Memorial of Saint John Bosco, Priest

Stone polishing tumbler
Lectionary: 320

Let us hold unwaveringly to our confession that gives us hope, 
for he who made the promise is trustworthy.
We must consider how to rouse one another to love and good works.
We should not stay away from our assembly,
as is the custom of some, but encourage one another,
and this all the more as you see the day drawing near.

If you read current magazines and newspapers, spirituality seems to be the preserve of solipsistic individuals who cobble together messages and symbols from assorted religious traditions. They describe themselves as spiritual to avoid association with any particular fellowship or church.
But no spirituality can change a human being if it is not shared with others. It takes a fellowship that assembles. We were created as social beings and we are incapable of saving ourselves. We must rouse one another to love and good works to sustain our hope.
I think of community as a rock tumbler. A parish, monastery, friary or family is like that barrel container in which rocks tumble over one another for weeks and months at a time. All their sharp edges are knocked off and rough surfaces are polished smooth. 
It's dark in there, and difficult; but the end products are beautiful. 
These post-Christmas weeks are hard on the spirit. The days are dark and cold. There are no grand holidays to look forward to. There's a reason why Julius Caesar cut February short. We have to get through this next month, the sooner the better. 
Let us hold unwaveringly to our confession that gives us hope, for he who made the promise is trustworthy.
With every Mass we attend and prayer we recite and breath we breathe we must remind ourselves that God is Trustworthy and God is Good. If Jesus could still hope from the Cross, and his Mother Mary could still hope as she laid him in the tomb, we can still hope for great things to come. 

Wednesday of the Third Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 319

He answered them, “The mystery of the Kingdom of God has been granted to you. But to those outside everything comes in parables, so that
they may look and see but not perceive,
and hear and listen but not understand,
in order that they may not be converted and be forgiven.”
Jesus said to them, “Do you not understand this parable? Then how will you understand any of the parables?

Enjoying a long period of stable prosperity, t
he Roman Empire was rife with religious speculation. Many thoughtful people with enough leisure time for meditation and study entered “mystery religions.” We know little of these esoteric groups today precisely because they left few written documents. Their doctrines were revealed only to members and only through secret rituals. 

Struggling to explain the inexplicable, Christian missionaries often used the language of these mystery religions. True disciples understood what was being said because they had the Spirit of Jesus.

On the one hand, this is not terribly strange: a member of any group, initiated into its spirit, understands its language, traditions and ways of doing things. Even apparent nonsense makes sense to the member. That is true of a Marine battalion, a Latino street gang, or a Christian community. But, on the other hand, Christians take exception to that general principle because our spirit is that of the One God, the Holy Spirit.

To those outside everything comes in parables….
Others may look and not perceive, hear and listen and not understand.
Even in a tolerant country like the United States, being a Christian can make one feel isolated. Just as you are thinking yours is a Christian country, you realize many of its core values are alien to the gospel.

Saint Paul explained this dilemma:

Now the natural person does not accept what pertains to the Spirit of God, for to him it is foolishness, and he cannot understand it, because it is judged spiritually. The spiritual person, however, can judge everything but is not subject to judgment by anyone. For “who has known the mind of the Lord, so as to counsel him?” But we have the mind of Christ. (I Cor 2:14-16)
In today’s gospel, Jesus challenges his disciples: 
“Do you not understand this parable? Then how will you understand any of the parables?
His disciples were still in school. They were still being initiated into the mysterious ways of God. We too, are often flustered by the Gospel; it is not what we expected to hear. We must continually attend the Holy Spirit, listening for its guidance and direction, as we navigate the complex, ever-changing world around us. 

Tuesday of the Third Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 318

For this reason, when he came into the world, he said:
Sacrifice and offering you did not desire,
but a body you prepared for me;
in burnt offerings and sin offerings you took no delight.
Then I said, As is written of me in the scroll,
Behold, I come to do your will, O God.

In conversation with Veterans at the hospital, I cite this verse, remembering that God took on human form in order to save us: “a body you prepared for me.” With them I reflect on the mystery, complexity, history and wonder of this particular body I call myself.
The incarnation of oneself – not to mention that of Jesus! -- calls for endless reflection and contemplation. It is impossible to overemphasize the importance of the body in the spiritual life, especially because our concupiscence despises the body. We use it for recreation and violence, for profit and subjugation, for power and humiliation. We take pleasure in destroying our bodies and those of others.
The Natural Law, as the Church understands it, teaches us to respect the body. We are grounded and enmeshed in this gorgeous planet Earth. We breathe its air, drink its water and eat its food. With every breath we receive the gift of oxygen from Earth's vegetation and give back carbon dioxide. Our brains are the most fantastically complicated, earthen mysteries in the universe, with literally trillions of interconnections of the billions of cells.
A Christian must be aware of the beauty and wonder of her own body, especially in a culture that considers suicide socially acceptable. Even when her body is broken by the challenges and threats of life, and pain becomes a daily companion, the disciple of Jesus reveres and welcomes it with tender solicitude. 
Many forms of meditation today encourage us to experience our body in its simple grandeur. I like to sit on my prayer bench and breathe. It's like being in the company of one's best friend -- daily and for life. 
But Christian meditation in the light of the gospel takes us deeper into the mystery of the body. It is not simply me; it is also a gift which I have received. Because it is gift, I am not free to dispose of it, or to trash it, as I please -- or as others might persuade me. I am not my own; I do not live for myself. 
Although I am beautiful and worthy of love, there is One whose worthiness and beauty so far exceed my own that I would be foolish to ignore that one. That would be preferring the flickering light of a candle to the brilliant light of the sun. 
Christian reflection of this particular passage from the Letter to the Hebrews -- a body you prepared for me -- insists that our bodies, our selves, are made for God. Jesus sacrificed his body on the cross to the Father whom he loved so deeply. He was delighted to discover he had a body -- so precious and dear and beautiful -- which could be offered to God in love.
Life is often cruel to our bodies. We find in the third chapter of Genesis the dire prediction:
By the sweat of your brow you shall eat bread, until you return to the ground, from which you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
Our bodies are broken by hard labor, disease, aging, and violence. But they are also redeemed by one who willingly suffered these very troubles for us. It is impossible that we could be saved in any other way. How could a disembodied God redeem our bodies? For that matter, how could a disembodied man be saved? He must be one of us, like us in all things but sin: 
in burnt offerings and sin offerings you took no delight.
Then I said, As is written of me in the scroll,
Behold, I come to do your will, O God.

Memorial of Saint Thomas Aquinas, Priest and Doctor of the Church

“How can Satan drive out Satan?
If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand.
And if a house is divided against itself,
that house will not be able to stand.
And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided,
he cannot stand;
that is the end of him.
A sure sign of evil is the nonsense that spews from its spokespersons. Its testimony is so full of contradictions, non sequiturs, ad hominems, circular reasoning and just plain lies that the reasonable person is momentarily stunned by it all. But that nonsense is also a sure sign of its impending collapse.
Do not fret because of the wicked; do not be envious of wrongdoers, for they will soon fade like the grass, and wither like the green herb. Psalm 37: 1-2
Reasonable persons are tempted to write off irrational people. Since they cannot talk sense, why should we deal with them? But they are often friends, family, neighbors or enemies and they won't go away just because we don't listen to them. 

I see this kind of courage in the VA hospital where many patients have invested their health and well-being in alcohol and drugs. They simply cannot imagine life without self-medication, and they return to the hospital often. And the hospital always provides the safe place where they can regain their sanity. We always advise them to stop drinking, stop smoking and seek help. We also provide residential treatment that addresses their medical, psychological, social and financial needs. 

Some of the Veterans, having crashed once, make the fateful decision to go straight. With lots of professional help they regain their self-esteem and composure. They resume their family life, go back to work, and become contributing members of society. But many will relapse and return for a second or third or fifth go at it. 

Quoting scripture I remind the patient, "The good man falls seven times a day." (Proverbs 24: 16). But I also urge them to "raise your bottom;" meaning, "become aware of your stinking thinking and change it immediately!" Instead of taking a drink, just notice how miserable a resentful thought makes you feel. 

Beyond the realm of personal healing we find plenty of stinking thinking in local, state and national politics also. Special interest groups demand that their hobbies be honored as rights, and their rights be sanctified as inalienable

As  Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1834-92) said,  "A lie will go round the world while truth is pulling its boots on."

And Mark Twain added, "The most outrageous lies that can be invented will find believers if a man only tells them with all his might." Incessant repetition also helps, as political actions committees have shown. 

But the Christian puts her faith in truth, which may be slow to appear, but ineluctably wins. I believe our descendants will wonder why we drove gas-guzzling automobiles, why we tolerated abortion and the ownership of useless weapons, why we honored suicides and executed trapped, defenseless convicts. But they will have their own lies to contend with, and the Truth will always invite them. 
Be still before the Lord, and wait patiently for him; do not fret over those who prosper in their way, over those who carry out evil devices. Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath. Do not fret—it leads only to evil. For the wicked shall be cut off, but those who wait for the Lord shall inherit the land. 

Third Sunday in Ordinary Time

A patch of clear water
amid the ice. 
Lectionary: 69

Ezra the priest brought the law before the assembly, which consisted of men, women, and those children old enough to understand. Standing at one end of the open place that was before the Water Gate, he read out of the book from daybreak till midday, in the presence of the men, the women, and those children old enough to understand; and all the people listened attentively to the book of the law.

Rolling up the scroll, he handed it back to the attendant and sat down, and the eyes of all in the synagogue looked intently at him. He said to them, “Today this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.”

Because it’s still January, perhaps it’s not too late to say, “Happy New Year!” We’re off to a new beginning. On this third Sunday of ordinary time we hear of Jesus’ first address – his inaugural address – to the people of his own hometown.

We hear of, and must imagine, their astonishment as Jesus took his seat on the synagogue president’s chair. First he read the words of Isaiah with unusual clarity. Catholics notice the different ways our lay readers approach the scriptures. Some read the words only to themselves; they are not really prepared for the duty. Others proclaim the scriptures to us with volume and articulation, but they don’t know what is important about the reading. And some read with authority and confidence; you hear every word and every syllable, and you feel the reading's gravitas. This is God’s word.

But when Jesus took the Book of the Prophet Isaiah in hand, he was the Word made Flesh. He read with the authority of the Son of God! It’s no wonder they were astonished! Nothing like that had ever happened anywhere in the world, and there it was happening in their own town of Nazareth. The only thing Nazareth was known for to date was nothing good came of it. (John 1:46)

Beyond the manner of its presentation and the person who read it, Jesus announcement was astonishing: “Today this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.” The long awaited Day of the Lord has come. Nothing will ever be the same.

But within a few moments, the crowd realized that nothing had changed, at least nothing they could see. How can a fellow just stand up there and read these words with such conviction and majesty and then sit there like a god and make such a pronouncement? It’s outrageous. It’s too much.

I recall the distressed, angry response of the childless Shunammite woman when Elisha promised she would have a son, “She replied, ‘No, my lord, O man of God; do not deceive your servant.’” I hear her saying, “Don’t mess with me, Holy Man.” And especially when the child suddenly died she was angry, “Then she said, ‘Did I ask my lord for a son? Did I 
not say, Do not mislead me?”  (2 Kings 4:8-37)

Dear God, do not raise our hopes only to drop us into the same old situation!
Nothing has changed since Jesus made his inaugural address in Nazareth – except that Emmanuel is with us. He has pitched his tent among us, and we saw his glory. 

Our hope is new, but now it is more than expectation. Animated by the Spirit of God, our hope is energy, courage and eager willingness. We come streaming to the Lord saying, “What do you want me to do? How can I help bring the Day closer?” Jesus has enlisted us as his own. We have been baptized into his body, to work with him and, if necessary, to suffer with him -- so that we might be raised up with him.

Memorial of Saints Timothy and Titus, bishops

Lectionary: 520/316

Ice on MSF Lake
When his relatives heard of this they set out to seize him, for they said, “He is out of his mind.” 

Does anyone reading this not have troublesome relatives? Take heart. So did the Lord. 

Saint Mark has linked this story with that of the scribes who thought Jesus was possessed by a demon. Whether he is insane or possessed, it amounts to the same thing: Jesus does not fit the mold of anyone's expectations. And he is a bother. 

Especially in the Gospel of Saint Mark we find Jesus as the lonely suffering servant of God, lionized by the populace and despised by the authorities. Crowds of people flock to him even as scribes, Pharisees and Herodians wring their hands. He is like a lion who has come up out of the wilderness of the Jordan valley. He takes what he wants of the flock as the shepherds watch helplessly from a distance.

Eventually he will be brought down. We know that story very well. But Jesus is arrested only when the time is right, and at his Father's behest, not theirs. 

The Gospel of Mark tells the story of Jesus but its focus is on our response. When he is disowned by his family, denied by his disciples, denounced by religious leaders, betrayed by his inner circle, and abandoned by everyone -- what will you do? 

Jesus was not the last Christian to be judged insane by his family. Many of his disciples have borne the same cross. Very often neophytes realize they have to distance themselves from former friends and family if they are to take up this new way of life. Attitudes they learned as children must be abandoned; habits of speech and appearance must be altered. Places frequented are forgotten as they attend church, go on pilgrimage and withdraw to their rooms to pray. Their new friends are simply strangers to their old families. 

It is our universal experience that we never really fit into any society or culture. We are always sojourners traveling through a strange land. We are often shocked by what our countrymen take for granted. 

Here in America we realize that, though the majority don't like abortion, they have no moral objections to it. Even those who protest abortion are likely to demand the execution of caged, defenseless criminals. Ours is a culture fascinated by killing; many of our fellow citizens see it as a panacea for every ill. Even a troublesome legislator may be brought to earth by a "second amendment solution." 

Jesus' ethic of life sets us apart. He didn't say it would be easy, but he has invited us to enter with him through the narrow gate. 

Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul

Lectionary: 519

Then Ananias said to Paul,
“The God of our ancestors designated you to know his will,
to see the Righteous One, and to hear the sound of his voice;
for you will be his witness before all
to what you have seen and heard.
Now, why delay?
Get up and have yourself baptized and your sins washed away,
calling upon his name.’”

Saint Paul’s letters are the oldest writings of the New Testament, written even before the four gospels appeared. One can search his letters with a fine-tooth comb and find few references to the life and teachings of Christ. It seems that Paul knew of his ceremonial last supper, death by crucifixion and resurrection – and little else. But he knew what he had “seen and heard’ -- especially that the Lord had called him personally as he traveled to Damascus -- and he spoke freely of that.
Today, everyone has heard of Jesus. If those who don’t know the Lord want anything from us, they want to know if we’re honest. They ask, “How has the Lord changed your life?” and “Has the Lord washed your sins away?”
Members of Alcoholics Anonymous sometimes remind one another, “You may be the only Big Book another alcoholic will ever meet.” We have to do more than talk about Jesus; we have to show him. That may be through acts of courtesy, hospitality and kindness; it may also be through telling the “gospel” of your own life.
Parents especially should tell their children what the Lord has done for them. My dad did not mention the name of Jesus when he told me “the facts of life.” In fact, he never quite got around to the biology of it all! But he did tell me the story of “your mother and I.” Although Dad had served in the United States Marine Corp during WW2; and mother had, by her own count, “innumerable” boyfriends; they were virgins when they married.
That kind of witness makes a difference in a young man's life. The Lord had done wonders for them and continued to do so when their firstborn was stillborn, when the economy tanked and Dad was laid off, and when the young couple struggled to find agreement.
You will be his witness before all to what you have seen and heard. I believe it is everyone's destiny to discover his and her life story is a gospel story. But that may not be apparent yet. We have all suffered painful events of which we cannot speak: things we have done, things done to us. When the stories are brought to light, the wounds can be healed.
Matthew, Mark, Luke and John must have struggled mightily to get the story of Jesus right -- especially the story of his trial, torture, crucifixion and death. How painful was it for them to dig up that awful truth again, write it on paper and read it to their congregations? Like our American culture, the Roman Empire despised weakness. It made a practice of humiliating, shaming and destroying opposition. How often, we might wonder, were the disciples tempted to cover up the truth about Jesus, that he was crucified like a common criminal?
The "Conversion of Saint Paul" serves as a template for all of us. We confess our sins not only in the darkness of the confessional but at the dinner table, in the living room, by our desks and workbenches. And then we tell how our sins were washed away as we called upon his name.

Memorial of Saint Francis de Sales, Bishop and Doctor of the Church

Lectionary: 314

It was fitting that we should have such a high priest:
holy, innocent, undefiled, separated from sinners,
higher than the heavens.

One of the pleasures of ministry in the hospital is the joking that goes on around me. Half the time I don’t hear the jokes, either because my hearing is poor or because I am not supposed to hear it. Often someone else is the butt of the joke; I am only the prop. But rarely does anyone take offense. It’s all in good fun and, as much as possible, I try to play along with it. It’s obvious that people like to have a chaplain around.

No one supposes that I am like the high priest that Hebrews describes; I am not wholly innocent, or undefiled, or very remote from sinners. Only my office on the eighth floor might suggest “higher than the heavens.” But I am expected to maintain a certain moral decorum. There are jokes I should not tell; images I should not see; and suggestions I should not pick up. If no one should act immorally, I should be the last one caught in such a predicament.

But, more importantly, it seems the chaplain’s presence helps everyone maintain their level of integrity. In the Veterans Affairs Hospital, everything is about the Veteran, and the Chaplain’s presence is essential to maintain high morale in a challenging environment.

Despite the egalitarian goals of the Protestant Reformation, the chaplain/minister /presbyter represents the presence of God in the human community. He or she is one of our own who is consecrated to God and belongs to God.

In the Christian dispensation the only true priest is Jesus Christ. The Author of the Letter to the Hebrews never supposed the word should apply to anyone else. But we do apply it to others – Catholics, to ordained men and Protestants, to ordained adults – because we need the presence of God in a sacramental form. If some denominations do not call their ministers priests they are nonetheless accorded the same expectations, privileges and duties. They should be holy, innocent, undefiled, separated from sinners, and higher than the heavens.

Priests pray for people; that's our job. We show up for rituals: funerals, weddings, memorials and so forth. If no one noticed Jesus’ presence in Cana when he arrived, they certainly saw him after he changed water to wine. “Our priest has arrived!” they might have said.

Periodically, we hear also of ministers who go the extra mile. I think of the four chaplains who gave their seats in the lifeboats to servicemen as the ship sank; Father Vincent Capodanno, killed while anointing the wounded on a battle field in Vietnam; and Father Mychal Judge, killed in the shadow of the Twin Towers, New York City.

Like Jesus, the minister is the church’s gift to God, and God’s gift to the church. Our Catholic tradition honors ministry as a Sacrament, in a class with Baptism and Eucharist; and not unlike Marriage. More than a human construct for marshaling unruly disciples, the Sacrament of Holy Orders is God’s gift, a clear sign of his intense, faithful, generous presence to his people, the Church.

Please pray for your ministers, and for quality vocations.

Wednesday of the Second Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 313

It is even more obvious if another priest is raised up
after the likeness of Melchizedek, who has become so,
not by a law expressed in a commandment concerning physical descent
but by the power of a life that cannot be destroyed.
For it is testified:
You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.

The Author of Hebrews engages his readers in wonderful creative leaps as he teaches us that Jesus is after the likeness of Melchizedek. Apparently it made sense to his initial audience of converted Jews, and with some stretching we can understand it also. In fact, given the ubiquitous presence of movie and television fantasies, we might understand it very well.
Melchizedek appears in Genesis wearing two hats; he is priest and king of Salem, the city we know as Jerusalem. Salem is the same word as the Jewish shalom and Arabic salaam, meaning peace. It might be translated also as whole, safe or intact.
So Melchizedek appears in Genesis to congratulate Abraham in his rout of several armies and to offer his own homage to the peaceful warrior. As a priest he blesses Abraham; as king he gives him a tithe of his wealth, which is considerable.
But who is Melchizedek? The modern person might suppose we know enough already; he is a royal priest. But the Jewish scribe wanted to know his ascendants and descendants. Can you know a person without knowing his family? Nobody comes from nobody! Who is he? Genesis tells us nothing of that.
Now Jesus’ ancestry is well documented, but he was not a Levite. How can he be a priest if he is not born into the Levite tribe? Answer: in the same way that Melchizedek was a priest! To borrow a Hollywood trope, the priesthood of Melchizedek abided in Jerusalem, a forgotten blessing lurking among the stones until it fell upon the new priest/king, who is Jesus. That blessing is “the power of a life that cannot be destroyed.”
And, because Melchizedek’s death is also unrecorded, his priesthood abides forever, as Psalm 110 indicated: The LORD has sworn and will not waver: “You are a priest forever in the manner of Melchizedek.”
Jesus' priesthood is a spirit that began before time and cannot be destroyed. Whether you go along with the Author’s imaginative leaps or not, you have to agree he arrived at a wonderful place. 
The Hebrew Author could assure his people, "The priesthood of the temple has died when the Temple was destroyed in 70 AD; but it has been raised up in Jesus. He is the True Priest, the Only Priest. He alone is worthy to enter the Holy of Holys and pray before His Heavenly Father on our behalf.

Tuesday of the Second Week in Ordinary Time

Day of Prayer for the Legal Protection of Unborn Children

Lectionary: 312

We earnestly desire each of you to demonstrate the same eagerness
for the fulfillment of hope until the end,
so that you may not become sluggish, but imitators of those who,
through faith and patience, are inheriting the promises.

Recently, Time Magazine reported that the pro-abortion movement has not done well since its signal victory on this day, forty years ago. Although Roe v Wade has not been overturned and probably will not be in the near future, Americans have demonstrated distaste for the whole business. They don’t want the federal government to pay for abortions; they don’t want abortion clinics in their neighborhoods; they don’t believe abortion should be provided to just anyone at anytime.

No one wants abortion. Little girls don’t dream of the day when they might have their first abortions. Sexually active women, married and unmarried, regardless of their politics, don't look forward to having one. They see it as a necessary evil. We don't. 

When the economy is good, abortions decline. When people feel desperate about their financial future, abortions increase. Predictably, they occur more often among the poor. 

Not many medical people choose that narrow specialty to practice their people-oriented profession. Everyone has seen the images and pictures of unborn babies; many have heard their heartbeats and felt their kicks; we know they’re our children. 

Time Magazine reports that the pro-life movement – they do not call it “anti-abortion” – has learned to manage public opinion and the legislative process, to appeal to parental instincts, and the taxpayer’s reluctance. They are slowly strangling the abortion industry. It is far from dead but it is not thriving. Time Magazine wonders if we will see a resurgence of the movement soon, especially as Obamacare offers to pay for abortions. 

Abortion is deeply rooted in our culture. We have peculiar notions of freedom, especially individual liberties; and we sincerely believe that a consumer should be able to buy whatever she wants, regardless of its moral or social costs. We have deep sympathies for the integrity of the human body as the seat of one’s identity. No one wants to be owned or occupied by another human being unless she has freely chosen to do so. 

We also have a deep investment in sexual freedom. Abortion is rooted not only in consumerism but also in the so-called right to enjoy sexual activity. If I am my body and my body is mine, then I can do with it as I please, giving myself sexually to whomever I choose. That freedom of sexual expression is tangled with the right to privacy, a peculiar invention of the late 20th century which is found in neither the American Constitution nor the Bible. 

Forty years after Roe v Wade I wonder how many millions of today’s adults heard as children, “I should have aborted you!” Children have an instinct for discovering the emotional and moral limits of their parents. Even their small size invites violence upon themselves. And it is there in abundance. How many children live under the threat of violence? 

During the last thirty years children have learned of a bizarre ritual in which a parent kills his children, his spouse and himself. They are familiar with human sacrifice and they wonder who will be the next victims. How does a devoted parent assure a child that will never happen in their home, especially if she has been driven to distraction by her foolish children? 

Our bishops have pleaded with the American people to abjure the culture of death. Suicide, murder, abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment, drone strikes of enemy soldiers: they do not protect us. They only make matters worse. 

Only God offers us the true freedom of living in this world, free to love, laugh, grieve, give and receive with the Holy Spirit as our daily guide. It’s not nearly as difficult as pro-abortionists might think.

Memorial of Saint Agnes, Virgin and Martyr

Lectionary: 311

Every high priest is taken from among men
and made their representative before God,

to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins.
He is able to deal patiently with the ignorant and erring,
for he himself is beset by weakness
and so, for this reason, must make sin offerings for himself 
as well as for the people.
No one takes this honor upon himself
but only when called by God,
just as Aaron was.

The Author of the Letter to the Hebrews was not thinking  about Roman Catholic priests when he wrote the above. He had the novel idea that Jesus was a priest, and presented his argument brilliantly. Of the New Testament books and letters, only the Book of Revelation has a similar idea. The notion of Jesus, the descendent of King David, as priest probably came as a surprise to those Levite Jews who were disciples of Jesus. But they apparently accepted the idea. 

Centuries later, with the Letter to the Hebrews firmly placed in our New Testament, we take it for granted that Jesus was the True High Priest who offered himself to God on the altar of the cross. 

The Catholic Church uses the word priest to describe those who preside over the Mass. This is more than a poetic expression; it is regarded as revealed truth, rooted firmly in tradition and defined in our canon law. We should  reflect on the Letter to the Hebrews when we consider this gift to the Church, for it helps us to recognize the authority and the limits of the men who serve as priests. 

Unlike the levitical priesthood, the priests in our Roman Catholic Church practice celibacy and have no sons to replace them. We are "taken from among men," that is, from the congregation. My father was not a priest; my mother was not a nun. They were more surprised than anyone at my notion of entering the seminary. 

The priest, then, is given by the congregation to the altar. It has been said it takes three generations of devout Catholics to have a priest. Without a devout, dedicated laity, there is no church. 

Like everyone else in the church, the priest must make sin offerings for himself as well as for the people. And he should be able to deal patiently with the ignorant and erring, for he himself is beset by weakness. After 37 years I know that as well as anyone. 

No one take this honor upon himself but only when called by God. That calling is discerned through a mysterious process. No one should be ordained because he thinks he has a calling. The Church makes the call, and bishops today are interested in the insights, suggestions and sensibilities of the laity. If they feel comfortable with this fellow, and believe he has the intelligence, capability and sincerity of a true calling, he might be invited to ordination. If he "creeps them out" there should be some serious hesitation! 

Finally, although the priest comes from the congregation, he is also sent to them to represent the universal church. His public prayer, the liturgy, is the prayer of the whole church. It should never be overshadowed by his personal style, or altered by his personal preferences. He is, at best, "an administrator of the mysteries of God." If he feels the impulse to be creative he has plenty of latitude outside the liturgy for that. Of course one's style does enter the  enter the celebration but it should never be so overbearing as to drive people away. 

The priest leads the people in prayer. When I celebrate the Mass for children, I work hard to keep their attention. I know the little ones want to pray but their attention span is short. There are simple things I can do to help them pray. 

But I should never have to do that with adults. They have chosen to be there and I assume they're with me. They don't need my entertainment. I should simply read the familiar text clearly, enunciating every syllable of every word. There should be no unhelpful asidesunenlightening mini-homilies or intrusive reinterpretations. The principle celebrant is allowed only one homily per Mass. 

I should be neither in a hurry to get through it, nor so caught up in the beauty of the Mass as to take all day about it. (I do wonder about those saintly priests who were caught up in ecstasy and stretched their Mass into several hours. In the unlikely event that happens to me, I hope somebody will suggest that we Get On With It -- for the sake of the people who are praying with me.) 

Sometimes I am distracted by someone's inattention and that's very distressing.  If I lose my focus because of someone's obnoxious behavior, the whole congregation drifts away. If they're whispering to one another or checking their smart phones during the Mass, I wish they'd not come at all. 

January 5, 2013
Mount Saint Francis
Our duty is to pay attention to the One Priest who is truly offering himself during the Mass; that is, Jesus Christ. Ultimately, the president of the assembly -- be he pope, cardinal, bishop or priest -- is only a member of the Church. He prays with the congregation as the Holy Spirit compels the Son of God to give himself in love to God the Father for our salvation. 

Second Sunday in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 66

Nations shall behold your vindication,
and all the kings your glory;
you shall be called by a new name
pronounced by the mouth of the LORD.

I suppose every king who took himself seriously and wanted to be taken seriously by his friends, allies and enemies, wanted his queen to be a "trophy bride." Kings, historically, never supposed that women were equal to men, even when they had to deal with a foreign queen. If they had their choice they would choose "the fairest in the land." 

So is that why God chose Jerusalem as his trophy bride? She certainly gets mixed reviews in the Bible. Pilgrims eagerly traveled to the Holy City and the psalmists often sing her praises; but the prophets were not so happy with her. Ezekiel says some marvelous things about her native beauty, but excoriates her for her sins. 

But the History of Salvation celebrates Jerusalem as the Bride of God and Saint John's Gospel recounts Jesus' appearance as a wedding feast. The Bridegroom has arrived at last, and "his bride is prepared to welcome him." (Rev 19:7)

As a priest I've presided over several weddings. Sometimes, during the initial introductions several months in advance, I had my doubts. But when the big day came the couple was always gorgeous, astonishing! Their love and careful preparation had made them eminently desirable to one another, and no one could question their wisdom. Indeed their perspicuity and beauty were  "vindicated" and everyone saw their "glory." 

The Christmas Season is behind us now and we return to "Ordinary Time," but we begin the season with the Wedding Feast of Cana. We remember how happy is the coming of Jesus, and how eager we are to see him. 

The story is comical, as we hear the master of ceremonies complaining that the bridegroom had kept the finest wine until late in the program. The servants knew what was happening, as did Jesus and Mary; and they must have enjoyed a good laugh about it. When the party resumed with even more pleasure for the far superior wine, the Spirit of the event took off again and soared even higher. 

This history of salvation will move from glory to glory as we march toward Jerusalem. But there will be hard times. That should come as no surprise to anyone who attends a wedding. Husband and wife will work for their relationship; they will often struggle with their worst impulses as they dig deeply into their charity to find compassion, forgiveness, understanding and joy. 

Likewise our journey with Jesus to Calvary will be filled with misgivings, and we will hear him complain about us at least as often as we grumble about him. And some of us will flee from Calvary, never to return. That's heartbreaking. 

But the grace of God never gives up on us; he sees beauty in us we cannot imagine. We are committed to one another as husband and wife, through sickness and in health, for better for worse, till death us do part. 

Saturday of the First Week of Ordinary Time

Ojos de deos
The word of God is living and effective,
sharper than any two-edged sword,
penetrating even between soul and spirit,
joints and marrow,
and able to discern reflections and thoughts of the heart.
No creature is concealed from him,
but everything is naked and exposed to the eyes of him
to whom we must render an account.

Who can forget these words once she has heard them? We can ignore them, and abandon our faith altogether. Or we can embrace them as a forceful, sobering influence. They shape our behavior as surely as the hands of a skilled potter molds useless clay into practical tableware.

Adam and Eve fled from the penetrating gaze of God after they had eaten the forbidden fruit. Their nakedness was suddenly shameful to them, unbearably so. 

But God's gaze is frank and admiring, delightful and ennobling to those who are willing to be seen. Even our sinfulness can be washed away by the cleansing flood of his searching eye, or cut away like a cancerous tumor by the penetrating scalpel of his word. 

Mexicans have a lovely custom of decorating their walls with ojos de deos. This "eye of God" is usually a beautiful, simple form, friendly and reassuring. It represent the loving gaze of God who blesses the home, its residents and its guests. 
The Eye of God reminds us to whom we belong, of who has claimed us as his own peculiar people, who protects us under the shadow of his wing. 

Many North American Catholics hang crucifixes on their walls and build corner shrines for the Virgin Mary. These too remind us of God's loving, reassuring presence. 

We must render an account to God, who has rendered an account for all his works in the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus. He has paid the price of our redemption. How can any reasonable person refuse his love? 

Friday of the First Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 309

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

There are Christian sects that guarantee salvation to anyone who is baptized into their membership even one time. If you believe that sort of thing it's an attractive package. As some Catholic Veterans say to me at the hospital when I offer the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick, "Can't hurt; might help! Help yourself!" 

Historically the church slues back and forth between threats of hell-and-brimstone and promises of cheap grace. The great preacher and founder of Methodism, John Wesley, found that converts to his new religion soon drifted away when his preachers failed to teach a stricter moral code. People were eager to join his Church if it was easy, but they soon lost interest when it didn't require anything of them. The preachers who were reluctant to antagonize anyone by insisting on a strict moral code and faithful attendance to the worship failed as rapidly as those who made salvation seem unattainably out-of-reach. 

Such is the mystery of the human being who is loved and challenged by our mysterious God. Nothing is as simple as it seems. Our relationship with God is a dance of attraction and repulsion, fascination and fear. We're eager to give everything and reluctant to give anything. 

The Author of Hebrews urges us to "strive to enter into that rest," which sounds like an oxymoron. 

Let us be on our guard... like the husband and wife who continually watch one another for signals of distress or contentment; like the parents who understand the needs of their inarticulate infants; and the adults who read the signals of their failing parents. Like experienced sailors, we listen for the invisible winds of the Holy Spirit whether they whisper like zephyrs or blow like gales.