Saturday of the Twenty-eighth Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 472

Hearing of your faith in the Lord Jesus and of your love for all the holy ones, I do not cease giving thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers, that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation resulting in knowledge of him.

A rationalistic world sees little use for prayer, especially the prayer of intercession. They ask, "How can the prayers I mutter in private -- or, for that matter, your "general intercessions" during the Mass -- make any difference in the real world? 

Certainly there can be no scientific explanation of cause and effect unless one includes the science of theology, which our skeptics dismissed a long time ago. 
Nor would I venture a pseudo-scientific explanation with spiritual energies, vibrations and auras. Any true scientist will admit the limits of his science and not hector religious faith with demands for a "scientific explanation." The imagination which limits itself to the scientifically explainable suffers severe disability in the real world where most people live. 
The religious person readily offers prayers for her family, friends, enemies and church because her heart is moved to prayer, not because she expects to see results. 
In today's reading Saint Paul assures his Ephesian disciples that he prays for them continually. Although he is physically far from them he remains very close to them in his heart. There is no distance there. Nor is he far from them; especially because they had heard he was incarcerated they prayed with great intensity for him.
The faithful friend has no need to explain or apologize for her concern. She carries the loved one in her heart and both abide confidently in the heart of God. If they are far apart, when they meet again they will know they were never actually removed from each other. There is no distance in the heart of God. 
In his letter to the Ephesians Saint Paul prays that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of Glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation, resulting in knowledge of him. 
Again, that knowledge is not an accumulation of facts about God. Facts are only man-made objects, (from the Latin word facere, as in manufacture). There are no facts about God, but there is a very intense, penetrating knowledge of God which is granted to the disciple of Jesus. This knowledge is the Holy Spirit which inspires, motivates and animates our lives. That Spirit is described in Jewish theology with Shekina, the glory of the divine presence. 
Facts are cold objects, handled, manipulated, created, amassed, hurled as weapons, ignored, proven, disproven, and ultimately forgotten. They bear no resemblance to the Knowledge of God who is the Spirit of Jesus abiding and stirring always within our communion and our individual hearts. The Spirit prompts us to pray for one another, to carry one another in our hearts, day and night without ceasing. 

Memorial of Saints John de Brébeuf and Isaac Jogues, Priests, and Companions, Martyrs

Lectionary: 471

In him you also, who have heard the word of truth, the Gospel of your salvation, and have believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, which is the first installment of our inheritance toward redemption as God's possession, to the praise  of his glory.

This opening song from Saint Paul's letter to the Ephesians describes with amazing clarity the Church as it appears in Saint Luke's Acts of the Apostles. We have the word of truth and the promised Holy Spirit, which is the first installment of our inheritance.
Reading the Acts, we catch that contagious spirit, which is so confident and free and inexhaustibly joyous. There are conflicts, of course, but they're resolved as the disciples heed the Holy Spirit. They listen as attentively to the Spirit as they listened to Jesus before his death and resurrection. There is a nearly seamless passage from that earlier stage to this one. The only difference is that the formerly confused and perplexed disciples are now confident, energized and moving out.
The French priests who came to North America and were martyred demonstrated that enthusiasm. They knew there was mortal danger. The Iroquois were a warlike tribe and when the French missionaries approached them they entered a world far beyond the protections of European legal systems. The natives suffered terribly with the recently-imported European diseases. Though neither race knew why they were so vulnerable, the Indians suspected treachery and blamed the missionaries. 
But the Jesuits were equally warlike in their readiness to suffer torture and death; they had every confidence in the Lord who had sent them. They trusted in the Saint Peter's teaching, 
The God of all grace who called you to his eternal glory through Christ [Jesus] will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you after you have suffered a little. (I Peter 5:10)
So long as there are martyrs among us, willing even to surrender their lives for the sake of the Gospel, we are assured that the Spirit of our Crucified Lord abides among us. If you or I cannot imagine making such a sacrifice, it's only because we're not presently called to it in this particular social, political environment. But we live by the Spirit and always heed Saint Peter's advice: 
Be sober and vigilant. Your opponent the devil is prowling around like a roaring lion looking for [someone] to devour. Resist him, steadfast in faith, knowing that your fellow believers throughout the world undergo the same sufferings. (I Peter 5:8-9)

Feast of Saint Luke, Evangelist

But the Lord stood by me and gave me strength, so that through me the  proclamation might be completed and all the Gentiles might hear it.

I visited a Cherokee museum in North Carolina several years ago. I read about their creation stories of how the Smoky Mountains came to be. They were very colorful, and rather memorable. But I don't live in the mountains. I don't hunt with a blow gun, nor make baskets out of thin wooden ribbons. I know not a word of the Cherokee language. The stories meant nothing to me. I can't imagine how they might. They are not my stories; I only read about them in a museum.
In the last few years we have become aware of stories, especially of "competing narratives." No story is ever complete. There are always differing accounts and different interpretations of the same accounts. But we make decisions by the stories we accept.
Recently we were bombarded with different accounts of what happened between two high school students in the 1980's. One said she was sexually assaulted; the other said it never happened. The accounts were irreconcilable but the nation was forced to make sense of two credible testimonies. Most people made a choice, deciding which story to believe. Neither story will disappear. They have formed different camps. Both will persist for many years to come with enormous consequence for the nation as a whole.

Unlike the Cherokee stories, gospel stories speak to me because I belong to the believing Church. Not only was I born into it, I was initiated into it. (Many people are born into the church but never initiated. Others despise their initiation, preferring more popular stories that fit their preferred, cultural experience. The gospels mean nothing to them though they might retain some shreds of this or that parable.)

Today we celebrate the Evangelist who wrote the Gospel of Saint Luke and the Acts of the Apostles, approximately one third of the New Testament. Whenever we celebrate any of the Evangelists we should remark upon the astonishing similarity of their narratives. They tell many of the same stories; each of them has his own extra material, differing from the others; but all agree about Jesus of Nazareth, his identity and mission. He is Messiah, Lord and Savior. He was certainly a human being, born of a virgin; not an apparition or disembodied spirit. He was barbarously executed by crucifixion and his suffering was as real as any human has ever suffered. He was raised up again on the third day and revealed to his disciples as the Son of God.
Despite a very short career this Man inspired his disciples to organize and found a Church which has maintained its essential identity and mission despite much opposition, through innumerable historical epochs and in many radically different cultures. Confident that its mission remains intact, the  Church calls itself apostolic and evangelical. That feat could not be accomplished without the work of the Evangelists. Virtually all Christians agree these narratives were written under the inspiration of the One, Eternal God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Unlike other stories, we believe these Gospel stories connect us affectively and effectively to the Truth. Although we have chosen to believe these stories they are not simply "a matter of opinion." Where others disagree with the Gospel, they are unfortunately, tragically wrong. The consequences of disbelief can be devastating; they might destroy individuals, families, societies and life on earth. There are ample warnings in the writings of the Hebrew prophets of ecological catastrophe
But if there is a privilege in being Christian it comes with the realization, we are more chosen by the Gospel, than choosing it. If anything, it's my disbelief, sinister and seductive, that sabotages my membership in the Church and my effective witness. 

And so we return to the Gospels day after day, praying for understanding and guidance, for the humility of Saint Luke's virgin who could say with such confidence, "I am the servant of the Lord. Be it done to me according to your word." 

Memorial of Saint Ignatius of Antioch, Bishop and Martyr

In contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace,
patience, kindness, generosity,
faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.
Against such there is no law.
Now those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified their flesh
with its passions and desires.
If we live in the Spirit, let us also follow the Spirit.

Early Franciscans urged us to study the life of Jesus, the sacred scriptures, the lives of the saints -- especially Saints Francis and Clare -- and by these studies, to gaze into the "mirror of perfection." Where a vain person continually looks critically at a mirror for defects or endowments, the spiritual person gazes into the mirror of perfection and is improved by looking at it. That mirror reflects many facets of the spiritual life, including the fruits of the Holy Spirit.
At first devout Christians might approach the mirror with a self-conscious reluctance. Seeing the beauty and goodness of the saints, they say, "I am not that person; and shame on me for not being that person." They might pursue this trail to its dead end, "I will never have the courage, generosity or discipline to be a saint. There's no point in my trying."
But in that case the Christian is not really looking at the mirror. He's only looking at himself through the mirror. To see the mirror we look passed ourselves and delight in God's transcendent, resplendent goodness.
  • Walking with the Lord through the Stations of the Cross, we admire the courage and gentleness of the silent, uncomplaining lamb as he is led to slaughter.
  • Praying, the rosary we consider the joyful, luminous, sorrowful and glorious mysteries. Each has been represented by innumerable icons. We can call those images to mind as we recite the Hail Marys and Our Fathers; they are beautiful on many levels and we let them edify us.
  • Attending Mass we hear the readings and prayers and embrace them with Thanks be to GodAnd with your spirit, and Amen. 
  • Singing hymns and receiving the Eucharist we peer into the miraculous mirror of perfection.
The mirror of perfection doesn't show us ideas of what we should do, nor does it encourage us to fashion these ideas into tools for self-improvement. Rather, it works beneath our conscious, controlling mind, where healing and growth occur unnoticed, opening channels of grace to recognize opportunities where none appeared before. It may, for example, show us how to apologize to an enemy when we thought it impossible and unnecessary.
Just as a glass mirror leaves us feeling defeated since it only records irreversible deterioration, the Mirror of Perfection edifies us. Gazing upon the Lord, we become mirrors of God's goodness.

Tuesday of the Twenty-eighth Week in Ordinary Time

You are separated from Christ, 
you who are trying to be justified by law; 
you have fallen from grace. 
For through the Spirit, by faith, we await the hope of righteousness.

Saint Paul pronounced a terrible judgement on his religious opponents, "You are separated from Christ!" 
He was never a man to mince his words; he didn't try to make his teachings more palatable with political correctness. As Hebrews, he, his disciples and his opponents preferred strong, confrontational language. Like Jesus and the Pharisees a generation before, they relished rather than avoided religious arguments.
Twenty centuries later we recall many wars of religion and shudder at the implicit threat in the Apostle's words. The killing of Saint Stephen foreshadowed the Saint Bartholomew's Day Massacre, when French Catholics rioted and slaughtered Protestant Huguenots. The tragedy set off a series of wars and normalized Christians killing Christians. There followed the Napoleonic Wars, the American Civil War, and two "World Wars." We'll need a thousand years of peace to set those tragedies behind us. Despite the atheism of the Axis and Allied nations of World War II, many people still think religion is the cause of all wars. I hear that even among Veterans of the Vietnam War, who were not fighting Buddhism or Muslims.
But there is something warlike about the spiritual life. There are innumerable allusions to warfare in the Bible; many are used to describe the spiritual life. Jews, Christians and Muslims, despite their irenic intentions, often steel themselves for spiritual combat. Monks of the middle ages were mostly retired soldiers, the scions of warrior clans. Discovering that their fighting only led to more fighting, they renounced "the world" and trained their energies on the enemy within.

Inspired by this citation from Galatians 5, we should train our weapons on the inner Pharisee rather than on a fellow Christian, Jew or Muslim. My inner hypocrite compromises freedom and accepts a false sense of righteousness. Do I rely on the mercy of Jesus which I have seen and experienced in sharing his cross? Or do I avoid crosses and seek a shortcut to my personal resurrection? 
Some of Saint Paul's Galatian disciples thought they had found a surefire way to redemption by way of circumcision. Sure, it hurt like the dickens for a few days but it assured a lifetime of spiritual and mental ease.
The Apostle insists “only faith working through love” counts for anything, that love which is guided by God’s Spirit and suspicious of my own impulses. With frequent confession and daily examen, I learn to recognize the suggestions of anger, resentment, fear, greed, lust and so forth. I learn to listen to the gentle, whispering sound which is the Holy Spirit, prudent and eager, generous and guarded, sober and delightfully playful. 

Memorial of Saint Teresa of Jesus, Virgin and Doctor of the Church

Therefore, brothers and sisters,
we are children not of the slave woman
but of the freeborn woman.
For freedom Christ set us free; so stand firm
and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery.

Karl Marx complained of the Church that promised relief and joy in eternity but only drudgery in this present world. Nineteenth century religion, he said, was "an opiate of the masses." That may have been true of his time; our gloriously holy church is always a sinful church and we often miss the mark. But faith, hope and love promise freedom. If our graced life is not graceful and gracious; and our generosity, not gratuitous, it is certainly not the freedom for which Christ set us free.
In his day, Saint Paul saw the powerful, persuasive, seductive influence of Pharisaic Judaism as the great threat to Christian freedom. Many Jews had come to Jesus but had not abandoned the attitudes and sensibilities of their youth. Paul, the Pharisee, knew the danger better than anyone. Pharisaism offered an assured, proven way of life. It provided guidelines and rules, boundaries and restrictions from infancy to old age; the child of Abraham could live anywhere in the Roman Empire and know what was expected by fellow Jews and alien gentiles. There is a kind of freedom in that security, so long as you're willing to stay within the boundaries.
But the Christian revelation was moving way beyond the boundaries of traditional Judaism. Saint Paul announced to Jews and gentiles alike, that a man had risen from the dead; and those who belong to this man have as much freedom as one who has died and been raised up. The Christian missionaries demonstrated that astounding freedom. They laughed at the authorities who told them never to speak that name in public. They healed the sick, forgave sinners and gathered grateful converts into congregations to worship in the name of Jesus. Beaten, imprisoned, chained, they spoke as readily in jail as they did in public; and people kept coming to them.
The gospels, letters, and writings of the New Testament continually remind the Church of the freedom which swept through the world in our early history. The authors were acutely aware of the threats to freedom; they struggled individually and collectively to preserve its elusive spirit. This is why we open the scriptures daily, to breathe that spirit in a world vastly different from theirs, and yet remarkably similar. The rigid rules of the Pharisees are passed from generation to generation through our traditions, and yet their roots lie in not in our history but in our concupiscence. Sinners, we are always ready to define the indefinite and contain the effervescent. Worldly wisdom, masquerading as religious, gives us a false authority over others, especially the defenseless, naive and foolish, which we find irresistible.
Always we must be ready to ask the One who came to be served, "What would you have me do today?”

Twenty-eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time

"Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?"

From ancient times philosophers have pondered what a good life might entail. Is it "healthy, wealthy and wise" like King Solomon? Does it mean being happy, living virtuously, and destined for an afterlife in heaven?
The ambitious stranger who approached Jesus in today's gospel seems to know something about the good life; he asks how he might inherit "eternal life."
The currently popular word for the good life is flourishing, as opposed to surviving. Flourishing is more than just getting by, or making it. Sometimes it seems like survival is the best we can do. Perhaps Henry David Thoreau was right when, from the ivory tower of his privileged youth, he observed that most people lead "lives of quiet desperation." Taken altogether, their family life, jobs, and duties as citizens and church members don't add up to fulfillment. They often dream of greater things.
Our entertainment industry exploits those dreams with mythical adventurers who not only overcome dangers few of us would even imagine; they flourish. Our hero survived the shark attack and saved many others from the terrible jaws of death. Our heroine survived the villain's machinations and brought down his evil enterprise as she saved the world.
Then they married each other and lived happily ever after. Occasionally these comic book characters usher in a new age of peace, security and prosperity for the nation, the world and the Universe!

Flourish, of course, is what flowers do; and flowers are not just beautiful; they mature into fruit. The person who flourishes is fruitful. It's more than just being content with one's life, or caring only for oneself. Something good and worthwhile comes of that life; It has lasting significance. 

The fellow in this gospel uses the word "inherit" to describe his expectation of "eternal life." He says, "...what must I do to inherit eternal life?" The word has the same etymology as heir, heredity, heirloom and heritage. All imply a privilege, right or entitlement of birth. You can't just walk in and claim an inheritance; you must have some prior right to it. Presumably, heirs have a vital relationship to the dead or dying, and that relationship gives them at least a hope of making good their claim. This fellow is already one of those privileged people, with every expectation to flourish in eternity, and not just survive.
However -- and this is a "big however!" -- The Letter to the Hebrews reminds us that someone has to die before an inheritance can be claimed.
Now where there is a will, the death of the testator must be established. For a will takes effect only at death; it has no force while the testator is alive. (Hebrews 9:16-17)
And Saint Paul reminds us that we are heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if only we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him. Romans 8:17
And that's why this ambitious fellow disappears as readily as he appeared. He wants the good stuff, but not the bad. He will not "suffer with him."
Perhaps we should have suspected something amiss when he asked about inheriting eternal life. An inheritance is usually unearned and undeserved; It's a free pass to Easy Street. When a wealthy person dies, family, friends and neighbors gather like buzzards around carrion, each hoping to get something for nothing. If there is such a place as Eternal Life, it's not found on Easy Street.
As the man walked away, Jesus sadly remarked,
"How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!... It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God."

This is the paradox of faith. We do enjoy an enormous privilege; we have been granted knowledge of Jesus Christ and his mercy. We had no right to this knowledge by birth, wealth, learning, social status, ethnicity or race; it was freely given. 
But this knowledge comes dearly, and only to those willing to pay the price. That is, to those who have given up house, brothers, sisters, mother, father, children and lands for my sake and for the sake of the gospel. They will receive a hundred times more now in this present age: houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and eternal life in the age to come."

This is what flourishing means.