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.

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.

Easy Yokes, Light Burdens and a Gentle, Smiling Lord

Jesus smiling cropped

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus’ prayer of rejoicing

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

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

Priority over relationships

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

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

Accepting the Lord’s yoke

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why Jesus is still attractive today

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

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

Constant challenge of Christian living

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

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

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

Devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus has suffered cardiac arrest

Sacre-Coeur

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

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

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

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

The symbol of the heart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Devotion to the Sacred Heart Today

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Heart of the Priesthood

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

A Unity Transcending All Differences

Peter and Paul

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

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

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

Affirmation, identity and purpose at Caesarea Philippi

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

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

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

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

Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus

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

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

The final earthly moments of Peter and Paul

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Together they built the Church

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

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

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

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

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

Receiving Communion cropped

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

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

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

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

One bread, one body

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

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

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

Johannine answers

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

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

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

Enduring presence

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

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

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

Real Presence

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

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

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

Eucharistic obligations

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

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

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

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

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

(Photo courtesy: CNS/Saabi, Galbe)

Barnabas and Paul: Contentious Collaborators

PB cropped

Today’s memorial of St. Barnabas presents us with one of Paul’s great collaborators who played a very significant role in the initial evangelization.  I would like to share with you some reflections about these two men and apostles.  First some thoughts from today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles 11:21b-26; 12:1-3. Barnabas means “son of encouragement” (Acts 4:36) or “son of consolation”. He was a Levite Jew and a native of Cyprus.  Having settled in Jerusalem, he was one of the first to embrace Christianity after the Lord’s Resurrection. With great generosity, he sold a field, which belonged to him, and gave the money to the Apostles for the Church’s needs (Acts 4:37).

Barnabas spent a whole year with Paul in Antioch, dedicated to the evangelization of that important city.  In the Antioch Church, Barnabas was known as a prophet and teacher (cf. Acts 13:1).  At the time of the first conversions of the Gentiles, Barnabas realized that Saul’s hour had come. As Paul had retired to his native town of Tarsus, he went there to look for him. We could say that Barnabas was in some way Paul’s agent!  He presented Paul back to the Church as the great apostle to the Gentiles.

The Church of Antioch then sent Barnabas on a mission with Paul, which became known as the Apostle’s first missionary journey. In fact, it was Barnabas’ missionary voyage since Barnabas was in charge and Paul had joined him as a collaborator as they visited the regions of Cyprus and Central and Southern Anatolia in present-day Turkey, along with the cities of Attalia, Perga, Antioch of Pisidia, Iconium, Lystra and Derbe.  A wonderful friendship between Paul and Barnabas was born on that journey. Later on, when a second campaign was planned, Barnabas proposed taking Mark as a helper, but Paul resisted the idea.

The New Testament indicates that a “sharp contention” developed between Paul and Barnabas (Acts 15:36-41). They could not reach an agreement, and so they split up. As far as we know, these two remarkable men never saw one another again.  It is a sad story that can teach us much.  Who was right – Paul or Barnabas?  We simply don’t know. Some argue that Paul was just too stubborn to give in. We read that the church in Antioch “commended” Paul and Silas (Acts 15:40), but nothing is said about any commendation of Barnabas and Mark.

This dissension between Paul and Barnabas was not over a doctrinal issue. The rupture involved a personal dispute based upon a judgment call. To their credit, neither Paul nor Barnabas let the conflict distract them from their respective efforts of spreading the Gospel.  Even in our day, there will always be times when men and women of good will disagree in matters of opinion.  But we must agree to disagree in charity, especially if we are ministers of the Gospel.

What can we learn from these stories of Paul and Barnabas?  First of all we know what they had in common.  They were in love with the same man: Jesus Christ, the Lord and Savior of the world. Despite their human frailty and because of it, they kept focused on doing the will of Christ.  They took the Gospel message to the ends of the earth.

Even in the midst of human tensions and wounded friendships, because they loved the Lord and were loved by the Lord, even more work was accomplished for the sake of the Gospel because of the manner in which their disagreements and frailty were handled.  We learn from them that there can be disputes, disagreements, controversies and sinfulness among the saints! Paul and Barnabas are people like us who often complicate life because of our frailty and problems.  Holiness does not consist in never having erred or sinned. Holiness increases the capacity for conversion, for repentance, for willingness to start again and, especially, for reconciliation and forgiveness.

The fact that the personal conflict of these two apostles are openly displayed on the pages of the New Testament is evidence that the Holy Spirit guided the evangelists in writing the story of the early Church. No account, however irrelevant it may appear to be, is without importance. They offer us lessons to be mastered, not only about the New Testament, but also about our own personal histories. St. Paul and St. Barnabas, pray for us.

The Trinity is the Model of Every Human Community

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Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity, Year A – Sunday, June 15, 2014

The Holy Trinity is a mystery that Scripture does not prove. This Sunday following Pentecost, we celebrate the Solemnity of the Blessed Trinity. The Triune nature of God is the principal mystery of the Catholic faith. Today we contemplate the first and last horizon of the universe and of history: the Love of God, the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. God is not solitude, but perfect communion.

To understand better the Trinity, we need not only the words of Sacred Scripture but holy images. An image is worth more than a thousand words. One image that has helped me enter into the Trinitiarian mystery is the famous icon of the Trinity by Rublev. The icon introduces us to the threshold of the mystery of God.

I have always loved Rublev’s image because it depicts in an extraordinary way what lies at the heart of our Triune God. The Father gazes lovingly towards the Son; the Son is looking obediently towards the Father and the Holy Spirit is that breadth of love between the Father and the Son. We could say that God’s nature reveals itself in the dynamic relations among the divines. It is in the self-emptying and gazing at the other that the transcendence of God becomes manifest.

Roublev 2Rublev’s symbols

Behind each of the three personages in the icon, Rublev has put a symbol which enables it to be identified. On the left, the House of the Father, at the centre a tree, where the cross transforms itself into a new tree of life, and on the right a rock from which gushed out the water in the desert prefiguring the gift of the Spirit. The dish offered by Abraham to his guests resembles the Paschal cup, which prefigures the Eucharistic cup. For Rublev, the meeting of Abraham with the three angels reveals God, his divine council where it elaborates the plan of salvation. The contemplation of the icon of the Trinity is transformed into a meditation on the whole history of salvation. It finds here its completion in the mystery of the Father, of the Son and the Spirit.

The Lord, a God who is merciful

In today’s first reading from Exodus (34:4b-6), God is revealed to Moses: “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious…” God proclaims his own Name to us! He does so in the presence of Moses with whom he spoke face to face, as with a friend. There could be no better way to tell us the truth about God’s identity. God’s Name is Mercy, Grace, Faithfulness.

The second reading of today’s liturgy, II Cor 13, 11-14, closes with the words: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.” Mention of Jesus Christ, God and the Holy Spirit is more then a hint of the three persons in God, One and Unique, whom we want to encounter in our prayer. This formula probably has its roots in the Tradition of the early Church.

The first verse of today’s Gospel begins with the statement that God loves the world (John. 3:16). Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. So we have known and believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. God loves the Son, “The Father loves the Son and has placed all things in his hands” (John 3:35). God loves Israel with an everlasting love (Jeremiah 31:3). To celebrate the Trinity is to be in “Communion of the Holy Spirit”’ wherein we know that God loves us.

Our God is rich in relationships

Our God is rich in relationships, communication and love for all people. This God models to us what the dynamic Trinitarian life is all about– communication, relationship and affection. The quality of our Christian life is based on imitation of the interior life of the Trinity. The Trinity is the model of every human community, from the most simple and elemental, which is the family, to the universal Church. It shows how love creates unity out of diversity: unity of intentions, of thought, of will; diversity of subjects, of characteristics and, in the human realm, of sex. And we see, specifically, what a family can learn from the Trinitarian model.

Embracing the mystery each day

On Trinity Sunday, rather than try to solve the mystery, let us ask how open we are to it: the mystery of why God created us to begin with; the mystery of God loving us, desiring to be part of our lives, to live in our hearts; to be one with us; the mystery of God inviting us to share in the life of the Trinity: Father, Son and Spirit; the mystery of a God who cares for us like a loving parent, who lays down his life for us like a best friend, who fills our hearts like a lover who will not be refused.

While the Holy Trinity is a mystery that cannot be proven by Scripture we come into contact, through our liturgy, with the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.”

How many times each day do we make the sign of the cross? It may be in our Morning Offering, at grace before meals, at Mass, or before we retire for the night. It may be when we pray the Liturgy of the Hours, or recite the Rosary. How often do we sign ourselves “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”? How often do we think about the deep meaning of these words and this simple, yet profound Trinitarian gesture?

Today let us pause and think of what we are doing when we mark ourselves with the sign of the cross. What does it mean to sign myself with the Divine love that binds the Godhead as One? God said at creation, “Let us make man in our image.” He spoke of Himself as “Us,” implying the Trinitarian nature in which we Catholics believe. God also said that we humans would image that nature. How does my life reflect the community of love that is the Godhead? How do I image the Divine nature, which is love itself? Are mercy, grace, and faithfulness part of my identity?

Examining our relationships

The Christian God is a living being who exists in intimate relationship with us. One of the important dimensions of our Trinitarian God is the community of love and persons modeled for us in the mystery of the Holy Trinity. For Christians, the Trinity is the primary symbol of a community that is held together by containing diversity within itself. The language of Father and Son is relational language, and reminds us that, for God, as for us, created in God’s image, relationship and community are primary.

Today let us examine our relationships. Do I love as God loves? Am I willing to lay down my life for those whom the Lord has given me to care for? I will remember that community and relationship are the hallmarks of the very life of God and I will pray for the grace to make these my priorities and the hallmarks of my life.

Today I will pray to the God the Father. I will ask Him to draw me closer to Him, to let me know His fatherly care. I will ponder God’s great love in sending His only Son so that I might be saved and born again as His child.

Who is the Holy Spirit in my life? What does this third Person of the Trinity mean to me and how do I think of Him? Do I ever pray to the Holy Spirit? Today I will talk to the Holy Spirit. I will remember all the gifts we receive in baptism and confirmation: wisdom, understanding, right judgment, courage, knowledge, reverence, wonder and awe. I will pray that He make these gifts come alive in me. I will also pray that the Spirit dwell in me richly, producing His fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, self-control and faithfulness.

Caritas in Veritate

54. …The Trinity is absolute unity insofar as the three divine Persons are pure relationality. The reciprocal transparency among the divine Persons is total and the bond between each of them complete, since they constitute a unique and absolute unity. God desires to incorporate us into this reality of communion as well: “that they may be one even as we are one” (Jn 17:22). The Church is a sign and instrument of this unity. Relationships between human beings throughout history cannot but be enriched by reference to this divine model. In particular, in the light of the revealed mystery of the Trinity, we understand that true openness does not mean loss of individual identity but profound interpenetration. This also emerges from the common human experiences of love and truth. Just as the sacramental love of spouses unites them spiritually in “one flesh” (Gen 2:24; Mt 19:5; Eph 5:31) and makes out of the two a real and relational unity, so in an analogous way truth unites spirits and causes them to think in unison, attracting them as a unity to itself.

[The readings for the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity are: Exodus 34.4b-6, 8-9; 2 Corinthians 13.11-13; and John 3.16-18.]

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.

(Holy Trinity by Henrik van Balen; Icon of the Trinity by Andrei Rublev)

Viewing the Church through the Lenses of Pentecost

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Solemnity of Pentecost, Year A – Sunday, June 8, 2014

Pentecost is the fiftieth day after Easter that signals the start of the universal mission of the Church – a mission that overcomes human obstacles and has the Spirit as its driving force. The mighty breath of God and the fire of the Spirit’s presence engulf the group of disciples gathered in prayer around Mary, Mother of the Lord in the upper room.

Luke’s narrative of Pentecost in today’s first reading from Acts (2:1-13) consists of an introduction, a speech ascribed to Peter declaring the resurrection of Jesus and its messianic significance (14-36), and a favorable response from the audience (2:37-41). The Twelve were not originally in a position to proclaim publicly the messianic office of Jesus without incurring immediate reprisal from those religious authorities in Jerusalem who had brought about Jesus’ death precisely to stem the rising tide in his favor.

Psalm 104 reminds us that this Holy Spirit, this breath of God that we as Christians have received, is the same Spirit that sustains the constant renewal of all created things.

Paul’s theology of charisms

In today’s second reading, (I Cor 12:3b-7, 12-13) St. Paul reminds the Corinthian Christians that the different gifts of the Holy Spirit are given for a purpose: a service to be offered for the good of all. They are not ends in themselves. Christians are called to establish a unity that brings together in Jesus Christ all peoples, religions and states of life.

Ecstatic and charismatic activity were common in early Christian experience, as they were in other ancient religions. But the Corinthians seem to have developed a disproportionate esteem for certain phenomena, especially tongues, to the detriment of order in the liturgy. Paul reminds the Corinthians that ecstatic phenomena must be judged by their effect. Power to confess Jesus as Lord can come only from the Spirit, and it is inconceivable that the Spirit would move anyone to curse the Lord. We learn that there are some features common to all charisms, despite their diversity: all are gifts (charismata), grace from outside ourselves; all are forms of service (diakoniai), an expression of their purpose and effect; and all are workings (energemata), in which God is at work. Paul associates each of these aspects with what later theology will call one of the persons of the Trinity, an early example of “appropriation.”

The image of a body (12-26) is introduced to explain Christ’s relationship with believers (12). Paul applies this model to the church: by baptism all, despite diversity of ethnic or social origins, are integrated into one organism. The reading then develops the need for diversity of function among the parts of a body without threat to its unity.

He breathed on them

The Gospel of John (19:20-23) describes another way the Holy Spirit is given to the apostles: the risen Jesus breathing on the apostles to impart the Holy Spirit. The power of the Spirit not only authorizes, but also empowers the apostles to forgive and to retain sins. Jesus formally sends out to the world his apostles, as he had been sent to the world by the Father. Jesus’ breathing on the apostles huddled in the Upper Room recalls Genesis 2:7, where God breathed on the first man and gave him life; just as Adam’s life came from God, so now the disciples’ new spiritual life comes from Jesus.

The lenses of Pentecost

In my work at Salt and Light Television Network in Canada, I have had to quickly learn about broadcast technology, and all that goes into making a good film. One important aspect of television is the intricate camera work “behind the scenes.” The close up and wide-angle camera shots make all the difference in filming and telling a story. If we use too many close-ups, we lose sight of the bigger picture. If we overuse the wide-angle lens without attention to the particulars, it doesn’t make for good television. Good television combines the wide-angle or panoramic shots, the intermediate views of the surface, and finally the close-ups that offer attention to detail and often provide necessary depth for understanding the whole picture.

I would like to offer three lenses through which we might consider this feast: 1) the wide-angle lens that looks at our belonging to the Church; 2) an intermediate lens that focuses in on the ideologies at work in the Church today, and 3) a zoom lens to sharpen our hope, the great manifestation of the Holy Spirit to the Church.

“Sentire cum ecclesia”

Pentecost is considered to be the birth of the Church. Our baptismal consecration in service to Christ cannot be separated from consecration in service to the Church. One of the main themes permeating the thought of St. Ignatius of Loyola is his exhortation “Sentire cum ecclesia” or “think with the Church.” “Sentire cum ecclesia” also means to feel with the Church and to love the Church. Pentecost invites us once again to walk with the Church, breathe with the Church, hope with the Church, feel with the Church, “sentire cum ecclesia.” What does the Church mean for me as an individual? What is my personal relationship with the Church? Do I love the Church? Do I feel loved by the Church?

Moving Beyond Ideology

From the wide-angle view of the Church, let us take a closer look at our current ecclesial reality. Today, some of us seem to be stuck in the ideological battles that followed the Second Vatican Council. Perhaps we are frozen in categories of left and right; traditional vs. avant-garde; male vs. female; hierarchical vs. lay-led, or prophetic vs. static. Our inter-ecclesial and inter-community fixations and polarizations on all sides of the ecclesial spectrum can distract us from addressing with requisite depth and discernment the issues facing us today. Whatever is not purified and transformed within us is transmitted to others — especially to the next generation. When we sell ourselves to cynicism and despair, meanness of heart, smallness of spirit and harshness in ecclesial discourse, we betray our deepest identity as bearers of joy, hope and truth. Is joy present in our Christian witness? What prevents me as an individual and us as a community from giving a robust, joyful witness to Jesus Christ, the Catholic Faith and the Church?

Hope: a manifestation of the Spirit

Finally, let us zoom in on hope, a true manifestation of the Spirit at Pentecost. Is it not true that for the past few years, many of us in the Church have felt like we are frequently caught in a flash flood that is unexpected, powerful, destructive and filled with despair? The flame seems to have gone out and our influence was terribly diminished. The flash flood bears down with immense force on all of us. Some can easily view our present situation with great pessimism and grow disheartened, depressed, and even cynical. But so much of that mood has changed drastically since the night of March 13, 2013, when Pope Francis appeared on the loggia of St. Peter’s Basilica. Many have said that the Cardinal who came from the ends of the earth in Buenos Aires ushered into the Church the new Pentecost of which Pope John XXIII spoke so beautifully when he convened the Second Vatican Council over 50 years ago. For the world of sound bites, hope usually means that we make ourselves believe that everything is going to turn out all right. We use the word hope lightly and cheaply. This is not the hope of Christians. We must be icons of hope, a people with a new vision, a people that learn to see the world through the lenses of Christ, the Spirit, and the Church.

Signs of the times and signs of hope

The Second Vatican Council encouraged Christians to read the signs of the times, and for Pope John XXIII these were signs of hope and glimpses of the Kingdom’s presence in our midst. It is not a kingdom of this world, so that it cannot be identified specifically in this or that location, but it is nevertheless here already, fostered by the Eucharist which is the pattern to be reproduced in all society, as well as still to come. The Kingdom manifests itself through the gifts of the Holy Spirit: wisdom, understanding, counsel, courage, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord. And the Spirit’s fruits make the Kingdom palpable and palatable: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, long suffering, mildness, faith, modesty, continence, and chastity.

It is also possible to follow a via negativa and to say where the Kingdom is not. Where there is no justice, no peace, no sharing, no mutual trust, no forgiveness, there is no Kingdom. Where there is rancor, envy, distrust, hatred, ignorance, indifference, unchastity, cynicism, there is no Kingdom and certainly no life.

“Duc in altum!”

We cannot weigh the life of faith and judge the vitality of the Church solely on the basis of demographical or sociological indicators, numbers, polls, and outside statistics, as helpful as they may be. The fire of Pentecost invites us to rediscover the depth, beauty and vastness of the Church’s mission. What is required of those imagining and building the Church is to think big, and to cast our nets into the deep. “Duc in altum!” We must shape our vision on the firm conviction in the victory of the Cross and in Jesus Christ’s triumph over sin and death. Individuals and communities without vision and a Church without a mission are like a person without relationships. Unless we are able to go beyond ourselves, we will remain undeveloped personalities. When the Spirit truly dwells within us, we will be blessed anew with creativity, imagination and hope.

Guarantee of the Spirit’s presence

What is the deepest and surest assurance and intimation that the Holy Spirit is present in our world and Church today? The answer is: joy. If there is joy present you can bet that the Holy Spirit has something to do with this precious gift. St. Augustine who was the most musically passionate of the Fathers of the Church memorably evokes the experience of this joy with these words:

“Whenever people must labor hard they begin with songs whose words express their joy. But when joy brims over and words are not enough they abandon even this coherence and give themselves to the sheer sound of singing. What is this jubilation? What is this exultant song? It is the melody that means our hearts are bursting with feelings that cannot express themselves. And to whom does this jubilation most surely belong? Truly to God who is unutterable, if words will not come and may not remain silent what else can you do but let the melody soar? This is the song of the Holy Spirit.”

On this great feast of the birth of the Church, let us ponder anew the whole reality of the Church, from the wide-angle view of its vastness and beauty, to the sometimes turbulent and complex surface, zooming in finally on hope, one of the deepest manifestations of the Spirit alive in the Church. In doing so, we can marvel once again at the mercy and generosity of God and give thanks to the Lord who continues to call us to fidelity and joy.

Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful,

and reignite in us the fire of your Love!

Make us joyful witnesses to your hope in the Church!

Move us beyond our ideologies that divide and blind us.

Lord, send us your Spirit, and renew the face of the earth…

the face of our Church, the face of our local communities,

our own faces, our own hearts. Amen.

[The readings for the Solemnity of Pentecost are: Acts 2:1-11; Psalm 104; 1 Cor. 12:3-7, 12-13; and John 20:19-23.]

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.

(Image: Pentecost by Jean II Restout)