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Child of Light, Prince of Peace

 

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Christmas Reflection on the readings for Midnight Mass
Video of America Magazine and American Bible Society
Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB

Each year on Christmas Eve, the Church presents us with beautiful Scriptural readings for the traditional Christmas Midnight Liturgy. The familiar text of Isaiah 9:1-7, Psalm 96, the selection from Paul’s letter to Titus (2:11-14) and the selection from the Lukan infancy narrative (2:1-14) are filled with rich and powerful images which often do not have justice done to them because of so many other things happening around the celebration of the Savior’s birth! A closer look at the messages of the prophet Isaiah and the evangelist Luke can help us to discover words of hope and consolation offered to a world which lies in waiting for the birth of the Prince of Peace.

Immediately preceding chapter 9, Isaiah’s testimony has built up a frightening picture of the darkness and distress about to descend upon both Judah and the northern kingdom. What is this terrible fate and darkness of the people and why? After King Ahaz and his people have clearly rejected the Word of God (cf. Is 7:10-12; 8:6a) the Lord declares that he will hide his face from the house of Jacob (8:17) as an indication of his dismay and anger. In a time of anguish and panic due to the wrath of God, people have taken recourse only too easily to mediums and wizards (8:19). But Isaiah observes that it is ridiculous to consult the dead on behalf of the living. In chapter 8:16-22 we read of of the terrible fate that could overtake the people: “there is no dawn for this people”(8:20). Instead there is hunger, thirst and misery showing itself in physical as well as spiritual deprivation. People’s hearts are darkened and their spirits are greatly disturbed. They get enraged and curse their sinful king and the God whom they have forsaken.

Chapter 9 stands in total contrast to chapter 8. The opening line of 9:1 forms a transition from the darkness of 8:22. Isaiah now proclaims a message of hope and consolation as darkness and gloom give way to light and joy. The great light comes decisively into this profound darkness. It is a light which tears people away from their confusion and emptiness, from the violence and tyranny of the oppressor.

The symbols of the Assyrian oppression: the yoke of their burden, the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, shall be broken (9:4). The garments of war shall feed the flames (9:5). The destruction of war-like equipment heralds an age of peace…symbolically described in 2:4 “they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”

The description of the royal birth in 9:6 is similar to those found in coronation rescripts of the Egyptian Pharaohs. The royal child will possess the wisdom of Solomon, the valor and piety of David, the great virtue of Moses and the patriarchs (11:2). Presumably the child spoken of would be King Hezekiah. This beloved verse clearly describes the new roles for the coming King. Contemporary kings of Judah had been disastrously advised and were powerless in warfare.

By the title “Wonderful Counsellor” the new King will have no need for advisers such as those who led Ahaz astray. Former kings of Judah had been anything but fathers to their people, and they had achieved neither peace nor prosperity. “Everlasting Father” describes the quality of his rule. Isaiah portrays a king who will not be a failure in any one of these respects.

This king’s authority shall grow continually and bring about endless “Shalom”, thus fulfilling the promises to David: “Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever”(II Samuel 7:16).

The birth of this child has consequences both social and political as well. The kingdom of the future will be characterized above all by justice and righteousness– in glaring contrast to Isaiah’s contemporary Judah (cf. 5:7) and indeed to every human kingdom in some degree. The virtues of judgement, justice, and righteousness (9:7) which sustain the Davidic throne are beautifully summed up in the word “Shalom” whose Hebrew root means wholeness, harmony and completion. As a result of this new king’s reign, people will live in harmony with God, each other and nature.

It is no wonder, then, that Christians and the Church have appropriated Isaiah’s exultation of this brilliant light and royal birth for our own celebration of the birth of Jesus. Christian tradition and the Christmas liturgy have applied the royal titles of Isaiah 9:6 to the Child of Bethlehem–presenting him as “Emmanuel”, the One who is our true light and our lasting peace.

We know the Lukan Infancy narrative (Luke 2) so well that we often forget what lies at the heart of its message. It is filled with a very deceptive simplicity. Much more than a charming tale, appealing to the heart and the imagination of the believer, Luke’s story is one of God writing straight with our human, crooked lines. It is a story of poverty and simplicity, excitement and surprises, sadness and joy; a story of military occupation and oppression, a light in the darkness. Beyond the charm of the story, Luke’s message is clear: no event in our shadow-filled history of the world is alien to the coming of the Savior.

No power, however violent and oppressive, escapes the reach of God’s purposes. The Lukan Gospel story of the birth of Jesus calls for the whole world, and not only for Israel, to welcome the birth of the Son of David. We are invited to follow shepherds and kings, saints and sinners, and that long cortège of witnesses of all generations as they seek the light in the darkness and share their message of good news with a world steeped in darkness.

And yet there is a tremendous and rather terrifying paradox at the heart of the gospel story: this great heir to the Davidic line comes to inherit his ancestor’s throne in the form of a tiny, powerless baby wrapped in swaddling clothes, and lying in a manger (2:12). There is also the joyful and saving paradox of the power of God manifested in this child…those who accept this paradox are invited to make it, in the light of the cross and the resurrection, the standard of their deepest attitudes.

Luke’s birth of the Child at Bethlehem shows us that the Lord God has indeed been faithful to these words. Our existence is an endless Advent, and these two readings for the Christmas midnight liturgy invite us once again to commit our energies to all that the Child of Bethlehem stands for and is.

He is “Wonderful Counsellor”, deeply concerned with the ultimate good and wholeness of others. His gentle advice to us never leads us into destruction but only into the fullness of life.

He is “Mighty God”, directing our human history, but also living it with us. He is more powerful than any military force or revolution, and yet his force and might are revealed in hearts and eyes meeting.

He is “Everlasting Father”, teaching us what it means to be constantly present to others, giving life, blessing life and celebrating life. He is unable to abandon us, as so many human beings are capable of doing.

He is”Prince of Peace”, the bringer of reconciliation, wholeness, harmony and completion to the human family. He knows how to nourish hope among his people. Because of him, we can live in harmony with God, each other and nature.

Is there room for such a child in our hearts at Christmas? If we allow him to truly dwell within us, then we shall know once again that in the midst of our own deep darkness and fear, from a crib in Occupied Bethlehem and a cross in Jerusalem, God’s vulnerable heart can bring light, healing and salvation to our own.

(CNS photo/Tony Gentile, Reuters)

Joseph: The Faithful and Wise Servant, a reflection by Bishop William McGrattan

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The seasons of Advent and Christmas seem to come so quickly and to be filled with many activities to say the least.

In the everyday planning and preparations for family and community celebrations there are inevitably certain individuals who for whatever reason go unnoticed or unrecognized. They make important contributions. They are invaluable in their presence and support but are quiet and simply unassuming in their role. If you wish to recognize them and thank them they are often reluctant to accept such praise and notoriety among the many others who are present.

It has often struck me that in the Advent and Christmas season this could quite easily describe the role of St. Joseph, if it were not for certain Gospel passages and the celebration of Feast dedicated to the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph which falls on the Sunday immediately following Christmas.

There is also a reference to Joseph at the beginning of the octave period, the eight days leading up to Christmas which the Church highlights through the praying of the O antiphons. It is in Matthew’s Gospel where he sets out the origin or genealogy of Jesus Christ, son of David, son of Abraham, and then traces his human descent by bringing his ancestral line down to his mother’s husband, Joseph.

As Saint Leo the Great states:

To speak of our Lord, the son of the blessed Virgin Mary, as true and perfect man is of no value to us if we do not believe that he descended from the line of the ancestors set out in the Gospel.

On the fourth Sunday of Advent this same Gospel (Matthew), it recounts how Joseph received the news of the impending birth of Jesus, of the circumstances of Mary’s virginal conception through the power of Holy Spirit. And then despite his initial resolve not to take part in this event we hear of the night in which the angel appeared to him in a dream where he receives the assurance, guidance and courage to take Mary as his wife into his home. Unlike Mary he is asleep and does not question the meaning of this dream or the message of the angel.

Tradition has described this as the “faithful obedience” of Joseph. It is the silent, dutiful action of accepting and taking on the responsibility of caring for others. He was called to a unique role, to self-giving, sacrifice, to the promotion of human life, and to the protection of the Holy Family of Nazareth.

This same testimony is also very much reflected in the life of Brother Andre of Montreal who was canonized by Pope Benedict XVI in 2010.
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He is popularly known as the Apostle of St. Joseph, for his life and witness to Christ and his faith in the intercession of St. Joseph to bring healing to many who sought him out. In fact it may be providential to reflect on the life and spirituality of the saintly door-keeper from the College Notre-Dame as a living example of the life and model of St. Joseph that we encounter especially in this Advent Season.

Sanctification in the lives of the saints is a gift from God. However that is only one side of the story. The other part involves their own active detachment of all that would come between them and the love of God and others. It is often this active sanctification in a saint’s life and work which results in a deeper union with God and others through grace. This sanctification might be described as the “faithful obedience” which developed in the life of St. Joseph and Brother Andre despite the circumstances of their lives.

As we have come to know Brother Andre faced many challenges in his younger years; poor health, the death of both parents at an early age, being raised in a foster family, a lack of education and thus a limited ability to read or write, and physical limitations which prevented him from having steady employment.

What is most interesting is that these experiences did not result in his turning inward on himself with pity or of being angry and bitter, but instead through grace these experiences led him to prayer and to seek consolation in God. As one autobiographer stated “it led him to silent contemplation”. These trials brought him closer to God, to prayer, to a deeper faith and trust in God and to the conviction of his devotion to St. Joseph. You might say that this was the beginning of his active sanctification.

In the second part of his life this sanctification came through the experience of his role in the Community of the Holy Cross as door-keeper at the College Notre-Dame. This ministry opened him up to the needs of others and developed within him an approach to people which was characterized as one of acceptance and compassion. He quietly went about his duties, accepting whatever responsibilities he was given in the community. He took care of the needs of the young students, his brothers in the community and all the people who came to the door seeking his prayers. As his notoriety grew and the number of people seeking assistance increased he remained humble. He always attributed the miracles of healing to St. Joseph and often described his role by saying “I am nothing but Saint Joseph’s little dog”.

His devotion to St. Joseph also inspired him in practical ways to model Joseph’s role in promoting the human relationships that come from family, in imitation of the Holy Family. The closeness of God is revealed in the mystery of the Holy Family. In fact family relationships can reveal the Triune God and can become the incarnate meeting place of God and human persons. The relationships of the Holy Family are transformative of our humanity. And so Brother Andre who in his life lacked this human presence of family nevertheless developed a spirituality of life which promoted human relationships by reaching out to the needs of others which was transformative and healing. The spiritual reality and indwelling of the Holy Family today finds its meeting place not necessarily in Nazareth but in St. Joseph’s Oratory which was inspired by Brother Andre.

Each year the Advent season provides us with a wonderful opportunity to reflect on the mystery of St. Joseph in the plan of salvation. It is also a specific grace for us in Canada to enter into such a reflection in light of the recent events of the canonization of Saint Brother Andre. It would be very important for us to acknowledge the presence of such unique individuals in our lives of faith this Christmas. To take note of those family and friends who witness to us of St. Joseph and Brother Andre through lives of faithful obedience, in humbling accepting the responsibilities of their vocation, in reaching out to the needs of others and in promoting human relationships which are transformative and which allow us all to experience the closeness of God.

Most Rev. William McGrattan
Bishop of Peterborough

(CNS photo/Bob Mullen)

How Do We Solve a Problem Like Maria?

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Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year B – December 21, 2014

“The Sound of Music” stage play and I are the same age — both from that vintage year of 1959 — and the film version was the first “motion picture” I saw as child in the mid 1960’s with my family. God alone knows how many times I have seen it since on stage, at the theater and on television!

The famed Rodgers and Hammerstein musical “The Sound of Music” has been delighting audiences around the world for decades, making theatres across the globe “alive” with the sound of music. This magnificent production first opened in England under the direction of Andrew Lloyd Weber, and arguably contains the best-loved songs of all time.

Solving the problem of Maria von Trapp

One of the memorable songs of the play is “Maria,” sometimes known as “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?” It is sung brilliantly by Sister Berthe, Sister Sophia, Sister Margaretta and the Mother Abbess at the Benedictine Nonnberg Abbey in Salzburg, Austria. The nuns are exasperated with Maria for being too frivolous, flighty and frolicsome for the decorous and austere life at the abbey. It is said that when Oscar Hammerstein II wrote the lyrics for this song, he was taken by the detail of her wearing curlers in her hair under her wimple!

When older Austrians in Salzburg speak of Maria, it is the “Gottesmutter,” the Mother of the Lord! When the foreigners, especially North Americans, arrive in Salzburg and speak about Maria, it is usually the other one: Maria Augusta Kutschera, later Maria Augusta von Trapp, who was a teacher in the abbey school after World War I and whose life was the basis for the film “The Sound of Music.”

Because of this Maria, the abbey acquired international fame, to the consternation of some of the sisters! Having visited Nonnberg Abbey on several occasions while I was studying German in nearby Bavaria, I spoke with a few of the elderly sisters about the impact of “The Sound of Music” on their life. The prioress told me that they have no plaques up about Maria von Trapp and her escapades at the abbey nor in Salzburg! One elderly sister said to me, with a smile, “Das ist nur Hollywood!” (That is only Hollywood!)

Solving the problem of Maria von Nazareth

The Gospel story of the Annunciation presents another Maria, the great heroine of the Christmas stories — Mary of Nazareth — the willing link between humanity and God. She is the disciple par excellence who introduces us to the goodness and humanity of God. She received and welcomed God’s word in the fullest sense, not knowing how the story would finally end. She did not always understand that word throughout Jesus’ life but she trusted and constantly recaptured the initial response she had given the angel and literally “kept it alive,” “tossed it around,” “pondered it” in her heart (Luke 2:19). At Calvary she experienced the full responsibility of her “yes.” We have discovered in the few Scripture passages relating to her that she was a woman of deep faith, compassion, and she was very attentive to the needs of others.

Maria von Trapp followed the captain and his little musical family through the Alpine mountain passes of Austria, fleeing a neo-pagan, evil regime that tried to deny the existence of God and God’s chosen people. Some would say that they lived happily ever after in Vermont in the United States, and that their musical reputation lives on through the stage production enchanting Toronto audiences at present. The hills are still alive with their music!

The “problem” of Maria of Nazareth began when she entertained a strange, heavenly visitor named Gabriel. The young woman of Nazareth was greatly troubled as she discovered that she would bear a son who would be Savior and Son of the Most High.

“How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”

The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.”

“I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May it be to me as you have said.” The angel left her and then the music began: “Magnificat anima mea Dominum.” It would become a refrain filling the world with the sound of its powerful music down through the ages.

The message Mary received catapulted her on a trajectory far beyond tiny, sleepy Nazareth and that little strip of land called Israel and Palestine in the Middle East. Mary’s “yes” would impact the entire world, and change human history.

Problem solved

Mary of Nazareth accepted her “problem” and resolved it through her obedience, fidelity, trust, hope and quiet joy. At that first moment in Nazareth, she could not foresee the brutal ending of the story of this child within her. Only on a hillside in Calvary, years later, would she experience the full responsibility of her “yes” that forever changed the history of humanity.

If there are no plaques commemorating Maria von Trapp’s encounter with destiny at Nonnberg Abbey, there is one small plaque commemorating Mary of Nazareth’s life-changing meeting in her hometown. Standing in the middle of the present day city of Nazareth in Galilee is the mammoth basilica of the Annunciation, built around what is believed to be the cave and dwelling of Mary. A small inscription is found on the altar in this grotto-like room that commemorates the place where Mary received the message from the angel Gabriel that she would “conceive and bear a son and give him the name Jesus” (Luke 1:31). The Latin inscription reads “Verbum caro hic factum est” (Here the word became flesh).

I can still remember the sensation I had when I knelt before that altar for the first time in 1988. That inscription in the grotto of the Annunciation is profound, otherworldly, earth shaking, life changing, dizzying and awesome. The words “Verbum caro hic factum est” are not found on an ex-voto plaque in the cave of the Nativity in Bethlehem, nor engraved on the outer walls of the Temple ruins or on governmental tourist offices in Jerusalem. They are affixed to an altar deep within the imposing structure of Nazareth’s centerpiece of the Annunciation. “This is where the word became flesh.” This is where history was changed because Mary said “yes.”

Could such words be applied to our own lives, to our families, communities, and churches — “Here the word becomes flesh”? Do we know how to listen to God’s Word, meditate upon it and live it each day? Do we put that word into action in our daily lives? Are we faithful, hopeful, loving, and inviting in our discourse and living? What powerful words to be said about Christians — that their words become flesh!

However beautiful and catchy are the tunes of Maria of Salzburg, the music of the other Maria, the one from Nazareth, surpasses anything I have ever heard.

[The readings for this Sunday are 2 Samuel 7:1-5, 8b-12, 14a, 16; Romans 16:25-27; Luke 1:26-38]

Rejoicing and Waiting

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Third Sunday of Advent, Year B – December 14, 2014

Advent is the season of the prophets and the Scripture readings of these weeks before Christmas help us to focus our vision and deepen our longing for the Messiah.

In this year’s Gospel for the Third Sunday of Advent, the figure of John the Baptist appears once again on the stage of salvation history. John’s whole mission was a preparation for the Messiah’s coming. When the time had come, John led his own disciples to Jesus and indicated to them the Messiah, the True Light, and the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. John, himself, was not the light. He came to testify to the light. He didn’t spend time thinking about his shadow. He just allowed the light to shine on him.

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

In one of the most poignant scenes of Luke’s Gospel, John the Baptist is imprisoned by Herod Antipas because of his public rebuke of the tetrarch for his adulterous and incestuous marriage with Herodias (Matthew 4:12; Mark 1:14; Luke 3:19). Alone, dejected and near the end of his life, John the Baptist, hailed as the “greatest of all prophets,” had to ask the question, “Are you really the Messiah?” John probably expected a fiery social reformer to come and bring about the Kingdom, certainly not someone who would associate with the poor, the lame, the blind, outcasts and sinners. Yet Christ comes in the most unexpected ways and often in the most unlikely people.

Jesus invites John to look around and see the works that had already been accomplished in the midst of people. The blind recovered their sight and the lame were walking again. Diseases and illness were healed and all those who were deaf could hear. The Good News was now preached to the poor. That was the greatest wonder of all! This is a great consolation for us. We should never be surprised if we often find ourselves asking the same question — “Is Christian living really worth it?” “Is Jesus really the answer to all the evils and sadness of the world and of our own lives?

The crowds came to John and asked him, “What then shall we do?” The Baptist advises no one to leave the world they are in, however ambiguous it may be. Rather he told those with two coats to share one with those who had none. Likewise, those with an abundance of food were to share with the hungry. Tax collectors were told to collect no more than was appointed to them. Soldiers were to rob no one by violence or by false accusation. They were to be content with their wages. What were people to do to prepare for the imminent coming of the Messiah? To be generous, just, honest, grateful and compassionate (cf. Luke 3:10-14).

John the Baptist’s life and mission reminds us how badly we need a Savior to save us, in order that we might be all that we are called to be and do all that we have to do to live in the Light. How are we courageous and prophetic in our Christian witness to the Light, who has already come into our world? So often we fail to recognize the one among us who is our True Light.

May John the Baptist give us strength and courage to bear the light to others, and the generosity and ability to rejoice as we wait. “Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing,” Paul writes in his letter to the Thessalonians. We can also reverse the order of these two sentences: “Pray without ceasing, so that we will be able to rejoice always.”

In prayer we experience God’s gathering up all of our concerns and hopes into his own infinite love and wisdom, his setting us back on our feet, and his giving us fullness of life and light.

[The readings for this Sunday are Isaiah 61:1-2a, 10-11; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-8, 19-28]

Scripture Scholarship Today

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Video of America Magazine and American Bible Society
Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB

As we look back over the sweeping changes in the life of the Church following Vatican II, we can never underestimate the important relation that exists between liturgy and the interpretation of the Bible. This relation is directly linked to the Church fathers who were first and foremost men of prayer, even when they were writing their learned treatises and pursing their theological investigations. They were never far from the Church’s worship. In the liturgy they came to know Christ not so much as a historical figure from the past, but as a living person present in the Eucharist. When they opened their Bibles they discovered this same Christ not only in the writings of the evangelists and St. Paul but also in the Old Testament. In the liturgy the words of the Scripture are alive and filled with the mystery of Christ.

The Church and the Word of God are inseparably linked. The Church lives on the Word of God and the Word of God echoes through the Church, in her teaching and throughout her life (cf. “Dei Verbum,” n. 8).

It is accurate to say that the Bible provided a lexicon of words for Christian speech and the liturgy a grammar of how they are to be used. This must always be a guiding principle in our own efforts to make God’s Word come alive for the Church today. If we read biblical texts and teach them only for their historical and philological accuracy or inaccuracy, we fail to read the Bible as a book of faith that is the privileged possession of a living, breathing, praying community. We forget that the Bible is more like a library than a single book.

In spite of its many accomplishments, a strictly historical approach to the Bible can only give us a medley of documents from different times and places in the ancient world. It cannot give us the book of the Church, the Scriptures as heard by Christians for centuries, the psalms imprinted on the Church‚s soul, the words and images that bear witness to the Trinity.

The key to biblical criticism is the recognition that, while the Scriptures are the word of God, they do not escape the limitations of history. It is not surprising that since then that several generations of Catholic biblical scholars has devoted themselves to catching up. Nor is it surprising that there have been excesses and criticisms along the way. The question is to what extent scientific methods of Scripture study should be used, as opposed to a more spiritual reading of the Bible. As one who has taught Scripture for many years, nothing that can help us understand the Biblical text should be excluded, just as long as we keep clear what the purpose of the different approaches are, and what their limits are as well.

How can we make Scripture once again the ‘soul of theology’ and bridge this growing divide between those who study scripture, those who teach theology, and those who are preparing for ministry in the Roman Catholic Church? How can the hearts of our students and pastoral ministers, and the faithful to whom they will minister, be set on fire by the Risen Lord who begs people to touch the text of his words?

I would like to suggest three ways to move beyond the impasse, and offer two examples of great Scripture scholars of our time who integrated the historical-critical method and their Catholic faith in remarkable ways.

Actualization

The ‘Interpretation of the Bible in the Church,’ a major document of the Pontifical Biblical Commission from 1993 emphasized the historical-critical method and accorded it primacy of place among the different methods and approaches discussed. The commission called this method ‘indispensable’ and insisted that the proper understanding of the Bible ‘not only admits the use of this method but actually requires it.’ But this important Vatican document also speaks of the importance of ‘actualization,’ a term that is new to church documents on Scripture. This term, transposed from the original French text, comes from actualiser, meaning ‘to make present to today.’

To realize the potential of actualizing the word, however, requires a change of attitude and reconsideration of the biblical formation we are presently offering in our seminaries, Faculties of Theology and universities. Actualization is necessary because biblical texts were composed in response to past circumstances and in a language conditioned by the time of their composition. Interpreting Scripture for today must not be a matter of projecting opinions or ideologies on the text, ‘but of sincerely seeking to discover what the text has to say at the present time.’ Actualization, unlike strict historical-critical exegesis, demands personal faith as a prerequisite and concerns itself with the religious meaning of the Bible. According to the commission, ‘the Church depends on exegetes, animated by the same Spirit as inspired Scripture.’

Lectio Divina

Another way of moving beyond the impasse is to rediscover the art of Lectio divina, ‘divine or holy reading,’ the continuous reading of all the Scriptures, in which each book and each section of it is successively read, studied and meditated on, understood and savoured by having recourse to the whole of biblical revelation, Old and New Testament. Thanks to this simple adherence to and humble respect for the whole biblical text, Lectio divina is an exercise in total and unconditional obedience to God who is speaking to human beings who are listening attentively to the Word.

Lectio divina does not select passages suited to themes and subjects already previously chosen with a view to needs or tastes already felt or noticed by the reader or the community engaged in the reading. It does not adopt the method of ‘biblical themes’ but prefers to keep away from any theological picking and choosing from the message of the Bible. It starts with the Word of God and follows it step by step from beginning to end. Lectio divina presupposes and takes seriously the unity of all the Scriptures.

The point of departure of Lectio Divina is ‘wonderment,’ a spirit which is accompanied by listening, silence, adoration of the divine mystery and placing oneself in front of Scripture as the Word of God. It is an ideal from which we are very far removed. Current methods of teaching Scripture do not encourage wonderment, reverence, listening, silence and adoration of the mystery of God and his divine communication with human beings.

The secret of the success of using Lectio Divina lies in the fact that we do not offer students, parishioners, young adults a philological lexicon, a catechism lesson or even a homily but rather the necessary means for them to put themselves face to face with the text so that they can try out lectio divina for themselves. Lectio divina prepares us for an encounter with the living Lord.

Experiencing the Holy Land: the Fifth Gospel

A final suggestion of moving beyond the impasse in contemporary Scripture teaching is to offer the Holy Land as a backdrop and stage for the Biblical story. It is essential to tell the biblical story in the context of a long pilgrimage against the background of the Holy Land. It is even more important to go to the land and let it speak. The Holy Land is the Fifth Gospel, the key to understanding the other four!

The psalmist praises those whose hearts are ‘set on pilgrim roads’ (Ps. 84:5). We who are entrusted with the ministry of teaching and preaching Scripture must help others to prepare themselves to make the journey ‘as pilgrims.’ Tourists pass quickly through places, but the places pass slowly through pilgrims, leaving them forever changed. Teaching the Scriptures without reference to the Holy Land, or without fostering, encouraging, and, when possible, leading others to visit it, is to tell only part of the story of the Bible.

All of the best biblical renewal programs in the world, the most eloquent Vatican documents, vision statements, and even the most current analyses of the future of the church can never substitute for the hope, power and strength of the Word of God in our individual and communal Christian lives. Documents, statements and catechisms might never renew us, but the Word of God, especially experienced in its natural habitat will.

Contemporary Scripture studies have been a great blessing to the academy and the Church. I would like to pay tribute to two remarkable individuals known to all of us, and who were good friends, professors and mentors to me. The late Passionist Fr. Carroll Stuhlmueller, C.P. and the Sulpician Fr. Raymond Brown, S.S. In Frs. Stuhlmueller and Brown I observed three outstanding qualities at work, which may be instructive for other pastoral ministers and students of Scripture in their own biblical research, teaching and preaching.

First was their ability to present the Bible in an accessible way, as a ‘user-friendly’ book or library. Both men often recounted basic principles they learned in their youth: ‘Read the Bible as we would listen to a friend.’ Reading as a listener implies an openness to hear what is being said and an attitude of expectancy; listening as to a friend implies a large measure of confidence that the message will ultimately be a helpful guide for living, and sometimes for specific situations. Of course, one listens to a friend critically, that is, with the full use of one’s faculties, education and experience. By the same token, in the Catholic tradition, one never undertakes Scripture studies to master or criticize the Word, but to be mastered and criticized by it. There is a way in which we must allow the Word of God to read us.

Second was their ability to present the Biblical story as a pilgrimage, a set of stories for the long haul. How well I can still hear Fr. Stuhlmueller saying these words on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, or sitting by the lake in Galilee as we directed Scriptural renewal programs for priests and pastoral ministers in the Holy Land! After all, what is the story of our salvation if not the passage from the Paradise Lost in Genesis to the Paradise found, and symbolized beautifully, in the New Jerusalem of John’s wild dream in Revelation?

Third is the ability to see how Scripture is vivified in prayer and liturgy. For it is in the silent adoration of prayer and in the congregation’s act of worship in liturgy that the Bible comes alive. Liturgy reveals the fruits of scholarship. Hence, we must ask ourselves if our teaching and preaching leads others into celebration, prayer and adoration of the Lord of history? Or has our reliance on scientific methods and writings only compounded the confusion already found in the world?

May Fathers Stuhlmueller and Brown intercede for each of us as we study and pray God’s life-giving Word. And may our hearts be set on fire by the Risen Lord who begs us to touch the text of his words.

John the Baptizer, the Advent Prophet

John the Baptist cropped

Second Sunday of Advent, Year B – December 7, 2014

One of the great stars of the Advent and Christmas stories, John the Baptizer, makes his appearance on the biblical stage today. Let us consider some of the details of John’s life and see how he is such a good model for us.

John the Baptist didn’t mince words. He got right to the point and said what needed to be said. He would speak with equally straightforward words to us — words that would zero in on the weak points of our lives. John the Baptist was a credible preacher of repentance because he had first come to love God’s word that he heard in the midst of his own desert.

He heard, experienced and lived God’s liberating word in the desert and was thus able to preach it to others so effectively because his life and message were one. One of the most discouraging things we must deal with in our lives is duplicity. How often our words, thoughts and actions are not coherent or one. The true prophets of Israel help us in our struggle against all forms of duplicity.

The desert wilderness

Throughout biblical history, leaders and visionaries have gone to the desert to see more clearly, to listen intently for God’s voice, to discover new ways to live. The Hebrew word for wilderness midvar is derived from a Semitic root that means, “to lead flocks or herds to pasture.” Eremos, the Greek word used to translate midvar, denotes a desolate and thinly populated area and, in a stricter sense, a wasteland or desert.

The term “wilderness” has two different but related meanings, referring to something judged to be wild and bewildering. It is probably the unknown (bewildering) and uncontrolled (wild) character of the place that earned it the name “wilderness.” There is also another way of understanding the meaning of desert or wilderness.

A careful look at the root of the word midvar reveals the word davar meaning “word” or “message.” The Hebraic notion of “desert” or “wilderness” is that holy place where God’s word is unbound and completely free to be heard, experienced and lived. We go to the desert to hear God’s Word, unbound and completely free.

The Spirit of God enabled the prophets to feel with God. They were able to share God’s attitudes, God’s values, God’s feelings, God’s emotions. This enabled them to see the events of their time as God saw them and to feel the same way about these events as God felt. They shared God’s anger, God’s compassion, God’s sorrow, God’s disappointment, God’s revulsion, God’s sensitivity for people, and God’s seriousness. Nor did they share these things in the abstract; they shared God’s feelings about the concrete events of their time.

John the Baptist is the Advent prophet. His image is often portrayed in the finger pointing to the one who was coming: Jesus Christ. If we are to take on John’s role of preparing the way in today’s world, our lives also will become the pointing fingers of living witnesses who demonstrate that Jesus can be found and that he is near. John gave the people of his time an experience of forgiveness and salvation, knowing full well that he himself was not the Messiah, the one who could save. Do we allow others to have experiences of God, of forgiveness and of salvation?

John the Baptist came to teach us that there is a way out of the darkness and sadness of the world and of the human condition, and that way is Jesus himself. The Messiah comes to save us from the powers of darkness and death, and to put us back on the path of peace and reconciliation so that we might find our way back to God.

The late Jesuit theologian, Father Karl Rahner, once wrote: “We have to listen to the voice of the one calling in the wilderness, even when it confesses: I am not he. You cannot choose not to listen to this voice, ‘because it is only the voice of a man.’ And, likewise, you cannot lay aside the message of the Church, because the Church is ‘not worthy to untie the shoelaces of its Lord who goes on before it.’ It is, indeed, still Advent.”

We may not have the luxury of traveling to the wilderness of Judah, nor the privilege of a week’s retreat in the Sinai desert this Advent. However, we can certainly carve out a little desert wilderness in the midst of our activity and noise this week. Let us go to that sacred place and allow the Word of God to speak to us, to heal us, to reorient us, and to lead us to the heart of Christ, whose coming we await this Advent.

[The readings for the Second Sunday of Advent are: Isaiah 40:1-5, 9-11; 2 Peter 3:8-14; and Mark 1:1-8.]

(Image: Detail of St. John the Baptist from the “Isenheim Altarpiece” by Matthias Grunewald)

This reflection first appeared on the Zenit International News Service in 2008 as well as on the Salt + Light Blog. The complete collection of reflections for Year B, entitled “Words made Flesh,” is available in book form through our online store.

Rehearsal of the Great History of Memories

First Sunday of Advent cropped

First Sunday of Advent, Year B – Sunday, November 30, 2014

This weekend the Church enters into the liturgical season of Advent. Christians proclaim that the Messiah has indeed come and that God’s reign is “at hand.”

Advent does not change God. Advent deepens our longing and anticipation that God will do what prophets and the anointed have promised. We pray that God will yield to our need to see and feel the promise of salvation here and now.

During this time of longing and waiting for the Lord, we are invited to pray and to ponder the Word of God, but most of all, to become a reflection of the light of Christ, indeed of Christ himself. But we all know how difficult it is to mirror the light of Christ, especially when we have become disillusioned with life, accustomed to the shadowy existence of the world, or grown content with mediocrity and emptiness. Advent reminds us that we must be ready to meet the Lord at any and every moment of life. Just like a security alarm wakes up a homeowner, Advent wakes up Christians who are in danger of sleeping through their lives.

For what or for whom are we waiting in life? What virtues or gifts are we praying to receive this year? Do we long for healing and reconciliation in broken relationships? What meaning and understanding do we desire to have in the midst of our own darkness, sadness, and mystery? How are we living out our baptismal promises? What qualities of Jesus are we seeking in our own lives this Advent? Many times, the things, qualities, gifts, or people we await give us great insights into who we really are. Tell me whom you are waiting for and I will tell you who you are!

Advent is a time for opening eyes, focusing views, paying attention, keeping perspective on God’s presence in the world and in our own lives.

In the first reading from the prophet Isaiah on the first Sunday of Advent, the Almighty One breathes hope back into the heart and soul of Israel and shapes Israel and events anew just as a potter shapes his pottery.

In the second Scripture reading, writing to his beloved community at Corinth, Paul looked forward to the “Day of the Lord” when the Lord Jesus will be revealed to rescue those whom He has called. And in Gospel for the first Sunday of Advent this year, Mark’s depiction of the doorkeeper watching out for the Lord whenever he “suddenly” appears is an image of what we are expected to be doing all year long but especially during the season of Advent.

Our own baptism is a share in the royal, messianic mission of Jesus. Anyone who shares this mission also shares royal responsibilities, in particular, care for the afflicted and the hurting. Advent is a wonderful opportunity to “activate” our baptismal promises and commitment.

Then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger once wrote: “The purpose of the Church’s year is continually to rehearse her great history of memories, to awaken the heart’s memory so that it can discern the star of hope. It is the beautiful task of Advent to awaken in all of us, memories of goodness and thus to open doors of hope.”

This Advent, allow me to suggest that you mend a quarrel. Build peace. Seek out a forgotten friend. Dismiss suspicion and replace it with trust. Write a love letter. Share some treasure. Give a kind answer even though you would like to respond harshly. Encourage a young person to believe in him/herself. Manifest your loyalty in word and deed. Keep a promise. Find the time. Make time. Forego a grudge. Forgive an enemy. Celebrate the sacrament of reconciliation. Listen more. Apologize if you were wrong. Be kind even if you weren’t wrong!

Try to understand. Flout envy. Examine the demands you make on others. Think first of someone else. Appreciate. Be kind, be gentle. Laugh a little. Laugh a little more. Deserve confidence. Take up arms against malice. Decry complacency. Express gratitude. Go to Church. Stay in Church a little while longer than usual. Gladden the heart of a child. Take pleasure in the beauty and wonder of the earth. Speak your love. Speak it once again. Speak it even more loudly. Speak it quietly. Rejoice, for the Lord is near!

[The readings for this Sunday are Isaiah 63:16b-17, 19b; 64:2-7; 1 Corinthians 1:3-9; Mark 13:33-37.]

This reflection first appeared on the Zenit International News Service in 2008 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.

(CNS Photo/Bob Roller)

 

The Universe Turns Upon a Cup of Water Given to the Little Ones

Miguel Pro cropped

Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe, Year A – Sunday, November 23, 2014

During my graduate studies at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome in the late 1980s, I had the privilege of teaching Scripture on several occasions to the Missionaries of Charity at their formation house on the outskirts of Rome. Several times when I was with the sisters, Mother Teresa of Calcutta was visiting the formation community. I will never forget that little, bent-over, Albanian-born woman sitting on the floor of the chapel as I led the sisters in biblical reflections. It was a daunting experience for me to be expounding on Sacred Scripture to someone many considered even back then a living saint; one who, without exegetical skills and ancient biblical languages in her repertoire, understood far better the meaning of God’s Word than I ever would. One evening after I had finished the lecture and was gathering my books together to begin the trip back to the Canadian College in Rome, Mother came over to speak with me. At the end of the conversation, I asked her: “How do you do it day in and day out? How do you deal with the crowds of people trying to see you when you are out in public.” She raised her hand before my face and shook her five fingers at me. “Five words,” she said; “five words: You did it to me.”

“You did it to me.”

On this final Sunday of the liturgical year, also known as the Solemnity of Christ the King, we are presented with the great scene of the final judgment (Matthew 25:31-46), peculiar to Matthew’s Gospel. The final judgment will accompany the parousia (second coming of Christ) and is the last teaching of Jesus before he goes to Jerusalem to face his crucifixion and death. The stirring refrain of today’s Gospel is found precisely in these words: “You did it to me” (25:40).

The crux of today’s Gospel is not so much trying to identify who are sheep and who are goats. The sheep that are at the Son of Man’s right hand are those that recognized and accepted the messenger and the message. The goats on his left did not recognize or accept the messenger or the message.

Christ the Lord of history and king of the universe will separate the sheep from the goats at the end of time based on whether or not they have accepted the Word of God by accepting the ambassadors who were sent to proclaim that Word. Such acceptance or rejection is ultimately acceptance or rejection of the God who sent Jesus. To reject Jesus the Son is to reject God the Father. To reject a disciple sent by Jesus is to reject Jesus himself.

Inclusion in the Royal Kingdom

The Son who “sits upon his glorious throne with all the nations gathered before him” (25:31-32) is the same one who, at the very peak of his cosmic power, reveals that the universe turns upon a cup of water given to the little ones in his name. Jesus tells us that whenever we practice works of mercy, forgiveness, and kindness, we are doing these things to him. He fully identifies himself with the needy, the marginalized, and the dependent; the hungry, the thirsty, the strangers, the naked, the sick, and the imprisoned. Everyone is included in the Royal Kingdom of the humble Jesus. His reign completely overturns our notions of earthly kingship. The kingship and royalty of Jesus are of ultimate service, even to the point of laying down his life for others.

The righteous will be astonished that in caring for the needs of those who suffer, they were ministering to the Lord himself (25:37-38). The accursed (25:41) will also be astonished that their neglect of those suffering was neglect of the Lord and they will receive from him a similar fate.

When God will be all in all

In today’s second reading from the first letter to the Corinthians (15:20-26, 28), Paul describes Christ’s relations to his enemies and his Father. Paul’s vision includes cosmic dimensions as he attempts to describe the goal of all history. The reading is theological and Christological, for God is the ultimate agent in and culmination of history. In the end we are all saved by this God who has entered human history in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. When God finally rules, there will be no further resistance to his saving power. God will be all in all. This is what lies at the heart of the word “subjection” (15:28): that God may fully be God and accomplish his saving acts on our behalf.

Three final thoughts on the kingship of God’s Son

At the end of the liturgical year, and in light of the majestic scene of the final judgment, let us first consider two texts of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. First, from his Apostolic Letter of October 11, 2011, Porta Fidei, for the Indiction of the Year of Faith:

Faith without charity bears no fruit, while charity without faith would be a sentiment constantly at the mercy of doubt. Faith and charity each require the other, in such a way that each allows the other to set out along its respective path. Indeed, many Christians dedicate their lives with love to those who are lonely, marginalized or excluded, as to those who are the first with a claim on our attention and the most important for us to support, because it is in them that the reflection of Christ’s own face is seen. Through faith, we can recognize the face of the risen Lord in those who ask for our love. “As you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me” (Mt 25:40). These words are a warning that must not be forgotten and a perennial invitation to return the love by which he takes care of us. It is faith that enables us to recognize Christ and it is his love that impels us to assist him whenever he becomes our neighbour along the journey of life. Supported by faith, let us look with hope at our commitment in the world, as we await “new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (2 Pet 3:13; cf. Rev 21:1).

The Kingdom of Christ cannot be built by force

Next, let us consider Pope Emeritus Benedict’s moving reflection on Christ’s kingship, spoken on October 26, 2011 during the celebration of the Word held on the eve of the “Day of Reflection, Dialogue and Prayer for Peace and Justice in the World: Pilgrims of Truth, Pilgrims of Peace” held in Assisi the following day.

In his homily, Pope Emeritus Benedict quoted Zechariah 9, in which God promises salvation through a king:

But the announcement does not refer to a king with human powers and force of arms. It does not refer to a king who dominates with political and military might. This is a gentle king who reigns with humility and gentleness before God and man, a king quite different from the great sovereigns of the earth.

The Apostles recalled the prophet’s words particularly following Christ’s passion, death and resurrection when, […] with the eyes of faith, they reconsidered their Master’s joyful entry into the Holy City. He rode a donkey which had been lent to Him, […] not a horse as the powerful did. He did not enter Jerusalem accompanied by a mighty army of chariots and horsemen. He is a poor king, the king of the poor of God, […] of those who have inner freedom enabling them to overcome the greed and selfishness of the world, of those who know that God alone is their treasure. […] He is a king who will make the chariots and steeds of battle disappear, who will break the weapons of war, a king who brought peace on the Cross, uniting heaven and earth and building a bridge between all mankind. The Cross is the new arch of peace, the sign and instrument of reconciliation, […] the sign that love is stronger that any form of violence or oppression, stronger than death. Evil is overcome through goodness, through love.

The kingdom that Christ inaugurates is universal. The horizon of this poor and meek king is not the territorial horizon of a State, it is the confines of the world. He creates communion. He creates unity. And where do we see His announcement take concrete form today? In the great network of Eucharistic communities covering the earth, wherein the prophecy of Zechariah re-emerges in splendour. […] Everywhere, in all cultures, […] He comes and is present; and by entering into communion with Him, mankind is united into a single body, overcoming divisions, rivalry and rancour. The Lord comes in the Eucharist to divest us of our selfishness, our fixations which exclude others, to make us a single body, a single kingdom of peace in a divided world. […]

How can we build this kingdom of peace in which Christ is king? […] Like Jesus, the messengers of peace of His kingdom must begin a journey. […] They must journey, but not with the might of war or the force of power. […] It is not with power, force or violence that Christ’s kingdom of peace grows, but with the giving of self, with love carried to its extreme consequences, even towards out enemies. Jesus does not conquer the world by force of arms but by the power of the Cross, which is the true guarantee of victory.

Viva Cristo Rey!

Finally, let us remember the life of a young martyred Mexican Jesuit who was deeply devoted to Christ the King: Blessed Miguel Agustin Pro, S.J. (1891-1927). Born January 13, 1891, at Guadalupe Zacatecas, Mexico, Miguel “Miguelito” Pro was the son of a mining engineer and a pious and charitable mother. From his earliest days, Miguel had a special affinity for the working classes, which he kept all of his life. At age 20, he entered the Jesuit novitiate and shortly thereafter was exiled because of the Mexican Revolution. He traveled to the United States, Spain, Nicaragua, and Belgium, where he was ordained a priest in 1925. Father Pro suffered from chronic stomach ailments and when after several operations his health did not improve, his Jesuit superiors allowed him to return to Mexico in 1926 despite the horrible religious persecution underway in Mexico.

Churches were closed and priests fled into hiding. Father Pro spent the rest of his life in a secret ministry to Mexican Catholics. He strengthened people in their faith and was deeply involved in serving the poor in Mexico City. He was known for wearing all kinds of disguises that enabled him to work quietly among the poor. Miguel would dress as a beggar and go during the night to baptize infants, bless marriages, and celebrate Mass. He would appear in jail dressed as a police officer to bring Holy Viaticum to condemned Catholics. When going to wealthy neighbourhoods to provide for the poor, he would show up at the doorstep dressed as a fashionable executive with a fresh flower on his lapel. His was the stuff of a modern spy movie or award winning television series! However in all that he did, Fr. Pro always remained obedient to his superiors and was filled with the joy of serving Christ, his King.

He was falsely accused in the bombing attempt on a former Mexican president and declared a wanted man. Handed over to the police, he was sentenced to death without recourse to any legal process. On the day of his execution by a firing squad, Fr. Pro forgave his executioners, bravely refused the blindfold and died proclaiming, Viva Cristo Rey, “Long live Christ the King!”

The image of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta standing before me and raising those five fingers before my face is engraved on my memory, especially when I listen to today’s Gospel of the last judgment. “You did it to me.” The image of Blessed Miguel Pro, boldly kneeling before his executioners and forgiving them, before proclaiming the real kingship of the non-violent Lord is also deep within me.

Vindicated in the court of heaven

When we listen attentively to today’s first reading from the prophet Ezekiel 34:11-12, 15-17, and today’s powerful Gospel, how could we not have the images of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta and Blessed Miguel Pro before our eyes, as well as all of those women and men like them throughout history who tend the Lord’s scattered sheep, rescuing them when it was cloudy and dark, pasturing them, and giving them rest? Their work of shepherding, binding up the sick and healing them gives flesh and blood to today’s Gospel. “You did it to me.” Today we have the consolation that our acts of mercy toward God’s little ones are already vindicated in the court of heaven, because God sees everything from above, and is the ultimate beneficiary of any of our poor yet sincere efforts to care for the needy, the marginalized, and the dependent; the hungry, the thirsty, the strangers, the naked, the sick and the imprisoned citizens of God’s kingdom.

Christ the King

Our faith is rooted firmly in Jesus of Nazareth who was declared a king at his execution. He was not a king who craved for power, nor a dictator who dominated and trampled underfoot those who encountered him. In his kingdom, his poor subjects were cherished and loved; they were his friends, the little ones, his brothers and sisters who partook in his very life. Worldly kingdoms will come and go. The kingdom of Jesus Christ will never pass away. Together with Blessed Teresa of Calcutta and Blessed Miguel Pro of Mexico, let us acclaim our King: Viva Cristo Rey! Long live Christ the King, now and forever.

[The readings for the Solemnity of Christ the King are: Ezekiel 34:11-12, 15:-17; 1 Corinthians 15:20-26, 28; Matthew 25:31-46.]

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.

(Image: Fr. Miguel Pro; CNS Photo)

What Christ Has Given Us Is Multiplied In Its Giving

Parable Talents cropped

Thirty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A – November 16, 2014

Today’s Gospel story presents us with the last of the three parables that form Jesus’ final discourse in Matthew’s Gospel. Each of the three parables relates a different kind of accountability required of Christians as they prepare for their glorious encounter with Christ. The well-known Gospel text of the master, the slaves, and their talents (25:14-30) addresses what we do with the native abilities or talents that we have been given, those things which we hold most dear, and that which we have a tendency to possess too tightly. The central message of today’s Gospel parable concerns the spirit of responsibility with which to receive God’s Kingdom: a responsibility to God and to humanity.

Why Jesus taught the parables

We must not forget that Jesus taught the parables based on the way he saw life being lived out before his very eyes. As he taught the different parables, he neither blessed nor condemned the behaviour he described in each story. Rather, he used the way that his contemporaries were carrying out their everyday lives and activities to teach and model appropriate behaviour in view of God’s in-breaking Kingdom.

Today’s parable raises several questions and problems for us. The story seems to endorse a highly capitalistic mode of living regarding the use of one’s wealth and appears to be at odds with Jesus’ teaching on the use of money elsewhere in the Gospels. A second problem surfaces regarding the master’s method of reckoning upon his return. His behaviour towards his servants has some allegorical reference to the final judgment.

By means of this parable, was Jesus illustrating differing human capacities regarding God’s gift of the Kingdom? The first two slaves understand that the gifts they have are freely given by a God who is abundantly generous, and they therefore try to imitate the giver of all good gifts in the very ways that they live out their daily lives. Does God conform to the master described by the unhappy third slave: “a harsh man who reaps where he did not sow and gathers where he did not scatter” (25:24)?

The poverty of the cautious slave

I have always been intrigued by the reaction of the third slave whom I consider to be the “cautious” or “careful” slave. He seems to be an upright, honest man. He was not the smartest of the three, for he got the least amount of money, but if he weren’t a decent person, his master would have hardly entrusted him with a share of his money at all. The first and second slaves were shrewd operators; they knew how to play the market and doubled their investment. The third slave lived in fear because his master was a greedy, demanding man who liked his money and did not look kindly upon the foolishness and failure of those in his employ. Deciding to play it safe, the third slave refused to take any risks and thus buried his money. The rabbinical tradition taught that burying one’s money was the best security measure against theft or loss. I know many people who behave like this third slave.

The problem with the third slave is that he refused to take risks; he would not step out into the unknown. Filled with anxiety and fear, he projected his guilt upon his own master. In the end, he loses everything he owned. Had he acted with some degree of innocence, he may have received a much more understanding treatment from his master.

The moral of the story for us

Those who have a poor, limited, negative, or miserly image of God and God’s dealings with human beings, will end up treating their fellow human beings in the same poor, limited, and miserly ways. Such people are incapable of seeing the Kingdom of God unfolding before their very eyes and in their own time. Is this not the poverty and blindness of the third slave? He was incapacitated by fear, and was impeded from reaching out to those in need around him. Fear paralyzes each one of us and prevents us from reaching out to those in need around us.

The Good News of Jesus Christ is that we must abandon fear and be industrious, reliable, and creative in doing God’s will, lest we turn out to be like the third slave, “worthless, lazy louts”! To be a disciple of Christ, we have to lose our life in order to find it. If we risk ourselves for a perfect Christ we cannot see, we risk perhaps more in committing ourselves to an imperfect Church we can see. If our faith is seen as something that has to be protected, it is probably not genuine – and it certainly will not grow and mature if its fundamental approach is to “play it safe.”

Next Sunday’s magnificent Gospel scene of the last judgment presents us with the opposite example of the third slave. It will teach us that we find the deepest truth about ourselves when we move beyond our own fears and limitations and feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, and visit the sick and imprisoned.

The element of surprise in today’s parable

From the beginning of today’s parable, we are told that the master gave each slave a certain amount of money as pure gift. The master demonstrated a gratuitous generosity. The third slave pigeonholed his master and simply could not fathom that the master was being so generous. The slave seemed to be basing his actions on some kind of strict or literal justice that enabled him to justify his own miserly actions. In the end, the third slave lost everything.

When we apply this concept to God and Jesus, a lesson emerges for us. When we truly understand and appreciate the greatness of God’s gift to us in his Son Jesus, we experience a special freedom and gratitude, and we are willing to take risks. To do God’s will becomes an enterprising, risk-taking adventure, based on God’s gratuitous generosity, justice, mercy, and boundless trust in human beings. Today’s parable emphasizes actions and enterprise, and helps us to prepare the way for the great works of mercy and justice in the final judgment scene of Matthew’s Gospel.

A treasure made to be spent, invested and shared

In his Angelus address of Sunday, November 16, 2008, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI referred to today’s parable and revealed its rich teaching for us:

The “talent” was an ancient Roman coin, of great value, and precisely because of this parable’s popularity it became synonymous with personal gifts, which everyone is called to develop. In fact, the text speaks of “a man going on a journey [who] called his servants and entrusted to them his property” (Mt 25: 14). The man in the parable represents Christ himself, the servants are the disciples and the talents are the gifts that Jesus entrusts to them. These gifts, in addition to their natural qualities, thus represent the riches that the Lord Jesus has bequeathed to us as a legacy, so that we may make them productive: his Word, deposited in the Holy Gospel; Baptism, which renews us in the Holy Spirit; prayer the “Our Father” that we raise to God as his children, united in the Son; his forgiveness, which he commanded be offered to all; the Sacrament of his Body sacrificed and his Blood poured out; in a word: the Kingdom of God, which is God himself, present and alive in our midst.

This is the treasure that Jesus entrusted to his friends at the end of his brief life on earth. Today’s parable stresses the inner disposition necessary to accept and develop this gift. Fear is the wrong attitude: the servant who is afraid of his master and fears his return hides the coin in the earth and it does not produce any fruit. This happens, for example, to those who after receiving Baptism, Communion and Confirmation subsequently bury these gifts beneath a blanket of prejudice, beneath a false image of God that paralyzes faith and good works, thus betraying the Lord’s expectations. However, the parable places a greater emphasis on the good fruits brought by the disciples who, happy with the gift they received, did not keep it hidden with fear and jealousy but made it profitable by sharing it and partaking in it. Yes, what Christ has given us is multiplied in its giving!

It is a treasure made to be spent, invested and shared with all, as we are taught by the Apostle Paul, that great administrator of Jesus’ talents. The Gospel teaching that the liturgy offers us today has also had a strong effect at the historical and social level, encouraging an active and entrepreneurial spirit in the Christian people.

[The readings for the Thirty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time are: Proverbs 31:10-13, 16-18, 20, 26, 28-31; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-6; and Matthew 25:14-30.]

(Image: Parable of the Talents by Willem de Poorter)

“Mother and head of all the churches on earth”

Lateran cropped

Dedication of the Lateran Basilica – Sunday, November 9, 2014

Today we celebrate the feast of the Dedication of the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome. It is known as “Mother and head of all churches on earth” because it was the original residence of the Pope. There is a formidable and significant stone inscription on the façade of the Basilica that reads: Sacrosancta Lateranensis ecclesia omnium urbis et orbis ecclesiarum mater et caput, “Most Holy Lateran Church, of all the churches in the city and the world, the mother and head.”

Steeped in historical significance

The basilica was built by the Emperor Constantine at the beginning of the fourth century AD and was dedicated on November 9, 324, by Pope Sylvester I. The anniversary of the dedication of this church has been observed since the 12th century. An added significance to this feast is the fact that the first Holy Year was proclaimed from this church in the year 1300.

The magnificent church was first called the Basilica of the Saviour but later was also dedicated to St. John the Baptist and St. John the Evangelist, and so it acquired the name of the Basilica of St. John Lateran. When the papacy was transferred to Avignon for about a century, the condition of the Lateran deteriorated so greatly that when the Pope returned to Rome he lived in two other locations before finally settling adjacent to St. Peter’s Basilica, where he lives now.

In the course of its history, St. John Lateran suffered just about as many disasters and revivals as did the papacy it hosted. Sacked by Alaric in 408 and Genseric in 455, it was rebuilt by Pope Leo the Great (440-461), and centuries later by Pope Hadrian I (772-795). The basilica was almost entirely destroyed by an earthquake in 896, and was again restored by Pope Sergius III (904-911). Later the church was heavily damaged by fires in 1308 and 1360. When the Popes returned from their sojourn in Avignon, France (1304-1377), they found their basilica and palace in such disrepair that they decided to transfer to the Vatican Basilica (also built by Constantine, it had until then served primarily as a pilgrimage church).

Several important relics are kept within the Lateran Basilica. The wooden altar on which St. Peter celebrated Mass while in Rome is believed to be inside the main altar. The heads of Saints Peter and Paul were once believed to be inside busts above the main altar. Part of the table on which the Last Supper was celebrated is said to be behind a bronze depiction of the Last Supper. At one time the basilica also contained the Holy Stairs on which Jesus is said to have walked during his trial in the house of Pontius Pilate. The stairs are marble and are now covered with wood to protect them. They are currently located in the former Lateran Palace. Pilgrims ascend them on their knees, contemplating Jesus’ Passion. As they ascend, drops of blood may be seen on the marble stairs beneath protective glass. The stairs were brought to Rome by Constantine’s mother Saint Helena.

Many important historic events have also taken place in St. John Lateran, including five Ecumenical Councils and many diocesan synods. In 1929 the Lateran Pacts, which established the territory and status of the State of Vatican City, were signed here between the Holy See and the Government of Italy.

A feast of the People of God

There are two dimensions to today’s feast: it is the celebration of a building that is the mother church of Christendom. We focus our minds and hearts on the unity and love of the whole Church that finds expression in our fidelity to the one who walks in Peter’s shoes: the Pope.

It is also the feast of the People of God who form the Church. The Second Vatican Council helps us to focus our attention on the mystery of the Church – the sign of unity and the instrument of Christ’s peace on earth.

The Cleansing of the Temple

The Gospel of John’s account of Jesus cleansing the Temple seems at first to be a bit out of place for the feast of the dedication of the Mother Church of Rome. John’s account of the cleansing of the Temple (2:13-22) stands in sharp contrast to the other Gospel accounts of this powerful story (Matthew 21:12-17; Mark 11:15-19; Luke 19:45-48). In the Synoptic Gospels, this same scene takes place at the end of the “Palm Sunday Procession” into the holy city. With the people shouting out in triumph, he entered into the Temple area. But this time, not to do homage but to challenge the Temple and its leaders. He overturned the tables of the moneychangers and upset the stalls of those selling birds and animals for sacrifice. It was an electrifying moment. He quoted the Scriptures: “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations; but you have made it a den of robbers” (Matthew 21:13; Mark 11:17; Luke 19:46; Isaiah 56:6-7; Jeremiah 7:11).

John uses this incident to give meaning to Jesus’ entire ministry and he is alone among the evangelists in linking the cleansing of the Temple of Jerusalem with the prediction of its destruction. This destruction is symbolic of the end of the Old Covenant and its forms of worship. John says that Jesus was speaking about his own body rather than the temple building (2:21). The new Temple will be his resurrected Body. In the new Covenant, true worship will be “in Christ.”

John’s account of the cleansing of the Temple is quite provocative for many reasons. In the Fourth Gospel, Jesus quotes from Psalm 68:10: “Zeal for your house will consume me.” I have preferred to translate that verse: “I am filled with a burning love for your house…” The Temple was not an emporium (a mall!) but his Father’s house. Like the prophets before him, Jesus tried to awaken the hearts of his people. Their prayer had to come from the heart; their sacrifices, however good and true, were no substitute for justice.

The Messiah would purify Israel’s worship but John goes beyond that to suggest an even more radical change: Israel’s worship will not only be purified, it will also be replaced. The presence of God in Israel shall be replaced by the presence of God in the Temple which is the Body of Jesus. These startling words and actions of Jesus in the Temple took on new meaning for later generations of Christians.

One intriguing aspect of this story is the portrait of an angry Jesus contained in the cleansing scenes. These provocative images can give way to two extremes in our own image of God’s Messiah. Some people wish to transform an otherwise passive Christ pictured above many altars into a whip-cracking revolutionary. Others prefer to excise any human qualities of Jesus and paint a very meek, bland character who would never upset anyone.

The errors of the old extreme, however, do not justify a new extremism. Jesus was not exclusively – not even primarily – concerned with social reform. Jesus was filled with a deep devotion and love for his Father and the things of his Father. His disciples recognized in Jesus a passionate figure – one who was committed to life and to losing it for the sake of truth and fidelity.

Have we given in to these extremes in our own understanding of and relationship with Jesus? Are we passionate about anything in our lives today? Are they the right things? Are we filled with a deep and burning love for the things of God and for his Son, Jesus?

On this feast of the dedication of the cathedral of the Bishop of Rome, let us pray for a strengthening of our communion with each other and with all God’s people across the face of the earth. May the Lord purify the sanctuary of our hearts, and build us up as living stones into a holy temple. May we be filled with consuming zeal for the house of the Lord, our Church, and our churches. May our communion with the Church of Rome confirm us as a vibrant, loving, hospitable universal Church, a place of welcome for all who seek God’s face.

[The readings for the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica are: Ezekiel 47:1-2, 8-9, 12; 1 Corinthians 3:9b-11, 16-17; John 2:13-22.]