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.

A King’s Prayer and a Kingdom’s Hope

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Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A – July 27, 2014

Solomon seeks wisdom

It is important to know the historical background for today’s first reading from the First Book of Kings 3:5; 7-12. Solomon had just been installed as the third king of Israel. The lot of leadership fell to him, the favored son of Bathsheba. Solomon is introduced to us, not as the legendary wise and good king, but as a man already compromised in his public life and personal relationships. Far from being the innocent child kneeling before God, he is more like the wayward son who prostrates himself before God, already aware of what will lead him away from the path of wise and discerning leadership. Solomon’s prayer for wisdom reveals a young king, unsure of himself at the outset of his reign.

The beginning of wisdom is the recognition that one needs wisdom. What did Solomon ask of his God? First he asked for an “understanding heart” (3:9) which means to “hear intelligently,” often with the implication of attention and obedience. This word could mean discern, give ear, listen, obey, perceive, or understand. He also asked that he might be able to “discern,” “to separate mentally, to understand, or deal wisely.” The Lord repeated this word in His answer as recorded in verse 12, and added yet another word – I have given you literally “a wise, intelligent, skillful or artful” heart. Solomon wanted to receive wisdom by carefully listening and obeying the Lord.

The wisdom Solomon asked for was related to the role he was assigned. God was pleased with his prayer, and gave him not only what he has asked but also what he has not asked: riches, honor, glory. And the story goes on to show how Solomon’s wisdom was such that Israel ‘stood in awe of the king, because they saw that the wisdom of God was in him.’ In the New Testament, when Jesus was teaching, he commented about Solomon’s wisdom, “now one greater than Solomon is here” (Matthew 12:42). Jesus was referring to Himself as the Christ, the Son of God.

When we ask for wisdom

This unique moment in the life of one of the great kings of Israel raises many questions for us. When asking for wisdom, we must believe that God will provide the wisdom we seek; we must trust Him to do it in His own way, which usually means that we will be in partnership with Him. Where in our life is the need for wisdom? Is there a willingness to be obedient and to look to God so that ours will be a righteous wisdom? Are we willing to partner with God for the acquisition of wisdom? Is there sufficient faith to believe that God will provide?

Conformed to the Son’s image

Today’s second reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans (8:28-30) outlines the Christian vocation as it was designed by God: to be conformed to the image of his Son, who is to be the firstborn among many brothers (8:29). God’s redemptive action on behalf of the believers has been in process before the beginning of the world. Those whom God chooses are those he foreknew (8:29) or elected. While man and woman were originally created in God’s image (Genesis 1:26-27), it is through baptism into Christ, the image of God (2 Cor 4:4; Col 1:15), that we are renewed according to the image of the Creator (Col 3:10). Those who are called (Romans 8:30) are predestined or predetermined. These expressions do not mean that God is arbitrary. Rather, Paul uses them to emphasize the thought and care that God has taken for the Christian’s salvation.

How will we recognize the kingdom?

Jesus used a variety of images to refer to the kingdom of heaven. Throughout the New Testament, we read about a shepherd who has lost sheep, a woman who has lost a silver coin, a father who has lost a son. In these and many more stories, Jesus is saying that the Kingdom comes for us when we find what we have lost. Jesus started his ministry with the proclamation of the gospel: “The kingdom of heaven is at hand.” But his disciples, then and now, keep on asking: “When is the kingdom coming? How will we recognize it?” His usual reply indicated the difficulties of seeing the kingdom where we are blinded by earthly images. Jesus spoke of the kingdom as being near, “at hand,” and coming unexpectedly. He revealed the kingdom in two ways. His miracle-working deeds revealed present power over evil; his parables contained messages of what the kingdom could and should be like.

Parables about the kingdom

The historical backdrop of the parables is very important in our understanding of these marvelous stories. In the unsettled conditions of Palestine in Jesus’ time, it was not unusual to guard valuables by burying them in the ground (13:44). The first two of the last three parables of Matthew’s discourse (13:44-52) have the same point. The person who finds a buried treasure and the merchant who finds a pearl of great price sell all that they have to acquire these finds; similarly, the one who understands the supreme value of the kingdom gives up whatever he must to obtain it. The joy with which this is done is made explicit in the first parable, but it may be presumed in the second also. The concluding parable of the fishnet resembles the explanation of the parable of the weeds with its stress upon the final exclusion of evil persons from the kingdom.

Since Matthew tends to identify the disciples and the Twelve (13:52) this saying about the Christian scribe cannot be taken as applicable to all who accept the message of Jesus. The scribe instructed in the kingdom of heaven knows both the teaching of Jesus (the new) and the law and prophets (the old) and provides in his own teaching both the new and the old as interpreted and fulfilled by the new.

Conceptions of the Kingdom

The Kingdom of God is not – as some maintain today – a generic reality above all religious experiences and traditions, but it is, before all else, a person with a name and a face: Jesus of Nazareth, the image of the unseen God. We cannot marginalize Christian revelation and its ecclesial transmission by proposing a non-Christian vision where misuse of the terminology “Kingdom” or “Reign of God” is a substitute for Jesus Christ and his Church.

In the Lineamenta (preparatory document) for the Synod of Bishops on the New Evangelization in October 2012, two particular passages and their references to the Kingdom struck me in light of today’s Gospel reading. Under sections #24 The “New Evangelization: A Vision for the Church of Today and Tomorrow” we read:

We are facing situations which are signs of massive changes, often causing apprehension and fear. These situations require a new vision, which allows us to look to the future with eyes full of hope and not with tears of despair. As “Church,” we already have this vision, namely, the Kingdom to come, which was announced to us by Christ and described in his parables. This Kingdom is already communicated to us through his preaching and, above all, through his death and resurrection. Nevertheless, we oftentimes feel unable to enflesh this vision, in other words, to “make it our own” and to “bring it to life” for ourselves and the people we meet everyday, and to make it the basis for the Church’s life and all her pastoral activities.

And in #25, “The Joy of Evangelizing,” we read:

A new evangelization means to share the world’s deep desire for salvation and render our faith intelligible by communicating the logos of hope (cf. 1 Pt 3:15). Humanity needs hope to live in these present times. The content of this hope is “God, who has a human face and who ‘has loved us to the end’.” For this reason, the Church is, by her very nature, missionary. We cannot selfishly keep for ourselves the words of eternal life, which we received in our personally encountering Jesus Christ. They are destined for each and every person. Each person today, whether he knows it or not, needs this proclamation.

To be unaware of this need creates a desert and an emptiness. In fact, the obstacles to the new evangelization are precisely a lack of joy and hope among people, caused and spread by various situations in our world today. Oftentimes, this lack of joy and hope is so strong that it affects the very tenor of our Christian communities. This is the reason for renewing the appeal for a new evangelization, not simply as an added responsibility but as a way to restore joy and life to situations imprisoned in fear.

We therefore approach the new evangelization with a sense of enthusiasm. We will learn the sweet and comforting joy of evangelizing, even at times when proclamation might seem like a seed sown among tears (cf. Ps 126:6). “May it mean for us – as it did for John the Baptist, for Peter and Paul, for the other apostles and for a multitude of splendid evangelizers all through the Church’s history – an interior enthusiasm that nobody and nothing can quench. May it be the great joy of our consecrated lives. And may the world of our time, which is searching, sometimes with anguish, sometimes with hope, be enabled to receive the Good News not from evangelizers who are dejected, discouraged, impatient or anxious, but from ministers of the Gospel whose lives glow with fervor, who have first received the joy of Christ, and who are willing to risk their lives so that the Kingdom may be proclaimed and the Church established in the midst of the world.”

[The readings for the Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time are: 1 Kings 3:5-12; Romans 8:28-30; and Matthew 13:44-52.]

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 them grow together until harvest…”

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Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A – July 20, 2014

Once again in this week’s Gospel passage, images of growing trees, shrubs and plants provide us with powerful insights into the quiet and slow ways that God’s Kingdom grows among us and within us. Today’s Gospel story is peculiar to Matthew (13:24-33). Central to today’s parable of the wheat and the weeds is the preciousness of the wheat. The landowner refuses to lose any of it in order to get rid of the weeds.

Verse 25 speaks of darnel, a poisonous weed that in its first stage of growth resembles wheat. A weed may be growing next to a stalk of wheat and think it has a common destiny with the wheat, but its end is destruction. The weed is also harmful to the wheat, its roots trying to starve the wheat from its source. The refusal of the householder to allow his slaves to separate the wheat from the weeds while they are still growing is a warning to the disciples not to attempt to anticipate the final judgment of God by a definitive exclusion of sinners from the Kingdom. In its present stage it is composed of the good and the bad. The judgment of God alone will eliminate the sinful. Until then there must be patience and the preaching of repentance. We can learn much from God’s patience as we see Him allow both the good and the evil to grow together.

How important it is to remember this point when we grow so impatient with God’s role in human history. How often do we ask: “Where is the ultimate vindication that God has promised us?” How long, O Lord, until you show your might and power to rout our enemies? How long until you show your face to us? When we get stuck in such ruts, our moods are fixed more intently on the stubborn persistence of evil than on the slow emergence and growth of good. God loves goodness more than God hates evil.

The harvest spoken of in v 30 is a common biblical metaphor for the time of God’s judgment; (Jeremiah 51:33; Joel 4:13; Hosea 6:11.) Like the sower who scatters seed even where there is little hope for results, Jesus keeps open the lines of communication with those who have closed their hearts, their ears and their eyes to his word.

The great success of the Kingdom

The parables of the mustard seed (Mark 4:30-32; Luke 13:18-21) and the yeast illustrate the same point: the amazing contrast between the small beginnings of the Kingdom and its marvelous expansion. Jesus exaggerates both the smallness of the mustard seed and the size of the mustard plant. The seed in Jesus’ hand is tiny, simple and unimpressive. Yet Jesus says that the Kingdom of God is like that. This message of Jesus’ parable was certainly an encouragement to the early church when its progress seemed slow or was hampered by persecution. From these small seeds will arise the great success of the Kingdom of God and of God’s Word. Patience is called for in the face of humble beginnings. Jesus reassures the crowd that growth will come; it is only at the harvest that the farmer reappears. The growth of God’s Kingdom is the result of God’s power, not ours. Like the tiny mustard seed, the Kingdom of God is something that grows from a tiny beginning.

Patient endurance in steadfast expectation

In today’s section of St. Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome, (8:26-27) the Apostle to the nations reminds us that the glory that believers are destined to share with Christ far exceeds the sufferings of the present life. Paul considers the destiny of the created world to be linked with the future that belongs to the believers. As it shares in the punishment of corruption brought about by sin, so also will it share in the benefits of redemption and future glory that comprise the ultimate liberation of God’s people. Only following patient endurance in steadfast expectation will the full harvest of the Spirit’s presence be realized.

Recognizing the Kingdom

Jesus started his ministry proclaiming: “The Kingdom of heaven is at hand.” But his disciples, then and now, keep on asking: “When is the Kingdom coming? How will we recognize it?” His usual reply indicated the difficulties of seeing the Kingdom where we are blinded by earthly images. Jesus spoke of the Kingdom as being near, “at hand,” and coming unexpectedly. He revealed the Kingdom in two ways. His miracle-working deeds revealed present power over evil; his parables contained messages of what the Kingdom could and should be like. For many, the Kingdom is a place free from evil, sin, strife, anxiety and fear. Don’t we all share a deep longing for a crop free from the weeds, for a world free from war, for a personality free from the weeds of anxiety of jealousy, fear, apathy, cynicism and despair? Far from being a seemingly unreal place, daily life can at times seem to be much more a battleground… a struggle to live in the midst of the weeds and chaff that try to choke us and take our life away. In Jesus, God broke through the power and domination of evil.

I often imagine Jesus running tiny, black mustard seeds through his fingers as he spoke to the crowds and his small group of followers in Galilee. One day he thought of them as he spoke about the Kingdom of God, and pointed to the tree that would grow from such tiny seeds. The seed in Jesus’ hand is tiny, simple and unimpressive. Yet he says that the Kingdom of God is like that. It is far more likely to begin in simple ways than in the dramatic.

God’s Kingdom broke through and entered the human scene in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. It is a slow process for the Kingdom to be fully realized. We long for a society free from the weeds of injustice, fear of nuclear power, war and the depletion of all of our resources. But we also know that such longings will never be fully realized and satisfied here. The distance from and longing for the full realization of that kingdom make our heart grow fonder for it. The hope represented by our longings is essential to human life, for without them we would be slaves and victims of despair and hopelessness.

Opposition and indifference to the Word

The Word of God takes root not without a struggle, due to the presence and action of an “enemy” who “sowed weeds among the wheat.” In his General Audience homily of September 25, 1991, Blessed John Paul II addressed this point directly:

“This parable explains the co-existence and the frequent mingling of good and evil in the world, in our lives and in the very history of the Church. Jesus teaches us to see these things with Christian realism and to handle every problem with clear principles, but also with prudence and patience. This presupposes a transcendent vision of history, in which one knows that everything belongs to God and every final result is the work of his Providence. However, the final destiny–in its eschatological dimension–of the good and bad is not hidden. It is symbolized by the gathering of the wheat into the barn and the burning of the weeds.”

There are weeds in the Church

During World Youth Day 2005 in Cologne, Germany, Pope Emeritus Benedict exclaimed to the throngs of young Christians and the curious mixed in:

“Here in Cologne we discover the joy of belonging to a family as vast as the world, including heaven and earth, the past, the present, the future. The Church can be criticized, because it contains both grain and weeds,” he told them, but “it is actually consoling to realize that there are weeds in the Church. In this way, despite all our defects, we can still hope to be counted among the disciples of Jesus, who came to call sinners.”

Five years later, on October 9, 2010, Benedict spoke of this parable in his weekly General Audience address that featured the spirituality of St. John Leonardi. Leonardi (1541-1609) and St. Philip Neri (1515-1595) were two humble priests committed to the reform of the clergy during the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century. Neri founded the “Oratory,” a community of priests and Leonardi founded a religious order and a seminary, with the sole purpose of reforming the clergy. Both men ministered to the people of Rome during not infrequent outbreaks of the plague and influenza. While Neri survived these outbreaks, Leonardi died from influenza in 1609.

In his talk, Pope Emeritus Benedict reminded us that the weeds and wheat exist in close proximity:

“There is another aspect of St John Leonardi‘s spirituality that I would like to emphasize. On various occasions he reasserted that the living encounter with Christ takes place in his Church, holy but frail, rooted in history and in its sometimes obscure unfolding, where wheat and weeds grow side by side (Mt 13:30), yet always the sacrament of salvation. Since he was clearly aware that the Church is God’s field (cf. Mt 13: 24), St John was not shocked at her human weaknesses. To combat the weeds he chose to be good wheat: that is, he decided to love Christ in the Church and to help make her, more and more, a transparent sign of Christ. He saw the Church very realistically, her human frailty, but he also saw her as being “God’s field,” the instrument of God for humanity’s salvation.

And this was not all. Out of love for Christ he worked tirelessly to purify the Church, to make her more beautiful and holy. He realized that every reform should be made within the Church and never against the Church In this, St John Leonardi was truly extraordinary and his example is ever timely. Every reform, of course, concerns her structures, but in the first place must have an effect in believers’ hearts. Only Saints, men and women who let themselves be guided by the divine Spirit, ready to make radical and courageous decisions in the light of the Gospel, renew the Church and make a crucial contribution to building a better world.”

[The readings for the Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time are: Wisdom 12.13, 16-19; Romans 8.26-27; and Matthew 13.24-43.]

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.

“Death not a good End but a good Transition” Confronting the Reality of Euthanasia

blog 1The mainstream media has caused great confusion about the topic of euthanasia and has been extremely deceptive in its portrayal of human suffering and compassion.  Most people who think that euthanasia and assisted suicide should be legal are not thinking the whole issue through. They are thinking about personal autonomy and choice. They think about what it would be like to suddenly become incapacitated and consider such a life as undignified or worthless. Perhaps they consider severely disabled people as having no quality of life.  Our dignity and quality of life don’t come from what we can or cannot do. Dignity and quality of life are not matters of efficiency, proficiency and productivity.  They come from a deeper place– from who we are and how we relate to each other.

The notion that euthanasia and/or assisted suicide can be a reality for us in Canada should come as a wake-up call to all Canadians, not just because of the notion that all life is sacred from conception to natural death, but simply because of whom such a law would affect most, the most vulnerable; the chronically ill, who are a strain on the health care system; the elderly who have been abandoned and who have no one to speak on their behalf, and who feel they may be a burden to others; and the disabled who have to fight every day to maintain their own integrity and dignity.

Our society has lost sight of the sacred nature of human life. As Catholic Christians we are deeply committed to the protection of life from its earliest moments to its final moments. When people today speak about a “good death,” they usually refer to an attempt to control the end of one’s life, even through physician-assisted suicide or euthanasia. The Christian notion of a good death, however, is death not as a good end, but a good transition, that requires faith, proper acceptance and readiness.

What is wrong with abortion, euthanasia, embryo selection, and embryonic research is not the motives of those who carry them out. So often, those motives are, on the surface, compassionate: to protect a child from being unwanted, to end pain and suffering, to help a child with a life-threatening disease. But in all these cases, the terrible truth is that it is the strong who decide the fate of the weak; human beings therefore become instruments in the hands of other human beings.

JP II sufferingSt. John Paul II taught us how to respect the frail and the vulnerable. Nine years ago, as he died before the eyes of the entire world, John Paul showed us true dignity in the face of death. Rather than hide his infirmities, as most public figures do, he let the whole world see what he went through in the final phase of his life. He offered us a paradoxical image of happiness. Who can say his life was not fruitful, when his body was able to climb snow-capped summits or vacation on Strawberry Island in Lake Simcoe in 2002? Who doesn’t feel the paradoxical influence of his presence, when his voice was muted?

We must never lose sight of the atrocities against the unborn, the untold and too-seldom spoken of pain and lingering anguish experienced by those who have been involved in abortions. Nor can we ignore the other great challenge faced by humanity today–the serious question of mercy killing, or euthanasia as it is sometimes called, no longer found in abstract cases and theories. It has arrived on our shores and it has invaded our lives.

This issue strikes to the very core of who we are and what we believe. Even when not motivated by the refusal to be burdened with the life of someone who is suffering, euthanasia must be called a false and misguided mercy. True compassion leads to sharing another’s pain, not killing the person whose suffering we cannot bear. The best way to know if we are still in any way a Christian society is to see how we treat our most vulnerable people, the ones with little or no claim on public attention, the ones without beauty, strength or intelligence.

Human life and human dignity encounter many obstacles in the world today, especially in North America. When life is not respected, should we be surprised that other rights will sooner or later be threatened? If we look carefully at the great dramas of the last century, we see that as free markets toppled Communism, exaggerated consumerism and materialism infiltrated our societies and cultures. Aging populations, especially in the west, and resulting smaller workforces are now creating a market push towards euthanasia. As St. John Paul II wrote: “a right to die will inevitably give way to the duty to die.”

In a very powerful message addressed to the Pontifical Academy for Life this past February, Pope Francis wrote about a very current theme, dear to the Church. “In our society there is a tyrannical dominance of an economic logic that excludes and at times kills, and of which nowadays we find many victims, starting with the elderly”. He affirmed that we see the existence of a “throwaway” culture, in which those who are excluded are not only exploited but also rejected and cast aside.

In the face of this discrimination, Pope Francis considered the anthropological question of the value of man and of what may be the basis of this value. “Health is without doubt an important value, but it does not determine the value of a person. Furthermore, health is not by itself a guarantee of happiness, which may indeed by experienced even by those in a precarious state of health”. Therefore, he added, “poor health and disability are never a good reason to exclude or, worse, eliminate a person; and the most serious deprivation that the elderly suffer is not the weakening of the body or the consequent disability, but rather abandonment, exclusion, and a lack of love”.

The Pope emphasized the importance of listening to the young and the old whenever we wish to understand the signs of the times, and commented that “a society is truly welcoming to life when it recognizes its value also in old age, in disability, in serious illness, and even when it at its close; when it teaches that the call to human realization does not exclude suffering but instead teaches to see in the sick and suffering a gift to the entire community, a presence that calls for solidarity and responsibility”.

As Catholics and Christians, we have a responsibility to confront the intrusion of euthanasia in our society – especially if we are to understand our moral obligation as caregivers for incapacitated persons, and our civic obligation to protect those who lack the capacity to express their will but are still human, still living, and still deserving of equal protection under the law.  There can be no true peace unless life is defended and promoted.

July 11, 2014

God’s Word is Never Spoken in Vain

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Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A – July 13, 2014

In verse 10 of today’s first reading from chapter 55 of the prophet Isaiah, we read: “As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater.” Rain may seem lost when it falls on a desert, but it fulfils some purpose of God. So the gospel word falling on the hard heart; it sometimes brings about change in one’s life; and even if so, it leaves people without excuse.

Not only does Isaiah compare God’s Word with rain, but he also compares it with snow – something else that is often not truly appreciated for what it really does. Snow’s main purpose is far greater than simply providing coating for ski hills, raw material for making snowmen and necessary covering for snowmobile trails. Its main purpose, like rain, is to provide water and moisture for the earth so that plants and trees are able to grow and live.

Every time snow and rain come down, they always provide a very necessary ingredient: moisture for germination and growth of seeds planted in the earth. They always accomplish their purpose. In verse 11, we see that God’s Word, like the rain and snow from heaven, always accomplishes its God intended purpose: “So is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.” What faith, patience and perseverance are required to accept this truth!

Patient endurance in steadfast expectation

In today’s second reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans (8:18-23), Paul considers the destiny of the created world to be linked with the future that belongs to the believers. As it shares in the penalty of corruption brought about by sin, so also will it share in the benefits of redemption and future glory that comprise the ultimate liberation of God’s people (19-22). After patient endurance in steadfast expectation, the full harvest of the Spirit’s presence will be realized. On earth believers enjoy the first fruits, i.e., the Spirit, as a guarantee of the total liberation of their bodies from the influence of the rebellious old self (23).

Understanding the meaning of “parable”

The word “parable” is used in the Greek Septuagint to translate the Hebrew “mashal,” a designation covering a wide variety of literary forms such as axioms, proverbs, similitudes, and allegories. In the New Testament “parable” primarily designates stories that are illustrative comparisons between Christian truths and events of everyday life. Sometimes the event has a strange element that is quite different from usual experience (e.g., in Matthew 13:3 the enormous amount of dough in the parable of the yeast); this is meant to sharpen the curiosity of the hearer. As figurative speech, a parable demands reflection for understanding. To understand is a gift of God, granted to the disciples but not to the crowds. In Semitic fashion, both the disciples’ understanding and the crowd’s obtuseness are attributed to God. The question of human responsibility for the obtuseness is not dealt with, although it is asserted in Matthew 13:13.

Structure of Matthew’s Parable of the Sower

Let us take a closer look at the structure of Matthew’s sermon in parables (13:1-52) which is structurally the centre of his Gospel. The parables offered by Matthew serve as a varied commentary on the rejection of Jesus by the Pharisees in the two preceding chapters. The whole discourse in parables is the third great discourse of Jesus in Matthew’s account and constitutes the second part of the third book of the gospel. Matthew follows the Marcan outline (4:1-35) but has only two of Mark’s parables. The remaining two are most likely drawn from the “Q” source and Matthew’s special collection of stories. In addition to the seven parables, the discourse gives the reason why Jesus uses this type of speech (10-15), declares the blessedness of those who understand his teaching (16-17), explains the parable of the sower (18-23), and of the weeds (36-43), and ends with a concluding statement to the disciples (51-52).

Parable of the SowerSowing with abandon

To Jesus’ Galilean listeners who were close to the earth, the image of sowing seeds (Matthew 13:1-23) was a very familiar one. Today’s parable is startling on several accounts – it portrays a sower who is apparently careless. He scatters the seed with reckless abandon even in those areas where there is virtually no chance for growth. The first seed that falls on the path has no opportunity to grow. The second seed falls on rocky ground, grows quickly and dies as quickly. The third seed falls among thorns and has its life submerged by a stronger force. Finally the fourth seed falls on good soil, produces fruit– to astonishing, unknown, unthinkable proportions. The normal harvest in a good year might be sevenfold, never thirty, sixty, much less one hundred! The life-bearing potential of the seed is beyond imagination! The final yield is earth shattering! In the end, the parable portrays the sower as lavish and extravagant rather than foolish and wasteful.

In the explanation of the parable (18-23) the emphasis is on the various types of soil on which the seed falls, i.e., on the dispositions with which the preaching of Jesus is received (cf. parallels in Mark 4:14-20; Luke 8:11-15) . The second and third types particularly are explained in such a way as to support the view held by many scholars that the explanation derives not from Jesus but from early Christian reflection upon apostasy from the faith that was the consequence of persecution and worldliness respectively. Others, however, hold that the explanation may come basically from Jesus even though it was developed in the light of later Christian experience. The four types of persons envisaged are (1) those who never accept the word of the kingdom (Matthew 13:19); (2) those who believe for a while but fall away because of persecution (20-21); (3) those who believe, but in whom the word is choked by worldly anxiety and the seduction of riches (22); (4) those who respond to the word and produce fruit abundantly (23).

In no other instance does Jesus take such great pain to explain a parable than in this one. Too often this parable has been used to emphasize what happens to the seed– carried away by the devil, dying from a lack of roots, choked by the cares and wealth and pleasures of this life. How often have we considered the lavishness and generosity of God– throwing the seed in every direction? Jesus’ explanation clearly shifts the accent from the seed (the word), which was the focus of the parable, to the person who hears it (the soil). In so doing, it brings to the fore God’s extravagant generosity with the word.

God’s Word shall be accomplished

Whatever is God’s design in giving the gospel, it shall be accomplished. It is never spoken in vain, and never fails to produce the effect which he intends. Though it may seem that the Gospel often falls on barren rocks, or on arid sands; on extended plains where no vegetation is produced, or in the wilderness ‘where no human is,’ and seems to our eyes in vain, we know that this is not so. The words of the Gospel often fall on hard and barren human hearts.

The message of Jesus is addressed to the proud, the senseless, the avaricious, and the unbelieving, and seems to be spoken in vain, and to return void unto God. But it is not so. He has some design in it, and that will be accomplished. It is proof of the fullness of his mercy. It leaves people without excuse, and justifies himself. Or when presented apparently in vain – it ultimately becomes successful, and sinners are at last brought to abandon their sins, and to turn unto God.

The Gospel is indeed often rejected and despised. It falls on the ears of people apparently as the rain falls on the hard rock, and there are, so to speak, large fields where the gospel is preached as barren and unfruitful of any spiritual good as the extended desert is of vegetation, and the gospel seems to be preached to almost entire communities with as little effect as is produced when the rains fall on vast, barren deserts. In spite of some failure because of opposition and indifference, the message of Jesus about the coming of the kingdom will have enormous success. Though the gospel may not immediately produce all the good effects which we may desire, yet it will be ultimately successful to the full wish of the widest benevolence, and the whole world shall be filled with the knowledge and the love of God.

Allowing the Word to take root in our lives

This week may the Word take root in our lives. If we allow it to penetrate beneath the surface, we will begin to find ourselves, and find the areas of ourselves which seemed lost or broken, abandoned or forgotten, “unplugged” or “turned off” to the transforming power of God. Let us pray these words of St. Albert the Great:

“Let me leave behind my old life, so that the seeds of your Word won’t be eaten up by the birds of frivolous thought, or choked out by the thorns of worry. Give me a soft heart full of humility and joy, so that I will be good soil and bring forth fruit in patience.”

[The readings for the Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time are: Isaiah 55.10-11; Romans 8.18-23; and Matthew 13.1-23.]

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.

Pier Giorgio Frassati: Verso l’alto

Frassati 1 cropped

July 4 is the Memorial (Feast Day) of Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati. The following is the homily of Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB preached on Monday, July 14, 2008 during WYD Sydney at the Prayer Vigil and Eucharistic Adoration with the body of Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati in St. Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney, Australia.

Dear Friends,
Dear Wanda, niece of Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati,

What an honour and privilege it is to be here with you this evening in St. Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney, Australia! Led by the young adults of Canada’s Catholic Christian Outreach [CCO], one of our nation’s outstanding movements for Catholic university students, we have gathered together to adore Jesus, gift of God for the life of the world. And young people of the entire world have also come here, to pray around the mortal remains of Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati during World Youth Day 2008.

We have just listened to the blueprint for Christianity in that magnificent text of the Beatitudes from Matthew’s Gospel [5:1-12]. The Beatitudes in Christ’s Sermon on the Mount are a recipe for extreme holiness. Every crisis that the Church faces, every crisis that the world faces, is a crisis of holiness and a crisis of saints.

If there was ever an age when young men and women needed authentic heroes, it is our age. The Church understands that the saints and blesseds, their prayers, their lives, are for people on earth; that sainthood, as an earthly honor, is not coveted by the saints or blesseds themselves.

What was so unique and special about Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati? He was born in 1901, at the turn of the last century in Turin, Italy. July 4, 2008 marked the 83rd anniversary of Pier Giorgio Frassati’s entry into eternal life. Athletic, full of life, always surrounded by friends, whom he inspired with his life, Pier Giorgio chose not to become a priest or religious, preferring to give witness to the Gospel as a lay person. He never founded a religious order or started a new ecclesial movement. He led no armies, nor was he elected to public office. Death came even before he could complete his university degree (the degree was awarded to him posthumously in 2001). He never had a chance to begin a career; in fact, he hadn’t even worked out for sure what his vocation in life would be. He was simply a young man who was in love with his family and friends, in love with the mountains and the sea, but especially in love with God.

Through World Youth Days, Pier Giorgio Frassati has become a special patron to millions of young people around the world, and most especially to the movement “Catholic Christian Outreach” in Canada. Let us consider three highlights of this young Blessed’s life that combined in a remarkable way political activism, solidarity, work for social justice, piety and devotion, humanity and goodness, holiness and ordinariness, faith and life.

Pier Giorgio’s Devotional Life and Love of the Eucharist

Frassati Icon Harasti lg

Icon written by Ted Harasti.

Pier Giorgio Frassati developed a deep spiritual life which he never hesitated to share with his friends. His friends remember him saying: “To live without faith, without a heritage to defend, without battling constantly for truth, is not to live, but to ‘plod along’; we must never just ‘plod along.’ ”

The Eucharist and the Blessed Mother were the two poles of his world of prayer. He felt a strong mysterious urge to be near the Blessed Sacrament. He followed Him in the processions, took part enthusiastically in the Eucharistic Congresses, but above everything he loved to spend long hours in nocturnal adoration. And his joy was so much greater when he managed to bring in front of the Blessed Sacrament, his friends, young people he knew, and the poor he looked after. During some Eucharistic vigils, the face of Pier Giorgio would be transfigured with joy and consolation at seeing hundreds of young men and women who were coming to communion.

His spiritual life, like ours, was based on the sacraments. But he went beyond simply doing what is “required”: Sunday Mass, the perfunctory confession before Christmas and/or Easter, and perhaps a small Lenten penance like giving up candy.

The Rosary, the Liturgy of the Hours, Lectio Divina and annual retreats were as much a part of his life as skiing, mountain-climbing or cycling. His life of prayer was his “daily bread,” as it should be for anyone who desires to become a saint. He was an athlete, and he knew well that in order to “reach the goal,” as he was fond of saying, he had to push himself beyond the ordinary if he wanted to be a champion.

In a letter he wrote [July 29, 1923] to the Members of “Catholic Youth” of Pollone, the mountain town north of Turin, Pier Giorgio said:

“…I urge you with all the strength of my soul to approach the Eucharistic Table as often as possible. Feed on this Bread of the Angels from which you will draw the strength to fight inner struggles, the struggles against passions and against all adversities, because Jesus Christ has promised to those who feed themselves with the most Holy Eucharist, eternal life and the necessary graces to obtain it.

And when you become totally consumed by this Eucharistic Fire, then you will be able to thank with greater awareness the Lord God who has called you to be part of his flock and you will enjoy that peace which those who are happy according to the world have never tasted. Because true happiness, young people, does not consist in the pleasures of the world and in earthly things, but in peace of conscience which we can have only if we are pure in heart and in mind.”

These words demonstrate a remarkable spiritual maturity and love for the Eucharist, especially considering the fact that they were coming from a young man who was only twenty-two years old.

Pier Giorgio’s respect for life and sense of social justice

Sydney exhibitionIn his own life and times, Pier Giorgio dealt with some of our own contemporary problems and struggles. His love of God and his tremendous sense of human solidarity bonded him with the poor, the needy, the sick, the hungry and the homeless. Frassati had a tremendous respect for human life: all life, from the earliest moments to the final moments. He was constantly defending life wherever it was diminished and under siege.

At the age of 17, in 1918, he joined the St. Vincent de Paul Society and dedicated much of his spare time to serving the sick and the needy, caring for orphans, and assisting the demobilized servicemen returning from World War I. What little he did have, Pier Giorgio gave to help the poor, even using his bus fare for charity and then running home to be on time for meals. The poor and the suffering were his masters, and he was literally their servant, which he considered a privilege. He often sacrificed vacations at the Frassati summer home in Pollone because, as he said, “If everybody leaves Turin, who will take care of the poor?”

Pier Giorgio loved the poor. It was not simply a matter of giving something to the lonely, the poor, the sick – but rather, giving his whole self. He saw Jesus in them and to a friend who asked him how he could bear to enter the dirty and smelly places where the poor lived, he answered: “Remember always that it is to Jesus that you go: I see a special light that we do not have around the, sick, the poor, the unfortunate.”

A German news reporter who observed Frassati at the Italian Embassy wrote, “One night in Berlin, with the temperature at twelve degrees below zero, he gave his overcoat to a poor old man shivering in the cold. His father, the Ambassador scolded him, and he replied simply and matter-of-factly, ‘But you see, Papa, it was cold.’”

In that same letter written to the Members of “Catholic Youth” of Pollone, Pier Giorgio urged his peers with these words:

“The Apostle St. Paul says, “The charity of Christ needs us,” and without this fire, which little by little must destroy our personality so that our heart beats only for the sorrows of others, we would not be Christians, much less Catholics.

Finally there is the apostolate of persuasion. This is one of the most beautiful and necessary. Young people, approach your colleagues at work who live their lives away from the Church and spend their free time not in healthy pastimes, but in vices. Persuade those unfortunate people to follow the ways of God, strewn with many thorns, but also many roses.

But if every one of you were to possess these gifts to the highest degree, and did not have the spirit of sacrifice in abundance, you would not be a good Catholic. We must sacrifice everything for everything: our ambitions, indeed our entire selves, for the cause of the Faith.”

Beneath the smiling exterior of the restless young man was concealed the amazing life of a mystic. Love for Jesus motivated his actions.

Pier Giorgio’s suffering and death

Just before receiving his university degree in mining engineering, he contracted poliomyelitis, which doctors later speculated he caught from the sick for whom he cared. His sickness was not understood. His parents, totally taken up by the agony, death and burial of his grandmother, had not even suspected the paralysis. Two days before the end, his mother kept on scolding him for not helping her in difficult moments.

Not even in those desperate final days could he ever forget his closest friends, the poor. While lying on his death bed he wanted the usual material assistance to be brought to them. It was Friday, the day he visited them. On July 3, 1925, a day before his death, his hand already paralyzed from polio, Pier Giorgio asked his sister Luciana to take a small packet from his jacket and with a semi-paralyzed hand he wrote the following note to Grimaldi: “Here are the injections for Converso. The pawn ticket is Sappa’s. I had forgotten it; renew it on my behalf”.

FrassatiWe know that Pier Giorgio wanted to see Jesus so much that he used to say: “The day of my death will be the most beautiful day of my life.” Pier Giorgio’s sacrifice was fulfilled at seven o’clock in the evening of July 4, 1925. His funeral was a triumph. The streets of Turin were lined with a multitude of mourners who were unknown to his family: clergy and students, and the poor and the needy whom he had served so unselfishly for seven years.

God gave Pier Giorgio all the external attributes that could have led him to make the wrong choices: a wealthy family, very good looks, manhood, health, being the only heir of a powerful family. But Pier Giorgio listened to the invitation of Christ: “Come and follow me.” He anticipated by at least 50 years the Church’s understanding and new direction on the role of the laity.

In beatifying Frassati alone in St. Peter’s Square on May 20, 1990, Pope John Paul II described Pier Giorgio as the “man of the eight Beatitudes” and said in his homily:

“By his example he proclaims that a life lived in Christ’s Spirit, the Spirit of the Beatitudes, is “blessed”, and that only the person who becomes a “man or woman of the Beatitudes” can succeed in communicating love and peace to others. He repeats that it is really worth giving up everything to serve the Lord. He testifies that holiness is possible for everyone, and that only the revolution of charity can enkindle the hope of a better future in the hearts of people. …He left this world rather young, but he made a mark upon our entire century, and not only on our century.”

Conclusion

Tonight, together with the Servant of God, John Paul II, the young mountain climber of Pollone stands at the window of the Father’s house and smiles upon us, as he intercedes for us and for the young people of the world who have come to Sydney to discover the Lord and his holy ones in the vast Communion of Saints and community of the Church. Let me conclude by speaking for a few moments directly to Pier Giorgio on your behalf.

Carissimo Pier Giorgio,

I never had the privilege of meeting you in life. Whoever has met you knows that in your eyes, in your gestures and in your actions, you always carried a little piece of heaven. You shared that with those who knew you in your lifetime, and now with those of us who have known you for the past century.

Since 1925 when you left this earth to return to the house of your father, you have continued your work on our behalf “dall’alto”, from above! In your lifetime you never had the privilege of coming to a World Youth Day. You have watched them from afar, and blessed them with countless graces.

For many years your mortal body remained hidden in the family tomb in Pollone, and then placed in a dark corner of Turin’s Cathedral. Many who visited didn’t even know you were there! I was one of those visitors several years ago. I simply couldn’t find where they had laid you to rest! Such a powerful witness and light must never be hidden, but held up for imitation and inspiration.

We Catholic Christians believe that the body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, the instrument of God’s work, the frame of God’s house in our midst. And we know, with St. Paul, that “if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this tent we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling — if indeed, when we have taken it off we will not be found naked. For while we are still in this tent, we groan under our burden, because we wish not to be unclothed but to be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.” [II Corinthians 5:2-4]

Your presence among us this evening, both from your vantage point at the window of the Father’s home in heaven and through your mortal remains in this Cathedral, witnesses to your mortality that has been swallowed up by new life. Pier Giorgio, you almost didn’t make it to Sydney! Thank God that the Church in Australia, with the help of the Holy Spirit, prevailed over all those forces which tried to prevent you from attending your first World Youth Day down under!

As we venerate your mortal remains, we give thanks to the Lord Jesus who gave you life, inspiration, strength, hope and the crown of glory. As we reflect on your youthfulness, your simplicity, your beauty, goodness and humanity, we recognize the call given to each of us: to be men and women of the Beatitudes.

Thank you, Pier Giorgio, for listening to Jesus’ words and making them your own. Your example has moved me and hundreds of thousands of others to translate the Beatitudes into Good News with our very lives. Be with us on this great expedition to heaven!

Pier Giorgio, help us to strive for simple hearts, attentive to the needs of others, and friendships based on that pact which knows no earthly boundaries or limits of time: union in prayer. If we do not know the road, and if we often abandon the path, show us the way “verso l’alto” upward to heaven!

If by being superficial we have not put in our knapsack all that we need for the climb, and if we never lift up our gaze because we do not want to take the first demanding steps to set ourselves on the way, show us the way “verso l’alto” upward to heaven!

If we lack the strength to overcome the most difficult passes, and if we have the strength, but prefer to use it to turn back, show us the way “verso l’alto” upward to heaven!

If we never pause to be nourished by the bread of eternal life, and if we do not quench our thirst from the fountain of prayer, show us the way “verso l’alto” upward to heaven!

When we do not know how to contemplate the beauty of the gifts we have received, and when we do not know how to offer ourselves for others, show us the way “verso l’alto” upward to heaven!

If we have committed many sins, show us the way “verso l’alto” upward to heaven!

If we lost hope, show us the way “verso l’alto” upward to heaven!

Three years ago, at the opening ceremonies for World Youth Day 2005 in Cologne, Germany, Pope Benedict XVI addressed the throng of young people from the entire world:

“Dear young people, the Church needs genuine witnesses for the new evangelization: men and women whose lives have been transformed by meeting with Jesus, men and women who are capable of communicating this experience to others. The Church needs saints. All are called to holiness, and holy people alone can renew humanity. Many have gone before us along this path of Gospel heroism, and I urge you to turn often to them to pray for their intercession.”

That is why we have gathered together tonight in this great Cathedral down under! May all the young people who have journeyed to Sydney, and those of us who have been young for a while, find in Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati what Jesus’ Sermon on a Galilean hillside really meant.

Pray for us, Pier Giorgio Frassati. Show us the way “verso l’alto”, upward to heaven and deep in to the heart of God. Teach us how to be Saints for the Church and for the world!

Amen.

Easy Yokes, Light Burdens and a Gentle, Smiling Lord

Jesus smiling cropped

Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A – July 6, 2014

During one of my summer undergraduate study programs in France, I recall visiting the Abbey of Saint-Honorat on the Iles de Lerins in southern France. I was particularly struck by a Medieval figure of the crucified Christ in the Abbey Church. The crucified one, hanging on the cross with his eyes closed and head tilted to the right, was smiling. The old monk who showed us around that day told us that this was “Christ souriant” (Christ smiling). Several of my classmates from various countries, especially those of other faiths, were quite perplexed in seeing the crucified Christ with a peaceful smile on his face and asked the monk how this could be possible.

Christ souriantI have often wondered why we in our own time don’t depict Jesus smiling or laughing. Yes, there are some well-known prints or depictions of a smiling Christ, but they are few and far between. I dare say that many of our depictions of Christ specialize in capturing the rather bleak, serious and sad images of Christ that are reflective of the late Middle Ages — a period when the Dance of Death and the Black Plague haunted Europe.

While it is true that the New Testament is silent about Jesus smiling, laughing, or enjoying himself and those around him, the Scriptures are not afraid to tell us that he did express other human emotions. We know that he wept bitter tears at his friend Lazarus’ death. He was not afraid to show his anger in the Temple when people turned it into a shopping mall. He expressed irritation at the traps being set for him by some religious leaders of his time. How many times did he get frustrated with his disciples’ inability to grasp the situation and meaning of his words, parables, predictions of the passion and imminent departure from them? We must ask ourselves: how is it that the Scriptures don’t mention anything about Jesus smiling or his humorous responses to his slow disciples? How could he not have laughed and smiled when he was swarmed by children who obviously loved his company?

What did Jesus look like when he stared at Zacchaeus hiding in that Jericho sycamore tree? I am certain that there were smiles, laughter, and humor. When the crowds took leave of him on that Galilean hillside, having eaten their fill… how could Jesus not have smiled in relief? When Jesus spoke about the hypocites’ gloomy looks in Matthew’s Gospel, he was also saying something about himself. There are many in the Church today who have difficulty in the image of a smiling happy Jesus. They would prefer a stern, dour, tragedy-stricken figure who doesn’t seem to offer much hope!

Jesus’ prayer of rejoicing

Throughout his life, Jesus experienced that the humble of heart found it easier to accept his revolutionary doctrine than did those who were full of their own self-importance. In today’s Gospel, Matthew’s Jesus offers an exultant prayer of praise that defines for us more clearly who he is and with whom he wishes to be identified (11:25-30).

There are three movements in today’s section of Matthew’s Gospel (11:25-30). In the first movement, Jesus addresses himself to the Father, rejoicing that the Father’s special love for the poor and lowly is being manifested in his ministry. In the second movement, Jesus addresses himself in a kind of self-definition. Jesus is the Son to whom full knowledge of the Father is given. The heart of the Son’s mission is to reveal the Father to us. Finally in the third movement, Jesus speaks directly to all those who long for relief, consolation and refreshment. I cannot help but think that in each moment, Jesus smiled, breathed deeply and was filled with joy at what was happening among his own disciples. He smiled with compassion as he invited the broken and lowly to find peace.

Priority over relationships

Though this particular message does provide rest and encouragement to the downtrodden, Matthew’s Gospel as a whole is not always so comforting or easy to receive. In chapter 10:37 we read: “They who love father and mother, son or daughter more than me are not worthy of me” [10:37]. Jesus takes priority over the relationships between even parents and children! These texts must be understood in their original context– the losses incurred by first-century Christians who joined the Christian movement and who, in doing so, left behind everything that had given them comfort and strength– parents, siblings, children, indeed all family ties and all possessions, however great or meager.

Today’s Gospel responds directly to those who lost everything or gave up everything– it is Jesus, the great comforter, the one who opens his arms in welcome to those beaten down by their experience, those who find themselves ostracized and rejected, overburdened and crushed. This saying found in 11:25-26 is identical with Luke 10:21-22 except for minor variations, and introduces a joyous note into this section, so dominated by the theme of unbelief. While the wise and the learned, the scribes and Pharisees, have rejected Jesus’ preaching and the significance of his mighty deeds, the childlike have accepted them.

Accepting the Lord’s yoke

To accept the yoke of Christ upon our shoulders is to be assured of a gentle and humble master; any burden given and accepted in mutual love will seem light. Today’s Gospel also contains one of the most well-known and most popular passages from all of the Christian Scriptures. Who of us cannot be moved in some way by the consolation that Jesus offers when he says: [28-30]

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens,

and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me;

for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.

For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

The word “yoke” is used metaphorically to describe those things that control the lives of people. Peasants always had a yoke. For the most part, their lives as tenant farmers were governed by the wills and whims of the landowners. Their lives were controlled by religious leaders who grew fat on tithes that they hoarded in the Temple instead of redistributing to the needy. Pharisees laid the yoke of their 613 commandments upon the followers and others who sought their advice about how to please God. For all Israelites, reciting and living according to Deuteronomy 6:4ff.: “Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart…” was known as “bearing the yoke of the reign of God.”

In today’s Gospel, Jesus invites his listeners to “learn from me; I am your model.” His invitation echoes that offered by Wisdom in Sirach [51:23,26]: “Draw near to me, you who are uneducated, and lodge in the house of instruction… Put your neck under her yoke, and let your souls receive instruction.” In place of the yoke of the law, complicated by scribal interpretation, Jesus invites the burdened to take the yoke of obedience to his word, under which they will find rest; cf Jeremiah 6:16.

Jesus demonstrates a way of life, a yoke, that differs markedly from the one other religious leaders taught in his day. He promises a yoke that is easy and a burden that is light. No wonder that many poor people found his words enormously appealing! Spiritual elitism repels many more than it attracts. The best guides are those who practice what they preach. Jesus walked his talk, and gives us a wonderful and challenging example to embrace and imitate each day. And I cannot help but imagine Jesus uttering these words of consolation with a gentle smile.

Why Jesus is still attractive today

Jesus was attractive then, and still is attractive now, to millions upon millions. The Messiah came among us, not as a conquering warrior, but in lowliness and peace. Not like the last kings of Judah, who rode in chariots and on horses (Jeremiah 17:25; 22:4), but like the princes of old (Genesis 49:11; Judges 5:10; 10:4), the Messiah will ride on an ass. The Evangelists see a literal fulfillment of this prophecy of today’s first reading from Zechariah in the Savior’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem (Matthew 21:4-5; John 12:14-15).

Jesus of Nazareth attracted townspeople and country people, poor and rich, fishermen and tax collectors, women like Mary of Magdalene and her cohort who provided for him and so many others. He had the ability to wow simple and sophisticated souls alike. I am sure he did it with his powerful words, but also with a gentle smile, with humor, kindness and just plain love. His divine origins, despite the utter seriousness of his mission toward Cross and Resurrection, made him an extraordinary human being who was able to bond with others. How could he not have smiled when he uttered those words of today’s Gospel: “Come to me. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” These are hardly admonitions that necessitate a stern gaze and heavy voice! They are words that flow from one who is a lover and a friend.

Constant challenge of Christian living

After his warning in Romans 7 against the wrong route to fulfillment of the objective of holiness expressed in Romans 6:22, Paul points his addressees to the correct way. Christians still retain the flesh, but it is alien to their new being, which is life in the spirit, namely the new self, governed by the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:9; 11-13). Under the direction of the Holy Spirit Christians are able to fulfill the divine will that formerly found expression in the law (Romans 8:4). The same Spirit who enlivens Christians for holiness will also resurrect their bodies at the last day (11). Christian life is therefore the experience of a constant challenge to put to death the evil deeds of the body through life of the spirit (13).

[The readings for the Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time are: Zechariah 9.9-10; Romans 8.9, 11-13; and Matthew 11.25-30.]

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.

Devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus has suffered cardiac arrest

Sacre-Coeur

One of the most popular devotions within the Church is devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.  The geographic and historic center of the devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus is in Paray-le-Monial, a small village in Burgundy, where St. Margaret Mary Alacoque (1647-1690) lived. She was a Visitation nun to whom Jesus appeared.  The message Jesus gave this French religious, whose first vision was on Dec. 27, 1673, was an image of God that was in great contrast to the Jansenist tendency of that century. In December 1673, during Christ’s first apparition to St. Mary Margaret, he gave her this message, as she later recounted: “My Sacred Heart is so intense in its love for men, and for you in particular, that not being able to contain within it the flames of its ardent charity, they must be transmitted through all means.”

Jesus showed Himself to Sr. Margaret Mary in a way that she could understand – with a human heart aflame with love. He told her that He would be present in a special way to those devoted to His Sacred Heart and that His presence would lead to peace in families, the conversion of sinners, blessings in abundance and perseverance when death was near.

To know God’s love in Jesus and to share it with others is the central message of the gospels. There has been no change in this message for two thousand years. Ways of explaining our faith may change, forms of prayer may be altered, certain devotions may come in and out of style, but at the core is the loving heart of Jesus, which remains constant and true.

The message of the Sacred Heart is one of God’s deep and intimate love for us. Devotion to the Sacred Heart is an integral part of our Catholic heritage because it helps us to live the basic Christian message of faith and love.

The symbol of the heart

A symbol is a real sign, whereas a metaphor is only a verbal sign; a symbol is a thing that signifies another thing, but a metaphor is a word used to indicate something different from its proper meaning.  A visible heart is necessary for an image of the Sacred Heart, but this visible heart must be a symbolic heart.  We know that the symbolism of the heart is a symbolism founded upon reality and that it constitutes the special object of the devotion to the Sacred Heart.

The heart is, above all, the emblem of love, and by this characteristic, the devotion to the Sacred Heart is naturally defined. However, being directed to the loving Heart of Jesus, it naturally encounters whatever in Jesus is connected with this love.  A first extension of the devotion is from the loving Heart to the intimate knowledge of Jesus, to His sentiments and virtues, to His whole emotional and moral life; from the loving Heart to all the manifestations of Its love.

When we designate Jesus as the Sacred Heart, we mean Jesus manifesting His Heart, Jesus all loving and amiable. Jesus entire is thus recapitulated in the Sacred Heart as all is recapitulated in Jesus.

It is in the eleventh and twelfth centuries that we find the first indications of devotion to the Sacred Heart. Through the wound in the side of the wound Heart was gradually reached, and the wound in the Heart symbolized the wound of love. It was in the fervent atmosphere of the Benedictine or Cistercian monasteries that the devotion arose, although it is impossible to say positively what were its first texts or were its first votaries. To St. Gertrude, St. Mechtilde, and the author of the “Vitis mystica” it was already well known.

From the thirteenth to the sixteenth century, the devotion was propagated but it did not seem to have developed in itself. It was everywhere practised by privileged souls, and the lives of the saints and annals of different religious congregations, of the Franciscans, Dominicans, Carthusians, etc., furnish many examples of it. It was nevertheless a private, individual devotion of the mystical order.

It appears that in the sixteenth century, the devotion took a major step forward step and passed from the domain of mysticism into that of Christian asceticism.  We learn from the writings of two masters of the spiritual life, the Lanspergius (d. 1539) of the Carthusians of Cologne, and Louis of Blois (Blosius; 1566), a Benedictine and Abbot of Liessies in Hainaut. To these may be added Blessed John of Avila (d. 1569) and St. Francis de Sales, the latter of the seventeenth century.

It was to Margaret Mary Alacoque (1647-1690), a humble Visitandine of the monastery at Paray-le Monial, that Christ chose to reveal the desires of His Heart and to confide the task of imparting new life to the devotion. There is nothing to indicated that this contemplative religious had known the devotion prior to the revelations, or at least that she had paid any attention to it.

A few days after the “great apparition”, of June, 1675, Margaret Mary made all known to Father de la Colombière, and the latter, recognizing the action of the spirit of God, consecrated himself to the Sacred Heart, directed the holy Visitandine to write an account of the apparition, and made use of every available opportunity discreetly to circulate this account through France and England.

At his death on February 15 1682, there was found in his journal of spiritual retreats a copy in his own handwriting of the account that he had requested of Margaret Mary, together with a few reflections on the usefulness of the devotion.  The little text was widely read, even at Paray, although not without being the cause of “dreadful confusion” to Margaret Mary, who, nevertheless, resolved to make the best of it and profited by the book for the spreading of her cherished devotion.

The death of Margaret Mary on October 17, 1690, did not dampen the ardour of those interested in the devotion.  In spite of all sorts of obstacles, and of the slowness of the Holy See, which in 1693 imparted indulgences to the Confraternities of the Sacred Heart and, in 1697, granted the feast to the Visitandines with the Mass of the Five Wounds, but refused a feast common to all, with special Mass and prayers, the devotion spread particularly in religious communities.

The Marseilles plague, 1720, furnished perhaps the first occasion for a solemn consecration and public worship outside of religious communities. Other cities of the South followed the example of Marseilles, and thus the devotion became a popular one.

Oftentimes, especially since about 1850, groups, congregations, and States have consecrated themselves to the Sacred Heart, and, in 1875, this consecration was made throughout the Catholic world.  Finally, on June 11, 1899, by order of Leo XIII, and with the formula prescribed by him, all mankind was solemnly consecrated to the Sacred Heart.

Devotion to the Sacred Heart Today

Devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus has suffered cardiac arrest in recent decades.  This decline of devotion is all the more striking because of its pre-eminence in the first half of the 20th century, when so many Catholic families had a picture of Jesus and his Sacred Heart displayed in their homes, and when Thursday night holy hours and first Fridays proliferated in parishes.

Like many forms of heart disease, such atrophy could have been prevented through a healthy diet—in this case, Scripture and tradition. The heart is a powerful metaphor in the Bible, what Karl Rahner, S.J., has called a  “primordial word.” It signifies the wellspring of life, the totality of one’s being. The prophet Ezekiel, for instance, records God’s promise to change Israel’s  “heart of stone” into a “heart of flesh,” while John’s Gospel gives the heart its most profound scriptural expression: Jesus’ heart is the source of living water, of rest for the Beloved Disciple, of the church and its sacraments, of doubting Thomas’s faith.

I believe that the deepest meaning of the devotion, however, is glimpsed in a poet who does not even mention it: Dante Alighieri. At the dark bottom of Hell, Satan is frozen in ice up to his chest, crying tears and drooling bloody foam, his six wings bellowing cold wind upward. Wedged into the inverted apex of the underworld, he is locked in his own resentment, impotent and utterly alone. Hell, the Inferno makes clear, is not fire, but ice: cold, crabbed isolation. Paradise is pure communion, illuminated and warmed by the love that moves the sun and the other stars.

In today’s love-starving world, how we need to follow the example of Jesus Christ in His unspeakable love for us. If there is one adjective that describes the modern world, this world is a loveless world. This world is a selfish world. This world is so preoccupied with space and time that it gives almost no thought to eternity and the everlasting joys that await those who have served God faithfully here on earth.

How do we serve God faithfully? We serve Him only as faithfully as we serve Him lovingly, by giving ourselves to the needs of everyone whom God puts into our lives. No one reaches heaven automatically. Heaven must be dearly paid for. The price of reaching heaven is the practice of selfless love here on earth.

That is what devotion to the Sacred Heart is all about. It is the practice of selfless love toward selfish people. It is giving ourselves to persons that do not give themselves to us. In all of our lives, God has placed selfish persons who may be physically close to us, but spiritually are strangers and even enemies. That is why God places unkind, unjust, even cruel people into our lives. By loving them, we show something of the kind of love that God expects of His followers.

The Heart of the Priesthood

“If you are afraid of love, don’t ever become a priest, and don’t ever celebrate mass.  The mass will cause a torrent of interior suffering to pour down upon your soul, with one purpose only– to break you in half, so that all the people of the world can enter into your heart.”  – Thomas Merton

“If you are afraid of people, don’t celebrate mass!  Because when you start to say mass, the Spirit of God will awaken in you like a giant and break through the locks of your private sanctuary and invite all of the people of the world into your heart.”  – Thomas Merton

“If you celebrate mass, condemn your heart to the torment of love that is so vast and so insatiable that you will not resist in bearing it alone.  That love is the love of the Heart of Jesus that burns inside your miserable heart, and allows the immense weight of his mercy for all the sins of the world to fall upon you! Do you know what that love will do if you allow it to work in your soul, if you don’t resist it?  It will devour you.  It will kill you.  It will break your heart.”  – Thomas Merton

Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB
CEO, Salt and Light Catholic Media Foundation

 

 

This reflection first appeared on the Zenit International News Service in 2009 as well as on the Salt + Light Blog. The complete collection of reflections for Year B is now available in book form. You can order your copy of “Words Made Flesh: Volume 2, Year B” from the Salt + Light online

A Unity Transcending All Differences

Peter and Paul

Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul – Sunday, June 29, 2014

June 29th marks the great solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul. Peter’s journey was from the weakness of denial to the rock of fidelity. He gave us the ultimate witness of the cross. Paul’s pilgrimage was from the blindness of persecution to the fire of proclamation. He made the Word of God come alive for the nations.

To be with Peter means to preserve the unity of the Christian Church. To speak with Paul is to proclaim the pure Word of God. Their passion was to proclaim the Gospel of Christ. Their commitment was to create a place for everyone in Christ’s church. Their loyalty to Christ was valid to death. Peter and Paul are for us a strong foundation; they are pillars of our church.

Affirmation, identity and purpose at Caesarea Philippi

Today’s Gospel story (Matthew 16:13-19) is about affirmation, identity and purpose. Jesus and his disciples entered the area of Caesarea Philippi in the process of a long journey from their familiar surroundings. Caesarea Philippi, built by Philip, was a garrison town for the Roman army, full of all the architecture, imagery, and life styles of Greco-Roman urban civilization. It was a foreign place to the apostles who were more familiar with towns and the lakeside.

Sexuality and violence ran rampant in this religious shrine town known for its worship of the Greek god Pan. In this centre of power, sophistication and rampant pagan worship, Jesus turns to his disciples and asks what people are saying about him. How do they see his work? Who is he in their minds? Probably taken aback by the question, the disciples dredge their memories for overheard remarks, snatches of shared conversation, opinions circulating in the fishing towns of the lake area. Jesus himself is aware of some of the stories about him. He knows only too well the attitude of his own town of Nazareth, and the memory probably hurts him deeply.

The disciples list a whole series of labels that people have applied to Jesus. And these names reveal the different expectations held about him. Some thought of him as fiery Elijah, working toward a real confrontation with the powers that be. Others considered him more like the long suffering Jeremiah, concentrating more on the inner journey, the private side of life. Above all, the question asked of the disciples echoes through time as the classic point of decision for every Christian.

Everyone must at some point experience what happened at Caesarea Philippi and answer Jesus’ provocative question, “You, who do you say I am?” What do we perceive to be our responsibilities and commitments following upon our own declaration of faith in Jesus?

Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus

In the year 35 AD, Saul appears as a self-righteous young Pharisee, almost fanatically anti-Christian. We read in Acts chapter 7 that he was present, although not taking part in the stoning of Stephen, the first martyr. It was very soon afterwards that Paul experienced the revelation that transformed his entire life. On the road to the Syrian city of Damascus, where he was going to continue his persecutions against the Christians, he was struck blind. Paul accepted eagerly the commission to preach the Gospel of Christ, but like many another called to a great task he felt his unworthiness and withdrew from the world to spend three years in “Arabia” in meditation and prayer before beginning his mission.

His extensive travels by land and sea are recounted in his letters in the New Testament. Paul himself tells us he was stoned, scourged three times, shipwrecked three times, endured hunger and thirst, sleepless nights, perils and hardships; besides these physical trials, he suffered many disappointments and almost constant anxieties over the weak and widely scattered communities of Christians.

The final earthly moments of Peter and Paul

According to the ancient tradition, on the morning of June 29, Peter and Paul were taken from their common cell at Rome’s Mamertine prison and separated. Peter was taken to Nero’s Circus where he was crucified upside down, while Paul was taken east of Rome to the area now known as Tre Fontane. The name records the legend of the saint’s beheading, when his severed head reportedly bounced three times, creating three fountains. Artists through the ages have dwelt on their goodbye, often depicting the last embrace between the two friends. The Golden Legend records their parting words:

Paul to Peter: “Peace be with you, foundation stone of the churches and shepherd of the sheep and lambs of Christ!”

And Peter to Paul: “Go in peace, preacher of virtuous living, mediator and leader of the salvation of the righteous!”

The connection between the two saints is also evident in their respective basilicas. Emperor Constantine built the first six Christian churches in Rome from 313 to 328, and among them were St. Peter’s Basilica and St. Paul’s “outside the walls.” Five of the churches face east, as was common in orienting churches at the time. St. Paul’s faces west, so that across the city, both basilicas watch over the sheep and lambs of their city.

A text from St. John Chrysostom is very appropriate at the end of the year dedicated to St. Paul. It comes from his final homily on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. After expressing his ardent desire to visit St. Paul’s tomb in Rome and see there even the dust of St. Paul’s body, St. John Chrysostom exclaims:

Who could grant me now this to throw myself around the body of Paul and be riveted to his tomb and to see the dust of that body which completed what was lacking in Christ’s afflictions; which bore the marks (of Christ) and sowed the Gospel everywhere … the dust of that mouth through which Christ spoke. …

Nor is it that mouth only, but I wish I could see the dust of Paul’s heart too, which one should rightly call the heart of the world, the fountain of countless blessings and the very element of our life. … A heart which was so large as to take in entire cities and peoples and nations … which became higher than the heavens, wider than the whole world, brighter than the sun’s beam, warmer than the fire, stronger than the adamant; letting rivers flow from it … which was deemed to love Christ like no one else ever did.

I wish I could see the dust of Paul’s hands, hands in chains, through the imposition of which the Spirit was given, through which this divine letter (to the Romans) was written.

I wish I could see the dust of those eyes which were rightly blinded and recovered their sight again for the salvation of the world; which were counted worthy to see Christ in the body; which saw earthly things, yet saw them not; which saw the things that are not seen; which knew no sleep, and were watchful even at midnight. …

I wish I could also see the dust of those feet, Paul’s feet, which run through the world and were not tired, which were bound in stocks when the prison shook, which went through parts populated and uninhabited, which walked on so many journeys. …

I wish I could see the tomb where the weapons of righteousness lay, the weapons of light, the limbs of Paul, which now are alive but in life were made dead (to sin) … which were in Christ’s limbs, clothed in Christ, bound in the Spirit, riveted to the fear of God, bearing the marks of Christ.

- St. John Chrysostom, “Homily 32 on the Epistle to the Romans,” Migne, Patrologia Graeca 60, 678-80

Together they built the Church

As ordinary men, Peter and Paul might have avoided each other from time to time. Peter was a fisherman from the Sea of Galilee and Paul a Greek-educated intellectual. But Jesus brought them together as a sign for his Church in which the entire spectrum of humanity would find a new place to call home. Together they worked to build the church. Together they witnessed to Christ. Together they suffered the death of their Lord, death at murderous hands. Paul died by the sword and Peter was crucified head-down. They had a unity that transcended all differences. They teach us about the depth of Christian commitment. For Peter and Paul, insight into Jesus’ true identity brought new demands and responsibilities.

At the close of the Year of St. Paul on June 29, 2009, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI invited each Catholic to hold up a mirror to his or her life and to ask, “Am I as determined and as energetic about spreading the Catholic faith as St. Paul was?” “Is spreading the faith both by example and by my conversations with friends, colleagues and acquaintances even a concern for me?” “What do I perceive to be my responsibilities following upon my own declaration of faith in Jesus?”

[The readings for the Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul are: Acts 12.1-11; Ps 34; 2 Timothy 4.6-8, 17-18; Matthew 16.13-19.]

This reflection first appeared on the Zenit International News Service in 2010 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.

“Sacrament of piety, sign of unity, bond of charity”

Receiving Communion cropped

Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ, Year A – Sunday, June 22, 2014

Our three Scripture readings for today’s solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ describe three wonderful ways to talk about the gift of the Eucharist. Allow me to offer some reflections on each of readings and conclude with how we live out the Eucharistic mystery in our daily lives.

The Old Testament reading from Deuteronomy 8:2-3; 14b-16a presents Moses addressing the people of Israel as they neared the Promised Land after their forty years of wandering. Moses, Israel’s great architect, appeals to their memory, urging them to remember how God cared for them during their long pilgrimage. “Remember,” “Remember your God.” Moses does not invite them to a nostalgic or theoretical remembering. Rather he calls them to recall God’s concrete actions on their behalf. He reminds them exactly what God did for them and to what degree God sustained them in their desert sojourn by giving them manna.

The reference to manna connects us to today’s gospel when Jesus’ hearers are initially repulsed by his reference to eating his flesh. In the Gospel text, Jesus mentions eating his flesh four times (Jn 6:51-58). Jesus is none other than God’s entrance into our lives as a human being – flesh and blood like us. Jesus’ listeners are not only having a difficult time thinking about eating his flesh and drinking his blood, but they are having trouble accepting that in Jesus, God has definitively entered the world.

One bread, one body

Today’s second reading is from St. Paul’s first letter to the fractured community in Corinth, (10:16-17). Though the Christians in Corinth may have had beautiful liturgies, they weren’t living as the body of Christ. The rich were not sharing with the poor, nor were the vulnerable being assisted. The deepest meaning of the Eucharist is denied when it is celebrated without taking into account the need for charity and communion. Paul is quite severe with the Corinthians because “when you meet together, it is not the Lord’s supper that you eat (11:20) because of the divisions, injustices and selfishness. Paul challenges them to become the food they eat: the body of Christ.

In his commentary on John’s Gospel, St. Augustine’s expression: “Sacrament of piety, sign of unity, bond of charity!” (In Johannis Evangelium 26:13) summarizes well the words that Paul addressed to the Corinthians: “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (I Cor 10:17).

By our partaking of this food and drink, we are joined more closely to one another as the body of Christ. Paul’s challenge to the Christians of ancient Corinth is still valid for us today. We must continually heed Paul’s words. Is our faith community an obvious sign that we are the body and blood of Christ? What signs would convince other people that we are?

Johannine answers

The three Synoptic Gospels situate the eucharistic action of Jesus at the Last Supper before he dies and refer specifically to his shedding of blood which will take place on the Cross. St. Paul sees the Eucharist as a remembrance and recalling of the death of the Lord until he comes. How often should one recall or make present the death of the Lord? If the Jewish Passover recalled the great delivering action of the God of Israel, should Christians follow that pattern?

John answers these and many more questions in chapter 6 – the great eucharistic chapter of the Fourth Gospel. The evangelist’s teaching on the Eucharist is a commentary on the multiplication of the loaves and is intimately related to what Jesus did in his ministry. Following the miraculous multiplication of the loaves and the fish earlier in this chapter, John indicates that those for whom the bread was multiplied really saw no profound significance beyond that it was a good way to get bread. While John certainly thought that there was a multiplication of physical loaves, he had to make clear that the Son of Man who came down from above did not do so only to satisfy physical hunger. People who have loaves multiplied for them will become physically hungry again; Jesus came to give a heavenly bread that people will eat and never again become hungry.

What is so startling about Jesus’ remarks in the eucharistic discourse is that he is not claiming to be another Moses, or one more messenger in along line of Israel’s great prophets. Jesus lays claim to being the very God of Moses, the “I AM” who was and is now the companion and nourishment of the people. A believing Jew would understand that it referred not only to earthly bread, but to the word of God which gives nourishment and life. “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” (Dt 8:3).

Enduring presence

The most important doctrines of our Catholic Christian faith remain the same through the ages and need to be approached again and again in order to rediscover their richness and experience their enduring significance for our daily lives. These doctrines are the deepest sense of what the Scriptures proclaim and that this deepest sense is discovered precisely when the Scriptures are proclaimed in the liturgical assembly and when the Scriptures become sacrament in the Eucharistic rite. From this source we draw our energy, our vision and our hope to foster a true civilization of love.

At every mass, the liturgy of the Word precedes the Eucharistic liturgy. There are two “communions,” one with the Word and one with the Bread. One cannot be understood without the other. The Eucharist does not only provide inner strength, but also a certain way of life. It is a way of living that is passed from Jesus to the Christian. The celebration of the Eucharist has no meaning if it is not lived with love. Through the Eucharist we are challenged at the level of our history to realize as much as possible what we celebrate sacramentally: bread for all, salvation and liberation for all.

The Eucharistic Christ is truly present as bread for the poor, and not for the privileged. In order to keep the Eucharistic reality credible, we have to devote ourselves to a better, more just world. When we receive the Eucharist, we partake of the one who becomes food and drink for others. We, too, must become food and drink for the hungry. Faith in Jesus’ resurrection can itself be an unproductive or dangerous ideology if it does not stimulate us actually to share bread with our brothers and sisters who are hungry.

Real Presence

In giving us the bread of life, Jesus does not offer temporary nourishment, he gives us the eternal bread of his word. It will not pass away. It will nourish and give life forever. Jesus is this bread, and in offering to share it with us he calls us to faith in him. Jesus invites us to “come to him,” “believe in him,” “look upon him,” “be drawn to him,” “hear him,” and to “learn of him.” All of these verbs invite the active response of our faith (cf. Jn 6:36, 37, 40, 44, 45). His word is nourishment for our faith.

Today’s feast of the Body and Blood of Christ is not a static occasion, a time to gaze in wonder on the eucharistic species for private devotion and communication with the Lord. The feast we celebrate together is not an invitation to just gaze and look, but to receive the body and blood of Christ and then, nourished by the divine life we receive, to become the body and blood of Christ to the world.

When we come to receive Communion and the Eucharistic ministers hold the sacred food and drink before us, they will say, “the Body of Christ; the Blood of Christ.” They are not only naming what they are offering us to eat and drink, they are also naming each one of us, for we are, “the body of Christ and the blood of Christ.” In other words, the real presence is not only to be found in church, but in each baptized Christian nourished by the Eucharist and becoming the real presence of Christ to the world.

Eucharistic obligations

To celebrate the Eucharist is to commit oneself to a discipleship that “remembers” Jesus, not only in the ritual breaking of the bread and sharing the cup, but also in the “imitation” of Jesus, in the ongoing breaking of one’s own body and spilling of one’s own blood “in remembrance” of Jesus.” For this reason, Paul adds: “You proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (I Cor 11:26). When we commemorate or “do this as a memorial,” the object of the memory is not an image or a replica of the Last Supper, but the Last Supper itself. Having received the body and blood of Christ today we must ask ourselves some questions. To worship in spirit and truth requires that our liturgy and ritual prayer be linked with our daily living. How do we bring our daily living into the Eucharistic celebration? What effect does the Eucharist have on our daily living? How does our devotion to the Eucharist and devotion to family and work enable us to be true disciples, in adoration before the Eucharistic presence of Jesus?

How are we to be like Christ and feed the hungry and heal the sick? How are we to be like Christ and lay down our lives for others? What is the relationship between Eucharist and Reconciliation? Who is excluded from our love at his moment? Who is crying out for our presence? What do we say to those who are unable to partake of the Lord’s supper?

In the words and imagery of St. Augustine, can we say that our reception of the Eucharist, on a daily or weekly basis, nourishes our piety, urges us to work for unity, and strengthens the bonds of charity that exist among us?

[The readings for the Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ are: Deuteronomy 8.2-3, 14-16; 1 Corinthians 10.16-17; and John 6.51-59.]

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.

(Photo courtesy: CNS/Saabi, Galbe)