Memorial of Saint John Bosco, Priest

Memorial of Saint John Bosco, Priest

“This is how it is with the Kingdom of God;
it is as if a man were to scatter seed on the land
and would sleep and rise night and day
and the seed would sprout and grow,
he knows not how.

 In Jesus’ day, from what I understand, farmers usually broadcast their seed over the plowed earth. That is, they carried a bag of seed into the field, and scattered it about by hand in every direction. Without the modern harvesters there was no particular need to plant straight rows.

Jesus tells us in another parable how the scattered seed often went to waste. Some landed on rocks, some in barren holes, and some on the footpath. Only some of it landed on good soil but, apparently, that was enough to satisfy the farmer.

This method of broadcasting may sound wasteful to us. Farmers in the industrialized world have seed-planting machines that are computer-controlled. Guided by GPS and soil tests, they can plant seeds one by one. They utilize the most fertile spots and pass over the barren places.

David turns 64!
The ancient method, perhaps, copied the ways of the natural world. When we look at the common maple tree we see how it broadcasts literally millions of winged seeds in the course of its life. They are controlled only by the wind and most of them never germinate. A single Redwood might spread billions of seeds during its thousand-year life. But it needs only one seed to sprout and grow to replace itself.
Many of the animal kingdom are as prodigal as the trees; some female fish and insects lay eggs by the thousand. Most of the eggs are eaten before they hatch; many of the hatchlings never swim; but the species survives. Such is the efficiency of nature.
Jesus encourages us with the example of nature. “Look at the birds of the air. They neither toil nor spin yet not even Solomon in all his glory was arrayed like one of these!”

His Gospel is like the scattered seed. It cannot fail. Though my efforts or yours might seem to fail; and we might suppose nothing comes of all our struggle, only God can see the big picture and He assures us it is good.
When the harvest comes no one will be able to say, “I planted this tree or that flower.” But we will see a new heaven and a new earth. We will know our work has been satisfied and the harvest is plentiful.

Thursday of the Third Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 320

“Is a lamp brought in to be placed under a bushel basket or under a bed, and not to be placed on a lamp stand? For there is nothing hidden except to be made visible; nothing is secret except to come to light.

Some time ago a Veteran told me that, once he admitted his alcoholism and began the work of healing, he became more attractive to people. He spoke in a group and I did not pursue the topic further, but I was fascinated by his remark. He brought a lot of energy and good will to the process and seemed a natural leader, one who can articulate his thoughts while others sit in bewildered silence.

Anyone who reads the New Testament hears the call to spread the Good News. The Bible is not a self-help manual for isolated individuals. It is an invitation to fellowship within resplendent joy. The Christian whose heart shines with healing cannot stay hidden; she comes out to join others in the Church and they become a brightly-lit city on a hill, impossible to hide.

This quality of joy makes the Word of God always fresh, always new. It never grows old or stale. As Jesus told the woman at the well:
“…whoever drinks the water I shall give will never thirst; the water I shall give will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”
and, in Chapter 4:
Whoever believes in me, as scripture says: ‘Rivers of living water will flow from within him.”

The work of the spiritual life is to maintain the purity and clarity of that spring. We must drink from it each day even as we avoid contaminants -- ambitions, fears and prejudices. Joy wants everyone to share the joy; it cannot be confined to one’s friends, family or social group. Even to entertain a preference strangles its vitality. The Earth is dry and thirsty for our blessings. 

I might not radiate effervescent joy all the time, but to be turned in the right direction is to be filled with light.

Wednesday of the Third Week in Ordinary Time

I will be a father to him,
and he shall be a son to me.
And if he does wrong,
I will correct him with the rod of men
and with human chastisements;
but I will not withdraw my favor from him
as I withdrew it from your predecessor Saul,
whom I removed from my presence.
Your house and your kingdom shall endure forever before me;
your throne shall stand firm forever.’”

The history of God’s people is a history of covenants. The first was the friendship between Abraham and God, initially sealed with God’s word as Abraham gazed in astonished wonder, and then confirmed with the sacrifice of Isaac. The second was given on Mount Sinai when the Ten Commandments spelled out the terms of our friendship with God. This covenant flowed organically from the first as it bound the descendants of Abraham to God. Joshua demanded that the people renew the covenant as they entered the Promised Land.

In today’s first reading we hear the story of God’s covenant with David. This was a new, unexpected development; like the others, an unearned grace. When David heard Nathan’s words he was astonished:
The king went in and sat before the LORD and said,
“Who am I, Lord GOD, and who are the members of my house,
that you have brought me to this point?

The covenant with David revealed something new, the promise of forgiveness. “If (David’s heir) does wrong, I will correct him…. But I will not withdraw my favor from him.”
Forgiveness is, by nature, mysterious. The Catholic who is very familiar with the Sacrament of Penance might take it for granted, which is always a mistake.

I heard an AA speaker talk of the many times he has asked his wife for forgiveness. He suggested to his audience that we say, “I am sorry. Please forgive me. Will you forgive me?”
The power to forgive, of course, is in the other's hands. That’s the mysterious part. To be forgiven I must ask for it and wait for it and hope it will be given. I have no control of that.

Someone might argue, “If I apologize you should forgive me! You have to forgive me!”
No, I don’t… but I’ll think about it.  

Forgiveness cannot be owed to someone. It is a grace, freely given, unearned and undeserved. I cannot force God or anyone else to forgive me. I might as well wave my arms and expect to fly.
In this signal moment of Salvation History, the Lord promises King David, “Your house and your kingdom shall endure forever before me; your throne shall stand firm forever.” It will endure precisely because the Lord will “correct him with the rod of men and with human chastisements.”

There will be times when, given the promise of chastisement, we would prefer not to be forgiven. Some might flee from it.  

But grace always calls us back because God will not withdraw his favor. We will be grateful for the rebuke and the punishment – especially when we see that Jesus has endured both for our sake.

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

Lectionary: 318

Then David, girt with a linen apron, came dancing before the LORD with abandon, as he and all the house of Israel were bringing up the ark of the LORD with shouts of joy and to the sound of the horn. The ark of the LORD was brought in and set in its place within the tent David had pitched for it.

The first reading today from 1 Samuel describes the ceremonial arrival of the Ark of the Covenant in Jerusalem. David, the thirty-year-old king, strengthened his power by bringing the Ark, which had been at Shiloh for several hundred years, to the city which he controlled. Jerusalem was lock-stock-and-barrow “the City of David" – his to build, exploit, use or give as he chose. He chose to give it to God.

The faithful who had been making pilgrimages to Shiloh – like Hannah when she begged God for a son -- now came to his capital city. Three thousand years later we think of the ($) money they brought with them; David probably considered the prestige but we have to give him some credit for his filial devotion to God. This hilltop fortress of pagan Jebusites was now God’s Holy City.  Clearly, God blessed this move.

However, not everyone was caught up in the festivities. David’s #1 wife, Michal, daughter of Saul, was revolted by the sight of her young husband dancing about, exposing his legs and what-all to the laughing girls. She felt humiliated; and when she confronted him they quarreled. He never spoke to her again and turned for comfort to the lovely, more pliable Abigail.

Everyone else was happy with David’s ceremonial move, especially because he had directed his butchers, bakers and cooks to feed the entire crowd. Since that day we have regarded Jerusalem as the spiritual pole of the earth.

Always we must contend with the Michals among us who think we’re getting carried away with our devotions. They wonder if God can be pleased with such extravagance. They carp, “Why was this not sold for three hundred days’ wages and given to the poor? We respond with another scripture, “We must celebrate and rejoice.”

It is easy to be cynical. Any fool can do it; and most fools, when they do it, think they’re smarter than the rest of us.

One of life’s greatest privileges is giving glory and praise to God. That can never be a guilty pleasure.

Monday of the Third Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 317

I have found David, my servant;
with my holy oil I have anointed him,
That my hand may be always with him,
and that my arm may make him strong.

    Psalm 89

Following upon yesterday's reflection about Church unity, our readings consider the divine election of King David and Jesus' parable of the house divided. 

Our unity is personal. It is an expression of our belief in Jesus Christ. It is not based upon our ideas about God, our opinions about politics, or our philosophical ruminations. As a Church we have constitutions and laws, but they do not hold us together as the Constitution binds the United States together. 

We practice personal loyalty first to Jesus Christ. Secondly, we are loyal to those men and women appointed to lead our churches and families. 

Therein lies the rub. Sometimes some people don't like the priest or pastor. He or she may not have the gravitas a pastor should have; or may have too much of it. Or they speak with an accent. Or they don't work hard enough, or they work too hard. Or they don't relate to old people, or young people, or sick people, or poor people, or rich people. And so forth and so on....

Nevertheless the Church retains that preference for persons. For instance, today we celebrate Saint Angela Merici, foundress of the Ursuline Order. Her sisters today, and many of her devotees, will reflect upon her personal integrity and her teachings. They must do that to retain their identity as servants of the Church. 

Father Pius Poff
Friars, sisters and lay followers of Saint Francis of Assisi venerate our founder in the same way. We must keep the memory of the Poverello  alive until the end of time! 

In my own life, I have occasionally experienced great conflict about my parents. Some of my experience doesn't make sense. Some of the memories are hard to bear. But there came a day when I realized I would not trade my parents for anyone. I feel great love, affection and loyalty to Marty and Edith. I understand their shortcomings; forgiving them is as easy as brushing away a pesky fly. They forgave me as easily. 

What we say of our family echoes what the Lord says of us, "You shall be my people and I will be your God." With us, it's personal.

Third Sunday in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 67

I urge you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree in what you say, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and in the same purpose.

Saint Paul speaks to us in this passage "in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ." That is, in the strongest possible terms.

He urges us to "agree in what you say, and that there be no divisions among you."

Well we might ask, "Is such unity possible?" Can a church that spans geographical regions, ethnic differences, languages, generations, professions, classes and financial strata agree on anything? What if you throw in political and philosophical differences, and then gender- and sexual-preferences? Can they even agree on their common interests or common good? What do they have in common? 

They'll begin with their belief in, and love of, Jesus Christ. As they gather in prayer each week they will meet in the worship of the Lord who is Jesus Christ. If they cannot agree that Jesus is Lord, they are not a church. (Romans/10/9 and 1 Cor 12:3

Saint Paul used the word kyrios, the Greek word Jewish translators used for the tetragrammaton YHWH. They would not speak that Hebrew word but used kyrios in their common worship, personal prayer and conversation. We translate it as Lord, and acknowledge Jesus of Nazareth as God, Christ and Lord

Gathering under the authority of that Name, the Church must bring a deep sense of reverence and awe. At one time, not so long ago, Catholics maintained strict silence in our churches. We entered and departed the sacred room in quiet. The only sounds from our lips were prayers and hymns. We might not keep that practice today but we must nonetheless cultivate the "Fear of the Lord" which it signified. Our agreement "in what you say" will be built upon that foundation. 

Unity will be built slowly and with enormous patience. If reverence for the Name of Jesus is the foundation of our agreement, the framework will be our willingness to be molded by the Gospel. No one -- neither the oldest nor the youngest, neither the wealthiest nor the poorest, neither the educated nor the illiterate -- owns the Gospel. "Experts" in our religion are profoundly aware of how little they comprehend. 

Willingness listens to every opinion out of respect for the person who expresses it. The opinion may be bizarre -- utterly alien to our tradition -- but the person is holy. Sometimes all I need is someone to hear me out to realize how silly my notion is. 

The Holy Spirit sifts everyone's ideas. It reveals the fears and reassures the fearful. It exposes desires and chastens the greedy, lustful and avaricious. It also allows time for misunderstandings to be identified and cleared up. Sometimes the simplest words can throw a congregation into consternation. 

Sifting as it does, the Holy Spirit counsels patience. Everything takes time and we have to be willing to take enough time. If we cannot resolve our differences during the allotted time, then we must be willing to let the differences remain until we come back together. We agree we have not yet made a decision and each individual is willing to live with that uncertainty. 

The history of our Christian doctrines shows how long it took for the Church to agree upon words like incarnation, consubstantial, and trinity. Doctrines like Immaculate Conception and Assumption, despite the infallibility of the pope, are still not accepted by all Christians (and are largely ignored by most Catholics.)  

As we discern what we should do, I think we should understand two principles, 

  1. Doing nothing is better than doing the wrong thing. 
  2. Doing nothing is better than doing the right thing without general agreement. 

Only fidelity to Jesus Christ is more important than our unity. If we cannot act without agreement, then we cannot act. 
...that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and in the same purpose.
The greatest sin of the Church is our failure to heal the divisions among us. It is a scandal to our children, a disappointment to our admirers and a taunt for our opponents.

In his oft-quoted thirteenth chapter of First Corinthians, Saint Paul insisted upon the charity that binds us together:
If I speak in human and angelic tongues but do not have love, I am a resounding gong or a clashing cymbal. And if I have the gift of prophecy and comprehend all mysteries and all knowledge; if I have all faith so as to move mountains but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away everything I own, and if I hand my body over so that I may boast but do not have love, I gain nothing.
Not even our works of charity and our magnificent liturgies can overcome the scandal of our divisions. that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its meaning. 

Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul, Apostle

Lectionary: 519

“A certain Ananias, a devout observer of the law, and highly spoken of by all the Jews who lived there, came to me and stood there and said,
‘Saul, my brother, regain your sight.’
And at that very moment I regained my sight and saw him.
Then he said, ‘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

We often think of conversions as abrupt changes in a person’s life, and few are as sudden, unexpected and abrupt as that which fell upon Saint Paul. He frankly admits to the Jews in Jerusalem that he “persecuted this Way to death, binding both men and women and delivering them to prison.” before the Light startled him and he heard the voice of “Jesus the Nazarean.”

But in this speech to his former comrades Saint Paul emphasizes the continuity of his “before-and-after.” As dramatic as the conversion was, it also had an organic quality. One might not see the resemblance between a tadpole and a frog or an acorn and an oak but they are the same creatures before and after. Their transformations are natural, from one stage to the next, organic. 

First I notice that Ananias was “a devout observer of the law and highly spoken of by all the Jews who lived” in Damascus. God did not send Paul a gentile Christian or an impious Jew who has gone over to a new religion. We all know former Catholics who have joined a non-denominational church, mosque or synagogue largely because they never knew their own Catholic faith. Ananias was not such a man. He was educated, observant and respected as a devout Jew. Although we know nothing of Ananias’ decision to follow Jesus, we can be sure it made perfect sense to him.

Ananias spoke to the stricken convert with his own familiar Jewish name, Saul. (Paul was his Greek name.) And he restored his sight. He need not be blind for the rest of his life! The blindness was just a demonstration of Jesus’ authority and, perhaps, a result of Paul’s astonishment.

And then Ananias used a familiar Jewish expression, “the God of our ancestors.” The first revealed name of God, before the tetragrammaton YHWH, was “the God of our Ancestors.”
In the coming days, months and years Saint Paul would reexamine everything he knew about his Jewish religion. He would discover that it all made sense in the light of Jesus. In fact, Jesus brought light and joy and finality to a story that always seemed incomplete.

After he had helped Saul reconnect to his past, Ananias revealed his future, you will be his witness before all to what you have seen and heard.”

The Lord in his great kindness respects our integrity. Our past, present and future must finally be integrated into a gospel story, like those of Ananias and Paul. That is the promise of Jesus’ gospel. Caught up in his life, ours makes sense. He is the keystone of the arch, the foundation stone upon which our lives hold together. 

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

Jesus went up the mountain and summoned those whom he wanted
and they came to him.
He appointed Twelve, whom he also named Apostles,
that they might be with him
and he might send them forth to preach
and to have authority to drive out demons…

When medieval minstrels sang their lays to the aristocrats of their time, they sang of King Jesus with his round table of apostolic knights. Even today it is not hard to imagine the Son of David dubbing his disciples as knights. They will establish, once and for all, the Kingdom of God. If we’re willing to see his rule as entirely spiritual, we can believe in that new regime.

But the question remains, “How real is spiritual?” When I meet with Veterans who are setting out on the way of sobriety some of them occasionally object, “I don’t buy this spiritual stuff.” Spiritual is unreal to them; it’s religion without substance, or somebody’s eclectic menagerie of images and ideas framed by wishful thinking.

 “Religion,” I explain, “is for people who are afraid of going to hell; spirituality is for those who have been there.”

That might not persuade them. Many Veterans and millions of people like them would be happy with a chemical solution. They want a drug to fix them. It should reduce their desire to drink, or render them invulnerable to intoxication, or even make alcohol loathsome for them. Chemicals help some people for a while. It may provide a respite from alcohol craving and a period of relative peace of mind.

But, like Lady Macbeth’s damned spot, unaddressed spiritual issues always come back. Spirituality is, in fact, more real than any kind of chemical.

The fellowship of Jesus’ knights begins when he summons them and they come to him. It continues as they remain with him. Saint Mark says, “…he also named apostles; that they might be with him.” Their fellowship is quite real. It will shape their social and political standing; it will both uproot and heal their relationships; it will demand their entire allegiance as a matter of life and death.

Those who prefer chemicals over spirituality prefer isolation over community. They want to go it alone. Perhaps, after hard experience, they fear betrayal. Perhaps they have certain ambitions and goals they will not share with others. Perhaps they have contempt for other people in general; and expect, once they have mastered their own desires, to establish themselves in luxury and ease over other people.

Jesus’ way leads to fellowship and membership with others. Like gravity and a mother's love, it brings us back to earth. 

Thursday of the Second week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 314

See Collects for January
for St Marianne Cope collect
And whenever unclean spirits saw him they would fall down before him and shout, “You are the Son of God.”
He warned them sternly not to make him known.

A major theme of Saint Mark’s gospel is the mystery of Jesus’ identity. The crowds, the Pharisees and scribes, and Jesus’ disciples will wonder, “Who is this guy?” Jesus will ask his disciples, “Who do people say I am?”

The hearers of the Gospel, that is those who hear it proclaimed in their assemblies, know from the get-go. They would not be there in church if they didn’t. They are baptized and confirmed and celebrate the Eucharist weekly. The Evangelist makes no secret of it to them; the title of this book is found in its first verse, “…the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

The Church will reflect on this statement and eventually develop extremely sophisticated formulas that help us ponder the mystery. But it remains mysterious.

In this early passage of the Gospel the demons correctly identify Jesus but they cannot know him. Or, at best, they only know his authority as his spoken word compels them out of possessed victims. They do not know his tender mercy.

Only the obedient, loving heart can know Jesus. That heart speaks to the mind but the mind can only use words to make sense of what it hears. It says words like “God” and “Son of God.”

People who insist that the mind should govern the heart and understand everything the heart knows take their stand far from Jesus. They let the heart cool its ardor until it's exhausted and cold. They remain suspicious of anything that smacks of freedom or generosity. They want control.

The Christian obeys the heart. She trusts the revealed mystery and bends the knee upon hearing Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

Day of Prayer for the Legal Protection of Unborn Children

Lectionary: 313

Then he said to the Pharisees,
“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.
Looking around at them with anger
and grieved at their hardness of heart,
Jesus said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.”

It is impossible to read this miracle story without recalling the oft-repeated phrase of the Old Testament, “with mighty hand and outstretched arm.” We hear it in the most-often celebrated story of Passover, when the Lord delivered the Hebrews from Egypt. God and Moses stretched out their arms and the land was struck with plagues, the sea was opened and Pharaoh with his army of chariots perished.

In today’s gospel story the sick man and Jesus vanquish their enemies. Then the Pharisees, driven to madness, do the unthinkable – they work on the Sabbath with the intention of destroying Jesus.

Catholics and Christians throughout the United States today join in prayer for the Legal Protection of Unborn Children. We remember that children have a right to life, care, protection, education and married parents who love one another. To deny any of these rights to a child intentionally is serious injustice.

Abortion is not just an American problem. Nearly every nation sanctions abortion as a method of birth control. The Catholic Church is the only organization with sufficient moral authority and international recognition to protest. It also seems to be the only institution that can recognize the inevitable consequences of abortion – the disintegration of the family, the atomization of society and the increase of violence.

The Hebrews recognized God’s strong hand and outstretched arm in plagues that fell upon Egypt, Israel and Judea. Can we ignore today's plagues of drug abuse, suicide, sporadic shootings and international terrorism? Might these be the predictable consequences of abortion, of entire nations hardening their hearts and using violence to solve their problems?

What can be the point of terrorism? What can anyone hope to accomplish by the killing of defenseless humans? True, they garner international attention, but to what end? The terrorists make no apparent demands. Their tactics are sometimes brilliantly conceived and executed. Do they create havoc to show it can be done?

Hobbyists create computer viruses to that end, or so they say. But "they do not know what they are doing." They work mindlessly, without moral constraint, unaware of the evil spirit that speaks through them. 

Just as Pharaoh acted irrationally when the Lord hardened his heart, abortion, violence and terrorism work havoc today. God has hardened their hearts as he hardened the hearts of the Pharisees who hated Jesus.

When we are ready to turn back to God and welcome every child we will know peace. 

Saint Agnes, Lamb of God

Lectionary: 312

R. I have found David, my servant.
...with my holy oil I have anointed him,
That my hand may be always with him,
and that my arm may make him strong.”
R. I have found David, my servant.

The study of the Bible, our constant return to it, our hearing it in our daily and weekly liturgies, and our frequent references to it in conversation shape our imagination and our understanding of who we are. 

We are "People of the Book." We are people with roots and memories of ancient, even prehistoric, times. When we think of great men and women we skip right past Babe Ruth and Roger Maris, George Washington and Napoleon, into early times of Abraham, Moses and David, Sarah, Mariam, Bathsheba. We remember like yesterday the stories of Jesus, Mary, Joseph, Peter, Paul, John the Baptist; and we cannot ignore the presence of saints and martyrs from Stephen to Agnes to Edith Stein and Theresa of Calcutta. 

Our scriptures today take us back to an incident in Bethlehem when the old man Samuel anointed the shepherd boy David -- the youngest and least impressive of Jesse's son -- as the king of Israel. It was, at the time, a most strange gesture. Saul was already the king with sufficient power to hold his authority and squelch any challengers. If he had the divine anointing from the last judge, Samuel, he also had the loyalty of his warriors and the gratitude of the people. They were singing his praises and wearing the spoil he had captured. 

But God had rejected Saul and transferred his favor to David. The obedient Samuel secretly carried out his mission and anointed the boy, then laid low to watch how events might transpire. Sometimes that's all the religious authorities can do: we declare this practice or that attitude immoral and wait to see what comes next. We have no authority to punish and would prefer not to have it. 

Over a century ago, in the United States, the Catholic Church awkwardly denounced divorce. For a while we excommunicated divorcees, men and women. When that didn't stop the rising tide the bishops lifted the excommunication and simply refused to honor the ensuing marriages (often multiple) of divorced persons. They could not foresee wide-spread abortion, birth control, gay marriage and gender confusion as the punishment for divorce but they knew it was a curse upon the land. 

With our ancient memory we understand such things. We remember the fidelity of God and his stern discipline. His tender mercy forgives sin but cannot condone it. Saul broke with the Lord and his way of holiness. He was behaving like any other king and his warriors were as savage as those of other nations. 

So God announced to Samuel and Jesse and the world, 

R. I have found David, my servant.
...with my holy oil I have anointed him,
That my hand may be always with him,
and that my arm may make him strong.”

R. I have found David, my servant.

Monday of the Second Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 311

“Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them?
As long as they have the bridegroom with them they cannot fast. But the days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast on that day.

When I was a boy Catholics never ate meat on Friday. Even when Christmas fell on Friday we dared not indulge in turkey, chicken or ham. Not even the lowly hotdog was acceptable. The Spirit of Christmas, it seemed, is well and good but “Rules are Rules!” and we cannot amend them to suit our preferences. Catholics could not afford to relax their discipline lest the Protestants say, “Aha! Good! Our eyes have seen it!”

Today’s gospel reminds us there is a time for everything. The wedding guests do not fast while the bridegroom is with them; but they will fast later, when he is taken from them.

How do we know which authority to obey especially when dealing with God?

In today’s reading from the First Book of Samuel we hear history’s first quarrel between church and state. The prophet and the king seriously disagree about the best course of action. Saul rewards the soldiers who have fought with him; Samuel demands stricter discipline. Warriors for the Lord, he maintains, are not permitted to plunder defeated enemies. Predictably, the prophet invokes the higher virtue of unquestioning obedience. Saul is a soldier; he should know that.

You'll recall from last Friday's first reading, Samuel never did like the idea of kingship though he had a certain fatherly affection for Saul.

“Does the LORD so delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as in obedience to the command of the LORD? Obedience is better than sacrifice, and submission than the fat of rams.

There's a lot to be said for obedience. I remember debates in my novice class whether we should bury the turnips upside down if the novice master told us to. (I can only suppose he used the example; I wouldn't know which end of the turnip is up.) On the one hand, a man should use his own common sense. On the other, we should do what the Man says.

Almost fifty years later I arrive at the conclusion that, I think, agrees with the insight of a much younger man, Saint Francis of Assisi. I should do what the superior tells me so that I won't do what I want. Not that what I want is bad; it's just not important. If the only reason I like my opinion is that it's my opinion, I should drop it like a hot potato, or turnip. My salvation is with the community; doing things my way won't get me there.

There's a handy principle there. Eating fish on Christmas Day probably never killed anyone.

Second Sunday in Ordinary Time

John testified further, saying, “I saw the Spirit come down like a dove from heaven and remain upon him.

…and the dove came back to him in the evening, and there in its beak was a freshly plucked olive leaf; so Noah knew that the waters had subsided from the earth. (Genesis 8:11)

Leave the towns, and live on the rock, O inhabitants of Moab! Be like the dove that nests on the sides of the mouth of a gorge. Jeremiah 48.28

The turtle dove of biblical fame resembles our Mourning Dove, a graceful flyer that brightens the spring morning with its call. They seem more peaceful than mournful. In American political discourse, and from ancient times the dove is honored as a peace-loving creature who flees trouble. It is probably the dove who prays,

For he will hide me in his shelter
in the day of trouble;
he will conceal me under the cover of his tent;
he will set me high on a rock.
(Psalm 27:5)

Likewise, he is the bird in Psalm 11,
In the LORD I take refuge; how can you say to me, “Flee like a bird to the mountains!”

When we see the timid bird descend upon Jesus we know he is the Prince of Peace. The dove takes shelter under his wings.
Say to the LORD, “My refuge and fortress, my God in whom I trust.” He will rescue you from the fowler’s snare, from the destroying plague, He will shelter you with his pinions,and under his wings you may take refuge; his faithfulness is a protecting shield. Psalm 91:2-4

I am reading David Kilcullen's book, Out of the Mountains: The Coming Age of the Urban Guerrilla. He looks at the present state of conflicts in the world and future possibilities. Given the continuing population growth, the flight to the cities, especially coastal cities, and still expanding electronic connectivity, we can expect future threats not from nation states but from non-governmental organizations.

Terrorists, organized crime and common thieves already have enormous power to disrupt everyday life. We saw last April how two men shut down Boston for several days -- for no particular reason that concerned Bostonians. Kilcullen looks at the deep roots of violence that run through our poverty-stricken cities and describes how it erupts in unexpected places. 
Clearly there is no security apparatus so effective and there is no place so isolated that it will never experience mayhem. 

Pope Paul VI startled the world a half-century ago when he spoke to the United Nations, "If you want peace, work for justice." Justice begins by creating and living by just laws. The just person has no need to live better than anyone else. We have seen that consistently demonstrated in the life of every saint and nearly everyone who makes a difference in this world. 

By his cross Jesus taught the world the way of peace. Violence stopped with him. He would not avenge himself on anyone. Neither he nor his Church can hate anyone. 

The Spirit of Peace descended upon Jesus in the form of a dove and rests upon him. 

Saturday of the First Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 310

While he was at table in his house,
many tax collectors and sinners sat with Jesus and his disciples;
for there were many who followed him.
Some scribes who were Pharisees saw that Jesus was eating with sinners
and tax collectors and said to his disciples,
“Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
Jesus heard this and said to them,
“Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do.
I did not come to call the righteous but sinners.”

It has been my privilege to belong to several ministerial associations throughout my career. With the oils of ordination still fresh on my hands I pondered and discussed the scriptures with Catholic and Protestant ministers in Carey, Ohio. I attended the meetings of both black and white ministers in Jennings, Louisiana. (Yes, they met separately.) I met with the local ministers in Prior Lake, Minnesota although, because I worked in the retreat center, there was little overlap between my work and theirs. Most importantly, I have served in two hospitals with Protestant clergy, men and women.

While the interest in ecumenism among Catholic leaders has ebbed and flowed, I have continued to meet, sup, work and pray with colleagues across denominational lines. The experience has taught me gratitude for my Catholic tradition and reverence for the faith of Christians. With Saint Paul I grieve the divisions among us. He asked his people in Corinth, “Has Christ divided us?” (I Cor 1:13)

Today the Catholic Church joins with many Protestant churches in a week of prayer for Christian Unity. On this particular Saturday we hear of Jesus’ calling Saint Matthew, his enthusiastic response and the dinner that followed.

Remarkably, the table was crowded with tax collectors and sinners. I say remarkably because the Pharisees remarked very loudly about it. They didn’t like what they were seeing; they could not imagine what it might mean.

I have seen two kinds of Christian: hobbyists and lifers. Both enjoy the practice of the religion; both get a kick out of prayer, study and communal worship. The hobbyists are afraid of hell; the lifers have been there. The lifers are fighting for their life, the hobbyists feel entitled to it. Hobbyists accentuate the purity of their beliefs; lifers welcome everyone who fears damnation. Jesus called the groups righteous and sinners, and he preferred sinners.

As a very young priest I would sometimes go out on the playground and play roughhouse with the boys. They could come at me en masse and I would toss them all to the ground. It was great fun and everybody was having a ball until some wise guys decided they should be on my side. Then a melee would break out, boys fighting boys. Inevitably someone would get hurt and it wasn’t fun anymore.

The righteous want to be on Jesus’ team, fighting sinners. That’s not the way it works. He is in there with us, wrestling us away from our evil thoughts, words and deeds, naming our sins and calling us to holiness. So long as we contend with him in this love match, confessing our sins and atoning for wrongdoing, everybody wins. But when I decide I should fight on the side of righteousness, that I am better than others, one of the Jesus' special friends, I lose my connection to him.

Has Christ divided us? So long as we confess our sins as one, without distinction or privilege, he holds us together in love.

Memorial of Saint Anthony, Abbot

Lectionary: 309

Samuel was displeased when they asked for a king to judge them. He prayed to the LORD, however, who said in answer: “Grant the people’s every request. It is not you they reject, they are rejecting me as their king.”

Samuel delivered the message of the LORD in full to those who were asking him for a king. He told them: “The rights of the king who will rule you will be as follows:
He will take your sons and assign them to his chariots and horses, and they will run before his chariot….

It’s not hard to hear the complaint of the Tea Party in Samuel’s protest about “the rights of the king.” Where they complain today about the invasion of the federal government, Samuel foresaw with a prophet's vision the future king's encroachments.

We know, of course, that the popular demand for a king prevailed. First Saul and then David were anointed as kings. Eventually both priests and prophets would hail David as the divinely appointed king whose "house" would never fail. David's descendants ruled in Jerusalem for over four hundred years. When history finally brought them down, the prophets predicted the Messiah would come from his line.
But Samuel's murmuring against human authority would remain a vital element of the Jewish tradition and of our Christian tradition. It persists in the “checks and balances” of the American Constitution with its three branches of government. No one should have too much authority.

Standing before Pontius Pilate, Jesus would quietly remind the Roman procurator, “You would have no power over me if it had not been given to you from above.” (John 19:11) Whether Pilate understood Jesus’ referent as the Lord or Caesar, he had to hear the rebuke, “You are only a man like me. Don’t kid yourself.”

God may anoint a man, a church or a government with authority, but he may as quickly strip them of it – as happened to King Saul.
The LORD said to Samuel: How long will you grieve for Saul, whom I have rejected as king of Israel? Fill your horn with oil, and be on your way. I am sending you to Jesse of Bethlehem, for from among his sons I have decided on a king. (I Samuel 16:1)

When religious people invoke the authority of God, their critics remind them of the "man-made" nature of our traditions. More astute critics of the scriptures understand they are man-made documents; to which the Church replies, “They are nonetheless divinely inspired, inerrant and infallible.” And then we labor to interpret them as spiritually infallible.

This is a sacred polarity in our tradition. On the one hand, we need authority and we honor those whom God has placed over us. So long as there are people we will need leaders to help us survive; and we will need organization, discipline and cooperation among their followers. 
On the other hand, every human authority is limited. No authority can claim infallibility – as governments, families, businesses, sports officials and churches invariably do. Always we listen for the Spirit which may counsel obedience today and resistance tomorrow.
Given this situation, we welcome the Holy Spirit to guide us. At times we should cooperate; at others, we should resist; always we should be alert and watchful for God's authority.  We pray for our leaders, support them, forgive their shortcomings, trust them as far as they deserve and challenge them when necessary.

Thursday of the First Week in Ordinary Time

The Philistines fought and Israel was defeated; every man fled to his own tent.
It was a disastrous defeat, in which Israel lost thirty thousand foot soldiers.
The ark of God was captured, and Eli’s two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, were among the dead.

The four books of Samuel and Kings are considered part of the Deuteronomic history, including the Book of Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges and parts of Jeremiah. The authors interpret the troubled history of Israel from the conquest of Canaan to the fall of Jerusalem as a morality story. God rewards virtue and punishes wickedness.

In today’s story from I Samuel, we can hear the historians’ satisfaction in the battle deaths of Eli’s sons, Hophni and Phinehas. These men had a most honorable father but they were greedy and power hungry. Plus the Hebrews assumed God must fight for them against the Philistines; his Ark of the Covenant could be used as a weapon. The historians saw the ensuing defeat as God’s punishment for impiety. The Ark would return to Shilow on its own without Jewish assistance, as the humble oxen obeyed the Spirit of God.

It is not easy to read recent history through the lens of Deuteronomy. Veterans ask, "Why did we win every battle in Vietnam and lose the war? Were we not fighting for the good, true and just? Weren’t the Communists set on the destruction of the United States and all civilization? Does God not punish the wicked and reward the just?"

I do not pretend to answer “the question of evil.” (If God is all powerful and all good, why do evil things happen?) But I recognize and honor it. If good is not rewarded and evil is not punished then our faith is empty. Many Veterans have seen naked, horrifying evil. They suffer a “moral injury” which cannot be treated with medicines and may not respond to psychological treatment. They may learn to cope with PTSD, but their moral injury sabotages every effort, ambition and relationship.

Without the assurance that good will be rewarded, why sacrifice anything? Events seem totally random. Nothing good comes of good effort and evil can invade from any direction. Why vote? Why marry? Why care for children or the elderly? Why volunteer for worthy causes? Why endure the suffocating presence of other people in churches, companies or clubs.

There is little solid research about “moral injury.” Apparently, it may follow any traumatic incident, especially where the law breaks down; war, drive-by shootings, gang violence, rape, assault, incest and so forth.

I have not suffered that moral injury. I have not lived in a war zone even for a few minutes, or on a legal frontier between law and barbarism. I have always lived within a law-abiding society and the thin blue line police draw around me. I don’t know what goes on outside it. My faith in right and wrong, reward and punishment has not been shaken by bitter experience.

Confronted with the incredulity of those who have lost faith, I cannot take their experience as my own. That would honor neither of us. Rather, I turn to prayer and scripture. I hear again the reassuring promises on every page of the Bible.

Pope Francis has written of the Blessed Mother:
285. On the cross, when Jesus endured in his own flesh the dramatic encounter of the sin of the world and God's mercy, he could feel at his feet the consoling presence of his mother and his friend.

Mary, prayer, the Scriptures and the Holy Spirit continually repeat the reassuring promise of God. Every fourth Tuesday, during the Office of Readings, we read the 37th Psalm.

Refrain from anger; abandon wrath; do not be provoked; it brings only harm. Those who do evil will be cut off, those who wait for the LORD will inherit the earth. Wait a little, and the wicked will be no more; look for them and they will not be there. The poor will inherit the earth, they will delight in great prosperity. (Psalm 37: 8-11)

With hope restored I approach my day, the friars and the hospital again, saying with the Lord, "I am here."