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The Bare Facts and Bare Feet of the Last Supper

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Mass of the Lord’s Supper – Thursday, April 2, 2015

Both the Jewish and Christian traditions view eating and feasting as more than simply an opportunity to refuel the body, enjoy certain delicacies, or celebrate a particular occasion.

Eating and feasting became for both traditions, encounters with transcendent realities and even union with the divine. In the New Testament, so much of Jesus’ own ministry took place during meals at table. Some say that you can eat your way through the Gospels with Jesus!

Jesus attends many meals throughout the four Gospels: with Levi and his business colleagues, with Simon the Pharisee, with Lazarus and his sisters in Bethany, with Zacchaeus and the crowd in Jericho, with outcasts and centurions, with crowds on Galilean hillsides, and with disciples in their homes.

It is ultimately during the final meal that Jesus leaves us with his most precious gift in the Eucharist. The Scripture readings for Holy Thursday root us deeply in our Jewish past: celebrating the Passover with the Jewish people, receiving from St. Paul that which was handed on to him, namely the Eucharistic banquet, and looking at Jesus squarely in the face as he kneels before us to wash our feet in humble service. Instead of presenting to us one of the synoptic Gospel stories of the “institution” of the Eucharist, the Church offers us the disturbing posture of the Master kneeling before his friends to wash their feet in a gesture of humility and service.

Just imagine the scene! As Jesus wraps a towel around his waist, takes a pitcher of water, stoops down and begins washing the feet of his disciples, he teaches his friends that liberation and new life are won not in presiding over multitudes from royal thrones nor by the quantity of bloody sacrifices offered on temple altars but by walking with the lowly and poor and serving them as a foot washer along the journey.

On this holy night of “institution,” as Jesus drank from the cup of his blood and stooped to wash feet, a new and dynamic, common bond was created with his disciples and with us. It is as though the whole history of salvation ends tonight just as it begins — with bare feet and the voice of God speaking to us through his own flesh and blood: “As I have done for you, so you must also do.” The washing of the feet is integral to the Last Supper. It is John’s way of saying to Christ’s followers throughout the ages: “You must remember his sacrifice in the Mass, but you must also remember his admonition to go out and serve the world.”

At the Last Supper, Jesus teaches us that true authority in the Church comes from being a servant, from laying down our lives for our friends. His life is a feast for the poor and for sinners. It must be the same for those who receive the Lord’s body and blood. We become what we receive in this meal and we imitate Jesus in his saving works, his healing words, and his gestures of humble service. From the Eucharist must flow a certain style of communitarian life, a genuine care for our neighbors, and for strangers.

Finally, the celebration of the Eucharist always projects us forward just as we profess the memorial acclamation after the consecration at Mass: “When we eat this bread and drink this cup, we proclaim your death, Lord Jesus, until you come in glory.”

The transforming power of a meal

Each year around Holy Thursday, I try to make time to watch one of my favorite “Eucharistic” movies: “Babette’s Feast.” It is a story of the opening of the hearts of a small, puritanical community on the coast of Norway by the generosity of a French refugee cook. The movie, directed by Gabriel Axel, received the Academy Award in 1986 for Best Foreign Film and is a faithful adaptation of Isak Dinesen’s 1958 short story “Babettes gæstebud.” It has been called “a cinematic icon of the Eucharist” because it explores love and generosity in the context of a meal and the meal’s ability to transform lives.

Here is the plot of the story. In 19th-century Denmark, two adult sisters live in an isolated village with their father, who is the honored pastor of a small Protestant church that is practically a sect unto itself. Although they each are presented with a real opportunity to leave the village, the sisters choose to stay with their father, to serve him and their church. After some years, a French woman refugee, Babette, arrives at their door, begs them to take her in, and commits herself to work for them as maid/housekeeper/cook. Babette arrived with a note from a French singer who had passed through the area some time before, fallen in love with one of the sisters, but left disappointed. The note commends Babette to these “good people,” and offhandedly mentions that she can cook. During the intervening dozen years, Babette cooks very plain and simple meals to which the sisters are accustomed.

In the 12th year of her service to this family, Babette wins the French lottery, a prize of 10,000 francs. At the same time, the sisters are planning a simple celebration of the 100th anniversary of their father, the founder of their small Christian sect. They expect Babette to leave with her winnings, but instead, she surprises them by offering to cook a meal for the anniversary. Although the sisters are secretly concerned about what Babette, a Catholic and a foreigner, might do, the sisters allow her to go ahead. Babette uses just the tiniest opening, a modest celebration, to cook up a storm and wreak havoc in the lives of the sisters, and with their community, by such outrageous generosity.

God is ever ready, looking for the smallest opening, in a sense praying that we will grant him the joy of accepting his offer! Life in Christ begins with the tiniest move on our part, just the hint of an opening, and then God steps in and overwhelms us in response. When we accept, God takes over in the kitchen, raining down upon us grace upon grace. The finest French delicacies are nothing compared to the gifts God has to bestow upon us, especially in the ultimate gift of himself in the Eucharist.

In the end, Babette’s feast produced some amazing effects. The community had become reconciled with each other. The dinner guests at Babette’s feast encountered the divine and received fulfillment through the experience of the physical act of eating. “Babette’s Feast” is a masterpiece that can help us to explore divine generosity with the image of a meal, its transforming quality, its gestures of humble, loving service, and its fruits of reconciliation and forgiveness that take place around the table. No wonder why this film reminds me of the other meal that took place in an Upper Room in Jerusalem centuries before.

[The readings for the Mass of the Lord’s Supper: Exodus 12:1-8, 11-14; Psalm 116; I Corinthians 11:23-26; John 13:1-15]

(Image: “Jesus Christ Washing the Feet of His Apostles” by Giotto di Bondone)

The Passion of Jesus Is Our Reason for Hope

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Palm Sunday, Year B – Sunday, March 29, 2015

The Passion, suffering, death and resurrection of the Lord are the very themes that unite us as a Christian people and a Church during Holy Week.

This year on Palm Sunday, we listen attentively to Mark’s Passion story of Jesus’ final days and hours on earth. It is a story of striking contrasts. As we hear anew this moving story, Jesus’ passion penetrates the numbness of our lives. This week in particular, we have a privileged opportunity to learn from what happened to Jesus and discover not only the identity of those who tried, condemned and killed him long ago, but also what killed Jesus and what vicious circles of violence, brutality, hatred and jealousy continue to crucify him today in his brothers and sisters of the human family.

Zooming in on Mark’s Passion narrative

Mark’s account (Mark 11:1-10) of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem is the most subdued version of the event in the New Testament. For some reason the evangelist places much emphasis on the donkey in this account. It was the custom for pilgrims to enter Jerusalem on foot. Only kings and rulers would “ride” into the city — most often on great steeds and horses and in ostentatious processions, in order to make their presence known. Jesus, a different kind of king, chooses to ride into the city, not on a majestic stallion but on the back of a young beast of burden.

By being led through the city on the back of a lowly donkey, Jesus comes as a king whose rule is not about being served but serving. His kingdom is not built on might but on compassion and generous service. The donkey Jesus mounts sends us back to the words of the ancient prophet, Zechariah, who foretold this scene five centuries before: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey . . . ”

In Mark’s jarring Passion story, we witness the anguish of Jesus who has been totally abandoned by friends and disciples. Jesus is resigned to his fate. He makes no response to Judas when he betrays him nor to Pilate during his interrogation. In Mark, Pilate makes no effort to save him, as the Roman procurator does in the other three Gospels.

As he does throughout his Gospel, Mark depicts the utter of failure of the disciples to provide any support to Jesus or to even understand what is happening. The enigmatic, young male disciple who flees naked into the night when Jesus is arrested is a powerful symbol in Mark’s Gospel of his followers who initially left family and friends behind to follow Jesus. Now that the heat is on, they leave everything behind to flee from him.

When we remember the events of that first Holy Week – from the upper room to Gethsemane, from Pilate’s judgment seat to Golgotha, from the cross to the empty tomb, Jesus turns our world and its value system upside down. He teaches us that true authority is found in dedicated service and generosity to others; greatness is centered in humility; the just and loving will be exalted by God in God’s good time.

Viewing Mark’s Passion through the lenses of fidelity

In the midst of Mark’s stories of betrayal and violence, the evangelist inserts a dramatic story of exquisite fidelity. While Jesus visits Simon the Leper in Bethany on the eastern slopes of the Mount of Olives, an anonymous woman breaks, open her alabaster jar of costly perfumed oil, and anoints Jesus’ head in good, royal, biblical fashion (14:3-9). As the fragrance of the oil fills the room, those with Jesus are shocked at the woman’s extravagant gesture. But Jesus defends her. She had performed an act of true fidelity and love, he tells them, “for she has anticipated anointing my body for burial” (14:8). For this, Jesus promises, she would be remembered wherever the Gospel would be preached (14:9). This woman is the only one in all of the New Testament to be so greatly honored.

While his male disciples and apostles clearly manifest a bold track record of failure, betrayal and abandonment, this anonymous woman embodies boldness, courage, love and fidelity. What an example! Though she may not fully understand the significance of her symbolic and prophetic act of anointing him, nor the timeliness of her action, she only desires simply to be with him and to express to him lavish love and attention.

Is this not what each of us is called to do during Holy Week in particular? Is it not to love Jesus and to be attentive to him throughout the final tragic movements of the symphony of his earthly life, and in the midst of all of the setbacks, failures and betrayals of our own lives? Our lives must be like the woman’s jar of expensive ointment poured out so lavishly on the Lord in the final moments of his life on earth.

Who, if not the condemned Savior?

At the conclusion of the Stations of the Cross at Rome’s Colosseum on Good Friday night in the Jubilee Year 2000, Pope John Paul II spoke these moving and powerful words:

“Who, if not the condemned Savior, can fully understand the pain of those unjustly condemned?

Who, if not the King scorned and humiliated, can meet the expectations of the countless men and women who live without hope or dignity?

Who, if not the crucified Son of God, can know the sorrow and loneliness of so many lives shattered and without a future?”

What a Savior we have! He truly understands our human condition. He walks with us and shares our sorrows, loneliness and suffering. How do we respond to such outlandish love and genuine solidarity? Passion Sunday invites us to put on what Paul calls the “attitude of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:6-11) in his passion and death: to “empty” ourselves of our own interests, fears and needs for the sake of others. May we reach out to heal those who are hurting and comfort the despairing around us despite our own denials and betrayals.

During the moving liturgies of Holy Week, we are given the special grace to carry on, with joy and in hope, despite rejection, humiliation and suffering. In this way, the Passion of Jesus becomes a reason for hope and a moment of grace for all us as we seek the reign of God in our own lives — however lonely and painful that search may be. Holy Week gives us the consolation and the conviction that we are not alone.

[The readings for this Sunday are: Isaiah 50:4-7; Philippians 2:6-11; Mark 14:1-15:47 or 15:1-39. For use with RCIA, Mark 11:1-10 or John 12:12-16]

(Image: The Flagellation of Christ by Annibale Carracci)

Deacon-structing St. Joseph

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When Joseph awoke he did as the angel of the Lord had directed him…
(From the Gospel for March 19, the Solemnity of Joseph, the Husband of Mary, Matthew 1:16, 18-21, 24)

Last week, I ended by saying that I would deacon-struct Holy Week, but I can’t let this week go by without saying something about my favourite Saint. Sometimes, because it’s Lent we may overlook some feasts or solemnities that fall during the season. It’s hard to ignore the Feast of St. Patrick, but how many really pay attention to the Solemnity of St. Joseph?

There isn’t much that we know about Joseph. We know that his Father’s name was Jacob and that he was the husband of Mary. We know that before they lived together he found out she was pregnant and instead of shaming her or causing scandal, he decided to divorce her quietly. Matthew’s Gospel tells us that he was an upright man, a man of principle. We also know that he was a righteous man who followed the law: He observed religious law – we know he went to Jerusalem for the Jewish festivals. He also followed civil law – he went to Bethlehem for the census. We also know that Joseph had dreams. God spoke to him in his dreams and he followed his dreams.

One thing we don’t know about Joseph are his words. In all of the Gospels, no where do we ever hear anything Joseph says. He never says anything. But he’s a man of action: He does what the angel tells him; he takes Mary as his wife; he goes to Bethlehem; he finds a place to stay for the night; he takes his family to Egypt. He’s a man of action – not a man of words.

For centuries, scholars and artists have tried to figure out Joseph’s words. One of my favourite Christmas songs is Joseph’s Song by Michael Card. In it, Joseph prays:

“How can it be, this baby in my arms, sleeping now, so peacefully. The son of God, the angel said, how could it be? O Lord I know he’s not my own, not of my flesh, not of my bone. Still Father let this baby be the son of my love.”

Then Joseph prays:

“Father show me where I fit into this plan of yours. How can a man be father to the son of God? Lord, for all my life I’ve been a simple carpenter… how can I raise a king? How can I raise a king?”

I like this song because to me it shows what Joseph models perfectly: He was a man after God’s will. He longed to know God’s will and searched to see how he fit into the Father’s plan.

And just like God had a plan for Joseph, God has a plan for each one of us. The plan does not need to be more than that He wants us to be upright and righteous. He wants us to be loving parents, loving husbands and wives. God wants us to follow the law: observe the commandments. But, just like Joseph in the song, we may feel that we don’t have anything to contribute, that we are nothing but simple carpenters. Just like Joseph we may never see the fruit of our work. We may never reap the harvest. The first reading on the Solemnity of St. Joseph, March 19, is from the Book of Samuel (2 Samuel 7:4-5, 12-14, 16). In it, we hear about a promise to King David. We hear about it in Psalm 89 as well: “The son of David will live forever” or “his line will continue forever.” In the second reading for the same feast day (Romans 4:13, 16-18, 22) Paul tells the Romans about another upright man who never saw the fruit of his work: Abraham. He did God’s will, but never saw the fulfilment of God’s promise to him.

But the promise was fulfilled. St. Joseph may have been a simple carpenter, who did not amount to much during his life, but today, 2000 years later, he is venerated as one of the greatest saints in the Church. Every March 19th we celebrate the Solemnity of St. Joseph, Husband of Mary. There aren’t a lot of Saints for whom we have solemnities. The Church has been observing this feast since the 10th century and it has been a universal feast since the 16thcentury. And Joseph gets another feast day on May 1st: Feast of St. Joseph, the Worker. Except for Mary, no other saint has more than one feast day.

St. Joseph is the patron saint of husbands, of fathers, the patron saint of families, the patron saint of homes and the patron saint of workers. Joseph is also the unofficial patron saint against doubt and hesitation, of fighting against communism and of a good and happy death. We also believe that Joseph prays for all pregnant women, for immigrants, travellers and for those buying or selling a house.

In 1870, Pope Pius IX declared St. Joseph patron of the universal Church. He is the Patron of the Universal Church! And for us in our country, we should know that St. Joseph is the principal patron of Canada. That’s a huge responsibility for a man of so few words. But it’s a perfect job for a man of action.

As we journey through Lent – especially when we gather around the Eucharistic table, let’s pray to St. Joseph. Let him guide us and help us open our hearts to God’s plan for us: that we may be upright and righteous; that we may be men and women after God’s will; that we may be able to pray, “Father show me how I fit into this plan of yours.” And dream. Let God speak to you in your dreams and then get up and do as the angel of the Lord directs you. God has a great plan for everyone. Even for a simple carpenter.

Gazing Upon the Face of Jesus

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Fifth Sunday of Lent, Year B – March 22, 2015

The Fifth Sunday of Lent (Year B) invites us to fix our gaze upon Jesus, the model priest of suffering, compassion, and human solidarity.

First, let us consider John’s Gospel story from Chapter 12 — a fitting climax to Jesus’ public ministry. It is the last official act before the events of his passion next Sunday. There are Gentiles, non-Jews, who seek Jesus out for the first time. They do not come simply to catch a glimpse of him, to have some general audience with him, but rather to “see” him. In John’s Gospel, “seeing” Jesus is believing in him. How simple yet how stunning a request: “Sir, we would like to see Jesus” [John 12:21]!

Throughout the entire Scriptures, men and women have longed to see God, to gaze upon God’s countenance, beauty and glory. How many times in the psalms do we ask to see the face of God? “Shine your face on your servant” (Psalm 119:135). Not only do we beg to see God’s face, but we are told to look for it. “Seek my face,” says the Lord (Psalm 27:8).

But we cannot seem to find the face we are told to look for. Then the laments begin: “Do not hide your face from me” (Psalm 102:2). “Why do you hide your face from me?” (Psalm 88:14). “How long will you hide your face from me?” (Psalm 13:2). We beg, we seek, but we cannot find God’s face. Then we are distraught. Moses, speaking as friend-to-friend, asked to see God’s face. But God said to him, “You cannot see my face; for no one shall see my face and live” (Exodus 33:20).

When we ask in the Psalms to see God’s face, we are really asking to see God as God truly is, to gaze into the depths of God. In the last chapter of the last book of the Scriptures, it is written: “They will see his face” (Revelation 22:4). We see God’s face revealed to us in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. How often do we long to “see” the face of Jesus? Where are we seeking his face today? What do we do when we finally “see” the face of Jesus?

Garden of suffering

The author of the Letter to the Hebrews is filled with the thoughts and theology of Paul and John, but he also contemplates Jesus’ agony in the garden in relation to temple sacrifices and the priesthood according to the Hebrew Scriptures. The Old Testament never dreamed of requiring the high priest to make himself like his brothers and sisters, but was preoccupied on the contrary with separating him from them. An attitude of compassion toward sinners appeared to be incompatible with the priesthood of the Old Covenant. Furthermore, no text ever required that the high priest should be free from all sin.

Hebrews 5:7-9 presents us with a different type of priesthood — one of extraordinary compassion and solidarity. In his days on earth, Jesus shared our flesh and blood, crying out with prayers and silent tears. Jesus has been tested in all respects like us — he knows all of our difficulties; he is a tried man; he knows our condition from the inside and from the outside — only by this did he acquire a profound capacity for compassion. That is the only kind of priesthood that makes a difference, and that matters, then and now.

What does this image of Jesus teach us today? Far from creating an abyss between Jesus Christ and ourselves, our own daily trials and weaknesses have become the privileged place of our encounter with him, and not only with him, but with God himself. The consequence is that from now on, not one of us can be bowed down under a painful situation without finding that Christ is, by that very fact, at our side. Jesus was “heard because of his ‘reverence’ or his ‘pious submission.'” And we are given the consolation that we, too, will be heard because of our own persistence in prayer, our reverence before God and our pious submission to his will for us.

John Paul II’s agony

We read in today’s Gospel passage that the Greeks address themselves first to Philip, who is from the village of Bethsaida on the Sea of Galilee: “Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus” (John 12:22). To see Jesus, one must be led to him by an apostle. The testimony of those who lived with him, at his side, shows him to us and we cannot do without this testimony.

We need the apostolic writings, especially the Gospels, handed down to us by tradition, of which our parents, priests, deacons, teachers, catechists, preachers and other believers are witnesses and bearers of the Good News. How important and necessary it is to recognize those key people in our lives who are living witnesses and links to the tradition and the Good News about Jesus Christ! One such person for millions of people throughout the world was Karol Wojtyla, the man we know as Saint John Paul II.

Almost exactly ten years ago, the world witnessed the agony and passion of this Successor of Peter in a most public way. As we commemorate the tenth anniversary of the John Paul II’s death on April 2, I cannot help but recall those moving days and see how much he revealed to us the face of God and the image of Jesus crucified.

One of the most powerful lessons he taught us in the twilight of his Pontificate was that everyone must suffer, even the Vicar of Christ. Rather than hide his infirmities, as most public figures do, he let the whole world see what he went through. In the final act of his life, the athlete was immobilized, the distinctive, booming voice silenced, and the hand that produced voluminous encyclicals no longer able to write. Yet nothing made John Paul II waver, even the debilitating sickness hidden under the glazed Parkinsonian mask, and ultimately his inability to speak and move. Many believe that the most powerful message he preached was when the words and actions failed.

One of the unforgettable, silent, teaching moments of those final days took place on Good Friday night 2005, while the Pope, seated in his private chapel in the Vatican, viewed the television coverage of the Via Crucis from Rome’s Colosseum. At the station commemorating the death of the Lord, a television camera in the papal chapel showed the Pope embracing a cross in his hands with his cheek resting against the wood. His accepting of suffering and death needed no words. The image spoke for itself.

Several hours before his death, Pope John Paul’s last audible words were: “Let me go to the house of the Father.” In the intimate setting of prayer, as Mass was celebrated at the foot of his bed and the throngs of faithful sang below in St. Peter’s Square, he died at 9:37 p.m. on April 2. Through his public passion, suffering and death, this holy priest, Successor of the Apostles, and Servant of God, showed us the face of Jesus in a remarkable way.

[The readings for this Sunday are: Jeremiah 31:31-34; Hebrew 5:7-9; and John 12:20-33. For use with RCIA, Ezekiel 37:12-14; Romans 8:8-11; John 11:1-45 or 11:3-7, 17, 20-27, 33b-45.]

(Image: CNS photo/L’Osservatore Romano)

Nicodemus’ Search for the “Soul of Theology”

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Fourth Sunday of Lent, Year B – Sunday, March 15, 2015

The Gospel for the Fourth Sunday of Lent (Year B) features a nocturnal conversation between two important religious teachers: on the one hand a notable “teacher of Israel” named Nicodemus, and on the other, Jesus whom this Nicodemus calls a “teacher from God.”

Nicodemus came to Jesus at night. His prominent role and position in the national cabinet called the Sanhedrin made him the custodian of a great tradition. He was expected by many to be a national expert on God!

It is important to provide some background for the Gospel passage for this Sunday. The conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus is one of the most significant dialogues of the New Testament and his coming to Jesus secretly at night suggests the darkness of unbelief. The whole visit and conversation are shrouded in ambiguity and the Johannine penchant for strong contrasts such as darkness and light can be seen in this highly symbolic story.

Jesus speaks to Nicodemus of the need to experience the presence of God and offer oneself to him. Knowing God is much more than a gathering of theological information and data about him. In speaking about being born again from above, Jesus does not mean that one must reenter the mother’s womb for a second time; but Jesus refers to a rebirth, which the Spirit of God makes possible.

Lifted up

In today’s Gospel text, Jesus tells Nicodemus, and all who will hear this story in future generations, that the Son of Man must be lifted up on a pole so that people may gaze upon him and find healing and peace. During Israel’s sojourn in the desert, the people were afflicted by a plague of serpents. Moses raised up a serpent on a stake, and all who gazed upon it were restored to health. Both the bronze serpent and Jesus crucified symbolize human sinfulness. When Jesus is “raised up,” it is not only his suffering on the cross that is intimated. The Greek word used for “raised up” has a double meaning: both a physical lifting up from the ground, as in the crucifixion, or the spiritual lifting up which is an exultation.

What lesson does Nicodemus teach us today? He alerts us to what happens when we buy into a system and try to “master” theology, scripture, tradition, rules and regulations. He teaches us that courses in religion and theology are no substitute for faith and conviction. For Nicodemus, God is much more than information and data — God is first and foremost a friend, a lover, a Lord and a Savior, who patiently waits for us by day, and even by night. Rather than approaching Scripture as something to master, we must allow the Word of God to master us.

We know nothing more about Nicodemus, except that months afterward, he is able to postpone the inevitable clash between Jesus and the Sanhedrin. Later on, Nicodemus assists Joseph of Arimathea in retrieving the broken body of the dead Jesus.

Nicodemus and the synod

I cannot help but read the story of Nicodemus in light of the 2008 Synod of Bishops at the Vatican on the Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church. I had the privilege of serving as the Vatican’s English language media attaché and I can tell you the experience was a rich retreat steeped in Scripture and the documents of the Second Vatican Council.

At the synod, the Holy Father and the bishops of the world addressed the present impasse in Scriptural studies, often caused by the atomization and dissection of the Scriptures, and a lack of integration of biblical studies with faith, the liturgy and lived spirituality. If Biblical texts are read and taught 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 run the risk of selectivist and relativist interpretations of God’s Word.

Over the past 18 years of lecturing in Scripture at the Graduate School of Theology of the University of St. Michael’s College in Toronto, Canada, numerous students confided in me that their Scripture courses were “without a soul,” divorced from the reality of the Church and unrelated to her liturgical life. Their simple yet revealing comments pointed toward one of the significant themes evoked during the Synod of Bishops on the Word of God.

On October 14, 2008, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI shared some profound reflections on this very topic. In his brief, crystal-clear address to the whole assembly at the Vatican, the Pope touched upon one of the important themes that emerged in spades during this synod. When Catholic biblical exegesis is divorced from the living, breathing community of faith in the Church, exegesis is reduced to historiography and nothing more. The hermeneutic of faith disappears. We reduce everything to human sources and can simply explain everything away. Ultimately, we deny the One about whom the Scriptures speak, the one whose living presence lies underneath the words.

Referring to “Dei Verbum,” the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, the Pope reaffirmed unequivocally of the importance of the historical-critical method that finds its roots in John 1:14, the Word becoming flesh. Nothing that can help us understand the Biblical text should be excluded as long as the purpose of the different approaches and their limits are kept clear.

All the while the Pope was speaking, the New Testament figure of Nicodemus was on my mind, as well as numerous other personalities who were led by Jesus beyond theories, systems, structures into the encounter with the living Lord who is the Word among us. Nicodemus certainly had an endless amount of knowledge and learning, and he developed a great system of religion in which God is categorized and analyzed. Jesus does not say that this is evil or even undesirable. He simply says that it is not enough.

Every since my years of study at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome, I have carried this little prayer of St. Bonaventure in my pocket. The words are from his “Itinerarium Mentis in Deum” inviting Christians to recognize the inadequacy of “reading without repentance, knowledge without devotion, research without the impulse of wonder, prudence without the ability to surrender to joy, action divorced from religion, learning sundered from love, intelligence without humility, study unsustained by divine grace, thought without the wisdom inspired by God.”

Those words serve as a measure and guide for each of us, as we study theology and the Word of God, and allow the Word to master us. May our knowledge, learning, science and intelligence humbly lead us into an encounter, by day and by night, with Jesus Christ, the ultimate goal of our journey.

[The readings for this Sunday are: 2 Chronicles 36:14-16, 19-23; Ephesians 2:4-10; John 3:14-21. For use with RCIA: 1 Samuel 16:1b, 6-7, 10-13a; Ephesians 5:8-14; John 9:1-41 or 9:1, 6-9, 13-17, 34-38]

(Image: “Christ and Nicodemus” by Matthias Stomer)

A Burning Love for the Father’s House

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Third Sunday of Lent, Year B – March 8, 2015

In the Scripture readings for the Third Sunday of Lent (Year B), I would like to focus our reflection on two powerful images present in the texts: that of Jesus purifying Jerusalem’s Temple, and St. Paul’s message of the cross of Jesus Christ. Both the purifying action of Jesus and Paul’s understanding of the cross can be of tremendous help to us as we grow in our knowledge and love of Jesus Christ this Lenten season.

John’s account of Jesus’ cleansing of the temple is in sharp contrast to the other Gospel accounts of this dramatic story. In the Synoptic Gospels, this scene takes place at the end of the “Palm Sunday Procession” into the holy city. With the people shouting out in triumph, Jesus entered into the temple area, 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 the sacrifice. What a teaching moment this was! Jesus quoted from the Scriptures: “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations … but you have made it a den of robbers” (Mark 11:17, Isaiah 56:6-7, Jeremiah 7:11).

In the Fourth Gospel, the cleansing of the temple takes place at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry and not at the beginning of the events of the last days of Jesus’ life. The startling words and actions of Jesus in the temple, whether they are from the Synoptic accounts or John’s account, took on new meaning for later generations of Christians. “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” The temple was not a commercial center or shopping mall but rather a holy place of the Father. Like the prophets before him, Jesus tried to awaken the hearts of his people.

Jesus’ disciples recall him saying in the temple the words of Psalm 68:10: “Zeal for your house will consume me.” I have often understood this verse to mean: “I am filled with a burning love for your house.” When the magnificent Temple of Jerusalem had been destroyed by the Romans, and both Jews and Christians grieved at its loss, the followers of Jesus recalled this incident in the temple. Now they could see new meaning in it; it was a sign that the old temple was finished but a new temple was to be built. This new temple would not be of stone and wood and gold. It would be a living temple of holy people (I Peter 2:4-6; Ephesians 2:19-22).

Extreme Jesus

One intriguing aspect of today’s Gospel story is the portrait of an angry Jesus in the temple-cleansing scene that gives way to two extremes in our own image of the Lord. Some people wish to transform an otherwise passive Christ into a whip-cracking revolutionary.

Others would like to excise any human qualities of Jesus and paint a very meek, bland character, who smiled, kept silent and never rocked the boat. The errors of the old extreme, however, do not justify a new extremism.

Jesus was not exclusively, not even primarily, concerned with social reform. Rather, he was filled with a deep devotion and burning love for his Father and the things of his Father. He wanted to form new people, created in God’s image, who are sustained by his love, and bring that love to others. Jesus’ disciples and apostles recognized him as 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 we filled with a deep and burning love for the things of God and for his Son, Jesus?

Message of the Cross

In writing to the people of Corinth, Paul was addressing numerous disorders and scandals that were present. True communion and unity were threatened by groups and internal divisions that seriously compromised the unity of the Body of Christ. Rather than appealing to complex theological or philosophical words of wisdom to resolve the difficulties, Paul announces Christ to this community: Christ crucified. Paul’s strength is not found in persuasive language, but rather, paradoxically, in the weakness of one who trusts only in the “power of God” (I Corinthians 2:1-4).

In St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians (1:18, 22-25), we hear about “the message of the cross that is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God.” For St. Paul, the cross represents the center of his theology: To say cross means to say salvation as grace given to every creature.

Paul’s simple message of the cross is scandal and foolishness. He states this strongly with the words: “The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. It was the will of God through the foolishness of the proclamation to save those who have faith. For Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.”

The “scandal” and the “foolishness” of the cross are precisely in the fact that where there seems to be only failure, sorrow and defeat, precisely there, is all the power of the boundless love of God. The cross is the expression of love and love is the true power that is revealed precisely in this seeming weakness.

St. Paul has experienced this even in his own flesh, and he gives us testimony of this in various passages of his spiritual journey, which have become important points of departure for every disciple of Jesus: “He said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness'” (2 Corinthians 12:9); and even “God chose the lowly and despised of the world, those who count for nothing, to reduce to nothing those who are something” (1 Corinthians 1:28).

The Apostle to the Gentiles identifies himself to such a degree with Christ that he also, even in the midst of so many trials, lives in the faith of the Son of God who loved him and gave himself up for his sins and those of everyone (cf. Galatians 1:4; 2:20).

Today, as we contemplate Jesus’ burning love for the things of his Father, and the saving mystery of his cross, let us pray these words:

O God, whose foolishness is wise and whose weakness is strong,
by the working of your grace in the disciplines of Lent
cleanse the temple of your Church and purify the sanctuary of our hearts.

May we be filled with a burning love for your house,
and may obedience to your commandments
absorb and surround us along this Lenten journey.

We ask this through Jesus Christ, the man of the cross,
your power and your wisdom,
the Lord who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
God for ever and ever. Amen.

[The readings for this Sunday are: Exodus 20:1-17 or 20:1-3, 7-8, 12-17; 1 Corinthians 1:22-25 and John 2:13-25. For use with RCIA, Exodus 17:3-7; Romans 5:1-2, 5-8 and John 4:5-42 or 4:5-15, 19b-26, 39a, 40-42]

Moriah, Tabor, Calvary: Darkness Can Be Radiant

Transfiguration

Second Sunday of Lent, Year B – March 1, 2015

Moriah. Sinai. Nebo. Carmel. Horeb. Gilboa. Gerizim. Mount of Beatitudes. Tabor. Hermon. Zion. Mount of Olives. Calvary. Golgotha. Mountains are often used in the Bible as the stages of important encounters between God and his people. Though we may have never visited the lands of the Bible, we are all familiar with these biblical mountains and the great events of our salvation history that took place there.

Today’s Old Testament and Gospel reading take place on two important biblical mountains– Mount Moriah and Mount Tabor. Both readings give us profound insights into our God and his Son, Jesus, who is our Savior. First let us consider the story of the sacrifice of Isaac by his father Abraham as portrayed in Genesis 22:1-19. The story is called the Akedah in Hebrew (Anglicization of the Aramaic word for “binding”) and it easily provokes scandal for the modern mind: What sort of God is this who can command a father to kill his own son?

How many pagan voices were assailing Abraham at this moment? What would a contemporary father do if he were to be called on to sacrifice his only son to God? He would be thought mad if he even considered it — and unfaithful to God as well. What a poignant story indeed! “Take your son, your only son Isaac whom you love … and offer him as a burnt offering. … So Abraham rose early in the morning.” Because Abraham listened to the Lord’s messenger, his only son’s life was spared. The binding of Isaac, then, is a symbol of life, not death, for Abraham is forbidden to sacrifice his son.

What happens on Mount Moriah finds an echo in what happens atop Mount Tabor and Mount Calvary in the New Testament: The mounts Moriah, Tabor and Calvary are significant places of vision in the Bible. For on these peaks, we see a God who never abandons us in our deepest despair, terror and death. God is with us through thick and thin, through day and night.

These mountains teach us that it is only when we are willing to let go of what we love most and cherish most in this life, to offer it back to God, the giver of all good gifts, that we can ever hope to receive it back in ways we never dreamed of or imagined. Only then will we experience resurrection, healing, consoling light and new life.

We can only speculate on what lies behind the story of the Transfiguration — one of the Gospel’s most mysterious and awesome visions (Mark 9:2-8; Matthew 17:1-8; Luke 9:28-36). Peter, James and John had an overwhelming experience with the Lord on Mount Tabor. Following the night of temptation and preceding the blackness of Golgotha, the glorious rays of the Transfiguration burst forth. Before their eyes, the Jesus they had known and with whom they walked became transfigured. His countenance was radiant; his garments streaming with white light. At his side, enveloped in glory, stood Moses, the mighty liberator, who had led Israel out of slavery, and Elijah, the greatest of Israel’s prophets.

Jesus needed the light and affirmation of the mountaintop experience in his own life. In the midst of his passion predictions, he needed Mount Tabor, to strengthen him as he descended into the Jordan Valley and made his way up to Jerusalem. For every disciple since, it is the same. Those who follow Jesus must ascend the mountain to catch a glimpse of the mystery of God’s presence in our world and in our lives.

And yet Mark’s story of Jesus transfigured reminds us that gazing in contemplation is not enough. The disciples are told to listen to Jesus, the Beloved of God, and then return to their daily routine down in the valley.

The awesome Gospel story of the Transfiguration gives us an opportunity to look at some of our own mountaintop experiences. How have such experiences shed light on the shadows and darkness of life? What would our lives be without some of these peak experiences? How often do we turn to those few but significant experiences for strength, courage and perspective? How has the mountaintop experience enabled us to listen more attentively to God’s voice — a voice calling us to fidelity and authenticity in our belief? When we’re down in the valley we often can’t see Christ’s glory.

The most consoling message of the Transfiguration is perhaps for those who suffer, and those who witness the deformation of their own bodies and the bodies of their loved ones. Even Jesus will be disfigured in the passion, but will rise with a glorious body with which he will live for eternity and, faith tells us, with which he will meet us after death.

So many voices assail us that we find it difficult to listen to God’s voice. Before light envelops us, we need to go through darkness. Before the heavens open up, we need to go through the mud and dirt. We must experience both mountains — Tabor and Golgotha — in order to see the glory of God. The Transfiguration teaches us that God’s brilliant life included death, and there is no way around it — only through it.

It also reminds us that the terrifying darkness can be radiant and dazzling. During moments of transfiguration, God penetrates the hardened, incredulous, even disquieting regions within us, about which we really do not know what to do, and he leaves upon them the imprint of his own face, in all its radiant and dazzling glory and beauty.

[The readings for this Sunday are: Genesis 22:1-2, 9a, 10-13, 15-18; Romans 8:31b-34; and Mark 9:2-10.]

This reflection first appeared on the Zenit International News Service in 2009 as well as on the Salt + Light Blog. The complete collection of reflections for Year B, entitled “Words made Flesh,” is now available in book form through our online store.

A World Seeking the Path of Lenten Renewal

Lenten_Renewal

Perhaps now more than at any point in recent history, the world finds itself veering uncomfortably close to danger and uncertainty. We have a global financial system that is unsustainable and violence and military conflicts brewing in some of the world’s most volatile powder kegs. There are now new emerging problems like disease outbreaks and social unrest brewing, which leads one to a very troubling concerning conclusion: the world is a mess.

This isn’t to say that we haven’t in recent years had our share of regional or global problems. However there’s a particular unease to the intensity of the current state of affairs. The West lining up against Russia, the Islamic State and al Shabaab committing atrocities in Africa and the Middle East, social unrest in Venezuela, Ebola in West Africa, the list goes on and on. It’s at times like these when Christians are called to bare witness to their faith, and what better time to bear witness during this particular time of year.

It’s at this time that we begin the season of Lent, a time of renewal, for fasting, penance and alms giving. It is an opportunity to try to reframe oneself amidst all the chaos we find ourselves enveloped in, not just in the world, but also in our own lives. Finding the time to peacefully reflect, to pray, to develop good habits and to journey closer to God, are things we should all strive for. Were this the prevailing attitude worldwide at this time of year, is it unreasonable to think that we might not have quite the degree of conflict and uncertainty that we do today?

Solving the world’s problems begins with each and every one of us, and our own conversion of heart. We cannot allow power, greed and pride to rule us. The Apostolic Vicar to Tripoli, Libya, Bishop Giovanni Martinelli illustrated this very plainly this week in an interview with Vatican Radio. He chastised powerful interests, specifically western countries for helping themselves to Libya’s resources following the military intervention, which led to the toppling of Muammar Gaddafi. He said that it was self-interests and economic interests that have created a terrible void in the country, which has led to much destruction and death.

With Libya verging on being a failed state, Bishop Martinelli’s words bare ever-stronger meaning, as we can see the consequences of selfish individual choices gone awry. However the bishop has chosen not to abandon his post, and will no doubt give a heroing Lenten witness, as militants are already surrounding Tripoli. There will no doubt be suffering, little food, a need to serve the poor coupled with a desperate need for prayer. We are not all called to live a Lenten season so intense and full of daily life and death struggle. However there is much we can learn, much the world can learn from the bishop’s example.

The world needs more Bishop Martinellis, those who are resolute in their faith and who prayerfully witness and serve in spite of what others might do or say. May this Lenten season be an opportunity for us all to be closer to Christ.

The Ways of the Desert

Jesus Tempted cropped

First Sunday of Lent, Year B – February 22, 2015

Does anyone really look forward to Lent? What is it about Lent that excites us? What aspects of the Lenten journey test us? The Scriptural readings for this season are carefully chosen so as to replay salvation history before our very eyes.

Let us begin with Jesus in the desert — the Gospel for the first Sunday of Lent. The desert sun and the pangs of hunger and thirst conjured up the demon for him. Mark presents Jesus wrestling with the power of Satan, alone and silent in the desert wastes. Mark’s version of the temptations of Jesus does not mention three temptations, nor does it say that Jesus fasted. Mark’s whole focus is on presenting the temptations of Jesus as part of the great struggle between good and evil, between God and Satan.

Jesus’ desert experience raises important questions for us. What are some of the “desert” experiences I have experienced in my life? What desert experience am I living through right now? When and how do I find moments of contemplation in the midst of a busy life? How have I lived in the midst of my own deserts? Have I been courageous and persistent in fighting with the demons? How have I resisted transforming my own deserts into places of abundant life?

In Matthew and Luke there is an ongoing conversation, as the prince of evil attempts to turn Jesus aside from the faith and integrity at the heart of his messianic mission. But if Israel had failed in the desert, Jesus would not. His bond with his Father was too strong for even the demons of the desert to break.

In the first temptation in the desert, Jesus responds to the evil one, not by denying human dependence on sustenance (food), but rather by putting human life and the human journey in perspective. Those who follow Jesus cannot become dependent on the things of this world. When we are so dependent on material things, and not on God, we give in to temptation and sin.

God’s in charge

The second temptation deals with the adoration of the devil rather than God. Jesus once again reminds the evil one that God is in control. This is important for us to hear and believe, especially when our own temptations seem to overpower us, when everything around us might indicate failure, shadows, darkness and evil. It is God who is ultimately in charge of our destiny.

In the third temptation, the devil asks for a revelation or manifestation of God’s love in favor of Jesus. Jesus answers the evil one by saying that he doesn’t have to prove to anyone that God loves him.

Temptation is everything that makes us small, ugly, and mean. Temptation uses the trickiest moves that the evil one can think up. The more the devil has control of us, the less we want to acknowledge that he is fighting for every millimeter of this earth. Jesus didn’t let him get away with that. At the very beginning of his campaign for this world and for each one of us, Jesus openly confronted the enemy. He began his fight using the power of Scripture during a night of doubt, confusion and temptation. We must never forget Jesus’ example, so that we won’t be seduced by the devil’s deception.

From Jesus we learn that God is present and sustaining us in the midst of test, temptation and even sinfulness. We realize that we must have some spiritual space in our lives where we can strip away the false things that cling to us and breathe new life into our dreams and begin again. We come to believe that God can take the parched surface of our hope and make it bloom. These are the lessons of the desert. That is why we need – even in the activity of our daily lives and work, moments of prayer, of stillness, of listening to the voice of God.

We meet God in the midst of our deserts of sinfulness, selfishness, jealousy, efficiency, isolation, cynicism and despair. And in the midst of the desert we hear what God will do if we open our hearts to him and allow him to make our own deserts bloom. The ways of the desert were deep within the heart of Jesus, and it must be the same for all who would follow him.

[The readings for this Sunday are: Genesis 9:8-15; 1 Peter 3:18-22 and Mark 1:12-15]

(Image: “Jesus Tempted in the Desert” by James Tissot)

This reflection first appeared on the Zenit International News Service in 2009 as well as on the Salt + Light Blog. The complete collection of reflections for Year B, entitled “Words made Flesh,” is now available in book form through our online store.

Overcoming a Globalization of Indifference

Overcoming cropped

Biblical Reflection for Ash Wednesday – February 18, 2015

On Ash Wednesday the Church begins her great Lenten journey with Jesus on the road to Jerusalem. For centuries, Lent has been a very intense spiritual journey and experience for the followers of Jesus Christ. Why are there 40 days in Lent? It took 40 days for sinfulness to drown in the flood before a new creation could inherit the earth. It took 40 years for the generation of slaves to die before the freeborn could enter the Promised Land. For 40 days Moses, Elijah and Jesus fasted and prayed to prepare themselves for a life’s work. Lent invites us to turn from our own selves, from our sin, to come together in community. Self-denial is the way we express our repentance. Self-denial is threefold, advises Matthew’s Gospel.

We pray: “Go to your room, close your door, and pray to your Father in private.”

We fast: “No one must see you are fasting but your Father.”

We give alms: “Keep your deeds of mercy secret, and your Father who sees in secret will repay you.”

The central theme of Pope Francis’ Lenten message this year is indifference, a topic that the Holy Father has addressed on a number of occasions. Indifference is an important concept to explain the different phenomena of the modern world. One of the most significant moments when Pope Francis spoke of this indifference was during his short but highly significant visit to the island of Lampedeusa, off the coast of Sicily, in July 2013.  There he spoke of “the globalization of indifference,” not merely as a geographical phenomenon, but also a cultural one. The Lenten season is always a time of conversion, change and renewal. It is a time for overcoming this globalization of indifference and entering into a new phase in which we recognize the difference between the self and the other, between one lifestyle and another, between oneself and God. This year’s Lenten Message presents three areas in which indifference must be overcome: the Church, the community and the individual.

Pope Francis speaks about the necessary conversion and the new heart that can beat within us. The key step in all social reconstruction and cultural renewal is change in the individual. The Gospel provides the keys for achieving this change in the person, which then affects the whole social fabric. Pope Francis warns however that conversion does not have its purpose in a better society, but in the knowledge of Christ and in becoming like Him.

We can see clearly in Pope Francis’ teaching that he calls us to go beyond a faith that serves only to care for oneself and one’s own well being. Indifference stems from an attitude to life in which otherness does not make a difference and so each person withdraws into himself. Faith also can become instrumental in this search for self.  Our path, Francis explained, is must take us further, “beyond ourselves”, so that we “live our faith by looking at Christ and in Him we find the Father and brothers and sisters who await us”.

Indifference must also be overcome in Christian communities, which are required to be “islands of mercy in a world dominated by the globalization of indifference.” The Christian community can already overcome this indifference, it can show the world that one can live differently and that it can become the city on a hill mentioned in the Gospel. Beginning with this Lent season, Christian community life, where one lives for the other, can be not merely a vague dream but instead a living reality; rather than a distant dream, a living sign of the presence of God’s mercy in Christ.

One of the important practives during Lent is fasting.  It helps us not to be reduced to pure “consumers”; it helps us to acquire the precious “fruit of the Spirit,” which is “self-control,” it predisposes us to the encounter with God. We must empty ourselves in order to be filled by God. Fasting creates authentic solidarity with millions of hungry people throughout the world. But we must not forget that there are alternative forms of fasting and abstinence from food. We can practice fasting from smoking and drinking. This not only benefits the soul but also the body. There is fasting from violent and sexual pictures that television, movies, magazines and Internet bombard us with daily as they distort human dignity. There is the fasting from condemning and dismissing others — a practice so prevalent in today’s Church.

“For now is the acceptable time! Now is the day of salvation!” We need Lent to help us recognize that our identity and mission are rooted in Jesus’ dying and rising. Prayer, fasting and almsgiving are the pillars of the Lenten journey for Christians. They help us to overcome a globalization of indifference by helping us to focus on what is real.

Lent is a time to fast from certain things, but also a time to feast on others. Fast from discontent, anger, bitterness, self-concern, discouragement, laziness, suspicion, guilt. Feast on gratitude, patience, forgiveness, compassion for others, hope, commitment, truth, and the mercy of God. Lent is just such a time of fasting and feasting!

(Image: Pope Francis in Lampedusa, CNS photo/L’Osservatore Romano via CPP)