Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 72

...gird your loins;
stand up and tell them
all that I command you.
Be not crushed on their account,
as though I would leave you crushed before them;
for it is I this day
who have made you a fortified city,
a pillar of iron, a wall of brass,
against the whole land:
against Judah’s kings and princes,
against its priests and people.
They will fight against you but not prevail over you,
for I am with you to deliver you, says the LORD.

The Gospel last week celebrated Jesus inaugural address in his hometown of Nazareth and the astonished reception of his neighbors, friends and family: the eyes of all in the synagogue looked intently at him. Today's gospel picks up that story, "And all spoke highly of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth." 

However, there was a lot more going on than this congregation could imagine or understand. They were happy that their native son was famous and respected, but they were not prepared to follow him as another Jeremiah, that loneliest of prophets. They did not suppose that everything they knew of their religion, their families, their occupations and their finances would be turned upside by this Son of Joseph.

He saw their reaction coming before they made it. They were about to say, "‘Do here in your native place the things that we heard were done in Capernaum.’”

They wanted entertainment.

Recently, I heard a radio commentator talking about a Republican debate; he spoke without irony of how entertaining it was. I wasn't sorry I missed it. If I want entertainment, I don't turn to politics. And yet many people use the television only for entertainment, they expect their teachers and politicians to entertain them; they attend the most entertaining Christian churches and consider themselves fed by its pyrotechnics. Do they suppose Jesus was born in poverty and died on a cross for their amusement?

How much entertainment does one need? Would two hours a week suffice, with the rest of one's time spent in work (job, volunteer, chores, etc.), conversation, study and prayer? 

More? Four hours a week? Some people watch two hours a day -- that is one month per year -- to relax. When do they say their prayers, study their religion, get their exercise, attend to their loved ones or get their rest? 

Saint Augustine complained about his "addiction" to the Roman circuses. He would have understood our world today very well. Even as he watched, the great city of Rome collapsed before barbarian armies. 

As we set out for the deep we should wean ourselves of entertainment and resolve to live more fully. Jesus did not come to entertain. He described his mission thus: 
I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly.

Collect for 4th Sunday of Ordinary Time

Grant us O Lord our God,
That we may honor you with all our mind,
And love everyone in truth of heart.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.

Saturday of the Third Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 322

“Quiet! Be still!”

Several years ago I was hospitalized and obsessively worried about how the hospital bills might be paid. At one time a priest, religious brother or sister could appear in any Catholic hospital, doctor’s office or dentist's office and receive free treatment. But when I was hospitalized in 1981 the times were changing and I was very worried.
Not only was I worried but I worried everyone else about it until finally a nurse said, “Oh, shut up!”

And I did.
I heard authority in her voice, born of love and impelled by anger.

Sometimes being reasonable just doesn’t cut it; we need to be cowed by authority. Or, if you prefer, awed.
When the Prophet Nathan confronted David with his murder and adultery, the king heard the angry voice of God. This was the same God who had promised him a house forever, whose descendants would always rule in Jerusalem. This was the ancestor of Jesus who “saw from afar” the approach of the Messiah. But he needed and got a severe rebuke from the Lord, via Nathan, and he responded immediately, “I have sinned against the Lord.”

And then he received a most severe punishment, “…the child born to you must surely die.”
In today’s gospel we watch as Jesus commands the wind and the sea to settle down. His disciples, who were terrified by the storm, now realize they are being led by an even more terrifying authority – one who can laugh and tease them for their lack of faith.

What are they to make of him? We can only imagine their bewilderment.
When we invite Jesus to “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening,” we can expect many assurances and occasional rebukes. In either case the sound of his voice gladdens the heart and calms the soul.

Friday of the Third Week of Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 321

“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.
Of its own accord the land yields fruit,
first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear.
And when the grain is ripe, he wields the sickle at once,
for the harvest has come.”

A good story has a beginning, middle and end with a large dollop of drama. The drama arouses curiosity in the listener's or reader's mind. How will this story end? Will this hurdle be surmounted? Can anything good come of this predicament? The audience must wait for the resolution. 
In today's first parable we find a beginning, middle and end -- but where's the drama? This has all the suspense of a children's bedtime story. If you feel comfortable with this story of a farmer and you fall asleep before it ends you won't have missed anything
So what's wrong with bedtime stories? 
I like the reassurance of this story. 
The Lord has everything in hand. 
Who is the farmer? It might be the Lord. Or it might be me, or you. But it doesn't matter because this is a story about the Kingdom of God and we're doing his work while he does ours. 
Do you know how the kingdom of God will come about? 
Neither do I. 
But that's okay. The older I get the less I know about outcomes and consequences. If I ever thought I could predict the future, I realize now the future I foresaw has passed. That train has left the station; the ship has sailed. 
But I am all the more sure of God's fidelity. If he sent me out to sow seeds then a harvest will certainly come. When hardly matters. 
I am grateful for the part I have been given. 
The only thing better than satisfaction for a good night's sleep is gratitude. 

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

Lectionary: 320

He also told them, “Take care what you hear.
The measure with which you measure will be measured out to you, and still more will be given to you.
To the one who has, more will be given; 
from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away."

Saint Ignatius observed that we tire of thanking God long before he tires of giving to us! It only takes a moment of reflection to affirm that.

“Count your blessings instead of sheep” crooned Bing Crosby, “and you’ll fall asleep counting your blessings.”

Unfortunately, as I consider God’s generosity, I notice my penny-pinching parsimony toward others. There are always good reasons for that -- if I consider my rationalizations as reasonable.

Therapists in the hospital tell me the C-PAP machine which assists a patient’s inhaling, also aids one’s exhale. The passage that is gently forced open by the inrush of air remains open for the outflow. Relieved of its excess carbon dioxide the body rebounds.

Likewise, I suppose, if I were more generous toward others I would receive all the more from God.

Jesus describes an accelerating cycle of receptivity and generosity, “To the one who has, more will be given…” and a decelerating cycle of stinginess, “from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away."

I think of Saint Francis who seemed way out front of the friars in his trust in God and generosity to others. He is like a man standing within inches of a bonfire as the rest of us, twenty feet behind him, cannot take a single step forward. We’re shouting to him, “You go brother!” but he is weeping, “Love is not loved; love is not loved.” He knows what we can hardly imagine, that God’s graces are infinitely beyond our willingness to give or receive.

There is so much more that God wants to give to the willing.

Wednesday of the Third Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 319

“Go, tell my servant David, ‘Thus says the LORD: Should you build me a house to dwell in?
I have not dwelt in a house from the day on which I led the children of Israel out of Egypt to the present, but I have been going about in a tent under cloth.

The Athenians built one of the most beautiful buildings in the world for their goddess Athena; she lived in the Parthenon. I understand they didn’t actually visit with her there; the presence of this majestic building on the hilltop satisfied the lofty deity and her votaries. During festivities the priests went there to offer sacrifices; during crises everybody turned to her.
In the 1950’s, when I grew up, the church was God’s house. It was always unlocked and Jesus wanted us to pay him a visit. The nuns told us he was lonely in the tabernacle. Men returning from work, women with rambunctious toddlers, children with bicycles, teens with their sweethearts, athletes looking for a victory, widows looking for comfort: before the drug epidemics Catholic churches were open houses where God lived and people prayed privately. The open door and the sanctuary lamp assured us of God’s presence. Even if you didn’t have time to pay a visit you signed yourself with the Cross as you drove past the church.
If God’s displeasure rests upon us for the crime of abortion, the locked churches are a punishment almost too heavy to bear. 
However, today’s reading assures us the Lord does not need a house. Always, the believer finds signs of God's abiding nearness. Catholics leave our signs everywhere; our homes are marked by statues, crucifixes and icons. 

The Lord always finds a place to be near us but prefers the heart of a believer. 
Whoever loves me will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our dwelling with him.

Memorial of Saints Timothy and Titus, Bishops

Lectionary: 520/318

Here are my mother and my brothers.
For whoever does the will of God
is my brother and sister and mother.”

Several years before she died my mother took up daily reading of the Bible, three chapters each day. I happened to be at home while she was reading Saint Paul's letters. Although she had little more than the footnotes of her Saint Joseph edition to inform her reading of these ancient texts, she enjoyed this affectionate, opinionated, fiercely loyal, irascible, utterly fearless saint. 

If Saint Paul liked you, you had a friend for life. If he didn't, you'd best avoid his company. Fortunately he liked a lot of people and was loved by many more, including those who pick up his letters many centuries later.

Saint Paul knew the Body of Christ as his friends, disciples and fellow travellers. It was never a "mystical body" to him, but a very real, sweaty, short-sighted, enthusiastic, courageous group of people. They were men and women, old and young. He knew individuals and their families, as he demonstrates in his second letter to Timothy, referring to his grandmother Lois and his mother Eunice. 

Speaking of his disciples, Saint Francis would share Paul's vision of church when he said, "The Lord gave me brothers." In Kentucky we might say, "you fellows" or in New Jersey, "youse guys." The Church is -- quite simply -- people. 

When I want to know what is God like I look at the community I live with. If I want to show God my love I go the extra mile for someone near to me. 

We begin each Mass with, "The Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the Love of God and the Communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all." 

If we happen to open our eyes and see the communion at that moment, we will know what Saint Paul knew, and what Jesus was talking about when he said, 
“Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul, Apostle

On that journey as I drew near to Damascus, about noon a great light from the sky suddenly shone around me. I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to me, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’ I replied, ‘Who are you, sir?’
And he said to me, ‘I am Jesus the Nazorean whom you are persecuting.’
My companions saw the light but did not hear the voice of the one who spoke to me.
I asked, ‘What shall I do, sir?’
The Lord answered me, ‘Get up and go into Damascus, and there you will be told about everything  appointed for you to do.’

In the moment of revelation, despite his astonishment and perplexity, Saint Paul managed to ask two questions, “Who are you, Sir?” and “What shall I do, Sir?”
Scripture scholars, theologians and hagiographers can debate whether Saul of Tarsus was a good man doing the wrong thing or a vicious ideologue bent on doing evil but, in either case, his training stood him in good stead when something got a hold of him. He knew enough to address the brilliant light and commanding voice as “Sir!”

But who was speaking to him? He was paralyzed until the Voice of tender mercy responded, “I am Jesus the Nazorean whom you are persecuting.”
Apparently, in that moment, Paul realized the meaning of the name, Jesus. The name chosen by God and revealed to both Mary and Joseph means, Savior, "for he shall save his people from their sins."
Lots of people then and now have that name but there is only one Jesus and the over-zealous Pharisee met him on the road to Damascus.
Then he asked the second important question, What shall I do, Sir?”
Selfie on an overcast day in murky water
Why is it so difficult to cultivate that sense of humility? Rene Girard, in his book on Shakespeare, The Theater of Envy, points out that, at least since the time of the Bard, people think: 
  • “If I want it, I should have it;" 
  • “If they want it, it must be right for them;” and even, 
  • "It's not fair that I cannot have what I want!" 
That presumption causes a great deal of suffering, and it wouldn’t be that difficult to suppose the exact opposite, “If I want it, it’s probably not right.” Everybody knows our desires and druthers are as changeable as the weather, and yet we’ll fight like badgers for what we want at this particular moment, convinced of its rightness.

Saint Paul asked precisely the right question, “What shall I do, Sir?” Many centuries later, Saint Francis would ask the same question, "What do you want me to do?"
Interestingly, both were given instructions as to what to do right now, and then assured, "You will be told what to do." 
Both needed a lot more time and preparation before they were ready to begin an entirely new way of life. At those early moments it was enough to hear God say, "What you think you want has been entirely wrong! Chew on that for a while -- and I'll get back to you."

Third Sunday in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 69

Since many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as those who were eyewitnesses from the beginning and ministers of the word have handed them down to us, I too have decided,
after investigating everything accurately anew, to write it down in an orderly sequence for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may realize the certainty of the teachings you have received.

Some time ago I read an essay by a Buddhist or Hindu sage in the Times of India. (How I got there I have no idea.) The author argued that the world's religions could get along much better, and we could readily find common agreements, if the west would only give up its fixation on the first century mideast.

Thomas Jefferson would have agreed wholeheartedly. He had no use for the miracles of the Bible. In his own edition of the new and old testaments, he cut out everything that didn't sound reasonable by his logic. His Christian religion was a a collection of adages, proverbs and helpful hints without anchorage in any historical event or geographical place. So far as that Founding Father was concerned, Jesus was a wise man by the standards of his time, and should take his place among the great philosophers of the ancient past, men like Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and Marcus Aurelius.

Saint Luke expressly disagrees with those teachings. That's not how the Spirit works. He intentionally anchors the Gospel in a very specific time and place. We can well imagine the hearers of this gospel recalling where they were and what they were doing "at that time;" specifically,
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias was tetrarch of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas...
Though his chronology is difficult for us to place in our calendar because we have lost whatever records the Romans kept of that time and place, there is no question that a very specific person named Jesus, the son of Mary of Nazareth and Joseph of Bethlehem, lived, died and was raised up on the third day.

Without that fact, Christianity would be utter nonsense, as the Athenians suggested to Saint Paul when he told them about Jesus' rising from the dead.
When they heard about resurrection of the dead, some began to scoff, but others said, “We should like to hear you on this some other time.”
The Evangelists were well aware of myths, the stories that might begin "Once upon a time in a galaxy far, far away...." Myths have their usefulness in any religion but Jesus is not a myth. This actually happened in the too familiar city of Jerusalem in present-day Israel, with its endless history of troubles.

If it didn't then we are not saved. Perhaps our "souls" would be saved but a myth cannot raise our bodies from the dead. If someone sold you the Brooklyn Bridge you might shell out a lot of money and you might have an embossed deed to show for it -- but you wouldn't own the bridge.

Likewise, if Jesus did not live and die and rise up somewhere during the first half of the first century, our faith, hope and love are utterly meaningless. As Saint Paul wrote:
And if Christ has not been raised, then empty [too] is our preaching; empty, too, your faith. (1 Corinthians 15: 14)
Many people of our time have chosen to disbelieve in Jesus. They intend to make a meaningful life out of whatever shreds of religion they can piece together. Good luck to them!

But we who have been called to believe in Jesus Christ live in the confidence that his life is infinitely more important than that of Socrates or Plato, Caesar Augustus or George Washington. We find joy and satisfaction and courage in the Spirit which The Father bestows on those who believe in his name.

Saturday of the Second Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 316

I grieve for you, Jonathan my brother!
most dear have you been to me;
more precious have I held love for you than love for women.

In the Veterans Hospital I have heard of these intense friendships of men who drove themselves into the Vietnamese jungle in search of the enemy. Deep in hostile territory, far from their base camps, sometimes within speaking distance of the unseen enemy but silenced by profound caution they could only trust their brothers. One unwary step, one untoward sound, even the breath of body odor might unleash a firestorm. 

Afterward, in the safety of a camp, or the comfort of their American living rooms, battle buddies do not speak of these things. They cannot revisit feelings that have no words; they can only be with their companions of those unspeakable adventures. 

Their women understand these things. They know there are stories that will never be told, secrets that cannot see the light of day. They do not try to come between the Veterans who share a bond unlike any other. If they are wise these women encourage their reunions for their husbands and lovers who need these gatherings to maintain their sanity. 

This story of David's grief also offers a teaching for Veterans and the rest of us. We can express and celebrate our grief. Traumatized by the Total Wars of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, uncertain of who we are and what we believe after aeons of religious strife and technological upheaval, we have forgotten how to feel our feelings. Veterans are not the only ones who suffer; their children and grandchildren reexperience the war zone in the emotional climate of their homes. 

I watch Catholics attend the Mass who can neither sing nor dance; some cannot even mutter "Amen" or "And with your spirit." They consider themselves free by their entitlement as American citizens, and yet their limbs are locked and their mouths tightly shut when it's time to give God full-throated praise.

Slowly, eventually, like turtles and snails emerging from their shells, we might begin to re-explore the outer world of fellowship and community. Sometimes even a nod or a 'g-mornin' takes enormous courage. To sing in public with one's children seems an impossible hurdle. To allow tears requires the darkness of the cinema or the isolation of one's living room. And yet we find our way. 

The liturgy leads us back to life as we hear and then sing familiar hymns. We open first our hands, then our mouths and finally our hearts to receive the Living God whom David worshipped so lustily. 

The Son of David walks with us, himself a victim of unspeakable trauma and yet raised up to a freedom beyond imagining. As he walks he whispers to us, 
...most dear have you been to me;
more precious have I held love for you than love for women.

Day of Prayer for the Legal Protection of Unborn Children

Have mercy on me, O God; have mercy on me,
for in you I take refuge.
In the shadow of your wings I take refuge,
till harm pass by.

On this day of prayer for the legal protection of unborn children, and during this year of mercy, I find inspiration in the readings assigned to this Friday of the Second Week of Ordinary Time. The Bible is saturated with Mercy and it reminds us daily of our need for mercy.

Our first reading concerns the conflict between King Saul and his lieutenant David. For no apparent reason except the demons in his own mind, Saul took a dislike to David and tried to kill him. David wisely left Saul's camp and led his own band of warriors against their mutual enemy, the Philistines. He would wait for the Lord to fulfill the promise he had made through the anointing of Samuel, that he would succeed King Saul.

Guided by his reverence for God and for the authority of the king, David would not kill Saul even when he had the opportunity handed to him.
The LORD forbid that I should do such a thing to my master,the LORD’s anointed, as to lay a hand on him,for he is the LORD’s anointed.”

Warfare is the last place anyone expects to find mercy, and yet the Scriptures and Jesus insist that we must show reverence, mercy and love even -- perhaps especially -- toward our enemies.

Are unborn babies our enemies? It seems that way to many. Certainly, as the oldest of ten children, I can tell you how a baby changes everything. Where the household was raucous and chaotic, suddenly it became quiet. The word was, "Hush, the baby is asleep."

Where resources were thin, they were more scarce. Time, money, energy, patience -- everything is strained to accommodate the neediest and most demanding among us -- the infant.

When I am unwilling to make sacrifices those who demand them of me seem like enemies. Living alone in the poorer end of town for seven years I met a lot of needy strangers. They came at odd times and always unexpectedly. If I carelessly gave anyone a few bucks, they'd be back the next day -- with their friends. They would take everything I had and then some -- with no more than a nod of thanks. I learned to regard them as "the enemy whom I should love" -- carefully. By definition, an enemy wants more than I can give.

I learned to ration my resources. I was willing to give in a controlled way. If someone needed gas, I'd call my friend Rick at the gas station, describe the car with its license plate, and send the needy over there. If they needed groceries, I'd call Bill at the grocery store and specify how much they could purchase, with the understanding I would not pay for tobacco, alcohol or junk food.

I was willing to help but on my own terms. Those who would not accept those terms -- who wanted cold cash and nothing else -- were turned away. Like our Merciful God, I could give and I could refuse to give, and I preferred courtesy to rudeness, reverence to abuse.

Are babies the enemy? Certainly they are helpless, needy and demanding. Babies also have the advantage of their parents in that they didn't ask to be here. Their parents invited them when they conceived them.

But Americans have strange ways of talking. They say "we fell in love" when they mean we chose to love one another. The say "we got pregnant" when they mean they chose sex with all its consequences. "I found out I was pregnant" a woman says with great surprise. "My girlfriend got pregnant." a fellow says with equal astonishment.Well, yes; that's what you intended, wasn't it? If you habitually overeat you intend to get fat; if you go to bed you intend to fall asleep; if you have sex you intend to have a baby. 
Decisions have consequences and rational, responsible human beings delight in that. It reflects our God-like nature.

Babies are the enemies we learn to love. My mother used to say, "That's why we have nine months to prepare for them." If we were reluctant at first we prayed and asked God to give us eager and generous hearts. If resources were scarce -- and they always were -- we prayed to God our Provider. And we never went hungry.

Faith teaches us that the Lord who directs all things will provide for our needs. Jesus urges us to "Look at the birds of the air." Those who cannot or will not trust in God must despise and destroy their enemies; that is, anyone who demands more than they can provide including their own children.

Since 1972 we have suffered the consequences of abortion -- child abuse, mass shootings, suicide and widespread drug abuse. How many distraught women have screamed at their children, "I should have aborted you; everybody told me that?" How many children have been shocked to hear that; and, despite everything their mothers said afterward, never forgot it?

Confidence in the Mercy of our Providential God welcomes the unborn and the elderly, the orphan, the widow and the stranger.

Collect of the Day of Prayer for the Legal Protection of Unborn Children
God our Creator,
we give thanks to you,
who alone have the power
to impart the breath of life
as you form each of us
in our mother's womb;
grant, we pray, that we,
whom you have made
stewards of creation,
may remain faithful
to this sacred trust
and constant in safeguarding
the dignity of every human life.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ,
your Son, who lives
and reigns with you
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.

Memorial of Saint Agnes, Virgin and Martyr

Lectionary: 314

When David and Saul approached (on David’s return after slaying the Philistine), women came out from each of the cities of Israel to meet King Saul, singing and dancing, with tambourines, joyful songs, and sistrums.
The women played and sang:
“Saul has slain his thousands,
and David his ten thousands.”
Saul was very angry and resentful of the song, for he thought: “They give David ten thousands, but only thousands to me. All that remains for him is the kingship.” And from that day on, Saul was jealous of David.

Rene Girard, a literary critic and philosopher, observed that we learn to want from observing what others want. He called it mimetic (imitation) desire. Put two children in a room with three identical toys and they’ll quarrel over one of them. “I only want what they want!” they might say. There's probably something beneficial in that principle, but it sure causes a lot of trouble. 

Other corollaries of mimetic desire: I want others to want what I want; I want what important people want; if an important person doesn't want it anymore, neither do I. 
Much of advertising and all of fashion is built on imitative desire. If you can persuade a Tiger Wood or Michael Jordan to wear your brand -- no matter how ugly -- people will buy it.

But Girard was more interested in those conflicts of two or more people who want the one thing that cannot be split, divided, or shared. Things like lovers and kingdoms. 
King Saul had not endeared himself to his Hebrew nation despite his conquests, and he didn’t much care about that; but when he saw how the girls were gaga about the young warrior David, he was consumed with jealousy. There was something seriously lacking in his soul, something which David seemed to have. 
Their relationship strongly resembles that of Cain and Abel. Like Saul, Cain was the elder but, for reasons known only to God, the younger men – Abel and David – were preferred. David was certainly a flawed character, as later developments would show; but Saul couldn’t get it right from the start. God had chosen him as king but he ran afoul of God’s blessing almost immediately.
Saul might have yet redeemed himself had he taken a different attitude toward David. He could have been proud of his protégé’s successes and laughed about the women’s songs. He might have supported the great friendship between his son Jonathan and David, allowing God to choose which should succeed him.
But Saul habitually presumed that he knew God’s mind and didn’t hesitate to force God’s hand. Anxious about an ensuing battle and impatient for Samuel’s arrival he presumptively offered sacrifices to God, although he was not a priest. Later he would try to discourage Jonathan’s loyalty to David, reminding his son that he should be suspicious of the shepherd warrior. But God had already chosen David to succeed Saul and Saul’s manipulations only made matters worse. On the day before he died he hired a necromancer to summon the shade of Samuel. With that he violated God's law, his own decree and Samuel's peaceful rest.
David would not kill Saul even when he had just cause and the perfect opportunity; nor would he violate Jonathan's affection. He certainly wanted to be king but he preferred to wait until God worked out his intentions. For his patience he was reward with a privilege given to few monarchs, to die of natural causes at a ripe old age in his own bed. 
Centuries later the wise man Qoheleth would teach us, “There is a time for every purpose under heaven.” As we study God’s ways we learn to “participate, not anticipate.” We learn to act according to the time; to weep with those who weep and laugh with those who laugh. We discover that God makes all the important decisions and most of the minor one. We learn to sail with the Spirit of God through many dangerous, confusing and conflicted straits with God as our steersman.

Wednesday of the Second Week of Ordinary time

David said to Saul:“The LORD, who delivered me from the claws of the lion and the bear, will also keep me safe from the clutches of this Philistine.” 
Saul answered David, “Go! the LORD will be with you.”

I have read much about war and warriors since entering the VA hospital as a chaplain. Recently I read No Easy Day, the autobiography of a Navy Seal by Mark Owen, with its first-hand account of the killing of Osama bin Laden. I have just finished The Heart of Everything That Is, a biography of the Sioux warrior, Red Cloud, by Bob Drury and Tom Clavin.

I can’t say I know much about warriors yet, but Goliath’s boast sounds about right: “Come here to me, and I will leave your flesh for the birds of the air and the beasts of the field.”

David’s response is longer but he is not actually taking on the giant. God is. David goes before the Lord as the shield bearer goes before the Philistine. He unleashes a stone from his sling but God directs the missile into the massive forehead.  Then David ends the fight with Goliath’s own sword.

Just as the Book of Exodus described Pharaoh’s loss before the LORD, so does 1 Samuel describe God’s victory over the Philistines. I find in this text the Christian’s ambivalence about war.

Jesus and his disciples were familiar with soldiers because of the Roman occupation but they were never tempted to take up arms. Like most Americans they counted on others to keep the enemy at bay while they attended to other business. They probably assumed the Pax Romana would last forever as we suppose the Pax Americana will last forever. Why should it end? There was no enemy remotely strong enough to challenge the Roman Empire, as no serious foreign power threatens American hegemony.

In his book, Killing from the Inside Out, Robert Emmet Meagher questions the traditional teaching of just war. He sees it as an accommodation the Church made as it transitioned from a minority religion to a dominant cultural influence. We felt an obligation to justify what kings, emperors and governments do. 

But war is what we have always done. Why justify what we’re going to do anyway? Can we not admit what our children and old people know, that this is wrong? It may be the worse thing we do but it's not the only one. We smoke tobacco, drink to excess, overeat, commit adultery, avoid paying taxes and do all kinds of sinful things; and we have no more control on those indulgences than we have over our impulse to make war. Why use religion to justify it? 

The first Christians would not fight. Saint Martin of Tours resigned his commission upon his conversion. Other Roman soldiers, inspired by the courage of the Christian martyrs, chose to die with the martyrs. One fellow walked out on a frozen lake and and joined the martyrs who had been condemned to die of hypothermia. 
Did David kill Goliath in the name of the Lord, or did he watch as the Lord fought for his people? Was he an extraordinarily good slinger with a stroke of good luck or did the Lord guide that stone to its mark?
As we transition back to a minority with little influence on the dominant culture, should Christians support the American government in its endless wars? Should we take a neutral, pacifist stand like the early Franciscans, and mediate between governments and their enemies? How do we support our troops who are often sons and daughters and members of our congregations? These are tough questions to bring into our daily discipline of discernment. 

Tuesday of the Second Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 312

The LORD said,
“There–anoint him, for this is he!”
Then Samuel, with the horn of oil in hand,
anointed him in the midst of his brothers;
and from that day on, the Spirit of the LORD rushed upon David.

In today’s first reading we hear of David’s anointing by the last of the judges, Samuel. Unlike Saul, his predecessor, David retained a sense of modesty. As the least and last of his brothers he knew that God had chosen him not for his good looks or intelligence or physical strength but for God’s own purposes. As he matured he would learn to trust himself and his abilities with the understanding that God had chosen him to lead the people of God. 

Accepting and wielding authority are often difficult for us. Am I exercising my God-given authority as God directs me or toward my own purposes? Do I do choose something because it appears to be good; or because the Spirit of God has directed me to make that choice? In fact there are usually many “good” options but God may prefer only one. How do I decide?

Samuel was deeply sensitive to God’s will, so much so they seem to be in continual, whispered dialogue with each other. He knew God often chooses the least likely; and surely there was one boy among the seven that Jesse presented who seemed least promising; but still he waited for that other sign, an inner voice that would say, “There – anoint him, for this is he!” To everyone’s surprise it was the eighth boy, the missing one, who was chosen.

Our Holy Father Francis has generated a lot of excitement by his presence and style but I hope he is remembered as the Jesuit pope who introduced discernment to the Church. In his first apostolic exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel, he wrote:

Each Christian and every community must discern the path that the Lord points out, but all of us are asked to obey his call to go forth from our own comfort zone in order to reach all the “peripheries” in need of the light of the Gospel. ¶ 20

To make this missionary impulse ever more focused, generous and fruitful, I encourage each particular Church to undertake a resolute process of discernment, purification and reform. ¶ 30

I encourage everyone to apply the guidelines found in this document generously and courageously, without inhibitions or fear. The important thing is to not walk alone, but to rely on each other as brothers and sisters, and especially under the leadership of the bishops, in a wise and realistic pastoral discernment. ¶ 30

The Original Francis, the one from Assisi, never did anything without much prayer. He was very suspicious of his own desires and would rather wait for days or weeks doing nothing than exercise his own preference. He might have asked, “What good could come of doing what I want to do?”

As we set off into this new year, let us habituate ourselves to God’s presence and listen for the silent voice which will teach us how to do his pleasure.

Monday of the Second Week in Ordinary Time

The Tower Bridge of London
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.

Still excited since posting yesterday's screed, I find in today's gospel from the second chapter of Saint Mark, Jesus' describing himself as the bridegroom.
"Of whom?" we must ask. The Church, of course.

Saint Paul gives a marvelously graphic, if not downright erotic, description of Jesus' tender love for his Church:
Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ loved the church and handed himself over for her to sanctify her, cleansing her by the bath of water with the word, that he might present to himself the church in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. So [also] husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself.
The Book of Revelation also images the Church as the gorgeous Bride of Christ: 
I also saw the holy city, a new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, God’s dwelling is with the human race. He will dwell with them and they will be his people and God himself will always be with them [as their God].

These New Testament images of Jesus as bridegroom and the Church as bride are built upon the tradition of the Hebrew Prophets who realized that the Lord is not an overbearing god who demands unquestioning loyalty and obedience of his entrapped people; he is a tender husband fiercely loyal and jealous of his distracted wife. 

In fact, the tradition goes beyond describing the love of God for his people like a marriage; marriage is the image of God's love for his people. You know nothing whatever about marriage if you have not seen God and Jerusalem, Jesus and his Church. 
  • You might think, as the ancient Hebrews thought and 19th century Mormons thought, that a man could have several wives! Could Jesus have several churches after he prayed "that all might be one?"  The idea is absurd. 
  • You might think that divorce is an option but can God divorce his Church or the Church divorce God? Of course not. God has made an eternal covenant with the Church in the person of Jesus. There is no dissolution of Jesus. 
  • Could God divorce one church to marry another? Neither can a man divorce his wife to marry another. It's unthinkable. 
  • Once divorce becomes a way of life, someone might suppose a man can marry a man; or a woman, marry a woman. Clearly, for them, marriage means whatever they want it to mean, without reference to the Marriage of the Lamb.
  • When marriage is defined without reference to the sexual end of begetting children, a man might marry his brother or his sister
  • As Humpty Dumpty said to Alice, “When I use a word,it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less."
The covenants of marriage, both human and divine, assume that opposites attract. Despite what appears to be a polar opposition they cannot resist their mutual fascination. Divinity has great affection for humanity and humanity is delighted by the divine. Male admires female and female desires the male. 

These polarities find their satisfaction in the one who is born between them, the incarnate fruit of love, an infant which is both human and divine; or the infant which genetically images both parents. 

True marriage, wherever it appears, reflects the love of God and the Church. Isn't it marvelous that we hear stories from all over the world of Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim and Zoroastrian monogamous marriages of loving husbands and wives? Even atheists unite in a covenant of love while denying that their union is founded upon the Heavenly Marriage. 
As Saint Paul said in his letter to the Romans, 
For what can be known about God is evident to them, because God made it evident to them. Ever since the creation of the world, his invisible attributes of eternal power and divinity have been able to be understood and perceived in what he has made. (Romans 1:19-20)
But the days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast on that day.

Jesus warns us that we must be prepared for times like these when marriage is challenged and the bridegroom seems very distant. When a man marries he becomes a husband; that identity cannot be stripped from him like a shirt if his wife is far away. The name husband is his identity. Likewise, a woman becomes a wife, no matter where her husband might be. When they are apart they feel the absence like a bodily discomfort, and that discomfort, like a hunger, proves their belonging to each other. They are, as Jesus said, one body, with one mutual feeling of longing. 

And so we stand upon the heights, eager and hungry, watching for the Bridegroom's return!