8th Sunday in Ordinary Time - Finding God in the Living Word

Why have Catholics traditionally been regarded as being biblically ignorant? You could blame it on the Church, and what has been declared historically about popes and bishops, who in a desire to control people, kept the Sacred Scriptures in Latin, preventing them from developing their own interpretation. You could blame it on our attention to sacred Tradition, saying it dilutes our focus on the Scriptures. While a person who lived prior to the 20th century could have offered these reasons, they don’t hold water for us today.

You might also say that the Scriptures are too hard to understand—that it’s hard to get past what seems like outmoded thinking and an angry, punitive God, and thus it’s hard to find personal meaning in it. But in a parish that has formed.org, regular Bible study groups, and Gospel reflection groups—these ways to dig in and make better sense of it—that doesn’t hold water either.

The Scriptures do have meaning, even for us of this time and culture. But it requires that we engage them. For too many of us, the only time we engage the Scriptures is that fleeting and fragile moment when they are proclaimed from this ambo. And the odds of it being received and taking root are rather slim.

 I remember Matthew Kelly pondering an encounter with God after death:

GOD: “So how was it down there on earth?”

YOU/ME: “Pretty nice, thank you.”

GOD: “Did you enjoy the weather? The food?”

YOU/ME: “Yes, that was nice too, thank you.”

GOD: “Did you read any good books while you were there.....maybe for instance, My Book?”

YOU/ME: “Uh….for about five minutes….a few times….actually, only twice….I always intended to, but just never got around to it”.

GOD: “You know, I’ve only got one Book….one! It’s not like I’m coming out with a new sequel ever six months. Just one!”

Figure it out. Yes, you might have to let go of something in order to fit it into the schedule. But can you imagine saying to God, “I wanted to read it, but that would have meant I got way behind on this series I’ve been watching on Netflix or Hulu. You understand that, right?”

A couple weeks from now we are going to have a parish mission with Dr. John Bergsma. He’s a renowned and highly regarded biblical scholar. You may know, he formerly was a pastor of a Dutch Calvinist church, who found his way to Catholicism through the Bible. Learned in Hebrew, Greek and even Latin, he teaches at Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio. I’ve read a couple of excellent books by him, which I’ve posted on the TV monitor, in case you want to look into them. I also cited an audio lecture that you can listen to through formed.org. I’m grateful for all the work Jill Carr went to, to arrange his coming. You deserve something like this, so I believe it’s a worthy investment. See the schedule. In a nutshell:

  • Beginning on Saturday morning, March 16, there’s a 3-hour workshop on strengthening families. Maybe our families don’t need help. They’re all built on solid rock, with no troubles or unresolved questions. Maybe not. (see details for childcare)

  • Then on Sunday evening after Mass, a talk on understanding the cohesion of science and a Divine Creator.

  • On Monday evening, a talk about growing in personal holiness.

  • Finally, on Tuesday evening, spiritual warfare through the grace of our Sacraments.

Block out your calendar for this. This is truly a rare opportunity. Do it for those entrusted to you, including your own soul. YOU CAN FIND OUT MORE HERE.

Ultimately, it’s in engaging these things—the grace of the sacraments, connections with those of the community of faith, but also the living Word of the Sacred Scriptures—that we slowly come to discover God more deeply—the God who is within us, even if unrecognized, the God who desires to come to life within us. In all this we come to also understand who we are and our purpose. We discover how we are to grow in holiness, how to temper and purify our desires, how to reflect the love of Jesus, and how to deal with the inevitable suffering that finds us and our loved ones.

I think of the words of St. Augustine, who searched here, there and everywhere for truth and meaning, before eventually losing himself in God’s beauty. He said it this way: “Urged to reflect upon myself, I entered under your guidance into the inmost depth of my soul…On entering into myself I saw….your immutable light. It was not ordinary light….”

Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you! You were within me, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for you. In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created. You were with me, but I was not with you….You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness. You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness. You breathed your fragrance on me; I drew in breath…. now I hunger and thirst for more. You touched me, and I burn for your peace” (the Confessions, Lib. 7, 10, 18; 10, 27: CSEL 33, 157-163, 255).

Our Lord is waiting to be discovered and known by you. What’s going to get in the way? Or will you take the step He’s calling you to make?

6th Sunday in Ordinary Time - Beatitudes

Today we hear St. Luke’s version of the Beatitudes. Among the ways they differ from St. Matthew’s (Ch 5:3-12), as I’ve heard it suggested, is that Matthew spiritualizes these states of blessedness, as interior dispositions: Blessed are the poor in spirit…..those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, etc. Whereas, for St. Luke, Jesus is addressing a material reality: Blessed are you who are poor….you who are hungry. As people who are body and soul, both sets of Beatitudes have meaning for us in this lifetime.

These Beatitudes reflect what I think of as Jesus’ upside-down logic. In nearly everything he does, he’s trying to point us to something beyond our present reality—to the Kingdom, where the realities of this world are turned upside-down. Those who have it all here, will be without there, and vice versa. Those who have it easy here, will have it hard there, and vice versa.

Of course, we see this upside-down logic in Jesus himself: the One through whom all material things of this world were created, who lived detached from possessions; the One who came so that we might have life and have it abundantly, gave up his life; the One who said, “whoever wishes to save his life will lose it” (Lk 9:24).

Jesus intended to bring that upside-down logic of the Beatitudes through his words and his actions. But he also did by establishing a movement, a Church. It began with the Twelve he chose, but beyond that a larger band of followers, a movement.

The Church hasn’t always done this well. As it aspires to be an instrument of the coming Kingdom, it’s comprised of people of this world. And so we’ve had Church leaders at times, who have been at times misguided, weak, sinful and scandalous, including the recently laicized Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. And yet here we remain, 2000 years later. How is that? Why didn’t it die?

One way of understanding what has kept us together and has helped us to live the Beatitudes, in whatever way we’ve succeeded, is that it’s driven by the spirit of Jesus that has worked through Peter and his successors. As we celebrate later this week, the feast day of the Chair of Peter (Feb 22), I think of Jesus’ words to Simon Peter (and here I paraphrase): Simon, Simon, behold Satan is going to try to derail you, but I have prayed that your own faith may not fail; and you must strengthen your brothers (Lk 22:32).

You may know the word chair or seat in Latin is cathedra—from which we get the word cathedral. In the early centuries of Christianity, a wooden chair was on display, said to have been the chair on which Peter sat upon as head of the Church. Over time the chair decayed and deteriorated, but in the 9th century, craftsmen fortified it to endure.

Most all of us have at least seen images of the interior of St. Peter’s Basilica. At the far, opposite end from the main doors is the apse. In that high-altar, created by artist, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, around the year 1650, what one first notices there is the beautiful stained-glass window, variations of yellow and orange, with the Holy Spirit in the center. Immediately around the window, like a frame, are clouds and rays of light, cast from bronze, seeming to spill forth.

Beneath the stained-glass image one sees what looks like a giant chair. Despite its appearance, it’s not a chair; it’s a reliquary that houses the aforementioned Chair of Peter.

Immediately above the reliquary-chair are two bronze angels, each holding a key and together holding a crown over the empty chair. Around the base of the reliquary-chair are four cast-bronze figures, doctors of the Church (Ambrose, Augustine, Athanasius, and John Chrysostom). An optical illusion of sorts, the Chair of Peter appears to be floating between heaven and earth: a powerful image of the Church, both human and divine; neither entirely of earth, nor entirely of heaven.

In whatever way we continue to proclaim the Beatitudes, or gather to hear them proclaimed, and even more, that we carry them out, in their upside-down logic—advancing God’s Kingdom—it’s at least in part due to the prayer of Jesus for Peter and his successors.

May God bless our current pope and those that follow, that they may help us to truly be a Church for the poor, the hungry, the sorrowful, and those persecuted for their Christian faith—a Church of the Beatitudes and Jesus’ upside-down logic. Let us pray that from the Holy Spirit, so beautifully imaged by Bernini, our pope continues to receive strength, wisdom, courage, and love, necessary for so great a task.

An English Catholic priest named Ronald Knox (D. 1957) once said:

“Perhaps it would be a good thing if every Christian, certainly if every priest, could dream once in his life that he were pope, and wake from that nightmare in a sweat of agony”.

5th Sunday in Ordinary Time - Theophany - Heavenly Vision

Isaiah received his call from God about 740 years before the birth of Jesus. What we hear today is not his first calling, but the beginning of a new phase of his prophetic ministry. It’s extraordinary to hear this event described: he had what is called a theophany—a vision of heaven. The angels uttered those words we say or sing at every Mass: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts! All the earth is filled with his glory!” But given that those words of the angels, from that heavenly setting are the same words we use here at Mass, we should understand that as we sing those words, that we are actually entering that angelic court seen by Isaiah, in which our God Most High, is surrounded by adoring angels. Those two realities become one in that moment.

Coming to grasp God’s holiness, Isaiah began to fear, believing that seeing this God so holy, it would end his life, because he knew he was a not always a man pure of heart. But God wished to make him holy. So an angel brought a burning coal from the incense and touched it to Isaiah’s lips, not for the purpose of inflicting pain, but instead to render him pure.

As an aside, there’s a short, silent prayer that the priest makes as he bows before the altar, on his way to the ambo, to proclaim the Gospel. He says,

“Cleanse my heart and my lips, almighty God, that I may worthily proclaim your holy Gospel.”

In the old Roman Missal, before the changes in the Mass that followed the Second Vatican Council, the wording to this prayer made an explicit connection to Isaiah’s experience:

“Cleanse my heart and my lips, O God almighty, Who didst cleanse the lips of the Prophet Isaias with a burning coal; and vouchsafe through Thy gracious mercy, so to purify me that I may worthily proclaim Thy holy Gospel.”

I know it gets lost on us—myself included—but all these references to the experience of the heavenly court are not arbitrarily referenced in this experience that we call the Mass. Because the liturgy is designed to take our senses heavenward. In all the ways we can make it so much about us—whether it’s the hymns we sing or just our state of mind—it falls short of what it’s supposed to do for us. While we are God’s beloved, our worship shouldn’t be primarily about us or trying to make God like us.

As you’ve heard me say, for all the good things that came with the changes in the liturgy after the Second Vatican Council, the danger in it is that it perhaps brought a tendency to make it more about affirming ourselves, rather than impelling us to transcend beyond ourselves.

But what risked being lost was a way of worship that more clearly moved us into the mystery—the mystery that Isaiah experienced in his heavenly vision.

I remind us of how our altar was anointed with the Sacred Chrism on the occasion of its dedication (December 20, 2014), and how the oil remained on its top over the course of months, slowly being absorbed into the granite. It calls to mind the story of Jacob from the Hebrew Scriptures (Genesis 28). He was making a long trip alone and stopped to rest for the night, using a stone for a pillow. That night he had a dream, a vision. In his dream, he saw a stairway or ladder of some sort, connecting heaven and earth. Going up and down the stairway were angels, God’s messengers. God then spoke to Jacob and re-affirmed his familial and covenantal relationship with him.

The next morning when he awoke, Jacob realized that it was more than just a dream, he had really encountered God. He declared, this place is “the house of God, the gateway to heaven”. Which, by the way, are the exact words, boldly proclaimed in the mosaic on the floor, just inside our Cathedral’s great doors: Domus Dei Porta Coeli. Jacob took the stone that he had slept on, anointed it with oil and made it an altar of sorts. Our altar is that stairway, connecting this space with the heavenly court and this building is indeed a house of God, the gateway to heaven.

Furthermore, the bread and wine brought forward and placed on this altar—this gateway to heaven—don’t remain in that state. After we join our voices with the seraphim, singing “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of hosts”, we’ll pray the First Eucharistic Prayer, the Roman Canon, which asks our Lord:

“In humble prayer we ask you, almighty God, command that these gifts be borne by the hands of your holy Angel to your altar on high in the sight of your divine majesty, so that all of us, who through this participation at the altar receive the most holy Body and Blood of your Son, may be filled with every grace and heavenly blessing”.

Brothers and sisters, what we are in midst of right now is not just a church service. It is a heavenly mystery, active and alive, in the midst of which we are given heavenly food to nourish our souls. Let us look beyond just the here and now and see more than just each other. We are in the midst of angels and saints, God’s heavenly court. Let us desire to enter into that mystery, to discover God of Jacob, the God of Isaiah, our God.

3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time - Jesus, a Sign of Contradiction

At our parish Men’s Group yesterday, we discussed the different elements of this Gospel. It gives us a formal introduction to the Gospel of St. Luke, which we will be hearing from primarily in the Sundays of this liturgical year. Then it gives us Jesus’ very first appearance of his public ministry.

He showed up at a synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth. And as we heard, he spoke that beautiful proclamation of God’s justice: Good news for the poor, for the oppressed, for those who suffer. And as we’re told, the people looked at him and reveled in his words with what sounds like dumbfounded amazement.

That’s where today’s Gospel reading ends, but there’s more. If we continue reading, we learn that no sooner than they had expressed their praise and wonder at his powerful words, it all changed, when he began to tell them even more of God’s great plan of justice. The second part of his message was not well received. They went from being wow-ed to suddenly becoming so enraged that they intended to kill him.

It made me think of something that had been said about Jesus when he was only eight days old. You’ll recall, Mary and Joseph had gone to the Temple to dedicate him to God. There they encountered a mysterious man named Simeon, who took the baby Jesus in arms and told Mary:

“Behold, this child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted…” (Lk 2:27-25).

As our Catechism says it: “Many of Jesus' deeds and words constituted a ‘sign of contradiction’” (CCC, 575).

Jesus was indeed a sign of contradiction for the people of Nazareth, who marveled at him, but also wanted to harm him. And I think he can be for us too. Jesus comforts us, but perhaps he also makes us uneasy.

Yesterday morning I was asked to help at a nearby parish for children’s first confessions. It made me think of what I experience pretty much at any parish I go to for first confessions, including our own: that the children tend to want to go to their pastor for their confession, while the parents tend to want to confess to any priest but their pastor.

Most of the children are pretty care-free in that encounter with Jesus, but so often the parents are anxiety-filled, some of whom are grinding through their first confession in years. The children are coming with sins that are like cotton-balls, while the parents lumber forward with sins that may well feel like bowling balls.

By the way, kudos to those parents who witness to their children in doing that, because there are too many parents for whom Jesus isn’t even on their radar. But for all of us, for whom Jesus is part of the landscape, we know within that we shouldn’t have that fear of Jesus, or the life he calls us to—even though to live the way he demands is not necessarily easy or without sacrifice.

In whatever way Jesus is a sign of contradiction—bringing us comfort in some ways, but also causing us anxiety—it may well be that our anxiety is the result of the fact that we’re hearing his voice somewhere in the mix of all the noise, calling us, calling us to something more. And yet we don’t know how to answer that call, or we fear what it will demand of us. In that anxiety, like the town-folk of Nazareth, we may rather just be done with Jesus: Just go away. You’re disrupting the happiness I’ve made.

I remind us that our children don’t instinctively have that fear. If they develop it, they’re likely getting it from us. In that, we’re getting in their way, when in fact, our task is to lead them to Jesus, as we ourselves are trying to move toward him.

For whatever ways he causes us fear, trepidation, please know that he doesn’t want to cause that feeling, and actually, it’s not from him. He wants us to find and feel peace. Furthermore, that fear will remain unless we either drown him out and do away with him, or unless we start taking steps in the direction he’s calling us. Only then will he cease to be a sign of contradiction to us.

2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (Am I, Your Mother, Not Here)

Fr. Jerry Burns and I celebrated Mass two days ago at the Basilica of Our lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City, as I do just about every year. If memory serves me correctly, it’s the second-most visited Christian site in the world. It’s positively vibrant with living faith.

 A Mass is celebrated every hour on the main altar of the basilica. One time we con-celebrated at one of those Masses. During the first reading, the principal-celebrant, a priest of the basilica, leaned over and asked me to proclaim the Gospel. I agreed, then said a quick prayer. The Alleluia music began, and I nervously processed to the ambo. The flood of lights obscured my ability to see the people in the pews, and the sound of my voice, echoing through the PA system was disorienting. I got through it fine, and there was a certain joy in it all, but ever since then, our preference has been to celebrate a private Mass in one of the many chapels that are in the balcony, above and behind the pews.

The chapels face toward the main altar, where hanging just above, is the beautiful image that appeared in 1531 on an apron made of cactus fibers, worn by an indigenous peasant named Juan Diego. Christian missionaries had come from the old world decades before, but had made little progress in drawing the people to Jesus. Inexplicably, after the apparition, everything changed: over the next seven years, eight million natives were drawn to life in Jesus through his mother[i].

In the humble image we know as Our Lady of Guadalupe, there are numerous mysterious and interesting details. One that tends to escape notice is the maternity band around the mid-section of Mary’s body: She appeared to the people of the New World, with the life of her Son within her. Mary never comes alone.

But back to the basilica: Outside, above the main doors, are the words:

No estoy aqui yo, que soy tu madre?”, meaning “Am I, your mother, not here?”

These are words Mary said to Juan Diego, to help him trust. By extension, they are words to us, inviting us in to come find her Son.

In today’s Gospel, she is the first person mentioned. At the wedding feast, a crisis has ensued, the wine has run dry. The mother of Jesus urges him to act and make it right. His response is curious, and might even seem a little bit jarring: “Woman, how does your concern affect me?”

While the title ‘woman’ was a common way of addressing women of that time, it was not used for one’s own mother. I’ve heard it suggested that Jesus calling her woman suggests a change in Mary’s role in God’s plan of salvation. It reveals that she went from being just his mother, to becoming also his first disciple. Unfazed by being called “woman” by her Son, Mary promptly acted as a disciple, immediately telling the servers, “Do whatever he tells you”. In obedience to Mary, the first disciple, the servers did what Jesus instructed, and from that, water became wine.

Wine was understood to be a symbol for joy. I remind you that, in the Gospel of John, this was Jesus’ first miracle. But St. John doesn’t call them miracles, he calls them signs, and there would be a total of seven. He calls them signs, because they are principally done to reveal Jesus’ identity. This sign was intended to reveal that Jesus came to bring joy through a marriage with humankind—or as he says it in another part of John’s Gospel: “I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly” (Jn 10:10). The water symbolized the human condition, but Jesus came to divinize it, to elevate it, to change it into wine. And Mary says, Let him do it….”Do whatever he tells you”.

She is mentioned only twice in St. John’s Gospel, once at the beginning and once at the end, but never by name, only as “the mother of Jesus”. In this first mention, as we heard it today, she went from being Jesus’ mother to disciple. In the last mention, at the foot of the cross, where Jesus saw the Beloved Disciple, whom theologians suggest represents us all. To him—and by extension, us—Jesus said, “Behold, your mother” (Jn 19: 25-27). Mary went from being Jesus’ mother, to disciple, and now…..our mother.

I urge you, in whatever way you’ve cast aside our Blessed Mother, perhaps as a way to avoid what has sometimes been called Mary-olatry, or maybe believe it to be piety of a bygone era, reconsider. If you want to know Jesus, get to know his mom, the first disciple, our mother. Just as she interceded to Jesus on behalf of humanity, urging him to bring joy, to elevate us, so will she intercede for you. Yes, you can ask our Lord directly, but what would you also ask our mother, to urge her Son on your behalf? She says to you: “No estoy aqui yo, que soy tu madre?”….“Am I, your mother, not here?”

Pray for us, O Holy Mother of God….

….that we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.

 


[i] Elizondo, La Morenita: Evangelizer of the Americas, 50-86, 105-121.