Wednesday of the Seventeenth Week in Ordinary Time

When I found your words, I devoured them; they became my joy and the happiness of my heart,
Because I bore your name,O LORD, God of hosts.
I did not sit celebrating in the circle of merrymakers; 
Under the weight of your hand I sat alone because you filled me with indignation.

In today’s gospel Jesus describes the great joy of those who have found the “treasure hidden in a field” and the “pearl of great price.” These similes fit well with Jeremiah’s declaration, 

“When I found your words, I devoured them; they became my joy and the happiness of my heart….”
The gospel has this wonderful power to focus one’s life. Saint Francis cried out, “This is what I want with all my heart!”

Consumers are not trained to expect or wait upon such a discovery. Hearing an evangelist’s invitation to fellowship with God, they ignore it; or, if they’re vaguely intrigued, they look for an experience of God, rather than for God. But mostly they are distracted by the army of marketers who can use every imaginable enticement to prevent God’s voice from being heard. In the last few years, I have seen the coming of the Christian label with its horrible t-shirts, gaudy bracelets, earrings, necklaces, and bumper stickers. “Do you believe in Jesus? I’ve got just the thing for you!”

And so, “Under the weight of your hand” those who hear God’s voice sit “alone.” We should notice that the fellows in Jesus’ stories who find a buried treasure or a valuable pearl tell no one about their discoveries. The digger reburies his find before going off to purchase the field. Apparently it’s immovable, perhaps a lode of valuable ore. It soon becomes a weight too heavy to bear!

Jeremiah complained, “…because you filled me with indignation.” I don’t think any seeker after God can avoid this sentence of solitude and the resentments it will stir up. Suddenly cut out of the herd he or she sits alone with a silent God. The crowd has gone its way, hardly noticing the loss of one member. The extrovert has lost his support system; the introvert is proved in her suspicions, “They never noticed me in the first place.”
Angrily, the seeker blames God for his predicament: “Under the weight of your hand I sat alone because you filled me with indignation. Why is my pain continuous, my wound incurable, refusing to be healed? You have indeed become for me a treacherous brook, whose waters do not abide!”

The consumer who thought she’d found a pearl of great price finds that it does not sparkle in the dark. She is confronted with a God who cannot be controlled or manipulated. This God insists upon our waiting on Him as we have made others wait on us. He says, in effect, “I’ll not be told what to do, what to say or when to appear!”
Thus the LORD answered me: If you repent, so that I restore you, in my presence you shall stand; If you bring forth the precious without the vile, you shall be my mouthpiece.

Can I bring forth the precious Good News of Jesus without the vile? Moses, frustrated with his people and their stiff necks, brought the vile out of himself, “Just listen you rebels! Are we to produce water for you out of this rock?” He was supposed to show the mercy of God who produces water in the desert, but instead he struck the rock like an Egyptian magician. As great as he was and deserving of everlasting honor, he suffered the consequence of his momentary slip. He saw from afar but never entered the Promised Land. 
God sends the prophet to speak the word of God to the nation, state, neighborhood or church but it will never be the prophet's own word. The angry, self-appointed prophet can produce only the vile. The word of God is precious

Memorial of Saints Joachim and Anne, Parents of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Lectionary: 402

His disciples approached him and said,
“Explain to us the parable of the weeds in the field.”
He said in reply, “He who sows good seed is the Son of Man, the field is the world, the good seed the children of the Kingdom. The weeds are the children of the Evil One, and the enemy who sows them is the Devil. The harvest is the end of the age, and the harvesters are angels.
Just as weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age.

Jesus used familiar imagery to convey a familiar teaching to his contemporaries. Just as a gardener rakes the useless out of his garden, so will God rake the useless out of his kingdom. 

Not many years ago the smoke of burning leaves scented many suburban neighborhoods during the fall of the year. Nowadays we see recyclable bags of leaves and grass cuttings waiting on the curb for collection and disposal. No matter the era or the method, the message is the same: neither God nor gardeners have much use for the useless. 

However, the message is not an assurance of doom but a promise: God will deliver us. 

I think, for people who think of themselves as entitled, this is a hard message. Saint Paul says, "When I am weak, then I am strong." The corollary follows, "When I am strong, then I am weak." 

Am I willing to be weak so as to experience God's mercy? Or, more precisely, am I willing to consider my weakness without defensive fear, anguish, panic or dread? 

I live in the United States, a nation-state of astonishing power. At least some people who know what they're talking about say the US has more military power than all other nations combined. We won the arms race several years ago, and the world ceded the victory to us. Many abandoned the field to concentrate on building their economies, schools and hospitals. 

Unfortunately, all our strength never translated to security. That's because security, like justification, only comes through faith; as Martin Luther said, sola fides. 

Personally, every time I watch the evening news, or read the online newspaper, or meet a Catholic Veteran who abandoned the Faith when he entered the Service, I feel dread creeping up in me. In that moment, I find my only hope in prayer. I've found no consolation in Republican conservatism, Democratic liberalism, military defense, universal education, universal health care, open immigration, closed immigration, sustainability or any other panacea. I think our peril is way beyond the reach of human intervention.  

Rather, I turn back to prayer and the words of Jesus“Do not let your hearts be troubled. You have faith in God; have faith also in me.  

Feast of Saint James, Apostle

Lectionary: 605

We hold this treasure in earthen vessels,
that the surpassing power may be of God and not from us.
We are afflicted in every way, but not constrained;
perplexed, but not driven to despair;
persecuted, but not abandoned;
struck down, but not destroyed;
always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus,
so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our body.

Christians will study Saint Paul until the end of time. Of all the people who appear in the New Testament he alone shows us the mind of a Christian, what he thinks, how he feels, and what he does with his experience.

Of Jesus some people will always ask, “Did Jesus know he was God?” But Jesus came to save us, not to tell us useless information we do not need to know. Who has known the mind of God? 
Paul, on the other hand, is an open book. Because he is one of the earliest and greatest of all Christian thinkers, we can find ourselves in his musings.

He wrote, “We hold this treasure in earthen vessels….” First there is the matter of motivation. Apparently from the day he encountered the Lord on the road to Damascus until his dying breath, he never doubted his mission or who had sent him. He got sick and angry and disgusted at times, but he was not easily discouraged. If failure was an option, quitting was not.
His secret formula for avoiding discouragement was his own self-assessment. He was “an earthen vessel” driven by the Spirit to every point on the map to announce the Gospel. If he met frustration and discouragement at every turn, he didn’t second guess himself, saying “I’m a failure because nobody loves me.” If he was shipwrecked or jailed, the Holy Spirit had brought him there; why would he question that? 

Brutally treated by various enemies, Saint Paul knew the frailty of his own body. He was probably surprised to live as long as he did. And yet, so long as he had a body he could speak of the Lord. The Holy Spirit got him up each morning and laid him down the following night. He knew God's energy within the earthen vessel of himself and was amazed.
Occasionally I come across stories of people who live at the very edge of human endurance and thrive. A woman who has walked thousands of miles across Asia, Europe and the Americas remarked that food is overrated. If she has to go for days without eating she just keeps walking.

Closer to home, Francis of Assisi appeared near death to many people – Thomas of Celano said he looked like a corpse – and yet he could dance in the street when he spoke of God. Saint Clare of Assisi subsisted for years on little more than a small biscuit every other day. She ate that much only because her bishop and Saint Francis insisted that she eat that much.
Earthen vessels, they were filled with the light of God.

When we celebrate an apostle – as we do today on Saint James’ feast – we remember that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is animated by the Holy Spirit and not by our efforts. The Gospel carries us; we don’t carry it. 

Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 111

And I tell you, ask and you will receive;
seek and you will find;
knock and the door will be opened to you. 
For everyone who asks, receives;
and the one who seeks, finds;
and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened. 

I cannot hear the story of Abraham without recalling his watching a pillar of smoke rising from Sodom and Gomorrah. This was the day after he and Sarah had entertained this peculiar God with an impromptu banquet; only hours after he had stood dickering with this Majesty over the fate of these towns. 

Standing alone on a distant hill, he must have said to himself, "What kind of god has named me as friend? Do I dare to count on his friendship? Do I dare to shy away from him? Who will support me if I avoid him? No one!" 

What desperate courage it took to remain as a friend of God! And yet he had no choice. He could not turn back, nor -- in the twin lights of reason and affection --  would he want to. 

When I was about ten years old my mother taught me how to ride a bicycle. I had seen her doing it, and every kid in the neighborhood, and I was ready to learn. She put me up on her rusty old "girl's bike", which weighed nearly as much as I did, and we shoved off. She ran along side with  one hand on the seat as she urged me to "Pedal!" Pretty soon, I got the hang of it. It's a skill, once mastered, never forgotten. 

I think some people, trained as Catholics, never quite got the pedalling part. Their parents or grandparents put them on the "seat" and ran along side with them, urging them to put some energy into, but they started slowing down as soon as the adult let go, and soon toppled like a kid who won't pedal his bike. And they complained, "Catholicism doesn't work for me!" 

If you're reading this blog I suppose you did meet that crisis of independence and you decided to stay in the friendship the Church offered you. You have endured a certain amount of grief as a Catholic -- perhaps embarrassment and shame --  and you have discovered the Lord still wanted you as his own and you had no choice but to remain in his love. Knowing what you know, only a fool would refuse the grace and blessing of discipleship. So do we keep the faith from year to year, generation to generation. God calls and we respond. 

Today's readings urge us to petition God with confidence for our own needs and the needs of others. Like Abraham, we represent our cities, states and nations. Our prayers must be raised up and they must be heard if God is to bless us. Prayer is a sacred duty, a privilege and pleasure; we cannot imagine life without it, no more than we can imagine bicycling without pedalling. 

Saint Bridget of Sweden

Lectionary: 400

...if you pull up the weeds
you might uproot the wheat along with them.
Let them grow together until harvest;
then at harvest time I will say to the harvesters,
First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles for burning; but gather the wheat into my barn.

The "slaves of the householder" in today's parable are eager to get out there and uproot all the nasty weeds that have appeared in their lovely wheat field. But the owner very wisely restrains them.

"Non-judgement" has become an important watchword in recent spirituality. The eastern guru and the western monk encourage their disciples to sit quietly in meditation, observing without judgement the wanderings of the mind and occasionally inviting it back to focus on the word of prayer (western) or emptiness (eastern).

I remember a day when I finally learned to apply that simple lesson. For reasons of my own training and background I had unconsciously attached red flags to certain images, memories and impulses. When any of these popped up in my mind an alarm went off and I reacted with anger toward myself. It took a while to learn that the anger was unnecessary, it only disturbed the mind.

"Let it pass." the Lord and my spiritual director assured me. Thoughts and ideas floated through the mind. "In one ear and out the other!" as Dad would have said. Unattached and unattacked, they drifted away. Because I was paying attention only to the Lord, I didn't care where these distractions came from or where they went. Nor could I remember them later in the day. They had left no impression.

Non-judgement has become a critically important tool in my ministry at the VA hospital. First, as I listen to the patients, I have to let my own clever remarks, insightful thoughts and amusing stories pass back into oblivion. I have not been sent to entertain the Veteran or his family.

Secondly, I let the Veteran tell his story and express his opinions. He didn't come to the hospital to be instructed, chastened or edified by the chaplain. He doesn't need my assessment of his salvageability. But he might find meaning and purpose in telling me about himself.

Finally, I let the Veteran discover faith in my presence. As a sacrament of the Church, I offer blessings through my willingness to see, hear, touch and know the patient. Most are willing to receive the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick, which I offer equally to devout, practicing Catholics and to the majority who are only associated with the Catholic Church.

Occasionally, rarely, I might offer advice but 
on those occasions I usually find I'm wasting my breath. 

I am required to do a "spiritual assessment" but that is not an evaluation of their standing in God's sight. I only ask if they are willing to receive a chaplain visit. What they make of it is not my concern.

The slaves were ready to uproot and destroy but the friends of Jesus bring his presence to friend and foe alike. How we judge or what we think of one another is of no particular interest to Him, neither should it be to us.

Feast of Saint Mary Magdalene

Consequently, from now on we regard no one according to the flesh; even if we once knew Christ according to the flesh, yet now we know him so no longer. So whoever is in Christ is a new creation: the old things have passed away; behold, new things have come.

Earlier this year our Holy Father Pope Francis elevated the memorial of Saint Mary Magdalene to a feast, an honor ordinarily bestowed on apostles and major saints. You can be sure conservatives and liberals within and without the Church will have plenty of opinions about the significance of the Pope's decision.

"The Magdalene" has been a fascinating woman throughout our history as artists, authors, composers and film makers speculated about her exact relationship with Jesus. With Andrew Lloyd Webber's music and Tim Rice's lyrics , the woman in Jesus Christ Superstar sings "I don't know how to love him." while Jesus sleeps in her bed. As popular as that musical and song were, I remember no protests about that scene. Many people assume she was his wife. 

The editors who chose the first readings of today's feast must have considered this irresolvable controversy as they offered a choice of Song of Songs 3:1-4b or 2 Corinthians 5:14-17. The latter, which I preferred to lead this reflection, invites a tamer, safer reflection about Jesus and Mary Magdalene:
...from now on we regard no one according to the flesh....
My current favorite philosopher, the Scotsman John Macmurray, considered three levels of being: the mechanical, organic and personal. Mechanical concerns the physical sciences from astronomy and geology to hydraulics and systems analysis. A government, business or army wants to operate with machine-like efficiency. 

Organic considers life in its many forms, according to the flesh. It is sensitive to time and season and changing circumstances. Life forms interact with the environment, absorbing and adapting it to fit their needs. Sexuality appears on the organic level; it concerns the "decision" to embrace rapid evolution with its cost of death. (Some lower forms of life are asexual and may live for billions of years.)

Only human beings are capable of personal existence, but it comes with a price. 

  • We know ourselves as creatures in time, with a past, present and future. We realize our decisions are both consequential and irrevocable.
  • Accepting the pleasure of sexuality we recognize the unavoidable curse of death. 
  • The human person cannot regard other human beings as (mechanical) things to be used; nor be satisfied with (organic/animal) pleasures. Those who attempt to live simply on the organic level, consuming and manipulating others, suffer unbearable loneliness. 
  • We need others and not just to satisfy our physical desires.
Within Macmurray's line of thought, Jesus is the Person who calls us to personhood through his acceptance of death. Embracing him we embrace death, for he has told us to "take up your cross and follow me." Paradoxically, the cross seems to be a bottomless well of self-abandonment in which we find simultaneously the ecstasy of, and longing for, communion. 

Jesus would never use or abuse the opportunity Mary Magdalene may have offered him. Rather he regarded no one according to the flesh. In today's gospel, even as she embraces the Risen Man in an ecstasy of joy, he must say "Stop holding on to me...."

Although he has been crucified, buried and raised from the dead, their relationship is not essentially changed because it was from the beginning that of one person to another. Our organic, animal nature is subject to death; our personal nature, apparently, is not. 

However, unlike the material and organic natures, there is a tragedy involved on this third plane of existence: not every human being attains personhood. At least, we cannot assume they do. Some people apparently never discover that other human beings have feelings, sensibilities and needs unlike their own. They regard other people as objects and animals, as obstacles or allies, to be used for their own purposes. Saint Paul said of them, "Their gods are their stomachs." Their fate, it seems, is to be reabsorbed into the dirt of the earth along with every other plant and animal. 

Finally, just as Jesus commissioned Mary Magdalene to announce his resurrection to his disciples, a personal relationship necessarily invites others to personhood. The married couple has children; the religious community invites new members; the Church evangelizes, and so forth. That invitation must go out to the ends of the Earth. This Gospel cannot be contained. 

Memorial of Saint Lawrence of Brindisi, Franciscan

Lectionary: 398

But blessed are your eyes, because they see,
and your ears, because they hear.
Amen, I say to you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see but did not see it,
and to hear what you hear but did not hear it.”

Americans, always rushing toward the future with its promise of new gadgets and unbridled freedom, habitually dismiss the past. In places the Civil War is still a felt presence; its controversies remain unresolved.  But we hardly remember the Revolutionary War with its fife and drum, red and blue coats and strategy of continual retreat. Unlike Stephen Daedalus who said, “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” we rise and greet each morning like Adam and Eve, remembering nothing of the past.
Early Christians had a stronger sense of history. The first gentiles to join the church were eager to study Jewish sacred scripture and to be initiated into Jewish history. They wanted to be children of Abraham through baptism and descendants of King David through Anointing in the Spirit. They pondered the Exodus and saw themselves escaping slavery in Egypt and starvation in the Sinai Desert. Their liturgical prayers imitated traditional Jewish household prayers and evolved into our Mass. Especially, they were blessed to know Jesus; he was the fulfillment of all Jewish and gentile expectations.

It was as if Americans would reinterpret all human history as a march toward freedom and equality for African-Americans, women and gays, a march which finally reaches its goal in the American Experiment. It is not merely another nation with its peculiar vices and virtues but a narrative with its roots in the ancient past and its destiny in the undiscovered future. 

The New Testament authors regarded the past as preamble; the "law, the prophets and the psalms" made sense in the light of Jesus. We call that narrative “Salvation History.” It begins in the eternal mystery of the Holy Trinity; its highlights include Adam and Eve, Abraham, Moses and David; it culminates in Jesus. It continues to appear in the Church and looks to that future event which is the Last Judgement and then, Communion.
Hebrews 11 gives us a fascinating overview of salvation history; the author recounts the patriarchs who “did not receive what had been promised but saw it and greeted it from afar and acknowledged themselves to be strangers and aliens on earth…” (vs13)

What promised future do 21st century Christians see and greet from afar? Parents hope their children will be happy, healthy and prosperous. Business people hope their companies thrive in an uncertain future; statesmen and women envision security for their respective nations. What about Christians during this age of future shock?
Engineers of every sort are madly creating new gadgets to be placed around and within our bodies. Where are they taking us? NASA engineers dream of earthlings travelling to distant stars to colonize the universe. Is that where we want to go? Do they plan to take the gospel and the sacraments with them? 

Personally, I long to see a reunion of all Christians as the Eastern and Western churches learn to pray together. It's nearly a thousand years since our unhappy schism, and we've seen that, once people start splitting they can't stop. The Protestant reformation has been fracturing since 1517 and other sects have left the Catholic Church after the first and second Vatican councils. They believed they could find truth beyond the communion. 

But the way forward is in Jesus prayer that all may be one. Our destiny is communion. No Christian can believe that the Son's prayer must be disappointed. 

...many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it.”
Amen, come Lord Jesus.