Thursday of the Twenty-first Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 428

Jesus said to his disciples:
"Stay awake!
For you do not know on which day your Lord will come.
Be sure of this: if the master of the house
had known the hour of night when the thief was coming,
he would have stayed awake
and not let his house be broken into.
So too, you also must be prepared,
for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come.

How fascinating that Jesus compares the coming of the Son of Man to the intrusion of a thief! One is desired of the nations; the other, a common nuisance.  In fact we will hear next week, Saint Paul comparing the Lord's coming to a break-in next Tuesday,
For you yourselves know very wellthat the day of the Lord will come like a thief at night.When people are saying, "Peace and security,"then sudden disaster comes upon them,like labor pains upon a pregnant woman,
and they will not escape.
Jesus' admonition to "Stay awake!" is the same as Saint Paul's command to the Thessalonians:
Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. In all circumstances give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus.
We do this by our daily prayer. The Church has boasted for many centuries that the Eucharist is celebrated continually, in every part of the world, as morning, noon and evening sweep around the planet. Monks, nuns and devout Christians celebrate the Liturgy of the Hours without ceasing and in all circumstances. Catholics, Orthodox and Protestants find expressions in every language to honor the Lord.

This constant prayer renders us alert to graceful opportunities and sensitive to diabolical threats. We may not have a spidey sense but we can often smell a rat where others see a deal too good to pass up. Likewise we recognize suffering even of those who cause suffering and so we pray for our enemies. With constant prayer we expect the Thief, the Judge and the Son of Man. Come, Lord Jesus!

Wednesday of the Twenty-first Week in Ordinary Time

And for this reason we too give thanks to God unceasingly, that, in receiving the word of God from hearing us, you received it not as the word of men, but as it truly is, the word of God, which is now at work in you who believe.

Clearly, the Church's proclamation of the Gospel relies upon the credibility of her witnesses. What child would imitate a church-going, abusive parent? Is anyone impressed by the intoxicated priest who stumbles through the Mass? 

There might be something attractive about the religion; some statue, picture or song to fascinate the prospective Christian; but no one should expect that charm to counteract a witness possessed by evil. 

However, with that being said, we have to admit that those who hear the Word of God receive it not as the word of men, but as it truly is, the Word of God. The Church is not built on shifting sands of competent preachers, musicians or catechists but on the Rock of Ages. 

No one should fall in love with the pastors or leaders of a church. They come and go. We should listen to and learn from them. We should honor them as sacraments of God's presence. And then we should turn our hearts and minds back to Jesus. 

He is the One who keeps us in communion with the Church; he sustains us through the confusing, difficult moments that challenge every community. 

It is no accident that a traitor appeared among the disciples of Jesus. The Lord said of him, ..." the Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that one by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that one not to have been born.’

Inevitably, every believer and every community experiences betrayal. It may come from a trusted friend, a respected authority or a troublesome colleague. It may come even from my own heart, which I foolishly believed was more honorable and dependable.

In that critical moment I ask myself, "Has my faith been rooted in Jesus Christ, the Son of God who gave his life for me, or in a sinful, foolish human being?" 

Faced with disappointment, betrayal and scandal, the faithful person says, "I must still believe in God! I cannot live without faith." The community, too, must rise from its bewilderment declaring, "We cannot allow this to destroy us. We believe in God our Savior." 

Memorial of the Passion of Saint John the Baptist

Lectionary: 426/634

Rather, after we had suffered and been insolently treated,
as you know, in Philippi, we drew courage through our God
to speak to you the Gospel of God with much struggle.

Saint Augustine said, "It always takes courage to tell the truth." Someone else has said, "If I'm not taking risks I'm not doing my job."
Some observers have noticed a hyper-caution in our society; we are risk averse. Parents are afraid of disciplining their children; and teachers, their students. Coaches talk to their athletes but will not yell at them.
A story told on the TED stage: a fellow was arrested at a ball park for giving his son "hard lemonade." He had little interest in spectator sports, he only took the boy to the game as a father-son thing. When the boy said he was thirsty, neither one knew that "hard lemonade" has alcohol. The boy was rushed to the hospital, then sent home. He suffered no injury. When the father explained his mistake to the arresting officer, the cop said, "I understand. No harm done. But my hands are tied. I have to arrest you." 
The judge said, "I understand. No harm done. But rules are rules. You cannot visit your home or see your son for six weeks! Case dismissed."
There are laws forbidding alcohol to children in public places; and there is "common sense." Sometimes no one in The System has the courage to act reasonably, with common sense. But if you're not taking risks, you're not doing your job.
Eventually, as society becomes ever more litigious, cautious and frightened, everybody suffers. That's when martyrs emerge. They do the right thing and pay a heavy cost.
Saint John the Baptist opposed King Herod's marrying his brother's wife. It was abhorrent to Jewish custom. Everybody knew what the king was doing; many suspected the woman's husband had been murdered. John spoke up. John paid the price.
The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.

Memorial of Saint Augustine, Bishop and Doctor of the Church

We give thanks to God always for all of you, remembering you in our prayers, unceasingly calling to mind your work of faith and labor of love and endurance in hope of our Lord Jesus Christ, before our God and Father, knowing, brothers and sisters loved by God, how you were chosen.

Scripture scholars believe that Saint Paul's First Letter to the Thessalonians is the oldest document in our canon. Given my fascination with the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, I find it exciting that our tri-personal God appears in the first paragraph of this first letter.

Even more wonderful is our place, the place of the Christian, within the story of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Too often writings about this key doctrine overlook the roles of the individual Christian and of the whole Church. They're like splendid oil paintings without a canvas. They're floating in the ether, a vision in the air, without grounding in our everyday experience.

Saint Paul did not make that mistake; he could not make it because he knew the Trinity before it became doctrine; it was never an abstract doctrine for him. In fact the word trinity did not appear till three hundred years later. 

Saint Paul, in his excitement about the life of the Christian, found inspirations piling on top of each other as he wrote, each more dazzling than the last. Perhaps we can parse this paragraph to feel his excitement more intensely:

We give thanks to God always for all you... 
The missionary had set out into a vast world as the leader of a little band of believers. Like anyone else, he looked for affirmation from his hearers. Would they get his Spirit? Would they believe as he believed? Apparently, the Thessalonians had responded enthusiastically and Saint Paul was delighted. 
"...remembering you in our prayers..." 
If he had left their immediate presence he was never far from them in mind, heart or prayer. He had to admire their "work of faith, labor of love and endurance in hope..." (We should notice that other "trinity:" faith, hope and love!)
"... in hope of our Lord Jesus Christ..." 
Just as Jesus was raised from the dead, so does the Christian live and act in hope that our efforts as God's people will not be lost in a sea of futility. Everything Jesus did and represented seemed to perish when he died; if there was hope there seemed to be nothing to hope for. Until he was raised up. 
...before our God and Father, knowing, brothers and sisters loved by God, how you were chosen. 
Our lives and everything about our lives are gifts of the Father and given back to the Father. 
For our Gospel did not come to you in word alone, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with much conviction.
It is the Father who sends the Son and the Spirit to us; they in turn bring us back to the Father.

"The Gospel" is properly heard in the context of the Mass. We can study it elsewhere, of course; and live it in a thousand ways. We proclaim the gospel with quiet conversations and with loud street demonstrations, but the Gospel nonetheless belongs to the Church's liturgy -- the Eucharist, the Sacraments, our Liturgy of the Hours. This is where we take our place before the Father's throne -- represented by the Presidential Chair -- to receive the Spoken Word Made Flesh and the Breath of his Holy Spirit. 

I should acknowledge also today's feast. Saint Augustine's greatest work was his teaching the western world in plain language (Latin) the doctrine of the Trinity had been only recently expounded in Greek. 

Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time

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.

When the Son is named we know there is a Father. When Saint Peter readily assigned Jesus two names - the Christ and the Son of the Living God -- Jesus immediately assured him this revelation came from the Father. You cannot know the Father unless you know the Son; nor the Son, unless you know the Father.

The great German Theologian Karl Rahner once sadly observed that if the Catholic Church were to abandon its teaching about the Holy Trinity, few books of spirituality and few theological treatises would have to be rewritten. Few Christians would notice the change and not many would care.  

There are few representations of the Trinity in our churches. Many might suppose the word trinity concerns the three members of the Holy Family. Doesn't Joseph always appear on the left and Mary on the right of every sanctuary?
In the Catholic imagination, Mary often supplants the Holy Spirit. Saint Maximillian Kolbe, the martyr of Auschwitz, called her "the incarnate Holy Spirit."

Saint Peter Julian Eymard, in his book about the Eucharist, The Real Presence, mentions the Trinity, almost in passing: "Heaven was enraptured at the sight of this mystery. The Most Holy Trinity contemplated it with love. The Angels with awe, adored it." As thrilled as he was by the Holy Eucharist, he missed completely the place of the Trinity in Christian worship. His Father, Son and Holy Ghost had become a peanut gallery of praise for a lesser doctrine.

Saint Peter, the first pope, knew the mystery as it appeared and correctly identified Jesus as the Son of the Living God.

Today, more than ever, faced by the challenges of secularism, practical atheism, Mormonism and Islam, Catholics must study, contemplate and affirm our faith in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Celebrating the Mass, praying the Liturgy of the Hours, attending Eucharistic Devotion, reciting the rosary -- which honors the Daughter of the Father, Spouse of the Holy Spirit and Mother of the Redeemer -- and practicing both justice and mercy we are swept into knowledge of God in his triune splendor. The world, having lost faith in "God," is hungry for our vision.

Saturday of the Twentieth Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 424

Boaz answered her:
"I have had a complete account of what you have done for your mother-in-law after your husband's death; you have left your father and your mother and the land of your birth,
and have come to a people whom you did not know previously."

Boaz appears to be an older man in the Book of Ruth, one who owns property and commands considerable respect among the younger villagers. Apparently unmarried, he admires the young woman Ruth for her devotion to Naomi, her mother-in-law. When he commands the young men to treat the attractive stranger with respect and not to harass her as she gleans from his fields, he expects obedience, and gets it. My father taught me similar principles. (His birthday was today. God rest his soul.)
     The human race must struggle until the end of time to balance the needs, expectations, hopes and rights of women and men. Sometimes we feel like two different species with a troubled but symbiotic relationship; at other times we agree one hundred percent and cannot imagine a problem between us.
     There is no golden standard of how men and women should relate. Cultures create different rules and different expectations and no culture gets it right. Not even close! History gives us innumerable examples of how it should not be but only vague suggestions of how it should be. I am always suspicious when I hear that in ancient times this or that nationality had it right. Recently it's the Celts, during that mythic age before the Viking and Norman invasions.
     We comb the scriptures looking for direction and we examine Jesus' interaction with women. Although he often rebuked men, especially powerful men in the Pharisaic, Sadducee and Herodian parties, he was consistently kind to women. The Jewish culture of his day did not accord women many rights; the Greek and Roman cultures were more generous. Jewish women could not even inherit their husband's property; widowed, they must depend upon their sons or brothers-in-law, or return to their own families. A woman might live in comfort on one day; and abject poverty, the next.
     Jesus did not challenge those standards; he was not a social reformer. But he was more than civil with women. Many followed him, apparently as disciples. Some sponsored him financially. (The Gospels make no mention of financial support from men.) He sometimes defended those who were publicly rebuked; and he sometimes engaged in personal conversation without chaperones from her family or his disciples.
     When Jesus banned divorce among his disciples, despite Moses' permitting it, he maintained the Jewish tradition of viewing marriage as an icon of God's covenant. As God loves his people so should husbands love their wives. In a society where an abandoned wife had no hope of remarriage, lifelong fidelity was her only protection. But his teaching was not to protect women; it was to maintain the Sacrament which had bound Adam and Eve together despite their infidelity. Divorce is not an option; in the long run nothing good can come of broken vows.
     When Boaz decided to marry Ruth he certainly did not intend a temporary arrangement until a younger, more desirable woman happened into his vineyard.
     On one occasion, Jesus was asked about a fictional woman who survives seven husbands, "Whose wife will she be in the resurrection?" He did not answer, "Whomever she chooses!" I don't suppose that answer occurred to him; it would have caused a profound effect in the world of his day.
     Our biological sciences insist that the similarities of women and men are greater than the differences; and that many differences are only apparent. But biology cannot answer every question; science is only another cultural institution grounded in philosophical principles of human origin. It persuades only those who are already persuaded.
     And so we turn to the Spirit of Jesus to guide our interactions.  The Bible provides inspiration but few directives. The better choice is the honest, courageous, prayerful, affectionate, difficult and endless conversation we must have with one another.

Friday of the Twentieth Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 423

Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, 
and she was left with her two sons, who married Moabite women, 
one named Orpah, the other Ruth. 
When they had lived there about ten years, 
both Mahlon and Chilion died also, 
and the woman was left with neither her two sons  nor her husband.

In some cultures of the world a widowed woman is considered damaged goods. She is not welcome to return to her family, which gave up a significant dowry to be rid of her; nor can she expect a new husband, perhaps because she has no dowry. If she is left childless and grand-childless, there is no one to care for her. Those are the cultural norms and many people have neither the imagination nor the courage to defy them, especially if the culture is very violent. She will have to fend her herself as best she can, perhaps finding a market for whatever skills she may develop.  
     But human nature has its own resources to challenge convention. We're not animals, after all; we are not slaves of instinct. We can with courage, imagination and the grace of God cause unexpected, even delightful, things to happen. 
     Such was the plight of Naomi and her two widowed daughters-in-law. Orpah elected to return to her people and take her chances with them. Ruth, however, had a particular affection for her mother-in-law and refused to leave. 
     The author of the Book of Ruth saw the hand of God in what followed. Naomi, Ruth, Boaz, the unnamed "other redeemer," and the elders of Bethlehem carefully navigated the shoals of custom and law to reintroduce the women into their society. As a result, Boaz begot Obed, who begot Jesse, who begot David the King. 
     Christians, with the vision of Saint Matthew, see beyond David and recognize the presence of the Holy Spirit working among the ancestors of Jesus, even a thousand years before the Child was born. 
     The incident in Ruth is hardly a cultural or historical earthquake. Husbands die, women are left widowed, they remarry, children are born: that's all pretty normal. But the Book of Ruth invites historical nonentities like you and me to consider the mysterious, unforeseeable consequences of our behavior. Who knows but a word I speak to a Veteran in the VA hospital might change the course of history? Who knows but your gracious word to a stranger might ease her suffering and release her from the grip of isolation? 
     God speaks no word in the Book of Ruth; no prophet appears to speak for him. He is equally silent in other stories and books. I think immediately of Joseph's tale in Genesis; and the books of Tobit, Judith and Esther. But God's presence in these histories is manifest. 
     Ruth and the others remind us of God's abiding concern for each of us, in our public and private lives. We pray that God's Spirit will guide us even when no one is watching. 

Feast of Saint Bartholomew, Apostle

Lectionary: 629

The wall of the city had twelve courses of stones as its foundation, on which were inscribed the twelve names
of the twelve Apostles of the Lamb.

When you see the Lectionary number in the 600-range -- today it's 629 -- you know we're taking a reading that directly concerns the saint's day; in this case, the Apostle Bartholomew. From its earliest days the Church claimed its four pillars: one, holy, catholic and apostolic. 
In fact there were many apostolic churches in the Roman empire and those claims remain today among the eastern and western churches. Rome claimed two apostles, Peter and Paul. Jerusalem had Saint James and Saint John, and so forth. The history, like all religious histories, is  complicated and disputed. As any Christian will tell you, "We'll all get along splendidly when everyone agrees with me." 
The story of Bartholomew is even more complicated because we're not too sure who he was. The name appears only four times in the New Testament, and only on a list among other apostles. Today we hear a reading from the Gospel of Saint John about Nathaniel because they may have been the same person. 
Tradition teaches that all of the Apostles except John died a martyr's death; Bartholomew was flayed, a particularly revolting and painful method of killing. 
We have only to read the news out of Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Egypt and other countries to know that men, women and children are still barbarically abused and murdered because they are Christian. More often than not they are not given an opportunity to renounce their faith; they are caught up in the indifferent machinery of genocide, without regard for their individual character, integrity or even their ability. 
If the opposite of love is not hate but fear, we can suppose Christians represent something fearful to many people. Martyred Christians are destroyed because faith, generosity and honesty threaten some people. It is easier to kill than it is to hear the truth or to live virtuously. 
A disciple of the Crucified cannot be surprised when the world turns hostile. We can only pray that: if we are caught up in that mindless cycle of mass killing; if we should die with even less recognition than the world gave to Bartholomew or Nathaniel or whatever his name was, we will at least be "guilty" of being innocent. 

Wednesday of the Twentieth Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 421

Once the trees went to anoint a king over themselves.
So they said to the olive tree, 'Reign over us.'
But the olive tree answered them, 'Must I give up my rich oil, whereby men and gods are honored, and go to wave over the trees?'

This Old Testament parable from the Book of Judges should sound familiar to anyone concerned for the state of democracy in America. Leaders of the Democratic Party, after suffering huge losses last November, are looking for a younger generation to run for elective offices in state and federal elections. Republicans, somewhat more energized but nonetheless undermined by strident supporters and incompetent leaders, are trying to represent their conservative principles to a disinterested, disengaged generation. 

In today's parable the Judge Jotham described how all the worthy leaders of the people reneged on their responsibilities, leaving a vacuum for the despot Abimelech. He had murdered fifty of his kin so as to inherit his father Jerubbaal's rule but his supporters did not seem troubled by his crimes. 

Nor should the story be unfamiliar to many Catholic and Christian congregations. Church councils and committees are often filled by the least unwilling. Standing for election for even the most important responsibilities is the same as accepting the office; there is no opposition. 

God's presence is apparent by his absence in such proceedings. With infinite wisdom the Lord allows his people to be misled by their own unwillingness and punished for that "spirituality" which remains disengaged from real life. People get the leadership they deserve, whether their government is democratic, aristocratic, plutocratic or dictatorial. 

There are few simple answers in this real world and separating faith from politics is not one of them. As Saint James said, "Faith without works is dead." 

Memorial of the Queenship of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Lectionary: 420

And everyone who has given up houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands for the sake of my name will receive a hundred times more,
and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first."

Occasionally we run up against apparent dead ends. It may be bankruptcy, illness, or failure; it's invariably disappointing. Suddenly the plans we made, which got us this far, go no further. No future appears. 
Perhaps that's the way it is with everyone who gives up "houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands for the sake of my name." Or, to put a more positive spin on it, what had appeared delightfully attractive paled in the light of Jesus' invitation. 
We don't know what the young Virgin of Galilee expected before the surprise visit of the Angel Gabriel. Apparently her plans included Joseph of Bethlehem, but when the angel appeared she forgot everything else as this shimmering opportunity opened before her. 
The birth of an infant, I would suppose, is pretty much "a hundred times more" than even an experienced mother expects of the child. You really don't know what child is this who is born into your family. 
Some families, unfortunately, try to head off any unexpected unpleasantness. They abort even at the suggestion the child might be less than perfect. They will certainly be hugely disappointed at whatever child is born; no human being is perfect and every child makes extraordinary, unexpected demands upon family and society. The method is known as birth control, which should sound like an oxymoron to anyone who thinks deeply on the matter. How can you control a human being? 
Jesus invites his disciples to receive whatever life gives them. Surrendering the possessions they have hoarded, both worldly stuff and social expectations, they receive a life of adventure. Past and present point to, but fail to limit, future possibilities.
One thing, however, is certain: we'll have innumerable companions on the road, including saints, angels and the Most Blessed Queen of Heaven. 

Memorial of Saint Pius X, Pope

Jesus said to him, "If you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me."
When the young man heard this statement, he went away sad, for he had many possessions.

Jesus' meeting with the rich young man ended sadly for both parties. He invited the lad to join the august assembly of disciples and apostles. All ages to come  would celebrate his courage and integrity. Children of every age would fantasize about walking with him and Jesus on the dusty road to Jerusalem.
But this young man loved his immediate status, privileges and comforts. Enamored of the fictitious world of wealth, which can vanish in the twinkling of an eye, he could not throw it off in pursuit of real adventure, much less in a quest for personal authenticity.
Jesus offered something that was very practical, realistic and doable. Standing before this young man was a band of disciples, men and women, who were already satisfied and grateful for the choice.
Some people, hearing this story, may suppose, "I would not do that either!" But they are obviously not called to walk to Jerusalem in first century Palestine. That happened twenty centuries ago. It's not doable anymore!
Rather, the Lord calls each us today to follow the Way which his Spirit reveals to us; we must discern what the Lord asks of us today. It may be challenging, even breath-taking, but it's not unimaginable. Each of us stands before the gate, we have only to step forward.
For most people hearing this gospel on this particular Monday morning, the invitation may be something like, "Keep doing what you're doing." In which case we apply ourselves with renewed energy to the familiar challenges that lie ahead. Aware of the past and ready for the future we attend the immediate moment with intelligence, creativity and a willing spirit. 
Our first reading this morning told how "the children of Israel" continually reverted back to their old ways following each redemptive act of God. Oppressed by Canaanites and Philistines, they would call on God for help. But, no sooner would God act to save them than they would return to the worship of heathen gods ("Baal and the Ashtaroth") and to more familiar heathen customs. They seemed reluctant to learn a godly way of life amid an ungodly people.
Even when the LORD raised up judges to deliver them from the power of their despoilers, they did not listen to their judges, but abandoned themselves to the worship of other gods.
This sad story from the Book of Judges must remind us that it is not, never was, never will be, and never should be easy to follow the path of Jesus. Anyone who thinks it should be only makes it more difficult for himself and the rest of us. Rather, we show up on this Monday morning, after a weekend that should have been refreshing, and say, "Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.

Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 118

At that time, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. And behold, a Canaanite woman of that district came and called out, "Have pity on me, Lord, Son of David! My daughter is tormented by a demon."

The most hostile critics of the Church are usually unwilling to criticize Jesus. In fact they more apt to credit him with words he never said and policies he never expressed. Feminists might conclude he intended to ordain women but his disciples refused, or gays will insist he intended marriage for anyone regardless of gender or sexuality.

If Jesus had any enemies they might pick up this story and try to make something of it. Wasn't he rather rude to this Canaanite woman?

That apparently was not the intention of the Evangelists Mark and Matthew who tell us this story. Rather, they used this peculiar story to address the appearance of gentiles in a Jewish/Christian congregation.

There was little in the story of Jesus to indicate his Mercy might include the gentiles. He spoke to Jews and called Jews as disciples and apostles.  He consoled and healed the Jewish sick and challenged Jewish authorities.

Growing up in Galilee he would have known gentiles as neighbors. When children ran the streets they would have played together; something Jerusalemites could not imagine. In fact the denizens of the capital city might have snubbed him and his foreign accent because Galileans associated freely with gentiles. But clearly, his ministry was to "the lost sheep of the House of Israel."

But after his resurrection and ascension and as the disciples set out to make disciples of all nations, they realized first that gentiles were joining the Christian congregations and, secondly, certain adjustments would have to be made.

Like Americans who want all immigrants to speak and read English, the Jewish Christians at first were unwilling to make allowance for non-Jews. They supposed the men should be circumcised; women should prepare kosher food; and children should learn some Hebrew! Only gradually and with anguish and great controversy -- which is described in the Acts of the Apostles -- did the Church make accommodations for those who would become the overwhelming majority.

Learning of the early history of our church prepares us to address the controversies of our time. There is nothing new under the sun.

Today's gospel reflects the struggle of the early Church and the choice they made -- mercy. First, they had to recognize and could not deny the faith of the gentiles who came to Jesus. "Oh woman, great is your faith!" echoes the Master's response and those Jewish Christians who had to admire their new gentile friends.

The story suggests that even Jesus could adapt to unexpected circumstances. Clearly, he did not want to hear the woman's plea; he was not prepared for that. But when, according to Saint Mark, the woman marched through the door they tried to close against her, and replied to Jesus' insulting remark with a clever mot, he relented.

The story is about God's willingness and our readiness to recognize human misery. There is simply no difference between Jewish and gentile pain, just as there is no difference between homosexual and heterosexual distress, nor between "white" and "black" sickness. Men's illnesses and women's illnesses may be different but both demand a response of compassion. Though we recognize the different needs of different people, segregation, shunning and ostracism will never be fair or just.

As Jesus realized he had been bested by the woman's courage, persistence and native intelligence, we must hear the cry of the poor just to avoid humiliation!

I think Jesus laughed at the woman's retort and at himself as he pronounced his verdict, "Let it be done as you wish." Recognizing when we are wrong, we can wipe the egg off our faces and do the right thing. It's really not that hard.

Saturday of the Nineteenth Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 418

For it was the LORD, our God, who brought us and our fathers up out of the land of Egypt, out of a state of slavery. He performed those great miracles before our very eyes and protected us along our entire journey and among all the peoples through whom we passed.

Our Judaeo-Christian tradition remains relevant to the modern world, despite their contempt for us, precisely because the human being despises slavery and our faith promises continuing deliverance from that state.

    But freedom is terrifying and the human being often prefers security. We are condemned to exist in the moment, that narrow band of time between the past and the future. We can never return to the past, no matter how conservative we might be. Nor can we guarantee the future, regardless of our liberal confidence. We must live in the present.
    In the scriptures -- which contain both the record of God's presence in the past and God's promises for the future -- we cannot help but notice the Lord's preference for the poor. The poor are those who know their future is not assured. The poorest of the poor don't know where they'll sleep tonight nor where their next meal will be found. But the are many others who don't know if they'll be able to pay their bills at the end of the month, or whether they will find health care when they need it. 
    The wealthy are those who think they know the answer to those questions. They plan for vacations with confidence, with the assurance they'll still have a home, job, educational opportunities, health care and financial reserves when they get back. 
    The poor live closer to the truth of our dependence on God. They must rely on divine providence with few other assurances. 
     The United States has been an experiment in "middle class" living, an attempt to maintain the majority above poverty and provide them with reasonable assurances about the future. People can enjoy "social security" in their "retirement years." Seniors need not earn a wage for a grateful nation will provide for them in their decline and dotage. Their "freedom" is assured. 
    Unless it's not. The future is, almost by definition, never assured. We have seen crises and inflation wipe out a nation's currency in a matter of months. Life savings disappear and financial infrastructures disintegrate. 
    Financial institutions are necessarily built on the fidelity of the citizens. If they cheat or game the system it collapses. Then, because they continue to act without faith, they grab for security; that is, for slavery. 
    Occasionally I meet a Veteran who first tells me he hasn't attended Church in fifty years. He doesn't believe in it. It's not my place to judge his decisions or behavior and so, if he is willing, I continue to engage his conversation. He goes on to tell me, "The kids today have no values!" Again, I bite my tongue. This fellow refused to celebrate faith, hope and love, so now he wonders why "the kids" know nothing of these values. 
    In today's first reading, recently-escaped slaves declare their undying allegiance to the Lord who has saved delivered them, 
"We will still serve the LORD."
The Bible testifies to this basic truth: those who do not publicly worship the Lord do not serve him. Exodus, Deuteronomy and Leviticus describe in great detail the external worship of God. "Spiritual prayer" is a myth; without overt ceremonies there are no values. 
    Our freedom begins with the freedom to worship. As you know, that "right" is the first freedom specified in the first amendment of the Bill of Rights, 
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof....
Use it or lose it. Your freedom depends upon it. 

Friday of the Nineteenth Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 417

Because of the hardness of your hearts Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.

Perhaps Jesus' statement about your hardness of heart is not so much a judgement as an observation. A judgement implies, "You should do better!" An observation means, "You have a moral disability; you are incapable of lifelong marriage and Moses compassionately permitted you to divorce and remarry." 

    Any stable arrangement that resembles what God intended from the beginning is better than an endless, humiliating cycle of hookups between strangers. 
    I certainly hear that story often enough in the VA. I remember one proud graduate of Saint X, a premier Catholic high school in Louisville; he had been married four times, and the one he was with now was not his spouse. The fellow seemed to have never heard, "from the beginning it was not so." Whatever he learned in the Catholic school had been overruled by the example of his family, friends and the prevailing American culture. 
    In today's gospel Jesus acknowledged some are "incapable" of marriage as he went on:
Not all can accept this word, but only those to whom that is granted. Some are incapable of marriage because they were born so; some, because they were made so by others; some, because they have renounced marriage for the sake of the Kingdom of heaven. Whoever can accept this ought to accept it."
My nephew remarked lately that he had to attend a wedding as the couple had attended his. I reminded him that every wedding ceremony should include at least a renewed appreciation, if not a renewal of vows for all the attending married couples. There is no point in one couple making their vows before a congregation if, afterward, they're the only married couple in the room. That would be a mockery of the sacrament which has already suffered enough. 
    Jesus assured Saint Peter that the Gates of Hell cannot prevail against the Church which stands upon the rock of his faith. Likewise, I am confident that the Sacrament of Marriage will prevail against the crushing waves of our time; it is built by the Holy Spirit on the faith of Peter and of all the saints, on your fidelity and mine. 

Thursday of the Nineteenth Week in Ordinary Time

Collect, for the forgiveness of sins

Lectionary: 416

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

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

Wednesday of the Nineteenth Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 415

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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