Memorial of Saint John Bosco, priest

Since through the Blood of Jesus
we have confidence of entrance into the sanctuary by the new and living way he opened for us through the veil, that is, his flesh, and since we have "a great priest over the house of God," let us approach with a sincere heart and in absolute trust, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed in pure water.

Our Hebrew Author speaks of our confidence, sincerity and absolute trust. With these assets we approach the sanctuary. The opposite attitudes might be suspicion, wariness and hesitation.
To get a better understanding of the Author's invitation, I ask myself, "How do I approach an unfamiliar situation?" I was recently asked to read some of my poetry to four young men. I had met the fellows recently, in social and informal situations, but was not yet sure of their names. I knew they are Catholic and have some interest in entering religious life. I knew nothing of their education or interests, their families or careers.
So I approached this gathering with some hesitation. Reading poems, one's own or the work of published poets, can be pretty personal. If I presume to call my own writing poetry, it's because the rhymes generally work and the meter is dependable. There are experts who would dismiss it as doggerel.
But the situation called for "confidence, sincerity and absolute trust." True, I might rush through the presentation, garbling the words and their meanings, blushing with embarrassment, and mumbling with hesitation. But that would do no one any good; it'd be a waste of time. And so, after a few preliminary apologies and unnecessary explanations, I threw myself into the reading. The gentle men did not rise up as one in songs of praise, but neither were they unkind. They made some appreciative remarks and we got through the evening.
What are the long term effects? Who knows? Who cares? Come back in twenty years and we may discover a 21st century John Donne discovered his vocation that evening. Or not. That's in God's hands.
Saint Paul urged his Colossian disciples,
"...whatever you do, in word or in deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him." and
"Whatever you do, do from the heart, as for the Lord and not for others,"
Because God is a man we can approach God as we approach others, with "confidence, sincerity and absolute trust." The manner we present to others is, in fact, our presentation to God. No one should suppose he has a compartmentalized, special relationship with God that is warm, comfy and sweet; and unlike that which he addresses to others. Rather, the same Spirit that ushers us into God's presence reveals our confidence, sincerity and absolute trust to others.

Wednesday of the Third Week in Ordinary Time

For by one offering he has made perfect forever
those who are being consecrated.
The Holy Spirit also testifies to us, for after saying:
This is the covenant I will establish with them
after those days, says the Lord:
"I will put my laws in their hearts,
and I will write them upon their minds,"
he also says:
Their sins and their evildoing
I will remember no more.
Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer offering for sin.

Yesterday I reflected upon the total sacrifice of Jesus, his complete surrender to the will of the Father. Our lesson from the Letter to the Hebrews today invites us to consider what Jesus' passion, death and resurrection means for us.
The operative word here -- believe it or not -- is perfect and it applies to those who are being consecrated.
The word would defy all common sense except for its context, "He has made perfect forever." This is the work of God; very clearly perfection is not my accomplishment.
We've all pondered that fatal word in the Gospel of Saint Matthew, "So be perfect just as your heavenly Father is perfect." But what on earth does that mean? I know what a perfect score on a math test means. I can imagine a perfect game of bowling, with a score of 300. I knew a fellow who did it a few times. There may be some perfect works of art like the Mona Lisa or Michelangelo's Pieta.
But a perfect human being? I don't think so. Not by any standards I can imagine. If I was ever perfect, it certainly didn't last long. And it was only a matter of opinion, probably my mother's, and before I was two months old.
Perfect, I suspect, is a Greek word, used among Christians disciples who could read and write in Greek as they discussed Hebrew concepts. So what has God done for those who are being consecrated? It has something to do with this mysterious perfection. He, namely the Holy Spirit, has put his laws in our hearts, and written them upon our minds. He has also remembered our sins no more.
That doesn't make us ideal statues, or even perfect bodies like Charles Atlas and Bo Derek, the star of the sexist movie 10.
The perfecting work of the Holy Spirit, i hope, is to refashion the sordid mess of my life into a gospel. When Jesus of Nazareth was crucified only the most blessed could imagine what we believe, that this catastrophe revealed the perfect -- and perfecting -- mercy of God. This law which he has placed in our hearts will draw together and align the tangled web of our stories into golden cords of salvation. He will integrate the disintegrating forces of our spirit and bless us with integrity.
More importantly, the Holy Spirit will perfect our relations with one another.The sad stories of our quarrels, feuds and festering resentments will be resolved as we recognize the sonship and daughterhood of every person. How often do quarreling siblings become fiercely loyal and inseparable adults? Redeemed by the simple graces of maturity they enjoy a bond that remembers with amusement the feuds of their childhood. Their sins and their evildoing they remember no more, except to kid one another.
Such is the perfection God has promised to those who love him.

Tuesday of the Third Week in Ordinary Time

But in those sacrifices there is only a yearly remembrance of sins,
for it is impossible that the blood of bulls and goats take away sins.
For this reason, when he came into the world, he said:
Sacrifice and offering you did not desire,
but a body you prepared for me;
in burnt offerings and sin offerings you took no delight.
Then I said, As is written of me in the scroll,
Behold, I come to do your will, O God.

I was taught in the seminary, almost a half-century ago, a certain principle that I believe but cannot explain: the Lord saved us from our sins by his incarnation and crucifixion because there is no other way we might be saved. A simple threat like my father used to deliver -- "Straighten up and fly right!" -- would not suffice. Nor would a pleading word like, "I love you so much!" Something more is required of both God and us.
A sacrifice is not simply a sign of good faith, an indication of good intentions. By its roots the word implies making holy: facere and sacra. The sacrifices of the Old Testament bound the people to their Holy God, as in when Moses sprinkled the blood of a heifer on a stone altar. The blood was life; the people, themselves; and the altar, the presence of God. Under the priestly leadership of Moses the people were "baptized" in the blood of the heifer. In the living blood they were one with their God.
But, as history demonstrated and the sacrifice of Jesus showed, it is impossible that the blood of bulls and goats (should) take away sins. Much more was required. The Old Testament sacrifices were not in vain, they were simply unfulfilled until the real sacrifice was made. It could not be made by Abraham, Moses or Solomon; it had to be an act of God by the Son of God.
And yet there was more. Jesus, the Son of David, was not born to the Levite priesthood. Not for him to offere a sheep or heifer as all the people watched. He must offer more than he could afford, more than he had to give. He must give the last measure of breath, blood and water.
This is not a man-made rule; I didn't make this up. Nor would I want to demand so much of anyone, least of all, God.
But it was necessary.
As we observe the Passion of Jesus, we must see how far his sacrifice will go. The Azteks of pre-Columbian Mexico were known for their human sacrifice. Annually they chose a young healthy male from the ruling class. He would enjoy a year of luxurious splendor before his death, with all the pleasures of food, drink and sex before his heart was cut from his living body. If he found it painful he could not complain of abuse or neglect. He was accorded every sign of respect throughout his life until his last day. He was honored for his willingness to die, and he received that recognition.
It was necessary that Jesus go far beyond the courage of these Aztek lads. He should suffer hatred, betrayal, abandonment, mockery, abuse and torment. His kenosis, the emptying of self, must be total. Saint Mark dwells on that in his gospel, as even the thieves who were crucified with him joined in the hilarity. With his last, gasping breath he seemed to lose all hope for mercy; "My God, my God, why have you abandoned me."

Finally, as we have reflected on the total sacrifice of Jesus, we must understand that he gladly, willingly, eagerly wanted to make this sacrifice. Yes, he knew it would be painful. It must be soul-wrenching to the point of despair. He did not hesitate. His sacrifice would not be a complete if he were not absolutely willing. There can be no hesitation. And so we hear him say, in the Letter to the Hebrews, "Behold, I come to do youir will, O God!"
Some Christian spiritualities of the past, both Catholic and Protestant, have used the suffering of Christ to inflict shame and guilt upon the faithful. Often they wanted to remind children and wayward adults of their religious obligations. Mischief in church or playground was confronted with ghastly images of bloody sacrifice. "See how your sins offend God!" the impious were told. Perhaps these scolders meant well.
But like Moses who berated his people even as water flowed from a miraculous rock, they missed the point. They dimiinished God's pure goodness. Our God would have us wonder at a sacrifice that is entirely human and infinitely beyond human capacity. Only the Spirit of God could effect such a prayer as we have seen in Jesus and his martyred saints.

Memorial of Saint Thomas Aquinas, priest and doctor of the Church

Summoning them, he began to speak to them in parables, "How can Satan drive out Satan?
If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand.

President John Adams, first successor to George Washington, is often quoted,
"Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence."

The theory was that facts are discovered as true by scientists who seek the unchanging truths of reality. That "unchanging truth" was based on the theory that God is unchanging. Even the deists of the Enlightenment, Adams among them, believed in this eternally unchanging deity.
That confidence began to erode in the twentieth century as certain proven facts contradicted each other without any possibility of resolution. For instance, is light a particle or a ray? It acts in both ways though it cannot be both. Quantum theory emerged, a way of living with two or more contradictory facts. It was largely theoretical for most people until we started navigating by GPS.
We have discovered that facts are manufactured by human beings in conversation with each other. They are made to be communicated, and often encapsulated in a few simple words. But their utility relies on the context that every party to the conversation shares. Huge, even fatal, misundertandings may ensue when the parties don't agree on the context. A billion dollar probe of Mars failed because American engineers installed a component measured with metric rather than imperial standards. Their facts were right; their context was wrong.
Facts may be useful for science, especially the hard sciences of mathematics, physics and chemistry; they're not always reliable in sociology and politics. The study of human beings,-- their attitudes, feelings, decisions and actions -- doesn't lend itself to precise measurements. They are somewhat predictable on a massive scale, as algorithms are showing, but when humans suspect they're acting predictably and being tracked, they do something weird. Even historical facts float in and out of existence like legends and myths; and historians have given up on historical theories like determinism, communism, and manifest destiny. No one knows what anyone will do next, much less how masses of people will act. Perhaps several million people will not emigrate to the United States despite their poverty and the legendary promise of el norte.

When Jesus taught his contemporaries that "a kingdom divided against cannot stand" he was speaking of Truth, not of facts. To speak the Truth one must know, love and serve the Truth. Any fool can hide the truth with a fact. Alcoholics use them often. "I'm going to run down out and buy some cigarettes." doesn't mean that at all. The truth is he's going out for alcohol, but he can't or won't say that. Sure, he buys cigarettes, but that's not why he's going out. He has no love of truth nor of the one to whom he tells this lie.

Truth is a relationship; it is a matrix of relationships which includes God, one's family, neighbors, fellow workers, citizens and church -- and the many dimensions of oneself. It takes time, deliberation, courage and dedication to tell the truth. The truth often leaves me vulnerable to pain and embarrassment. Before I can answer the simplest question I may have to ponder and pray for guidance that I might speak with integrity.
Truth is conveyed with words which are carefully chosen for their communicability. One can tell a three year old that, "Mommy has to go away for a while." but not with words like addiction, alcoholism or a history of sexual abuse. The truth in that situation has to be lived, mostly without words.
Jesus enemies accused him of their own hypocrisy. It was the only matrix they understood, a torn, fragmented world of deceit, secrets, intrigue and conspiracies, destined for annihilation. Because Truth is the only reality, the only real existence, the enemies of Jesus are doomed to evaporate like the morning frost under the noonday sun. Their memory will perish.
The faithful today, assaulted by alternate facts from political, economic, scientific and religious "authorities" rely on God's Holy Spirit to guide us. We beg the Lord to help us know, love and serve the Truth, and to hate every form of deceit.

Third Sunday in Ordinary Time

Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit,
and news of him spread throughout the whole region. He taught in their synagogues and was praised by all.

January 2019 has nearly passed but today's readings remind us, this is still the month of new beginnings. The reading from Nehemiah recalls the restart of history in Jerusalem as the Jews returned from exile and rebuilt their temple. The new building wasn't much; it couldn't compare with the long-destroyed  Temple of Solomon; but it was a work of love and, so long as the Persian Empire lasted, it was a safe, peaceful place to worship God. The people wept tears of gratitude as the governor Nehemiah and the high priest Ezra performed the rituals of dedication.
That ancient story provides context for Jesus' inaugural sermon in Nazareth for we are always beginning again.

Several years ago I wrote a sestet about the mystery of new beginnings. A sestet is a highly structured poem of six and a half stanzas, each of six lines. Each line of the first stanza ends with a word which is repeated six times throughout the rest of the poem. I didn't follow the form exactly, but it's not a bad effort at poetry:

A moment passes by with every breath 
And the future, channeled through this hasty now
Gives way to a backlog of opportunities
Lost, never reclaimed or rediscovered
Even as an infinity of futurities unimaginable
Eagerly pile up beyond this narrow strait.

Dear Aging Heart, we have walked an ancient street
Which anguished time forgot, with labored breath
Navigating cycles of years with imagined
Pleasures that seemed so real then, but now
They reel like errant importunities.
Can memories unlimited discover

In rude stories unrued, undiscovered
Airs or gusts of goodness? The straight
Path on which I set out despite the portents
Was fair enough, I think; and yet I breathe
Worrisome belabored stories and I know
That no one – or few – can imagine

The troubles I have caused. But doesn’t Imagination
Work with Grace and Bliss to cover
The past in future glory? And the now
Has a mystic, magic madness that straightens
Twisted, tortured traumas until their breath
Comes easily and their importance

Sounds of blessed opportunities.
No one on this side of the grave imagines
The endless openings that curl and wreathe
Even yet around each unrecovered
Moment of the past. An amazing now,
Bending under futures’ pressures straightens

And heals even that most regretted traitor’s
Kiss. It harrows hell and finds unfortunates
Who could not imagine or dream of knowing
Happiness. Their lives lost and unmanaged,
Unremembered shall be recovered
And they will rise up breathing.

Memorial of Saints Timothy and Titus, bishops

Lectionary: 560/316

When his relatives heard of this they set out to seize him, for they said, "He is out of his mind."

Family is most certainly a sacred institution, and rightly revered by every civilized society. But it's also peccable and pathetically subject to human frailty. If some people are surprised by Saint Mark's report that Jesus' family tried to contain and suppress his mission, the scriptures are not. The sacred genealogies found in Saint Matthew and Saint Luke count philanderers, prostitutes and murderers, with the great King David prominent among them. An extended line of ancestors that did not include such characters would be patently false. As Jimmy Carter said,
 “We’ve uncovered some embarrassing ancestors in the not-too-distant past. Some horse thieves, and some people killed on Saturday nights."
Discovering this about Jesus, we again celebrate the humility of God. Rightly we celebrate his mother's Immaculate Conception and Joseph's sanctity, recognizing the privilege God bestowed upon them; but we could never recognize our Savior if everything about him were "perfect." The poverty in which he was born and raised, and the abuse that he suffered; the insults, mockery, beatings, the crown of thorns, nails and crucifixion signify his absorption in human life. He was one of us and subject to everything we suffer 
including an embarrassment of ancestors. 
That he actually did so and would not pull rank to avoid our common lot certifies his right to redeem us. This beautiful man has vanished beneath the flooding mob that swallowed and destroyed him.
Today's gospel begins a story that will not be resolved until Tuesday when his family arrives and Jesus refuses to acknowledge them. As he says in Luke 14:26
“If any one comes to me without hating his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple."
Saint John's prologue explains it clearly, He came to what was his own, but his own people did not accept him." And, more importantly, 
But to those who did accept him he gave power to become children of God, to those who believe in his name, who were born not by natural generation nor by human choice nor by a man’s decision but of God.
and finally, "Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is begotten by God..."

Believing in Jesus should not destroy our relationships with family, but it must alter them considerably. Begotten by God through Baptism is far more important than our blood relationships, despite the old saying. Baptismal water is thicker than blood! 
Reborn in the Lord we may be sent back to our families as blessings because we know them deep within our bones and love them with the passionate affection of children. 

Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul, Apostle

Lectionary: 519

The God of our ancestors designated you to know his will, to see the Righteous One, and to hear the sound of his voice; for you will be his witness before all to what you have seen and heard.

Saint John the Divine, in his Gospel and three Letters, insists that the disciples of Jesus must give testimony to what they have seen and heard. They must witness to what they have witnessed. These first disciples were enormously important to the early church, so much so that, after Judas hanged himself, Matthias was chosen to take his place. Matthias' most important qualification, after his fidelity, was that he had been with the Lord since his baptism. As Saint Peter explained:
Therefore, it is necessary that one of the men who accompanied us the whole time the Lord Jesus came and went among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day on which he was taken up from us, become with us a witness to his resurrection.”
It's fascinating then, that Ananias told Saint Paul, "for you will be his witness before all to what you have seen and heard."
Saint Paul had not walked with the Lord before his crucifixion and death. He did not witness the Resurrection. In fact, in his letters he wrote nothing of Jesus' teachings. Of incidents in the life of the Messiah, he cites only the Last Supper, his death and resurrection. But he often  speaks of the revelation that came to him on the road to Damascus. One of the earliest preachers of the Good News, Saint Paul never saw a copy of any gospel; they weren't written yet. He must have heard stories of Jesus, but he knew the Lord more directly than the stories they told. He knew the Lord personally.
It helped that they were both Jews, educated in and informed by the Word of God from Abraham to Zechariah. Inspired by the Holy Spirit, he knew the mind of Christ.
Through his own experience on the road to Damascus Saint Paul underwent the death and resurrection of Jesus. He was blinded by the light, rendered so helpless he had to be led by the hand, and then healed by the baptism of Ananias. This incident defined his ministry as he went throughout the Roman Empire, inviting others to know the Lord.
In this 21st century Christians are called to give personal testimony of their knowledge of the Lord. We should refer to the Gospels and the innumerable stories of our saints, we should be informed by our philosophical and theological traditions, we should be inspired by our liturgies, especially of Baptism and Eucharist; but we must also give personal testimony.
Children should know of their parents' religious experience. They should hear the stories of the grandparents' beliefs and practice. Some of those stories will be truly of crucifixion and resurrection, of addictions, compulsions and freedom, of suicidal ideation and relief. They will recall moments of overwhelming fear and unexpected, heaven-sent courage. They will describe the miracle of grace which so often appears in ordinary, everyday life.

I have witnessed a generation's loss of our Catholic tradition, devout parents whose children cannot be dragged to church. The Greatest Generation was also a Silent Generation. Their grandchildren speak of Catholic religion with astonishing ignorance. But I have also heard many stories of young people accepting the witness of loved ones and turning to the Lord.

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

For the law appoints men subject to weakness to be high priests,
but the word of the oath, which was taken after the law,
appoints a son, who has been made perfect forever.

Whether we speak of priests or legislators or teachers or parents, we know they are "subject to weakness." They have been placed in positions of authority and we must respect them; or, if that is too difficult, we must respect their office. We rise when the priest enters the church; the judge, the chamber; and the president, the press briefing room regardless of our personal dislike or displeasure with that person.
But we always know the office deserves better and we deserve better. If the person entering the room to take an important position is a criminal we feel a rising gorge of disgust. But even if it is someone we love and admire, we know this person is standing in for the One who is worthy of our entire confidence and unquestioned loyalty. There really should be Someone Somewhere who actually deserves this office with its authority, power, pomp and glory.
And so we celebrate Jesus, the Son of Mary, who alone is worthy to be called Son of God. He alone is worthy to be our priest, even to enter the Heavenly Sanctuary where the Father sits in majesty.
He does not enter empty handed; he carries the sacrifice of his own body and blood.
Nor does he enter alone for he insists upon our going with him. Despite our dread of God's majesty and our own feelings of unworthiness, we go with him because we cannot refuse anything to one who has given so much for us. We have witnessed his agony and death and, like the centurion, we have declared "Truly this was the Son of God!" We are fascinated and drawn irresistibly to him. Baptized into his body, we bow with him before God the Father.

Wednesday of the Second Week in Ordinary Time

It is even more obvious if another priest is raised up after the likeness of Melchizedek, who has become so, not by a law expressed in a commandment concerning physical descent
but by the power of a life that cannot be destroyed.

Hollywood sort-of gets it. The priest, half-naked, painted with blood, dancing amok, is possessed by divine power and mediates both blessings and curses upon those around him. That’s a far cry from the pastor who sits with the parish council, tells stories to second-graders, goes bowling with the KCs, inspects the church hall with a contractor, and tries to keep his congregation awake on Sunday morning. Since the Protestant Reformation Catholics have been reluctant to speak of their priest as mediator of God’s mercies. Christians in general welcome Jesus as mediator; why should there be another? Some Catholics might thrill to Mary as mediatrix;; but they only recognize the priest as mediator when they have to go to confession. The problem, however, given that prejudice: many Christians might never discover their mission and responsibility as priests-mediators.
Melchizedek, as the Letter to the Hebrews recognizes, is a shadowy figure appearing vaguely at the very edge of our collective memory, almost prehistoric. A friend of the Patriarch Abraham, he was the king and priest of Salem, the city which would become Jerusalem. He appears in Genesis without ancestry or progeny, to bless Abraham upon his recent victory. His birth is not recorded; his death is not remembered; he seems to abide in Jerusalem eternally, as a deathless spiritual presence.
That priestly spirit rested on the Levite priests for a thousand years, residing in Solomon’s Temple. But the Temple’s curtain was mysteriously torn in two when Jesus was crucified. That rent cloth signified the end of the Levite priesthood. When the Romans razed the Temple in 70 AD, the Jewish priesthood disappeared altogether. Only the rabbis survived to tell the story.
The Letter to the Hebrews, recognizing the catastrophe in Jerusalem, declares that the priestly spirit of Melchizedek has now settled upon Jesus. He alone mediates God's mercies.
I wonder if that didn’t come as a surprise to some first century Jewish Christian scholars. They would have known Jesus as the “Son of David,’ not “son of Levi.” Some might recognize a Levite connection in Jesus’ enate ancestry; Mary’s cousin Elizabeth was married to the priest Zechariah. But that would not carry much weight in Jewish thought. The Letter to the Hebrews runs an end around the problem of Jesus’ royal lineage, declaring that the Spirit of Melchizedek has descended upon Jesus without any genealogical connection. It simply resided for a millennia in Jerusalem and the Temple until That Day when the Lord was crucified.
So there is the story of Jesus as priest. The matter of “Chaplain Ken Bartsch as priest” is another story, one which Hebrews does not address. The Church did not honor its leaders as priests in that first century. But at the moment I am more interested in the 21st century Church and its membership as the priestly presence in the world.
Because we are baptized into his death and resurrection, we are the mediators of God’s mercy to a troubled world. We are the face of God in the world; we are his sacred presence, especially as we do justice, love goodness and walk humbly with our God. Our prayers are the prayer of Jesus for his people, who are like sheep without a shepherd. The Lord inspires our neighborliness, courtesy, civic participation (including military service) and innate sense of justice. Our fidelity as husbands, wives, parents and children provide a confused, distracted and frightened world with clear models of what God requires of his own image and likeness. Likewise, when the disappointed grumble, "Where is God when I need him?" they are asking, "Where is the Church?" 
But the priesthood of the Church did not begin with Melchizedek or Abraham. It begins in the Word who was with God and is God eternally. It remains forever, as the scriptures insist: "You are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek!" 

Day of Prayer for the Legal Protection of Unborn Children

We earnestly desire each of you to demonstrate the same eagerness
for the fulfillment of hope until the end, so that you may not become sluggish, but imitators of those who,
through faith and patience, are inheriting the promises.

No sooner have neophytes entered the Church than they feel, or suspect they feel, sluggish. Their enthusiasm is waning, or they fear that it might wane. "Being in love is the happiest ten minutes of your life!" After that, we struggle to maintain that eager, hopeful, optimistic spirit.
Even in the first century, authors of the New Testament recognized that sluggishness in their communities. In the Revelation of John of Patmos, the Christ warns the Laodiceans,
"I know your works; I know that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either cold or hot. So, because you are lukewarm, neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth!"
It's a rather crude expression, but effective.
That sluggishness may be the core reason for the hypocrisy we hear of in Saint Matthew's Gospel. Having arrived at a good place and comfortable in new routines of worship, the Christian might be less willing to make room for newer members of the Church, less willing to recognize the style of a younger generation, and downright hostile toward those who introduce new words, gestures or symbols to their familiar customs. They glory in the statistics of a growing church but not the actual presence of different persons with different sensibilities, histories. expectations and insight. "Learn our language and the way we have always done it!" the first generation of Christians said to the second. "Why should we have to learn your ways!"
Saint Paul had to fight vigorously for the rights of gentile Christians against the stodgy Jewish Christians as the Church was liberated from the narrow, Pharisaic interpretations of Moses and the Law. 
This challenge is certainly familiar to the Church today, as we bid farewell to what we thought were the advances of the twentieth century. "My future has passed!" many boomers might say as they realize they'll not live to see women priests or married clergy in the Catholic Church. Rome gives no indication of accepting gay marriage, will not honor second and third marriages after divorce, and is frankly hostile to abortion.
That sacred "eagerness for the fulfillment of hope until the end" is not so easy to maintain when the future is less clear and more threatening. It is easier to be sluggish, like the slug, in no particular hurry to go anywhere.
And so we pray for a rebirth in the Spirit, a reawakening of wonder, especially as we advocate for the birth of the unborn. When the world is delighted by the miracle of conception and birth, when we take delight at the endless possibilities of the child with limited abilities, we will know the fulfillment of our hope.

Memorial of Saint Agnes, Virgin and Martyr

In the days when he was in the Flesh, 
he offered prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears 
to the one who was able to save him from death,
and he was heard because of his reverence.
Son though he was, he learned obedience from  what he suffered; 
and when he was made perfect, 
he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.

The Letter to the Hebrews describes Jesus as the Son of God and the Priest of God. Perhaps, after these many centuries, we are not surprised by these titles. But we might not yet expect that he learned obedience through suffering, or was made perfect. Our catechists insisted that he suffered and died for our sins; we have walked the fourteen Stations of the Cross and contemplated the five Sorrowful Mysteries. Whenever we enter a Catholic church we see the crucifix above the altar.
Yes, the Man suffered. And he did so as God.
Had he not been God his agony would have been pointless; just as horrible and futile as the genocides of the 20th and 21st centuries. What hope did these men and women have as they were pushed into gas chambers and corrals where they could be quickly and efficiently liquidated like so much inventory? How many Americans have been murdered or taken their own lives for no apparent reason and no benefit to anyone? Death has always appeared to the conscious mind as unnecessary, futile, a huge waste. 
But we believe that Jesus, by his death became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him,
That Good Friday in Jerusalem, so long ago, opened a window into the mystery of God; we see through it an unexpected, inexplicable mystery. To gaze upon a crucifix is to consider the eternal, ecstatic surrender of God the Son to his God-and-Father. There is also the endless outpouring of the Father's love for Jesus, and the utter surrender of the Holy Spirit which they pour upon us. Seen through that luminous window his death makes sense. It has purpose and meaning and offers hope to those who have not yet died. 

Jesus had died and been raised for only a short time before his Church discovered -- to our wonder, amazement, horror and delight -- that he was calling others to follow on his dark path of martyrdom into the brilliant light. The deacon Stephen was the first, the Apostle James followed soon after. And then many men and women died cheerfully, under brutal circumstances, rather than surrender their faith in Jesus. Among them, Saint Agnes, a child martyr.
in the controversies of our time concerning our Catholic faith and traditions, sexuality, women's rights and freedom, the legend of Saint Agnes has been given new energy. The following is taken from her Wikipedia entry;
In the story of Agnes the opposition is not between sex and virginity. The conflict is between a young woman’s power in Christ to define her own identity versus a patriarchal culture’s claim to identify her in terms of her sexuality. According to the view shared by her “suitors” and the state, if she would not be one man’s wife, she might as well be every man’s whore. Failing these options, she might as well be dead. Agnes did not choose death. She chose not to worship the gods of her culture. ...Espoused to Christ, she was beyond the power of any man to ‘have his way with her’. ‘Virgin’ in this case is another way of saying Free Woman.[9]

The Christian need not take a position in any of these several controversies except to recognize the radical freedom of faith. Created in God's own image we find our freedom where Jesus found his, in obedience to the Beauty he called Father. In every age Christians conform to many standards of their time, and rebel against others; but they do neither for the sake of conformity or non-conformity. Their pole star is a faith that shines in darkness.
We see in the cross of Jesus, freedom; and find in our own obedience, eternal life.

Second Sunday in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 66

Nations shall behold your vindication,
and all the kings your glory;
you shall be called by a new name
pronounced by the mouth of the LORD.
You shall be a glorious crown in the hand of the LORD,
a royal diadem held by your God.
No more shall people call you "Forsaken, "
or your land "Desolate, "
but you shall be called "My Delight, "
and your land "Espoused."
For the LORD delights in you
and makes your land his spouse.

According to Saint John, Jesus inaugurated his ministry with a miraculous -- and subtle -- gesture during a wedding in Cana. In the synoptic gospels his campaign begins with larger, more dramatic demonstrations of power. He storms the countryside in Mark, astonishes listeners in a synagogue in Luke and preaches a Sermon on the Mount in Matthew. Only a few people knew what had happened at Cana: Jesus, Mary, his disciples and the servants. The bridegroom and his steward were befuddled; and the guests, weary after several days of celebration, didn't notice.
Saint John maintains this theme of understated, unpretentious signs throughout his gospel. He has a private conversation with Nicodemus in the middle of the night; a second with a woman in Samaria. Much is revealed during these meetings but not many are privy to them. He fed several thousand in the desert and then disappeared up the mountain before the astonished crowd could make him king. He healed a crippled man by the pool of Bethesda and then disappeared into the crowd, reappearing later to speak privately to the fellow.
When he finally did something truly spectacular -- calling Lazarus out of death -- it led directly to his arrest and crucifixion -- as he knew it would.
In the Gospel of John, Jesus presents his teaching about the sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist with subtlety and irony. He doesn't give us the institution formula -- "This is my body... This is my blood" -- during the Last Supper. Nor did he baptize anyone. The sacraments of confirmation, marriage, anointing of the sick and the forgiveness of sins are there also; they flow through the foundational sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist. But we cannot fail to recognize his explicit teachings about Baptism in John 3 and Eucharist in John 6. No one can know the Lord who is not baptized; nor anyone who does not eat his flesh and drink his blood.
So did Jesus intend to start a Church? The question has appeared as some people opt to take their bibles and meditate alone, over a quiet cup of coffee in the morning hours before work.
One obvious answer is they would not know the Lord if he weren't announced by someone, and there would be no one to announce if there were no community to tell the story. Nor can we regard two millennia of Christian tradition which arrived with my cup of coffee this morning as a happy accident of history. A lot of people acted intentionally, often heroically, and they could have done so only with the courage and fire of the Holy Spirit.
That's logical. But logic doesn't often persuade. What does Jesus want of me as I meditate over this cup of coffee? That I should belong to a fellowship of Christians, attend the meetings, pay the dues, teach another generation, build the infrastructure that will survive my passing? Isn't it enough that I just believe?
Oddly, the bride doesn't appear in the John's Cana narrative. We hear about a bridegroom, steward and guests but not about the bride. She must be there however. No bride, no wedding! Who is she? Where is she?
She is the Church. In John 2 she is the Mother of Jesus, the disciples, the guests and the servants. She is the unnamed witness, the "Horatio" to Jesus' "Hamlet," who, in John 20, enters the empty tomb, sees the rolled-up shroud, and believes. 
She is you and me.
There is no salvation without you and me. Absent from the Lord there is no hope for us; absent from the drenching water that gushed from his chest, from the flesh that is eaten and the blood we must drink, there is no grace, no spirit, no life. Nor any way that leads to salvation. 
"I have come that they may have life and have it more abundantly!" the disciple declares as she is washed in Baptism and receives the Sacred Eucharist. 
Whatever you do, do from the heart, as for the Lord and not for others, knowing that you will receive from the Lord the due payment of the inheritance; be slaves of the Lord Christ.

Saturday of the First Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 310

The word of God is living and effective, sharper than any two-edged sword, penetrating even between soul and spirit, joints and marrow, and able to discern reflections and thoughts of the heart. No creature is concealed from him, but everything is naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must render an account.

Diane Rehm recently ran a rebroadcast of an interview she did in 1986 of a former convict known as Race Hoss Sample. He tells a story of extraordinarily evil incidents in an American town and the American prison system, and of an epiphany that came to him in solitary confinement.
His story reminds me of that "living and effective word of God." It came to him, despite the barbaric treatment he suffered at the hands of family and neighbors. The story of a Good God, which he might have heard in the street or a prison cell, penetrated soul and spirit, joints and marrow and blossomed as he left prison to become a champion for the dignity of Texas prisoners.
Hebrews tells us "no creature is concealed from him." We should read that as good news. Our Lord and Savior will not lose anyone the Father has given him, because, as he says,
I came down from heaven not to do my own will but the will of the one who sent me. And this is the will of the one who sent me, that I should not lose anything of what he gave me, but that I should raise it [on] the last day. For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in him may have eternal life, and I shall raise him [on] the last day.
If the hour seems bleak and our predicament perilous, we should remember that two edged sword of the Lord. It is irresistible. We have only to watch and witness its mercy. 

Friday of the First Week in Ordinary Time

Let us be on our guard
while the promise of entering into his rest remains,
that none of you seem to have failed.

Some scholarly theologian -- probably working toward a Phd -- should write a dissertation about how the saints played. We know they worked hard, prayed hard, and fasted hard. We know many of them died hard. But how did they rest and recreate?
One of the monks of the Egyptian desert encouraged his disciples to relax once in a while. A student had been surprised to find the older monks sitting around on a Sunday afternoon, telling stories and laughing. By way of demonstration the spiritual master asked an archer to keep shooting arrows as fast as he could as long as he could. After a few minutes the soldier complained that he was wearing out his shoulder and breaking down his weapon. The teacher then reminded his students there are cycles in human life; if we must work we must also rest periodically.
In today's first reading the Author of Hebrews reflects upon the rest that God has promised us, and the vigilance we must maintain until that day comes. He recalls that some of their spiritual ancestors enjoyed the promise but were not granted the reward;
...but the word that they heard did not profit them,
for they were not united in faith with those who listened.
He goes on to say,
Therefore, let us strive to enter into that rest,
so that no one may fall after the same example of disobedience.

It seems the invitation to "enter that rest" is especially difficult for some people. It is a chore they'd do without. Sometimes disciples must Let go and let God give them new strength, courage and confidence as they relax. Play, rest, relaxation, laughter, humor, sleep: these are also works of faith for they demonstrate our willingness not to be in charge, not to control everything and everyone around us. Sometimes people plan great vacations but when they get there they're just as busy and harassed as they were at home and in the office. They have a morbid fear of letting be.
Another spiritual master says: "Quit trying! Quit trying not to try! Quit quitting!" It takes both faith and practice but it  makes life far more satisfying.

The English poet and Episcopal priest, George Herbert,  playing with the various meanings of the word rest, says it very well, in a wonderful poem,

When God at first made man,
Having a glass of blessings standing by,
“Let us,” said he, “pour on him all we can.
Let the world’s riches, which dispers├Ęd lie,
Contract into a span.”

So strength first made a way;
Then beauty flowed, then wisdom, honour, pleasure.
When almost all was out, God made a stay,
Perceiving that, alone of all his treasure,
Rest in the bottom lay.

“For if I should,” said he,
“Bestow this jewel also on my creature,
He would adore my gifts instead of me,
And rest in Nature, not the God of Nature;
So both should losers be.

“Yet let him keep the rest,
But keep them with repining restlessness;
Let him be rich and weary, that at least,
If goodness lead him not, yet weariness
May toss him to my breast.”