Memorial of Saint John Bosco, Priest

Consider how he endured such opposition from sinners, in order that you may not grow weary and lose heart. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood.

The Letter to the Hebrews was apparently written by a church elder with a deep grasp of the Jewish heritage, an intense devotion to Jesus, and grave concern for the Church of his time. Although Christians had suffered persecution and proven their faith by cheerful perseverance, when the crisis passed they lost their fervor.
People often don’t react to threats, bullying and abuse as they are expected. When the Germans bombed prostrate London the Brits fought them all the way back to Berlin. When the Germans stormed Leningrad in one of the most punishing sieges in history, the Russians refused to buckle, despite their diabolically corrupt leader, Joseph Stalin. They even managed to broadcast a Shostakovich symphony to their tormentors.  Nor did the firebombing of Dresden destroy the spirit of the German people. Baghdatis took cover during the “shock and awe” campaign then found creative ways to resist the overwhelming American occupation.

The Church realized this many centuries ago. We have boasted, “The blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church.” The more they abused us the stronger we grew.
But we have a hard time with security and prosperity. Unchallenged from without, we do not challenge ourselves from within. We can’t seem to explain to ourselves or others why we should fast, pay tithes and donate time and energy to the Church. Typically, about three percent of any parish get involved although they flood the church during a crisis. That statistic has remained constant even as Sunday attendance dwindles.

Many former Christians think they can claim the title since they pay taxes, hold jobs and avoid trouble. They say they “believe” in Jesus (or God) though their faith makes no discernible difference in their life style. They attend no church and feel no desire to.
The day seems to be coming when the name of Christian will lose its appeal. It was used a sneer in the first place, and appears only three times in the New Testament. When that day comes practicing Christians will also disavow the word; some because they fear retribution; others because of its obvious hypocrisy. Catholics too might disown the word Catholic.

The Church, of course, will still gather to worship God. The Holy Spirit will see to that. Perhaps, on that day, we’ll have a better sense of who we are, what we need, and why we assemble in his name.

Monday of the Fourth Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 323

Yet all these, though approved because of their faith,
did not receive what had been promised.
God had foreseen something better for us,
so that without us they should not be made perfect

The Author of the Letter to the Hebrews, as he urged his congregation to greater fidelity, reminded them of the sacrifices made by their forebears. These very people had already passed through a severe time of persecution; they had sacrificed much as their families, neighbors and fellow citizens disowned anyone who called on the name of Jesus. He worried that their zeal would flag under the burdens of prosperity and security.

Many years later, we know the Age of Persecution had not ended. This congregation of “Hebrews” would face even more severe ostracisms, imprisonment and martyrdom. The Author could not see the future but he knew those who fail to discipline themselves during the good times will renounce their faith in the hard times.

Many people today complain about their disappointment in God, faith and religion. They claim to be atheists because, they say, God has failed them. It’s not polite to ask, “How sacrificial was your practice of religion when you did attend the Church?” Very often, as they recount their stories, I hear of smoking, drinking and adolescent rebellion – which continue into late life. They would not even quit smoking, despite all the warnings, because it is somewhat uncomfortable. As you sow so shall you reap. Their complaints sound both pathetic and ridiculous.

The Lord urges us to strive to enter through the narrow gate. We must not relax our religious practice because we’re not suffering persecution now. The first amendment right to “freedom of religion” loses its authority if no one practices religion. Faith: use it or lose it.

Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 70

He began to teach them, saying:
"Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven...

In today's gospel, Jesus has ascended the mountain and taken his seat to teach his disciples. The site recalls Mount Sinai; and his manner evokes Moses. 

He is the long awaited prophet of whom Moses spoke: A prophet like me will the LORD, your God, raise up for you from among your own kindred; that is the one to whom you shall listen. 

With overwhelming sadness Deuteronomy concluded, " Since then no prophet has arisen in Israel like Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face....

This moment in Saint Matthew's Gospel represents ecstatic joy for us. We have passed through the preliminaries of his birth, baptism, testing in the desert, gathering disciples, and his healing of "all who were sick with various diseases and racked with pain, those who were possessed, lunatics, and paralytics...." 

Now at last, he opens his mouth and speaks to us. He enunciates more than a set of commandments like that of Moses; Jesus pronounces Blessings on his Beloved. 

The Beatitudes are a new kind of law. It's clear from the mountaintop setting and the prophetic gesture that Jesus gives us a new way of life. It might justifiably be called a "new law." But it doesn't simply govern our external and internal behavior like the original Ten Commandments. The Decalogue insisted we should love and worship the Lord God; we should honor our elderly parents; we should never commit certain unconscionable sins (murder, adultery, theft, false witness); and we should govern our thoughts as well, avoiding covetousness. 

The Beatitudes go far beyond the Ten Commandments. They descend upon us like a heavenly home; they describe a mansion in which the Blessed abide. No one will be alone in this house for it is filled with the Presence -- the Shekinah -- of the Triune God. 

This "house" is the Church, of course, the assembly, the People of God. We encounter the Church at its best in the liturgy, when we gather to worship God. The Mass, the Sacraments, Eucharistic Adoration, and the Liturgy of the Hours: these gatherings of the people around the altar describe a life that begins on earth and opens into heaven. 

Each of the Beatitudes invites us to ponder the mystery of life in the Trinity. They intentionally and obviously contradict expectations of this world. No one has considered the poor, those who mourn, the meek or those who pine for righteousness to be fortunate. In most human experience they are regarded as cursed. Best avoided, they are despised. 

But as the Beatitudes embrace and gather us in Divine Worship, we realize every human being has known the isolation of these apparent curses. We have kept these secrets in shame, for fear of the contempt of friends, neighbors and strangers. We have not permitted others to know what goes on under our roofs and behind our front doors. 

Now, at last, in God's house, we can live without shame and receive the Blessings, the Beatitudes, which flow from his mouth. We can live without fear and in Communion with one another. 

Memorial of Saint Thomas Aquinas, Priest and Doctor

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, for those who speak thus show that they are seeking a homeland.

Back in 1970, a futurist, Alvin Toffler, published Future Shock. Borrowing from the then-popular phrase, "culture shock," the book described people who have seen too much change in their lives -- technological, political, cultural -- and have lost their ability to adapt with the changing times. Even if they live close to their place of birth, their once familiar environment has become alien and uncomfortable and promises to become ever more unfamiliar.  

I supposed that I was keeping up with "the changes" 46 years ago, when Toffler's book was published. But I considered myself in the vanguard of liturgical changes in the Roman Catholic Church. Shortly after I was ordained in 1975, assigned to hear confessions in the traditional "box," I hung up a handwritten sign, "I am prepared to use the revised Rite of Penance." That included a reading from scripture at the beginning of the ceremony, and a doxology at the end -- "Give thanks to the Lord for he is good. His mercy endures forever." 

In the forty-one years since then I don't remember anyone sharing that new formula with me. Many people seem to agree with the Gospel of Saint Luke, " one who has been drinking old wine desires new, for he says, ‘The old is good.’” 

Since then, I have to admit, my world has become even less familiar. I might blame technology for the changes but they are deeper than that: I prefer participation to spectator sports; handshakes to hand bumps; conversation to violence; coffee to cocaine; and a commonwealth to the third world gap between wealth and poverty. 

The nation that promised equality to men and women of all races has reverted to its original sins of racism, sexism, classism and militarism. When a president loses the popular vote and claims to have won the election by a landslide, I know I am a stranger and alien on earth... seeking a homeland. 

By faith (Abraham) sojourned in the promised land as in a foreign country . He was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and maker is God. He saw it and greeted it from afar. 

Christians can never be very comfortable in our world. Our rituals will always be suspect; our values, odd; and our courtesies, disconcerting. We worship a God who preferred poverty to wealth and homelessness to security. But, by faith, we can see where we're going; and our neighbors cannot. For that reason, our hope guides us even in a foreign land. 

PS: Yesterday President Trump "closed the nation’s borders to refugees from around the world, ordering that families fleeing the slaughter in Syria be indefinitely blocked from entering the United States, and temporarily suspending immigration from several predominantly Muslim countries."
If persecuting Muslims appeals to his base, expect him to widen his witch hunt to all who speak the Truth. We should hope that many Catholics will be among them.

Friday of the Third Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 321

"This is how it is with the Kingdom of God;
it is as if a man were to scatter seed on the land and would sleep and rise night and day
and the seed would sprout and grow,
he knows not how. Of its own accord the land yields fruit, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear.

Perhaps it was the great German psychiatrist Karl Jung who persuaded me that we really don't know what's going on. As I recall, he differed with Sigmund Freud's idea of a "subconscious." Jung believed there is a great "unconscious" which drives much of our behavior. We think we're doing certain things for certain reasons but we really are clueless about our true motives and true aims. 

Jung went further, trying to create a "map" of the unconscious. He found common symbols and legends in the dreams of his psychiatric clients. Though they didn't know one another their dreams were similar, and their dreams resembled certain ancient myths and images that art historians trace through thousands of years. These archetypes are common to all nations and ethnic peoples; they are rooted in our human consciousness rather than any cultural experience.    

These impulses, which are largely unconscious, drive us to act in certain patterns which are not entirely rational, which would defy explanation without Jung's "archetypes." 

Jesus' parable of the farmer who scatters seed on the land and cannot explain how it germinates, sprouts, flowers and bears fruit should remind us that we are pathetically ignorant of the larger plan. Given our short stature we cannot see beyond the horizon, and the horizon is very close. 

  • How could executives of German automaker Volkswagen -- presumably intelligent and certainly overpaid -- have thought they could cheat on American EPA standards and get away with it? How close was their horizon that they could not see the inevitable? 
  • How can speculators -- including international banks -- be caught up in inflationary cycles time after time and not recognize them until they collapse? 
  • How could so many investors not recognize Bernie Madoff's Ponzi scheme? No one can pay ten percent dividends year after year! 
  • How can our intelligence communities not see popular movements in Iraq, England or the United States and not expect the upheavals? (The overthrow of the Shah, Brexit, Trump) 

The simple explanation, of course, is Original Sin. I simply cannot see how my greed, lust, avarice, cowardice or envy distorts my vision and drives my behavior. The Blessed will recognize their blindness in retrospect; though many people never have even that much insight. 

The Holy Spirit teaches us to be suspicious of our motives and ask God for guidance day by day. Perhaps we may learn from experience, which has been defined as, "Recognizing that I've made this mistake before." 

Memorial of Saints Timothy and Titus, bishops

Lectionary: 520/320

For there is nothing hidden except to be made visible;
nothing is secret except to come to light.

This proverb is especially meaningful in the Gospel of Saint Mark, but it strikes a chord in our ordinary experience. Secrets nearly always come out. People may intend to take certain knowledge to the grave and even if they manage to do it, their secrets persist as closeted skeletons, ghosts of uncertainty that haunt the family.

But more often secrets are discovered. I think of William Styron’s novel, All the Kings Men, and Willie Stark’s advice: “Jack, there’s something on everybody. Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption. He passes from the stink of the dydie to the stench of the shroud. There’s always something.” In that quintessentially American novel, a roman à clef about Louisiana governor Huey Long, the politician Willie Stark is determined to discover whatever he can about his opponents. Everyone has a secret; if I know what it is I can control him.
Most Veterans of combat prefer not to speak of their experience. Their stories are capsuled in grief, shame, guilt and fear. They may be willing to talk about them, but not today. Someday, tomorrow, not right now. The feelings are too intense. But their families and closest friends – if they have not alienated everyone – know there are certain things they do not talk about. Intimates see the tight lips and clamped jaws; they witness the nightmares, night sweats and flailing startle reflex. Many Combat Veterans experience great relief, even healing, when they tell their loved ones what happened.

Secrets are the shadows that trail our every step. They disappear only in complete darkness. Many of us, comfortable within our managed world of family, friends and acquaintances, might deny we keep secrets until someone asks an impertinent question, and we break into a sweat. In that moment we discover the limits of our trust; we may have discovered an opportunity for grace.

Saint Mark presents the Gospel as a kind of secret. When Jesus healed the leper in chapter two he told the fellow to tell no one what had happened; and the fellow told everyone. Someone might ask, “What was Jesus hiding?”

We could suppose he knew the people’s expectations and that he could not fulfill them. He would not lead a revolutionary army, not even a sacred one. He would not throw out the Roman army; he would not be the King of Jerusalem. His “secret” was that he was the messiah, the Christ; but not that kind of Christ. That’s to speak of Jesus on a political level.

More importantly, the secret of the gospel is not easily grasped. In fact, no one can claim to know or own the gospel. Some people think they know the secret, and they know nothing. As the Buddhist say, "Those who know do not say; those who say, do not know." This is why it's so difficult to say exactly what the Gospel is. 

Our deepest desire is that we might be known by the Secret; that its mystery might inform our desires, ambitions and longings. Being known and owned by the Gospel relieves us of all other secrets. Shame, grief, guilt, remorse: these shadows retreat in the Light of Revelation. 

Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul, Apostle

Lectionary: 519

Since I could see nothing because of the brightness of that light, I was led by hand by my companions and entered Damascus.

Saint Paul was one-hundred percent sure of what he was doing as he hounded and harassed Christians -- until he wasn’t. Suddenly he went blind. He had seen a light and heard a voice and nothing made sense anymore. Wisely, he let himself be led by the hand as he entered Damascus.
Blind people, in my experience, do not like to be led by the hand. It’s more polite to offer your elbow and let the blind person walk beside you with the freedom to let go your arm whenever he chooses.

But Saint Paul was led like a little child by the hand. All of his adult confidence had vanished.
I am currently reading a “biography” of Jesus. It’s an attempt to get inside the mind of Jesus and explain what he thought he was doing. The author, a professional novelist venturing outside his field, picks and chooses incidents from the gospels, reorganizes them in ways that make sense to him, agrees with some highly respected scripture scholars and disagrees with others.
He assumes that Jesus was driven by an idea, “the love of God and the God of Love.” He concludes that Jesus voluntarily died in Jerusalem to persuade his disciples of his convictions about love.
I find it very romantic and nonsensical. The romantic ideal did not appear until the Middle Ages and took shape during the Enlightenment. Jesus did not die for an idea or an ideal; he never read Rousseau or Montaigne, much less Coleridge or Shelley. He would not throw himself on the barricades of Paris with the cry of Liberté, égalité, fraternité.
In human terms, I don’t suppose Jesus knew what he was doing. There is no explanation of his purpose in the gospels. For that matter, we’re not even sure why he was arrested, condemned and executed. The Evangelists recall some accusations but say his accusers contradicted one another and could not agree on anything. The machinery of Jesus’ death had been set in motion and did not have to explain itself to its operatives. In human terms, Jesus could only say what he said when Saint John hesitated to baptize him, "Allow it now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness."
Like Saint Paul, Jesus was being led by the hand to Jerusalem. Unlike my novelist friend, I see Jesus walking with confidence in the Spirit that is leading him. He prays continually and with every step his assurance grows. When he reached the Garden of Gethsemane, after a final paroxysm of mortal terror, he readily surrendered himself to the temple police. 

Why it had to be that way still defies explanation; “That it was the Father’s will” was perfectly clear. His willing spirit, his clear head and his calm spirit attested to its righteousness.
There are many 0ne-day-at-a-time days when you and I don't have all the information. We don't know the consequences of our decisions. There are many days when we must ask, "Precious Lord, take my hand, lead me on...." 

When the day came for Saint Paul to be executed, neither the first nor the last of Christian martyrs, he enjoyed that same confidence.

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

Lectionary: 318

Since the law has only a shadow of the good things to come, and not the very image of them, it can never make perfect
those who come to worship by the same sacrifices that they offer continually each year.

The older I get the more fascinated I am by “the law.” I am far less inclined to “experiment” with the rituals of the Mass than I was forty years ago. I know it’s not my Mass; I am only an administrator of the mysteries. I find more satisfaction in reading the Liturgy of the Hours than in private devotion, and even my private devotions have little spontaneity. I am content with reciting the rosary and recalling the traditional mysteries of each decade.

Old people like me tend to control religion; our memories are longer; our habits, more settled. New ideas and innovations are rarely new; we’ve heard them before. That's not necessarily a good thing. 

The Church in every age has been challenged to reimagine our faith and re-present it to a generation that has different experience and original perspectives. Today’s millennial (or mosaic) generation has a radically different experience than their parents and grandparents. They do not remember a world without the Internet, terrorism and cocaine. They understand social media. They don’t use email to write long, folksy letters to one another with all the news, weather and sports.

When I was young I had little interest in any spiritual or religious books that predated the Second Vatican Council. I understood that extraordinary gathering as a reset for everything we ever knew about God, Jesus and Church. Perhaps today’s millennials think of the Internet in the same way: history began with the computer; everything before is prologue.

In the earliest years of the Church, the Evangelists and New Testament Writers, like today's theologians, were charged with reimagining old religious traditions in the light of Jesus’ life, teachings, death and resurrection. Salvation History did not begin with him; but it had been fulfilled and had to be rewritten.

Jewish and gentile Christians agreed that the Jewish religion, as beautiful as it had been, was “only a shadow of the good things to come. It could “never make perfect those who come to worship by the same sacrifices” that had been offered in the temple for centuries. It’s over, done, kaput! When Jesus the Son of God said, “Behold I come to do your will!” everything changed.

I have no doubt that Jesus will continue to fascinate every generation from now till the end of time; I am sure the Church will remain as the “one, holy, catholic and apostolic” vessel which retains the spirit and presence of Jesus. With that confidence I need not insist that anyone should pray as I pray or think as I think. I leave those important matters to the Holy Spirit, confident that what the Lord has revealed to me will be manifest to others.

And I remain confident that the liturgical renewal of the Second Vatican Council has only begun. We have yet to to experience the beauty, grace and power of our restored liturgies. The ecumenical movement reuniting Catholic and Protestant, Roman and Orthodox will astonish the world with its Gospel proclamation.

Day of Prayer for the Legal Protection of Unborn Children

Lectionary: 317

Amen, I say to you, all sins and all blasphemies
that people utter will be forgiven them.
But whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit
will never have forgiveness,
but is guilty of an everlasting sin.

Today we remember the 1973 decision of the United States Supreme Court to fatally divide a nation over the issue of abortion, without reference to the intense discussions that were being carried out in fifty state legislatures. Their abrupt attempt to end discussion has only made the debate more divisive. The damage of their decision to the Republic rivals that of the 21st Amendment, prohibiting alcohol.

Abortion is certainly not an unforgivable sin. Sin, by definition, is forgivable. But many commit a very serious sin when they refuse to allow room for the Holy Spirit in their lives.

I heard a woman on the radio discuss her reasons to abort. Amniocentesis had revealed the possibility of a child with disabilities. She was sure she could not love such a child. Her husband said he would welcome the baby but agreed she could not. He saw his wife as spiritually handicapped, congenitally unwilling to make the sacrifices that parents routinely make.

It's hard to imagine such a marriage surviving. If they have a child she will eventually realize this human being, the fruit of her womb, is not her dream child. She will be disappointed  like every parent who ever brought "forth a child in pain." At some point she will discover that her husband is also disabled in some way and that she is incapable of loving him. She will remain the princess bride who never grew up.

Abortion is a sin against the grace which God offers to us as families, churches, neighborhoods, school districts and the nation. Legalized abortion cements our unwillingness to be stretched by opportunities.

Can anyone be surprised about the consequences of abortion: the epidemics of suicide and drug abuse? Children who might have been aborted, who discover their parents and grandparents discussed abortion before they were born, who might even be told in a moment of intense emotion, "I should have aborted you! Your grandmother begged me to!" -- such children are at risk from the day of their birth.

Abortion supposes that we can love when, where and how we choose to love. It supposes we can refuse to love and suffer no consequences. Abortion does not recognize that no one can love another human being without the extraordinary power of grace. Every human relationship is doomed to fail without divine intervention. Saint Augustine recognized that fallacy in Pelagianism, the heresy that we could save ourselves by self-discipline.

But we must not sin against the Holy Spirit. If we cannot imagine the United States or any other nation repenting of its sins against life, we must yet believe the Spirit of God will lead us through.

Third Sunday in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 67

Anguish has taken wing, dispelled is darkness:
for there is no gloom where but now there was distress.
The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom
a light has shone.
You have brought them abundant joy
and great rejoicing,
as they rejoice before you as at the harvest,
as people make merry when dividing spoils.

Today’s gospel begins with the terrifying news that John the Baptist has been arrested. We know that he will be imprisoned until Herod has him executed.

John was a religious man whose preaching stepped over the line into politics. So long as he kept his message vague – Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand – he was watched suspiciously by religious and civil authorities and left alone. He could harangue about the usual sins – gossip, petty thievery, cheating in the marketplace, neglecting the poor, the widowed and orphans -- but when he spoke about Herod’s marriage to his recently-widowed sister-in-law he violated the code.

People like to separate their lives into various compartments: political, personal, professional, emotional, family and so forth. Most of the time, in daily management of their affairs, this compartmentalization works well enough. Problems in one area don’t have to trouble one’s whole life; and we can often draw great satisfaction from one area while another one causes intense frustration. When work gets too difficult just pull out the photos of the grandchildren and take a break.

Herod liked to hear John’s preaching; the wild-eyed prophet was very entertaining until he crossed the line.

When John was arrested Jesus stepped forward with the same message, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” But his announcement more than overstepped compartmental boundaries, he called his disciples to leave their fishing and their families and follow him. His kingdom of heaven would be an entirely new way of life, a new organizing principle for all of one’s compartments.

In today’s gospel Jesus appears as a light shining in darkness.
the people who sit in darkness have seen a great light, on those dwelling in a land overshadowed by death
light has arisen.
This is the same light the magi saw from afar and found in Bethlehem. It is a joyous, happy light; it resonates with springtime, new life and new opportunities. Darkness has vanished, a new day has begun.

Most Christians remember the day they stepped out of that darkness into the light of Christ. They invited the light to shine in every hidden compartment of their lives, to reveal and govern their money, their eating, their exercise, their entertainment, work, ambitions, goals and relationships. The old ways of managing and micromanaging and keeping secrets between their separate lives were not working for them. They remember the amazing new freedom of this way of life, that they can let grace operate and manage what they cannot.

The gospel invites us today to remember the freedom of the children of God as we step into this new year. There will be many challenges and some of them daunting. But nothing will happen this year that God cannot handle, especially when I get out of the way

Memorial of Saint Agnes, Virgin and Martyr

Lectionary: 316

...he entered once for all into the sanctuary, not with the blood of goats and calves but with his own Blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption.

As the Church celebrates the victory of the Virgin Martyr Agnes we hear of Jesus entering the Heavenly Holy of Holies, with his own Blood. 
these are the ones who follow the Lamb wherever he goes. They have been ransomed as the firstfruits of the human race for God and the Lamb
Martyrs of every age assure us that the Spirit of God is still with us. 

Since time immemorial people have complained that the old days were better. "People were more heroic and virtuous at one time, but these times are decadent and morals are corrupt." 

It's not hard to agree with that complaint until we hear of someone murdered, executed or imprisoned for the faith. It may be Christians in Syria or Iraq, victims of ISIL. Or it may be protestors in the United States, jailed for civil disobedience in defense of the unborn, the elderly, defenseless or despised. 

Inevitably, some religious persons will sneer at these people. I say to that, "If the Church can't find someone to persecute our martyrs, we'll do it ourselves." 

Christians spend their lives preparing for that moment when the Spirit might call us to give courageous witness , when we must speak truth to power. Most of our lives we pray to do the right thing in ordinary circumstances; for gentleness toward children and patience with the elderly and forbearance toward strangers. Sometimes we pray for an understanding heart toward those with whom we disagree politically or religiously. We practice scrupulous honesty in financial matters, paying our fair share of taxes and giving generously to the Church and other worthy causes. 

All in preparation for that day when we might be singled out for our fidelity and forced to stand before civil or religious authorities and give our testimony. It might not happen even in our lifetime, but it will come. Our children might remember our heroic witness when the authorities come for them.  

The Age of Martyrs has never ended; it never will. We will always need them to assure us that the Spirit of Jesus resides among us. 

Friday of the Second Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 315

Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord,
when I will conclude a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.
It will not be like the covenant I made with their fathers the day I took them by the hand to lead
them forth from the land of Egypt;

In today's first reading the Author of Hebrews recalls the prophecy of Jeremiah, that God would create a new covenant with his people. 

Clearly, in the time of Jeremiah, the time had come for a new covenant. The covenant people took for granted was promised to King David and his descendants. The King would rule in Jerusalem over the nation of Judah and its capital Jerusalem forever

Forever is a very long time. It doesn't seem so very long when one is living in the present. Why should not the United States dominate the world's military, economic, social and political landscapes forever? But historically, forever is too much to expect. Three thousand years after the death of King David, 2400 years after the end of his descendants ruled in Jerusalem, forever sounds like an impossible dream. From this perspective we can be astonished that David's heirs ruled as long as they did, especially in that part of the world. 

By the time of Jeremiah, David's kingdom was collapsing under the invasions of Syrians, Babylonians, Persians and Egyptians. Greeks and Romans would add to their national distress. 

The old order was passing away; a new kind of religion was called for, one which might be practiced in the Jewish home or town far from Jerusalem. The devout Jew might make the pilgrimage to the Holy City once in a lifetime from Babylonia, Egypt or Spain, but they would have to practice their religion in far different ways than they had while Judah lasted.

In today's gospel we hear of Jesus' establishing his new covenant by naming twelve apostles. This symbolic number recalled the twelve sons of Jacob and the legendary twelve tribes of Israel. That particular amphyctiony flourished during the time of the Judges and disappeared when King David established his kingdom in Jerusalem, about 1000 BC. 

Jesus' Twelve Apostles survived only a little while. After the death of Judas Iscariot, the apostles invited Matthias to take his place; but as a group they disappeared when James (the Greater) was beheaded. No one was appointed to take his place and the twelve did not appear as a group even when Peter, James (the Lesser) and Paul met in Jerusalem for the first "council" of the Church. 

Through all these historic changes the Lord is faithful to his word, "Remember, I am with you always." He had promised his abiding presence to Abraham and his descendants, to Moses in the desert, to David and his heirs, and to the Church. Human institutions appear and disappear but the Word of God abides forever. 

Thursday of the Second Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 314

They worship in a copy and shadow of the heavenly sanctuary, 
as Moses was warned when he was about to erect the tabernacle.
For God says, "See that you make everything 
according to the pattern shown you on the mountain." 
Now he has obtained so much more  excellent a ministry as he is mediator of a better covenant, enacted on better promises.

Someone asked me, "Isn't Mary like a symbol of the Church?" 
I replied, "If I offered you a picture of an ice cream cone and an ice cream cone, which would you take?" 
Mary is not a symbol, a "copy and shadow" of our gracious God, she is the Mother of God and our mother. 

The Letter to the Hebrews reminds us how Christians have always been tempted to back away from full-throated belief and invest in copies and shadows
Our author points to the sacrifices offered in the recently demolished temple of Jerusalem. They were only copies and shadows of the real sacrifice -- the ur-sacrifice -- which was offered by Jesus outside the walls of Jerusalem. We need not regret the destruction of the temple because Jesus has offered the sacrifice which has -- once and for all -- atoned for sin. 
So is the Mass then like the sacrifices in the Jewish temple, only a copy and shadow of the one sacrifice? 
Catholics understand our Mass as a participation in the One Sacrifice. Gathered into his Body by Baptism, we offer ourselves as he offered his body on the cross, by eating his flesh and drinking his blood. This is not a copy and shadow, a sort-of-like; it is our immediate immersion in Jesus who presents us with himself to the Father. 
Although Jesus died only once for our salvation, we are swept into his salvation by being baptized into his death and by our eating and drinking at his altar. 
Our liturgy -- the Mass, the Sacraments and the Liturgy of the Hours -- is that more excellent ministry which he has obtained as the mediator of a better covenant, enacted on better promises
Our hope is not in a vague idea that perhaps God -- if there is a God -- will listen to our prayers, which are only copies and shadows of Jesus' prayer. 
Our hope is the rope which binds us to the anchor who is Jesus, as he has passed through the veil of death and entered the Sanctuary. 
If the sailor cannot actually see -- through the veil of the water's surface -- the anchor resting on the sea bottom, he is nonetheless sure of its being there. Our daily prayer, united with the universal prayer of the Church, is that cable which ties us to Christ. 
Each day -- five days a week at the VA hospital and two days a week at home -- I spend time in the chapel with the Mass and the Liturgy of the Hours. Often, at the VA, I administer the Sacrament of the Sick; and occasionally, the Liturgy of Penance. I always remind the Veteran that the entire Church is praying with us for his healing and forgiveness. 
Occasionally, my faith takes a battering as I meet contempt and skepticism. (It doesn't happen often but my self-confidence is fragile.) Then I return to the chapel and prayer to feel the strength of that anchor cable. 
I love you, LORD, my strength, LORD, my rock, my fortress, my deliverer, my God, my rock of refuge, my shield, my saving horn, my stronghold!

Wednesday of the Second Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 313

You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.

Yesterday I wrote of the liturgy as an anchor of faith. With the cable of prayer that reaches through the veil our storm-tossed vessel holds its position in a turbulent sea.

As wave after wave of unexpected, unprecedented change falls upon us – the Atomic Age, the Computer Age, the Internet Age, the social media age – Catholics celebrate a ritual that remembers the 20th century as well as the first century and innumerable centuries before Christ.

Our calendar of prayer recalls saints of both recent and ancient past; in many cases we find their disciples – Benedictines, Franciscans, Sisters of Charity and so forth – are still among us. Faulkner might have been speaking of the Church when he said, “The past is never dead; it’s not even past.”

In today’s readings I find another critically important link to a past that is, for all practical purposes, prehistoric; that is the cryptic verse from Psalm 110: “You are a priest forever in the line of Melchizedek.”
Soon after King Solomon’s death in the ninth century bc, his kingdom split in two. King Jeroboam and the more prosperous “northern kingdom” of Israel separated from Judah. The southern kingdom with King Rehoboam, the legitimate heir of David, was poorer but retained the Holy City of Jerusalem, its fabulous temple, and the most sacred Ark of the Covenant.

The “Jerusalem establishment” of priests and prophets with their Davidic king denounced the worship of the northern kingdom as pagan idolatry. Jerusalem claimed to be the only legitimate place to offer sacrifice to God. A thousand years later it was still a sore spot between Jews and Samaritans. You’ll recall the Samaritan woman asking Jesus about that controversy.

The religion of the northern kingdom disappeared long ago, especially with the Syrian invasion and the deportation of the "lost tribes of Israel." The Jerusalem tradition continued in the Temple until 70AD. Some people might see that as the victory of the Establishment over the Spirit but we see the hand of God in that accident of history.
Jerusalem’s based its religious authority on the Ark of the Covenant and Solomon's temple, the Levitical priests who settled permanently in Jerusalem, the promise made to King David and his descendants, and on Genesis 14 and the story of Melchizedek:
When Abram returned from his defeat of Chedorlaomer and the kings who were allied with him, the king of Sodom went out to greet him in the Valley of Shaveh (that is, the King’s Valley).
Melchizedek, king of Salem,
brought out bread and wine. He was a priest of God Most High. He blessed Abram with these words: “Blessed be Abram by God Most High, the creator of heaven and earth; And blessed be God Most High, who delivered your foes into your hand.” Then Abram gave him a tenth of everything. Genesis 14:17-20
The psalms were the official hymns of the Jerusalem Temple; and Psalm 110, a “royal psalm,” describes homage to the king. It is addressed by an inferior official to the king:
The LORD says to my lord: “Sit at my right hand, while I make your enemies your footstool. The scepter of your might: the LORD extends your strong scepter from Zion. Have dominion over your enemies! Yours is princely power from the day of your birth. In holy splendor before the daystar, like dew I begot you. The LORD has sworn and will not waver: “You are a priest forever in the manner of Melchizedek.”

Do you follow me so far? At the time of Christ, the official Jewish religion “anchored” its priesthood partly in Melchizedek, the priest-king of Salem (Jerusalem) who blessed Abraham and received a tithe of his trophies. He had neither children nor parents -- no descendants or family to link him to the present City -- but remained as a sacred presence in the Holy City. His priesthood preceded Levi and the levitical priesthood! A priest of Jerusalem was also a priest in the line of Melchizedek. 
So Jesus was crucified and raised up and revealed as the Son of God. There was enormous upheaval as many Jews joined with gentiles to create a new religion. But the authors of the New Testament insisted that Jesus did not represent a break with the past. They used innumerable citations from the Hebrew Scriptures to demonstrate Christian continuity with the past. 

On the contrary, Pharisaic scrupulosity, based in the synagogue rather than the temple, was not the true tradition. Christianity was not a kind of protestantism attempting to reform an unfaithful Jewish church; it was the true Church which was abandoned by pseudo-traditionalists who had lost their way. 
The Letter to the Hebrews recognizes Jesus not only as the Son of David and legitimate heir to the throne; he is also the high priest who enters God’s presence in the heavenly sanctuary to offer his own body and blood. Although Jesus of Nazareth was not a Levite he is a priest by way of his spiritual ancestor Melchizedek who, not incidentally, offered bread and wine. The Author of Hebrews saw in the King of Salem a critical link to Abraham, the Father of Faith, who preceded even Moses the Lawgiver. 

The Church, following Hebrews, has always capitalized on this prehistoric icon. When I was ordained in 1975 a choir of one hundred voices raised the roof with, “Tu es Sacérdos in aeternum secundum ordinem Melchizedeck!” (You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedeck.)

The priesthood in the Catholic Church, like all our sacraments, is anchored through the veil of time to an ancient past. Despite the bewildering changes of the present moment, including the superficial changes in our religious practice (Latin to English, etc) the priesthood of the Catholic Church remains in aeternum as a witness to God's fidelity. 

When I bless a wounded warrior in the VA hospital, I reenact in a not-distant way the King of Salem’s blessing of the victorious Abraham. When I offer bread and wine on the chapel altar, I recall a ritual that has been presented millions of times through hundreds of years to the One God who presides over our history and remembers everything. 

Times have changed but our faith has not. Melchizedek still offers bread and wine, his body and blood, to the God of Abraham. 

Memorial of Saint Anthony, Abbot

Lectionary: 312

This we have as an anchor of the soul, sure and firm, which reaches into the interior behind the veil, where Jesus has entered on our behalf as forerunner, becoming high priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.

I went fishing with two old buddies of mine several years ago. Reaching a promising spot, Leo asked me to throw the anchor into the water, which I did with all competence. A half-hour later, finding that the fish weren't biting here, Leo told me to pull the anchor up. But there was no rope. The anchor and rope were lost in six feet of water. 
Leo could hardly believe I tossed the anchor without checking to see if it was tied to the gunwale. I was equally surprised that it hadn't been. Apparently he didn't keep it in the boat at night. In any case I was the goat and we were adrift.
Denizens of the Mediterranean world were far more familiar with anchors than this midwestern kid. At that time, without so much as a compass to navigate, sailors kept in sight of the shore as they sailed. When there was a friendly city nearby they went into port at night; if there wasn't they anchored the craft and waited for sunrise. 
As the anchor sinks it seems to disappear "into the interior behind the veil" of the watery surface. Its flukes will dig into the sandy bottom and hold the ship against wind and sea currents. Waking in the morning the sailors will be reassured to see the same coastline they knew the night before. 

The world is a lot less familiar to us today than the Mediterranean was to antique sailors. Even as demagogues assure us they have a plan and know where they're leading us, we go to bed each night with the sinking feeling that we are adrift.

I look to our faith. I ponder the "law of Moses, the prophets and psalms." With the Church I sing psalms, hymns, and inspired songs. I pay particular attention to the liturgical feast days and seasons. 
In the hospital I administer the Sacraments to our Veterans, assuring them that they have not been lost in the sight of God or the Church. 
I like to recite the Franciscan Crown -- our version of the Rosary -- daily; remembering the joyful, luminous, sorrowful and joyful mysteries. 
This is not the first time in history that God's people have felt uncertain of the future. Read the Prophet Jeremiah for that, and especially his 29th chapter

So long as we're anchored by the Spirit of Prayer, we are not adrift. I don't know the Plan but I am sure God has one, and it's beautiful:
For I know well the plans I have in mind for you.... plans for your welfare and not for woe, so as to give you a future of hope. When you call me, and come and pray to me, I will listen to you. Jeremiah 29