents us to His Father. 

In today's gospel we have heard the story of Jesus' calling Levi to be his disciple, and of that gentleman's immediate response. We too have been invited to enter the sanctuary with the Lord, crowding together around our priest as he offers body and blood. 

This is not an invitation one can refuse. Nor can anyone quietly say, "But of course I have done that all my life." Rather, we drop whatever we have in hand at this moment to say, "Here I am, Lord. You called me." 

Friday of the First Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 309

Let us be on our guard while the promise of entering into his rest remains, that none of you seem to have failed. For in fact we have received the Good News just as our ancestors did. But the word that they heard did not profit them, for they were not united in faith with those who listened.

Our faith offers both assurance and challenge. We should "strive to enter through the narrow gate" and "be on our guard while the promise of entering into his rest remains."
The Christmas seasons teaches us much about that, especially as it's played out in our frenetic world. This past season we had a full 28-day Advent with all the scripture readings that we might contemplate the promises of God. The Holy Day and its octave came with more readings and hymns and images and gestures -- "all the smells and bells" of the Season -- to give us a sense of our longings satisfied. 
When I pastored a parish I was just as reluctant as my parishioners to plan for anything in January. We just didn't want to think that we'd have to go into another year of work and sacrifice at the end of December. Let us just stay here, meditate and enjoy! 
But most of our neighbors, even by midday of the 25th, are saying "Happy New Year!" an expression that is banned after the second day of the year. In fact they often ask, "How was your new year?" though it's only two days old. (It can't be worse than 2016!)
Settling now in January and 2017 the scriptures again urge us to set out for the deep, as Pope Saint John Paul II said. 
We have been refreshed by six weeks of Christmas. We'll plunge into Lent in less than two months (March 1) but for the moment we prepare for what lies ahead. We need open minds and open hearts to think new thought and welcome new people. We must be free from fear lest we do something really stupid, as frightened people generally do. 
In today's gospel we watch and listen as Jesus forgives the sins of a paralyzed man, and then heals his paralysis. He knew perfectly well the reaction of the crowd around him, that some would doubt his authority to forgive; and then, seeing it demonstrated, they would go to war with him. 
He must have felt the fear just as his compassion embraced the poor fellow. Like you and me when we do the right thing, he had a choice but he had no choice. 
May the Lord guide our choices with the same eager generosity and courage throughout this new year.

Thursday of the First Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 308

Oh, that today you would hear his voice,
"Harden not your hearts as at the rebellion
in the day of testing in the desert,
where your ancestors tested and tried me
and saw my works for forty years.
Because of this I was provoked with that generation
and I said, 'They have always been of erring heart,
and they do not know my ways.'
As I swore in my wrath,
'They shall not enter into my rest.

The Letter to the Hebrews today gives us one of the longest direct quotes from the Old Testament; this is a section from Psalm 95. The Church from ancient times has used this passage, which both encourages and threatens, as the "Invitatory Psalm" of the day. There are alternative psalms if anyone so chooses, but this is the default. 
I have read it each morning for many years. 
In it we hear the voice of our God, loving, endearing, demanding, jealous, threatening, questioning, "Why do you turn away from me?" 
It's a question we cannot answer with any kind of logic. 
Coming to our senses periodically, we too wonder, "Why have I doubted God's love? What was I thinking?" or "What were we thinking?"
There's always the blame game, too: "I was right with God but they weren't!" or " weren't!" Which is another, most regrettable sin.
God promises protection and prosperity if we will only trust him. Sometimes we actually enjoy relative prosperity and a measure of protection and we think we must be okay with God, until we examine our lives and see all the contradictions. 
Any Christian preacher today could name a host of endemic sins for which we suffer this time of punishment. I think of abortion as the cause of today's violence, drug abuse and the disappearance of the family. But perhaps abortion is the inevitable end of divorce. When a couple promise to love, honor and obey one another for the rest of their lives and then renounce those very words, what catastrophic consequences must follow. It is, as Brenda Lee once sang, "the end of the world." 
Because of this I was provoked with that generation and I said, 'They have always been of erring heart, and they do not know my ways.' As I swore in my wrath, 'They shall not enter into my rest.
The daily recitation of this psalm reminds me to daily examine my own willing obedience to God. Am I moved by the Spirit that drove Jesus into the desert or by some other, alien spirit? Do I want what God wants, or only my own selfish desires? 
The setting for Psalm 95 is the Sinai Desert, where the Lord led his people day by day. Today's setting is not much different. We still have little idea of where we're going, and little love for the One who leads us. 
Each day we must turn back to the Lord, rediscover the same reluctance and fearfulness in our hearts, receive reassurance of God's endless patience and ask the Lord to conform our desires and preferences to His.