Commemoration of the First Roman Martyrs

Lectionary: 380

You say: prophesy not against Israel,
preach not against the house of Isaac.
Now thus says the LORD:
Your wife shall be made a harlot in the city,
and your sons and daughters shall fall by the sword;
Your land shall be divided by measuring line,
and you yourself shall die in an unclean land;
Israel shall be exiled far from its land.

In today's gospel, Jesus heals a paralyzed man by first forgiving his sins. The man had not asked for healing or forgiveness. Saint Matthew said "people" brought him and Jesus seemed to respond to those who carried him.

Clearly, he gave them more than they asked when he forgave the man's sins. If we suppose the man was conscious and fully aware, we can suppose the fellow was so much a part of his circle of friends that their request is obviously his. In that context the Lord's forgiveness of the individual's sin was a recognition that he belonged to a healing, forgiving community. His blessing was the sacramental sign that sanctifies a community that is already blessed.

However, if the man is not fully engaged in his healing -- some interpreters say he was brought in unwillingly by his friends -- Jesus' forgiveness and healing nonetheless opens the way to reconciliation and communion.

If we allow the light of today's first reading and Amos' curse upon Israel into this story we might suppose the paralytic represents the suffering nation. His illness is a punishment upon the nation and typical of his time; much as alcoholism, addiction and suicide are typical of ours. Perhaps this pandemic is God's punishment for legally sanctioned abortion.

Amaziah had complained to the King of Israel, "...the country cannot endure all his words." They were like an ominous shadow hanging over the land, blotting out the sun, poisoning the crops and livestock. The Hebrew prophets knew about "climate change," it came with Israel's sins and God's wrath.

If our nameless paralytic and his unidentified companions are typical of his time, then Jesus' healing forgiveness goes beyond this particular fellow and his malady. It is a clear sign of God's mercy upon the nation. The curse will be lifted; life will return. So says one who has authority to heal and forgive.

Of course, it will cost. Every time Jesus heals someone he generates more enemies; they will catch up with him during the Passover in Jerusalem. If he must restore our Earth's environment to its edenic original state, he must give his life on Calvary.

Recalling the First Martyrs of Ancient Rome, we pray that we who were sent to other nations who, like Rome, worship only power, will be found worthy of their company.

Solemnity of Saint Peter and Paul

Lectionary 591

R. The angel of the Lord will rescue those who fear him.
The angel of the LORD encamps
around those who fear him, and delivers them.
Taste and see how good the LORD is;
blessed the man who takes refuge in him.
R. The angel of the Lord will rescue those who fear him.

One of the gifts of aging is the awareness of frailty. Although 67 is not considered old anymore, particularly not among priests; and although I am in better shape than most people of 67 years: I can say with the comedian, "The older I get, the better I used to be."

With age comes obedience to leaders younger than myself, and the bittersweet memory of having been in leadership positions. I've been there, done that, and got the scars to show for it.

So when we celebrate this Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul I appreciate all the more these mortal men, what they accomplished, and more importantly, what God accomplished with them.

That's why I chose the verse from Psalm 34 to head this essay,

The angel of the LORD encamps around those who fear him, and delivers them.
Amphora, used to ship wine
on Mediterranean ships

The priest, bishop or cardinal foolish enough to accept leadership in the Church must also be wise enough to recognize his own frailty. He has much authority and very little. The great authority invites trouble; the little authority invites futility. The great authority can accomplish many things; the little authority, at the end of the day, wonders if I made any difference at all.

Saint Paul, battered and abused, shipwrecked, hungry, cold and exposed to the elements, saw himself as an earthen vessel, fragile, brittle and inexpensive. If the amphora managed to deliver its load of wine to its destination, it could expect to be smashed and tossed in the street.

He would also say, "I am already being poured out like a libation, and the time of my departure is at hand."

Totally dedicated to the Gospel, Saint Paul knew his own worth. He would not express it in dollars or cents, or with words like greater and lesser. He was grateful God had used him for as long as God chose, and grateful to be gathered into God's presence at the end of his life. Even as the executioner approached he must have whispered,

Taste and see how good the LORD is; blessed are those who take refuge in him.

Memorial of Saint Irenaeus, Bishop and Martyr

Then he got up, rebuked the winds and the sea,
and there was great calm.
The men were amazed and said, “What sort of man is this,
whom even the winds and the sea obey?”

Perhaps you have heard the admonition from the psalms, “Be still and know that I am God.” 

As it’s sung and presented in lithographs and posters, it feels like a lullaby. But, in the original context of Psalm 46 it’s a war cry:

Come and see the works of the Lord,
who has done fearsome deeds on earth;
Who stops wars to the ends of the earth,
breaks the bow, splinters the spear,
and burns the shields with fire;
“Be still and know that I am God!
I am exalted among the nations,
exalted on the earth.”

and then, finally, there is reassurance:

The LORD of hosts is with us;
our stronghold is the God of Jacob.

I think of the scene in the film King Kong when Ann Darrow (played by Naomi Watts) is caught between a T-Rex and a giant ape. If the ape’s intentions are suspicious the lizard’s are perfectly clear. So the heroine wisely retreats to Kong’s safer shelter.

When Jesus rebuked the winds and the seas and they settled into peaceful submission, the disciples realized they were dealing with Serious Authority.

It reminds me again of Abraham watching the column of smoke rising from Sodom and Gomorrah. Only the day before he had been eating, drinking and dickering with this amiable deity!

In a culture obsessed with freedom and choice, our privileged relationship with God is sometimes considered a choice; as in, “take it or leave it.”

The scriptures remind us it’s a choice of life and death, and there is nothing pleasant about death. It will be a serious disappointment for those who see "heroic" possibilities in it. John Milton’s Satan may prefer living in hell to service in heaven but it is hell in any case.

Many people like to tell themselves they are free and they freely choose to worship God in a "free country." But those who experience love realize freedom has nothing to do with it. I have no choice but to return my Lover's gift; he has given me myself! To choose otherwise is death and that's, to put it politely, stupid. 

The Lord of hosts is with us; our stronghold is the God of Jacob.

As I get up each day to serve the Lord, I take courage in God’s presence. Life in the Lord is more than existence; it is energy, enthusiasm, fellowship and pleasure. It is opportunity to discover, experience and enjoy.

We have been grasped by the Lord’s mighty hand, the same hand that fired the sun, formed the earth and watered the seas. We have only to thank God for his love of us.

Saint Cyril of Alexandria

Lectionary: 377

Beware, I will crush you into the ground
as a wagon crushes when laden with sheaves.
Flight shall perish from the swift,
and the strong man shall not retain his strength;
The warrior shall not save his life,
nor the bowman stand his ground;
The swift of foot shall not escape,
nor the horseman save his life.
And the most stouthearted of warriors
shall flee naked on that day, says the LORD.

The Hebrew Prophets addressed Israel and Judah in a turbulent world. These two minor nations lay on the road from Egypt to Assyria and Mesopotamia. Caravans of expensive cloths, spices and ointments moved continually through their neighborhoods. News of distant wars and insurrections, of approaching armies, plague, droughts and famine swept like waves over this vulnerable population.

Their relationship to the great powers of the ancient world may be compared to the relationship between Mexico and United States: When the US sneezes, Mexico catches cold. They knew insecurity; they lived with it. On the rare occasion that they amassed any fortune worth pillaging, it was pillaged by their powerful neighbors. If they supposed the world should be different, they knew it wasn’t.

Their national identity revolved around the story of God’s bringing them out of Egypt. They had been slaves; they were free. They had been exiles; they were now in the homeland God had promised to Abraham and given to them at the time of Moses and Aaron. This myth implied they were “God’s holy people,” and they should be as generous to the needy as God had been generous to them when they were needy. That was how they showed their gratitude; that and their faithful worship of God with their religious rituals.

The Hebrew Prophets, sensitive to God’s Spirit who regards the least and the greatest as equal, warned continually that God would not abide indifference or injustice among his holy people. There was no place for miserliness, cheating or bribery. Even preferring one's countrymen over aliens in judicial trials was not God's way. If they ignored God's sovereign law despite all He had done for them, they would be abandoned to the fate of other nations. To assume that God's fidelity meant they could be unfaithful was sheer madness.

Among the Hebrew prophets, Amos comes off as one of the most negative. Amos’ God sounds vindictive; he appears to be the very image of the "Old Testament God."

This is all very complicated. Twenty-eight centuries removed from this almost-prehistoric situation, how do we interpret these scripture verses? Clearly, they should not be read in isolation, as if “the text speaks for itself.” Only the Church, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, can interpret the Scriptures.

Perhaps we should hear in Amos’ threats the anxiety of parents who cannot protect their children from the powerful forces all around him. They have survived only because they have trusted in God; they fear that their children will not imitate them. But if the children ignore their call and election, if they behave like those who neither know God nor remember his mercy, if they ignore the enormous resource of their faith, they will certainly lose the only advantage their parents ever had.

What do they do? When reasoning fails, parents cajole, beg, threaten, plead and demand. They have nothing but words and they seem powerless.

The Book of the prophet Amos is filled with this anxiety. As a prophet and type of Christ his helpless, angry urgency reminds us of Jesus’ helplessness, especially as we see his hands and feet nailed to the cross. From that high, helpless place he cannot come down to persuade us or force us to do anything; nor can he rescue us from our foolishness. He can only die for us and, by that, draw us into Communion. Parents and grandparents especially know that experience.

Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 99

And to another he said, "Follow me." But he replied, "Lord, let me go first and bury my father." But he answered him, "Let the dead bury their dead. But you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God." And another said, "I will follow you, Lord, but first let me say farewell to my family at home." To him Jesus said, "No one who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what was left behind is fit for the kingdom of God."

More than fifty years ago, Father Theodore, who had worked with plow horses on his family farm, explained this parable to the high school seminarians at Mount Saint Francis. Although the horses are doing the heaviest labor the plowman works fiercely to keep the team and the plow heading the right direction. A moment of inattention and the wayward plow will wander. The furrows will be crooked; useful soil, unplowed; and seed, wasted. Even twisting around to see how straight the furrows are will throw the plow out of line.

The old priest explained to this Boom Generation of boys that training for the priesthood required our full attention. We could not afford to look back with regret or look around at other options. We had to keep our furrows straight as we plowed through the books.

Perhaps I did something right because I am still here.

In today's gospel Jesus is accosted by wannabe disciples who have certain reservations. They have important business to attend first.  Jesus dismissed them; he didn't want to hear their excuses because he had resolutely determined to journey to Jerusalem.

There would be no "later" for him. You can't tell a leader you'll follow him after he is dead!

This unwillingness to commit has reached epidemic proportions today. Students fail to declare a major as they shop around from one specialty to another. Many couples refuse to marry despite having children, and then refuse to baptize their children. Some cannot decide which sexual orientation or gender they want to be. Others "identify" with european, then african and then native american -- and back again. 

Many alcoholics and addicts cannot decide to quit. They might go for days without a fix; they attend twelve-step meetings, declaring "I am an alcoholic" or "I am an addict." But, still unwilling to quit using, change their minds again.

Essentially, they are unwilling to die. They think there is still time to decide -- later.

In my experience it's best to let things go. My brother-in-law asked recently if I would play racquetball with him. We played together a few times twenty-five years ago, and he has continued to play. I've not attempted it since the surgeries on both shoulders. I declined. If I played I would try too hard; I would lose anyway; and I'd be crippled for a week. Only a week, if I'm lucky.

It was fun while it lasted. God willing, if there is racquetball in heaven, I'll try it again there. In the meanwhile I'll prepare for my death by exercising this body with safer, less violent exercise.

One by one the Lord gives us gifts; and then, one by one, he takes them back. We enjoy his gifts but, more importantly, we enjoy him. When we have died to ourselves completely, surrendering even the gift of SELF -- which is the most addictive substance in the universe -- we will have only Jesus.

No one who sets a hand to the plow 
and looks to what was left behind 
is fit for the kingdom of God.

Saturday of the Twelfth Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 376

To what can I liken or compare you,
O daughter Jerusalem?
What example can I show you for your comfort, virgin daughter Zion?
For great as the sea is your downfall;
who can heal you?

The fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonian army is in the Old Testament like the crucifixion of Jesus in the New Testament. It is an incident of horrific violence visited upon the helpless. The story is one of betrayal, or at least the betrayal of everything we had expected of God. 

The prophets had warned that it could happen, that God might punish his people for their infidelity. They had habitually and systematically neglected the widows, orphans, disabled and aliens. Their rulers had struck alliances with foreign rulers, compromising their own principles. They had regarded their religious duties with casual contempt. Judah, and its capital Jerusalem, seemed no more sacred or holy than any other capital or nation. If their religion was "Jewish" it made little practical difference in the way they conducted their affairs. 

Their prophets had warned them that their "exceptionalism" meant nothing in God's sight when their faith in God meant nothing to them. They had not listened. 

But did their infidelity deserve the rape, looting, burning and desecration that Jerusalem suffered? Why did the same helpless innocents who had suffered the neglect of their prosperous neighbors have to suffer the violence of foreign invasion? 

The prophet who wrote the Book of Lamentations does not echo the earlier prophets and their warnings. He does not say, "I told you so!" He simply records the grief of the city. He wonders with them, "Has God abandoned us?" and "Can there be a future?"

Tens of thousands of cities have fallen before invading armies in the history of the world. Even as I write I am hearing about the assault of another city, Fallujah in Iraq. Once again the innocent are suffering and there is little anyone can do to stop the violence. Caught between competing armies they can receive assistance only by unreliable airdrops of food, medicine and supplies. 

On Saturdays, we Catholics like to recall our devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary. The reading from Lamentations must remind us of Mary's suffering when Jesus was crucified. Saint Matthew suggests she is the New Jerusalem who reveals to the magi the newborn King of the Jews; they could not find him in King Herod's old city. 

But the new city, like the old one, is subject to grief. No sooner had the magi departed than Mary fled with Joseph and Jesus into exile. 

Christians are not, and should not expect to be, exempt from grief. We must thank God for the privilege of weeping with Mary, even as we thank God that she mourns with us.  

Solemnity of the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist

Lectionary: 587

Click to read more clearly

"No. He will be called John.”

As if John's birth by an elderly woman were not enough, his relatives and friends are amazed that he should be called John.

The name means, "Yahweh has shown favor." 

There is all kinds of significance here. First, let's not forget that those who live alone without connection to other people do not need a name. But there is no one like that. 

Every child born is given a name because, at least from the day of birth, a child lives in close contact with other people. Unlike many animals, the human baby is utterly dependent on caring parents. We cannot even turn over at birth, much less fend for ourselves in an indifferent, sometimes hostile world. 

We need people and that means we need names to be known by one another. 

We have formal names, bureaucratic names, titles and nicknames. Many children enjoy one particular name which is only used by very particular people. Children and adults often bestow particular names on one another. The name is the relationship. Beyond the relationship the name means nothing. 

Names can be used to honor or humiliate. From recent literature you may remember "Prisoner 24601," the name given to Jean Valjean in the musical, Les Miserables. If you remember that, you'll remember M. Valjean's refusal to respond to the insult. He would not be called a criminal or a prisoner. 

The name John has divine significance, as Saint Luke tells us. It means "Yahweh has shown favor." His mother Elizabeth insisted upon the name, although she had not been privy to the conversation between Angel Gabriel and Zechariah, because, as she said, "So has the Lord done for me at a time when he has seen fit to take away my disgrace before others."

This "favor" was both particular and general: particular to Elizabeth and general to everyone who would ever learn of the child and his mission. 

Because we know his name, we enjoy special privileges. I suppose lots of people know Jesus' name and bless themselves by it, but if they don't know John's name they surely know little about Jesus. Not knowing how "Yahweh has shown favor" through John the Baptist, they cannot be deeply invested in the Christian communion. 

That's why we have feast days like this, to announce God's favor and deepen our appreciation of it. 

This Solemnity also reminds us that we celebrated Christmas only six months ago, and will celebrate it again soon. In the heat of the summer it is good to remember how close Our God is to everyone who blesses himself by the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. 

Thursday of the Twelfth Week of Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 374

Then I will declare to them solemnly, ‘I never knew you. Depart from me, you evildoers.’

There can be no more terrifying words in the scriptures than these, "I never knew you."

Greek philosophy brought to Christian theology an idea of the human being, that there is a substance known as human. It was called soul. However, other than being immortal, that substance had little to claim for itself.

In the Odyssey, when Odysseus visits Hades, he finds his old friend Achilles among the many dead warriors. Achilles remembers Odysseus, barely. His memories are fading; he will soon be like all the other souls with their useless immortal nature. They're like bats hanging on the ceiling of their caves, mindless and unaware for all eternity.

Jesus invites the Christian to escape the death of the individual soul and enter into the communion of his body, becoming a person in relation to other persons. A name will be given to that person in baptism. One cannot be known without a name.

At the end time we pray the Lord remembers our names. You remember that, at the cost of his life, Jesus went down to the graveyard and called, "Lazarus, come out." In that moment, the dead man remembered his name and that voice, the voice of a friend. He came stumbling out of the grave, back to life, back to communion.

Neither Greek nor American philosophy assures us of eternal life. That belongs to the Word of God.

Wednesday of the Twelfth Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 373

Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing,
but underneath are ravenous wolves.
By their fruits you will know them.
Do people pick grapes from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles?

The Gospel of Saint Matthew stands first among the four gospels not only because it's the longest of the synoptic gospels. It is also about the church., written with much experience of problems in the community.
That should come as no surprise; what's surprising is that so many people are surprised that the Church has many, many problems. As Cardinal Dolan has said, "You don't have to tell me about sin in the Church; I'm a church historian!"
We may have been forgiven all of our sins with the rite of Baptism but we have not been purged of every sinful tendency, nor have we created a community without problems.
Saint Matthew's gospel, written about 80 AD, addresses some of the problems encountered to date. In today's gospel, false prophets.
They are like ravenous wolves in sheep's clothing.
The expression has a colorful history following Saint Matthew's teaching, but I wonder if there is some precedent. Did thieves camouflage themselves as sheep to rob unsuspecting shepherds? A real wolf could not pull off such a trick but a clever enemy might. A small group of camouflaged soldiers might ambush an army camp, tossing off their sheepskins as they attacked.
In any case, all that glitters is not gold and not every preacher of the Gospel is a good person. Some are rogues with no scruples about exploiting the unwary; others sincerely believe their intentions are good. The latter are worse because their claims of innocence are so appealing. They really think they intend only good.
By their fruits you will know them.
Is this person unitive or divisive for the Church? Does this person polarize a community into friends and enemies? Does this person lead us toward union with Rome or away?
Regardless of their intentions, divisive persons are wolves in sheep clothing and should be avoided.
An "intervention" might help them to see how they generate such trouble; it might give them some insight and reveal another way of being.
There are people who expect to find enemies wherever they go and, because of that, do so. They need an inner healing which might come through wise spiritual direction. If they are willing to accept admonition and correction, they might be welcomed into our church of sinners.
Our response to them should be both compassionate and wise. First of all, we lay aside our naïve conviction that the church has been inoculated and is immune to false prophets. Secondly, we repent of that naiveté; it has no charm. Finally we welcome sinners among us even as we confess our sins to one another.
No community is perfect and if I ever joined one, it would not be perfect after I joined it. I expect to discover perfidy in the Church because it's in my heart. I cannot be surprised to find it among others, both shepherds and sheep.

Memorial of Saint Aloysius Gonzaga, Religious

Lectionary: 372

Enter through the narrow gate;
for the gate is wide and the road broad that leads to destruction,
and those who enter through it are many.
How narrow the gate and constricted the road that leads to life.
And those who find it are few.

I have never had the stomach for politics despite my fascination with it. I admire those who do. One time I attended a caucus in Minnesota. This would have been in the late 1980’s and the hot topic at the time was nuclear arms. 

The Soviet Union and the United States, armed to the teeth, were prepared to annihilate each other and every living thing on the planet. I think they disagreed on how to manage an economy; both parties agreed there should be a large middle class with very few wealthy or poor people but they could not agree on how to attain that Impossible Dream. 

Both parties also agreed that Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) was the best way to insure peace. Neither nation would attack the other because it would be sheer madness. No one could win and everyone would die.

There were some in the United States – I among them -- who worried that MAD might fail; that the balance of power, like that preceding World War One, might collapse into annihilation.

So I attended a caucus in rural Minnesota with the intention of supporting a nuclear disarmament plank in the Democratic Party. I met some people who disagreed with me. To my astonishment, they believed in nuclear arms and MAD. I pointed to today’s scripture passage from 2 Kings as one example of superior military power collapsing before an inferior. 

War, it seems to me, of all human projects, has the least predictable outcomes. While a nation probably should prepare an adequate defense against hostility, to actually believe it is prepared for war or can withstand an attack is nonsense.

History books are thick with stories of smaller armies trouncing larger ones; of inferior weapons besting superior defenses. It’s easier to predict next year’s weather than to predict the outcome of tomorrow’s war; and going to war is always a crapshoot.

In today’s scripture passage, King Hezekiah was confronted by an overwhelming superior force, the Assyrians. (They came from today’s Syria. No surprise there!) He could surrender and die, or fight and die; which should he choose?

The Prophet Isaiah urged him to choose the narrow gate of reliance on God. Jerusalem would not fall to the enemy because, “The zeal of the LORD of hosts shall do this.”

As it turned out, the Assyrian invasion collapsed. The Divine Author says an angel attacked the camp. Historians would argue they suffered a plague. Armies, drinking unfamiliar water and encountering alien diseases, often “melt” as they march through foreign territory. They get sick; they die, soldiers desert and go home, their supply lines go dry, the political situation at home changes: anything can happen. A city with adequate defenses, defending its own territory and comfortably drinking its familiar water, often outlasts the enemy.

Jesus urges us to enter through the narrow gate. More often than not, we do not imagine the future as it actually unfolds. We might have had a general picture of it, but its details could not be foreseen; and our expectations were imprecise, at best. It is good to prepare but also to expect our preparations to fail. We need God to go with us. 

One thing is sure, to discount God’s presence, as did King Sennacherib, is to court disaster.

Monday of the Twelfth Week in Ordinary Time

“Stop judging, that you may not be judged.
For as you judge, so will you be judged,
and the measure with which you measure will be measured out to you.
Why do you notice the splinter in your brother’s eye,
but do not perceive the wooden beam in your own eye?

“For freedom Christ set us free!” Saint Paul declares in his Letter to the Galatians. (5:1) and the Lord especially would free us from the narcotic of judging others. Whatever pleasure we take in it is far outweighed by its dire consequences.

Judgments come so readily: “What kind of mother would let her son fall into the gorilla cage or be grabbed by an alligator?”; “Why do people keep guns in reach of children?”; "Those kids shouldn't be driving with other kids!"; “Why do young Muslim men and women come from every nation to join ISIS?”
We cannot imagine why “those people” do what they do. They must be evil or stupid. It seems that God makes bad people.
Recently we were told again, “His sun shines on the just and the unjust; his rain falls on the good and the bad.”
That is a radical notion of God. Despite the familiar, overpowering vision of the Lord who comes at the end of time to judge the nations, here is a story of God who does not judge, who bestows his benefits impartially on everyone.

How often are we confronted with unnerving stories of bad people showing extraordinary kindness and good people committing atrocities?
Christians understand freedom primarily as freedom from myself: my opinions, desires, fears, prejudices and, most importantly, my way of seeing things. I just don't need all that baggage. 

With prayer, daily examen of conscious, and frequent reality checks with real people (who are so unlike those fictitious others who live entirely in our heads), we can notice how often we judge others and, becoming aware, choose to be less opinionated. 

“For freedom Christ set us free so stand firm and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery.!”

Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Then he said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”
Peter said in reply, “The Christ of God.”
He scolded them and directed them not to tell this to anyone.

Today’s gospel is marked by great complexity as it moves rapidly through several related incidents:
  1. Jesus asks about his reputation;
  2. Jesus' more pointed, personal question, and 
  3. Peter’s response;
  4. Followed by his prediction of suffering, death and resurrection;
  5. And finally, his teaching on discipleship.

All five points are related but nonetheless mysterious and demanding. How does our response as disciples relate to what the crowds say of Jesus? Are we among the crowd or set apart from them? 

How does a conversation that began with "What do the crowds say about?" end up with, "For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it?" With an ominous prediction along the way: "The Son of Man must suffer greatly...."

Jesus off-hand question plunges into the heart of darkness, taking us with him. His prophecy recalls the ominous utterance of an ancient prophet, Zechariah, which we heard in today’s first reading:
and they shall look on him whom they have pierced,
and they shall mourn for him as one mourns for an only son,
and they shall grieve over him as one grieves over a firstborn.

Clearly, this suffering is necessary. I sometimes ask the Veterans a riddle: Jesus was born in Bethlehem; baptized in the Jordan River, healed many people, celebrated the last supper and was raised on Easter. What did I skip?
If you don’t know the crucifixion you don’t know Jesus. My point is, “If your loved ones don’t know about your suffering, they don’t know you.” In the VA hospital Veterans may talk about PTSD, moral injury and the traumas they have suffered.

As he approaches Calvary, Jesus wants to be known by his disciples. He insists on that, even to point of predicting what has yet to happen. When Peter suggests he should not have to suffer – indeed, why should anyone have to suffer? – Jesus rebukes him sternly. “Get behind me, Satan!”
Our communion necessarily includes our stories of misery and disappointment, either as memories or as present crises. Christians do not share only our best images and happiest moments. We also confess our failings, fears and sins. We "die" to our guilt and shame by confessing them to each other, by allowing the community to "bear one another's burdens."

That sharing may begin with a traditional, sacramental confession but it often needs to go beyond that to trusted friends and loved ones. Alcoholics Anonymous has proven how redemptive and healing transparency can be. This is how we take up our crosses each day and follow in his steps. 

No one should have to sing, "Nobody knows the trouble I see." 

Saturday of the Eleventh Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 370

No one can serve two masters.
He will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.

Our readings today provide a powerful contrast; the first is a tragic story of betrayal, infidelity and punishment; the second, a beautiful teaching on reliance on the Providence of God. 

The Divine Author has little pity for the boy king Joash who listened to the princes of Judah and betrayed the faith of his deliverer Jehoiada.  When he murdered the prophet Zechariah, the son of Jehoiada, Joash invited the wrath of God which fell upon him and Jerusalem. 

One of the ironies I've stumbled upon, in reading the history of Israel, is that Jerusalem was never united by one religion. There were always "princes of Judah" who worshipped alien gods. The kings of Jerusalem, descendents of King David and rightful heirs to the throne, always had to deal with these powerful foreign elements -- much to the consternation of the fuming priests and prophets of the old religion. 

Unlike other ancient capitals, there was always sedition in Jerusalem. Not everyone wants to love and trust and obey our God with our lips and our hearts. 

To make matters more difficult, even the most faithful people often discover dark places in our hearts where resentments, suspicions and fears have lay hidden as deeply as the infant Joash in the temple. 

Just when we're called to make a bold move in faith, those phantoms emerge to sabotage our willingness. 

I find that contrariness in the fact/meaning split of our everyday discourse. The same people who drive cars with fossil fuel, which was formed over billions of years, insist that God made the world in seven days. Romantics tote guns to protect themselves from the federal government despite the daily killing of innocents. Parents tell their children about Santa Claus but get upset when their children tell lies. People who have no intention of fidelity or bearing children get married. Many people are ready to elect a presidential candidate whose falsehoods, lies and fabrications are palpable -- just to show they don't like dishonest politicians. 

We say one thing and mean something else. We insist, "Do as I say, not as I do." Disney's Fantasyland reaches from coast to coast. 

God would not abide that hypocrisy in Jerusalem:
Though the Aramean force came with few men, the LORD surrendered a very large force into their power, because Judah had abandoned the LORD, the God of their fathers. So punishment was meted out to Joash. After the Arameans had departed from him, leaving him in grievous suffering, his servants conspired against him because of the murder of the son of Jehoiada the priest. He was buried in the City of David, but not in the tombs of the kings.
 In today's gospel Jesus again invites us to seek righteousness: 
Your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you besides. Do not worry about tomorrow; tomorrow will take care of itself. 
Sufficient for a day is its own evil.” 

Joash and the princes of Judah trusted to their own wits to avoid the plague of foreign enemies. Had they trusted God, their fate would have been much happier. 

Friday of the Eleventh Week in Ordinary Time

Then Jehoiada made a covenant between the LORD as one party and the king and the people as the other, by which they would be the LORD’s people; and another covenant, between the king and the people.

Today’s grisly story from Second Book of Kings reminds us that the Bible is not about the way things should be; it’s about the way things are. Jehodiah and Athaliah are playing hardball politics and the stakes are Salvation History on the one hand; death, on the other.
Jehodiah was a priest of the temple, dedicated to "the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob", the ancient Hebrew God whose name may not be spoken. Recalling God's solemn oath, he was loyal to the House of David. 

Athaliah represented the pagan factions that always lived in Jerusalem. Attaining power, she ordered the killing of the entire line of David, missing only the infant baby Joash.  To maintain the prophecy which would be fulfilled in Jesus, she had to be stopped. Because she had antagonized so many people, both natives and foreigners, when the moment came , Jehodiah organized a coup and she was summarily executed, her schemes aborted.  

Our author tells us that the priest Jehoiada then established two covenants. The first was the simple restoration of the ancient Davidic covenant between God and his people. The House of David would survive! The second was between the Davidic king Joash and the people; they would remain loyal to God's Anointed. 

We can see this six-year-old boy as a type of Christ. The violence around Joash's ascendence to the throne anticipates the violence of Herod's attempt to kill the "newborn king of the Jews;" and, thirty years later, Jesus' crucifixion.

Jehodiah's covenants anticipate the New Covenant, marked by Baptism, Eucharist and our sacramental way of life.   

The two covenants, divine and human, meet in Jesus. He is the Covenant Incarnate who gathers us to himself in the Holy Spirit, and in the same Holy Spirit offers himself to the Father. 

The recommended collect for today, from the 17th Sunday of Ordinary Time, invites us to consider our "Firm Foundation" who guides, protects and endows his people through even savagely difficult hours.   

O God, protector of those who hope in you,
Without whom nothing has firm foundation, nothing is holy,
Bestow in abundance your mercy upon us
And grant that, with you as our ruler and guide,
We may use the good things that pass
In such a way as to hold fast even now
To those that ever endure.
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. 

Thursday of the Eleventh Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 368

Jesus said to his disciples:
“In praying, do not babble like the pagans,
who think that they will be heard because of their many words.
Do not be like them.
Your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

Saint Matthew interjected this version of the Lord's Prayer into Jesus' teaching about almsgiving, prayer and fasting. The editors of our lectionary have wisely chosen to restore the original set and structure of the teachings -- we heard them yesterday -- and offer the Our Father to us today.

Jesus begins with an admonition, "Do not babble like the pagans..." With that warning in mind, we might ask, "How should we approach prayer?"

Prayer leaders, invited to begin or end a formal discussion, will often say, "Let's place ourselves in God's presence." or "Let's call ourselves to prayer." or "Let's settle into a quiet place for a moment." They know we need to pause for a moment, and "to shift gears" from what we have been doing and "reset" our consciousness to prayer.

Essentially we must pay attention to God's presence. "He is here with us." And we must be here with him.

The only true prayer knows that God is "more real" and "more present" than I am, or that we are. God listens, watches and feels everything; he is always here.

I may or may not be actually aware of this moment and God's presence in it. Cartoons like to imagine the cub lion who imagines he has frightened off the ferocious bear, only to discover that Mama Lion was standing behind him and the bear turned and fled at her appearance.

The one who babbles and rattles prayer is obviously unaware. He is shouting to be heard when the one who listens is right next to him. He thinks he must struggle to get attention when the Listener is already attentive.

One night in Louisiana, living alone in an oversized rectory, I suddenly knew that there is a Person in the heart of the Universe. It did not make itself; it has not always been. The universe cannot be a soulless machine, inevitably, pointlessly winding down. Rather, it is the expression of pure generosity of One who is generous.

Christians theology adds much to that reflection; studying Revelation we perceive the Trinity of God. Jesus invites us to pray through Him and in the Holy Spirit to the Father.

The Universe is not listening; there is no karma, fate or doom to react mechanically to our pleas. It will neither punish our wickedness nor reward our virtue. 

Rather the Father hears and welcomes our prayers -- and us.

Wednesday of the Eleventh Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 367

And your Father who sees in secret will repay you.

My great nephew has recently shown up on facebook with a new t-shirt: "What happens at Grandma's stays as Grandma's." Way Too Cute! 

The truth is, what happens in secret does not stay in secret. The good news and the bad news will be shouted from the rooftops. 

And yet we are obligated to cultivate a secret life. No one can live completely transparently. Those who try are heading for a trainwreck. 

There is no market for secrecy today. The social media industry would expose and exploit every moment of our lives. Children born in the last several years may watch themselves being born in living color, and share it with their friends, for the rest of their lives. The traditional baby on the bearskin has been replaced with full disclosure. In the glare of such scrutiny how will the child find himself? 

Several years ago, at our retreat house in Minnesota, I was setting up for Mass in the sacristy when I heard a woman making a phone call in the next room. I didn't actually know she was making a phone call; the first thing I heard was a very loud question, "Were you in the bathroom?" Perhaps the unfortunate person on the other line had not answered the phone soon enough; perhaps it had rang several times before she picked up to be greeted with that extraordinarily intrusive question. And yet I fear she might not have thought it was so very intrusive. 

"Go to your inner room, close the door and pray to your Father in secret, and your Father who sees in secret will hear you." Jesus tells his disciples. 

The vocation of Franciscan has given me that privilege. Not only can I pray in secret, I can safely assume no one knows or cares that I am praying in secret. It doesn't occur to me to announce, "I'm going to my room to pray to my heavenly Father in secret...." Nor has anyone ever asked, "Were you praying to your Father in secret?" 

I know I must do it and I am convinced that negligence to my duty would be, in some way, catastrophic. If a husband fails to love his wife their children will suffer a catastrophe. In other words, their whole world will be threatened; if the couple divorces the children's world will be shattered; in some cases, irreparably. 

Our duty to prayer is that important. We are with Christ holding the universe together. 

In secret we express our love for God and our willingness to love, care for and forgive others. In secret we can realize, "I was wrong and I can apologize." That's much harder to do when others are looking on. 

In secret we can review the day, asking whether we were attentive to the Holy Spirit during this conversation and that predicament. We can ask God to show us better ways to handle routine situations. 

In secret we can tell God in all honesty, "I love you" even with the full awareness of our sins, not least of which is hypocricy. 

In secret we can be reassured of Our Father's benevolent gaze. He is there for us; we are here for him.