Thursday of the Nineteenth Week in Ordinary Time

Collect, for the forgiveness of sins

Lectionary: 416

His master summoned him and said to him, 'You wicked servant! I forgave you your entire debt because you begged me to. Should you not have had pity on your fellow servant, as I had pity on you?'

Liberation Theology, a controversial movement among Catholic theologians of South America following the Second Vatican Council, showed how the powerful inadvertently overlook the advantages they enjoy in their relationships with less powerful persons.
       The classic example: When a poor man is shown two pictures of a casa (a house), but one picture shows a palace and the other, a hovel -- the poor man is immediately struck by the oddity of two radically different structures having the same name, casa. The wealthy man does not notice that oddity. It makes perfect sense to him.
       Another example, two people play Monopoly but one plays with two dice and the other is allowed only one die. The person with two dice invariably wins. That person believes she played fair and square and deserved to win; the other believes she had no chance to win despite her best efforts.
       When disparity of power appears in ordinary financial life, the more fortunate believe they should have all their blessings. That their parents were married, they grew up in cleaner homes, had better nutrition, studied and played in safer environments, had better learning materials and more qualified teachers -- seems only right. They "worked for" their advantages, owe nothing to the less fortunate, and should make every effort to protect their secure status. They do not hesitate to demand justice when they believe they have been wronged by the less fortunate.
       Jesus describes that situation in today's parable. We should understand that Roman slavery was not nearly as barbaric as American slavery. Roman slaves, even in Palestine, were afforded more freedom and responsibility, and could accumulate some wealth. Some bought themselves and their families out of slavery.
       So here's a slave who has accumulated massive debts for his owner due to his own mismanagement. We're not told if his incompetence was due to criminality, stupidity, foolish risks or bad luck. In any case he is in way over his head and also in deep denial. He cannot possibly regain his losses but nevertheless pleads with his master, "Just give me time and I will pay you back in full."
       The master strips him of authority but mercifully decides against selling the fellow, his wife and children on the slave market to recoup at least some of his losses.
       However, the fool goes out and senselessly thrashes a fellow slave who owes him only a fraction of what he had owed, and can certainly pay him back. Perhaps he is still suffering the humiliation of begging for, and being shown, mercy. He certainly cannot see that he once enjoyed great authority over a poorer man and now has been reduced to an inferior status. His punishment is severe and, by the standards of the Storyteller, just.
       This should be a sobering parable for those who think they have a right by birth, race or religion to happiness. Many people enjoy the illusion that they have worked for everything they have, and completely ignore the advantages they were handed at birth. Few can imagine the harm they perpetuate by their lifestyle choices, or the savage violence that protects their security. They don't want to know what many Veterans know about American military adventures in foreign countries, or what happens behind the thin blue line in our major cities.
       Fortunately our Church does provide some avenues of communication from one side of town to the other, across the proverbial railroad tracks. If our congregations are segregated by economic status we might at least hear the cry of the poor from those who speak for them. Some devout Christians volunteer in food kitchens, homeless shelters and general hospitals. Also, some of our family members have fallen on hard times and we still care for them.
       We should heed the warning of this parable and privately admit, "Everything I have is gift." And, "Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy." 

Wednesday of the Nineteenth Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 415

The LORD then said to him, "This is the land which I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob that I would give to their descendants. I have let you feast your eyes upon it, but you shall not cross over."
So there, in the land of Moab, Moses, the servant of the LORD, died as the LORD had said; and he was buried in the ravine opposite Beth-peor in the land of Moab....

The Letter to the Hebrews refers to this touching scene in the eleventh chapter,
All these died in faith. They did not receive what had been promised but saw it and greeted it from afar and acknowledged themselves to be strangers and aliens on earth....
Human beings are creatures of time; we remember the past; we anticipate a future. Those who neglect that dimension of our nature forfeit their human nature. The past, of course, did not begin with my birth; there are a million historical incidents far more important to me than that particular item. Nor does my future end with my death. If I cannot control what happens after my death, I have some responsibility for it.

The Lord favored Moses with a vision of the future as he stood atop Mount Nebo. With courage, toil and much suffering he had brought God's people this far. Even as he saw the Promised Land with its flowing rivers and green meadows, he had now to turn leadership over to the young, untested Joshua. Moses must take his place in the past with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph. For better or worse, his work was finished.

There are many scenes like this in the scriptures. Jacob gathered his sons and blessed each of them before he died. Eli ceded his status of judge to the boy Samuel. After David has amassed materials for the temple, he turned the pile over to his son Solomon with careful instructions about its building. Jesus' final discourse is recorded in John 12-18; Saint Paul's last address to the Ephesians appears in Acts of the Apostles, chapter 20. Saint Luke tells us :
They were all weeping loudly as they threw their arms around Paul and kissed him, for they were deeply distressed that he had said that they would never see his face again. 
John of Patmos finished his career with the Book of Revelation. All these died in faith. They did not receive what had been promised but saw it and greeted it from afar...

The challenge of every generation is to admit ours is not the last. As our world was built by our forebears, we build a world for our children. With that insight comes the realization we cannot afford to waste our resources; we must not destroy what should remain. We owe it to generations yet unborn to preserve both our memories of the past and our promises of the future.

There's a lot of denial out there, especially among those Christians who see no hope for the future. They devoutly wish the Lord would return today, now! They pray, "Let us not suffer the humiliation of decline, of weakness and old age, of less influence, of being cared for rather than caring for others." Politically they would nuke the world before they suffer the loss of economic, political and military superiority. Individually they declare, "We're spending our children's inheritance!"

The Spirit of Moses and Jesus and John of Patmos urges us to acknowledge that we are strangers and aliens on Earth, that our homeland is still a long way off. We cannot describe in any detail what that Kingdom looks like; but, as we're satisfied with our lives, we are sure it will be beautiful. In preparation for that day we still make sacrifice.

Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary

God's temple in heaven was opened,
and the ark of his covenant could be seen in the temple.
A great sign appeared in the sky, a woman clothed with the sun,
with the moon under her feet,
and on her head a crown of twelve stars.

Today the Church celebrates Mary's "Assumption," when her earthly life ended and she was taken body and soul into heaven. The origins of this feast and of the doctrine are lost in history. It seems we've always believed this about Mary, although there is little mention of it in the records of our earliest theological discussions and debates. Nor can we say why most of the Church settled on August 15 as the date.

Perhaps this festival is like that other mysterious moment when you first noticed your mother. Where were you? What was she doing? Who knows? She was just always there!

We notice Mary in the New Testament writings. Sometimes she is named as Mary; sometimes she is only "the mother of Jesus." In Revelation 12 she is, "the ark of his covenant" and "a woman clothed with the sun." Perhaps she is also "God's temple in heaven." (In Saint Luke's gospel the angel had prophesied "the Holy Spirit will overshadow you" in the same manner the Holy Spirit overshadowed the Temple.) We find innumerable symbols of Mary in the New Testament and we add many more in our enthusiasm for "our Blessed Mother."

On this feast of the Assumption we celebrate the victory God has given to her, a victory she has won by her fidelity. 

Many people bitterly conclude that the human being is incapable of innocence. As Willie Stark, the Huey Long character of Robert Penn Warren's book All the King's Men, said, "Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption and he passeth from the stink of the didie to the stench of the shroud. There is always something" on any political opponent. 

We rarely make an important decision that doesn't have its shadowy, unfortunate consequences. Some people would refuse to pay taxes to avoid paying for abortions, or warfare, or prisons. But even if they could pull off the stunt they still participate in an economy that rewards the idle wealthy and punishes the working poor. There is always something.

But the Catholic Church celebrates Mary's sinless life from her Immaculate Conception to her well-deserved Assumption. Fulfilling God's plan for our salvation, she accepted the "grace of immaculation" and felt neither desire nor necessity to step beyond God's love. Blessed by God she was wise enough to recognize a bad choice and take the right one. Sensitive to the Spirit of God she could discern God's preference even when several choices seemed equally good. Seeing with God's vision, it looked beautiful to her. Even the choice of following Jesus to Jerusalem and standing by his cross had an aura of rightness about it that she found irresistible. 

In Mary's story we recognize the grace of God delivering her from sin and we honor her victory over sin -- especially as we appreciate how difficult it was. She still believed in God, hoped for his mercy and loved beyond all telling during Jesus' final hour of agony.

At one time, perhaps in the very distant past, every one of us believed our mothers were the most trustworthy and admirable persons in the universe. The feast of Mary's Assumption assures us our confident belief was not entirely wrong; our Heavenly Mother is indeed worthy of all honor.

Memorial of Saint Maximilian Kolbe, Priest and Martyr

Lectionary: 413

"And now, Israel, what does the LORD, your God, ask of you but to fear the LORD, your God, and follow his ways exactly, to love and serve the LORD, your God, with all your heart and all your soul, to keep the commandments and statutes of the LORD which I enjoin on you today for your own good?

Today the Church celebrates a twentieth century European martyr. Saint John Paul II changed the rules slightly when he declared Father Maximilian Kolbe a saint. Kolbe was not accused of loving the Lord Jesus, nor did his killers demand that he renounce his faith. Rather, Kolbe stepped forward and volunteered to die in another man's place.

When some prisoners escaped Auschwitz, the Nazi death camp in Poland, the commandant selected several men to die of thirst and starvation. This was his bizarre way of teaching the rest of the prisoners not to attempt escape. However, one man fell to his knees and pleaded with the commandant that he could not die; he had a wife and children who needed him.

The German officer, of course, couldn't be bothered with such a request until one fellow stepped forward and said, "I will take his place." Astonished and momentarily confused, the commandant demanded, "Who are you?"

The prisoner replied, "I am a priest." Those were the last recorded words of Saint Maximilian Kolbe; he died two weeks later on this day in 1941. When the guards found him still alive they injected his emaciated body with carbolic acid and he died immediately. Pope John Paul II, a fellow Pole, only a few years younger than the saint, declared Maximilian Kolbe a "martyr for love."

We must remember this story because the world has not changed in the past seventy-six years. Philosophically many people still believe in Darwinian "survival of the fittest," that the self-appointed "able" should not have to provide for the weak among us.

Dominant cultures throughout the world still identify certain people as pariahs and cruelly torment them. In the United States they are "illegal aliens," homosexuals, African-Americans, and so forth. When these powerful persons meet resistance, they consider themselves "victims" and resort to terrorism. It has a long history in the United States.

Many believe they can blame a certain few for systemic problems and rid themselves of these problems by liquidating the people. Demagogues do not hesitate to use this ingrained bias to promote their own careers.

Saint Maximilian was arrested because he was a Catholic priest, a man capable of persuading Catholics to resist the powerful German army in Poland. His ordination was sufficient reason for his imprisonment.

I often hear stories of equally irrational behavior among law enforcement agents in the United States. Did you know they can pull anyone off the highway at any time and confiscate their property on the "suspicion" that the goods may be stolen or ill-gotten? In many cases the stressed law enforcement agencies depend upon the cash to maintain their service because tax payers don't want to pay the cost of law enforcement.

Some people like to declare,"Freedom is not free!" but what do they mean by that? Are they calling for higher state and federal taxes? Are they willing to forego certain personal liberties for the sake of everyone's greater freedom? 

Perhaps, they really mean that certain arbitrarily-chosen pariahs should accept less freedom -- poverty, imprisonment, illiteracy, poor health and the occasional lynching -- for the sake of the majority.

Martyrs like Saint Maximilian Kolbe remind us that when the majority goes along to get along they turn a blind eye to manifest evil. Such a nation must soon descend into madness as the self-righteous -- the so called law-abiding citizens -- fail to act justly and courageously.

In today's first reading we have heard the Lord declare again,
For the LORD, your God, is the God of gods, the LORD of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who has no favorites, accepts no bribes; who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and befriends the alien, feeding and clothing him. So you too must befriend the alien, for you were once aliens yourselves in the land of Egypt.
We should expect no heavenly homeland if we fail to provide a safe place to everyone who seeks it.

Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 115

Then the LORD said to him, "Go outside and stand on the mountain before the LORD; the LORD will be passing by."

Periodically, emperors, tyrants and kings have to remind their subjects who is in charge and that resistance is futile, so they organize a parade. They march in all their finery through the major streets of a city along with their army. In the old days the entourage would include knights in shining armor on powerful warhorses; today it includes soldiers, tanks and ICBMs. Goose-stepping soldiers are especially impressive. For good measure, the marchers might stop periodically and twirl their swords, knives or rifles. Local boys go crazy at this display of derring-do and want to enlist, especially when they see their girlfriends swooning over the uniforms.
There are a few places in scripture when we hear of God's passing-by, an event which proves to be an overwhelming display of power and authority. On a Sunday not long ago we heard of God casting a spell over Abram and passing through the passage of slaughtered animals the Patriarch had sacrificed.
When Moses pleaded, "Let me see your glory" The LORD answered: I will make all my goodness pass before you, and I will proclaim my name, “LORD,” before you; I who show favor to whom I will, I who grant mercy to whom I will."
The LORD came down in a cloud and stood with him there and proclaimed the name, “LORD.” So the LORD passed before him and proclaimed: The LORD, the LORD, a God gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in love and fidelity,....
Ezekiel also saw an amazing "parade" as the Lord in a chariot passed in the sky above his head.
Saint Matthew alludes to these parades when he tells us, "Moving on from there Jesus walked by the Sea of Galilee, went up on the mountain, and sat down there. Great crowds came to him, having with them the lame, the blind, the deformed, the mute, and many others. They placed them at his feet, and he cured them. Perhaps the stream of wretched humanity which followed him is the train of his glory.  
With all these parades in mind, we can understand Peter's amazement as he saw the Lord passing by on the water, and his eager desire to go with him. He would be like a little kid chasing behind the marching army!
However, as the story unfolds we realize that, to follow Jesus, we have to walk on water!
It's not so difficult when we keep our eyes on him. Our daily prayer, our regular attendance at Church, our contemplative studies, and our practice of habitual sacrifice dispose us to the Spirit who guides us.
Watching Peter walk on water we are reminded that, "With faith the impossible is easy; without faith even the easy becomes impossible."
Or, as Saint Paul says, "I can do all things in Christ."

Saturday of the Eighteenth Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 412

Moses said to the people: "Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD alone!
Therefore, you shall love the LORD, your God, with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength.
Take to heart these words which I enjoin on you today. Drill them into your children.
Speak of them at home and abroad, whether you are busy or at rest.

This passage from the Book of Deuteronomy is known by its first Hebrew word, "Shema!" meaning, hear! 
It is a word of delight for Jews and Christians. The Lord commands our attention and we are glad to hear both his voice and his command. 
Several months ago I read a book by a Jewish author about reading the Bible since the Holocaust. The author contends the great tragedy of the twentieth century must have a deep impact upon our knowledge of, experience of, and relationship with God. Is He the God we thought we knew?
He points to apparent "character defects" in the God of the Hebrew scriptures. They appear in God's odd, seemingly arbitrary demands on Abraham; God's imposing incomprehension on the people so that they "would hear but not hear, see but not see;" and the punishing rape of Jerusalem in the sixth century BCE.
Can we love such a god? Do we want to believe in such a god? 

The questions are not unfamiliar to the hospital chaplain and most pastors. Patients, grieving parents, Veterans who suffer moral injury, and many others often ask, "How can a supremely good God permit this to happen?" When a nation founded upon principles of democracy begins to destroy itself, when many citizens abort their own children, voluntarily consume poisonous chemicals, and commit suicide, someone is bound to ask, "Where is God?" 
I don't know, and cannot pretend to know, how the Jew might answer the question. As a Christian I must reply, "The Son of God is with us. The Spirit of God is with us. God the Father sent them to us." 
I remember that the Son of God has asked the same question from our end of the Universe. An answer came only after he had died in agony, on the third day. 
Keeping faith requires courage in the face of unanswerable questions. Keeping faith is discovering the Spirit of God who answers from the silent places in our hearts. The psalmist somewhere says, "Had I thought like that I would have abandoned the faith of my people." 
I am not required to ask someone else's question. I cannot ask, "God, why have you abandoned my friend? Why have you let bad things happen to others?" I certainly cannot make my choice based on another's disappointment.
Rather, I keep faith with God and my friend by remaining with both, and waiting for Mercy to appear. My presence may be the answer God has sent to him. 
Therefore, you shall love the LORD, your God, with all your heart....
Were I to choose the love of my friend over the love of God I would abandon both. Some people say that was the original sin, when Adam ate the forbidden fruit which Eve presented to him. If Eve had despaired of God's mercy, that was no excuse for Adam. He was not being faithful to her by doing so, and that is proven by his nasty answer to God, "The woman whom you put here with me—she gave me fruit from the tree, so I ate it.”
Rather, in communion with one another and confidence in God, we love, trust and await a rebirth of wonder. It will come; it will not delay. 

Memorial of Saint Clare, Virgin

Lectionary: 411

Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.
For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it,
but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.

In his book, The Foundations of Freedom, philosopher John Macmurray reflected on human nature and our passion for freedom. 
He recalls first that the human being has no instincts. We learn by trial and error and, more importantly, by teaching one another. A mother teaches her baby to suckle; she learned breast feeding from her mother. Success encourages the development of habits which soon become "second nature." Some people might call these habitual reactions instinctive but that's a misnomer; they are habits intentionally chosen and developed. Because we are free we can intentionally change or abandon these habits, and they often erode with neglect. 
The human being shuns slavery. Animals don't seem to mind it. Many willingly become pets to human beings. Many others, fed, sheltered and protected seem comfortable in their enclosures. 
But human beings want to be free. Coerced into doing what we do not freely choose we generally make a mess of it. The job is half-done, if at all. It will certainly lack that finality that willing workers add to their projects; and without that finality, that "spiritual dimension," the finished project may be substandard. As the old saw goes, "For want of a nail the kingdom was lost." 
But freedom, the philosopher reminds us, is terrifying. Charged with making one's own decision and acting on one's own, the individual often chooses to go along with the crowd. We can never be certain of our decisions. We never have all the information; we cannot foresee all the consequences; our hunches are often wrong; our insights inadequate. Retreating into conformity, we tell ourselves, "There's safety in numbers." 
Freedom, of course, is measured by two standards. First, is it possible? We might fantasize about things we could do if they were possible but it's absurd to complain that I can't travel to the moon and be back in time for lunch. 
More importantly, freedom is measured by one's desires. If I don't want it I won't complain that I can't have it. A misanthrope might complain about not having something he doesn't want but he'd only look like a fool to everyone else. If you want something but not very much, and cannot have it, there's not much lost to that. 
But everyone chafes under the limits of our freedom; we want more than we can have and we often ask, "How can I have more freedom?" First by having more power. If I have more money, strength or influence I can get more of what I want. 
But if I want less, it's that much easier to get what I want. If I had only a million dollars I could complain that I can't buy a multi-million dollar yacht; but with a lot less money I can buy a perfectly adequate canoe. Who is more free the impoverished millionaire or the satisfied pauper? 
Saint Clare and her sisters, under the tutelage of Saint Francis of Assisi, chose the lesser road. Raised in comfort, educated in wealth, she chose to follow the Poor Man from Galilee. Enabled by her family's stature to travel throughout the world, she chose the confines of a small convent below Assisi. She entered that enclosure as a young woman and never left it, even when a Saracen army threatened to storm the convent and violate the women. She relied on God's protection. When powerful prelates and nobles became fascinated by her wisdom and holiness, she would not leave the convent; they had to come to her. 
No matter who we are, regardless of our birth, wealth or training, everyone of us chafe under the limits of our freedom. No one is permitted to do everything he or she wants to do. "They won't let me." we might complain. Or, "They won't help me." 
The Crucified Lord taught Francis and Clare the true path of freedom. For the Love of God they disciplined every desire and followed the high road of obedience. It seemed at times that God could not ask enough of them; they were so eager. In fact wiser heads sometimes prevailed on both of them to "ease up on the discipline." Clare was told to eat more. Francis was put under obedience to wear a habit as he lay dying on the bare ground. (There were women present!) 
Christians know this form of discipleship and the Saints remind us of it. The easier route to freedom -- call it "salvation" if you like -- is the Way of the Cross. 

Feast of Saint Lawrence, deacon and martyr

Amen, amen, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit.

Today the Church celebrates the feast of Saint Lawrence, deacon and martyr, and once again we ponder the value of our faith.
How much is it worth to you?
Americans are wont to put a price tag on anything, estimated in $ signs.
Given certain items -- faith, health, family, an individual human life, and so forth-- we realize almost immediately these are not commodities and should not be priced.
But the fact is many people do commodify these items. Human beings are routinely bought and sold by slavers who spirit their goods across international boundaries. Two weeks ago we learned of over a hundred Mexican people crated in an airless truck and shipped into San Antonio. Like their spiritual ancestors in the African slave trade, several were dead on arrival. You can be sure the merchants who arranged this transaction had their payment before the affair was discovered. Business is business. It's only illegal if they're caught; otherwise it is profitable.
Insurance companies commodify the health of their clients. They are willing to pay for many medicines and procedures but not all. Some of those items are unproven; others are just too expensive. Everybody has to make hard choices; sometimes the insurance companies do it for us.
Contractors estimate how many lives will be lost when they build skyscrapers; strategist estimate the "casualties" of war.
Even faith is commodified. Some people determine they can't afford the time or expense of attending church despite their insistent claim of belief in Jesus.
When the Roman emperor demanded that Saint Lawrence reveal and turn over the wealth of the Roman church the deacon cheerfully gathered the poor, the disabled, the orphaned and widowed and presented them to the emperor. He was brutally martyred for his trouble. Legend has it he was still laughing at his joke when he died.
Our Christian martyrs remind us that faith in Jesus Christ is worth more even than our individual human life. They follow in the very footsteps of Jesus as he leads us on the Way of the Cross.
They teach us the relative worth of everything and that some things are priceless.

Wednesday of the Eighteenth Week in Ordinary Time

We have sinned, we and our fathers; we have committed crimes; we have done wrong. Our fathers in Egypt considered not your wonders. (Psalm 106)

People who are unwilling to see their own guilt continually engage in the blame game. The game gets especially complicated and ever more sophisticated as problems become intractable. Who can we blame for the recurrent cycles of racism in our country? Who can we blame for the epidemics of substance abuse and suicide? Who owns the blame for unemployment and poverty?

The victims of these recurrent problems obviously deny their responsibility but they can hardly be excused since everyone claims the status of victim. African-Americans, for instance, may seem the obvious victims of persistent racism until Asian-, Native-, Caribbean-, and Micronesian-Americans voluntarily join the group. When descendants of European settlers take up the cry, no one is left to shoulder the blame.

A judge might want to sort out these competing claims, showing mercy to the worthy and justice to the unworthy; but a sympathetic listener realizes there is no one to blame.

The traditional answer -- which has been dismissed by many -- is Original Sin. We have all sinned; no one is innocent.

Some people react to the doctrine, claiming that children are born innocent. I wonder how far they would extend that innocence. For instance, if a child inherits an enormous plantation with thousands of slaves is he not responsible for righting that grave injustice? Failing to do so, is he guilty?

Or, in another instance, if the child was born after the slave empire had been dismantled but he still enjoys the extravagant lifestyle which was borne on the backs of those slaves, can he claim ownership and no responsibility for all his wealth? Does he owe nothing to the descendants of his ancestor's victims?

If he is born innocent, utterly free of Original Sin, it seems he should not only enjoy his inheritance but defend it against hostile claims.

Someone might ask, "Is guilt a responsibility for past sins?" I would reply, "If guilt is not a responsibility, a duty to atone for past misdeeds, it is only a fiction; it doesn't exist." For that matter, neither does injustice or suffering. Such words mean nothing. And there is no god to hear the cry of the poor. 

The first eleven chapters of Genesis trace the history and tradition of sin from Adam to Cain to Noah to the city of Babel. It is passed from one generation to the next, along with the lessons of how to tie one's shoes and speak one's mind. Only with Abraham does grace enter the story and a new history of atonement. 

Our Jewish ancestors remembered their bondage in Egypt and thanked God for their freedom. They also relinquished their victim status and acknowledged their heritage as the descendants of ungrateful ancestors. 
We have sinned, we and our fathers; we have committed crimes; we have done wrong. Our fathers in Egypt considered not your wonders. (Psalm 106)
Embracing our guilt as the Lord embraced his cross won't make an overnight difference in the world but it immediately sets us free to pursue justice. 

Memorial of Saint Dominic, Priest

Lectionary: 408

Should there be a prophet among you,
in visions will I reveal myself to him,
in dreams will I speak to him;
not so with my servant Moses!
Throughout my house he bears my trust:
face to face I speak to him;
plainly and not in riddles.
The presence of the LORD he beholds.

Three figures in the Old Testament stand head and shoulders over everyone else: Abraham, Moses and David; the patriarch, the prophet and the king. Perhaps that puts into perspective today's story, the harassment Moses suffered from his right hand Aaron and his sister Miriam. The LORD will not put up with it!

When Moses and Elijah appeared to Jesus' disciples on Mount Tabor, as Jesus was transfigured, and then disappeared into the cloud, there could be no doubt about Jesus' superiority even to Moses, Elijah and every other Old Testament person. Especially as they heard the thunderous declaration, "This is my beloved son; listen to him!" they could only fall to their faces in stunned worship.

Because Moses is a prototype of Jesus, we can hear God's declaration in today's passage from Numbers as a statement about Jesus: "Throughout my house he bears my trust: face to face I speak to him...."

Christians believe Jesus has come forth from the Father as a word is spoken; he is "begotten not made." The Son of God is not a creature of God but God's own son who bears the complete trust of his Father:
“Amen, amen, I say to you, a son cannot do anything on his own, but only what he sees his father doing; for what he does, his son will do also. For the Father loves his Son and shows him everything that he himself does, and he will show him greater works than these, so that you may be amazed.
Between the Father and the Son there is complete agreement; there is only one will. Face to face they speak to one another, plainly and not in riddles. When the Father begets the Son he holds nothing back; they are equals in their infinite majesty. The disciples in today's gospel recognize that majesty in their unworthy fishing boat as they, "did him homage, saying, 'Truly, you are the Son of God.'"

We understand the greater works so that you may be amazed as the Holy Spirit. The Christian is continually astonished at the good works God effects through her hands, and often by her own courage, wisdom and generosity. "Now, where did that come from?" she may ask herself. The answer is delightfully obvious; it is God's work.

Just as Moses interceded with God to heal his sister Miriam when her flesh became leprous, so does Jesus intercede for us and we intercede for others. The mercy of God's Holy Spirit cannot be contained, not even by our unworthy efforts.

Monday of the Eighteenth Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 407

"Why do you treat your servant so badly?" Moses asked the LORD. "Why are you so displeased with me that you burden me with all this people? Was it I who conceived all this people?

The readings from the Book of Numbers and the Gospel of Matthew provide a high school religion teacher an excellent assignment for students; they might compare and contrast the stories of Moses and Jesus. Both are set in the wilderness; in both the people act pitifully and somehow expect the prophet to provide for them.

In contrast, where Moses loudly complains about their grumbling Jesus quietly feeds the people with bread and fish. We notice that Jesus' "heart was moved with pity" but Moses pitied himself. I am sure any parent, employer, politician or pastor could sympathize with Moses; no matter what he does he cannot please the people.
They had just escaped four hundred years of slavery in Egypt and had grown accustomed to that ancient institution. Whatever they might have thought about freedom, they were not prepared for it. Thrust upon them, they found it wasn't comfortable. If, as slaves, they had little choice about how they might live their lives, they nonetheless enjoyed a reliable supply of food, shelter and the basic amenities. Archaeological research has shown Egyptian slaves had a pretty good medical system. A government doesn't survive virtually unchanged for three thousand years unless it provides pretty well for everyone's needs. 

(In fact, as Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan showed in 1965, the American form of slavery was "indescribably worse than any recorded servitude, ancient or modern." It's no wonder it caused the bloodiest war in American history.)

The Lord and his prophet Moses offered the people freedom but it was qualified. They were eating manna daily, a food which apparently satisfied the minimum daily requirement, but lacked spiritual satisfaction. They wanted meat. They did not know what they were asking

The Lord would offer "meat" as he died on the cross, the flesh and blood which we share in the Eucharist. His feeding the mob in the wilderness signifies the Sacred Banquet which is about to appear. Even as he took pity on them and cured their sick, he offered his body on the altar of Calvary. 

In the light of this story from Numbers, we hear of Jesus' feeding the mob in the wilderness. He is leading us to freedom out of a slavery that seems normal; it's a comfort zone; a familiar culture. It's the way things are, or the way we do things. 

Fortunately, our freedom begins in joy as we celebrate our faith with daily prayer. 

Feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord

Lectionary: 614

We did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty.

Saint Peter's reference to myths in his Second Letter tells us that the apostolic church and the early fathers (the Patristics) were well aware of mythology and flatly denied there was anything mythological about the Gospel. 
They knew about gods who were supposedly born of women and gods raised from the dead. The similarities were accidental, not substantial. A pumpkins may resemble a bowling ball but they are not remotely alike . There is no comparison between pagan myths and Christian faith.  
Many cultures and religions are built on a particular mythology. Classical education taught us all about Greek and Roman gods; many of us learned of Celtic and Scandinavian gods also. A multi-cultural society wants our children to learn something about Native American and Asian mythologies. 
Secular American culture also has its myths: George Washington and the cherry tree; the rail splitting Abe Lincoln, Paul Bunyan and John Henry. Some mythological stories may have factual roots but they are used for larger purposes. The story of Washington's cherry tree may be true but that's not why it's told to children. Lincoln certainly split logs into rails to fence in his father's cattle but the story was used to persuade voters that the Illinois lawyer was "one of us." Mythological stories don't have to be historically accurate to teach truth. 
Some nineteenth century Protestant scripture scholars suspected the stories of Jesus were mythological. Some believed that a Jewish preacher may have been crucified and then "raised up" by the disciples who refused to stop talking about him. Perhaps they even stole his body from the grave! 
Some Protestant theologians suggested the gospel was basically true even if it was largely made up by some smart fellows who also fabricated stories about fishermen and tax collecting apostles. They supposed the real history was not important but the myths were. Somehow, miraculously, the apostles had stumbled into an "eternal truth" which might still be relevant in modern times. 
Fortunately, later scholars discovered historical foundations in the New Testament. While some had supposed the gospels must have appeared centuries after Jesus' death, they showed how the four canonical gospels -- Matthew, Mark, Luke and John -- were written in the first century. Mark may have been written as early as 45 AD. 
Belatedly, in 1943, the Roman Catholic Church took up the challenge of scripture scholarship  and provided better theological guidelines. 
The gospel is not a cleverly devised myth. If it were, it could not save us. Much of the 19th century problem was the supposition that we are saved by our beliefs, i.e. our opinions. "Only faith," as Martin Luther taught. 
Nineteenth century biblical scholars created their own myth to update the Christian religion. Since the story of Jesus was only a myth, it could be rewritten to fit modern necessities. And one of the surest truths, they asserted, was the Roman Catholic Church had lost the gospel since the beginning! The apostles got it wrong but now, with our modern insights, we can tell you The Truth. Scholars as recent as Harvey Cox make such claims.
Salvation must go deeper than our opinions; it must shape our behavior and change our very substance. We must literally eat the flesh, drink the blood and breathe the breath of Jesus. We must be joined corporeally to him by baptism into his death. 
When Jesus sent us out he didn't say, "teach this doctrine" or "persuade them of this ideology." He said, "make disciples and baptize them." 
Catholic doctrine assures us that, for all our sinfulness and misguided ways, God has never abandoned his people. Our sacraments still bind us to the historical Body of Christ, a body which was born of Mary, transfigured on Mount Tabor, crucified on Calvary, raised up at Easter, and taken into heaven some forty days later. If he does not appear as the man he was, he is still physically with us in the Church and its sacraments. 
Our story is true history; it is not grounded in once-upon-a-time or a-galaxy-far-far-away.

I well remember my own struggle with faith as I learned of a mythological interpretation of the Gospel. If it were not founded on actual history, if the myths were important but not the facts, then I might, as a priest, maintain a public life quite different from my personal life. What were important was what I said and what people believed -- and not what I actually was. 
In those days I was not at all sure of myself or my vocation. Young adults often feel like they are faking it. They look like adults and are expected to act like adults but sometimes they feel like children. 
Eventually the Sacrament of Penance would reassure me of my vocation and the Lord's choice. Reconciled to myself as a loved sinner, I could preach the gospel and celebrate the Eucharist with the assurance of faith. Yes, the Lord is here in the Real Presence of the Blessed Sacrament even when these damaged goods  preside over the ceremony. 

Saturday of the Seventeenth Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 406

His disciples came and took away the corpse and buried him; and they went and told Jesus.

The opposite of love is not hate but fear. In my experience more people are paralyzed by fear than motivated by hate. Revenge may be a cultural thing, a matter of pride, for some nationalities but, even without exposure to the gospel, most people get over their desire for revenge and move on with their lives. Even warring nations set aside their animosities when the war is over first to do business and then to exchange information. Carrying a grudge is like drinking poison and hoping your enemy will get sick; it makes no sense on a purely human level.
What paralyzes Christians and prevents them from acting generously, even from doing what comes naturally to human beings, is fear. 
As I have met Veterans in the VA hospital, I have noticed many have no particular fear of death. Some have seen combat, many have known the violent death of close friends: they have met death face to face. It's just not a big deal. Some regret that they were not killed when their buddies died.  
I have also known widowed men and women who longed to be reunited with their spouses. As they face the future, death is only a gateway to reunion and new life. They may cringe at pain like any creature, but they understand the inevitability of death.  
I think Jesus lost his fear of death when he learned of Saint John's martyrdom. They were close relatives and close in age, friends since childhood. He had heard John's fearless preaching; and, with the Baptist, he had seen their enemies gather on the banks of the Jordan. Hearing of John's arrest he must have feared for his friend and prayed for his deliverance. Learning of his death Jesus realized his own career was careening in the same direction. 
Saint Matthew says, "When Jesus heard of it, he withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself." (We will hear this passage on Monday.) Relieved of fear, he would emerge from that wilderness with all the greater freedom. 
The Scriptures tell us several times, "Do not be afraid." It's repeated especially often in the New Testament. We have seen in our national political discussions how fear drives stupid policies and ridiculous behavior. 
Christians who have contemplated the life and death of Jesus, who walk on the broad highway of the martyrs, have no fear of death. We invite strangers and those who pose as enemies to sit down and talk with us about our differences. 

Memorial of Saint John Vianney, Priest

A prophet is not without honor except in his native place and in his own house." And he did not work many mighty deeds there because of their lack of faith.

     In a representative democracy such as ours, individuals are sent to the "halls of power" to represent their constituency. Minorities sometimes struggle to get representation if their numbers are too small in a given district. Gerrymandering may be used either to improve their lot as districts are drawn, or to worsen it.
     However, sometimes members of that minority denounce their own representative. They say, "He doesn't speak for me!" They may disagree with his policies or feel that he fails to present their story . Sometimes they suspect that his greatest strength -- his education, wealth or ability to work with powerful people -- disqualifies him as their representative. "He doesn't quite look like me!" Democracy requires compromise at every level and those unwilling to compromise invite disappointment.
     In today's gospel, we find that Jesus' neighbors and family despise him because he is one of them. His familiarity, his greatest strength, is, in their eyes, a weakness and a reason to ignore him.
     From its earliest days the Church has struggled to protect and announce the Incarnation. The doctrine that God is one of our own children will always be unappealing to those who want power; it will be unconvincing to those who must be coerced, pushed, shoved and bullied to do the right thing. We must defend this doctrine not because we dislike power per se; we don't have an ideological contempt for it. Rather, faith has shown us that the only way the All-Powerful God can save us is through weakness.
     Or, to put it in other words, an All-Powerful God's greatest strength is his ability to strip himself of power to become the least among us. If God cannot divest himself of "all authority in heaven and earth," he is owned by it; he has become its slave. In that case, fearing the loss of power, he must regard every other being as a threat.
     We learn of the Father's total divestiture when Jesus declares "all authority in heaven and earth has been given to me." And we see Jesus stripped of that same power in his crucifixion. In that moment he has handed authority over to us in the Person of his Holy Spirit.
     And now we too experience the weakness of God despite the supreme authority of Love, Goodness and Truth. We present ourselves to our neighbors as disciples and messengers of God; some accept us and others take offense at us because we are entirely too familiar. They can point to our sins as disqualifying, or to our virtue. We are entirely too ordinary and they want supermen.
     Or they can accept us with the same ready faith that binds them and us to the Father of Jesus. In that day we know Communion.

Thursday of the Seventeenth Week in Ordinary Time

Then the cloud covered the meeting tent, and the glory of the LORD filled the Dwelling. Moses could not enter the meeting tent, because the cloud settled down upon it and the glory of the LORD filled the Dwelling.

"Consider the Humility of God!" Saint Francis urged his disciples. This has been a constant meditation for the People of God. We discover that humility in Genesis when the Lord, who will destroy Sodom and Gomorrah with all-consuming fire from heaven, is willing to dicker with Abraham over fifty worthy people -- although they both know there is only one worthy family in Gomorrah.
We hear of it in today's reading: the Lord is willing to "come with" his people on the dusty wilderness road of Sinai, and to reside with them in a tent. (Saint John would use that word in the prologue of his gospel.)
King David was astonished that the Lord who owes nothing to anyone would promise that a Son of David would always rule in Jerusalem.
New Testament stories are even more abundant, beginning with God's resting in the Womb of the Virgin Mary. The great English poet/priest John Donne reflected on God's gift to her:
Thou hast light in dark, and shutt'st in little room
Immensity, cloister'd in thy dear womb.
His birth in Bethlehem, flight into Egypt, silent years in Nazareth, homelessness and poverty, his death and burial in a borrowed tomb: all speak of God's humility.
Saint Francis considered the Scripture stories of God's self-abasement and then pointed at the tabernacle where the Lord abides in every Church:
O humble sublimity! O sublime humility! that the Lord of the universe, God and the Son of God, so humbles Himself that for our salvation He hides Himself under a morsel of bread. Consider, brothers, the humility of God and pour out your hearts before Him, and be ye humbled that ye may be exalted by Him. Do not therefore keep back anything for yourselves that He may receive you entirely who gives Himself up entirely to you.
Many of us find it hard to wrap our minds around that understanding of God. We're so bedazzled by the Supreme Authority of God, and by our own investment in Power -- financial, military, social, mechanical, computational, etc. -- that we hesitate to recognize God's humility as his first and most attractive trait.
We might speak of the condescension of God and then compare it to the condescension of powerful human leaders, a display that is more hypocritical than real, and thoroughly unconvincing.
Jesus' crucifixion and death are convincing. His pathetic cry, "Why have you abandoned me?" shatters our belief that he never really let go of his superiority. He was truly dead. If he did not die we are not saved from death and our faith is useless. It is just another hypocritical sham which prevents us from admitting the vanity and emptiness of human life.
"Consider the Humility of God" above all else and you will begin to understand the joy and the wisdom of the Saints. Catching the Spirit of Divine Humility, they became true servants of God's people.

Franciscan Feast of Our Lady of the Angels of Portiuncula

Lectionary: 403

The Kingdom of heaven is like a treasure buried in a field, which a person finds and hides again, and out of joy goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again, the Kingdom of heaven is like a merchant searching for fine pearls. When he finds a pearl of great price, he goes and sells all that he has and buys it."

Today, throughout the world, Franciscans celebrate the Feast of the Little Portion; millions of Catholics will confess their sins, attend Mass and receive the indulgence of this day. 
The very idea of indulgences sounds odd to many people. A plenary ("full") indulgence relieves a repentant sinner not of the guilt of his sin, which was relieved through the Sacrament of Penance, but of the atonement he should make for his sin. 
When many Christians believe that Jesus has already atoned for all sins and none is required of the repentant sinner, the doctrine of indulgences sounds redundant. We might ask, "Who needs it?"
I heard a recovering alcoholic speak of the challenge he had presented to his long suffering wife during his drinking days. On one occasion, when he was cut off while driving, he ran the offender off the road and climbed up on the hood of the fellow's car, screaming, cursing and swearing at his supposed enemy. All the while, his terrified wife waited in the car for him to come to his senses. 
Eventually he sobered up and began to practice the twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, including, "We made direct amends... wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others."

My friend learned to apologize to his wife and to ask, "How can I make it up to you?" Clearly his not drinking was only the beginning of their healing. Their union needed more than words of apology. She might ask nothing; or she might require some time. She might even say, "Go away and leave me alone until I come to you!" Of course, as they repaired their marriage she too learned to apologize and "make amends."

Indulgences were originally a spiritual system of atoning to God and the Church for one's sins. How does a small town church allow an adulterer or murderer to attend Mass and receive the Eucharist with them? Would you want your children to see a known sinner march right up to the altar and receive the Most Precious Sacrament as if he had every right to it? 

In Shakespeare's play, King Richard II, the newly crowned King Henry vows to go to Jerusalem to atone for the rivers of English blood that were shed on his way to coronation. He hoped God would forgive him; he also hoped the English would accept his claim to be king if they knew he had done penance. 

Trips to Rome or Jerusalem were not unusual ways to atone for grave sins. But what would the poor man do? His sins might not be as notorious but his guilt and his soul were equal to that of any king. The Church granted easier ways to atone, known as "indulgences." The Portiuncula Indulgence was among the first of these famous shortcuts. 

Clearly, the Lord Jesus has, by his agony and death, opened the Gates of Paradise to everyone willing to do penance. He has completed our atonement. But we dare not presume on his mercy. Having confessed our sins we should still ask, "How can I make it up to my loved ones, my neighbors, my fellow Christians, my enemies and my God?" 

The kingdom of God is like a buried treasure. Just knowing it's there in the field is not enough. We still have to purchase that field and dig for it.