Memorial of Saint Cecilia, Virgin and Martyr

Lectionary: 499

...he proceeded to tell a parable because he was near Jerusalem and they thought that the Kingdom of God would appear there immediately.

According to the Gospel of Saint Luke, Jesus often counteracts popular expectation. Despite the high hopes in the Bethlehem countryside where he was born and in Jerusalem where Simeon and Anna welcomed him, he disappointed the Nazarenes with his preaching. They were so upset they wanted to throw him headfirst off a cliff.
In today's gospel, because the people of Jericho expected the Kingdom of God to appear soon, he told them about three businessmen and their absentee employer. Two invested wisely and enjoyed a substantial return. Handing their profits over to the Man, they were handsomely rewarded.
The third buried his employer's money in the ground and returned every penny of it, probably in the same worm-eaten pouch. He did not fare so well.
What's the connection to Jericho's expectation?
Christians wait with eager expectation that divine day when the Lord will return. That "apocalyptic" longing appears in the oldest texts of our New Testament (1&2 Thessalonians), throughout the gospels, and brilliantly in the last book, Revelation.
In the two millennia since Jesus' ascension his return has been reinterpreted as a gradual evolution of peace and justice; and as eminent, probably TODAY! with many variations in between. Some have set themselves up as experts in predicting the year, month and day of his return -- only to be repeatedly disappointed.
Others have simply dismissed the notion altogether; as they read the fossil record and astronomical occurrences they see no end in sight. If the human race doesn't annihilate itself with nuclear weapons or environmental pollution, it will be fried when the sun supernovas, several millions years from now.
The Catholic tradition, remembering all these attempts to decipher a supposedly hidden code in the Bible and scrutinize the inscrutable Mind of God, hews more closely to the teaching of Jesus, "Be ready! You know neither the hour nor the day."
The good people of Jericho entertained a natural curiosity when they asked "When will the Kingdom of God appear?" But, like the precise hour of your death, the end of the world is the last thing we humans should know.  
Saint Francis of Assisi, that "most Catholic of saints," urged his friars to keep it simple, "While we have time, let us do good."

Memorial of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Now a man there named Zacchaeus, who was a chief tax collector and also a wealthy man, was seeking to see who Jesus was....

The comic book-movie genre amuses young people and the young-of-mind with outlandish superheroes who undertake epic adventures in bizarre cityscapes with predicable outcomes. Even the special effects are boring. (I sat through the most recent Starwars and was bored out of gourd.)
The gospels tell us about real people and their conclusions are not simply unexpected; they're also challenging to those alert enough to notice. As for instance, Zacchaeus, who is a wealthy man, short of stature. You're familiar with the story. And that's okay because Saint Luke doesn't intend to entertain the idle. He intends to interrupt our way of life with some disturbing, albeit good, news. 
And that is, everything in our universe has been upended since the death and resurrection of Jesus. As W.B. Yeats said, "A terrible beauty is born." 
Zacchaeus is a shining example, as brilliant as a stained-glass window on Easter Sunday morning, of the good news, "Wealth is nothing!" 
If you think your life has meaning, weight or significance because of your wealth, you can forget about it. If your social standing is standing on money, your stature is very short indeed. 
Our society, even more than that of Jesus, measures a person's worth by their money. The wealthy can fly "first class" or in their private jet; but don't point that out to them because they don't like to talk about class. That is déclassé
The wealthy, oddly enough, use the same toothpaste as everyone else, and probably the same toothbrush, and pay the same price as everyone else. In other words, their expenses are the same as yours and mine, but they're standing on wealth -- which is like building a house in a sandy floodplain. 
Zacchaeus sees in Jesus his reentry into standing with his fellow citizens of Jericho. Inviting the Lord to his house, he invites the crowd to follow, and there hands over the advantages he has scrupulously accumulated throughout his career. 
"Behold, half of my possessions, Lord, I shall give to the poor,and if I have extorted anything from anyoneI shall repay it four times over."
Jesus, delighted with this testimony, declares, 
Today salvation has come to this housebecause this man too is a descendant of Abraham. For the Son of Man has come to seekand to save what was lost." 
Salvation is membership in the human community, it is equal standing with the Lord who has claimed a place as the least of all and servant of all. He shares that privilege with everyone willing to wash feet at the banquet table. 

Monday of the Thirty-third Week in Ordinary Time

In those days there appeared in Israel men who were breakers of the law, and they seduced many people, saying: "Let us go and make an alliance with the Gentiles all around us; since we separated from them, many evils have come upon us." The proposal was agreeable; some from among the people promptly went to the king, and he authorized them to introduce the way of living of the Gentiles.

Judah was overrun by Assyrian, Babylonian and Greek armies in the seventh, fifth, and third centuries before Christ and would not enjoy sovereign nation status again until 1948, when it was established as the nation of Israel. Although Jews continued to occupy the city throughout all those centuries theirs was celebrated as a private religion; it was not the state religion.
The several books of Maccabees recalls their efforts in the third century bce to throw off their Greek oppressors and regain their freedom as a nation. They fought valiantly for Freedom of Religion long before the First Amendment of the American Constitution.
Today's first reading from 1 Maccabees describes a situation that might be familiar to many Christians today. If we believe our American culture was basically Christian, it has apparently been invaded and overrun by strange, foreign influences. Marriage has been redefined as friendship with privileges; once-welcome immigrants are despised as illegal; suicide is socially acceptable; avarice and greed are admired as virtues; and most Americans think they are oppressed, minority victims: we are strangers in our homeland.
The Books of Maccabees describe the violent rebellion of Jews against their oppressors. That is always an option for victims. Anger, aggression and violence, like dancing cobras, have their own fascinating appeal. Karpman's triangle drama describes the tortured allemandes and do-sa-dos of victims who become tormentors who become rescuers and victims again. There's little grace in that square dance.
Jesus was never a victim. He freely chose the  frailty, vulnerability, guilt and shame of our humanity and preferred his human nature to all the splendor of heaven. His approach to Jerusalem, his arrest, trial, scourging and crucifixion were intentional acts. His betrayer, accusers and tormentors also played their parts, willingly and energetically; but these were parts assigned by the Lord who scripted the entire drama. Pontius Pilate, in John's account, shows some reluctance but his hand is forced by the mob, the leaders of the people, and his fear of Caesar.
Christians cannot play the victim card; it's not dealt to us. Rather, we embrace every opportunity to announce God's mercy to friends and foes, in season and out of season. That mercy is unfailingly courteous; it recognizes and respects the anguish of enemies of the Gospel. They do not know what they are doing. Had they known the mystery they would not have crucified the Lord of Glory.
The Books of Maccabees recall the military struggle which enjoyed limited success; but our liturgical readings highlight the heroic struggle of the Elder Eleazar (tomorrow's reading) and the Widowed Mother (on Wednesday). These champions would not compromise to save their lives despite the pleading of their enemies!
I don't suppose we're approaching another age of Christian martyrs in the United States. The Catholic and Protestant churches are well regarded on all sides. Our challenge is to address those among us who would call themselves minorities and victims and invite them to more courageous action.

Thirty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 157

Well done, my good and faithful servant. 
Since you were faithful in small matters,
I will give you great responsibilities. 
Come, share your master's joy.

The collect of this 33rd Sunday recalls the "constant gladness of being devoted to you." It echoes The Joy of the Gospel when the master congratulated two faithful servants who had invested wisely. It anticipates The Joy of the Gospel which we expect when the Lord returns to set all things right. 

Pope Francis will be remembered as the happy pope. Inspired by the Lord, attentive to prayer and edified by the witness of poverty, he sees opportunity where many see only crisis. He seems to discover gladness wherever he goes.
Lifted up like Jesus on his cross, the pope can see from the towering heights of his papacy the world's disappointment. But the eyes of faith see abundant grace in this sadness. O felix culpa! the deacon sings during the Easter Vigil, as the Church contemplates the Resurrection. O happy fault that merited such a redeemer
I remarked recently in this blog about Saint Paul's persistent vision of joy. He was not bothered with the "problem of evil," sometimes called theodicy. Christ has won the victory. Paul knew it because he had been starved, neglected, betrayed, beaten, chained, imprisoned and exiled many times over but the Spirit still rejoiced within him. He could not deny his own happiness; it was nothing but privilege to suffer as the Lord had suffered.  
There is sadness of course -- we pause to feel sadness -- as much for the perpetrators of crime as for the victims. But sadness need not lead to disappointment. 
No Catholic imagines the Blessed Mother on Calvary weeping for disappointment. Grief, of course, for the son of her body who suffers dreadfully. But she does not venture into disappointment. She waits with a faithful heart for what eye has not seen and ear has not heard, for what God has prepared for those who love him. 
The philosopher would ask why but the Christian believes in God's fidelity and watches with expectation for the Vindication that will certainly come. 
Next Sunday we will celebrate Christ the King of the Universe; we will hear Saint Matthew's parable of the Last Judgment. We expect That Day with holy fear and eager longing. On That Day there will be great joy in heaven and on earth for God's justice and our faith will be vindicated in the sight of the nations. 

Saturday of the Thirty-second Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 496

Will not God then secure the rights of his chosen ones
who call out to him day and night? 
Will he be slow to answer them? 

I love the woman in this story, though I'd rather admire her from afar. Here is one of those women who knows what she wants and knows she should have it, a perfect terror to men.
I picked up Tolstoy's War and Peace a few months ago. I've read it twice already but I could hardly put the book down for my delight in meeting again the dreadful "Anna Pavlovna Sherer, maid of honor and favorite of the Empress Marya Federovna." She's a woman who, if you saw her coming in the street, you'd duck down an alley to avoid. But because she is indomitable the entire novel depends upon her two interventions. (If you've not yet read War and Peace, you must!
Jesus' widow should be called "Anna Pavlovna." She knows the judge can answer her prayer. He can, must and will! He is, after all, only a man. As "Maria Portokalos" says in My Big Fat Greek Wedding said, "The man is the head, but the woman is the neck. And she can turn the head any way she wants."
In 1215 the lords of England forced King John to sign the Magna Carta and acknowledge that the king is also subject to the law. He hated the idea but had no choice. That principle still governs our presidents and governors more than 800 years later. We regard it with such reverence we might suppose that God too is subject to the law.
There is no automatic principle, mechanism or impersonal device higher than the Trinity of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. God's decisions are just; they make justice.
Does the woman in Jesus' parable have a just claim in a human court of law? It doesn't matter. She will have her settlement in her own way because the judge, fearing for his life, will decide in her favor. Like the decision of the baseball umpire or basketball referee, it's final, settled and done. 
This is not to say God governs arbitrarily, by divine whims or moods. That's not the point. 
We have the scriptures and our long memory of God's constant mercy to assure us of God's constancy. But his dependability does not render him as a mindless power, energy or machine. Rather, he is the Lord who hears prayers.
The widow in Jesus' story knows this, as do Anna Pavlovna and Maria Portokalos. And Jesus knows it better than anyone! He is so sure of it he calls the Lord, "Abba!" -- whom we dare to call "Our Father." 

Memorial of Saint Elizabeth of Hungary, Franciscan Religious

Lectionary: 495

All men were by nature foolish who were in ignorance of God, and who from the good things seen did not succeed in knowing him who is, and from studying the works did not discern the artisan; but either fire, or wind, or the swift air, or the circuit of the stars, or the mighty water, or the luminaries of heaven, the governors of the world, they considered gods.

Here is a curious contrast: in November, as we ponder the Last Thing -- Death, Judgment, Heaven, Hell -- and approach the Solemnity of Christ the King, the Church offers readings from Wisdom literature. 

These "Sapiential Writings" of the Bible are not nearly so wrought with apocalyptic expectation. They are collections of sayings gathered by old men and offered to children, who will in their turn become old men. No one supposed the end of the world might happen soon. 
Today's reading begins with the simple observation, "All men were by nature foolish who were in ignorance of God...." 
The psalms and wisdom literature reflect an enormous gratitude to God for the gift of the Law and its inherent wisdom, which save us from that foolishness. In the Book of Deuteronomy today (4:6-8), Moses predicted, 
Observe (the statutes and ordinances as the Lord) carefully, for this is your wisdom and discernment in the sight of the peoples, who will hear of all these statutes and say, “This great nation is truly a wise and discerning people.” For what great nation is there that has gods so close to it as the LORD, our God, is to us whenever we call upon him? Or what great nation has statutes and ordinances that are as just as this whole law which I am setting before you?
Recently the news media is choking with delight over the fall of men who were regarded as wise. These wise Hollywood moguls knew the entertainment industry; they were adept at promoting themselves and their interests. Catch hold of their ascending stars and you too can rise to fame and fortune. 
But wait! Now they're fallen fools and the same media wonders how they thought they could get away with their grotesque bullying and exploitation of vulnerable women. 
Psalm 37 would observe of such clever people, 
"I have seen the wicked triumphant, towering like a cedar of Lebanon. I passed by again. They were gone; they were nowhere to be found." 
Christians should be especially suspicious of those clever prophets who expect the End of the World very soon. As Deep Throat suggested, "Follow the money." No one gets rich off their Christian faith, regardless of their expertise. 
Today the Church celebrates the wise young woman, Saint Elizabeth of Hungary, who followed Jesus into poverty and received the Kingdom of God. She was not successful in worldly terms. Many would call her foolish or mad for giving away her wealth; but everyone will finally celebrate her victory. 

Thursday of the Thirty-second Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 494

Then he said to his disciples, "The days will come when you will long to see one of the days of the Son of Man, but you will not see it. There will be those who will say to you, 'Look, there he is,' or 'Look, here he is.' Do not go off, do not run in pursuit.

First generation Christians enjoyed high expectations and suffered great anxiety. Hearing the apocalyptic expressions of Jesus repeated by his immediate disciples many awaited the "second coming" at any time. He had died, had been raised from the dead, had ascended into heaven, why would he not return shortly to establish the Kingdom of God once and for all?
Twenty centuries later we cannot answer that question, despite many attempts to read the mind of God and decipher his ways. Some people, after a period of near hysterical anticipation, simply get tired and quit. The United States in particular experienced the ecstasy of several "great awakenings" and their inevitable collapse.
Some theologians attempted to solve the problem by stripping our religion of its apocalyptic expectations. Bishop Barclay, writer of a marvelous set of commentaries on the Bible, once observed that there are two kinds of churches, those who ignore the Book of Revelation altogether, and those who read only the Book of Revelation.
The "liberals" were the former; "conservatives", the latter. Liberal Christians favored stability which should lead to prosperity, big business, big government and "an end of history." They don't need all that religious uneasiness.
Conservative Christians stir the pot, appeal to the poor and disenfranchised, and look for the Lord to overthrow Big Business, Big Government and Big Church (i.e. the Roman Catholic Church.) The sooner, the better.
Disappointed liberals become ambitious for worldly things and sometimes become fabulously rich. Disappointed conservatives drop out of church; some become anarchists or terrorists. Both groups declare no faith in "organized religion," as if there can be any other kind.
Where is the Roman Catholic Church in all this? Certainly some members are liberal and others, conservative; but the official teaching and the formal liturgy simply acknowledge the prophetic disturbance without lending formal recognition or credence.
Many of the symbols of our faith -- candles, sheep, lambs, incense, angels, fire, virgins, saints, stoles, altars, ashes on foreheads, etc. -- appear in apocalyptic literature. Playing the conservative, I once restored the crucifix and several statues to a Catholic church, to the everlasting gratitude of my parishioners.
In a Roman Catholic reading of apocalyptic passages of scripture, especially of Revelation and the Gospels, we find reassurance during times of upheaval; these texts are not invitations to revolution. They are not threats to the wicked (who don't read them anyway) but consolation to the oppressed. 
They are certainly not guarantees to the satisfied that you can enjoy prosperity in this world and happiness in the next. During the seventies and eighties some American Christians hoped for a global, thermonuclear war to bring about the Second Coming; they were that assured of their personal salvation! That reading is a bastard combination of liberal contentment with conservative upheaval. "Let's stop the game while we're winning!" 
Nor do we support Steve Bannon's pessimistic theory of historical cycles. People are not vegetation; their decisions make history but cannot be predicted like the four seasons. 
In today's gospel, the Church recalls Jesus' reassurance, to the effect, "Do not run about hysterically thinking the world might have come to an end; you'll know it when it happens!" We do not accept any theory of history which would expect certain developments to mature into universal peace and justice. Nor do we watch for signs that prefigure the End. 
An old hermit was asked, "What would you do if you were told the world will end tomorrow?" He replied, "I would do the same as I did today: wake up and say my prayers, take my breakfast, and go to work in the garden."