“Are you envious because I am generous?”

Red Vineyard cropped

Twenty-Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time – September 21, 2014

When Jesus teaches through parables, he expresses profound truths with simple stories and images that engage minds and hearts. In the Old Testament, the use of parables reflects an ancient, culturally universal method of teaching an ethical lesson applicable to everyday life, by using symbolic stories with concrete characters and actions. Most of the time, the original audience that first heard these stories was left to draw their own conclusions. Other times, the evangelists provided an explanation of Jesus’ story. Often the indirectness of parables makes the wisdom of Jesus inaccessible to hostile literalists.

The parable of the workers in the vineyard in today’s Gospel (Matthew 20:1-16) serves as a corrective to false notions of entitlement and merit. The story reflects the socio-economic background of Palestine at the time of Jesus. The parable is offensive to us and it challenges our sense of justice. In order to grasp the full impact of the story, it is essential to understand the sequence of events in the parable. The householder hires labourers for his vineyard about 6:00 a.m. for a denarius, which would be considered a fair day’s wage. We are already given a hint of the householder’s generosity as he engages labourers at varying hours during the day. Could it be that the householder has a compassionate concern for the unemployed and their families as opposed to actually needing them for the harvest? The question is open-ended.

The workers who were hired first appeal to common sense, equitable treatment, logic, and reason. Their complaint is not necessarily that the last hired received a payment, but that if the householder was so generous with the last, then certainly he might provide them with a “bonus” for having endured the heat of the whole day. Some interpreters have attempted to minimize this breach of fairness by explaining that perhaps the quality of work done by the late-comers during the last hour was equivalent to the work done the entire day by the others. Certain others use the rationale that a contract is indeed a contract, and therefore the labourers hired at the beginning of the day have no reason whatsoever to argue about the wages due to them. The fact of the matter is that from the purely human, logical point of view, they had reason to complain. However, this parable is not about ethical and fair labour management, but rather about the radical nature of God’s generosity, compassion, and the in-breaking Kingdom.

The radical moment of the parable (as indicated by 19:30 and 20:16) is noted in 20:8-9 as those who were employed not only receive payment in reverse order, but also receive equal payment for their efforts! The parable reaches its crescendo in verse 15 with the question: “Or am I not free to do as I wish with my own money? Are you envious because I am generous?” The owner of the vineyard reserves the right to pay his employees not on the basis of their own merits but rather on the basis of his own compassion.

Generosity condemned as injustice

In today’s parable, why should such generosity be condemned as injustice? This idea finds its roots and deepest meaning in the Old Testament understanding of God the Creator who is good and generous to all who turn to him. This is the God in whom Jesus believed and lived, but in the person of Jesus, the divine compassion, mercy, and goodness surpass the divine justice. Therefore all who follow Jesus as his disciples and friends much imitate this extraordinary compassion and lavish generosity and never question, deny, or begrudge it.

The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ reveals his identity to us in today’s first reading from the prophet Isaiah: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:8-9)

We are like the eleventh-hour workers

Perhaps many of us feel strongly with the disgruntled workers of verse 12. How often have we known whimsical employers who have compensated lazy or problematic workers far too generously, rather than acknowledging the faithful, dedicated, day-in day-out workers. We may ask ourselves: How can God be so unfair? How can God overlook his most faithful workers? Underneath this parable is the issue of bargaining with God. From the very beginnings of religion it has been assumed that we mortals can bargain with the gods to obtain from them what we want.

How many times have we experienced this in our belonging to and service in the Church? Some may grumble and claim that their long, dedicated, tireless service qualifies them instantly for higher pay, higher rank, and greater privilege and prestige. It is precisely at moments like this that we must humbly acknowledge that we are like those eleventh-hour workers. Not one of us deserves the blessings that God has prepared for us. Our grumbling and lateral gazing often leads to serious resentments that are hard to shake off. All our good works give us no claim upon God. How much less do we have the right to demand, even if we have done everything we ought to do, that we should be honoured and rewarded by God in a special manner as if we were such meritorious, indispensable persons in his service? The word “entitlement” does not exist in the vocabulary of the Kingdom of God.

The only remedy to such sentiments is to look upon the merciful face of Jesus and thus recognize God’s lavish generosity in the flesh. Human logic is limited, but the mercy and grace of God know no limits or boundaries. God doesn’t act by our standards. This means that we must see and accept God in our sister and brother, just as God has wished them to be. When God chooses a person, granting him/her particular graces, blessings, or gifts, God does not reject the other person nor deprive him/her of his grace. God’s graces and blessings are boundless, and each person receives his or her own share. God’s choice of a person or people should not be a cause of pride for those chosen, or of rejection for those not chosen. It is only when both parties live in humility and simplicity, and recognize together a God of love and mercy at work in their lives that they will begin to learn the real meaning of love and justice, and finally come to reconciliation and deep, mutual understanding.

For your reflection

In the New Testament, Jesus teaches us that we must overcome jealousy and envy. This is brought out in today’s parable of the labourers who come to work at different times of the day, but receive the same salary nevertheless. Those who came at the first hour grumbled against the landowner. “He said to one of them in reply, ‘My friend, I am not cheating you… Are you envious because I am generous?’” (Matthew 20:13-15)

Consider these two sections from the Catechism of the Catholic Church (#2552-2553):

The tenth commandment forbids avarice arising from a passion for riches and their attendant power.

Envy is sadness at the sight of another’s goods and the immoderate desire to have them for oneself. It is a capital sin.

Envy is that fault in the human character that cannot recognize the beauty and uniqueness of the other, and denies them honour. In order to approach God, who is total goodness, beauty, and generosity, this attitude must be broken from within. Envy can no longer see. Our eyes remain nailed shut. Envy and avarice are sins against the tenth commandment. What can we do to move beyond this blindness and hardness of heart?

Caritas in Veritate

In light of today’s Gospel about compensation, I offer you section #63 of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s Encyclical Letter Caritas in Veritate “On Integral Human Development in Charity and Truth”:

No consideration of the problems associated with development could fail to highlight the direct link between poverty and unemployment. In many cases, poverty results from a violation of the dignity of human work, either because work opportunities are limited (through unemployment or underemployment), or “because a low value is put on work and the rights that flow from it, especially the right to a just wage and to the personal security of the worker and his or her family.” For this reason, on 1 May 2000 on the occasion of the Jubilee of Workers, my venerable predecessor Pope John Paul II issued an appeal for “a global coalition in favour of ‘decent work,’” supporting the strategy of the International Labour Organization. In this way, he gave a strong moral impetus to this objective, seeing it as an aspiration of families in every country of the world. What is meant by the word “decent” in regard to work? It means work that expresses the essential dignity of every man and woman in the context of their particular society: work that is freely chosen, effectively associating workers, both men and women, with the development of their community; work that enables the worker to be respected and free from any form of discrimination; work that makes it possible for families to meet their needs and provide schooling for their children, without the children themselves being forced into labour; work that permits the workers to organize themselves freely, and to make their voices heard; work that leaves enough room for rediscovering one’s roots at a personal, familial and spiritual level; work that guarantees those who have retired a decent standard of living.

[The readings for the Twenty-Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time are: Isaiah 55:6-9; Philippians 1:20-24, 27; Matthew 20:1-16.]

Triumph of the Cross

JPII Cross cropped

The Exaltation of the Holy Cross –  Sunday, September 14, 2014

At the heart of every World Youth Day is a very simple, powerful, ancient Christian symbol: two large planks of wood, known as the World Youth Day Cross, that not a few journalists have called the “Olympic Torch” of the huge Catholic Festival that we were blessed to have in Canada in July 2002.

In 1984, at the close of the 1983 Holy Year of the Redemption at the
Vatican, Saint John Paul II entrusted to the young people of the world a
simple, twelve-foot wooden Cross, asking them to carry it across the world
as a sign of the love which the Lord Jesus has for humankind and “to proclaim to everyone that only in Christ who died and is risen is there salvation and redemption.” Since that day, carried by generous hands and loving hearts, the Cross has made a long, uninterrupted pilgrimage across the continents, to demonstrate, as Pope John Paul II had said, “the Cross walks with young people and young people walk with the Cross.”

The memories of the World Youth Day 2002 Cross Pilgrimage throughout Canada continue to stir many hearts and evoke wonderful memories many years after the great pilgrimage began in our land on April 11, 2001. The WYD Cross literally touched the three oceans that border Canada. It visited our cities, towns, and rural areas, inviting throngs of people into the streets for processions, prayers, all-night vigils, tears, and moments of reconciliation, healing, and peace.

Such expressions of popular piety had been absent for far too many years from the Canadian ecclesial landscape. In the midst of the carefully orchestrated pilgrimage throughout the 72 dioceses of Canada, the Cross took a detour in February 2002, which was not part of the normal World Youth Day preparations in previous host countries. A convoy of buses left Toronto early on a cold Sunday morning, accompanied by representatives of Canadian police, ambulance, and fire fighters, and set out with the WYD Cross in tow for 48 hours in New York City.

After a Sunday evening Mass in Manhattan’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral with a Canadian Bishop, and an early morning Mass with the Vatican’s permanent observer at the United Nations, we carried the cross to Ground Zero, into the “pit,” to pray for the victims of the September 11th tragedies at the World Trade Centre and elsewhere throughout the United States. The visit, which received international media coverage, was a sign of hope, consolation, solidarity, and peace to the people of America and the entire world, struggling to understand the evil, terror, violence, and death-dealing forces that humanity experienced on September 11, 2001.

The journey into Ground Zero was for us a very public act of defiance and
courage. Six young people from the World Youth Day 2002 National Team
carried the large cross up to the special platform built for the families of the victims of the World Trade Centre tragedy. While they processed with the cross, the rest of us sang the Taizé refrain: “Jesus, remember me, when you come into your Kingdom.” As the cross was placed in its metal stand at the edge of the huge crater where the twin towers once stood, the singing grew louder. It was an act of defiance because there, in a place that spoke loudly of destruction, devastation, terror, and death, we raised up a wooden cross – an instrument of death that has been transformed into the central life-giving symbol of the Christian faith. The significance of the action was lost on no one.

Earlier that morning at Mass in the Church of the Saviour near the United
Nations, Archbishop Renato Martino, told us in his moving homily:

The Sacred Scriptures speak to us about sin, and the desperate need we all have for conversion. What you will see today when you visit Ground Zero is the consequence of sin: a crater of dirt and ashes, of human destruction and sorrow; a vestige of sin that is so evil that words could never suffice to explain it.

Nevertheless, it is never enough to talk about the effects of terrorism, the destruction it causes, or those who perpetrate it. We do a disservice to those who have died in this tragedy if we fail to search out the causes. In this search, a broad canvas of political, economic, social, religious, and cultural factors emerge. The common denominator in these factors is hate, a hate that transcends any one people or region. It is a hatred of humanity itself, and it kills even the one who hates.

The Cross of Jesus Christ blessed and marked World Youth Day 2002 in an
extraordinary fashion. Each catechetical site was graced by a replica of the World Youth Day Cross. It was present at each of the main ceremonies. It led our processions, called us to prayer and reflection, healed us, reconciled us, and touched our hearts. Its memory lingers among us several years later.

Who can ever forget the hauntingly beautiful images of the World Youth Day Cross leading over half a million people – mostly on their knees – in the Stations of the Cross on Friday evening, July 26, 2002: up Toronto’s majestic University Avenue, passing before its court houses, the American Consulate, Government Buildings, hospitals, the university, Provincial Parliament, and various museums? A principal street of a great city was transformed into a contemporary Via Dolorosa, while over a billion people watched the scenes of this modern-day passion play unfold via satellite and television.

On Saturday evening, July 27, 2002, during the Great Vigil of World Youth Day 2002, at a former military base that is now Toronto’s Downsview Park, Pope John Paul II begin his address to over 600,000 young people with these words:

The new millennium opened with two contrasting scenarios: one, the sight of multitudes of pilgrims coming to Rome during the Great Jubilee to pass through the Holy Door which is Christ, our Saviour and Redeemer; and the other, the terrible terrorist attack on New York, an image that is a sort of icon of a world in which hostility and hatred seem to prevail. The question that arises is dramatic: on what foundations must we build the new historical era that is emerging from the great transformations of the twentieth century?

During the closing Eucharistic celebration on Sunday, July 28, 2002, the
Holy Father presented to young pilgrims in the crowd of more than 850,000 people gathered with him small wooden crosses, hand made by young people living in the poorest barrios of Bogotá and Medellín in Colombia. We could have chosen many places to have these crosses made – but World Youth Day 2002 chose to have the crosses made in a land that has had its share of cross over the past years.

Because we follow a crucified Christ, we enter into solidarity with the world’s suffering masses. We experience the power and love of God through the vulnerable and suffering. The Cross teaches us that what could have remained hideous and beyond remembrance is transformed into beauty, hope, and a continuous call to heroic goodness.

At the conclusion of the closing Eucharistic liturgy, the elderly Pontiff told young people not to be afraid “to follow Christ on the royal road of the Cross! At difficult moments in the Church’s life, the pursuit of holiness becomes even more urgent.” He invited his young friends to “learn from that cross.”

The feast of the Triumph or the Exaltation of the Cross originated in the
tradition that Emperor Constantine’s mother, Helena, discovered the Cross on which Jesus died on September 14, 320 AD in Jerusalem. From very early on, the triumph attributed to the Cross functioned more within the “normal” understanding of triumph: namely, a victory won over another, achieved by violence of some sort. But is it not rather outrageous to speak of a cross as triumphant? The crucifixion of Jesus is the great, divine paradox. The Cross, an instrument of death, is transformed into our life-giving tree. Through the mystery of the Cross, Jesus crucified becomes our life and our light in the midst of death and darkness.

When all the commotion and frenzied activity of World Youth Day was over, I was convinced that one of the lasting memories that would remain in our country was that simple, wooden Cross, which was such a huge blessing and source of consolation, healing, strength, and peace to the hundreds of thousands of people who embraced it, touched it, kissed it, learned from it, and allowed themselves to be touched by the awesome message and memory of the One who died upon it.

To celebrate the Triumph of the Cross is to acknowledge the full, cruciform
achievement of Jesus’ career. Jesus asks us to courageously choose a life
similar to his own. Suffering cannot be avoided nor ignored by those who follow Christ. Following Jesus implies suffering and a cross. The mark of the Messiah is to become the mark of his disciples.

[The readings for the Exaltation of the Holy Cross are: Numbers 21:4-9; Philippians 2:6-11; and John 3:13-17.]

Deacon-structing: The Cross- Part 1

Crucifix dangling from long rosary is seen against logs in retreat lodge at Shrine of St. Therese in Juneau, Alaska

“Lift high the Cross, the love of Christ proclaim…”

That’s a song we all know, but what does it mean? Why do we lift high the Cross? This coming Sunday is the feast of the Triumph of the Cross, also called the Exaltation of the Cross. Did you know that we celebrate this feast?

Have you ever heard of St. Helena? She was the mother of Constantine. Recall that St. Constantine was the emperor who made Christianity the official religion of the whole Roman Empire in the 4th century. According to legend, St. Helena goes to Jerusalem and finds the true Cross – the actual cross on which Jesus died. Constantine had a church built over the site of the crucifixion; that’s where the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is today in the Old City of Jerusalem. The church was dedicated on September 13th in the year 335. The following day, September 14th, was decreed as the day when “all should celebrate the finding and exaltation of the Cross.”

The word “exaltation” comes from the Latin exaltatio, which means “to elevate” or “to lift high.” But this same word is sometimes translated as “triumph”, as in “leap for joy”, and that’s why there are two names for the feast. I find it remarkable because it means that there is something about tomorrow that has to do with lifting high, but also with leaping for joy.

But let’s go back to our initial question: why “leap for joy” about the Cross? Isn’t that a bit morbid? Yes, we honour the Cross because that’s a way of honouring Jesus. But if my dad was stabbed to death, would I honour him by wearing a knife around my neck? Probably not. But I do wear a cross around my neck. And in our house, in every room, there is a cross or crucifix hanging on the wall. And we make the sign of the cross – indeed, every prayer we say begins and ends with the sign of the cross. Our faith teaches that it’s good to have representations, because when we honour the image, we are honouring the person the image represents. We don’t worship the image. There’s a difference between true adoration (which we give only to God), and veneration or honouring (which we give to images). Similarly, if I honour my parents or others I respect, I am not worshiping them.

So we worship Jesus, but we venerate the Cross. That’s one of the things I love about the Good Friday liturgy: we line up and come up to the front, and there’s a large cross that we are invited to venerate. Some people bow, some people touch it, some people even kiss it. This is something that has always moved me. Why do I come up and kiss the wood of the cross? Well, because without the Cross, there would be no Church. Without the Cross, there would be no Christianity. Without the Cross, there would be no Resurrection. Without the cross, there is no freedom and no salvation.

It’s nice to talk about resurrection and all that happy stuff, but when Jesus said that a grain of wheat has to die in order to bear fruit (Jn 12:24), He wasn’t kidding. It’s true that out of death comes life and this is one of the key Mysteries of our faith: Jesus died so that we could live. Isn’t this what we profess every time we say the Nicene Creed? For us men and for our salvation, “He came down from heaven; He suffered, died and was buried.” He did this for our salvation. And that’s what Jesus is talking about when He says to Nicodemus that “God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him may not perish but may have eternal life.” (Jn 3:16) Jesus came so the world might be saved. (Jn 3:17)

Come back next week to find out more about the Cross.

The Communal Dimension of Forgiveness and Reconciliation

Zubik Confession cropped

Twenty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A – September 7, 2014

Today’s Gospel passage from Matthew 18:15-20 compels us to consider the essential elements in the process of forgiveness among members of the Church community. Matthew’s text stresses the fraternal correction of members who sin (18:15-18); the importance of the disciples’ prayer (18:19-20); and the continuous need for forgiveness that must be extended to repentant members of the Christian community (18:21-35).

At Caesarea Philippi, we learned that Peter is the foundation on which the Lord builds the edifice of the Church. Peter is entrusted with the keys of the Kingdom of heaven to open or close it to people as he sees fit. Peter will be able to bind or to loose, in the sense of establishing or prohibiting whatever he deems necessary for the life of the Church. Peter is entrusted with the keys. In verse 18 of today’s Gospel, we see an almost identical repeat of the expression found in 16:19, and many understand it as granting to all the disciples what was previously given to Peter alone.

The harsh language about Gentile and tax collector in today’s Gospel probably reflects a certain period in Matthew’s Church community when it was primarily composed of Jewish Christians. Just as observant Jews avoided the company of Gentiles and tax collectors, so must the congregation of Christian disciples separate itself from the arrogantly sinful members who refused to repent even when convicted of their sin by the whole Church. Such individuals are to be set outside of the fellowship of the community.

In today’s second reading from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans (13:8-10), Paul considers the obligations of charity. When love directs the moral decision making of those who bear the name of Christian, the interest of law is safeguarded (13:9). Love anticipates the purpose of ecclesial and civil legislation, namely: to secure the best interests and common good of all its members or citizens.

The Church’s teaching on penance and reconciliation

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that (#1440-1441):

Sin is before all else an offense against God, a rupture of communion with him. At the same time it damages communion with the Church. For this reason conversion entails both God’s forgiveness and reconciliation with the Church, which are expressed and accomplished liturgically by the sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation. Only God forgives sins. Since he is the Son of God, Jesus says of himself, “The Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” and exercises this divine power: “Your sins are forgiven.”

Binding and loosing

The Catechism goes on to explain the meaning of the “binding and loosing” in today’s Gospel (#1444-1446):

This ecclesial dimension of their task is expressed most notably in Christ’s solemn words to Simon Peter: “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” The office of binding and loosing that was given to Peter was also assigned to the college of the apostles united to its head.

The words bind and loose mean: whomever you exclude from your communion, will be excluded from communion with God; whomever you receive anew into your communion, God will welcome back into his. Reconciliation with the Church is inseparable from reconciliation with God.

Christ instituted the sacrament of Penance for all sinful members of his Church: above all for those who, since Baptism, have fallen into grave sin, and have thus lost their baptismal grace and wounded ecclesial communion.

More than forgiving and forgetting

Forgiveness never means to overlook what someone has done to us. The emotions we feel when someone has wronged us are genuine, real, upsetting, and they must to be honestly and painfully acknowledged and dealt with. They can provide a way of healing with the hurt and of moving toward healing and forgiveness. Harbouring feelings of resentment, unforgiveness, anger, hate, and rage can prevent the healing process from ever beginning. To forgive is not to say that what others did to us was okay. To genuinely forgive means that I refuse to allow the hurt to prevent me from growing and moving forward. If I refuse to move forward, wallowing in my own hurt and anger, I become paralyzed by the evil that has taken place.

An unforgiving spirit and festering resentment harden my heart and block it up from any flow of love. I am terribly diminished when I cannot forgive others. If I am sincere about forgiveness, I must allow God to remove my hard-heartedness and meanness of spirit. Forgiveness does not mean forgetfulness. It is rather a conscious decision that I make in my head, and pray that it slowly descends to my heart. What are some painful examples of forgiveness in action today? Forgiving the person who murdered my innocent child does not mean to push for them to be released from prison. To forgive the husband who has been routinely violent does not necessarily mean choosing to take him back after violence and infidelity. To speak rationally to the wife who left her husband and children for another partner does not condone the terrible suffering that followed for the entire family. To forgive the priest who has abused children does not mean advocating for his return to active ministry around children. To speak honestly to the boyfriend who abandoned the young woman who found herself pregnant and refused to have an abortion as an easy way out, is the beginning of forgiveness and healing for all involved. We need clear thinking when it comes to making wise, compassionate judgments about the great, ambiguous situations in which we often find ourselves.

The frequently used expression “forgive and forget” is not a scriptural or particularly Christian saying. Jesus offers us another way in which we can forgive even while remembering a past hurt. When I forgive in the name of Jesus Christ, and with his strength and presence, I can actually help others who have been deeply hurt and begin the healing process. Just as there is nothing that one human being cannot do to another, there is nothing that one human being cannot forgive another, with the help and grace of Jesus.

Amish Forgiveness

In light of today’s Gospel on the necessity of forgiveness, I wish to recall a tragic incident that occurred several years ago in the United States that caused the entire world to reflect on the meaning of forgiveness. I know how much the story jarred me in my own understanding of forgiveness.

The Amish school shooting at the West Nickel Mines School, a one-room schoolhouse in Amish community of Nickel Mines in Bart Township of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, took place on October 2, 2006. A lone gunman, Charles Roberts IV, stormed the Amish school, releasing 15 boys and four adults before tying up and shooting 10 young girls. Roberts then killed himself.

On the day of the shooting, a grandfather of one of the murdered girls warned some young relatives not to hate the killer, saying, “We must not think evil of this man.” Another father noted, “He had a mother and a wife and a soul and now he’s standing before a just God.”

An Amish neighbour comforted the Roberts family hours after the shooting and extended forgiveness to them. Amish community members visited and comforted the killer’s widow, parents, and parents-in-law. About 30 members of the Amish community attended Roberts’ funeral, and Marie Roberts, the widow of the killer, was one of the few outsiders invited to the funeral of one of the victims.

Marie Roberts wrote an open letter to her Amish neighbours thanking them for their forgiveness, grace, and mercy. She wrote, “Your love for our family has helped to provide the healing we so desperately need. Gifts you’ve given have touched our hearts in a way no words can describe. Your compassion has reached beyond our family, beyond our community, and is changing our world, and for this we sincerely thank you.”

Toward authentic reconciliation and hope

Many people criticized the quick and complete forgiveness with which the Amish responded, insisting that forgiveness is inappropriate when no remorse has been expressed, and that such an attitude runs the risk of denying the existence of evil. Those who have studied Amish life noted that “letting go of grudges” is a deeply rooted value in Amish culture. They explained that the Amish willingness to forgo vengeance does not undo the tragedy or pardon the wrong, but rather constitutes a first step toward real reconciliation and a future that is filled with realistic hope.

The emphasis on forgiveness and reconciliation in the response of the Amish community was widely discussed in the international media. Forgiveness is woven into the fabric of Amish faith. Such courage to forgive jolted the world as much as the brutal killing itself. I have often felt that the transforming power of forgiveness may be the one redeeming thing that emerged from the horrendous massacre at Nickel Mines in 2006.

Amish forgiveness raises many thorny questions for us. It may be one thing to forgive a mentally ill killer; but what about those who are not out of their minds, who intentionally murder or threaten to do so for political ends or personal retaliation? How does forgiveness relate to justice? If everyone forgave so quickly, would it truly transform human relations or lead to civil anarchy?

Watchers of the morn

Today’s first reading from the prophet Ezekiel (33:7-9) uses the expression “watchman for the house of Israel” (33:7). The word “watchman” or “sentinel” speaks of someone who will announce salvation (Ezekiel 33-48), just as the same word (3:17-21) referred to Ezekiel’s ministry to announce judgment (chapters 3-24). The use of the word “watchman” certainly evokes memories of Saint John Paul II’s use of that word during World Youth Day 2000 in Rome and again during the preparation of World Youth Day 2002 in Toronto.

In his message announcing World Youth Day 2002, the Holy Father wrote:

“You are the light of the world…” For those who first heard Jesus, as for us, the symbol of light evokes the desire for truth and the thirst for the fullness of knowledge which are imprinted deep within every human being.

When the light fades or vanishes altogether, we no longer see things as they really are. In the heart of the night we can feel frightened and insecure, and we impatiently await the coming of the light of dawn. Dear young people, it is up to you to be the watchmen of the morning (cf. Is 21:11-12) who announce the coming of the sun who is the Risen Christ!

Through World Youth Days, young people are commissioned to be watchers of the morning, bearing the light of Christ and announcing hope and salvation to a world often steeped in darkness and despair. There is no better school of reconciliation, forgiveness, and peace than World Youth Days, which model to young people the constitutive elements of the Christian life and what true citizenship means in the Kingdom of God.

[The readings for the Twenty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time are: Ezekiel 33:7-9; Romans 13:8-10; and Matthew 18:15-20.]

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

(Photo: Bishop David Zubik of Pittsburgh hears the confession of a young woman; CNS Photo/Leslie Kossoff)

Assisi: A place of living history

Basilica of St. Francis, Assisi

Basilica of St. Francis, Assisi

Perched on the side of a mountain in the central Italian province of Umbria is the historic town of Assisi, best known as the hometown of St. Francis, one of Christianity’s most revered saints.

I’ve spoken to many visitors to Assisi over the past few years – especially since Cardinal Bergoglio was elected pope and took the name of St. Francis – and they all seem to describe the little town in the same way: perfectly magical.

You can imagine my excitement and expectation then, when I discovered I would be living in Assisi for five weeks to study Italian at the Language Academy!  In my brief but fully immersed time here, I have experienced what many of those visitors preached.

Despite its compact layout, Assisi is home to seven major ecclesial sites including two basilicas dedicated to St. Francis and St. Clare, where their remains can be found for veneration.

Town of Assisi

Assisi, Italy

It is a hustling and bustling place; a mix of locals and tourists.  But this doesn’t seem to affect the quaint atmosphere.  The old stone buildings that make up the town, and the many narrow streets, stairways and shortcuts transport the visitor back to the 13th century when it first became a place of pilgrimage after Francis’ death.

This feeling of history, which is really a living history, makes Assisi one of those few places in the world where the past encounters the present and sparks the imagination.  Medieval history as we know it is often conceived from the perspective of those centers of the world that once composed ‘Christendom:’ Rome, Paris or Aachen or any number of places once dominated by the movers and shakers of that history.

Assisi is quite different, and yet is as historically significant.  It was never the center of major temporal power struggles or cultural battles.  It was, and is, a little town perched on the side of a mountain.  It is ‘off the beaten trail’ and ‘out of the way’ and all the more enticing for it.

It was only two years after Francis of Assisi died that he was declared a saint.  The foundations of the basilica built in his name that now dominates the Assisi skyline on the edge of the town were laid only a few decades later.  The countless pilgrims and visitors to Assisi over the centuries experienced what we experience: a small, charming town that is home to two of the most widely reverenced and highly respected individuals in Christian history.  It’s a place where your imagination can run free, as St. Francis’ did eight hundred years ago.

Following Jesus implies suffering and a cross

Get Behind Me cropped

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

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

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

Peter’s refusal

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

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

From “Rock” to scandalon

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

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

Following Jesus

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

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

Discerning God’s will

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

Grasping the mystery of Christ

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

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

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

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

The Church’s fundamental mission

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

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

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

Questions for reflection this week

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let Us Not Forget that Peter Holds the Keys

Peter Keys cropped

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

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

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

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

“You are the Messiah”

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

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

Son of the living God

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

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

Flesh and blood

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

You are the rock

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

Matthew’s use of “church”

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

The gates of Hades

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

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

Location, location, location

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

The keys of the kingdom

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

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

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

Our own Caesarea Philippi moments

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

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

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

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

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

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

With Jesus on the Periphery

Peripheries cropped

Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time – August 17, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paul glories in his ministry

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

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

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

(CNS photo/Enrique Garcia Medina, Reuters)

In Mary, Humanity and Divinity are at Home


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

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

Immaculate Conception

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

History of the Assumption

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

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

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

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

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

“Assumption” or “Dormition”?

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

Sign of the Kingdom

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

Unless Christ is risen

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

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

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

Life from barren wombs and empty tombs

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

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

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

Marian triptych

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

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

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

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

Mary follows our footsteps

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

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

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

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

Remembering With Gratitude Venerable Pope Paul VI, a Teacher and a Joyful Witness


On Wednesday August 6, we celebrate the Feast of the Transfiguration of our Lord on Mount Tabor. We also remember with gratitude Venerable Pope Paul VI (Giovanni Battista Montini) who died this day thirty-six years ago at the age of 80.

The Final Years of Pope Paul VI

Excerpt from his Apostolic Exhortation “GAUDETE IN DOMINO” ON CHRISTIAN JOY (May 9, 1975)

“Let the agitated members of various groups therefore reject the excesses of systematic and destructive criticism! Without departing from a realistic viewpoint, let Christian communities become centers of optimism where all the members resolutely endeavor to perceive the positive aspect of people and events. “Love does not rejoice in what is wrong but rejoices with the truth. There is no limit to love’s forbearance, to its trust, its hope, its power to endure.

The attainment of such an outlook is not just a matter of psychology. It is also a fruit of the Holy Spirit. This Spirit, who dwells fully in the person of Jesus, made Him during His earthly life so alert to the joys of daily life, so tactful and persuasive for putting sinners back on the road to a new youth of heart and mind! It is this same Spirit who animated the Blessed Virgin and each of the saints. It is this same Spirit who still today gives to so many Christians the joy of living day by day their particular vocation, in the peace and hope which surpass setbacks and sufferings. It is the Spirit of Pentecost who today leads very many followers of Christ along the paths of prayer, in the cheerfulness of filial praise, towards the humble and joyous service of the disinherited and of those on the margins of society. For joy cannot be dissociated from sharing. In God Himself, all is joy because all is giving.

This positive outlook on people and things, the fruit of an enlightened human spirit and the fruit of the Holy Spirit, finds in Christians a privileged place of replenishment: the celebration of the Paschal Mystery of Jesus. In His passion, death and resurrection, Christ summarizes the history of each man and of all men, with their weight of sufferings and sins, with their capacities for progress and holiness. This is why our last word in this exhortation is a pressing appeal to all the leaders and animators of the Christian communities: let them not be afraid to insist time and time again on the need for baptized Christians to be faithful to the Sunday celebration, in joy, of the Eucharist. How could they neglect this encounter, this banquet which Christ prepares for us in His love? Let participation in this celebration be at the same time very dignified and festive! It is the crucified and glorious Christ who passes among His disciples to bring them together into the renewal of His resurrection. This is the culmination here below of the alliance of love between God and His people: the sign and source of Christian joy, the preparation for the eternal feast.

May the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit draw you to it! And on our part we bless you with all our heart.”


Excerpt from his Apostolic Exhortation “Evangeli Nuntiandi” On the Evangelization of the Modern World (December 8, 1975)

“Without repeating everything that we have already mentioned, it is appropriate first of all to emphasize the following point: for the Church, the first means of evangelization is the witness of an authentically Christian life, given over to God in a communion that nothing should destroy and at the same time given to one’s neighbor with limitless zeal. As we said recently to a group of lay people, “Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses.” St. Peter expressed this well when he held up the example of a reverent and chaste life that wins over even without a word those who refuse to obey the word. It is therefore primarily by her conduct and by her life that the Church will evangelize the world, in other words, by her living witness of fidelity to the Lord Jesus- the witness of poverty and detachment, of freedom in the face of the powers of this world, in short, the witness of sanctity.”