Twenty-sixth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were put around his neck and he were thrown into the sea.

Three years ago, when these Sunday readings came around, I had taken a rest from this blog; but I notice that six years ago, I used this "millstone curse" to comment upon the Scandal. I might have done the same nine, twelve and fifteen years ago. The story has headlined since February 2002, but it first hit the newspapers in the early 1980's.
Lovers of God might suppose the Catholic Church is exempt from God's wrath; we feel entitled to certain privileges. If this ophidian belief lurks among the faithful it raises its head above the grass among priests, bishops and cardinals. We sometimes presume upon God's merciful love for the sins we have committed, do commit and will commit. There's no apparent urgency or need to repent.
Many people suspect that pedophilia is a systemic problem. What "a few priests" did was neither an aberration nor an anomaly. It may be typical, though extreme. The bishops' misguided responses were also typical.
Several years ago, chatting with some older priests, I made a remark that many Christians would consider inappropriate for a priest. I intended a bit of humor and I expected others to laugh.
No one did. I realized then that it was time to grow up. I should put the cynical ethos of the 1970's seminary behind me. Immersed in a culture that is saturated with violence, I should sometime feel disgusted after watching the television or surfing the Internet. Breaking off those activities, I should feel dirty, filthy, in need of a ritual cleansing.
In the high school seminary of the mid-1960's, we were permitted to watch television rarely. There was only one radio available, tuned always to a popular music station. Music in the one stereo room, permitted only to seniors, was restricted mostly to classical music. Of course we high school boys often behaved savagely, but we also discussed the books we were reading and ideas presented in the classroom. Mine in particular was a literate class. The schedule of study, prayer, work, rest and meals was meant to prepare us for a life of purity.
Rebelling against the restrictions, we enjoyed greater freedom in college and post-graduate schools. At times, it seemed the prisoners were running the prison. The friars in charge of our formation were honest, good men but the times were out of joint. Meanwhile, the rising tide of sexual liberation had discovered homosexuality. Long before Stonewall ​it was evident among some collegiate seminarians. Everyone, it seemed, was "coming out" in those days, as straight or gay. Not many came out as chaste.
I don't suppose that pedophile priests are homosexuals but I do believe the ethos that liberated one released the other. No one needed to fear the Wrath of God, neither heterosexuals, homosexuals nor pedophiles. "Consenting adults" and "safe sex" were permissive catchphrases for immoral acts, but they could be loosely interpreted. No one discussed the problem of consent in an unequal power relationship.
Is pedophilia systemic in the Church? Sexual abuse is certainly widespread outside the Church; and the osmotic membrane around the seminary could not prevent a virus from infecting the entire Church. It apparently thrived in the sheltered, secretive environment of clerical culture.
And so the Wrath of God descends upon us, to save us from ourselves. In today's Gospel the Lord gives us some plain, common sense advice for dealing with evil:

If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off.
It is better for you to enter into life maimed
than with two hands to go into Gehenna,
into the unquenchable fire.
We must be grateful for this raging anger against the Church and its priests. While it exposes the hypocrisy of a violent, abusive culture, it purifies the Church. The reforms have begun and will continue. I, for one, do not know what should be amputated; but I am sure we must turn back to the Lord, even as Mary Magdalene turned and turned again to discover her Risen Savior. There can be no end of this sacrificial willingness, and no reluctance or discouragement.
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies before us while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith.
For the sake of the joy that lay before him he endured the cross, despising its shame, and has taken his seat at the right of the throne of God.
Consider how he endured such opposition from sinners, in order that you may not grow weary and lose heart. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood. You have also forgotten the exhortation addressed to you as sons:

“My son, do not disdain the discipline of the Lord or lose heart when reproved by him; for whom the Lord loves, he disciplines; he scourges every son he acknowledges.”
Endure your trials as “discipline”; God treats you as sons. For what “son” is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are without discipline, in which all have shared, you are not sons but bastards. Besides this, we have had our earthly fathers to discipline us, and we respected them. Should we not [then] submit all the more to the Father of spirits and live? They disciplined us for a short time as seemed right to them, but he does so for our benefit, in order that we may share his holiness. At the time, all discipline seems a cause not for joy but for pain, yet later it brings the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who are trained by it.
So strengthen your drooping hands and your weak knees. Make straight paths for your feet, that what is lame may not be dislocated but healed.
Hebrews 12:1-13

Feast of Saints Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael, archangels

War broke out in heaven;
Michael and his angels battled against the dragon.
The dragon and its angels fought back,
but they did not prevail
and there was no longer any place for them in heaven.

I've been a chaplain in the VA for ten years, as of this coming December. I didn't begin as a pacifist and I have not become a hawk, but after countless conversations with soldiers, sailors, marines and guards I am more convinced of the endless cycles of war; and our need for warriors. 
I think war is like the occasional traffic jam we meet on the highway. We can be stalled for hours and, when the highway finally begins to move again we never discover why it was stopped! There was no accident! But there were too many people not driving at full speed in tight formation. Incoming ramps, rain, potholes and rubberneckers in the thousands slowed and then stopped all movement. 
Because our virtue is "too slow;" because we do not go the extra mile, lend without expecting repayment, turn the other cheek, or forgive seventy times seven times there is an inevitable backup of anger, resentment, suspicion and fury that erupts periodically in war. Wars begin with me.  
The vision in today's (alternate) first reading presumes that war always was and always will be, until the end of time. However, with the Death and Resurrection of Christ, wars have ceased in heaven. Saint Michael has purged the sky of Satan and his minions. They have been cast down to Earth where they will wreak havoc for a time, a limited time. 
Because our broken economic system does not serve all the people, our infrastructures of basic necessities are disintegrating and a shrinking minority of wealthy persons control most of the money, we should expect a backup of violence. 
The poor who have no protectors, sponsors or patrons in high places -- known as anawim in Hebrew -- call upon Saint Michael the Archangel for protection. This angelic warrior represents the wrath of God especially against those who showed no mercy to the needy:
For the LORD, your God, is the God of gods, the Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who has no favorites, accepts no bribes, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and loves the resident alien, giving them food and clothing. So you too should love the resident alien, for that is what you were in the land of Egypt. Deuteronomy 10:17

If war begins with me, so does Peace. Each day and many times a day we pray, "Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven." The Bible teaches the nations to welcome refugees; and help them to integrate fully into their new homes and cities, with their talents, energy, courage and generosity. The United States, in particular, has been blessed since its inception with migrants seeking opportunities to contribute to the welfare of the nation. We should welcome them lest we face Michael and his warrior angels. 

Friday of the Twenty-fifth Week in Ordinary Time

There is an appointed time for everything,
and a time for every thing under the heavens.
A time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to uproot the plant.

"There's twenty minutes I'll never get back again!" a friend of mine said after a protracted, tedious phone call. We are indeed creatures caught in time, watching it pass and unable to stop or slow it. The best and the worst moments in life pass by, leaving their memories of delight and trauma, but irretrievably gone in any case. Accomplishments will never be repeated; mistakes and sins cannot be undone. What I should have said, what I meant to say, it doesn't matter now. 
The God who abides in eternity gives us time. Sometimes it sits on our hands; sometimes it races by. We often wish we could get those "twenty minutes" back and use them for something else. 
The Church honors time with our liturgical calendar, built on the cycles of the sun and moon, which are inconveniently non-synchronous. A lunar year is eleven days different than a solar year, but a solar year is a quarter-day off every year. Despite that awkwardness we try to force these cycles into a pattern of predictability. With limited success. 
Our Liturgy of the Hours, with five prayers for each day, marks the passage of time, giving it substance and grace. The longest of the prayers, the Office of Readings, can take twenty minutes, or longer in community; night prayer, about five minutes unless you pause over the Examination of Conscience. Morning, midday and evening prayers may take fifteen minutes. I celebrate the hospital Mass in less than thirty minutes. The length of time is not as important as the attention given to each word in God's presence. The Word is God, and the liturgies are nothing but the Word of God. 
If we lose time with inane activities, we gain it in ceremonial prayer. If you have ever arrived five minutes late for Mass you might have been astonished to hear the first reading as you entered. The entrance song, sign of the cross, greeting, penitential prayer and collect have flowed by in stately, unhurried procession but, in your absence they were only a few minutes. 
These cycles of daily, weekly and annual prayer consecrate time. Notice that, among all the times Ecclesiastes lists, "a time for prayer" is not among them. Prayer is for any, and every, and all time. Prayer is life for us, as is time. When our prayer stops, we'll know we've run out of time.

Memorial of Saint Vincent de Paul, Priest

Herod the tetrarch heard about all that was happening,
and he was greatly perplexed...

Today's gospel appears as a snippet of political events surrounding Jesus. The Evangelists Mark and Luke used it to create a sense of time passing between two incidents. In this case, Jesus' sending his disciples from village to village proclaiming the good news and curing diseases everywhere and their return, when they explained to him what they had done.
Saint Mark's Herod had a superstitious fear that the beheaded John the Baptist had reappeared to torment him. Saint Luke's Herod is more realistic; he knows the Baptist is dead but he wonders nonetheless about this new prophet who has appeared. He will be satisfied only when Pilate sends the Nazarene to the tetrarch's court during Jesus' trial. Consequently, Luke says, "Herod and Pilate became friends that very day, even though they had been enemies formerly." Jesus became a pawn in the political intrigues of Pilate and Herod.
What does the world do with the mystery of faith? They cannot accept its challenge; nor can they live with its uncertainty. Faith opens a dimension of unpredictability in human affairs; it introduces the agency of God into their game of thrones. But the players regard God as a most unwelcome player even when he appears without the power and majesty of divinity. He must be contained, curtailed, controlled and finally eliminated. In the process of destroying Jesus, Pilate used him to cement a relationship with Herod as he maneuvered in the Roman game of power and survival; but neither could imagine the significance of their action.
Luke's story of Herod and Pilate and their unlikely alliance actually signals the endgame. Periodically the motions and movements of historical events intensify and swirl into a hurricane of violence. Sides are drawn and neutral elements must choose between one or the other. Good and evil stand against each other. Even pacifists must choose which side they will serve.
Christians see the crucifixion of Jesus as such an apocalyptic event. Amid the chaos and turmoil his cross is the touchstone which proves or disproves the worth of every individual. In today's story, we hear that Herod was perplexed. He was confused; he didn't know what to make of rumors about Jesus. But he still had time; he might have chosen rightly despite his murder of John the Baptist. 
But he was only curious about Jesus, like a cat that plays with its mouse before killing it. Herod is a slave to his power, as helpless as the cat's victim. He, his friend Pilate and all their ilk will be destroyed on Judgement Day.

Wednesday of the Twenty-fifth Week in Ordinary Time

Two things I ask of you,
deny them not to me before I die:
Put falsehood and lying far from me,
give me neither poverty nor riches;
provide me only with the food I need;
Lest, being full, I deny you,
saying, "Who is the LORD?"
Or, being in want, I steal,
and profane the name of my God.

The Book of Proverbs, to my mind, is not burdened with the urgency of much of scripture. The Laws expect close attention at all times; there is room for interpretation but not for cheating the Lord of his due. The prophets demand an immediate change of heart lest we forfeit God's favor and the nations -- Assyrians, Babylonians or Egyptians -- come and sweep us away! Apocalyptic literature intensifies the prophetic anxiety because the enemy is at the gate! There is no time left!
Proverbs are offered to children for reflection. "Let's think about these things; let's discuss these things. Don't you think God's ways are better than ours?" In this twenty-first century, in the wake of September 11 and the apocalypse represented by Trump, I appreciate the respite.
The sage invites us to consider the polarities of poverty and wealth. Which is better?
Wealth has much to recommend it. Money pays off debtors, buys the better things, impresses strangers, saves for a rainy day, and gives the general impression of God's favor. But wealth is often anxious; having more than one needs seems to breed a desire for yet-more and a dread of losing even a little. Enough is never enough. Plus, there's the resentment of neighbors and the continual demands of family.
Poverty, on the other hand, relies on the patience of debtors, which may be in short supply. It has to scrape by from day to day, forgoing any thought of leisure. Poverty can't invest in the better foods, health care and education; nor can it manage vacations to exotic places. Poverty is also resented by family, neighbors and strangers who regard it as a sign of God's disfavor. The poor are always suspected of crime since they can't afford the protection of wily lawyers.
But poverty, our religion tells us, is favored by God, who sent his son to live in poverty. There is that!
The Sage of Proverbs urges us to prefer neither
Lest, being full, I deny you,
saying, "Who is the LORD?"
Or, being in want, I steal,
and profane the name of my God.
Clearly, no one can afford the loss of God's favor. Our jealous God will tolerate neither the presumptions of wealth nor the resentments of poverty. God's people should cultivate always a grateful spirit, first for God's undeserved friendship, and secondly for the gifts associated with one's state. The wealthy have the privilege of giving generously; the poor, of receiving graciously.
It is good, once in a while, to retreat from the world's endless crises and reflect on these things.

Tuesday of the Twenty-fifth Week in Ordinary Time

All the ways of a man may be right in his own eyes,
but it is the LORD who proves hearts.
To do what is right and just
is more acceptable to the LORD than sacrifice.

A big part of the chaplain's job is to listen to patients. If I preach the gospel it's by silence, and the gospel message is, "You are beloved in God's eyes." By my listening I hope the Veteran feels valued and esteemed. He or she is caught up in a vast machine -- for what is this huge boxlike structure with water mains, gas lines and electric wires but a machine? -- of caregivers, protocols, gadgets and bureacracies that, operating at full speed and under intense pressure, can seem intimidating at best. As a chaplain I have the time to listen to the Veteran's complaints about medical issues, anxieties, or war stories that no one else wants to hear.
I often meet patients described in that proverb above: "a man may be right in his own eyes." He is quite certain of his learning, experience and politics. He knows what tastes good and what tastes bad. His judgments are sure and his verdicts are certain, regardless of what others may think of the same food. This patient knows that some people -- most people! -- are fools. He is dead certain that members of the other political party intend to destroy our American way of life.
...but it is the LORD who proves hearts.
Sometimes, after this opinionated patient has exhausted his supply of dicta he becomes more congenial and may actually engage in the give and take of conversation. He may allow another person with another perspective to actually exist in his world. He might hear something he has never heard, or recognize that which he has dismissed. He might even realize that he is more than his opinions. If I have done my job of listening the Veteran feels secure that, with his anxieties, uncertainties and critical medical issues, he is welcome in the hospital. With that assurance, with a sense of being king of his own castle, though it's only a hospital room, he may receive guests, including the chaplain.

To do what is right and just
is more acceptable to the LORD than sacrifice.
Veterans coming into the hospital for medical care sometimes think, "I can spend these three days in the hospital and then get back to normal." Or, if they're here for alcohol rehab, "...these four weeks and then get back to normal."
In other words, the "sacrifice" of a period of time in the hospital should be "acceptable to the Lord." It's all I have to do to "get right with God." But that ain't the way it works.
Doing what is right and just often involves, like the Sacrifice of Isaac,  "more than I can afford."
Rehabilitation is more than taking a few pills, more than going to church on Sunday, more than avoiding salt, more than hitting the gym once a week. Recovery wants everything, beginning with obedience to the will of God. Doing what is right and just is more acceptable than the sacrifices we can afford.
We should get up each day and summon that Spirit of eager willingness, "Here I am, Lord!" What would you have me do?

Monday of the Twenty-fifth Week in Ordinary Time

Jesus said to the crowd:
"No one who lights a lamp conceals it with a vessel
or sets it under a bed;
rather, he places it on a lampstand
so that those who enter may see the light.
For there is nothing hidden that will not become visible,
and nothing secret that will not be known and come to light.

The promise of today's gospel -- that the hidden will be revealed -- seems fulfilled in our time. Your use of the Internet -- including your reading this blog -- broadcasts more personal information than most of us can comprehend, and certainly more than we would disclose to strangers. Even my search for the definition and correct spelling of crossword answers arouses hopes in certain quarters that I might be interested in apocatastasis and anemones.
But this gospel is meant to encourage not to threaten. What should be disclosed is the Good News that we believe in the Jesus Christ. This light shines in our conversations, our comings and goings, our work and rest, and even in our Internet surfing.
"Those who enter (our presence) may see the light."
Jesus adds, "Take care, then, how you hear." Privacy advocates urge us to be be careful of what you read or write in your social media. A New Yorker Magazine cartoon depicted a man scoffing at another fellow, "Oh? So you know more than the Internet?"
Our knowledge begins before we hear or see anything, with the Love of the Truth. This is a disposition as Saint Paul described in his Letter to the Philippians:
Finally, sisters and  brothers, whatever is true,
whatever is honorable,
whatever is just,
whatever is pure,
whatever is lovely,
whatever is gracious,
if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise,
think about these things.
This willingness and practice of thinking "about these things" disposes us to see more clearly. Nor is this a solitary practice. Saint Paul spoke to a congregation when he urged them to "think about these things." They should come together often and discuss how to handle various difficulties, both public and private. Is the Church being persecuted? How shall we handle this? Have my children abandoned the faith? What advice can I get from trustworthy, Christian counselors? Is my family in financial distress? What help can the Church offer with assistance and counsel?
This willingness to live within one's faith, to view problems and situations through the eyes of religion, will shine like a lamp in a dark place, like a city on a hill.
Without that holy disposition, we are helpless before The Blob of fake news which has overcome our politics, entertainment and social media.
No one can know the Truth who does not love God. They might have command of many facts but what the facts and theories finally mean and how we should respond -- that discernment belongs to the Lover of Truth.

Twenty-fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time

“Whoever receives one child such as this in my  name, receives me; 
and whoever receives me, 
receives not me but the One who sent me.”

We should pay attention to the three receives of this 37th verse of Mark 9. The first leads to the second, and the second to the third; the verse describes a step-by-step path to God for those willing to take it.
Beginning at the end, I see "the One who sent me." There are innumerable references to this "One" whom we can call "God the Father" or "the Father of Jesus." In the word sent we find the beginning, the eternal origin of Jesus! As T.S. Eliot wrote, "In my end is my beginning..." Describing the circularity of existence he wrote in the same poem, "In my beginning is my end." 
In the Spirit and Word of the New Testament, Christian Catholics believe that Jesus is the Presence of God among us. He is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. He is eternally sent by the Father and eternally returning to the Father, gathering into himself those who abandon their sinful past, their compromised present and their dubious future.
That sounds terribly difficult. It's not. It begins with receiving "one child such as this in my name." That child may be the fruit of one's own body, an orphan, or someone similarly defenseless in an unsafe world.
Paradoxically, salvation begins with abandoning the effort to save myself and surrendering to the needs of those who can save neither me nor themselves! Only God effects salvation. 

But, once again, my reflections are sucked into the terrible vortex of the Scandal, the story of child sexual abuse by some clergy of our Church. For how many years rescuers rushed to the defense not of the children but of their tormentors? They did not receive the powerless, they received the powerful priests. In many cases they supposed the innocent were guilty despite their vulnerability, and the guilty were innocent despite all the creepy signs. They preferred the clergy who, with their magical incantations and mysterious powers, promised to lead them to Christ and to the Father. They were seduced by power. This passage about receiving children reveals the perpetrator's particular blasphemy because the criminal priests were often admired for their willingness to spend time with children. 
No one should blame the families of the victims. I grew up in a family where sexuality was never discussed. I had no words to describe what happened to those children, had it happened to me. I understand why they could not speak, and why no one could listen if they had spoken. No one could imagine what was happening, and the blame is squarely with the perpetrators.

But we must learn from this experience and the first learning is to "receive one such child as this in my name." When God appears among us our first impulse is to protect him. Receiving him, Mary and Joseph received "the One who sent me" -- and rushed him into Egypt, away from "Bethlehem and its vicinity." 
Today's gospel assumes that receiving a child is not a privilege. The disciples were discussing who was the greatest among them when Jesus taught them this lesson. They didn't suppose the one who changes diapers and gets up in the night to check crying babies might be the greatest. They might be amused by the disciple who plays pity-pat with a youngster but they have more important things to do, like advising senators and congressman on how to run the nation. To their way of thinking caring for the helpless and the needy is utter nonsense, and children are expendable. They believe, "If I care for the powerful they'll care for me!" 
This gospel recalls Jesus' doomed approach to Jerusalem. His disciples had to hear, even before they arrived there, what his crucifixion might mean for them. They had to learn that he came to serve and not to be served; and that they must expect to imitate him. Their path, as Saint Therese Liseux would teach, would be along the little way, the apparently pointless, and certainly thankless task of receiving a child. 

Saturday of the Twenty-fourth Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 448

So also is the resurrection of the dead.
It is sown corruptible; it is raised incorruptible.
It is sown dishonorable; it is raised glorious.
It is sown weak; it is raised powerful.
It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body.
If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual one.

I have been lately reading The Tragic Sense of Life by Miguel de Unamuno, a very popular Spanish philosopher of the early twentieth century. He has much to say about our hope for eternal life, including the following:
"When I contemplate the green serenity of the fields or look into the depths of clear eyes through which shines a fellow-soul, my consciousness dilates, I feel the diastole of the soul and am bathed in the flood of the life that flows about me, and I believe in my future. But instantly the voice whispers to me, "Thou shalt cease to be!" the angel of death touches me with his wing, and a systole of the soul floods the depths of my spirit with the blood of divinity. Like Pascal, I do not understand those who assert that they care not a farthing for these things, and this indifference "in a matter that touches themselves, their eternity, their all, exasperates me rather than moves me to compassion, astonishes and shocks me" and he who feels thus is for me, as for Pascal, whose are the words just quoted, "a monster."
Saint Paul made clear from the beginning our belief in our personal resurrection. 
If there is no resurrection of the dead, then neither has Christ been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then empty [too] is our preaching; empty, too, your faith.
Unamuno also applies to the great atheist philosopher, Spinoza, that everything conscious strives to remain conscious. We do not readily surrender to death, although we might, for a greater person (as Saint Paul said) or a greater cause, be willing to do so.  
Pursuing this philosophical/theological thread, I hope in the story of Lazarus in John 11. Rather than claiming some God-given right to a life hereafter, which I would deny, I hope the Lord will remember my name as he remembered Lazarus. I hope he will stand over my dust, wherever it might be, whether in a local columbarium or scattered throughout the galaxy, and call my name. "Kenny, come out!" 
In that moment I hope that I will have the perspicacity to recognize the Voice of Jesus and the good sense to cry out, "Here I am, Lord!" as I leap from the obscurity of death. 

Feast of Saint Matthew, Apostle and evangelist

R. Their message goes out through all the earth.
Not a word nor a discourse
whose voice is not heard;
Through all the earth their voice resounds,
and to the ends of the world, their message.
R. Their message goes out through all the earth.

On the feast of Saint Matthew the Church reminds us of our apostolic foundations. We are "one, holy, catholic and apostolic." The word refers to our confidence that the original message of the apostles, the Gospel, has never been lost nor diminished. That the word we preach today is the same throughout the ages. 
In this book, To Change the Church, (March, 2018) Ross Douthat writes of our tradition:
One of the striking aspects of Catholic life is the thread that runs backward through time and culture -- through novels, poetry, essays, devotional literature, and the wider arts -- linking the experience of believers across two thousand years. Of course ideas change, cultures change, and the experience of Catholic culture today is necessarily different from the experience of believers a century or a millennium before. But not entirely so: Read John Henry Newman and Thomas Aquinas and Augustine back to back to back, or read Evelyn Waugh and Dante together, or read Theresa of Avila and then Therese of Lisieux.
In each case the gulf of years and difference in cultural expression does not obscure the fact that they belong to the same tradition, the same story, and that there are ways in which Catholic Christianity really is a time machine: you can step into those worlds, the worlds of Catholic past, find your footing and realize that you are not somewhere altogether alien; that the past is another country but somehow yours; you can in some sense think with the letter writers of the New Testament and the church father scribbling in late antiquity and the medieval monk in the north of England and the Florentine poet and the philosopher-nun dealing with hapless popes and the mystic in Spain and the philosopher-martyr in Henry VIII's court and thence back around to the saints and novelists and polemicists of the modern world. 
page 180-181
I can vouch for that experience, especially as I have read the second selection of our Office of Readings ("Matins') in the Liturgy of the Hours. On every day of the year the breviary offers readings from past centuries. There are writings of second century saints like Ignatius of Antioch and Saint Barnabas, of Thomas A'Kempis and Thomas Aquinas, of Saints Theresa of Avila and Therese Lisieux, and passages from the Documents of the Second Vatican Council. Rarely would I "disagree" with any of them, though I might have to study their intent. More often I am inspired to think new thoughts. Although I have been reading Matins for over forty years, I still find a thought I had not thought before; and wonder what was I thinking when I read this very passage last year. 
The Church remains confident of this apostolic tradition despite centuries of struggle and reform, of changing climates, developing cultures, emerging philosophies, and missionary encounters with hitherto unknown nations. True, groups of Christians have splintered off from the Church; and, no doubt, they took a dollops of the Spirit and pieces of the Truth with them. Many ambitious sects split and flourished briefly before withering for lack of rain, soil or sunshine. Even bad ideas have to run their course and good people can be carried off by them. We continually invite them to return that Jesus' prayer may be fulfilled.  
The apostolic continuity remains. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschl describes in his book, God in Search of Man, a Catholic experience of faith: 
Not the individual man nor a single generation by its own power can erect the bridge that leads to God. Faith is the achievement of ages, an effort accumulated over centuries. Many of its ideas are as the light of a star that left its source centuries ago. Many songs, unfathomable today, are the resonance of voices of bygone times. There is a collective memory of God in the human spirit, and it is this memory of which we partake in our faith.

Memorial of Saints Andrew Kim Tae-gon, Priest, and Paul Chong Ha-sang, and Companions, Martyrs

So I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven;
hence, she has shown great love.
But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little."
He said to her, "Your sins are forgiven."
The others at table said to themselves,
"Who is this who even forgives sins?"
But he said to the woman,
"Your faith has saved you; go in peace."

Christians, following the example of our Jewish ancestors, should always hold front-and-center an awareness of our sins. The Mass customarily begins with a penitential rite, and most Protestant communion services follow that tradition. Practicing Catholics enjoy -- like going to the dentist! -- the Sacrament of Reconciliation/Penance/Confession.
In today's passage from Saint Luke, the Lord challenges our reluctance to deal with the mystery of sin and forgiveness. We are represented in this story by Simon the Pharisee. A decent fellow, he probably enjoys his family life, attends synagogue routinely, and pays whatever taxes he can't avoid. He is willing to invite the odd rabbi to dinner, even Jesus, to form his own ideas about the controversial figure. He likes to stay abreast of things but, satisfied with his self-image, expects no personal challenge to his attitudes, style or habits. He is open-minded but wary of change.
When a notorious woman invades his dining room during a polite evening meal, the Pharisee watches to see what happens. Curious, he will not interfere in the show.
So we understand the Pharisee's attitude, but what is Jesus doing in this house? He is consistently critical of Pharisees, and polite society is not his milieu. He frequents the homes of tax collectors and sinners. But we know that Jesus invariably obeys the impulses of the Holy Spirit. He may have been waiting to discover why the Spirit led him here, and what marvels might appear in this sophisticated house of the comfortable. Would this be an occasion to afflict the comfortable or comfort the afflicted? As it turned out, he did both.
This touching story should reassure anyone who hesitates to approach the Sacrament of Penance. No matter how deep my sins cut into my wounded soul, regardless of my grief, remorse and shame, the mercy of Jesus runs infinitely deeper. My sins are like the hole a toddler furiously digs on a sandy beach. With pail and shovel he goes at, thinking he might dig a hole to China! When the tide comes in the water covers the hole, the sand fills it, and the boy's effort is totally erased. Nothing remains but the memory.
Whatever this woman of the gospel has done, we can see that she has been forgiven much. She cannot stop herself from weeping over Jesus, then kissing and wiping his feet.
One of sin's most treacherous characteristics is its insistence that "This cannot be forgiven." Sin would have us believe the Good God cannot and would not forgive anyone; that the Great and Powerful God is too brittle to bend in mercy. That kind of god can only crush its opposition. While it's true that nothing which happens can be undone -- a human act is forever -- it is also true that the Sign of Contradiction transforms even the unspeakably hideous into astonishing beauty. Why else would every Catholic Church feature a crucifix in the front and center of its sanctuary? Why else would we regard the wounds of Jesus as gems of sparkling wonder? They are beautiful in God's eyes, and in ours.
The unwillingness to confess our sins and seek forgiveness exposes an exaggerated ego. It says, "I am so special; I am beyond God's mercy!" 
As one young friend used to say to me, "Build a bridge and get over yourself!" 

In Saint Luke's story, Jesus not only forgives this woman; he learns from her. When the hour comes he will wash the feet of his disciples. I think he was as helpless in that moment to prevent his tears from bathing their feet as the sinful woman was on this occasion. His affection overwhelmed him even as it astonished the apostles. They must know what is about to happen and yet there are no words to explain it, only a prophetic gesture.

John 13:12
“Do you realize what I have done for you?
You call me Master, Lord; and so I am.
I saw you quake with fear as I washed your feet,
though it was I, your friend, was swept away.
For I could do no less than bow and kiss
the battered feet of those who bring good news.

Tell them of my tears with your good news,
of love so ardent it embarrassed you.
Always you must feel the shock of my kiss
when I stooped with bowl and water. I am
a servant before you, to show a way
beyond the farthest travels of your feet.

You must know the beauty of filthy feet,
their familiar stench, mud and slime, the news
of poverty. Their dirty nails claw away
illusions of this world’s pretty dreams. You,
perhaps, will apprehend why I am
helpless on this festive night. I must kiss,

I cannot resist, I feel compelled to kiss
you as a mother sucks her baby’s feet,
a husband holds his hungry bride, I am
sated with desire. This comes as news,
this fatal weakness of your Master. You
shudder, you cringe, you want to push away.

You think there’s got to be another way.
Before this night is done a traitor’s kiss,
one whose feet I washed, a man you thought you
knew, will clear a path. My bleeding feet,
obedient, must follow . Bitter news
accompanies a gracious word. I am

going to my Father; always I am
with you. Tomorrow you will see a way
leading where I go, you must spread the news.
God’s own purity, descending, will kiss
your soul as I have bathed your lovely feet.
Then, with all my soul, I will have loved you

to the end. I am my father’s kiss
sweeping you away from off your feet
with news of great joy, to gladden you.

Wednesday of the Twenty-fourth Week in Ordinary Time

Love is patient, love is kind.
It is not jealous, love is not pompous,
it is not inflated, it is not rude,
it does not seek its own interests,
it is not quick-tempered, it does not brood over injury,
it does not rejoice over wrongdoing
but rejoices with the truth.
It bears all things, believes all things,
hopes all things, endures all things.

Today's reading from I Corinthians may be the most popular of all his writings, at least in our time. (Theologians have usually preferred his epistles to the Romans and Galatians.) As Europe built a civilization following the collapse of the Roman Empire; and philosophers, theologians and artists discovered the beauty, dignity and worth of human life they became more fascinated with human love. There is a wildness in the human spirit that does not want to be tamed, disciplined or dominated. In Saint Francis' time troubadours traveled from village to city, from cathedral to castle singing the praises of romantic love. Lovers often found their delight in someone other than the family-approved, church-appointed spouse.
Modern troubadours especially celebrate the paean to love in Romans 13; it's usually heard during a wedding mass. But Saint Paul was certainly not reflecting on erotic or even romantic love when he wrote the passage. It's about that powerful grace which binds the Church together.
Perhaps I've said this before, my own particular credo:
  1. First, unless you belong to a Church don't tell me you love the Lord. The Christian who isolates can love only an idea of the Lord. Without the immediate contact of our sacramental church, the Lord is only a fading memory, sterile and corrupt. 
  2. Second, unless you really love the Lord, you cannot belong to a Church." Anyone who does not love the Lord with her entire mind, soul, body and strength will not be able to endure the challenges, frustrations and disappointments of belonging to a Church.

If you don't belong to a Church you're loving only a god of your imagination, an image or ideal, a theory of what Jesus should be like. It may be a popular image of "God," a shadowy figure who appears on the edges of a secular culture. It may resemble the God of one's religious childhood, a memory of how you once knew the Lord, or of the God your parents or grandparents worshiped.
Some will insist their god is the same as the Biblical god, forgetting that the Bible was written by and belongs to the Church. It's our manual! Inspired reading of the Bible may lead someone back to communion with God's people, but if it doesn't it is not the road less traveled
It's an easy mistake we all make. Just as I often love my impressions of someone until, one day, I suddenly realize "You're not the person I thought I knew." I may be disappointed by the discovery, or elated; but in either case I realize my ideas of this other person were seriously inaccurate. Relationships need frequent retooling, and crises occur often as we rediscover one another; 
So is it with the love of God. Take nothing for granted. 
Saint John insists upon our practicing Church in his First Letter:
Whoever loves his brother remains in the light, and there is nothing in him to cause a fall. Whoever hates his brother is in darkness; he walks in darkness and does not know where he is going because the darkness has blinded his eyes.
Hate is a strong word and we don't use it often in American language, but I would call "hate" anything which forces a member to be absent from the Assembly. Many people "come to the Lord" but then, like the seed planted in thin soil, decide it's easier to love Him at a safe distance from his Body the Church. Membership means too much adjustment, too much new learning, too much opening of one's heart to different kinds of people and new ways of thinking.  My impatience, judgmental attitudes, and indifference to others silently rebuke the pleasant feelings I might generate in prayer; even as daily prayer reminds me that I can be more generous, more patient and less opinionated.
In his fourth chapter, Saint John invites us:
Beloved, let us love one another, because love is of God; everyone who loves is begotten by God and knows God.
Like marriage, membership in a real community provides a "reality check" for one's piety. It is a proving ground of the Holy Spirit. As we practice our faith, First Corinthians 13 provides both guidance for the Church, and a checklist for the Examination of one's Conscience.