The Passion of John the Baptist


On August 29, the Church remembers the death of St. John the Baptist, a prophet who was put to death through beheading because he spoke the truth.

There is no Gospel that begins the story of Jesus’ public ministry without first telling the reader about the life and mission of John the Baptist.  John’s preceding Jesus was clearly fixed in the Christian tradition, so much, that in two of the three Gospels that begin their story before the public ministry with Jesus’ first appearance on earth, John the Baptist is brought forth to precede the appearance as well.

John the Baptist was a man of the desert and began his preaching in the desert:  “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his path”  (Mk. 1:3; Mt. 3:3).  His long years in the desert before his appearance as a preacher and teacher of repentance (Lk. 1:80) were the source and time for many possibilities.  When the time had come, John led his own disciples to Jesus and indicated to them the Messiah, the True Light, and the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.  Jesus’ own testimony to John makes the Baptizer the greatest of all Israelite heroes (Mt. 11:7-19; Lk. 7:24-35).  Jesus also testifies to John’s greatness in calling him a “witness to the truth, a burning and shining lamp” (Jn. 5:33-56).

John considered himself to be less than a slave to Jesus, “There is one among you whom you do not recognize- the one coming after me- the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to unfasten” (John 1:26-27).  When John’s own disciples came to him and were troubled about the meaning of Jesus’ baptizing in the Jordan, he answered them confidently:  “No one can receive anything except what is given them from heaven…” John says that he is only the friend of the bridegroom, the one who must decrease while his master increases (Jn. 3:25-30).  The Baptizer defined his humanity in terms of its limitations.

John experienced the loneliness of an authentic prophet of Israel when he was the only one willing to say a truth that everyone knew, that King Herod was living with the divorced wife of his brother.  John is finally imprisoned by Herod Antipas because of his public rebuke of the tetrarch for his adulterous and incestuous marriage with Herodias (Mt. 4:12; Mk. 1:14; Lk. 3:19).  John was executed as a result of the foolish pledge made by Herod during a drunken orgy (Mt. 14:1-2;  Mk. 6:14-28;  Lk. 9:7-9).  Just as the Baptist and the Messiah are closely linked in their births so too are their fates so closely intertwined.

O God, who willed that Saint John the Baptist
should go ahead of your Son
both in his birth and in his death,
grant that, as he died a Martyr for truth and justice,
we, too, may fight hard
for the confession of what you teach.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.

Image: The Beheading of John the Baptist by Caravaggio 

Following Jesus implies suffering and a cross

Get Behind Me cropped

Twenty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A – August 31, 2014

Today’s Gospel from Matthew 16:21-27 presents us with the first prediction of Jesus’ passion. It follows the story told in Mark 8:31-33 and serves as a corrective to the misunderstanding of Jesus’ Messiahship as solely one of glory and triumph. Matthew’s account of the first passion prediction is also about the sufferings of the Son of Man. In the New Testament Greek text, Matthew’s formulation is almost identical with the pre-Pauline fragment of the kerygma in 1 Corinthians 15:4 and also with Hosea 6:2, which many take to be the Old Testament background to the confession that Jesus was raised on the third day.

By his addition of the words “from that time on” (16:21), Matthew has emphasized that Jesus’ revelation of his coming suffering and death marks a new phase of the Gospel. Immediately following Peter’s confession at Caesarea Philippi, Jesus “began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (16:21). We are told that in response to Jesus’ statement, Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you” (16:22). But Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things” (16:23).

Peter’s refusal

Peter’s refusal to accept Jesus’ predicted suffering and death is seen as a satanic attempt to deflect Jesus from his God-appointed course, and the disciple is addressed in terms that recall Jesus’ dismissal of the devil in the temptation account (Matthew 4:10: “Get away, Satan!”). Peter’s satanic purpose is emphasized by Matthew’s addition to the Marcan source of the words “You are a stumbling block to me.” A readiness to follow Jesus even to giving up one’s life for him is the condition for true discipleship, which will be repaid by the Lord at the final judgment (16:24-28).

What is behind Peter’s refusal to accept Jesus’ suffering and death? Peter gives voice to the bewilderment and dismay of the other apostles at Jesus’ announcement of his imminent passion. “This cannot be, Lord! This should not be! It just isn’t fair or right!” Such a reaction portrays Peter’s and our own inability to understand the mystery of God at work in Jesus, and in our lives. Peter and the others are confronted with the harsh reality of God’s designs, completely unacceptable from the perspective of human logic. To undergo great suffering at the hands of the religious authorities, to take up a cross, to be killed – is this all part of Jesus’ package? Are there no incentives or benefits? Wouldn’t it be better to erase the cross and suffering from the whole plan? Is it really necessary? Is Jesus experiencing some form of depression in saying these things?

From “Rock” to scandalon

Just last week at Caesarea Philippi, Peter was called “Rock.” Now he is called scandalon – a stumbling block or stone! Jesus reminds Peter that he understands nothing of the reality and mystery of God’s designs for him and for us!

Jesus tells his disciples if they want to become his followers, they must deny themselves, and take up their cross, and follow him (16:24). What does it mean, “to deny oneself”? To deny someone is to disown him and to deny oneself is to disown oneself as the centre of one’s existence. Think for a moment of Peter who would later deny his friend and Lord – “I do not know him!” (26:74) It means precisely that for us as well. To deny myself means that I no longer know myself, I no longer take my own life into account, I no longer think of myself – I am no longer at the centre of my universe. But the action does not stop there: the whole force of this injunction rests on Jesus’ invitation “Follow me.” Everything said before and after are the necessary prerequisites for being able to love Jesus and stay with him, and to continue staying with him.

Following Jesus

This teaching of Jesus to the small group of the Twelve can be summarized as follows: “Whoever has accepted the personal call to follow me, must accept me as I am.” Following Jesus implies suffering and a cross! The mark of the Messiah is to become the mark of his disciples! They are to get behind him and follow him as he goes up to Jerusalem.

That which gives fullness of meaning to the cross is to carry it behind Jesus, not in a journey of anguished solitude, hopeless wandering or rebellion, but rather in a journey sustained and nourished by the presence of the Lord. Jesus asks us to courageously choose a life similar to his own. Those who would follow Jesus cannot avoid suffering. God’s ways are not our ways – today we are encouraged to conform our ways to God’s.

Discerning God’s will

Since Christ marks the termination of the Mosaic Law as the primary source of guidance for God’s people, the Apostle Paul explains in his letter to the Romans (12:1-2) how Christians can function – in the light of the gift of justification through faith – in their relation to one another and to the state. The Mosaic code included elaborate directions on sacrifices and other cultic observances. The Gospel, however, invites believers to present their bodies as a living sacrifice (12:1). Instead of being limited by specific legal maxims, Christians are liberated for the exercise of good judgment as they are confronted with the many and varied decisions required in the course of daily life. Paul invites Christians to be “transformed by the renewal of their minds, so that they may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect” (12:2).

Grasping the mystery of Christ

In his homily at the concluding Mass of World Youth Day at the Cuatro Vientos Airforce base in Madrid, Spain on Sunday, August 21, 2011, Pope Emeritus Benedict said this of our belief in Jesus Christ:

Faith is more than just empirical or historical facts; it is an ability to grasp the mystery of Christ’s person in all its depth. Yet faith is not the result of human effort, of human reasoning, but rather a gift of God: “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.” Faith starts with God, who opens his heart to us and invites us to share in his own divine life. Faith does not simply provide information about who Christ is; rather, it entails a personal relationship with Christ, a surrender of our whole person, with all our understanding, will and feelings, to God’s self-revelation. So Jesus’ question: “But who do you say that I am?”, is ultimately a challenge to the disciples to make a personal decision in his regard. Faith in Christ and discipleship are strictly interconnected.

And, since faith involves following the Master, it must become constantly stronger, deeper and more mature, to the extent that it leads to a closer and more intense relationship with Jesus. Peter and the other disciples also had to grow in this way, until their encounter with the Risen Lord opened their eyes to the fullness of faith.

Dear young people, today Christ is asking you the same question which he asked the Apostles: “Who do you say that I am?” Respond to him with generosity and courage, as befits young hearts like your own. Say to him: “Jesus, I know that you are the Son of God, who have given your life for me. I want to follow you faithfully and to be led by your word. You know me and you love me. I place my trust in you and I put my whole life into your hands. I want you to be the power that strengthens me and the joy which never leaves me.”

The Church’s fundamental mission

Returning to the Lineamenta for the Synod of Bishops on the New Evangelization that took place in October 2012, we find a striking connection between today’s Gospel reading and section #10, entitled “The First Evangelization Pastoral Solicitude and the New Evangelization”:

The new evangelization is the name given to the Church’s project of undertaking anew her fundamental mission, her identity and reason for existence. Consequently, it is not limited to delineated, well-defined regions only, but is a way to explain and put into practice the apostolic legacy in and for our times. In the project of the new evangelization, the Church desires to bring her unique message into today’s world and the present discussion, namely, to proclaim the Kingdom of God, begun in Christ Jesus. No part of the Church is exempt from this project. The Christian Churches of ancient origin must deal with the problem of the many who have abandoned the practice of the faith; the younger Churches, through the process of inculturation, must continually take measures allowing them to bring the Gospel to everyday life, a process which not only purifies and elevates culture, but, above all, opens culture to the newness of the Gospel. Generally speaking, every Christian community must rededicate itself to its programme of pastoral care which seems to become more difficult and in danger of falling into a routine, and thus little able to communicate its original aims and goals.

A new evangelization is synonymous with mission, requiring the capacity to set out anew, go beyond boundaries and broaden horizons. The new evangelization is the opposite of self-sufficiency, a withdrawal into oneself, a status quo mentality and an idea that pastoral programmes are simply to proceed as they did in the past. Today, a “business as usual” attitude can no longer be the case. Some local Churches, already engaged in renewal, reconfirm the fact that now is the time for the Church to call upon every Christian community to evaluate their pastoral practice on the basis of the missionary character of their programmes and activities.

Questions for reflection this week

1) What have been the principal obstacles and the most challenging efforts to raise the question of God in today’s world? What have been the results of asking such a question?

2) Have I ever “rebuked” God for an outcome or situation I wasn’t expecting? In the end, what did I learn from this experience? Did I grow from it?

3) Do my expectations of who Jesus is and what he wants from me keep me closed and resistant to anything beyond those boundaries? How do I form my ideas of Christ and His will? What are they grounded in – the truths transmitted by the Catholic faith, or something else?

4) When do I make sacrifices for my faith, my family, or others? Are they done grudgingly or with an attitude of joy?

[The readings for the Twenty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time are: Jeremiah 20:7-9; Roman 12:1-2; and Matthew 16:21-27.]

This reflection first appeared on the Zenit International News Service in 2011 as well as on the Salt + Light Blog. The complete collection of reflections for Year B, entitled “Words made Flesh,” is now available in book form through our online store. Book editions for Year A and C reflections are coming soon.

Let Us Not Forget that Peter Holds the Keys

Peter Keys cropped

Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A – August 24, 2014

During my graduate studies in Israel in the 1990s, I spent time with the Israeli archaeological team working on the excavations of Caesarea Philippi in northern Israel. Caesarea Philippi is situated about twenty miles north of the Sea of Galilee in the territory that had been ruled by Philip the tetrarch, a son of Herod the Great, from 4 BC until his death in 34 AD. He rebuilt the town of Paneas, naming it Caesarea in honour of the emperor, and Philippi (“of Philip”) to distinguish it from the seaport in Samaria that was also called Caesarea.

The place is now known as “Banias,” a deformation of the word “Paneas” referring to the Greek god Pan. At the time of Jesus, a fertility cult was thriving in the pagan temple to Pan at this location on the northern border of Israel and Syria at the foot of majestic Mount Hermon. It was here, in this centre of sexual excess and pagan worship to the Greek god Pan that Jesus inquired about the disciples’ understanding of his Messiahship. It was here that Peter acclaimed Jesus as the Messiah of the one true God. What a stunning backdrop for today’s dramatic Gospel story from Matthew 16:13-20!

Today’s Gospel story has parallels in Mark 8:27-29 and Luke 9:18-20. Matthew’s account attributes the confession to a divine revelation granted to Peter alone (16:17) and makes Peter the rock on which Jesus will build his Church (16:18) as well as the disciple whose authority in the Church on earth will be confirmed in heaven (i.e. by God; 16:19). In light of the rich Greek mythological background associated with this impressive site in Northern Israel, let us consider several words and expressions used in today’s Gospel.

“You are the Messiah”

In response to Jesus’ question (16:13) – “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” – the disciples list a whole series of labels that people have applied to Jesus. These names reveal the various expectations that surfaced about him. Some thought of him as an Elijah, working toward a real confrontation with the powers that be. Some saw him more like Jeremiah, no less vehement but concentrating more on the inner journey, the private side of life.

When Jesus asked Peter the critical question – “Who do you say that I am?” – Peter answered him: “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God” (16:15-16). Given the majestic backdrop of today’s Gospel story, was Peter in fact pronouncing a death sentence upon all other gods, especially Pan, that were standing about him by acclaiming Jesus as the Son of the Living God? Did Pan’s death bring about an authority crisis for Tiberias and his potential to inherit the power of Augustus?

Son of the living God

“Son of God” must be understood against the Greek mythological background of the site where Peter’s confession occurred. The Greek god Pan was associated with a mountain in Arkadia and a grotto in Attika. Since Arkadia was not rich in large cattle, the goat was its characteristic beast and Pan was thus half-goat in shape. Pan became a universal god in Greek mythology, popular with shepherds, farmers, and peasants. In general Pan is amorous as is the nature of a god whose chief business it was to make his flocks fertile! He supposedly loved caves, mountains, and lonely places, and was a very musical creature; his instrument was the panpipe! Pan was a son of Zeus, therefore a son of god!

Peter declares Jesus to be “the Son of the living God.” The addition of this exalted title to the original Marcan confession of “You are the Messiah” (Mark 8:27-29) eliminates whatever ambiguity was attached to the Messianic title. Peter’s declaration cannot help but take into consideration the Greek mythological background that was associated with Caesarea Philippi!

Flesh and blood

In verse 17, Jesus acknowledges Peter’s declaration saying to him: “For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father.” “Flesh and blood” is a Semitic expression for human beings, especially in their weakness. That Peter reveals Jesus’ true identity indicates that his knowledge is not through human means but through a revelation from God. This is similar to Paul’s description of his recognition of who Jesus was in Galatians 1:15-16: “…when God…was pleased to reveal his Son to me…”

You are the rock

Pope Francis passes the statue of St. PeterIn verse 18, Jesus revels Peter’s new identity:“You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church” (16:18). The Aramaic word kepa – meaning “rock” and transliterated into Greek as Kephas –is the name by which Peter is called in the Pauline letters (1 Corinthians 1:12; 3:22; 9:5; 15:4; Galatians 1:18; 2:9, 11, 14) except in Galatians 2:7-8, where “Peter” is used. Petros (“Peter”) is likewise used in John 1:42. The presumed original Aramaic of Jesus’ statement would have been, in English, “You are the Rock (Kepa) and upon this rock (kepa) I will build my Church.” When Jesus declared Peter to be the rock upon which the Church would be built, was he referring to the massive stones which surrounded him in this area, and which housed temples to pagan gods and a secular leader? Were the deaths of the Great Pan and of Christ, both occurring under Pontius Pilate’s procuratorship, somehow linked? Did early Christians wish to see a link between these two events as Eusebius points out in his writings?

Matthew’s use of “church”

Matthew is the only evangelist to use the word “Church” (Greek ekklesia), here in verse 17. The word is used twice in today’s Gospel text. What might be the possibilities for the Aramaic original that would have been spoken by Jesus himself? Jesus’ “Church” means the community that he will gather and that, like a building, will have Peter as its solid foundation. That function of Peter consists in his being a witness to Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.

The gates of Hades

Is the reference to “the Gates of Hades not prevailing over the Church” (16:18) in some way referring to the massive cave believed to be the entrance into the underworld, and from which gush up the mighty waters of the river Jordan? In the time of Jesus and of the New Testament writers, the predominant conception of Hades (Sheol) among Jews and Christians was the abode of the dead, not a place of punishment. The ancients believed that the Jordan sprang up in a large cave that is the centrepiece of the national park now situated at the mouth of the Jordan at Banias. The mouth of this cave was also believed to be one of the entrances into the underworld (Hades/Sheol). Once one entered this cave, there was no return to the land of the living.

This realm or abode was sometimes believed to house not only the human dead but also the demonic agents of death and destruction. In Jewish apocalyptic language, the end times also implied that the powers of cosmic chaos, retained since creation, would break forth from their restraint and bring about unparalleled tribulation and destruction on the earth. This power was kept welled up in a cave within the bowels of the earth. Scripture scholars have written that the image of the Gates of Hades is one of rulers of the underworld bursting forward from the gates of their heavily guarded, walled city to attack God’s people on earth. This image is certainly vivid when one understands it in its geographical context of Paneas.

Location, location, location

Paneas (Banias) and its rich and ancient history have set the stage for a new drama: one that will not be the adoration of a pagan god nor of the state, but adoration of the Son of the Living God, by the one upon whom the Church is built. It is certainly no coincidence that at Caesarea Philippi (Banias), Jesus was acclaimed by Peter to be the Son of the Living God. One cannot imagine that the massive rocks at the foot of Mount Hermon did not influence the Gospel writer, no less the speaker of the words, Jesus himself. A cave that ancients believed to house the destructive powers of the universe is suddenly said, not to withhold its destructive powers, but that these destructive powers shall not prevail against the power of the church. An ancient god who was said to possess the keys of the underworld is suddenly replaced by a mortal, Peter, now said to possess the keys of the Kingdom of heaven.

The keys of the kingdom

The image of the keys found in verse 19 is probably drawn from today’s first reading from Isaiah 22:15-25, where Eliakim, succeeding Shebnah as master of the palace, is given “the key of the house of David,” which he authoritatively “opens” and “shuts” (Isaiah 22:22).

In Matthew 18:18 all of the disciples are given the power of binding and loosing, but the context of the verse suggests that a special power or authority is given to Peter. That the keys are those to the Kingdom of heaven and that Peter’s exercise of authority in the Church on earth will be confirmed in heaven show an intimate connection between, but not an identification of, the Church and the Kingdom of heaven. The Church is the battleground between the powers of Hades and the powers of heaven. How many times over the past years have we felt that the gates of Hades have swung open on the Church, releasing upon it the fire and fury of hell?

In the midst of the storms, however, let us take heart and realize that Peter is given the keys that unlock the gates of heaven. Those gates too will swing open, and the kingly power of God break forth from heaven to enter the arena against the demons we face. Our faith assures us that Hades will not prevail against the Church because God will be powerfully at work in it, revealing his purposes for it and imparting the heavenly power necessary to fulfil these purposes.

Our own Caesarea Philippi moments

The struggle to identify Jesus and his role as Messiah continues today. Some say individual Christians and the whole Church should be Elijah figures, publicly confronting systems, institutions, and national policies. That was the way Elijah saw his task. Some say, like Jeremiah, that the reign of Christ, through his Church, is the personal and private side of life. Indeed, there are many in our world today who would like to reduce religion and faith to an exclusively private affair.

Jesus probes beyond both approaches and asks, “You, who do you say I am?” In Peter’s response, “You are Messiah,” blurted out with his characteristic impetuosity, we are given a concept that involves both of the approaches and transcends them. The Messiah came into society – and into individual lives – in a total way, reconciling the distinction between public and private. The quality of our response to this decisive question is the best gauge of the quality of our discipleship.

Everyone at some stage must come to Caesarea Philippi and provide an answer to “Who do you say I am?” Where are the Caesarea Philippis in my life where I have been challenged to identify Christ as who he really is for me, for the Church, and for the world?

Like Peter, do I struggle to accept how God acts in the world – through, as Pope Emeritus Benedict said, “the defenseless power of love” (Youth Vigil, XX World Youth Day, Cologne, Germany)? How does love transform scenes of tragedy and suffering today? How have I seen the power of God’s love at work in the trials and tragedies of my own life? In the storms of life, what consolation have I received because I belong to the Church of Jesus Christ?

[The readings for the Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time are: Isaiah 22:15, 19-23; Romans 11:33-36; and Matthew 16:13-20.]

This reflection first appeared on the Zenit International News Service in 2011 as well as on the Salt + Light Blog. The complete collection of reflections for Year B, entitled “Words made Flesh,” is now available in book form through our online store. Book editions for Year A and C reflections are coming soon.

With Jesus on the Periphery

Peripheries cropped

Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time – August 17, 2014

In the pre-conclave meetings of the College of Cardinals prior to the election of the new pope in March 2013, one very memorable and decisive intervention was made by the Cardinal Archbishop of Buenos Aires on the morning of March 7, 2013. In his brief, four-minute address, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio spoke about the work of Evangelization in four concise points. He suggested, if the Church has a self-referential spirit, it interferes with its ability to carry out its mission. Two of the points he mentioned were:

1) Evangelizing pre-supposes a desire in the Church to come out of herself. The Church is called to come out of herself and to go to the peripheries, not only geographically, but also to the existential peripheries: the mysteries of sin, of pain, of injustice, of ignorance and indifference to religion, of intellectual currents, and of all forms of misery.

2) Thinking of the next pope: He must be a man who, from the contemplation and adoration of Jesus Christ, helps the Church to go out to the existential peripheries, who helps her to be the fruitful mother, who gains life from “the sweet and comforting joy of evangelizing.”

Cardinal Bergoglio basically asked his brother Cardinals, gathered in the upper room, “Are we willing to break out of the strangleholds and unhealthy molds that have prevented us from announcing the Gospel and inviting others into the Church?” “Are we interested in transmitting the faith and bringing non-Christians to belief in Jesus?” “Are we truly missionary at heart?”

That four-minute intervention in the Synod Hall provides the key to understanding the man who would become Pope Francis, a pastor who “helps the Church to go out to the existential peripheries, who helps her to be the fruitful mother” by “the sweet and comforting joy of evangelizing.”

Sunday’s Gospel is precisely about Jesus’ going out to the periphery. In order to better understand the powerful significance of Matthew’s Gospel text for the 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time for Year A, it is essential to look at the wider context of Matthew’s Gospel. The evangelist wrote his story of Jesus for a Jewish Christian community caught in a tumultuous moment of history. The community was struggling to preserve its connection to its historical roots in Judaism and hesitant before a future that promised substantial, even earth-shattering change.

In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus begins his public ministry by insisting that his mission is only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel (10:6; 15:24). Matthew’s Jesus anticipates this turning point from an exclusive focus on Israel to an inclusive mission to Jews and Gentiles as he encounters Gentiles who seem to push their way onto the Gospel stage. First, there were the three astrologers who read the stars and came seeking the Messiah (2:1-12). Then there was a Roman centurion of Capernaum who begged Jesus to heal his sick servant (8:5-13), and in doing so evoked in Jesus a vision of a future mission far beyond the boundaries of Israel. Who can forget the striking Gadarene demoniac whose tortured existence reaches Jesus as he comes ashore in the alien territory of the ten cities – on the other side of the lake (8:28-34)?

In today’s Gospel, Jesus’ provocative meeting with the Syro-Phoenician woman (15:21-28) is set outside the land of Israel in the territory of Tyre and Sidon in southern Lebanon. A foreign woman draws near to a Jewish man, pays him homage, and makes of him a daring and bold request: “Lord, son of David, have pity on me! My daughter is terribly troubled by a demon” (15:22). She demands that Jesus come to help her young daughter in distress. Jesus dismisses his disciples’ wishes that he distance himself from this foreign woman.

Yet Jesus responds quite forcefully to the woman: “I am a stranger here; I should not interfere.” It seems so out of character for him to say this.

“Lord, help me!” the woman pleads (15:25). Jesus’ next words are somewhat scandalous: “It is not right to take the food of children and throw it to the dogs!” (15:26) What an insult, that sees others not as human beings, but as animals eating leftovers! Are we not disturbed by Jesus’ rudeness, coldness, and indifference to this woman in need?

The Syro-Phoenician woman is desperate, along with her daughter who suffers from a demon: some kind of ailment that ostracizes and alienates both mother and daughter from the community. This troubled woman and her sick daughter simply desire to live normal lives again without grief, anxiety, and suffering. Jesus understands his mission – but not in relation to this woman. After all, he was sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, but he too experienced deep rejection from his own people to whom he was sent.

In this incredible Gospel encounter, the world of the troubled woman whose daughter is dying and the world of Jesus, the Jewish prophet who is being rejected, collide. And in that collision, something new was born, not only for the two of them but for the whole of Matthew’s Gospel community.

The Syro-Phoenician calls Jesus “Lord,” refers to him as “master,” and humbly says that she, like a dog at the table of his household, will gladly take the leftovers of his mission and power. She receives from him what his own people will not accept. Jesus is astounded at her faith. Through her insistence, perseverance, boldness, and courage, this stranger on the periphery forced Jesus to rethink his entire mission. The unnamed woman is allowed to participate in the Messianic salvation that is offered to all who believe in the Lord and keep his commandments, regardless of their origin, or social status, or condition. The woman proclaims that the love of God cannot be bound. Because of the Syro-Phoenician woman’s persistence, Jesus learned a powerful lesson of universalism, love, and service and thus extended his mission far beyond his own people, his own religion, and his own nation.

We must be honest, however, that despite the inclusive mission of Jesus beyond the lost sheep of the house of Israel, and despite the commission of the Risen Christ that his disciples go to all nations, the Early Church experienced much perplexity, strife, and poor pastoral planning as the Gospel moved beyond the boundaries of Israel and their Jewish Christian experience – almost in spite of the early community’s efforts. The contemporary Church continues to experience those same labour pains as we strive to bring the Gospel message to the ends of the earth, to the peripheries of our times.

In the first months of his Petrine ministry, the Pope who came from the ends of the earth wrote a magnificent blueprint for the mission of the Church called Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”). In paragraph #20, we read:

The word of God constantly shows us how God challenges those who believe in him “to go forth.” Abraham received the call to set out for a new land (cf. Gen 12:1-3). Moses heard God’s call: “Go, I send you” (Ex 3:10) and led the people towards the promised land (cf. Ex 3:17). To Jeremiah, God says: “To all whom I send you, you shall go” (Jer 1:7). In our day Jesus’ command to “go and make disciples” echoes in the changing scenarios and ever new challenges to the Church’s mission of evangelization, and all of us are called to take part in this new missionary “going forth.” Each Christian and every community must discern the path that the Lord points out, but all of us are asked to obey his call to go forth from our own comfort zone in order to reach all the “peripheries” in need of the light of the Gospel.

Who knows what will happen to us when we open ourselves up to God and allow his Word to work within us? Who can imagine what will happen when we break out of the strangleholds and chains that have prevented us from going to the geographical and existential peripheries of our times and places? We might meet strangers and outsiders who interrupt our lives, stop us in our tracks, and force us to ask deeper questions. We may end up, like Jesus, praising the still greater faith in those strangers and outsiders who end up evangelizing us!

Paul glories in his ministry

In today’s second reading from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans (11:13-15, 29-32) the unbelief of the Jews has paved the way for the preaching of the Gospel to the Gentiles and for their easier acceptance of it outside the context of Jewish culture. Through his mission to the Gentiles Paul also hopes to fill his fellow Jews with jealousy. Therefore he hastens to fill the entire Mediterranean world with the Gospel. In God’s design, Israel’s unbelief is being used to grant the light of faith to the Gentiles. Meanwhile, Israel remains dear to God, always the object of special providence, the mystery of which will one day be revealed. Israel, together with the Gentiles who have been handed over to all manner of vices (Romans 1), has been delivered – to disobedience. The conclusion of Romans 11:32 repeats the thought of Romans 5:20, “Where sin increased, grace overflowed all the more.”

[The readings for the Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time are: Isaiah 56:1, 6-7; Romans 11:13-15, 29-32; Matthew 15:21-28.]

This reflection first appeared on the Zenit International News Service in 2011 as well as on the Salt + Light Blog. The complete collection of reflections for Year B, entitled “Words made Flesh,” is now available in book form through our online store. Book editions for Year A and C reflections are coming soon.

(CNS photo/Enrique Garcia Medina, Reuters)

In Mary, Humanity and Divinity are at Home


Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary – Friday, August 15, 2014

The Assumption of Mary, Mother of the Lord, into heaven, is a consoling sign of our hope. In looking to her, carried up amid the rejoicing of angels, human life is opened to the perspective of eternal happiness. Our own death is not the end but rather the entrance into a life that knows no death. I would like to offer a few reflections on the historical and pastoral significance of this important feast, and its relevance for our own lives.

Immaculate Conception

For Catholic Christians, the belief in the Assumption of Mary flows from our belief in, and understanding of, Mary’s Immaculate Conception. We believe that if Mary was preserved from sin by the free gift of God, she would not be bound to experience the consequences of sin and death in the same way that we do. We believe that because of the obedience and fidelity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, at the end of her earthly life, she was assumed both body and soul into heavenly glory.

History of the Assumption

For several centuries in the early Church, there is no mention by the Church Fathers of the bodily Assumption of Mary. Irenaeus, Jerome, Augustine, Ambrose, and the other Church Fathers said nothing about it. Writing in 377 AD, the Church Father Epiphanius even states that no one knows Mary’s end.

As early as the 5th century, the feast of the Assumption of Mary was celebrated in Syria. In the 5th and 6th centuries, the Apocryphal Books were testimony of the unwillingness of the Church to accept the fact that the body of the Mother of God should lie in a grave. In the 6th century, the feast of the Assumption was celebrated in Jerusalem and perhaps even in Alexandria.

The first “genuine” written references to the Assumption come from authors who lived between the sixth and eighth centuries. It is mentioned in the sermons of St. Andrew of Crete, St. John Damascene, St. Modestus of Jerusalem, and others. In the West, St. Gregory of Tours mentions it first. St. Gregory lived in the sixth century, while St John Damascene belongs to the eighth century.

In the 9th century, the feast of the Assumption was celebrated in Spain. From the 10th to 12th centuries, there was no dispute over whether the feast could be celebrated in the Western Church. In the 12th century, the feast of was celebrated in the city of Rome and in France.

From the 13th century to the present, there has been certain and undisputed faith in the Assumption of Mary throughout the universal Church. In 1950, Pope Pius XII taught infallibly: “Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul to heavenly glory” (Munificentissimus Deus, 44).

“Assumption” or “Dormition”?

The Catholic feast of the Assumption is celebrated on August 15, and Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholics celebrate the Dormition of the Theotokos (“the falling asleep of the Mother of God”) on or around the same date. Eastern Orthodox Christians believe that Mary died a natural death, that her soul was received by Christ upon death, and that her body was resurrected on the third day after her death and that she was taken up into heaven bodily in anticipation of the general resurrection at the end of time. Her tomb was found empty on the third day. (One can even visit the Orthodox tomb of the Virgin Mary in Jerusalem. It is located near the Church of All Nations and the Garden of Gethsemane.)

Sign of the Kingdom

In presenting the “great sign” of the “woman clothed with the sun,” today’s first reading from the Book of Revelation (11:19a; 12:1-6a, 10) says that she “was with child and … cried out in her pangs of birth, in anguish for delivery” (12:2). Just as the Risen Christ who has ascended into heaven forever bears the wounds of his redemptive death within his glorious body, so his Mother brings to eternity “the pangs” and “anguish for delivery” (12:2). We could say that Mary, as the new Eve, continues from generation to generation to give birth to the new man, “created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:24). This is the Church’s eschatological image, which is present and active in the Virgin Mary.

Unless Christ is risen

In the second reading for today’s feast (1 Corinthians 15:20-26), St. Paul addresses a problem among the Corinthians: their denial of the resurrection of the dead (15:12) and their inability to imagine how any kind of bodily existence could be possible after death (15:35). Paul affirms both the essential corporeity of the resurrection and its future orientation. His response moves through three steps: a recall of the basic kerygma about Jesus’ Resurrection (15:1-11), an assertion of the logical inconsistencies involved in denying the resurrection of the dead (15:12-34), and an attempt to perceive theologically what the properties of the resurrected body must be (15:35-58).

Any denial of resurrection (15:12) involves logical inconsistencies. The basic one, stated twice (15:13, 16), is that if there is no such thing as (bodily) resurrection, then it has not taken place even in Christ’s case. The consequences for the Corinthians are grave: both forgiveness of sins and salvation become an illusion, despite their strong convictions about both. Unless Christ is risen, their faith does not save.

Christ’s definitive victory over death, which came into the world because of Adam’s sin, shines brightly in Mary, assumed into heaven at the end of her earthly life. It was Christ, the “new” Adam, who conquered death, offering himself as a sacrifice on Calvary in loving obedience to the Father. In this way he redeemed us from the slavery of sin and evil. In Mary’s triumph, the Church contemplates her whom the Father chose as the true Mother of his Only-begotten Son, closely associating her with his saving plan of Redemption.

Life from barren wombs and empty tombs

The Gospel for today’s feast (Luke 1:39-56) invites us into the extraordinary story of two women who share their faith, hope, and happiness as they prepare for motherhood. It is an occasion for celebration between Elizabeth, who is old and barren, and Mary, a young betrothed virgin – a story of God’s ability to both give and sustain life. Our God causes life to surge forth from barren wombs and empty tombs! Mary’s trip to the hill country of Judah is also a manifestation of the coming Kingdom.

Mary is a model for each of us, and her Assumption into heaven reminds us that there is hope for you and me. What happens to the Virgin daughter of Nazareth at the end of her earthly pilgrimage will happen to each of us if we are faithful and obedient, as she was.

Taken up into heaven, Mary shows us the way to God, the way to heaven, the way to life. She shows it to her children baptized in Christ and to all people of good will. She opens this way especially to the little ones and to the poor, those who are open to divine mercy. The Queen of the World reveals to individuals and to nations the power of the love of God whose plan upsets that of the proud, pulls down the mighty from their thrones and exalts the humble, fills the hungry with good things and sends the rich away empty (Luke 1:51-53).

Marian triptych

The Church celebrates three great moments of Mary’s life, knowing that they represent all of our lives: the Immaculate Conception, the Incarnation, and Assumption.

When Pope Pius IX proclaimed the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, the first moment, in 1854 with the bull Ineffabilis Deus, he referred explicitly to the biblical story of the Annunciation in Luke’s Gospel. The angel Gabriel’s salutation, “Hail, full of grace,” is understood as recognizing that Mary must always have been free from sin. God was present and moving in Mary’s life from the earliest moments. God’s grace is greater than sin; it overpowers sin and death. Through her Immaculate Conception, Mary was called for a special mission.

The second moment of Mary’s life is the Incarnation. Through the virginal birth of Jesus we are reminded that God moves powerfully in our lives too. Our response to that movement must be one of recognition, gratitude, humility, openness, and welcome. Through the Incarnation, Mary was gifted with the Word made Flesh.

The Church celebrates Mary’s final journey into the fullness of God’s Kingdom with the dogma of the Assumption, the third moment, promulgated by Pius XII in 1950. As with her beginnings, so too with the end of her life, God fulfilled in her all of the promises that he has given to us. We, too, shall be raised up into heaven as she was. In Mary we have an image of humanity and divinity at home. God is indeed comfortable in our presence and we are in God’s. Through her Assumption, Mary was chosen to have a special place of honour in the Godhead.

Mary follows our footsteps

Let me conclude these reflections on Mary’s Assumption with the moving words of Benedict XVI, spoken at his weekly General Audience at Castel Gandolfo on August 16, 2006. He said:

By contemplating Mary in heavenly glory, we understand that the earth is not the definitive homeland for us either, and that if we live with our gaze fixed on eternal goods we will one day share in this same glory and the earth will become more beautiful. Consequently, we must not lose our serenity and peace even amid the thousands of daily difficulties. The luminous sign of Our Lady taken up into Heaven shines out even more brightly when sad shadows of suffering and violence seem to loom on the horizon.

We may be sure of it: from on high, Mary follows our footsteps with gentle concern, dispels the gloom in moments of darkness and distress, reassures us with her motherly hand. Supported by awareness of this, let us continue confidently on our path of Christian commitment wherever Providence may lead us. Let us forge ahead in our lives under Mary’s guidance.

[The readings for the Solemnity of the Assumption are: Revelation 11:19a; 12:1-6a, 10ab; 1 Corinthians 15:20-26; Luke 1:39-56.]

A Prophet’s Depression, an Apostle’s Grief and a Disciple’s Fear

Walking on Water cropped

Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A – August 10, 2014

Chapter 19 of the First Book of Kings presents us with the aftermath of Elijah’s brilliant victory in the contest with Jezebel and the priests of Baal atop Mount Carmel. Just when Elijah should have been triumphant, he receives a message telling him of Jezebel’s murderous intentions, and is “afraid” (19:3). The exceedingly exemplary servant of God is now in a rut – believing that all of his efforts are in vain! In chapter 18, Elijah was at the height of success; in chapter 19 he is in the depths of despair. In chapter 18 he is on the mountain peak of victory; in chapter 19 he is in the valley of defeat. In chapter 18 he is elated; in chapter 19 he is completed deflated.

Mountaintop experiences

In today’s first reading from 1 Kings 19:9, 11-13, Elijah must learn that God is not encountered in the sound and fury of loud and spectacular events. God will not be conjured up by the zealous or boisterous activity of the prophet who now stands quiet and distressed atop the Lord’s mountain. Though various phenomena, such as wind, storms, earthquakes, and fire (Exodus 19:18-19), may indeed herald the divine presence, they do not constitute the presence itself which, like the tiny whispering sound, is imperceptible and reveals in a deep way the true face and presence of God. The Hebrew expression “still small voice” (1 Kings 19:12) literally means “a voice of low whispers, a sound of gentle stillness.” Though the wretched Jezebel was thundering, she was not in control. Though God was silent, he was not absent. Elijah’s God and our God is the God of signs and wonders but he is also the God of whispers and gentleness. Only when Elijah’s mind and heart are finally depleted of ambition and self-promotion, is God ultimately heard.

Elijah’s struggle with depression

Mount Horeb is the place forever associated with the source and essence of Israelite faith. Elijah arrived at the sacred mountain where he spent the night in a dark cave. The dark cave and the dark night are reflective of his own “dark night of the soul.” The story of Elijah in the cave on Mount Horeb is a classic example of one struggling with depression and burnout. Eventually it touches everyone – even God’s chosen people, his fiery prophets and leaders, his apostles and disciples!

Elijah’s depression wasn’t due to one single cause: it was the culmination of several factors. At the root of depression is almost always some form of fear. The great, fiery prophet of Israel is scared to death of wicked Queen Jezebel’s threats and thus flees for his life. How often are we like Elijah, fearful of failure, of being alone, unable to complete a task given to us, incapable of success, and weak in perseverance, patience, and hope?

The second factor is failure. Elijah had a very low self-esteem. Elijah was in a long line of prophets who also tried to address Israel’s lack of faith and apostasy and he was no more successful than his ancestors. How often do we feel that our efforts are in vain? That we aren’t able to make a difference, just like those who went before us? How often do we think that we contributed to a problem rather than being part of the solution? How often have we failed: The job didn’t work out. The relationship went sour. The marriage broke up. The addiction made me lose everyone and everything I had.

The third factor is fatigue, exhaustion, burnout. Elijah was physically exhausted and emotionally empty. This is the great danger of peak experiences. It is the risk of those who get lost in their work and mission, who are blinded by their own zeal, and have become crusaders and saviours bound for burnout rather than humble disciples and ministers who are poor servants, simply doing their tasks. Elijah didn’t take time to rest and relax, to sit back and see what God was doing around him.

The fourth factor can be described as plain futility. Elijah feels alone, hopeless, and has little hope for the future. He suffers from paranoia, thinking that everyone is out to get him. He looks at the world through very dark glasses. He doesn’t see any way out of his existential conundrum. How many of us are afraid, lonely, exhausted, burned out, and without any hope? How many of us have given in to despair, cynicism, meanness of spirit, and smallness of heart? How many of us have lost our faith in a God who can reverse barren wombs and empty tombs?

Elijah’s therapy

In order for Elijah to revive and renew his strength, he needed to get away. He needed physical, emotional, and spiritual rejuvenation. He had been so busy taking care of the needs of the nations that he had neglected the needs and concerns of Elijah the Tishbite. Elijah talked through his frustrations as he sat in the cave atop the mountain. In the midst of his feeling sorry for himself, God asked him point blank: “What are you doing here, Elijah?” God knew full well what Elijah was doing there. In fact, God helped him to get there! God listened patiently and non-judgmentally as Elijah poured out his feelings of anger, bitterness, and self-pity. Notice what God didn’t say to the pathetic prophet: “Elijah, my prophets don’t talk like that!” God didn’t make him feel guilty for his feelings. Instead God accepted him and listened to him.

What happened to Elijah happens to us, especially when we pay much more attention to negative events than to all the good that is happening around us. It happens when we are very hard on ourselves, and take ourselves far too seriously, and God not seriously enough! God intervened in Elijah’s sorry state and reminded him that his vision of life, his understanding of events, his view of God were terribly distorted.

Elijah needed to know that God was there and that there were in fact others who had not bowed down to Baal. Elijah thought he was the only one who was still faithful to God. God allowed Elijah to sit in the dark cave of self-pity for only so long. There was a new king of Israel and a new prophet to be anointed. The time for complaints and self-pity were over; Elijah now needed to get back to work. What can we learn from this whole episode atop the mountain? Perhaps the best way to stop feeling sorry for ourselves is to start feeling compassion for others.

Great sorrow and anguish

Today’s second reading (Romans 9:1-5) presents us with Paul, a man who had an unbelievable willingness to be sacrificed for his people. He was willing to be accursed, separated from Christ, if it would save his people. He was willing to swap his salvation for their doom if it would lead to their salvation. Paul felt the deepest emotion, love, and concern for his own people. He avails himself to the essential question of how the divine plan could be frustrated by Israel’s unbelief.

Paul speaks in strong terms of the depth of his grief over the unbelief of his own people. Israel’s unbelief and its rejection of Jesus as saviour astonished and puzzled Christians. It constituted a serious problem for them in view of God’s specific preparation of Israel for the advent of the Messiah. Paul would willingly undergo a curse himself for the sake of their coming to the knowledge of Christ (9:3; Leviticus 27:28-29). His love for his people derives from God’s continuing favour on Israel and from the spiritual benefits that God bestows on them and through them on all of humanity (9:4-5). Paul’s point is clear: God desires to use Israel, which had been entrusted with every privilege, in outreach to the entire world through the Messiah.

The reading from Romans 9 raises some significant questions for us. When was the last time you pleaded with a lost person to accept Christ? How does the possibility of being rejected affect the passion with which you share the Gospel? When you share the gospel, how convinced are you about its power to save the lost? About its ability to change the habits of sinners? About its real need in today’s modern society? What sacrifices are you willing to make in order to see the lost members of your family, your friends, or members of your faith community return to Christ or perhaps come to him for the first time?

“Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.”

In today’s moving Gospel story (Matthew 14:22-33) set on the lake, the disciples, labouring against the turbulent sea, are saved by Jesus. Jesus’ power is expressed by his walking on the choppy waters (Matthew 14:25; Psalm 77:20; Job 9:8). Jesus challenges Peter also to walk on the waters! Because of Peter’s fear and weak faith, he begins to sink. When Jesus stretches out his hand and catches Peter, he reminds his disciples and the Church in every generation of his constant care for us. He teaches us that no storm will overturn the boat in which we sail, and no water will swallow us up in darkness.

At certain times in the contemporary history of our Church, everything seems to indicate shipwreck, fear, drowning, and death. But let us be honest and realize that the Church goes on, saving souls and journeying forward to its final harbour. In that blessed realm, beyond the seas of this life, all of the things that threaten God’s Church in this world will be gone forever. At times of turbulence, we must listen to the Lord, as Peter did, and cast our nets again into the deep; for it is our faith that is being tested – not as to whether we profess it or not, but as to whether we are ready to do something about it or not.

He calms the storms of life

Let us never forget this fact: we are on the waters with Jesus. He is in the boat with us, during the night and during the storms. The Lord does not abandon those who come seeking his mercy and his forgiveness. He walks upon the waters. He calms the storm. He guides the boat into safe harbour, and brings with him the great catch, the great feast, to which we are all summoned – the daily feast of his very self, his Body and Blood, our food for eternal life. This is cause for rejoicing!

[The readings for the Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time are: 1 Kings 19:9, 11-13; Romans 9:1-5; and Matthew 14:22-33.]

This reflection first appeared on the Zenit International News Service in 2011 as well as on the Salt + Light Blog. The complete collection of reflections for Year B, entitled “Words made Flesh,” is now available in book form through our online store. Book editions for Year A and C reflections are coming soon.

All you who are hungry and thirsty, come to me!

Kurelek cropped

Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A – August 3, 2014

The memory of St. Paul in Rome

Each time I visit the Roman Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls, I pause in the main courtyard before the striking statue of Paul the Apostle who seems to be solemnly greeting visitors and pilgrims to the shrine built in his memory. There is something very stirring about this rather unusual depiction of the great Apostle to the Gentiles. He dominates the courtyard with a very sombre expression, his head bent with what looks like a Jewish prayer shawl covering his brow. The sword of God’s powerful word is held tightly in his hand. Paul appears to be tired – bearing the burdens of the ministry, yet his bold, pastoral dynamism rises above the physical fatigue.

I understand better today’s second reading from Romans 8:35, 37-39 when I recall that great statue of St. Paul in Rome. The victorious power of God’s love has overcome every obstacle to our salvation and everything that threats to separate us from God. When Paul speaks of “present things and future things” (8:38), he may be referring to astrological data. He appears to be saying that the Gospel liberates believers from dependence on astrologers. Since hostile spirits were associated with the planets and stars, Paul includes powers (8:38) in his list of negative or evil forces. His reference to “height and depth” (8:39) may refer to positions in the zodiac, positions of heavenly bodies relative to the horizon. In astrological documents the term for “height” means “exaltation” or the position of greatest influence exerted by a planet.

“What can separate us from the love of Christ?”

Romans 8:35-39 is one of my favourite passages in the New Testament. It is vintage Paul. Paul clung to the faith, in good times and in bad, in sickness, scandal, and health. It was his bedrock: his love of the crucified Christ was the pledge of God’s unbreakable covenant, of God’s unceasing redemptive love for the world: “Can anything separate us from the love of Christ?” Paul cries out (8:35). This is the searing question deep in the heart of an ardent servant of the Gospel – of one summoned to and consumed by the mission. It is a question that surges from the mind and heart of a mature adult who has been around, who has experienced the Church from the inside and who still refuses to be undone by its scandals and frustrations; of a leader who had lofty ideals of community but also knew the sad realities of divisions and conflicts. It is the sigh of one who knew the reality of suffering and yet never ceased nourishing deep, tremendous Christian hopes: not little hopes but great hopes.

Matthew’s feeding of the multitude

The feeding of the five thousand (Matthew 14:13-21) is the only miracle of Jesus that is recounted in all four gospels (Mark 6:31-44; Luke 9:10-17; John 6:5-15). The story has been situated geographically at Tabgha, the place of the seven springs, on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee. While today’s Gospel may be seen as anticipating the Eucharist and the final banquet of the Kingdom (Matthew 8:11; 26:29), its view looks not only forward but also backward, to the feeding of Israel with manna in the desert at the time of the Exodus (Exodus 16), a miracle that in some contemporary Jewish expectations would be repeated in the Messianic age. The fragments left over (14:20) recall the story of Elisha’s miracle where food was left over after all had been fed (2 Kings 4:42-44). The word “fragments” (Greek klasmata) is also used, in the singular, to describe the broken bread of the Eucharist in the Didache 9:3-4.

Today’s miracle may also be considered to be a “compassion miracle.” As with many of Jesus’ other miracles, Jesus saw a tremendous need in this hungry crowd – and in his compassion he provided food for them. The emphasis in Matthew is not on the meal as a banquet symbolizing the superabundant blessings that God has in store for the future. Rather, Matthew’s emphasis is on God’s providential care for our basic needs even here in the present moment. No matter what the meaning of the food and the miracle represent, the meal was nevertheless Messianic, for its host was none other than the Messiah himself.

Matthew’s addition of the number of people present and fed at this miracle – “five thousand men, not counting women and children” (14:21) – is significant, because the total number could have amounted to twenty or thirty thousand people! Since the total Jewish population of Palestine at the time of Jesus was estimated at half a million, Jesus is presented as feeding almost one tenth of the population. Therefore, the miracle has political ramifications. The reality of being one people, inheritors of the promises made to the twelve tribes of Israel, is a reality capable of transforming not only the spiritual realm but social and economic life as well.

The backdrop of the temptations

We may also consider the multiplication of the loaves against the backdrop of Jesus’ temptations in the desert. There are striking parallels between the two scenes – the wilderness, the hunger, and people craving for bread. Though there may not be a devil present at the multiplication, nevertheless many of the pitfalls that assail the lives of spiritual people are indeed present. At the beginning of the story, Jesus has withdrawn from his ministry in order to recoup some of his energy. Then the crowd shows up with its hunger: first spiritual, then physical. Their needs represent everything from which he is “in retreat.” He does not turn them away. His own spiritual program is open to change and adaptability to new circumstances. The second temptation involves precisely this factor.

How often do we guard our own spiritual lives and itineraries in an absolute fashion? Faced with such an enormous crowd on such a hot day, I could just imagine Jesus recalling his confrontation with the prince of demons on another hot day in the desert far from Galilee. Jesus could very well be saying: “When I was in the wilderness, the devil came to me and told me to makes stones into bread. I told him that man doesn’t live by bread alone; he lives by the word. See this hungry multitude? What they need is the word. And a couple of days without food wouldn’t hurt them either. It certainly didn’t hurt me. So I’ll just give them a good, long, biblical lesson in the heat.” Jesus does not presume to impose his temptation in the wilderness and his triumph over it on these hungry people. His eyes are fixed on the intensity of their need, not on the relevance of his own personal experience.

The third temptation Jesus encounters in the wilderness is that of using limited resources and vast problems as pretexts for inaction. So many poor people, so few loaves! What good are several rather insignificant acts of charity when there are multitudes dying of hunger? In response to such “practical” questions as “What good will that do?” – whether five small loaves and two fish, one cup of cold water, or two widow’s mites – the answer Jesus gives is always the same. Blessed Teresa of Calcutta’s words ring in the back of my mind: “What we are doing is just a drop in the ocean. But if that drop was not in the ocean, I think the ocean would be less because of that missing drop.” Jesus teaches that the disciples are to share whatever they have and there will be more than enough. Logic and human reason say, “We have no more than five loaves and two fish.” But Jesus asks that such meagre provisions, as well as the generosity of the disciples, be stretched to their limits.

Blueprint for Christian spirituality

Matthew’s threefold action of looking up to heaven, reciting a prayer of praise, and breaking the bread is a beautiful pattern that we could well apply to our own daily living, or to any event. Looking up to heaven means making contact with God (prayer); giving praise for whatever one has in mind; then sharing that gift with others. Matthew offers us a pattern for daily life. We begin by looking up to heaven and thanking and praising God for our life. We live that life by sharing it with others. Today’s Gospel offers us a blueprint for an authentic Christian spirituality that involves frequently raising our hearts and minds to God in prayer, giving thanks and praise for what is, and then sharing it with others.

The Multiplication on the Canadian Prairies

Whenever I read the multiplication stories of the New Testament, I cannot help but recall a magnificent mural depicting the multiplication of the loaves and fishes on the wall of the chapel of St. Thomas More College in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. The college was founded by the Congregation of St. Basil (Basilian Fathers), who brought to the prairie college the long Catholic tradition of a liberal arts education that integrates faith and learning. The College Chapel is dedicated to Mary, Queen of the Universe. The mural was painted in 1976 in only ten days by the late William Kurelek, a self-taught Ukrainian painter of the Canadian prairies. The mural leaves a powerful religious impression on the viewer, particularly the students who come to that beautiful little chapel to pray and the faith community that gathers there daily and weekly to celebrate the Eucharist.

What is striking about Kurelek’s mural is the figure of Jesus placed in the middle of the mural, symbolically holding together the large Prairie crowd. One notices that those distributing the baskets of bread are the Basilian Fathers themselves, dressed in their black cassocks, walking among the crowds and feeding them. For decades this group of priest educators gathered together young men and women and taught them. They walked among them and fed them in body and soul. The priests instilled in them a passion for the good that they must do, a passion to reach out to the poor, the hungry, and the wounded; a passion to reach out to the lost and bring them home; a passion to proclaim the truth of the Gospels. Even though Basilians no longer administer the college or teach at the University of Saskatchewan, their legacy lives on.

The Lord’s raised hand in the Kurelek mural is a sign to every generation: “Go and do same where you are. Do not be overcome by meagre resources and the fear of the daunting crowds. Trust in God. Walk among the people. Listen to them. Feed them, teach them and hold them together. Remember what happened on a Galilean plain years ago. Offer what little you have to the Lord and let him multiply your humble gifts to feed the world.”

“Come, without paying and without cost…”

Let us never forget that in Jesus, God’s salvation is freely extended to his people and to all nations; through him will the benefits assured to David be renewed. Let the words of the prophet Isaiah (55:1-3) inspire and embolden you to act:

All you who are thirsty, come to the water! You who have no money, come, receive grain and eat; Come, without paying and without cost, drink wine and milk! Why spend your money for what is not bread; your wages for what fails to satisfy? Heed me, and you shall eat well, you shall delight in rich fare. Come to me heedfully, listen, that you may have life.

[The readings for the Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time are: Isaiah 55:1-3; Romans 8:35, 37-39; and Matthew 14:13-21.]

This reflection first appeared on the Zenit International News Service in 2011 as well as on the Salt + Light Blog. The complete collection of reflections for Year B, entitled “Words made Flesh,” is now available in book form through our online store. Book editions for Year A and C reflections are coming soon.

The Future of Catholic Media: An Interview with Fr. Rosica

Fr. Rosica

The Future of Catholic Media: An Interview with Father Thomas Rosica, CSB
By Sean Salai, S.J.   America,  July 28, 2014

Father Thomas Rosica, C.S.B., is a Canada-based Basilian priest and journalist. He is Chief Executive Officer of Salt and Light Television Network, consulter on the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Social Communications, English-language assistant to the Holy See Press Office, a member of the Social Communications Commission of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, and president of Assumption University in Windsor, Ontario. He is also served as a newspaper columnist for the Toronto Sun and frequently contributes to newspapers across Canada. Father Rosica holds an undergraduate degree in French and Italian from St. John Fisher College in Rochester, and graduate degrees in theology and Sacred Scripture from Regis College at the University of Toronto, the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome and the Ecole Biblique et Archéologique Française de Jérusalem.

On July 24, I interviewed Father Rosica about his work in America’s editorial offices. The following transcript has been edited for content and length.

You’re currently the CEO of Canada’s national Catholic television network, the president of a Catholic university, and an English-language spokesman for the Vatican. Where do you spend most of your time nowadays?

Sometimes on a highway or on a plane, but my home base is Toronto, so a lot of the work I do is from there. For the past three years, I’ve had to serve as president of Assumption University in Windsor, Ontario, which is an institution of my religious congregation, the Basilian Fathers. The university was in some difficulty, so my role was to help reorient its mission, establish policies for governance, fortify the Catholic chaplaincy and put the university back on track—which is what I’ve done. But that was a good opportunity for Salt and Light because we used the university as a venue for a number of things. We brought back to life the Christian Culture Series at Assumption University, which was one of the big contributions of that university to the Canadian church. In restoring this historic series, we televised all of the lectures this year and suddenly there’s a buzz about the lectures and about the mission of this Catholic university that exists within the University of Windsor. We’ll continue that in the coming year as well. My role at the university is adapting to the situations now present at Assumption University and my primary responsibilities are Salt and Light Television and serving as Father Federico Lombardi’s assistant at the Holy See Press Office.

How are things going at Salt and Light right now?

We’re in our 12th year. It’s been a tremendous project, a project of great surprise. I don’t think anyone, including myself, imagined it would develop into what it is. It’s not only a television network, but a Catholic media foundation. We operate on seven platforms. The selling point, the best thing about Salt and Light is that it’s ledby a group of young adults. It was the first fruit of the World Youth Day in Canada in 2002, which I was privileged to be the CEO and National Director of that blessed event and project. I had no idea I would be asked to start Salt and Light immediately after the adventure of World Youth Day 2002. Really, I have no television background; I’m a university lecturer in Scripture! So all I can say is that God has a great sense of humor. But the beauty of Salt and Light has been the young Catholics from all across Canada and from several countries around the world who have formed our team. We broadcast in English, French, Italian, Mandarin and Cantonese. We probably reach 3 million homes in Canada because it’s digital paid television, but even more interesting is the digital audience because we offer live streaming through our website. We know that people from at least 80 countries are also downloading our programs online. For the big papal events, it was over 100 countries. What’s even more important for the new evangelization is that our Chinese programming is being used in China and in Hong Kong.

What does the future look like at Assumption University?

Assumption is on the right track now. It’s the original college of the University of Windsor, one of the major state universities in Canada. Assumption University goes back to the 1850s. In 1962, it developed into the University of Windsor, but maintained its Catholic identity and charter at the core of the university. We can offer theology courses, all kinds of education programs for Catholic teachers and an outstanding chaplaincy. Like many Catholic institutions of higher learning, it struggled to find its moorings for several years. We’ve reoriented it and brought it back to the service of the church and the important Basilian charism of education in the service of the Church’s mission of evangelization.

You joined the Holy See Press Office during the papal transition last year and continue to serve as an English-language assistant there. What’s your current role at the Vatican?

Well, it’s a very interesting thing that happened. I’d been working with the Vatican through the whole World Youth Day adventure since 2000. So it wasn’t an unknown territory to me. In 2008, I was appointed the English language media attaché for the Synod of Bishops on the Word of God. I was present for the whole synod, inside the synod, and dealt with the press through that whole month of October. Shortly after that, Pope Benedict appointed me as a consulter to the Pontifical Council for Social Communications. Then in 2012, I was asked to service as the English-language attaché for the Synod of Bishops on the New Evangelization. I was there in an official capacity, but the Vatican allowed Salt and Light to be inside the synod, and we documented the whole event in ways that had never been done before. Two of our young producers, Sebastian and Charles were inside the synod and did interviews every day, producing 22 television programs in English and French. At the end of it, they produced a major documentary called “Inside the Synod.”

After the 2012 Synod, I thought that that was it until the morning of February 11, 2013, when Pope Benedict resigned. The following day, the Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi called me and said “come to Rome immediately.” Within 24 hours, I was the English-language person for the papal transition. I had to deal with the English-language press for six weeks in the Holy See Press Office. We had around 6,400 journalists, many of who were English-speaking. It was an incredible experience. Just before I left Rome after the conclave and before for Easter 2013, Father Lombardi said to me: “You’ve developed a relationship with English-language media that we’ve never had before. I want you to continue that in a somewhat official capacity. You will be the English-language assistant to the Holy See Press Office.” He also formally established a Spanish-language assistant, a young priest from Chicago who is serving in that capacity now. I asked “what does that mean?” He said “just continue that relationship.” So what started off as a daily bulletin for several hundred people during the papal transition is now a bulletin with Vatican information and often commentaries on it that I send to about 750 English-language media people every morning. Specifically, it tells them how to understand this information from an English-language perspective, and it’s become an daily teaching and communications instrument. I’ll be the English-language “spokesman” at the Synod on the Family this coming October, working closely with a great Jesuit and mentor to me, Father Lombardi.

Has the Vatican’s communications strategy changed or evolved since Francis was elected pope?

Yes. Francis is the best thing going for the Catholic Church now in the area of communications. He’s the clearest example of the New Evangelization. If you want to know what the New Evangelization is, it’s not a book, a text or a synod. It’s Francis. What he’s done is forced all of us to rethink the ways we communicate. From a practical point of view, structurally, changes are underway at the Vatican in terms of how the Holy See deals with the world and how the world deals with the church. So this recent commission they just set up—led by British Lord Chris Patten and team of outside media professionals—is now evaluating the many communications entities in the Vatican, to streamline internal communications and to find better and more effective ways to tell the story of the church to the world around us, not only in reactive but pro-active ways.

What are some positive things going on Catholic media these days?

One of the best things happening in our part of the world here is what’s happened through America Magazine. This is not a paid service announcement! Since Father Malone has been in charge, he’s raised the profile, the significance and the role of America Magazine—and shown other Catholic publications the importance of partnerships, having a clear vision and being bold and courageous in reaching out. We have nothing to lose in sharing the best of what the Catholic Church has to offer.

Having Pope Francis as the leader has helped all those involved in Catholic communications not to be hiding behind walls, trees or stones for fear of the madding crowds, but to reach out and build bridges—not to be afraid to deal with the so-called “media.” A lot of people had gotten into a very dangerous rut where they were stuck in their stories, and it became death-dealing for a lot of Catholic agencies and groups. They were stuck in the same old narratives. In the bigger picture, I think Francis is the hand of divine providence and the Holy Spirit stepping in and saying “enough is enough.” Now is the time to work together, stand up, be proud of being Catholic, interface with the world, communicate and be in dialogue. I recently did a little study of Pope Francis’ homilies and texts to find all of the places where Francis talks about the devil, and one of the interesting things he says is that diabolical works are about monologue. The works of the Spirit are about dialogue. Monologue is all about people speaking to themselves about themselves and speaking about others, not speaking with others. Works of the Spirit are those based on solid dialogue.

What you’re saying recalls the aggiornamento of the Second Vatican Council in throwing open the windows of the church to the outside world. Would you say that Catholic media is finally catching up with the rest of the church on this one?

It is. It took 50 years and, in church history, 50 years is not a big period of time. For us, we’re impatient. But it took 50 years and I really believe, with the coming of Pope Francis, that this is that third epoch that Karl Rahner talked about in “The Three Great Epochs of the Church.” In our recent Salt and Light documentary on Pope Francis, we start off the whole story with Rahner’s now-epic essay in which he speaks about the three great epochs of Church history.

What are some challenges for Catholic media today?

The first challenge, a very practical challenge, is to not just talk a good line about getting laypeople involved in Church communications and not put our money where are mouth is. If we want to get laypeople involved, we have to make priorities for budgets and funding. We can’t spend all of our time eliminating or putting Catholic media efforts in second and third place. We have to speak about preparing professional people to be involved in these roles.

Second, the old guard has to have the humility to step back and let the new generation come in.

The third challenge is the risk of doing cute things with social media as if social media is going to be the true method of communication. We don’t tweet to do cute things; we tweet to send people back to links with solid content. One of the problems of social media is there’s not a lot of content. So the church has to be careful about not being caught up in that maelstrom or wave of saying we have 10,000 twitter followers, 2 million intimate friends on Facebook or similar rather meaningless statements. Well, it may sound good, but what’s underneath all of that? I think the church runs the risk of being caught up in that numbers game. How do we prepare solid, comprehensible, creative content that leaves our readers and viewers desiring something more?

What are your hopes for the future of Catholic media?

We have to operate on many platforms. We can’t dismiss print media. It’s still valid, people still want something in their hands to read, but it’s just one way. We have to tell our stories and shout the news from the rooftops. That means you have to do it from every medium that’s possible and available. Therefore, it requires people to be proficient in all of those areas. Even older media and communications people who were not aware of the new platforms must become proficient in those areas.

Any final thoughts?

I view the work we’re doing at Salt and Light as education in the church’s mission of evangelization. I never consider communications to be some secondary or tertiary thing. It’s teaching; it’s another way to teach. Some people have said to me, “it’s too bad that you not teaching anymore since you taught scripture so well for 18 years in the faculty of theology at Toronto and in seminary in London, Ontario.” But I constantly tell them: “I am still teaching now. I just can’t see the size of the classroom!” Little did I ever dream of doing this as I sat at the feet of my Jesuit and Dominican masters in Toronto, Rome and Jerusalem!

Sean Salai, S.J., is a summer editorial intern at America.

The article The Future of Catholic Media: An Interview with Father Thomas Rosica, CSB was originally published in America Magazine on July 28, 2014

- Photo Credit: Basilian Father Thomas Rosica, CEO of Canada’s Salt and Light Catholic Media Foundation, participates in a press briefing in English at the Vatican March 8, 2013. Father Rosica has been assisting Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, left, Vatican spokesman, with the daily press briefings. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Feast of Sts. Joachim and Anne, Parents of Mary

By tradition Joachim and Anne are considered to be the names of the parents of Mary, the Mother of God. We have no historical evidence, however, of any elements of their lives, including their names. Any stories about Mary’s father and mother come to us through legend and tradition. We get the oldest story from a document called the Gospel of James, though in no way should this document be trusted to be factual, historical, or the Word of God. The legend told in this document says that after years of childlessness, an angel appeared to tell Anne and Joachim that they would have a child. Anne promised to dedicate this child to God (much the way that Samuel was dedicated by his mother Hannah — Anne — in I Kings).

For those who wonder what we can learn from people we know nothing about and how we can honor them, we must focus on why they are honored by the church. Whatever their names or the facts of their lives, the truth is that it was the parents of Mary who nurtured Mary, taught her, brought her up to be a worthy Mother of God. It was their teaching that led her to respond to God’s request with faith, “Let it be done to me as you will.” It was their example of parenting that Mary must have followed as she brought up her own son, Jesus. It was their faith that laid the foundation of courage and strength that allowed her to stand by the cross as her son was crucified and still believe. Such parents can be examples and models for all parents. [Read more...]

Mary Magdalene — a key character in the Easter story — has been hijacked and defamed by a bestselling novel’s so-called ‘code’

Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code has resurrected an old debate about one of the most enigmatic figures in Christianity: Mary Magdalene.

She has been hijacked over the past few years, and her name and reputation have been distorted once again in Christian history. There is no better day than Easter Sunday to put the spotlight back on this outstanding woman disciple who was one of Jesus’ closest friends.

Let’s consider for a moment the folly of Brown’s portrayal of Mary Magdalene in his runaway best seller (and guaranteed blockbuster movie). Brown proposes that the figure on Jesus’ right in Leonardo Da Vinci’s famed Last Supper painting is not John the beloved disciple, but really Mary of Magdala, who married Jesus and bore him a child.

It was this child who was Jesus’ chosen successor, Brown argues. He also says this Mary represents the Holy Grail, the eternal feminine, sexuality; the real quest of every human heart. (The silliness continues when Brown writes that the offspring of Mary Magdalene and Jesus wound up in France and later became the Merovingian dynasty of kings!)

The book goes on to make the case that the church oppressed women throughout history as an attempt to deny the truth found in Da Vinci’s famous painting. According to Brown, a few great men — namely Da Vinci himself, Galileo, curators at the Louvre, Walt Disney (!) and a Harvard professor — have, through secret codes, preserved the “truth.”

Would the real Mary Magdalene please stand up?

magdalen-9aMary Magdalene, Mary of Bethany (sister of Martha and Lazarus), and the unnamed penitent woman who anointed Jesus’ feet (see Luke 7:36-48) are sometimes understood to be the same woman. From this, plus the statement in Luke’s gospel that Jesus had cast seven demons out of Mary Magdalene, has arisen the view that she had been a prostitute.

But in reality we know nothing about her sins or weaknesses. They could have been inexplicable physical disease, mental illness, or anything that prevented her from wholeness in mind and body.

Mary Magdalene is mentioned in the gospels as being among the women of Galilee who followed Jesus and his disciples. She was present at His crucifixion and burial, and went to the tomb on Easter Sunday to anoint His body.

Artistic representations of her deal particularly with her repentance, her bathing of the feet of Jesus, and her meeting with the Lord after his resurrection. She is a model of discipleship, penitence and repentance.

Brown focuses on her sinfulness, even to demonizing her. But Mary Magdalene’s story is that much more remarkable when one considers that in Jesus’ time, women were seen as property, first of their fathers, then of their husbands.

In this atmosphere, Jesus acted without animosity, accepting women, honouring them, respecting them, and treasuring their friendship. He journeyed with them, touched and cured them, loved them and allowed them to love him. There was no discrimination. Mary Magdalene is living proof of Jesus’ boundary-breaking humanity and compassion.

On Easter, Christians around the world peer once again into the early-morning scene of sadness as Mary Magdalene weeps at the grave of her friend, Jesus. We hear anew their conversation, as recounted in John’s gospel:

“Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?”

“Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”

Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Teacher!”

“Stop clinging to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brethren and say to them, ‘I ascend to My Father and your Father, and My God and your God.’”

Mary Magdalene came, announcing to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord,” and that he had said these things to her.

Mary Magdalene was fittingly called “Apostola Apostolorum” (Apostle to the Apostles) in the early Church because she was the first to see the Risen Lord, and to announce his resurrection to the other apostles.

For Jesus, women were equally as able as men to penetrate the great religious truths, live them and announce them to others. There is nothing secret about this story, which is still astonishingly good news more than 2,000 years later.