Friday of the Twelfth Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 375

God further said to Abraham: "As for your wife Sarai, do not call her Sarai; her name shall be Sarah. I will bless her, and I will give you a son by her. Him also will I bless; he shall give rise to nations, and rulers of peoples shall issue from him."

I find significance in God's instruction to Abraham, "Her name shall be Sarah!" 

A name is a relationship. Somewhere in this endless blog I have offered that thesis. If a human being could live alone in the wilderness out of contact with all other people she would need no name. There would be no one to call her by name. 

When Adam named the creatures he appointed their significance to human beings. Notice he was given the privilege of naming the woman God had given to him: "The man gave his wife the name “Eve,” because she was the mother of all the living." 

When God names her Sarah God claims a relationship with the wife of Abraham that the patriarch must respect. Though he may certainly use the name, it wasn't his name for her, nor was she his personal property. 

Sarah's independence would become pretty clear once Isaac was born. Although she had appointed Hagar to bear Abraham's only heir, albeit an illegitimate one; once Isaac was born Hagar and the bastard had to leave. Sarah would not abide them in the camp with her son and her husband. Abraham might feel pity for the slave and her child but he had to obey his wife. 

Several thousand years later we still struggle to stabilize and normalize the relationship of husband and wife, men and women. One approach is to deny there is any difference between men and women. Both can be lawyers, doctors and teachers; both can be soldiers, boxers and priests. Can both be mother and father? I know one woman who appeared to be "the husband of her wife" until she also had a baby. (I didn't ask how that happened.)

To make sense of it all, Abraham took his cue from God. There's some wisdom there. 

Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul, Apostles

Mass during the Day: Lectionary: 591

Simon Peter said in reply, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God."
Jesus said to him in reply, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father. And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.

The practice of our Christian faith demands a peculiar mixing of faith in God and faith in people. 
We know of Jesus only because the Church has faithfully announced the Gospel through these many centuries. The pure, unpolluted fountain of God's word still gushes into the air like the geyser Old Faithful; its water falls upon thirsty believers gathered in congregations as well as curious passers-by. 
But it doesn't take much investigation to discover the impurity of the church's members and leaders. Sooner or later, every believer must come to terms with that. 
I see Jesus speaking to that challenge when he blesses Saint Peter. The apostle has been deeply impressed with the presence and teaching of Jesus. He devoutly -- mistakenly -- believes he would follow this great man even into martyrdom. On that quiet country road in "the region of Caesarea Philippi" he takes his stand before the Lord and the other disciples. "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." he says without hesitation. 
But Jesus assures him, "...flesh and blood has not revealed this to you." Despite whatever he may be thinking about his relationship with the Galilean, his faith is not founded on his personal experience. It is a gift from "my heavenly Father." 
Many people are distressed about the Church today. I hear complaints many times a week, if not every day, in the VA hospital. Some can complain about what they've heard on television; a few have read it in the newspapers; occasionally an individual Veteran has tragic, personal experience. 
But I also meet many Veterans and their families who wholeheartedly support the Church and its priests, deacons and lay ministers. They've read the same newspapers; some have had bitter personal experience. They stand apart because they have been inspired by the Heavenly Father who lavishes the Holy Spirit upon them. 
They manage that peculiar mixing of faith in God and faith in human beings. 
Perhaps it begins with forgiving one's parents. Everyone of us deserved perfect parents, and they deserved perfect children. But we've learned to love the actual parents and children we were given. Even the those who are criminally flawed and do unspeakable damage often win forgiveness from their families. This too is God's work. Forgiveness cannot happen without an outpouring of grace. 
The Father and the Holy Spirit continually direct our attention back to Jesus, the head of the Church. Love without naivete, sentiment or illusion is all more beautiful. The gates of the netherworld cannot prevail against it. 

Memorial of Saint Irenaeus, Bishop and Martyr

Lectionary: 373

"Fear not, Abram!
I am your shield;
I will make your reward very great."

Mysterium tremendum et fascinans! The German theologian/philosopher, Rudolf Otto, in his book The Idea of the Holy, described the encounter with the sacred as numinous, "having a strong religious or spiritual quality; indicating or suggesting the presence of a divinity.
First, it was mysterious, a word he used technically and carefully. The mysterious is something or someone who is other than myself. Meeting this other, I realize I have no authority, power or control over that presence. In fact, rather than approaching this mysterious person, I have been approached by the mystery and discovered myself in that one's presence. 
Secondly this experience is tremendum, meaning not just enormous but terrifying. I tremble, the earth tremors! I fear being swallowed up by this numinous personage whom I cannot see or touch or hear, and yet who sees, hears and touches me. 
Finally, it is fascinans. It is so beautiful, delightful, desirable, pleasing I cannot turn away. I want it; I want this moment to never end. But I can neither control nor manage it. The moment ends as unexpectedly as it began, leaving one with a memory that may be shattering and exhilarating. 
Despite its extraordinary affects, encounters with the numinous are not unusual. Many, perhaps most, people have such an experience although, in the rush of modern life, they may have ignored or forgotten it. 
The Scriptures describe many encounters with God. Today's first reading from the Book of Genesis describes that moment in the life of Abraham, "our father in faith." Moses stood before a burning bush; Joshua met an angel who led a legion of warrior angels, Gideon watched an angel ascend in a pillar of fire; Samuel heard a voice in the night; Isaiah saw the Lord Sabaoth sitting on his throne in the temple, Peter snared an enormous school of fish, Paul heard a voice on the road to Damascus, John of Patmos had visions. 
But the overwhelming experience is not given as a prize for good behavior or as a present to God's beloved. Nor are they intended just for the prophet. There is always a message and a commission. In today's passage from Genesis, the Lord promises the newly-renamed Abraham, "Look up at the sky and count the stars, if you can. Just so, shall your descendants be."
These incidents are historical; they belong not to the individual seer but to the seer's community and to the whole world. 
From today's Genesis story, we realize we are among those millions of Abraham's descendants. Christians have been grafted onto his Jewish line by baptism into his son Jesus. The Lord does not forget his promises to anyone, and certainly not to Abraham. If it were necessary, God could raise up descendants for the Patriarch from the stones of Jerusalem! His mercy is superabundant; it is beyond human comprehension. When we cannot imagine how God will make good on his promise or deliver us from whatever scrape, the failure is not God's but that of our imagination. We have only to watch! 
Secondly, every Christian should examine his own life and recall the moment when God spoke to her, a moment that was exhilarating, eerie, delightful and fearful. "Who spoke to me? What did I hear?" and perhaps, "What should I do in response?" 
The moment and the memory are healing and consoling. At last I know I am loved by God. It is also commissioning. I have been sent to tell others of the wonders I have seen. Ite, missa est! Go, you are sent!

Tuesday of the Twelfth Week in Ordinary Time

Saint Cyril of Alexandria

Lectionary: 372

So Abram said to Lot:
"Let there be no strife between you and me, or between your herdsmen and mine, for we are kinsmen. Is not the whole land at your disposal? Please separate from me. If you prefer the left, I will go to the right; if you prefer the right, I will go to the left."

When I was a boy, Mom sometimes set out a piece of cake or pie and allowed us to share it. When there were only two of us, she said one should cut the piece in half and the other should make the first choice. When I did the cutting, you can imagine the care I took to make sure the pie was cut precisely in half! I could not have been more careful with a caliper and balancing scales! Generosity and magnanimity took a backseat to fairness and justice. I wanted as much as I could get!

In today's first reading we hear of Abram's generosity to his nephew Lot. When he offered the young man the first choice, Lot chose the more attractive fertile valley and residence in the city of Sodom. The lad seemed to have a penchant for bad choices.

Abram accepted the high country with steep hills, narrow ridges and thin soil. There he would pasture his sheep, search for water and take refuge from enemies. It was from the hilltop he watched the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, even as Lot and his family scampered back to the hills.

Common sense might suppose that Lot had made the better choice. Why not choose the wider meadows with lush green grass? Hindsight sometimes shows the better choice was the worse.

Abram didn't choose the high country; he chose to give Lot the first choice. He chose to live with the consequences and see how God might work it out.

My reflections are influenced Luke Timothy Johnson's book, Prophetic Jesus, Prophetic Church about the Acts of the Apostles. He shows how the disciples felt the immediate presence of the Holy Spirit after the Ascension in the same way they had known the incarnate Jesus before his crucifixion. Where the Spirit sent them they went. What the Spirit prompted they did. What the Spirit said they repeated.

Doctor Johnson complains against a Church which seems to have lost that compliant, ready obedience. We too often prefer practical common sense. Our budgets should be balanced; our defenses should be strong; our preparations should be in place; nothing should be left to chance.

There's not much room for the Spirit there, and little expectation of Divine Providence.
Even at this early stage of Abram's apprenticeship with God -- his name has not yet been changed to Abraham -- he demonstrates an open-minded readiness to let God demonstrate his Providential Care. It begins with deference to a reckless nephew.

Monday of the Twelfth Week in Ordinary Time

The LORD said to Abram:
"Go forth from the land of your kinsfolk
and from your father's house to a land that I will show you.

Our readings from today until July 15 are from the Book of Genesis. We have already heard stories of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and the flood, and the Tower of Babel. The first eleven chapters of Genesis may be called a history of sin. In God's call to Abraham Salvation History begins. Or, at least, we may say, Salvation History resumes since Creation itself is a saving work of God.

Jewish theology insists we would know nothing of God if God did not speak to us. From prehistoric times, amid a roil of competing nations and their panoplies of gods, the Jews clung to the Lord. This God had set them apart from every other people and nation and revealed a name they did not dare to speak.

It all began with God's call to Abram, as we hear in today's selection from Genesis 12. Eventually, through hundreds of years of human history Christians and Muslims will inherit a reverence and devotion to the same God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

Sometimes, as I have heard or read teachings about Revelation, the authors and speakers seem to be talking about information about God rather than the knowledge of God. The distinction is important. I may have some information, or data, about a person but not know him. Data may be stored in books and computer files. It may be processed, broken down into facts, sorted with similar details, and measured as statistics.

Knowledge belongs to a person. If I had worked as a carpenter most of my life I might say, "I know carpentry." If I have done research and arrived at a certain conclusion I may say, "I know this." If I share the research with others, they may know it.

Knowledge of a person means I have a particular relationship with that person. It may include facts but I cannot say I know someone if I have never actually met the her. Nor does the sum total of much information add up to knowledge of  her, though people may say, "I feel like I know her."

Knowledge is infinite; I can never come to the end of knowing a person. But I may have more enough, or even too much, information. A loving relationship always wants to know more.

Revelation began with a personal encounter. Abraham was known as "the Friend of God" though I don't find it's counterpart -- "the Friend of Abraham" -- in scripture. God's name is mysterious and unpronounceable; that datum was not revealed to the patriarch and his wife.

Divine Revelation sheds only some information about God even as it bestows a deep, overwhelming and beautiful knowledge of God. In Jesus Christians believe we have a complete knowledge of God, and yet not all the information. We can still love more; in fact we are thirsty for more knowledge of God.

Twentieth century theologians spoke of a mysterium tremendum et fascinans -- a fascinating, terrifying encounter with something/someone totally Other. The encounter with this Person comes in blinding light. The visionary may say, "I see you but I cannot see anything."

This knowledge is immediate; it happens in the moment. Sometimes knowledge of persons lapses into memories and I can only say, "I knew her once but I don't anymore." Sometimes the knowledge can be restored, as when friends reconnect. They might spend hours "catching up" with each other, narrating stories and events to fill in the information gap. In that case their knowledge grows deeper, as does their affection for, and delight in, one another.

Sometimes people cling to a past encounter with God and think they know him. There are innumerable reasons for such a mistake but we call it hypocrisy. To know the God who reveals himself we must stand continually like Abram, ready to say, "Here I am!" We do not know the hour or the day when God might call us; nor can we suppose what the Lord might ask of us.

The saints cultivate that eager, joyful expectant readiness with fear and trembling -- for the encounter with God is indeed a mysterium tremendum et fascinans.

Abraham, "our father in faith," shows us the way.

Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 94

Jesus said to the Twelve:
"Fear no one."

I once listened to a Dominican extol heroic virtue. This is what the Lord demands and expects of us, he said. I could not imagine a Franciscan preaching such a sermon.

Despite our romantic notions of supermen and superwomen, with sub-genres for secret agents, super-villains and x-men, most people in most ages prefer to live not on the frontier edges of society where they must be courageous to survive. We do best in the middle of the safe zone among our fellow citizens.

We may be entertained by stories of the unknown and unpredictable but we give a wide berth to dangers and dangerous people. Many people consider roller coasters all the adventure they need.

Forced to name some heroes we've actually met, we talk about men and women just doing their jobs. They didn't enjoy the adventure.

Back in the sixties, I had a college professor who broke up a small, rowdy demonstration. Though "nothing actually happened," he was unnerved and swore he would not do it again.

Jesus says to them, "Fear no one." I don't suppose this word was directed only at his disciples as they set out. Nor was it impressed upon the graduating class of superheroes on their way to fight for truth, justice and the American way. It's not even about heroic virtue.

"Fear no one" is spoken to Christian congregations; when something happens they should not scatter like panicked sheep in a thunderstorm. We should remain together; supporting, consoling and encouraging one another. "There is strength in numbers!" we tell ourselves.

At one time people liked to take a walk in the evening before bedtime. European cities were famous for this. Thousands of people greeted neighbors and friends and politely inquired about strangers. Gossips kept an eye on the proceedings while boys flirted and girls flaunted their finery. Crime couldn't happen in such places; everybody knew everyone and no one got away with mischief.

Suggest to Americans today they should take a walk in the evening on their own city streets and they cringe in horror. There's fear out there! Obsessed with news of crimes in near and distant cities, they cannot take the risk. "Leave policing to the police!" they say, which only invites a police state. They forget that polite, police and politics all come from polis, the Greek word for city.

"Fear no one!" should be common sense for any society, and especially for Christians. We don't need heroes. Our policy is politeness to friends, family, neighbors, enemies and strangers. Because we are not afraid, we make our world safer.

Solemnity of the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist

Lectionary: 587

John heralded his coming by proclaiming a baptism of repentance to all the people of Israel;

Periodically, perhaps often during the slower months of summer, the news media will scare up a story about space travel and intergalactic exploration. I've seen fanciful drawings of enormous vessels that might carry thousands of people for hundreds of generations to distant, Earth-like exoplanets.

The planned space ship would have all the necessary mechanisms to recycle food, air and water as these elements pass through living bodies, and then back to the dirt from which they came. After a relatively short time, I suppose they would lose contact with the earth-based Internet and their sciences would develop in other directions. No doubt their political and social structures would evolve with the passage of time, as would their religious beliefs.

I wonder how these dreamers plan to deal with sin. It will certainly go with the voyagers. Will some people be allowed luxuries that the rest cannot enjoy? How will they deal with nonconformity and punish misconduct? What pleasures would be permitted that are not addictive to frail human beings? Would they enjoy the freedoms of expression and worship, freedom from want and fear? Will slavery be tolerated when it appears?

The Communists attempted such a system on this planetary spaceship in eastern Europe and Asia, with disastrous consequences. Not only did their leaders oversee the murder of millions of people, they enjoyed none of the four freedoms and wreaked havoc on their environment.

When the Gospel appears in our world it begins with Gabriel's twin announcements to Zechariah and Mary, and the dual promise of forgiveness and deliverance. After John was born his father prophesied, "without fear they will worship in holiness and righteousness all their days. He also promised the boy would give his people knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins....

I find people more than ready to discuss the presence and reality of sin -- in other people. There is wickedness all around us, and will remain with us until the Judgment Day.

I enjoy Don Quixote as much as the next fellow but I'm not into pipe dreams about exoplanets and intergalactic travel. That future looks too much like the past, corrupt and dangerous. 

I anticipate a new day when the Lord will fulfill the promise of John the Baptist. He will give his people knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins. 

Solemnity of Most Sacred Heart of Jesus

Sacred Heart of Jesus
Lectionary: 170

You are a people sacred to the LORD, your God; he has chosen you from all the nations on the face of the earth to be a people peculiarly his own. It was not because you are the largest of all nations  that the LORD set his heart on you and chose you, for you are really the smallest of all nations. It was because the LORD loved you....

"Because I love you!" we say to our children, parents, relatives and friends as we give gifts and show kindness. We say it again as we must sometimes rebuke or forgive them. We might even say it when we discipline ourselves, choosing to exercise, eat right, quit smoking or drinking. If we're to be there for them, we have to take care of our ourselves! (Unlike the teachers of those repulsive TV ads, we don't do it "for me.")

Because I love you may be the best motive for doing anything and the only way to achieve our goals. 

Today we celebrate the Sacred Heart of Jesus and we remember his naked affection for us. There is simply no other explanation for his birth in Bethlehem, his sacrificial life and death, and his Resurrection. 

As fallible, emotional, moody creatures we have often had cause to doubt God's love. Many people read the Old and New Testaments with suspicion. The "Old Testament God" is vilified for the angry sentences of the Hebrew Prophets and for his apparently arbitrary punishments upon Israel and Judah. But the "New Testament Jesus" is also suspected of not loving enough. "If he loves us so much, why did this happen?" people wonder as they face disappointment and sorrow. 

The Holy Spirit permits these anxious moments and then patiently brings us back. After a long recitation of trials and challenges and a harrowing story of rescue, the psalmist exults: 
He set me free in the open; he rescued me because he loves me. (Psalm 18:20)

The Solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, with its Gloria, Creed and proper preface, is the final clap of a bell. The Easter bells rang loudly for many weeks and the ringers let go of the ropes on Pentecost. The bells kept swinging and ringing through Trinity Sunday and Corpus Christi and on this third Friday after Pentecost we hear one final, faint note as the bells fall silent.

And again we hear, " was because the Lord loves you." Keeping our eyes fixed on him, we cannot doubt it.

Thursday of the Eleventh Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 368

If only you would put up with a little foolishness from me! Please put up with me. For I am jealous of you with the jealousy of God, since I betrothed you to one husband to present you as a chaste virgin to Christ.

Since my earliest days in the ministry I have heard priests remark about their kind, patient and generous congregations who have to endure so much from their clergy. Every Catholic parish, even those well-served by saintly men, must put up with a little foolishness from their pastors. 
Recently I heard on the radio General Stanley Allen McChrystal, fired by President Obama after an unfortunate faux pas, admitting that a leader makes mistakes every day. It comes with the territory. 

Parents know that too. They realize it as they raise young children and they rediscover it again when their adult children reminisce about their childhood. They had no choice but to discipline their children as best they could with the hope that God's grace would heal all injuries, right all wrongs and forgive all sins. 

I believe it was Blessed John Duns Scotus who observed that God blesses the work of his people, making their efforts fruitful a thousand times over. He invoked the story of the foolish farmer who broadcast his seeds in every which direction -- onto the footpaths, stones and thin soil -- only to reap a hundred times as much as he had sown. God cannot be outdone in generosity! 

Working in Corinth amid gambling houses, taverns, brothels and dozens of weird religions, Saint Paul betrothed his disciples to Jesus, presenting them like a chaste virgin to Christ. "Why not aspire to purity?" he might have asked them as he imagined what God could do.  But that was pretty hard for his people to imagine. Was he wrong to do so? 

As he heard news about them later on he realized how far they had to go to attain such virtue. He realized that greedier men -- he sarcastically called them "super apostles" because they were so widely admired -- had sown a heretical gospel among them. It was a gospel that sounded more practical though it could end only in misery.

Tearing his hair out he asked, "Did I make a mistake when I humbled myself so that you might be exalted, because I preached the Gospel of God to you without charge?" Like most parents and many priests, he did not hesitate to lay guilt on them in an effort to bring them to their senses. They must remember who their true "father" in the Gospel is; not the worthless, crowd-pleasing orators but himself, the shabby, homeless tent-maker whose preaching put people to sleep. 

Even today, when people who know nothing about the Bible and little about Jesus, pick up Saint Paul's writing they meet a man whose human foibles and deep integrity speak to the heart. We call him a saint but,  at the time, he was only a man, a fellow doing the best he could to serve his Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. 

Memorial of Saint Aloysius Gonzaga, Religious

Brothers and sisters, consider this: whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each must do as already determined, without sadness or compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.
Franciscan spirituality invites continual reflection, meditation and contemplation of God's superabundant generosity. Once we develop an eye for God's extravagance it's hard not to see.
  • How many billions of stars and galaxies are there?
  • How many acorns does a single oak tree produce?
  • How many bees does a single queen bee generate?
  • How many people live on the face of the earth?
  • How much blood and water flowed from Jesus' wounded side?
  • How much have the martyrs of every nation suffered for our faith, even to this day?
Even when we set about to destroy the environment it takes all the technology at our disposal to do it; for the atmosphere, the waters and the earth have endless ways to purify themselves! Scientists have discovered microbes consuming oil spills years ahead of their plans to clean up the mess. (Not that we should not cease our stupid behavior! There are spiritual, economic, social and ecological consequences to sin far beyond our comprehension. Nature will not undo the spiritual consequences.)

If we first consider God's prodigal generosity we're far more disposed to support our brothers and sisters in their need.

In the aftermath of a hurricane in Louisiana, I once asked my congregation to contribute to a spontaneous collection. Our city had been "staring down the barrel of the shotgun" when the storm veered off and assaulted another part of the state. One fellow gave far more than the usual spare change. He said he considered how much he would have lost had the hurricane remained on course. With that thought in mind he dug deep into his resources.

We're often asked to "give till it hurts." Certainly, a real donation of money, time or energy must make a dent in one's resources. It will resemble that hole the boy was digging in the sand -- to contain the ocean! -- which the tide erased in a flood of grace.

Tuesday of the Eleventh Week in Ordinary Time

for charity
Lectionary: 366

...for in a severe test of affliction, the abundance of their joy and their profound poverty overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. For according to their means, I can testify, and beyond their means, spontaneously, they begged us insistently for the favor of taking part in the service to the holy ones, and this, not as we expected, but they gave themselves first to the Lord and to us through the will of God...

As he does in other letters, Saint Paul writes to the Corinthians asking for money to support the church in Jerusalem during a famine. 

By the time of Saint Paul's writing the Jews had been scattered from India to Spain for many centuries; and their appeals to one another for support were an ancient custom. Their religion taught them to assist the widows, orphans and aliens among them first in Judea and then in whatever city or village they found themselves. (We heard the Book of Tobit recently attesting to that pious custom in Assyria.) They also maintained 
with their pilgrimages the temple in Jerusalem and the families of priests who served in its sanctuary.
The only thing unusual about Saint Paul's appeal to the Corinthians was their gentile background. I don't suppose these former pagans felt any urgency to assist strangers in faraway places until Paul asked them. By way of encouragement, he tells them he was astonished by the "wealth of generosity" the Macedonians demonstrated when he had asked their support. He subtly challenges these Greeks to outdo the Macedonians!

Notice how he describes the Macedonian collection: "...they begged us insistently for the favor of taking part in the service to the holy ones, and this, not as we expected, but they gave themselves first to the Lord and to us through the will of God." 

Apparently, their immediate response to the crisis was to go "first" before the Lord in prayer. And then they accosted the Apostle, "What should we do? How can we help?" 

They want to suffer with their fellow Christians in Judea. They probably feel an enormous debt of gratitude to the Church in Jerusalem. The Christians missionaries started from there on their way to "the ends of the earth." Corinth, a major port of Greece, was among the first European cities to hear the Gospel. They had heard stories of persecution in Jerusalem, of the beheading of James and the stoning of Stephen, not to mention the crucifixion of Jesus! How can we give back? they should ask. How can we share their trials? 

Saint Paul knows their zeal is the work of the Holy Spirit. He had told them the story of Jesus' life, death and resurrection; he had shared with them the rites of Baptism and Eucharist; but the Holy Spirit animated their prayer, their joy and their generosity. 

The Church is still animated by that Holy Spirit as we support the churches in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon and Egypt as they suffer religious persecution. We know that drones, rockets and bombs cannot protect them but they will find encouragement in our prayers and our financial help. 

Monday of the Eleventh Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 365

Behold, now is a very acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation. We cause no one to stumble in anything, in order that no fault may be found with our ministry; on the contrary, in everything we commend ourselves as ministers of God, through much endurance, in afflictions, hardships, constraints....

During the 1980's there was some interest shown in the stages of adulthood. Researchers discerned three stages: early, middle and senior adulthood. They corresponded roughly to the years: 20-40, 40-60 and 60-80.

Early adulthood is a transition from childhood to maturity. The individual learns to put away the things of childhood. Adolescent jokes about sexuality and flatus are no longer paralyzingly funny. The budding adult becomes what she set out to be, learning to think, feel and act as a parent, employee, employer, citizen and so forth. One's role becomes one's identity, without apology. Lawyers think like lawyers, engineers, like engineers; and doctors, like doctors. The young adult learns that other adults take her seriously and listen respectfully to her opinions; she dismisses the self-consciousness she felt as a child in the company of adults. She is an adult.

In today's first reading Saint Paul describes how he became an apostle. He wants "no one to stumble in anything, in order that no fault may be found with our ministry; on the contrary, in everything we commend ourselves as ministers of God....

If he ever said, "I want to be known for what I am rather than what I do" -- one of the banalities of the Boom Generation -- he has forgotten it. Saint Paul is determined with the grace of God to be an apostle "through much endurance, in afflictions, hardships, constraints, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, vigils, fasts...."

His opponents will certainly not regard him as a man apart from his apostleship; his torturers will not take a break from torturing to share a beer with a fellow human being. That kind of thing happened in Monty Python comedies, not in real life. Paul will not appeal to their common humanity for sympathy when he acts like an apostle.

Rather, he will be guided "by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, in the Holy Spirit, in unfeigned love, in truthful speech, in the power of God...." This is the way of the apostle, the way of the Christian.

When I took my vows as a Franciscan fifty years ago, I pledged to live this way of life, "with the help of God," as Saint Paul said, in the Holy Spirit... in the power of God.

It may be possible to be a ruler, lawyer, soldier or plumber without the Holy Spirit, but Christians would never attempt it. Why would they want to?

Putting aside the things of childhood we are fully committed to life in the Holy Spirit, as adults who belong to Jesus Christ.

Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ

Just as the living Father sent me and I have life because of the Father, so also the one who feeds on me will have life because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven.
Unlike your ancestors who ate and still died, whoever eats this bread will live forever."

Saint Francis and Saint Dominic attended the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215, one of the most important councils in our history. The patriarchs and bishops, with heads of religious communities and many secular authorities, "defined" the doctrine of Transubstantiation. This definition did not pretend to explain the mystery or end discussion about its importance; rather the bishops called attention to the ongoing, living presence of God in our world, in the tabernacles of chapels and churches.

The new mendicant orders -- Franciscans, Dominicans, Carmelites, Augustinians, et al. -- were commissioned to announce this Good News to Christians throughout Europe. It became an integral part of Christian identity. Especially because the Eucharist is one and the same everywhere, a Catholic has a home in every chapel with the Blessed Sacrament.

In the latest centuries, and especially since the Second Vatican Council, the Church has sought to refocus our attention less on the miracle of Transubstantiation and more on the entire ritual of the Eucharist; and especially on the Trinitarian dimension of our prayer: We pray to the Father through the Son and in the Holy Spirit.

The opening prayer, known as the "Collect," collects the distracted crowd into one praying congregation and addresses our prayer to God the Father. The Eucharistic Prayer is also offered to the Father; it ends with a Trinitarian formula: "Through him, with him and in him, in the unity of the Holy Spirit all glory and honor is yours Almighty Father forever and ever;"  The grateful church answers with one voice, one mind and one heart, "Amen!"

This new attention to the ritual of the Mass challenges many people. The doctrine of transubstantiation, introduced in the second millennium made the Eucharist more familiar and accessible. One could approach Jesus in the tabernacle in a solitary conversation without the mediation of a congregation. Even the priest who "confected" the sacrament is not needed. 

The General Instruction of the Roman Missal, confirmed and adapted for the United States in 2010 encourages the faithful to set aside their individual differences and enter full participation in the Mass: 
For the sake of uniformity in gestures and bodily postures during one and the same celebration, the faithful should follow the instructions which the Deacon, a lay minister, or the Priest gives, according to what is laid down in the Missal. (paragraph 43)
The Eucharist is not the place to display one's personal piety. People should not come to Mass thinking they know how God wants to be worshiped and they are sent to show us. Rather we set aside our individuality and enjoy communion with others. We pray with one voice, one mind and one heart even as our bodies move with a single motion.  

When the congregation hears the Mass clearly, carefully articulated by the presiding priest (who speaks a language they understand) they should feel themselves collected by the Holy Spirit. The many are one as they process to the altar to eat and drink the Sacred Body and Precious Blood. Jesus, who is The Priest, offers his church -- his Communion -- in the Holy Spirit to God the Father. We experience unity with each other even as our individual dignity is honored.

This Rite of Communion is more mysterious than the doctrine of transubstantiation, and all the harder to grasp. Where transubstantiation challenged us to believe what we could not see -- that the bread is His Body and the wine is His Blood -- the New Rite invites us to die to our isolating individuality and live in the embrace of One Body, One Blood and One Spirit. 

The difference is essentially that between liturgy and devotion. Liturgy is what we must do publicly in our service to God; devotion is what each of us should do privately. Liturgy creates community as it stirs deep feelings and strong convictions; it intends to pay homage to the Triune God. Devotion develops one's personal relationship to God. Both are essential; both have their time and place. 

While our privatized, polarized world withdraws ever deeper into its own narcissism, the Church gathers us to the altar and teaches us to pray as one, in union with Our Savior Jesus Christ to the Father in the Holy Spirit. 

Saturday of the Tenth Week in Ordinary Time

Cause of our Joy
Lectionary: 364

The love of Christ impels us,
once we have come to the conviction that one died for all;
therefore, all have died.
He indeed died for all,
so that those who live might no longer live for themselves
but for him who for their sake died and was raised.

I have heard that Indian fakirs often keep photos of dead bodies among their few possessions. Living totally on gifts of food, drink and shelter they wander from place to place carrying nothing more than the clothes on their back, perhaps with a few pockets. They study images of death as they contemplate the inevitability of their own death.

Christians too are

"always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our body. For we who live are constantly being given up to death for the sake of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh."
Perhaps because they don't contemplate death, many people smoke, drink heavily, overeat, under-exercise and act as if they can live this perilous existence forever. Others take up "extreme" sports, risking life and limb for the rush of being close to catastrophe. Even when their companions are killed by their sport they suppose, "He died doing what he loved to do." They ignore the grieving parents, siblings and children who must finally collect the body and bury him. 

The contemplation of death and the promise -- not given to all -- of eternal life focus our attention and discipline our daily practices. We say to ourselves, "I can do without this doughnut because I weigh enough already." "I will not smoke today because I prefer to breath." "I'll not have more than two drinks this Friday night because Monday comes around too soon." 

The contemplation of death helps us notice that the body is not as resilient as it once was. I don't bounce back from foolishness like I used; or, if I do bounce, it's in all the wrong places.

This contemplation opens our hearts to the promise of eternal life, which begins to emerge in the quotidian events of our daily existence. While my workmate struggles through Monday morning, I am ready for it. 

I often mutter, and sometimes say, to smokers, "If you saw what I see every day in the hospital you would not light up that cigarette." What you do today will matter tomorrow. 

Jesus urged us to take up your cross daily and follow in my footsteps. The Vietnam Veteran can tell you what stepping in my footsteps means. Because his buddy had not been blown up by a land mine when he stepped on that exact spot, it was safe to step there. We follow Jesus that closely, walking in the safe path he opens for us, carrying our crosses with him to death and new life. 

Friday of the Tenth Week in Ordinary Time

So death is at work in us, but life in you. Since, then, we have the same spirit of faith, according to what is written, I believed, therefore I spoke," we too believe and therefore speak, knowing that the one who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and place us with you in his presence.

Recently, we Franciscan friars celebrated the funeral of a former provincial. Father Juniper Cummings was beloved as seminary professor, pastor, missionary and fund raiser. He was my first pastor when I was ordained and we shared many a drink together before both of us got on the wagon. He was remarkable for his tireless energy; he would cheerfully meet with engaged couples at three in the morning if that was the only time their work schedules permitted. 
Today's first reading might serve well as a reading for a funeral. 
We hold this treasure in earthen vessels, that the surpassing power may be of God and not from us. 
As I sat in the chapel alone with Juniper's earthly remains, I thought of that surpassing power which occupied him. A vessel of clay, he was animated by the Spirit of God, as you and I are. 
Inevitably clay vessels disintegrate under the ravages of time. Fired and hardened they last a very long time but simple adobe collapses under wind, rain and sunshine. But they serve their purpose for a time, and that's all their makers ask of them. 
You and I hear the gospel; it is poured into us in the form of words but is enriched by the Living Spirit who is God. We keep it for awhile and then surrender it to succeeding generations as our clay returns to the earth. 
Even during our lives, it's said, the matter of our bodies is continually replaced by other matter. The water we drink passes through us and back to the earth. The food we eat also passes through us, remaining with us only for a time. In the meanwhile there is that mysterious "self" which perdures. It enjoys the matter passing through it but does not belong to it. 
(The only matter that has remained in my body is some dirt, a tattoo, I accidentally acquired fifty years ago. on one knuckle.)  
The life in my body resembles the spirit in our Church. It is a "tradition" that remembers the past but is not controlled by it; a promise of the future which easily discards things that are useless or obstructive. 
...we too believe and therefore speak, knowing that the one who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and place us with you in his presence.
While my "self" uses and discards matter and must finally vanish when the church buries my body, I remember God's promise. You and I speak it to others as we celebrate our liturgies, which belong not to me or you but to this ancient Church which longs for Christ's Second Coming. 
He will remember our names and on some great and distant day will sing out to the Earth, even as he called his friend Lazarus, "Come out!" We will recognize that familiar voice and immediately come bounding out of the grave. And then the Lord will command, "Untie them and let them go free!"
What use we'll have for matter on that day only God knows. The Church has taught us to believe in "the resurrection of the body" but no one can imagine how that word must be fulfilled. Saint Paul says the resemblance will be like that between a seed and the mature plant, which is quite unpredictable.
I think we're in for a delightful surprise, along with all the other wonders to be revealed.

Thursday of the Tenth Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 362

...but whenever a person turns to the Lord the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom…. All of us, gazing with unveiled face on the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, as from the Lord who is the Spirit.


In today’s first reading Saint Paul refers to the veil that Moses wore when, after speaking with God, he addressed his Hebrew people. He was the only man who could look on the face of God and live, but when he did so his face would begin to glow with unbearable brilliance. Aaron and the others insisted that Moses should wear a veil to dim the light.

That glow is the original aura that artists use to describe the holiness of the saints. It appears in many fashions. On Michelangelo’s Moses, it’s represented by two horns on his head. More often it’s a halo; sometimes, a plate floating above or behind the head, or a ring of light. The halo around Jesus usually has a cross within it, which helps to identify him among his disciples. On the San Damiano cross the veil appears as a darkened circle. You might not notice it’s in front of Jesus’ face (where it should be) except for the darkened arc under his chin.

The halo, like other sacred symbols, has been exploited by the entertainment industry. During the closing credits of the television show, “The Saint,” it would appear over “Simon Templar”, played by the late Roger Moore. Templar was a loveable thief who helped the police catch criminals while making off with the criminal’s loot. Because the law could never convict him he was “a saint.” Sometimes, Christians remark about the halos we wear, but usually in a teasing or kidding fashion.

But there really is an aura of holiness around the disciples of Jesus and, if it’s not exactly visible it’s nonetheless palpable.

Saint Basil the Great, in his praises of the Holy Spirit, writes:

As clear, transparent substances become very bright when sunlight falls on them and shine with a new radiance, so also souls in whom the Spirit shines become spiritual themselves and a source of grace for others.

The Holy Spirit gives us a wisdom that we might describe as common sense; which, unfortunately, is not as common as it should be. When others are paralyzed with fear by some act of terrorism the Christian volunteers to help the wounded, to bury the dead, and to console the sorrowing. When others hold back to see what happens the Good Samaritan assists the fallen.

This wisdom may be as common as: Don't drink and drive; Share and share alike; and, If you want a friend, be a friend. The wisdom of God is usually very reasonable.

Some people will say we shouldn’t act that way. They might mock the halos we wear, especially as we practice our faith, remembering not only Christmas but Easter, Pentecost and All Saints Day. 

Saint Paul says of these scoffers: And even though our Gospel is veiled, it is veiled for those who are perishing, in whose case the god of this age has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, so that they may not see the light of the Gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.
They should never hear the further assurances of Saint Basil, “Through the Spirit we acquire a likeness to God; indeed, we attain what is beyond our most sublime aspirations – we become God.”