A King’s Prayer and a Kingdom’s Hope

Kingdom cropped

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

Solomon seeks wisdom

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

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

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

When we ask for wisdom

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

Conformed to the Son’s image

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

How will we recognize the kingdom?

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

Parables about the kingdom

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

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

Conceptions of the Kingdom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Let them grow together until harvest…”

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

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

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

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

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

The great success of the Kingdom

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

Patient endurance in steadfast expectation

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

Recognizing the Kingdom

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

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

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

Opposition and indifference to the Word

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

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

There are weeds in the Church

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Preferring Nothing to the Love of Christ” On the feast of Saint Benedict – July 11

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On 27 April 2005, at his first General Audience, Pope Benedict XVI told the assembled crowds why he had chosen that name for his ministry as Bishop of Rome. Among other reasons, this was an homage to Saint Benedict, whose feast we celebrate today, who has played such a role in the spiritual and cultural formation of Europe, particularly Pope Benedict’s beloved Bavaria.

Yet there was also a profoundly spiritual reason. Pope Benedict quoted Chapter 72 of the Holy Rule, “Prefer nothing to the love of Christ,” placing his ministry decisively under the watchful care of Saint Benedict: “At the beginning of my service as Successor of Peter, I ask St. Benedict to help us keep Christ firmly at the heart of our lives. May Christ always have pride of place in our thoughts and in all our activities!”

Pope Benedict has honored his patron in more than words. An old friend who saw him a few weeks ago quoted him saying that he was spending his retirement living like a monk – nothing would be more pleasing to Saint Benedict.

Perhaps the best way to honor Saint Benedict is to attend to his teaching and to love the same things that he loves. He wrote a Rule which serves as the foundation of life for many, many religious communities. One reason why this Rule has endured for over 1500 years is that it is so balanced, so humane. Benedict demonstrates a profound understanding of human nature, and his Rule looks on human weakness with a compassionate eye while making it clear that life in the school of the Lord’s service is not always easy. As the Prologue states, “In drawing up its regulations, we hope to set down nothing harsh, nothing burdensome. The good of all concerned, however, may prompt us to a little strictness in order to amend faults and safeguard love.” The Rule is designed to help communities of Christians live a moderate life of prayer and work, so that in all things, God may be glorified.

One bit of wisdom Benedict’s example imparts to the wider Church is the necessity of a rule of life for serious discipleship. There are all manner of profound spiritual traditions in the Church, from Saint Benedict to Pope Francis’ beloved Saint Ignatius, to more contemporary figures such as Charles de Foucauld or Blessed Teresa of Calcutta. To be saved from abstraction, though, these profound teachings need to be integrated into a rule of life for the serious Christian: what time in my day am I giving to prayer? Where in my life is concrete service to the poor? Through his Rule, Benedict wants to be sure that the Gospel permeates every aspect of life. This need not be limited to women and men who live in monasteries.

Another great contribution of Saint Benedict to the wider Church was the generous time he allowed each day to holy reading, lectio divina. There are numerous resources to help Christians learn and practice this form of prayer, but an old spiritual director liked to tell me that the heart of lectio divina, the prayerful reading of the Word of God, isn’t really confined to a method. When teaching and practicing this prayer with students, I would say that lectio is really working well when the Word of God is influencing you in ways that you aren’t even really aware. It need not be complicated. Read the scripture readings for the day’s Mass, and spend a few minutes with a single line.

Perhaps one example of this is Pope Francis. Summaries of his daily homilies at the chapel next to the Vatican guesthouse where he is living have become required reading for many. It is said that these homilies emerge from the very early mornings that Pope Francis keeps, rising to pray over that day’s readings for Mass. Sounds awfully Benedictine to me. While Pope Francis is a joyful Jesuit, his recent invitation to spend five minutes each day with Psalm 102 could have come straight from the lips of Saint Benedict himself!

Of course, one cannot look at Saint Benedict without considering his twin sister, Saint Scholastica. In the Office of Readings for her feast day, we read from Book II of the Dialogues of Saint Gregory the Great. Benedict and Scholastica meet once each year and spend the day in spiritual conversation. When evening comes, Benedict is ready to return to his monastery.  Scholastica protests, asking Benedict to remain for yet further conversation about the things of God. When Benedict refuses, Scholastica begins to pray, and a great thunderstorm begins that settled the argument: Benedict could go nowhere. Gregory the Great explains Scholastica’s success: “It is not surprising that she was more effective than he, since as John says, God is love, it was absolutely right that she could do more, as she loved more.”

This is a fine summary of the goal of Saint Benedict and his Rule, lectio divina, and all Christian living: to love more. Through Saint Benedict’s prayers, may God bring to fulfillment that good work in us.

Nickolas Becker, OSB
Fr Becker

 

This blog post comes to us from Fr. Nickolas Becker, OSB, a Benedictine monk of Saint John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota. Father Nickolas professed his final vows as a Benedictine monk in 2010, and currently is pursuing a doctorate in moral theology at the Alphonsian Academy in Rome.

God’s Word is Never Spoken in Vain

Wheat cropped

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

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

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

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

Patient endurance in steadfast expectation

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

Understanding the meaning of “parable”

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

Structure of Matthew’s Parable of the Sower

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

Parable of the SowerSowing with abandon

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

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

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

God’s Word shall be accomplished

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

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

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

Allowing the Word to take root in our lives

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

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

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

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

“When the heart is not applied, hands can’t do anything.”

Doubting Thomas cropped

“When the heart is not applied, hands can’t do anything.” On the Feast of St. Thomas the Apostle – July 3

There is a proverb that says: “When the heart is not applied, hands can’t do anything.” It seems as if this were written for Thomas the Apostle. The Resurrection Gospel stories that feature St. Thomas provide us with an archetypal experience of doubt, struggle and faith. John’s first appearance of the Risen Lord to the disciples is both intense and focused, a scene set with realistic detail: it is evening, the first day of the week, and the doors where bolted shut. Anxious disciples are hermetically sealed inside.

A suspicious, violent world is forced tightly outside. Jesus is missing. Suddenly, the Risen One defies locked doors, locked hearts, and locked vision. He simply appears. Gently, ever so gently Jesus reaches out to the broken and wounded Apostle. Thomas hesitatingly put his finger into the wounds of Jesus and love flowed out. Long ago St. Gregory the Great said of Thomas, “If, by touching the wounds on the body of his master, Thomas is able to help us overcome the wounds of disbelief, then the doubting of Thomas will have been more use to us than the faith of all the other apostles.”

Both Jesus and Thomas were wounded by unbelief. Jesus died of the wounds inflicted by the unbelief of his disciples and of the people. Thomas was wounded by his inability to believe, and out of this wound bled his deepest disappointment. But Thomas was healed by Christ’s wounds. He saw, even felt, the deadly injuries; but the one who bore them was living. Through them, life was victorious in Thomas. Thomas had to guardedly feel his way to faith until he recognized the truth in his heart. This was the beginning of his Easter. He could believe again.

Thomas, the doubter, was permitted to do something that we would all like to do. He was allowed to touch and “experience” something that by human means was not possible. For us it is more difficult. We need to begin with faith and then blindly touch our way to the heart of our lives.

Thomas the Apostle is truly one of the greatest and most honest lovers of Jesus, not the eternal skeptic, nor the bullish, stubborn personality that the Christian tradition has often painted. Thomas stood before the cross, not comprehending. All his dreams were hanging on that cross. All of his hopes had been shattered. What do we do when something to which we have totally committed ourselves is destroyed before our very eyes?

What do we do when powerful and faceless institutions suddenly crush someone to whom we have given total loyalty? And what do we do when our immediate reaction in the actual moment of crisis is to run and hide, for fear of the madding crowds? Such were the questions of most of the disciples, including Thomas, who had supported and followed Jesus of Nazareth for the better part of three years.

Do we not often like Thomas, never seem to be there when Jesus arrived? Has the absurdity of the resurrection rumour sent us away? Jesus keeps on appearing to us, again and again – unlocking the barriers between faith and doubt, between life and death, between past and future, between fear and joy. The Good News of the Gospel is eminently clear: when and where we least expect him, and when we most need him, Jesus just appears.

Centuries after Thomas, we remain forever grateful for the honesty and humanity of his struggle. Though we know so little about Thomas, his family background and his destiny, we are given an important hint into his identity in the etymology of his name in Greek: Thomas (Didymous in Greek) means “twin.” Who was Thomas’ other half, his twin? Maybe we can see his twin by looking into the mirror. Thomas’ other half is anyone who has struggled with the pain of unbelief, doubt and despair, and has allowed the presence of the Risen Jesus to make a difference.

The doubting Thomas within each of us must be touched. We are asked to respond to the wounds within others and ourselves. Even in our weakness, we are urged to breathe forth the Spirit so that the wounds may be healed and our fears overcome. With Thomas we will believe, when our seeking hand finally and hesitantly reaches out to the Lord in the community of faith. Blessed are we who have not seen and have believed!

Easy Yokes, Light Burdens and a Gentle, Smiling Lord

Jesus smiling cropped

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus’ prayer of rejoicing

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

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

Priority over relationships

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

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

Accepting the Lord’s yoke

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why Jesus is still attractive today

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

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

Constant challenge of Christian living

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

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

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

The Voice Crying out in the Wilderness

Bolivians celebrate as it is announced that the next Missionary Congress will take place in their country in 2018.

This an adaptation of my homily for the  second Sunday in Advent, Year A. The readings were: Isaiah 11:1-10; Psalm 72;  Romans 15:4-9 and Matthew 3:1-12.

On this Solemnity of the Birth of John the Baptist it is good to reflect on the meaning of being a “voice”.

The voice crying out in the wilderness “prepare the way of the Lord!” I love John the Baptist. He’s my role model. I guess we can say that John the Baptist is the  first proclaimer. Maybe we can say that he is the first  missionary.

I’ve been  thinking about missionaries a lot for a number of reasons. The first is that  last November, Pope Francis published his first Apostolic Exhortation. It’s  not like an encyclical, or a letter; it’s more like a book! It’s 214 pages!  It’s called Evangelii Gaudium: The joy of the Gospel. And he writes about a  lot of things, all in the context of the joy of the Gospel and the joy with  which we should always share the gospel. In it he writes, “I am a mission on  this earth.” [EG 273] That really struck me. It’s more than simply I am called  to be a missionary or I have a mission: I AM a mission. And he doesn’t mean  that he alone is mission; he means that all of us are mission. We are the  mission of the Father: The Church is the mission of God. And who better to say  that about than John the Baptist? John was mission. On the day he was born his  Father, Zechariah (remember he had lost his voice because he doubted the  angel) regained his voice and prays a beautiful canticle (Luke 1:68-79), the  Canticle of Zechariah: “You my child shall  become the prophet of the most high, for you will go before the Lord to  prepare his way; to give his people knowledge of salvation, by the forgiveness  of their sins.” From the day he was born, John had a mission and he  became that mission: to prepare the way. Even before Jesus himself was  proclaiming the Good News, John was proclaiming the Good  News.

I’ve  actually been thinking about mission since this summer at World Youth Day.  That event was all about mission: Go be missionaries. The theme was from  Matthew 28:19, “Go make disciples of all nations.” That passage has been my  favourite since my first World Youth Day in 2002. In fact the whole section,  from verse 28 to 20 is my favourite: “All  authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make  disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the  Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have  commanded you. And remember I am with you always, to the very end of the  age.” Everything we need to know about what we have to do as  Christians is there: Go, baptize, teach and remember.

And  especially, I’ve been thinking about mission because at the end of November  last year, I had the opportunity to attend the Missionary Congress of  the Americas in Maracaibo,  Venezuela. It’s a congress that takes place every 5 years to promote missions  and encourage missionaries from the whole continent, from Canada down to  Argentina, including the Caribbean. There were some 4000 participants, mostly  missionaries; 400 priests, 70 bishops – it was a great gathering and the motto  was very simple: “share your faith”. And so I’ve been thinking about how we  share our faith; or rather how we don’t share our faith.

It may be  a Canadian thing, I don’t know (it’s certainly different in  Latin America) but either we are too afraid, or shy, embarrassed  or ashamed. Or perhaps we are too “politically correct” and we really believe  that we shouldn’t meddle in other people’s business. We’ve really bought into  the idea that anyone can believe and do whatever they want as long as they  don’t bother me and that faith is private and personal; but it’s not. We  gather as Church in community because faith is public. It has to be shared.  And so our idea of mission is to take school supplies to children in the  Dominican Republic. We go on mission trips to build homes in Mexico; dig wells  in Uganda. I went on a mission  trip  with a group to paint a church up in the Yukon .  Don’t get me wrong, these things are important. We are called to do acts of  charity. Jesus calls us to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit those who  are sick and in prison (Matthew 25:34-40). Jesus himself healed the sick and  comforted the afflicted. We must do all that, but if that is all we do, then  who is preaching the good news? Who is proclaiming the Gospel? Who is making  disciples of all nations? Who is baptising? Who is teaching? Who is the voice  crying in the wilderness? We love that expression that is attributed to St.  Francis that says, “preach the Gospel at all times and use words if  necessary.” We love it because it gives us an excuse to not use words. But we  must use words. I don’t even  need to know my faith in order to fill shoe boxes with toiletries and send  them to Honduras; but we must know our faith so we can share it. We cannot be  ignorant of our faith.

When I  arrived in Venezuela we had to wait for two hours for the bus to  pick us up and so I began speaking with a gentleman at the airport. Turns out  he was an evangelical pastor. Guess what that conversation was like! He was  evangelizing me and I was sharing my faith and we were evangelizing each  other. It was a great conversation. We really shared a lot and I believe that  we grew in communion with each other. But if I didn’t know Scripture and if I  didn’t know what the Church teaches about Mary and the Eucharist and about the  Papacy (because that is what he wanted to talk about), I could not have had  that conversation. Could you have that conversation? We have to share our  faith and we must use words.

That’s  what the Year of Faith was about. Remember the Year of Faith? We had three  things to do with our faith: Learn about it; live it and share it. Did you  take up the challenge? We have to learn about our faith. It’s not enough to go  to Mass on Sundays and pay attention to the homily. We have to read Scripture;  we have to study it; we have to study what the Church teaches and understand  it, so we can teach it. We have to live our faith, that’s why we have to do  charitable works, why we send money and resources to the victims of the  typhoon in the Philippines. And we have to share our faith. In  order to do that, words are necessary! And it’s not just with our family and  close friends, although that’s a good place to start. We are called to go out.  Pope Francis keeps telling us to go to the peripheries, to the margins. The  doors of the Church have to be open so that people can go out. That is what  the Church calls “missio ad gentes”: mission to those who are outside. We have  to go out to the wilderness. Part of today’s readings are about that: That  beautiful prophecy from Isaiah is for “all the nations.” It’s not just for the  Jewish people. And Paul writes to the Romans that the promise is not just for  the circumcised; the Jews. It’s for the gentiles; for everyone! Not just for  those in the Church. And what does John say to the Pharisees and Saduccees in  the Gospel? “Don’t think that salvation is just for you because you are  children of Abraham.” Salvation has come for everyone – not just for those in  the Church! And we have to go and get them. We are to happy being the ones  listening to the voice crying out in the wilderness; but we have to become the  voice in the wilderness. We have one mission: Go make disciples of all  nations!

At the  end of Mass the deacon says “Go”. In Latin it used to be “Ite, missa est.”  “Missa” that’s where the word for “Mass” comes from. “Ite, missa est.” It  means, “Go, you are sent” or “Go, you are dismissed.” (later, when the whole  celebration was called “Missa”, this phrase in Latin comes to mean, “Go, the  Mass is over.” But originally it literally means, “go, you are dismissed” –  “dimissa est”) The root of that word, “missa”; “Mass”, “dismissal” is the same  root as the word “mission.” That’s what the Mass is all about: to send us on a  mission. Everything the Church does is because the Church is missionary. The  Church would not have grown had it not been missionary. The Gospels were  written because the Church is missionary. The Bible was put together because  the Church is missionary. The printing press was invented because the Church  is missionary. Great art and sculptures and music was created because the  Church is missionary. We have Mass because the Church is missionary. We have  Catholic Schools because the Church is missionary. We baptise because the  Church is missionary. Everything we do is because we have one mission: to make  disciples of all nations and we have to become that mission.

I can’t  tell you what words to use, except that we must learn about our faith so we  can share it. Perhaps a good place to start is by always using words of hope;  always preaching with joy (that’s why the Pope’s Apostolic Exhortation is  called “The Joy of the Gospel”). Truly, John the Baptist is not just for the  Advent season, as we prepare our hearts for the coming of Christ. We must  prepare our own hearts at all times and we must help others prepare too. Let’s  be, like John the Baptist, the voice (using words) the cries in the  wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord.”

A Unity Transcending All Differences

Peter and Paul

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

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

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

Affirmation, identity and purpose at Caesarea Philippi

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

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

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

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

Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus

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

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

The final earthly moments of Peter and Paul

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Together they built the Church

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

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

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

This reflection first appeared on the Zenit International News Service in 2010 as well as on the Salt + Light Blog. The complete collection of reflections for Year B, entitled “Words made Flesh,” is now available in book form through our online store. Book editions for Year A and C reflections are coming soon.

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

Receiving Communion cropped

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

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

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

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

One bread, one body

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

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

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

Johannine answers

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

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

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

Enduring presence

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

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

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

Real Presence

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

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

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

Eucharistic obligations

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

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

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

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

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

(Photo courtesy: CNS/Saabi, Galbe)

God is with us

trinity-rublev
Ever since World Youth Day 2002, my favourite Scripture passage has been the end of Matthew’s Gospel: Matthew 28:16-20. I think it’s because my middle name is Emmanuel. It means “God with us”. I love that Jesus promises us that he will be with us until the end of time.

Today we celebrate a great feast, the solemnity of the most Holy Trinity. “Trinity” is a fancy word that means “three” – it refers to the reality that our God is one God, three persons.

It’s not three gods. He’s ONE God. It’s not three aspects of God, or three qualities of God: creator, redeemer, sanctifier… God is ONE God, THRE persons. One GOD, three PERSONS. It’s hard to understand.

That’s why we call it a mystery. But it’s not a mystery like a murder mystery, an Agatha Christie or Scooby Doo mystery that we have to solve. No, when the Church talks about mystery, it refers to something that is so amazing and so wonderful that it cannot be fully described in human terms. It cannot be fully understood. It can be partially understood, but never fully. And we use the word “mysteries” a lot. At Mass you’ll hear the priest speak of “these mysteries that we celebrate” – he also says, “the mystery of faith”. Next time you’re at Mass, pay attention to the many times we use the word during the Liturgy. We also pray the “mysteries of the Rosary”. In fact, the word in Greek for sacraments is “mysteries.” So we use that word a lot. And we have a few mysteries: The mystery of the Incarnation, the mystery of the Cross, the mystery of the Eucharist… The mystery of the Trinity is probably the hardest one to understand: ONE God; THREE persons. The Good News is that, while I don’t think that we have to understand it, we can understand it in part. Also, looking at the Trinity tells us something about the reality of God, about the nature of God, which in turn, because we are made in the image and likeness of God, tells us something about our nature as created human beings.

There are several ways in which God is described in Scripture. There are no words to describe God fully, but throughout scripture people use different images to describe God. Most often, God is described in terms of what he does: God is creator, God speaks out of a fire or God saves the nation of Israel. By showing what God has done, Scripture writers show how awesome God is. But God is not just a God who does. God is a being. God is not a doing. God is a being and because we are created in the image of God, it means that we are a being as well. We are not human doings, we are human beings. We are not defined by what we do or by what we are capable of doing; we get our dignity by who we are: created beings, in the image and likeness of God. But God is also not just a force of nature – THE FORCE from Star Wars – God is not a life force or energy, God is not a concept (despite what John Lennon says); God is a person. You can have a personal relationship with God. God is a person – and we too are persons. We are persons from the moment of conception to the moment of natural death. No matter what you have done, no matter whether you are in a coma, or whether you suffer from an intellectual disability, whether you are conscious or not, you are a person. But God is not just A person; God is THREE persons.

This, to me makes perfect sense. Think about it: If God is love, then God can’t be alone. You can’t be love in solitude. If God is love, it makes sense that God is a relationship; a community of persons; Father, Son and Holy Spirit. God is a living, dynamic, loving, relationship, community of love between three persons who continually, eternally are outpouring themselves into each other and receiving the outpouring of each other into themselves. It sounds a bit new age, but it’s true. God is a community. God is relationship. And so, we too are called to relationship. We too are called to community. We too are called to love. God is not just a being, but a “being with”. And that means that we are created to “be with” each other and to “be with” God. That’s what COMMUNION means. And by virtue of our Baptism (Jesus says at the end of the Gospel of Matthew that we are to baptise “in the name of the Father and the son and the Holy Spirit”) we are baptised into the Trinity. That means that through our baptism we can enter into that loving, inner relationship of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. That means that we are no longer outside of God. – By virtue of our baptism we can participate INSIDE the life of the trinity – not outside, as slaves, but inside as sons and daughters.

And this is good news. And what a better example of this than when we come to the Eucharist. We receive Christ in Communion. But not just Christ, but the fullness of God: the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In the Eucharist God comes to live inside of us and we are brought within God. He abides in us and we abide in Him. That’s pretty cool because it means that when we pray to God, we don’t pray to Him from the outside; we pray to God from the inside.

So when Jesus says (again, at the end of the Gospel of Matthew) that “I am with you always, to the end of the age”, he means it. He is God who is a “being with”. He is God who is “I Am”, God who is Emmanuel “with you” and God who is “always”. He is the Trinity. He is with us and we are with him; He is within us and we are within Him: The Father, Son and Holy Spirit, always, until the end of the age.