Memorial of Saint John Bosco, priest

Terrazzo floor

Yet all these, though approved because of their faith,
did not receive what had been promised.
God had foreseen something better for us,
so that without us they should not be made perfect.

The Author of Hebrews sums up his reinterpretation of Salvation History with an exhortation. We must keep the faith for those who kept the faith, for “without us they should not be made perfect.”
He lays a heavy obligation upon his own contemporaries, who have already known persecution and will face it again. Perhaps some of them will hear his letter read in the Church assembly and be taken from there to the Roman coliseum.
He reminds us, twenty centuries later, that we share a costly privilege with martyrs of all time.
His exhortation is similar to one I hear in the VA hospital, “Freedom is not free.” If we are grateful to our military and our veterans for their vigilance and sacrifice, we vote, we pay attention to political developments, and we conduct our personal and public lives in upright fashion. Their sacrifice is void if their country is not faithful to its principles.
Hebrews reminds us that the faithful who lived before Jesus, from Abraham to John the Baptist, did not receive what had been promised. Rather they saw it and greeted it from afar.
In one sense, we live in that city God prepared for them. That is our Church. In another sense, we too watch for that Holy City Jerusalem to appear. In either case gratitude and fidelity to our ancestors should guide us daily.
I believe the challenge of our time is to maintain a civil and high tone in our political and social discourse. Whether we claim to be conservative or liberal, or we eschew categories, we seek the truth in conversation. It takes a martyr’s courage to honor the intelligence and integrity of others, especially when they seem to act with neither intelligence nor integrity. It takes courage to maintain composure when the temperature of debate is rising.
A martyr does not seek suicide, nor does he or she antagonize opponents. The word martyr originates in the Greek language and means witness, and that is the first obligation of those who claim the martyrs’ faith. We bear witness to the holiness and integrity of everyone from the self-satisfied to the despised aliens, addicts and convicted criminals.
Today is the feast of Saint John Bosco, a man of astonishing faith, courage, patience and generosity. He saw in despised street urchins the image of God. As he struggled to build a safe place for the children where they could find food, protection, warmth and education he was tainted with the tar brush of their foolishness. He recognized on which side of the social divide Jesus stood, and he took his stand with the children. Only gradually did his contemporaries recognize that his regard for the children might profit the whole society.
Today, as we discover that a quarter of children in the United States live in poverty, we remember the words of Hebrews. If we do not provide our children the discipline, love, patience and opportunity Saint Don Bosco gave his children, his work will not be made perfect.

Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Faceted glass window
 dedicated to
St. Therese de Lisieux

Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Recently Americans remembered the fiftieth anniversary of John Kennedy’s inaugural speech. It has been called the most important speech of the 20th century. It is certainly one of the best.
In today’s gospel we hear Jesus’ Inaugural Address, beginning with the Beatitudes. These key statements are immediately followed by the rest of his Sermon on the Mount, which includes the Lord’s Prayer, his teaching on the love of enemies, forgiveness, prayer, fasting and almsgiving; and more. When he finishes the people will be stunned by what they have heard:
When Jesus finished these words, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes.

Because the Beatitudes and the Sermon are summations of Jesus’ teaching, it is impossible to comment on every aspect of them, or even to recap a part of them. So I turn to today’s first and second readings from the Prophet Zephaniah and First Corinthians for guidance.
Seek the Lord, all you humble of the earth,
who have observed his law;
seek justice, seek humility;
perhaps you may be sheltered
on the day of the Lord’s anger.
Without giving us leeway to pick and choose the parts of Jesus’ teaching we prefer, Zephaniah offers us reassurance. “You humble of the earth” can rest assured of God’s shelter on the Day of Judgment because you seek justice and humility.
The Sermon on the Mount is clearly addressed to the humble of the earth, the earthlings who have gathered on that mountaintop. Some may be rich and powerful by human standards, but as they look out over the plains beneath them and hear Jesus’ words coming down from on high, even royalty must realize how shabby their pretensions are. Perhaps, as they look down on the turrets of Jerusalem, they will remember God’s double descent to Babel to examine their ridiculous tower. (Genesis 11:1-9) In the presence of God, every human aspiration to greatness is absurd, if not downright comical.
In our time, having seen the Earth from airplanes and Outer Space; after contemplating the thin sheath of air that protects us from the frigid emptiness of Space; and having felt the grip of terror in the most secure nation on Earth: perhaps we’re ready to acknowledge our absolute dependence on God. Neither weaponry nor wealth -- not even adherence to the law -- protects us from chaos.

In his First Letter to the Corinthians, Saint Paul also reminds us of our humble state:
Not many of you were wise by human standards,
not many were powerful,
not many were of noble birth.
Rather, God chose the foolish of the world to shame the wise,
and God chose the weak of the world to shame the strong,
and God chose the lowly and despised of the world,
those who count for nothing,
to reduce to nothing those who are something,
so that no human being might boast before God.

The Beatitudes teach us how to seek and stay with our humility. We have no need of power and pretension for they afford us no security. Rather, security is an inner gift that comes only with fidelity to Jesus. We are no more safe behind armies, navies, nuclear weapons, electronic fences and mine fields than we are in front of them, but we do find refuge in the Heart of Jesus. That must be the first lesson we learn from the Beatitudes.

Soul of Christ, sanctify me;
Body of Christ, save me;
Blood of Christ, inebriate me;
Water from the side of Christ, wash me;
Passion of Christ, strengthen me;
O good Jesus, hear me;
Within your wounds, hide me;
From the wicked foe, defend me;
At the hour of my death, call me;
And bid me come to thee
That with thy saints I may praise thee
Forever and ever, Amen.
       Anima Christi

Saturday of the Third Week in Ordinary Time

Then he asked them, “Why are you terrified?
Do you not yet have faith?”

I love this story of Jesus’ calming the storm and then laughing at his disciples. I can see them dumbfounded, relieved and mystified as they realize this fellow is like nobody else.
Perhaps Abraham felt the same way, in a more serious moment, as he saw smoke rising from the cities of the plain. “Who is this God who has called and spoken to me?”
“Do you not yet have faith?” Jesus asked.
In today’s long first reading, the Author of Hebrews anchors his people in the ancient story of faith.
In his book God Is Not One, Steven Prothero writes:
In this sense Judaism differs dramatically from Christianity, where faith is paramount. Whereas Christians strive to keep the faith, Jews strive to keep the commandments.
The Christian religion, as it emerges in that first century, will be a new kind of religion. It is not founded in the political institutions of kingdom or empire, nor does it profess loyalty to king or emperor. It is not based in family or tribe. Anyone can become Christian so long as he or she is willing to believe in Jesus and be baptized.
Its memories are not contained in genealogies but in hagiographies, the stories of faithful saints.
If other religions are grounded in places like Israel, Mecca or India, Christianity joyously bobs in storm-tossed seas.
So in today’s first reading we hear the Author rewriting the story of salvation. In many ways it is familiar, but his retelling is more inclusive of us. God is not the only protagonist in this new interpretation; the faithful also have a part. We believe in Jesus and that makes all the difference.
Jews cannot forget their past. Even when some Jews might disown their past the world  treats them as pariah and forces them back into the Jewish nation, even into death camps.
Christians, it seems, can walk away. Their children can forget all about the faith of their parents. They do not carry it in their collective memories, their last names, or their genes. 
I met one nominally Catholic fellow who told me he and his wife decided to let their children choose their own religion when they came of age. I asked, “So which did they choose?” Only one of his four children practiced any religion and it was some kind of fundamentalist Christianity. How could they choose what they had never been given? Can you speak Bantu if you have never even heard the language?
We are not among those who draw back and perish, 
but among those who have faith and will possess life.
The Author of Hebrews urges us to practice our faith. It is neither an entitlement nor a confidence that God is always in my pocket. It requires daily courage, sacrifice, prayer and penance. Faith must be practiced in season and out of season. 
And its rewards will be as great as the Resurrection of Our Savior. 

Memorial of Saint Thomas Aquinas, priest and doctor of the Church

A bust of
Mary Anderson
famous singer of late 19th c
who donated MSF property
to the friars

We are not among those who draw back and perish, 
but among those who have faith and will possess life.

The Author of Hebrews reminds his people of the hardships they have endured and the sacrifices they have made for their faith. In “days past… you endured a great contest of suffering.” He might say, “Thank God they are over, but let’s not waste that effort by growing lax today!”
The Church has a long memory. This is a precious gift. A bishop once pointed out to me that if we counted the generations by grandparent to grandchild – as children listen to their grandparent’s stories – there would be only thirty-three generations since Jesus’ Ascension. That is, if we suppose a grandparent told her grandchild of Jesus, and that child told her grandchild about Jesus, and so on, the memories are still fresh and new.
Story telling is a vital element of keeping faith. The Bible and other books are important – they help us keep the memories intact – but they don’t replace the story telling, because the living narrative remembers the actual costs of keeping faith. Each generation laces its hardships into the narrative.
Nor do we ever suppose those days are over. Children might think it but their elders know better. The struggle and hardship and challenges of faith continue. It seems we always have our backs against the wall. But we also have our stories of faith to inspire us.
In today’s gospel Jesus speaks of sowing the seeds of faith. In many parts of the world today, farmers are still tempted to eat their seed, rather than plant it. Planting seed is always a risky business, an investment that might not pay off.
Many of our sacrifices seem foolish and futile. People ask us, “Why do you bother?” They wonder “Shouldn’t we eat and drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die?” But our ancestors assure us it was never easy for us, it will never be easy for you. But tomorrow will be better, for…
We are not among those who draw back and perish, 
but among those who have faith and will possess life.

Thursday of the Third Week in Ordinary Time

Since through the Blood of Jesus 
we have confidence of entrance into the sanctuary
by the new and living way he opened for us through the veil,
that is, his flesh,
and since we have “a great priest over the house of God,”
let us approach with a sincere heart and in absolute trust,
with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience
and our bodies washed in pure water.

This long, beautiful sentence is laced with a dozen threads of meditation. It is an invitation to “approach” the sanctuary of God with absolute confidence, since we have these two assurances: the way he has opened and the priest who speaks for us. 
As human beings we often wonder how shall we approach God. Should we even attempt it? How dangerous might this venture be? Isn’t it better to let well enough alone and keep a safe distance from God? What possible advantage can be gained by entering the sanctuary?
But Hebrews invites us to lay aside all our misgivings and come into God’s presence because Jesus has gone ahead of us. He calls as an intrepid spelunker might invite his buddies through a narrow passage, “Come on through, there’s a spectacular cavern in here!”
And what is that narrow passage. It is his flesh, our human nature. It is afflicted with sin and yet it is beautiful. It is crippled and wasted by our foolishness and yet it is the true way that leads to him. We meet Jesus as we come to terms with our own humanity, in all its potentiality and frailty. We don’t have to be something other than or better than human.
And what is the spectacular chamber? Some might call it heaven but I think it is eternal life. It is that life which is rich and meaningful, capable of intense joy and sorrow, fearless in sacrifice and confident in generosity. It begins when we truly die to ourselves, which is long before our mortal death. 
We can die to ourselves -- forgetting our petty needs and desires, resentments and grievances -- because we have this confidence in Jesus, our high priest who has passed through the veil of death into the Heavenly Temple of Life. 

Memorial of Saints Timothy and Titus

The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for
authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place
of exercise. Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their
households. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They
contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties
at the table, cross their legs, and tyrannize their teachers."

So said Socrates many centuries before Christ. But there are those blessed souls who see a bright future in our youth and Saint Paul was one of them. His affection for his disciples Timothy and Titus is palpable.
These saints represent the next generation of Christian believers. Although he did not know Jesus before his crucifixion and was not among the twelve apostles, Saint Paul is counted as a first generation Christian. He laid foundations for churches in Asia and Europe; and, by his letters, dictated the development of theology for many millennia. But like all mortals he had to die and pass the baton to others.
Timothy and Titus were amid that blessed generation.
It has been said it takes only one generation to lose the faith forever. Despite the vast infrastructure of churches, shrines, schools and hospitals, art, books, songs and poetry our religion depends upon human beings sharing their faith with one another.
And God would take no chances with that. He gave us the Holy Spirit which raises up children in every generation who are eager and willing to receive and carry on the tradition.
But this is not a Field of Dreams proposition (“If you build it, they will come.”) Propagating the faith requires dedication, hard work and sacrifice. It demands long hours and toil from every devout person. There again, to our amazement and gratitude, the Holy Spirit stirs in every generation people to make the sacrifice.
There are always people who will count themselves among that group although they do not belong. They suppose attending church at Christmas and Easter is enough; they call themselves Christian though it means nothing in practice. But God knows who the true disciples are.
We are grateful to the Saints Timothy and Titus and Priscilla and Dorcas among us. We celebrate their courage and fidelity, and we hope to be counted in that number when the saints go marching in.

Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul, the apostle

I asked, ‘What shall I do, sir?’
The Lord answered me, ‘Get up and go into
and there you will be told about everything
appointed for you to do.’ 
Since I could see nothing because of the brightness of that light,
I was led by hand by my companions and entered

In our time, when certainty has replaced faith in the hearts of so many Christians, it is refreshing to hear of Saint Paul’s uncertainty: “What shall I do, sir?”
This Pharisee had known exactly what to do. He had to arrest Christians and make life miserable for every follower of The Way. He knew they were offending God by their peculiar teachings, even without knowing what they were teaching.
Saint Paul didn’t even know how to address the Lord who had spoken to him on the way to Damascus. He called him, “Sir!”
Nor did the Lord give him a new certainty. Rather, he said, “Go into Damascus, and there you will be told about everything appointed for you to do.”
And that information would be a long time coming. Scholars differ on how long his initiation lasted, but we know the Christians of Damascus were leery of their newest enthusiast. Eventually Saint Barnabas had to take charge of him, introduce him to the elders and apostles, and instruct him in the new Way. That may have taken several years, including a retreat into the desert of Arabia. When they set out on an apostolic mission, Barnabas was still in charge of his disciple Paul; and only later did Paul begin to lead the mission.
It is enlightening, instructive and amusing to hear the dazzled Pharisee – who had been breathing murderous threats against the disciples of the Lord -- was led by the hand into Damascus.
As he grew in faith Saint Paul would always be led by the hand of the Lord.

Moralists tell us the first response of the Christian should be, “What am I, as a believer in Jesus Christ, to do?” We have studied the Ten Commandments and read the Eight Beatitudes but we still do not know the difference between right and wrong. We know that wrong is often disguised under the pieties of grace, and right often appears altogether wrong. We know that rescuers often become victims, victims become tormentors and tormentors become victims; and the cycles of violence continue unabated. How do we stop this merry-go-round?
We ask, “What shall I do, Sir?”
On this Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul, as we cross the threshold of hope into an unprecedented period of history we must ask, Precious Lord, take my hand, lead me on, let me stand….

Memorial of Saint Francis de Sales, bishop and doctor of the Church

Scrupulous souls are fascinated by the “unforgiveable sin.” Convinced by their own psychiatric illness that they are unlovable, they worry they might inadvertently commit that apparently heinous crime.
But there is no such thing as an unforgiveable sin. The very idea is oxymoronic. Sin, by definition, is that which grace forgives as it consoles, heals and reconciles. Sin is the shadow thrown by an obstacle which blocks the light of grace. Remove the obstacle and the place will be filled with light.
But some people think they find reference to an unforgiveable sin in today’s gospel:
But whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit
will never have forgiveness,
but is guilty of an everlasting sin.”

Finding this teaching in its context of Jesus’ heated debate with the scribes helps to understand:
Jesus has once again demonstrated the authority of God by healing a possessed man. Can any reasonable person doubt he comes from God?
But the scribes have their own agenda that is unaffected by evidence, rationality or persuasion. And so they concoct a cock-and-bull story that Jesus drives out demons by Beelzebul, the prince of demons. You can hear the frustration in Jesus’ voice as he meets their obtuse defiance.
Their sin is to deny the evidence of their eyes and thereby “blaspheme against the Holy Spirit.” They intentionally refuse to see God’s presence and authority in Jesus. Nor will they listen to his reasoning, “How can Satan drive out Satan?”
And so there is nothing he can do for them. They are beyond his power to save because they put themselves in the outer darkness. They are all the more blind because they say, “We see!” If they were actually blind and willing to be led they could get someplace.
But if they stay frozen in that place, unwilling to move, refusing to be persuaded by evidence or argument, they cannot accept the mercy of God. They are, in effect, guilty of an everlasting sin.
And, of course, it happens. We read about and perhaps meet people who are frozen in evil habits and cynical attitudes. It seems they cannot ever change. And occasionally, to our horror, we meet the limits of our own faith and the depths of our cynicism. We might believe God is good but, at times, we’re cynical. We suppose his goodness cannot reach this far.
To live in faith is to be open to surprise. Faith melts our frozen attitudes and relationships and allows us to imagine the unimaginable.
God is not finished with us yet and no one can predict what the future will bring. For the Holy Spirit over the bent world broods, with warm breast, and – ah – bright wings.

Third Sunday in Ordinary Time

…the people who sit in darkness have seen a great light,
on those dwelling in a land overshadowed by death 
light has arisen. 
From that time on,
Jesus began to preach and say,
“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

Old Hollywood movies sometimes helped the audience to see the context of their story with a map. As we watched the map would show light places changing to darkness as the Nazis or Communist armies overwhelmed the countryside, or dark places illuminated by the advancing forces of prosperity, freedom and equality.
Our readings do that this morning as they draw on the writings of Isaiah and Saint Matthew. Isaiah recalls how the northern kingdom of Israel fell to the Assyrian armies in the eighth century before Christ. The Assyrians were a threat far more savage than the communist of the 20th century or the terrorists of the 21st century. They killed thousands of people indiscriminately as they conquered, and led survivors into slavery far from their native lands. Isaiah, writing in the sixth century, saw the gloom of that once happy land. Its inhabitants were people sitting in darkness.
Many centuries later, Saint Matthew describes that accursed land, now under the rule of the Roman empire, as blessed by the presence of Jesus:
…on those dwelling in a land overshadowed by death 
light has arisen. 
The light of Jesus advances over the ancient map, bringing relief, healing, freedom and prosperity.
In fact his ministry began there as he preached the good news:
“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

Regime change, whether we’re speaking of ancient Galilee or modern Afghanistan, demands a change of heart. The people must adjust to a new reality, or be swept aside by it.
Fortunately, when Jesus arrives, he does not come with chariots and horses or tanks and artillery. He arrives on foot, with nothing more than the clothes on his back and the compassion in his eyes. He speaks to the poor and lowly, for the powerful and wealthy are too busy guarding their property to hear his message. Like the five percent who control most of wealth in the United States or the one percent who control the wealth in Haiti, they cannot be bothered with a gospel of penance, forgiveness and healing.

I have attempted to celebrate this mystery with a pantoum:
Easter 2010
Who can believe what we have heard?
A hanged man died and deified;
Isn’t this story a bit absurd?
The whole world saw him crucified.

The hanged man died and deified
Belonged to us as one of our own;
The whole world saw him crucified.
A man as common as a stone

Belonged to us as one of our own.
Bore dignity beyond the skies,
This man as common as a stone.
We could not see through his disguise

His dignity beyond the skies.
Enmeshed, begrimed in politics,
We could not see by his disguise
An excellence that would bollix

The powers meshed in politics.
The holy struggle to revive
An excellence that should bollix
those who rule and now deprive

The holy struggling to revive.
They'll stand at last to fill their lungs.
Those who rule will be deprived
but will praise God with serpent tongues.

They'll also stand and fill their lungs.
And no one dares call it absurd;
Their praising God with serpent tongues.
Who would believe what we have heard?

Saturday of the Second Week in Ordinary Time

A view of the Friars' Cemetery
from the cross
…he entered once for all into the sanctuary, 
not with the blood of goats and calves but with his own Blood, 
thus obtaining eternal redemption.

Hebrews celebrates the priesthood of Jesus Christ with fascinating imagery and wonderful insight. He has drawn on the ancient belief that the Temple in Jerusalem was, for all its grandeur, only a pale copy of the true temple of heaven in which God dwells. One needs only to see a morning sunrise or evening sunset to see how much greater is the beauty of God’s works over human architecture.
As our imagination, energized by faith and courage, enters that heavenly temple we find Jesus disappearing into the Holy of Holies, the innermost sanctuary which the High Priest could enter only once a year. Rather than the blood of sheep or cows, Jesus carries his own flesh and blood into The Presence of God.
This is the sacred ritual, the sacrifice, we offer each time we celebrate the Mass. Jesus had to enter that room only once, and we too enter it only once as we stand with him, although we celebrate the Mass repeatedly throughout our lives. The liturgy is that timeless place where the Church of the past, present and future lives. It cannot be repeated; it happens only once.
The Mass is the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. Although we appear to be eating a small wafer of bread and sipping a small cup of wine, we are actually eating his flesh and drinking his blood. The Mass sweeps us into that magnificent, terrifying, beautiful sacrifice of Jesus.
This is a gesture the special effects of filmdom cannot duplicate, although they often try. Their thunderous, earth-shaking noise and dazzling, computer-enhanced legerdemain can only suggest with bewildering excitement the sublime assurance we know as we listen to the words of our prayer.
I witnessed with fascination and horror the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar a few years ago. There on a stage in Louisville I saw a reenactment of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. The lights were blinding and the noise was terrifying and the Pentecostal crowd went wild; and I fled into the night. The next morning I quietly celebrated the Mass all the more grateful for the faith we share. Looking at food, no matter how well presented; and admiring the liquid clarity of wine, no matter how beautiful the goblet or radiant the color -- can not replace the act of eating and drinking.
Hebrews takes us as far as the sacred word of scripture can go into the Heavenly Temple and the Holy of Holies. As we follow Jesus through the sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist, he cleanses our consciences from dead works to worship the living God.

Memorial of Saint Agnes, virgin and martyr

The twelve apostles of Jesus, as described by Saint Mark, have two responsibilities: “that they might be with him and he might send them forth to preach…. ”

Christians often take more seriously the latter duty and neglect the former, to be with Jesus. Hearing this gospel as apostles, we appreciate the tight rein he kept upon them. Though he sent them out, he called them back together.

In Saint Mark’s Gospel, Jesus is just as hard on his disciples as he is on his opponents. From beginning to end he berates them for their lack of faith and failure to appreciate what he is about. On at least one occasion he groaned, “O faithless generation, how long will I be with you? How long will I endure you? ” (Mark 9:19) There must have been many occasions when it was not fun to be with him as he continually pointed out there shortcomings.

It is fun to preach (I know from personal experience) and great fun to drive out demons (I would suppose.) but these privileges come with a price: we must remain close to him, and to his continual oversight. We must allow him to see and point out our shortcomings.

I can think of no other prophet in the Old or New Testament who is so hard on his disciples. In most cases they are never mentioned. But the discipleship of Jesus is different. We do not simply record his words as Baruch did for Jeremiah, or carry his mail as Onesimus did for Saint Paul. We are Jesus’ living words sent to a world which is desperate to hear his good news, though it is also distracted and disinterested. Being continually close to Jesus we speak with his compassion, patience and authority to the confused, needy world in which we live. That is surely worth the cost of his occasional sharp rebuke.

Thursday of the Second Week in Ordinary Time

Come and rest awhile
The main point of what has been said is this: 
we have such a high priest….

If the primary purpose of the Letter to the Hebrews is exhortation, encouraging the Christians to continue making the sacrifices and keeping the faith in the face of ostracism, betrayal and discouragement, its secondary purpose is reassurance.
I find that especially in the words, “We have such a high priest.”
In our Catholic tradition the presence of a priest is wonderful reassurance. I see that as I enter patients’ rooms and family rooms in the hospital. Not everyone is delighted to see me, of course, but many are. And I know they are people of faith.
These regular church goers can name their pastors, both current and former. They want to know if I am acquainted with this or that priest. Hearing I am a Conventual Franciscan, some will ask about this or that friar priest. (My predecessor was Father Simon, a Louisville native and fellow Franciscan.)
Some have known a priest only by his role at the altar, but they are all the more pleased by my presence in the hospital. I anointed a fellow last week -- I do it very often -- and his sister said, “I have never seen that like this!” She had attended the Healing Service in the church, but didn’t know it is often administered at home, nursing home or hospital.
During those early days, when the Letter to the Hebrews was written, the Church had not yet developed our understanding of sacraments and priests. Former Jews in the church were probably feeling grief over the fall of Jerusalem and the razing of the temple. (Two thousand years later there is only the Wailing Wall left of that magnificent structure.) Without that anchor in Jerusalem, how could they worship? Hebrews assured the Christians,
…we have such a high priest, 
who has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne
of the Majesty in heaven, a minister of the sanctuary 
and of the true tabernacle that the Lord, not man, set up.

Today, the sacrament of the priesthood – and, I am certain, the presence of ministers in Protestant churches – reassures God's people of his constant, reassuring company. His name is Emmanuel, God with us. When they want to meet "God with skin" they turn to their priests. 
Hebrews would remember, of course, that every priest offers sacrifices first for his own sins and then for those of the people. The faithful know their priests and ministers are fallible human beings. They are just as willing to forgive us as we are to forgive them.
I called a group of women together once, reminding them, “I’ve quarreled with nearly all of you by now, after five years in this parish, and each one of you is very dear to me. I know you can work out your differences!” And they did.
In the heart of our priest Jesus, and in the hearts of our ordained clergy, we find our unity and make our sacrifices to Almighty God.
Please pray for your priests and ministers, and for the young people in our seminaries. 

Wednesday of the Second Week in Ordinary Time

An indoor plant

“Is it lawful to do good on the Sabbath rather than to do evil,
to save life rather than to destroy it?”
But they remained silent.

Most of the New Testament assumes that Jesus’ return, his “second coming” must occur very soon. This is an article of faith which the church still believes, despite the passage of centuries and the forecasts of scientists. It is a posture of readiness that gives our faith, hope and love energy.
We cannot put off until tomorrow the right decision or the right behavior. Perhaps there was a time for delay, but it is passed.
Nor are there grey areas between good and evil in an apocalyptic hour. Consequently those who do not do good do evil. Avoiding the opportunity to do good, they cannot slip back into a morally ambiguous place where it doesn’t matter. Rather, as in today’s gospel, they plot evil even on the Sabbath.
Perhaps because they are unwilling to choose although the time has passed for not choosing, they fight to retain their freedom of choice. But their fight is against the judge whose hour has come.

This alert awareness demands attention to the Holy Spirit. It is easy to assume I know what God wants. The dominant culture, including the “Christian culture” has very strong opinions about what we should do, and these expectations are often absurd:
*      The woman who is continually berated by her husband thinks she should forgive him as often as she is abused. She suffers scruples, anxiety and guilt because she cannot do the impossible.
*      The food addicted person attempts to lose a hundred pounds by going on a starvation diet.
*      The Catholic teenager thinks he should never have a sexual thought, word or deed.

Wisdom and the Holy Spirit are far gentler than these cruel regimes. There comes a moment when the insulted wife knows she must act to save her life, and she knows what to do. The obese person seeks professional advice and sets more realistic goals. The teenager learns to recognize the spirituality of sexuality, which impels him toward satisfying relationships.
The apocalyptic spirit prevails in all of these stories as it urges the sufferer to act now. Don’t put off till tomorrow. Now is the acceptable hour. Now is the day of salvation. Sometimes all we can do is wait for the insight to come and the moment to arrive, and that waiting is also attention to Holy Spirit. 

Tuesday of the Second Week in Ordinary Time

God is not unjust so as to overlook your work
and the love you have demonstrated for his name
by having served and continuing to serve the holy ones.

Like much of the New Testament, the primary purpose of the Letter to the Hebrews is exhortation. The Christians, members of a new religion, have had a hard time of it. Regarded with suspicion by gentiles and hostility by Jews, they hardly know what has hit them. They stay with it only because they have found such joy in their hearts, and because they encourage one another.
And they need a lot of encouragement. The high of a religious conversion only goes so far. It doesn’t put food on the table when you’re ostracized in the public market, nor money in the bank when no one hires your services. They can only continue to demonstrate gentleness and patience as they wait for their former friends, neighbors and co-religionists to accept their new identity. And they can encourage one another despite the occasional betrayals as some abandon the faith and return to their former ways.
And so, after patient waiting, Abraham obtained the promise.
A woman in the hospital asked me the difference between faith and hope. Under the circumstances – watching a beloved brother die -- there seemed little difference. And the words are often interchangeable in the New Testament.
But I explained, “We keep faith in our past and its tradition; we love God and one another in the present; and we hope for the fulfillment of God’s promises in the future.”
In trying times we practice each of those virtues:
*      We remember what our tradition has taught us, and act faithfully -- with fidelity – according the standards of our morality and our beliefs. Invariably someone will suggest, “These are changing times and the old standards don’t apply anymore!” Sometimes the old standards seem like non-conformity when we were raised to conform to them. But adultery by any other name is adultery, whether we call it a relationship, a live-in friend, or significant other. Stealing is stealing, even when its shrouded by Byzantine bank transactions. Violence still destroys even if its only a simulated computer game.
*      Living in the present, we love God and others. The loving, faithful person reverences other people, their sensitivities, sensibilities, opinions and needs. She does not demonize people because they belong to another political party, religion, or race. Love allows one to enjoy the moment, whether in solitude or with others. It is a willingness to be here and stay here, to stay interested and engaged even when it costs more than expected. Love makes sacrifices of time, effort and money without waiting for compensation. Because it has…
*      Hope that God will not forget his promises. Just as an apple tree surrenders its fruit in the autumn because the spring will replenish its resources, the faithful, loving, hopeful person expects wonderful things. Hope makes things happen. It dreams, plans and builds for the future. When a person loses hope he invests only in immediate gratification. When a nation loses hope it stops investing in its infrastructure. “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.”
A hopeful community finds ways to include the poor and needy, the odd and the forgotten in its life. It invests in them because they hold the future.

The faithful, loving, hopeful Christian enjoys all the freedom which Jesus demonstrated as he passed through a field of standing grain. He relies on the Lord to show the way during changing times. 

Memorial of Saint Anthony, abbot

Two creeks

Every high priest is taken from among men
and made their representative before God,
to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins.

The idea of Jesus as priest runs so deeply in the Catholic imagination, it might come as a surprise to us that it never occurred to Saint Paul or the four evangelists. They saw him as messiah first of all and easily recognized him as prophet and king. From his anointing in the Jordan River until his enthronement on the cross they celebrated the authority the Son of Man was given as Lord and Ruler.
The Letter to the Hebrews, by an unknown author, introduces Jesus as priest. I wonder if a few Levite converts in the Christian congregation suddenly snapped to attention when they heard Hebrews 2:17
Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people.
The Evangelists Matthew and Luke clearly established that Jesus was born into the royal family of David by his foster father Joseph; and he was often addressed as the Son of David. With a bit of stretching he might be a Levite on his mother’s side, as she was distantly related to Elizabeth and Zechariah, who was offering sacrifice when the Angel Gabriel appeared to him.
But Hebrews would ignore that remote possibility and fasten Jesus’ priesthood to the “Line of Melchizedek;” that is, to the pagan priest who honored the patriarch Abraham.
You are a priest forever
according to the order of
That mysterious character was remembered without ancestry or lineage – neither parents nor children. His was a “spiritual” line that, after lying dormant in the sacred dust of Jerusalem for two millennia, fastened itself to Jesus.
So the author of Hebrews is setting out on what appears to be thin ice as he posits Jesus as priest, but he will demonstrate just how solid is his footing. I’d have to believe his Levite congregation, skeptical at first, was stunned and delighted by his originality – despite their instinctive abhorrence of originality.
For his Jesus the cross would become not a throne but an altar. His weakness would be the weakness common to all men, especially that of priests who must face the majesty of God with the pathetic gifts of bread, wine and, occasionally, meat. His prayers would be the priest’ entreaties to the leaden sky that does not split open when he calls. His words would be the ancient words of priests, handed from one generation to the next; and, finally, his loud cries and tears from the cross. His sacrifice, like that of all priests, would be nothing more than his obedience and his suffering.
The author remembered:
No one takes this honor upon himself
but only when called by God,
just as
Aaron was.
Not even the Messiah would dare aspire to priesthood unless he was called by God. This vocation can be given only by God and recognized by the Church.
Our Catholic tradition has honored the astonishing insight of Hebrews by ordaining our leaders as priests. Initially they were presbyters, subject to their bishops as their counterparts in the Jewish synagogues were subject to the chief rabbis. Our ordination service uses the two words interchangeably.
But we never forget there is only one priest. He alone offers the Sacrifice of the Mass. He alone is worthy to enter the temple with the gifts of his body and blood. The rest of us can only watch and say Amen