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Is Not This the Carpenter, the Son of Mary?

Jesus Travelling cropped

Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B – July 5, 2015

We know today’s Gospel story well, perhaps too well! It would have been customary for Jesus to go to the synagogue each week during the Sabbath, and when his turn came, to read from the scriptures during the Sabbath service.

His hometown folks listened ever so attentively to his teaching because they had heard about the miracles he had performed in other towns. What signs would their hometown boy work on his own turf?

In today’s story, Jesus startled his own people with a seeming rebuke that no prophet of God can receive honor among his own people. The people of Nazareth took offense at him and refused to listen to what he had to say. They despised his preaching because he was from the working class; a carpenter, a mere layman and they despised him because of his family. Jesus could do no mighty works in their midst because they were closed and disbelieving toward him.

If people have come together to hate and to refuse to understand, then they will see no other point of view than their own, and they will refuse to love and accept others. Does the story sound familiar to us? How many times have we found ourselves in similar situations?

Homecoming

We often think that Luke is the only evangelist who records Jesus’ visit to Nazareth, “where he had been brought up” and that programmatic episode in the Nazareth synagogue (Luke 4:16). Mark and Matthew also refer to this episode, although without mentioning the name of the town, calling it simply “his hometown” or “his native place” (Mark 6:1; Matthew 13:54). There are, however, several differences between the story told by Luke and those of Mark and Matthew. In the Gospels of Mark and Matthew, people consider the humble origin of Jesus who was “the carpenter” (Mark 6:3), “the son of the carpenter” (Matthew 13:55) and use it to doubt the greatness of his mission. Luke, on the other hand, makes no mention of Jesus’ humble origins.

In Mark, Jesus’ visit to his hometown is found not at the beginning of his ministry, but after a long period of preaching the Gospel and healing, even after the talks on the parables (Mark 4:1-34) and the resurrection of Jairus’ daughter (Mark 5:21-43). In Matthew, Jesus has also already pronounced his address on mission to the “Twelve Apostles” (10:2-42).

What was the meaning of the peoples’ questions about Jesus in Mark’s account (6:1-6) that forms this Sunday’s Gospel? “‘Where did this man get all this? What kind of wisdom has been given him? What mighty deeds are wrought by his hands! Is he not the carpenter, the son of Mary, and the brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us?’ And they took offense at him.”

“Who do you think you are?” they seem to be asking him. Jesus sees that the questions about him correspond to a deeply possessive attitude: Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary, and therefore one of us? You belong to us and therefore you must do for us all that you are able to do. We own you!

“Prophets are not without honor except in their hometowns and among their own kin, and even in their own homes.” Jesus resists the possessive attitude manifested by his people. The people of Jesus’ native place were suffering from a particular form of blindness — a blindness that sometimes affects us, too. Jesus refuses to place his extraordinary gifts at the service of his own people, putting strangers first.

Vision and heart

Today’s Gospel shows how difficult it is for us to attain to a universal vision. When we are faced with someone like Jesus, someone with a generous heart, a wide vision and a great spirit, our reactions are very often filled with jealousy, selfishness, and meanness of spirit. His own people couldn’t recognize the holiness of Jesus, because they had never really accepted their own. They couldn’t honor his relationship with God because they had never fully explored their own sense of belonging to the Lord. They couldn’t see the Messiah standing right beside them, because he looked too much like one of them. Until we see ourselves as people beloved of God, miracles will be scarce and the prophets and messengers who rise among us will struggle to be heard and accepted for whom they truly are.

In today’s Gospel story, Mark tells us that Jesus was amazed at their unbelief. Listening to Jesus, his own people were initially filled with admiration in him and pride because of him. His message of liberation was marvelous. Then they recognize this young prophet as one of them and they say: “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary?”

The most severe critics are often people very familiar to us, a member of our family, a relative, or neighbor we rub shoulders with on a regular basis. The people of Nazareth refused to renounce their possessive attitude toward Jesus. When possessive love is obstructed it produces a violent reaction. This sort of reaction provokes many dramas of jealousy and passion. They took offence at him in Mark’s account just as “everyone in the synagogue was enraged (Luke 4:28) and they sought to kill him” (4:29) in Luke’s version of the story. Refusal to open our heart can lead to such extremes.

Jesus was bitterly criticized because he demonstrated great openness of heart, particularly toward people on the fringes and borders of society. His openness caused rising opposition that led him to the cross. In the Acts of the Apostles we read more than once that the success of St. Paul’s preaching to the gentiles provoked jealousy among some of the Jews, who opposed the Apostle and stirred up persecution against him (Acts 13:45; 17,5; 22,21-22). Also within the Christian community, we need only recall the situation in Corinth where similar possessive attitudes caused serious harm when many believers attached themselves jealously to one apostle or another; causing conflict and division in the community. Paul had to intervene forcefully (1 Corinthians 1:10-3:23).

Today’s Gospel warns us to be on guard against certain attitudes that are incompatible with the example of Jesus: the human tendency to be possessive, and egoistic and small in mind and heart. We cannot forget that Jesus is the Savior of the world (John 4:42), and not of the village, town, city or nation!

In order to approach and imitate Jesus, who is total beauty and uniqueness, the quality of magnanimity is necessary in our hearts and minds. The opposite and enemy of magnanimity is envy. Envy is that fault in the human character that cannot recognize the beauty and uniqueness of the other, and denies the other honor. Envy can no longer see because the eyes are “nailed shut,” blinded to one’s own beauty and the beauty in others. Envy inevitably leads to forms of violence and destruction, of self and of others. In order to approach and imitate Jesus, who is total beauty and uniqueness, the attitude of envy must be first acknowledged and then banished.

Magnanimity lets others be free, for the other person must become great enough to be an image of God’s beauty. Magnanimity arouses the desire in each of us for the other to receive the greatest possible satisfaction and happiness that rightly belongs to the other! Magnanimity is capable of looking beyond itself, it can grant the other what oneself perhaps bitterly lacks, and can perhaps even rejoice in the other’s goodness, greatness and beauty.

Let us pray that Jesus not be amazed at our own unbelief, but rather rejoice in our small, daily acts of fidelity to him and our service to our sisters and brothers. May the Lord grant us magnanimous hearts so that we may look far beyond ourselves and recognize the goodness, greatness and beauty of other people, instead of being jealous of their gifts. God’s power alone can save us from emptiness and poverty of spirit, from confusion and error, and from the fear of death and hopelessness. The gospel of salvation is “great news” for us today.

[The readings for the 13th Sunday in Ordinary Time are: Ezekiel 2:2-5; 2:23-24; 2 Corinthians 12:7-10; and Mark 6:1-6]

(Image: Jesus Travelling by James Tissot)

Arise, Live and Love Again!

Talitha koum cropped

Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B – June 28, 2015

Last week we witnessed Jesus’ divine power at work on the forces of nature (Mark 4:37-41). Today’s Gospel stories reveal his power over disease and death.

In these powerful accounts, Jesus reminds us of the importance of faith. Nothing is possible without faith. On the way to Jairus’ house (Mark 5), Jesus encounters interruptions, delays, and even obstacles along the road. The people in the passage transfer their uncleanness to Jesus, and to each Jesus bestows the cleansing wholeness of God. Let us consider for a moment each situation.

The hemorrhaging woman

Jesus’ miraculous healing of this woman who had been hemorrhaging for 12 years is narrated in three of the four Gospels (Matthew 9:20-22; Mark 5:25-34; Luke 8:43-48). The law regarded three forms of uncleanness as serious enough to exclude the infected person from society: leprosy, uncleanness caused by bodily discharges, and impurity resulting from contact with the dead (Numbers 5:2-4). The woman in Mark 5 had a disease that made her ritually unclean (Leviticus 15:25-27). It would have excluded her from most social contact and worship at the temple. She desperately wanted Jesus to heal her, but she knew that her bleeding would cause Jesus to become ritually unclean under Jewish law.

Anyone who had one of the diseases was made unclean. Anything or anyone that one touched became unclean. Those who were unclean also suffered from estranged relationships with others and with God. Anything unclean was unfit or unworthy to be in the presence of a God who was holy. Those deemed unclean had to go through a rite of purification or cleansing in order to be welcomed back into society and into the presence of God.

The woman’s bold invasion of Jesus’ space, and her touching of Jesus’ garment, thus making Jesus unclean, could have put him off. On the contrary, Jesus not only heals the woman, but also restores her relationships with others. When Jesus calls the woman “daughter,” he established a relationship with one with whom he should not have a relationship.

Jairus’ daughter

The very touching story of Jairus’ daughter is “sandwiched” in the story about the hemorrhaging woman. Jairus was an elected leader of the local synagogue, responsible for supervising the weekly worship, operating the school, and caring for the building. Some synagogue leaders had been pressured not to support Jesus, but Jairus had not caved into that pressure. Jairus bowed before Jesus and uttered his anguished request for help: “My daughter is at the point of death. Please, come lay your hands on her that she may get well and live.” Jairus’ gesture was a significant and daring act of respect and worship.

The story continues: “Jesus took the child by the hand, and said to her, ‘Talitha koum,’ which means, ‘Little girl, I say to you, arise!’ The girl arose immediately and walked around” (5:41-42). By calling her “little girl,” he established the same kind of relationship with her as Jairus has with his daughter.

In each situation, Jesus’ holiness transforms the person’s uncleanness. The flow of blood is stopped. The woman is healed. The corpse comes back to life. The young girl gets out of bed. Jesus raises each person up to his level, making that individual worthy to be in the presence of God.

Jesus, the healer

In so many of the healing stories, Jesus manifests the power to give people health, healing and even to bring the dead back to life. Remember the young man of Nain in Luke 7 who had died. Jesus said, “Young man, I tell you, arise!” Luke reports that the “dead man sat up and began to speak.”

Jesus responded to the cries of the leper who begged him, “If you will, you can cure me!” Moved with compassion, Jesus gave a word of command which was proper to God and not to a mere human being: “I do will it. Be made clean!” Mark wrote: “The leprosy left him immediately, and he was made clean” (Mark 1:42). How can we forget the case of the paralytic who was let down through an opening made in the roof of the house, Jesus said, “I say to you, rise, pick up your mat, and go home” (cf. Mk 2:1-12).

Jesus’ story continues in the Acts of the Apostles when we hear about people who “carried the sick out into the streets and laid them on cots and mats so that when Peter came by, at least his shadow might fall on one or another of them” (Acts 5:15). These “wonders and signs” were performed by the apostles not in their own name, but in the name of Jesus Christ, and were therefore a further proof of his divine power.

“Talitha koum”

The story of Jairus’ daughter not only speaks about the death of a child and the raising of that young girl back to life, but it also speaks about death of the heart and spirit, a disease that affects so many young people today.

Those powerful words — “Talitha koum” (Little girl, arise) — are not only addressed to this little girl in Mark’s story, but also to many young people, perhaps to each one of us. How many young children live with fear and sadness because of divided family situations, tragedy and loss! How many young people are caught up in vicious cycles of death: drugs, abortion, pornography, violence, gangs and suicide.

Today our young people are afflicted with anxiety, discouragement and other serious psychological and even physical illnesses in alarming ways. Many don’t know what joy, love hope and truth really mean any more.

Sadness, pessimism, cynicism, meaninglessness, the desire not to live, are always bad things, but when we see or hear young people express them, our hearts are even more heavy and sad. Living in a big city such as Toronto, I have the opportunity of meeting many young people, and when I hear some of their stories of brokenness, sadness and despair, I realize how much work the churches must do to bring young people back to life.

Jesus continues today to resurrect those dead young people to life. He does so with his word, and also by sending them his disciples who, in his name, and with his very love, repeat to today’s young people his cry: “Talitha koum,” “young man, young woman, arise! Live again! Love again! You are loved!”

“Alive” in Darlinghurst

As I reflect on today’s Gospel and Jesus’ powerful words: “Talitha koum,” I recall vividly one of Benedict XVI’s special moments during World Youth Day 2008 in Australia.

The Holy Father went to the University of Notre Dame’s Sacred Heart chapel in Darlinghurst (Sydney) where he met young people with histories of drug addiction and other problems, who are following the “Alive” rehabilitation program. The Pope Emeritus recalled Moses’ words in the Old Testament:

“‘I set before you life or death, blessing or curse. Choose life, then, so that you and your descendants may live in the love of the Lord your God, […] for in this your life consists.”

“It was clear what they had to do,” the Pope explained, “they had to turn away from other gods and worship the true God Who had revealed himself to Moses — and they had to obey His commandments. You might think that in today’s world, people are unlikely to start worshipping other gods. But sometimes people worship ‘other gods’ without realizing it. False ‘gods’ […] are nearly always associated with the worship of three things: material possessions, possessive love, or power.”

“Authentic love is obviously something good,” the Pope continued. “When we love, we become most fully ourselves, most fully human. But […] people often think they are being loving when actually they are being possessive or manipulative. People sometimes treat others as objects to satisfy their own needs. […] How easy it is to be deceived by the many voices in our society that advocate a permissive approach to sexuality, without regard for modesty, self-respect or the moral values that bring quality to human relationships!”

“Dear friends, I see you as ambassadors of hope to others in similar situations. You can convince them of the need to choose the path of life and shun the path of death, because you speak from experience. All through the Gospels, it was those who had taken wrong turnings who were particularly loved by Jesus, because once they recognized their mistake, they were all the more open to his healing message.

“Indeed, Jesus was often criticized by self-righteous members of society for spending so much time with such people. ‘Why does your master eat with tax collectors and sinners?’ they asked. He responded: ‘It is not the healthy who need the doctor, but the sick … I did not come to call the virtuous but sinners’ (cf. Mt 9:11-13).

“It was those who were willing to rebuild their lives who were most ready to listen to Jesus and become his disciples. You can follow in their footsteps, you too can grow particularly close to Jesus because you have chosen to turn back towards him. You can be sure that, just like the Father in the story of the prodigal son, Jesus welcomes you with open arms. He offers you unconditional love — and it is in loving friendship with him that the fullness of life is to be found.”

I am sure that Jesus was smiling upon Benedict XVI and that wonderful gathering in Sydney. Jesus’ words — “Talitha koum” — be heard every anew, Down Under and throughout our world, to invite the young and all people to rise up, to live and to love again.

[The readings for the 13th Sunday in Ordinary Time are: Wisdom 1:13-15; 2:23-24; 2 Corinthians 8:7, 9, 13-15; and Mark 5:21-43 or 5:21-24, 35b-43]

(Image: “Talitha Koum” by Ilja Jefimowitsch Repin)

Even the Wind and Sea Obey Him

Calming of the Sea cropped

Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B – June 21, 2015

There are many biblical passages that reveal the imagery of the angry sea. The Lord redeems his people from slavery in Egypt by turning the sea against the Egyptians [Exodus 15:8]. Other times the roaring waves of the sea are tamed only after fierce struggles [Psalm 89, Isaiah 51:9-10]. The sea mythology of the Old Testament underlies the first reading, psalm and Gospel for the 12th Sunday in Ordinary Time [B]. In the Scriptures, the sea becomes a hostile, angry, dangerous area.

The question of Job is one asked by humanity throughout the ages: “Why do good, innocent people suffer?” Throughout the book, Job has been asking God to justify his actions, and God’s response forms the key section of the whole book. Chapter 38 begins the next to the final section in this book, in which God finally answers the ultimatums hurled at the divine throne. God responds by firing questions at Job about creation, implying that Job cannot explain his suffering because God’s response basically challenges Job’s right to question the Almighty!

Today’s small excerpt from the magnificent speech of God surrounds the Lord with the most awesome imagery. The Lord addressed Job out of the whirlwind and questioned him about the control of the ocean waves. “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding” [Job 38:4]. “Or who shut in the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb?” [Job 38:8] The implied question is: If Job cannot understand God’s providence for the sea and the powers of nature, how will he ever grasp divine care for humans? For the author of Job, power means service.

Psalm 107 points out the mercies of God as demonstrated in the fate of individuals, and provides some insights into the multiplicity of ways in which God’s loving-kindness is displayed. The psalm speaks of a variety of dangers that confront believers: travel by land, imprisonment, sickness, and travel by sea. Consider the rich images used throughout this psalm: “stormy winds that lift up the waves of the sea” [107:25]; waves that mounted up to heaven then had their courage melt away” [107:26].

The storm and the waves hold people prisoners, and now that their own resources are at an end, they realize that the Lord alone can deliver them from the grasp of these elements. In desperation the people cry out, God intervenes and the people admit indebtedness. The transformation of the storm into a gentle breeze dramatizes the Lord’s response to people in need. When the psalmist says that the waves of the sea were hushed, the Hebrew word used means not so much to be silent but rather to grow still. In fact, in biblical literature this word is used only here and in Jonah 1:11, 12 with reference to the calming down of the turbulent sea and in Proverbs 26:20 in connection with the cessation of contention.

Love at the center

In today’s second reading [2 Corinthians 5:14-17], Paul speaks of his love of Christ and his personal conviction of that love which is the central motivation in his ministry. The Greek phrase for “love of Christ” includes both our love for Christ and Christ’s love for us, whereby Christ is both the object and subject of love. Only if Christ loves us first, by dying and rising, can we love in return. Because we share in his death and resurrection, we can no longer live for ourselves but are to live a new life of service in imitation of Christ. Paul also notes that he had to change his view of Christ and see him not from a merely human standpoint but in the light of revelation in the Spirit. If we see Christ from God’s viewpoint, then we should view everyone from the same perspective. Paul then brings the passage to a climax, insisting that everyone who is in Christ is a new creation and that everything is new — “everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” [2 Corinthians 5:17]. The power of God in Jesus is a reality, which, for our benefit, restrains itself so humbly and so completely, that we experience it as holy freedom — a freedom that removes fear and gives us the courage to act.

In the New Testament, the sea almost always represents a moment of conversion. It is along the sea that Jesus calls others to join him in his prophetic ministry and outreach to the poor and the sick. A sudden squall on the Sea of Galilee provides the crisis in today’s Gospel story [Mark 4:35-41] that takes place after a full day of teaching for Jesus. The calming of the storm is also a great teaching moment for Jesus. When the disciples awake him, they address him as “Teacher.”

Throughout the entire storm at sea, Mark insists on Jesus’ calmness and rootedness in God. He is “in the stern, asleep on the cushion” [Mark 4:38], trusting in God, in contrast to the disciples, who are frightened. When they rebuke Jesus for sleeping, he rebukes them for their lack of faith. In Mark’s account, both the disciples’ words to Jesus and his responses to them are quite harsh. Matthew and Luke soften both statements, but here the disciples really rebuke Jesus — and his rebuke to them doesn’t merely speak of “little faith” but of “no faith.”

The calming of the storm reveals much to us, for as the first reading from Job has indicated, only God can control the wind and sea. Jesus does much more than quiet the storm waves roaring across the sea and tossing the boat from side to side or tipping it dangerously into the waters. Jesus shares God’s control of the seas, emerging as the new creator, bringing peace and order out of the primordial chaos and establishing himself as Ruler over the new Kingdom of Israel.

Riding the waves

Besides indicating Christ’s divine power over nature, the calming of the story suggests his power over evil — for the sea commonly symbolizes evil and chaos. The boat is already a symbol of the Church, so the story also challenges us to trust in Christ’s power so that we can persevere through the storms that assail us as individuals and as a Church. Mark writes to his own community, which experiences chaos in the Lord’s absence. It’s almost as if the Lord is sleeping — uninvolved. Jesus challenges this lack of faith and affirms his continuing presence with power.

On the sea nothing happens normally, but always in abrupt or marvelous or very difficult ways. These are moments of decision with far-reaching consequences, in which the circumstances and even the timing are not in our control. The biblical passages of Jesus on the Sea of Galilee, especially today’s calming of the storm, can help us in recognizing such moments in our own lives and in guiding us through them.

A boat was a common symbol for the Church — here it is a symbol of a storm-tossed community crying out for help. Christ seems asleep and unconcerned, but he is in total control of the situation. The statement of peace recalls the greeting of the risen Christ. With Christ we pass through the raging sea and already share in his calm strength — even though like Job our questions may remain unanswered.

Today’s readings clearly show that power must ultimately take the form of loving involvement. Who are the holders of power in our day-to-day experience? Power resides with parents, teachers, elected officials, Church leaders, and many others. The measure of genuine power is found in self-sacrifice. Parents give all for their children; teachers labor long hours for their students; pastors gladly spend themselves for their communities. The result of all this is new life for both the leader and the follower. Jesus gave his life in history’s ultimate display of power and service. His life, especially in the midst of the storms, teaches us how to live in the midst of the storms of our own lives and times.

This week, let us take some time to reflect on the following questions that flow from our Scripture texts for the day: What are my deepest fears? How have I experienced God bringing order out of the chaos of my life? How is our Church storm-tossed today, and by what signs do we know that Jesus is fully in control of the situation?

[The readings for the 12th Sunday in Ordinary Time for Year B are: Job 38:1, 8-11; 2 Corinthians 5:14-17; and Mark 4:35-41]

(Image: “Christ in the Storm on the Lake of Galilee” by Rembrandt)

The Slow Progress in the Growth of God’s Kingdom

Sower Van Gogh cropped

Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B – June 14, 2015

The growth of plants, trees, flowers and grass, takes place very quietly and slowly, without our knowing. This growth permeates three of the four readings for this Sunday (Ezekiel 17:22-24, Psalm 92, Mark 4:26-34). Let us look at each of three readings then apply the plant images to the growth of God’s kingdom in our midst.

Today’s first reading from Ezekiel (17:22-24) is part of a lengthy allegory that combines fables from nature with concrete historical judgments, thus enabling the prophet to include the promise of future restoration in the historical framework of Judah’s own experience. In the midst of Israel’s great exile, Ezekiel knows that God does the unexpected – bringing low the high tree and making high the low. The great cedar represents the king of Judah, and the other trees are the kings of the surrounding nations. God will plant on Mount Zion in Jerusalem a young, tender sprig from the top of the same cedar. This is referring to the final king or messiah who will rise up from the house of David. This king will be enthroned in Jerusalem, atop the highest mountain of Israel (2 Samuel 7:13). Many other nations will come and find refuge under this new kingdom.

The God of Isarel always does the unexpected – bringing low the high tree and making high the low. God makes desert areas bloom and makes what may be superficially blooming wither (Ezekiel 17:24). God restores broken hearts and decimated hopes. Though the prophet Ezekiel’s words referred at first to the hopes of ancient Israel, they still resound in our midst today. Even though the worldly dynasty of David would disappear, David’s hopes would be fulfilled in a way far more glorious than he ever imagined!

We believe that the full realization of God’s kingdom is found in Jesus of Nazareth, Son of Abraham and Son of David, who came to establish the kingdom in our midst. God’s kingdom in Jesus grows in a hidden, mysterious way, independently of human efforts. The prophet Ezekiel’s words stir our hearts and minds, and remind us of God’s constant fidelity, especially when growth seems delayed or even impossible: “I the Lord have spoken, and I will do it” (17:24).

The just shall grow as tall as palms…

Psalm 92 is a psalm of praise extolling God’s providence. Two dominant images of this psalm are the cedar tree and the date palm. While the date palm can bear fruit, it lacks the lasting strength and stamina of the cedar. The cedar is mighty, but it cannot bear fruit. In biblical lands, the palm tree and the towering cedar of Lebanon suggest strength, justice, righteousness and beauty. Both the date palm and the cedar are planted deliberately in the house of the Lord. It is there, in the Sanctuary of God’s Law, that they have their roots; it is from there that they derive all their vigor and strength. Both trees are presented as models for those who wish to live lives of righteousness and justice, planted firmly in God’s presence. 

Our homeland is the Lord

St. Paul builds on the the theme of Ezekiel’s prophecy as he speaks about the mystery of our union with Christ’s death and resurrection (2 Cor 5:6-10). Paul faces the fear of his own death and admits his difficulty at wanting to be “at home in the body/away from the Lord” or “away from the body/at home with the Lord”. His confidence flows from his faith. In this life, we are separated from Christ. For this reason Paul would prefer death, “to be away from the body and at home with the Lord.” At present we are citizens in exile, far away from our home. The Lord is the distant homeland, believed in but unseen (7). Paul affirms his confidence by contrasting what is of permanent value with what is only passing. Paul drives home the point that the sufferings of the present are not a valid criterion of apostleship because the true home of all believers is elsewhere.

So too with us – God is mysteriously drawing us towards our heavenly homeland. From this earthly home we prepare for our heavenly home; heaven is constantly calls us forward, instilling within us a deep longing to be with the Lord while we are still in the flesh here below. Paul’s message speaks to us today: it is only from this earthly home that we will learn and prepare for the heavenly home; the way that we live our lives here and now with the Lord will be a very good indication of how we will spend our eternity with Him.

The assurance of the harvest

In today’s well-known Gospel story of the sower, Jesus announces the fulfillment of Ezekiel’s hopes, though with a kingdom even more unexpected than Ezekiel could ever imagine. This new kingdom would not be rooted in a geographical or political reality, but rather in human hearts. In today’s parable of the sower, Mark (4:26-34) links two of Jesus’ parables, featuring the image of a growing seed to speak of the kingdom of God. In the parable of the seed growing of itself (26-29), Mark contrasts the relative inactivity of the farmer with the assurance of the harvest. The sower need only do only one thing: wait for the crop to mature and then reap the harvest. Only Mark records the parable of the seed’s growth (26-29). Sower and harvester are the same. The emphasis is on the power of the seed to grow of itself without human intervention (27). Mysteriously it produces blade and ear and full grain (28). Thus the kingdom of God initiated by Jesus in proclaiming the word develops quietly yet powerfully until it is fully established by him at the final judgment (29).

The mustard seed

The second parable is better known. Jesus uses the mustard seed to show the beginnings of the kingdom, exaggerating both the smallness of the mustard seed and the size of the mustard plant. The mustard seed is really not the smallest seed and the plant is only bush, not a tall tree. Jesus used this image to show that the kingdom will grow and flourish even though its beginnings seem very small and insignificant. The seed in Jesus’ hand is tiny, simple and unimpressive. Yet the Kingdom of God is like that.

From these small seeds will arise the great success of the Kingdom of God and of God’s Word. Since the harvest symbolizes the last judgment, it is likely that the parable also addresses the burning issue of slow progress in the growth of God’s kingdom, especially when that growth was hindered by persecution, failure or sinfulness. 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.

The Lord uses the vivid image of the mustard seed to speak about our faith. When we have faith, the Lord will accomplish great things in us. Whenever and wherever we take ourselves and our efforts too seriously, seeking by our plans and programs to “bring forth the kingdom of God,” we will go away frustrated and sad. We must never forget that it is the Lord who sows, the Lord who waters, the Lord who reaps the harvest. We are merely servants in the vineyard. Let us beg the Lord to bless the desires he has planted deep in our hearts. As the mustard seed grows into a tree of shelter for birds, may our families and faith communities be signs of the Kingdom every person our communities is protected, respected and loved.

The silent and vigorous growth of the Church

I was very struck by Pope Benedict XVI’s use of the mustard seed imagery in his interview with journalists aboard the Papal flight to Madrid, Spain for the World Youth Day on August 18, 2011. The Holy Father was asked how the fruits of the World Youth Days can be ensured in the future? Do World Youth Days effectively produce fruits that last longer than the momentary bursts of enthusiasm? Pope Benedict responded to the questions with these words:

“God always sows in silence. The results are not immediately apparent in the statistics. And the seed the Lord scatters on the ground with the World Youth Days is like the seed of which he speaks in the Gospel: some seeds fell along the path and were lost; some fell on rocky ground and were lost, some fell upon thorns and were lost; but other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth abundant fruit.

It is exactly like this with the sowing of the WYDs: a great deal is lost — and this is human. To borrow other words from the Lord: the mustard seed was small, but it grew and became a great tree. And with yet other words: of course, a great deal is lost, we cannot say straight away that there will be an immense growth of the Church tomorrow. God does not act in this way. However, the Church grows in silence and vigorously. I know from other World Youth Days that a great many friendships were born, friendships for life; a great many experiences that God exists. And let us place trust in this silent growth, and we may be certain, even if the statistics do not tell us much, that the Lord’s seed really grows and will be for very many people the beginning of a friendship with God and with others, of a universality of thought, of a common responsibility which really shows us that these days do bear fruit.”

To those words, I say Amen! Alleluia!

Questions

  1. When was the last time that God has worked in your life, bringing about the most unexpected result?
  1. What are the necessary conditions for the Word of God to be heard?
  1. When have I been frustrated with the growth of God’s kingdom? Why?
  1. What has been my experience of World Youth Days and other great programs and activities of the Church? How have they caused me to grow?

(Image: Sower with the Setting Sun by Vincent Van Gogh)

Food and Drink for the Journey

Francis eucharist cropped

Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ, Year B – Sunday, June 7, 2015

Today’s Gospel [Mark 14.12-16,22-26] links Jesus’ death with Israel’s great feast of liberation, the Passover.

At the first Passover, the blood on the doorpost prevented the death of the firstborn. The bread broken at the Last Supper symbolizes the disciples’ sharing in Jesus’ self-offering. Drinking from the cup of his blood creates a new and dynamic common bond. Jesus’ blood sanctifies and revitalizes each of us. The Eucharist has something that distinguishes it from every other kind of memorial. It is memorial and presence together, even if hidden under the signs of bread and wine.

Our Eucharistic Liturgy proclaims the one bond of life between God and his people. Just as blood that flows outward from the heart unites all the bodily members in one flow of life, so too are we united intimately with God through the precious body and blood of Jesus. The very nature of the Eucharist implies a bond with God and with the community. Our destinies are intertwined with God’s own life. We cannot be loners, for blood is a common bond.

As we celebrate the solemnity of the Body and Blood of the Lord this year, we realize two things: this feast is a daily one. Yet we set aside one day in the year to celebrate a feast of those feasts which we celebrate every day. Not only do we celebrate the bread and wine which become the body and blood of the Lord, we celebrate the new identity given to those who share among them Jesus’ body and blood and then become what they eat and drink.

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. We are not engaging in social and political action but in sacramental celebration, a memorial or commemoration: the recollection of Jesus’ life and death, in the conviction of faith of his resurrection as Lord, sitting in God’s place of honor as the advocate of poor and oppressed people who have no bread. When we receive the Eucharist, we partake of the one who becomes food and drink for others. Each time we celebrate the Eucharist, do we realize that the Eucharistic Christ is really present as bread for the poor?

Christianity, Catholicism, the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, are not theological concepts, courses, things, ideas, passing fancies, symbols — they are a living person and his name is Jesus.

Quebec’s Eucharistic congress

At many moments of crisis and turbulence in Christian history, the Lord confirmed his real presence in the Blessed Sacrament in some rather miraculous ways. Most of these Eucharistic miracles involved incidences in which the Host has “turned into human flesh and blood.” The miracles in Bolsena and Orvieto in Italy quickly come to mind, and there is, of course, the well known Eucharistic miracle story from Lanciano, Italy. Such stories seem to be far removed from our own experiences, and are often times quite hard to believe. In recent times such miracle stories have receded from the front burners of contemporary theology and spirituality and are often relegated to the realm of eccentric piety and devotion.

As Catholics we believe that the consecrated Host is the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of our Lord, under the appearances of bread and wine. Therefore, Jesus, through the Eucharistic miracles, merely manifests his presence in a more tangible way. Some tell us that we don’t really need the extraordinary manifestations to confirm what we already know and believe. They say that extraordinary miracles are not the essence of true Eucharistic piety, devotion and understanding.

I would like to reflect on an extraordinary Eucharistic event that deeply marked the Church in Canada and touched many parts of the world as well.

From June 15-22, 2008, I rediscovered what extraordinary Eucharistic miracles are all about, only this time it wasn’t in churches of old Europe. Along with 15,000 other people from throughout Canada and 75 other countries of the world, I saw the Eucharist come alive in a very powerful way in a hockey arena in Quebec City’s Pepsi Coliseum during the 49th International Eucharistic Congress.

In his homily for the opening of the congress, the 84-year-old Slovakian Cardinal Jozef Tomko, papal legate to the event, said that “Jesus is the gift of God, he is the food that feeds us and fulfills us and allows us life in eternity. The Eucharist is a person, not an object, not a dead gift. Maybe we should ask not what is the Eucharist, but who is the Eucharist?” The answer to this question, Tomko said, is Jesus in the sacramental form of bread and wine “to indicate he wanted to become our food and sustain our life.”

One of the very memorable and profound catechesis sessions of the Quebec congress was on the theme “The Eucharist, the life of Christ in our Lives” given by Bishop Louis Antonio Tagle of Imus in the Philippines, now Cardinal Tagle of Manila. Then-Bishop Tagle spoke about Eucharistic adoration outside of Mass: “Beholding Jesus, we receive and are transformed by the mystery we adore. Eucharistic adoration is similar to standing at the foot of the cross of Jesus, being a witness to his sacrifice of life and being renewed by it.”

Bishop Tagle pointed to the example of the Roman centurion who guarded Jesus on the cross as a “model of adoration.”

We learn from the centurion to face Jesus, to keep watch over him, to behold him, to contemplate him. At first the centurion spent hours watching over Jesus out of duty but ended up contemplating him in truth. What did the centurion see? We can assume that he saw the horror of suffering that preceded Jesus’ death. But I also believe that in Jesus the centurion saw incredible love, love for the God who had failed to remove this cup of suffering from him, and love for neighbors.

The prelate concluded his powerful catechesis:

I wish that Eucharistic adoration would lead us to know Jesus more as the compassionate companion of many crucified peoples of today. Let us adore Jesus who offered his life as a gift to the Father for us sinners. Let us adore him for ourselves, for the poor, for the earth, for the Church and for the life of the world.

One day during the congress in Quebec, the daily rainfall compelled me to take a taxi to the Pepsi Coliseum. The young driver, an Algerian Muslim man, asked me from where I came and then spoke to me about the congress, having encountered so many of the delegates on the streets of Quebec City. When he learned that I was from English-speaking Canada, he lit up! “What are they giving you people to eat these days?” he asked me. I looked puzzled and asked him to explain and he did so in impeccable English! He said: “I have never seen so many happy people in Quebec City since I emigrated here 10 years ago. There has to something in the food and drink. It must be awesome!”

Quebec’s Eucharistic Congress was a privileged opportunity for Canada to re-actualize the historic and cultural patrimony of holiness and social engagement of the Church that draws its roots from the Eucharistic mystery.

In his 2003 encyclical letter “Ecclesia de Eucharistia” Pope John Paul II wrote: “The Eucharist builds the Church and the Church makes the Eucharist.” The International Eucharistic Congress in Quebec City did just that here in our own country.

[The readings for the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ are: Exodus 24:3-8; Hebrew 9:11-15; and Mark 14:12-16, 22-26]

(Image: CNS photo/Paul Haring)

God Puts Relationship and Community First

Trinity Orta

Feast of the Holy Trinity – Sunday, May 31, 2015

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.

If our faith is based in this Trinitarian mystery that is fundamentally a mystery of community, then all of our earthly efforts and activities must work toward building up the human community that is a reflection of God’s rich, Trinitarian life.

Today’s Deuteronomy [4:32-34,39-40] passage is an excellent point of departure for probing the depths of the mystery of the Trinity. Consider for a moment Moses’ words encouraging and exhorting the people of Israel: “From there you will seek the Lord your God, and you will find him if you search after him with all your heart and soul. In your distress, when all these things have happened to you in time to come, you will return to the Lord your God and heed him. Because the Lord your God is a merciful God, he will neither abandon you nor destroy you; he will not forget the covenant with your ancestors that he swore to them” (4:29-31). The whole passage speaks of the special relationship between God and Israel, linking the uniqueness of Israel’s special vocation with the uniqueness of Israel’s God.

Then in a series of rhetorical questions, Moses, knowing full well that the Lord alone is God, puts the people of Israel ‘on the stand,’ and asks them about this God of theirs: “For ask now about former ages, long before your own, ever since the day that God created human beings on the earth; ask from one end of heaven to the other: Has anything so great as this ever happened or has its like ever been heard of? Has any people ever heard the voice of a god speaking out of a fire, as you have heard, and lived? Or has any god ever attempted to go and take a nation for himself from the midst of another nation, by trials, by signs and wonders, by war, by a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, and by terrifying displays of power, as the Lord your God did for you in Egypt before your very eyes? To you it was shown so that you would acknowledge that the Lord is God; there is no other besides him” (4:32-35).

Matthew’s commission

The majestic departure scene at the end of Matthew’s Gospel [28:16-20] relates to us Jesus’ final earthly moments and the great commission to the Church: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (19-20).

The great apostolic commission implies a service that is pastoral: “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations”; liturgical: “baptizing them”; prophetic: “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you”; and guaranteed by the Lord’s closeness, until the end of time. The scene gives a foretaste of the final glorious coming of the Son of Man [Matthew 26:64]. Then his triumph will be manifest to all; now it is revealed only to the disciples, who are commissioned to announce it to all nations and bring them to believe in Jesus and obey his commandments. Since universal power belongs to the risen Jesus [Matthew 28:18], he gives the eleven a mission that is truly universal. They are to make disciples of all nations.

Baptism is the means of entrance into the community of the risen one, the Church. “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”: This is perhaps the clearest expression in the New Testament of Trinitarian belief. It may have been the baptismal formula of Matthew’s church, but primarily it designates the effect of baptism, the union of those baptized with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Trinitarian language

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. God can no more be defined by what God does than we can. God is a Being, not a Doing, just as we are human beings, not human doings. This is a point of theology, but also, with all good theology, a practical point.

To define God’s inner life in the Trinity in terms of God’s activity leads to defining humans, created in God’s image, in the same way. Those who choose to say, “In the name of the Creator, the Redeemer and the Sustainer” err in defining God by function and not by person. God is a living being who exists in intimate relationship with us.

Our God isn’t immovable. God isn’t alone. God is communication between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. This is the profound mystery that the liturgy for the feast of the Holy Trinity recalls: both the unspeakable reality of God and the manner in which this mystery has been given to us. The Trinity celebrates the peace and unity of the divine persons in whom the circular dance of love — “perichoresis” in Greek — continues. That unity is a dance of life and relationships, encompassing all aspects of human life.

We must constantly strive for this unity and peace of God, Jesus, and their life-giving Spirit, a peace that theological controversy never gives. Though theology is absolutely necessary, we would do well to pray more and love God more, than trying to figure out our Trinitarian God! The consolation is this: Complete understanding is not necessary for love.

Listen to St. Catherine of Siena’s famous prayer from her Dialogue on Divine Providence:

“Eternal God, eternal Trinity, you have made the blood of Christ so precious through his sharing in your divine nature. You are a mystery as deep as the sea; the more I search, the more I find, and the more I find the more I search for you. But I can never be satisfied; what I receive will ever leave me desiring more. When you fill my soul I have an ever-greater hunger, and I grow more famished for your light. I desire above all to see you, the true light, as you really are.”                  

Love can never outgrow its fascination with the puzzling aspects of the one loved. This is our approach to the Trinitarian mystery. We must love God more. On this feast, let us pray that we be caught up in the unifying and reconciling work of the Holy Spirit of God. The increasing glory of God is this progressive revelation of the Trinity.

Many times during our lives, we experience this revelation and God’s Trinitarian presence through the depth of love, communication and relationship with other people. 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 live is based on imitation of the interior life of the Trinity.

The foundation of our Trinitarian faith is dialogue, communication and a “dance of life.” Though we may struggle in understanding the Holy Trinity, we nevertheless take it into our very hands each time that we mark ourselves with the sign of the cross. Words once spoken over us at baptism become the words with which we bless ourselves in the name of the Trinity. Herein lies the meaning of this unique, one God in three Persons. I offer you this prayer for today’s feast and the coming week:

Glory to you, Father,
Who by the power of your love,
Created the world and formed us in your own image And likeness.

Glory to you, only begotten Son,
Who in your wisdom assumed our human condition
To lead us to the Kingdom.

Glory to you, Holy Spirit,
Who in your mercy sanctified us in baptism.
You work to create in us a new beginning each day.

Glory to you, Holy Trinity,
You always have been, you are and you always will be
Equally great to the end of the ages.

We adore you, we praise you, we give you thanks
Because you were pleased to reveal the depth of your mystery
To the humble, to little ones.

Grant that we may walk in faith and joyful hope until the day
When it will be ours to live in the fullness of your love
And to contemplate forever what we now believe here below:
God who is Father, Son and Spirit!  Glory to You!

May God’s Holy Trinity — in unspeakable goodness and mystery — teach us and guide us in the life that is ours, and may we grow in “God’s love poured forth into our hearts by the Spirit that has been given to us” (Romans 5:5).

[The readings for the solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity are Deuteronomy 4:32-34, 39-40; Romans 8:14-17; and Matthew 28:16-20]

(Image: Holy Trinity by Luca Rossetti da Orta)

Set Free the Gifts of the Spirit

Pentecost Restout cropped

Solemnity of Pentecost, Year B – Sunday, May 24, 2015

Christian theology of the Holy Spirit is rooted in Judaism. The term Spirit translates the Hebrew word (ruah) and even in the pronunciation of it we detect God’s wind and breath. The wind of God, the breath of God, the presence of God are all ways of referring to God’s presence.

The expression “Holy Spirit” was used only seven times in the Old Testament, whereas the terms “Spirit of God” or “Spirit of the Lord” occurs 67 times in the Hebrew Scriptures. In the very first line of the book of Genesis 1:1, God’s Spirit was gently hovering over the primordial waters waiting for the opportune moment of drawing order from that chaos.

Jesus, himself, uses the sensory image of the wind in the mysterious, nocturnal conversation with Nicodemus when he talks about the Spirit as the wind that blows where it wills [cf. John 3]. This, then, is the Spirit’s first function in the Scriptures: to be the mysterious presence of God in history, not reducible to human or earthly logic.

The second function of the Spirit in the Old Testament is that of putting things in order. The Genesis creation account [Chapter 1] reveals a descending Spirit upon this formless world and its descent produces the miracle of creation, the transformation of chaos into cosmos, of disorder, into order, of anonymity into community.

The third function of the Spirit in the Old Testament is life-giver. In Genesis 2:7, we read: “The Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the Spirit, the breath of life and man became a living being. As a result of this divine breath, the human creature is transformed into a living being, no longer to be simply a creature but a partner made in the image and likeness of God, with whom and to whom God speaks and confides responsibility for the world.”

The fourth function of the Holy Spirit is guide. We read in Isaiah 11: “The Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and fear of the Lord.” The fear of the Lord is not something that terrorizes people but could be understood as our ability to say “wow,” “awesome” before God’s handiwork and God’s creation.

The fifth function of the Spirit is healer, articulated so powerfully in the prophecy of Ezekiel 36:26-27 — “I will give you a new heart and place a new spirit within you, I will put my spirit within you and make you live by my statutes, careful to observe my decrees.” The Spirit enters, recreates, restores to health and vanquishes sin.

The sixth function of the Holy Spirit is the universal principle. We read in Joel 3:1-2: “I will pour out my spirit on all flesh, your sons and your daughters shall prophecy, even upon the men-servants and the maid-servants, in those days I will pour out my spirit.” The day will come when all humanity will be truly possessed by the spirit and that day will coincide with the eagerly awaited Messianic age of which the prophets speak. It was this principle that captivated Jesus’activity and ministry in a remarkable way.

The seventh function of the Holy Spirit takes place on the feast of Pentecost when the disciples were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance. The coming of the Holy Spirit signals the start of a world-wide mission for Christians beyond their geographic boundaries of Israel, first from Israel to Rome, and then from Rome then to the ends of the earth. It is a mission that overcomes human obstacles and has the Spirit as its driving force.

The Catholic Experience

The Holy Spirit makes the Christian experience truly Catholic and universal, open to all human experience. To be Catholic is to be universal and open to the world. Not only to Canada, North America Europe or Asia, or a certain familiar part of the world or segment of society, but it must be open to all, to every single person. The mind of Christ is not intended to be a selective mentality for a few but the perspective from which the whole world will be renewed and redeemed. An insight like this, the universal scope of salvation did not however come easily and without much pain and confusion.

In fact, the whole of the New Testament can be understood precisely as the emergence of the Catholic, the universal, in Christian life. Christianity, had it not moved from where it was particular and small would have just been a small modification of the Jewish experience, a subset of Jewish piety that was still focused in and around Jerusalem and the restoration of a literal kingdom of Israel. The first two generations of Christians discovered that Christianity could not be just that. Because they had received the Holy Spirit, which is the universal principle, the Holy Spirit opened peoples’ eyes to the universal import of the Christian truth and through the encounter with non-Jews who received the Holy Spirit.

The artists of the Middle Ages often contrasted the Tower of Babel with the “Tower” of the Upper Room. Babel symbolizes the divisions of people caused by sin. Pentecost stands for a hope that such separations are not a tragic necessity. The babbling mob of Babel compares poorly with the heartfelt unity of the Pentecost crowd. Babel was a mob. Pentecost was a community. A people without God lost the ability to communicate. A people suffused with the Spirit spoke heart to heart.

At Pentecost the full meaning of Jesus’life and message is poured into our hearts by the Spirit alive in the community. The New Testament seems to say that – for a fleeting moment – the nations of the earth paused from their customary strife and experienced a community caused by God. The brief and shining hour of Pentecost remains to charm and encourage us to this day.

World Youth Day

One of the finest teachings on the Holy Spirit in recent times took place during the prayer vigil at World Youth Day 2008 in Sydney, Australia. The Saturday evening event at the Randwick Racecourse began in darkness, gradually illuminated by torches borne by dancers on the podium, representing the opening to the Holy Spirit.

“Tonight we focus our attention on how to become witnesses,” Benedict XVI told the young people in his address. “You are already well aware that our Christian witness is offered to a world which in many ways is fragile. The unity of God’s creation is weakened by wounds that run particularly deep when social relations break apart, or when the human spirit is all but crushed through the exploitation and abuse of persons. Indeed, society today is being fragmented by a way of thinking that is inherently shortsighted, because it disregards the full horizon of truth, the truth about God and about us. By its nature, relativism fails to see the whole picture. It ignores the very principles which enable us to live and flourish in unity, order and harmony.”

Yet, the Pope went on, “such attempts to construct unity in fact undermine it. To separate the Holy Spirit from Christ present in the Church’s institutional structure would compromise the unity of the Christian community, which is precisely the Spirit’s gift! […] Unfortunately the temptation to ‘go it alone’ persists. Some today portray their local community as somehow separate from the so-called institutional Church, by speaking of the former as flexible and open to the Spirit and the latter as rigid and devoid of the Spirit.”

“Let us invoke the Holy Spirit: He is the artisan of God’s works,” the Pope concluded. “Let His gifts shape you! Just as the Church travels the same journey with all humanity, so too you are called to exercise the Spirit’s gifts amidst the ups and downs of your daily life. Let your faith mature through your studies, work, sport, music and art. Let it be sustained by prayer and nurtured by the Sacraments. […] In the end, life is not about accumulation. It is much more than success. To be truly alive is to be transformed from within, open to the energy of God’s love. In accepting the power of the Holy Spirit you too can transform your families, communities and nations. Set free the gifts! Let wisdom, courage, awe and reverence be the marks of greatness!”

Come Holy Spirit!

We read in the gospels “the one whom the Father will send will teach us everything and remind us of all that Jesus has said to us” [John 14:26]. This act of reminding and recalling is stated very clearly in the Catechism of The Catholic Church [No. 1099]: “The Holy Spirit is the Church’s living memory.”  On this great feast and birth of the Church, let us pray for the gift of memory, and for the courage to move from the empowering mystery of the Upper Room to the reality of daily life.

Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful
And kindle in us the fire of your Love!

Lord, send us your Spirit,
And renew the face of the earth…
The face of our Church, the face of our communities,
Our own faces, our own hearts. Amen.

[The readings for the solemnity of Pentecost are: Acts 2:1-11; 1 Corinthians 12:3b-7, 12-13 or Galatians 5:16-25; and John 20:19-23 or John 15:26-27; 16:12-15]

(Image: “Pentecost” by Jean Restout)

Fulfilling the Gospel Dream

Men of Jerusalem cropped

Ascension of our Lord, Year B – Sunday, May 17, 2015

The angels’ words to the “men of Galilee” in the first reading from the Acts of the Apostles for the Feast of the Ascension of the Lord (1:1-11) are painfully blunt and leave little room for misinterpretation: “Why do you stand here looking up at the skies? This Jesus who has been taken from you will return, just as you saw him go up to the heavens.”

Jesus’ disciples are given a last bit of instruction. “Don’t keep trying to stare into the future. Don’t be overly concerned about which hour he will come back.” We must not stand idly staring up into the heavens and moaning about the past, about which we can do nothing, except to bury it deeply in God’s hands and heart! The Lord will be glorified, and it follows that his disciples will also share in his glory.

As Jesus disappeared, he didn’t simply dissolve into thin air. On the day of his Ascension, one might conclude that Jesus removed himself into a new form of divine exclusion. The case is exactly the opposite. In God, Jesus is “here” in a new and very specific way. Only in his physical separation from the historical scene can his spiritual union with all the world for all time be complete. Jesus left the world one day in order to be available to all people throughout all time. He had to dissolve bonds he had made with his friends, in order to be available for everybody. In Jesus, the future has already begun!

The Ascension according to Mark’s account

There are similarities in the reports of Jesus’ Ascension found in the Synoptic Gospels — Mark, Matthew, and Luke. In each case, Jesus assigns his disciples the task of proclaiming the gospel message to the entire world.

In the Gospels of Mark and Matthew, the disciples are sent by Jesus to baptize and to preach. In Luke’s Gospel, however, the commission to baptize is not found. Instead, Jesus directs the disciples to return to Jerusalem to await the fulfillment of his promise to send them the Holy Spirit. Only the Gospels of Mark and Luke actually report Jesus’ ascension into heaven. Matthew’s Gospel concludes with Jesus’ promise to remain with his disciples forever.

The Ascension Gospel text for this year (Mark 16:15-20) is taken from the conclusion of the Gospel of Mark. Mark’s concluding chapter contains several irregularities obvious to many readers. On Easter Sunday morning in this Year B, we heard proclaimed the story of the discovery of the empty tomb by the women, and the fright and fear that accompanied these first Resurrection witnesses. Verse 8 comes to an abrupt conclusion as they flee in fright and tell no one what had transpired. This may very well be the original ending of Mark’s Gospel, but it is also possible that the more complete ending has been lost.

Some manuscripts of Mark’s Gospel include what scholars have termed the “Shorter Ending.” This ending indicates that the women told their story to Peter’s companions. A significant number of scholars believe that this ending is not original to Mark. They think that this ending was added by copyists who sought to resolve the original abrupt ending at Verse 8.

Other early manuscripts include a “Longer Ending” that scholars also believe was written by someone other than the Evangelist. Nonetheless, quotations from this “Longer Ending” are found in the writings of the early Church Fathers, and it was accepted at the Council of Trent as part of the canonical Gospel of Mark. Our Gospel for this year’s celebration of the Feast of the Ascension is taken from this “Longer Ending.”

Even if this ending to Mark’s Gospel was written by someone other than the Evangelist, in the commission that Jesus gives to his disciples, there are elements that are quite typical of Mark’s Gospel. The signs that will accompany belief in Jesus are as distinct as the action performed by Jesus during his ministry. Those who believe in Jesus will be empowered to do what Jesus himself has done.

During his ministry, Jesus sent his disciples to preach, to heal, and to drive out unclean spirits. Now they are sent again to do these things and more. From his place with God in heaven, Jesus helped his disciples, and he continues to help us as we try to live as his followers.

Only the Gospel of Mark notes that Jesus ascended to sit at the right hand of God. In noting this, Mark teaches that Jesus’ ascension affirms the glory Jesus received from God after his death and resurrection.

Garofalo Ascension of JesusThe desire for heavenly realities …

Just as the Risen Lord entrusted himself into the hands of such pathetic, broken people who were with him, he does the same to us. Our own brokenness and sinfulness are so overpowering at times that we forget that this incredible commissioning is possible, even for poor, weak, folks like us! How often do we marvel at the fact that Christ could truly inhabit us and act through our bodies, minds and hearts, and yes, even through the Church!

We know that we move toward heaven to the extent that we approach Jesus. We are assured that he hasn’t ever stopped being present with us throughout all time. The mysterious feast of the Ascension reminds us that Christ accepts our lack of confidence in ourselves. He accepts the shadowy and dark areas of our humanity. He accepts our capacity for deceit, betrayal, greed and power. And having accepted us, he calls us, gives us the eternal commission to be his people, and sends us to serve him and love him, in spite of ourselves and because of ourselves. John Henry Cardinal Newman said it well long ago:

“He calls us again and again, in order to justify us again and again – 
and again and again, and more and more,
to sanctify and glorify us.
It were well if we understood this;
but we are slow to master the great truth,
that Christ is, as it were,
walking among us, and by his hand, or eye, or voice,
bidding us follow him.”

Let’s get going and carry a piece of heaven into the world. This is the meaning of the Resurrection and the Ascension of our Lord, not one of divine abandonment of the human cause, but divine empowerment of the Gospel dream! May Christ’s dying and rising move us to make God’s glory dwell on earth. May our hope for the future inspire us in a respect for the present moment. May the desire for the heavenly realities not make us neglect our work on earth.

[The readings for the Feast of the Ascension are: Acts 1:1-11; Ephesians 1:17-23 or Ephesians 4:1-13 or 4:1-7, 11-13; and Mark 16:15-20]

(Images: “Ascension of Jesus” by Harry Anderson; “Ascension” by Garofalo)

Goodness and Friendship Through the Ages

Last Supper Champaigne cropped

Sixth Sunday of Easter, Year B – May 10, 2015

On this Sixth Sunday of Easter, I wish to offer some reflections on the first reading from the Acts of the Apostles [10:25-26, 34-35, 44-48], and then some thoughts on friendship flowing from John’s Gospel [15:9-17] and Benedict XVI’s teaching.

Christianity demands that the believer not only grasp intellectually the main tenets of the faith, but also act on them in daily life. The extraordinary story of Cornelius’ conversion in today’s first reading certainly illustrates this message. It is the longest individual narrative in the Acts of the Apostles. The theme of this narrative is divine compulsion: Peter is the least prepared to accept Cornelius into the Christian community, and he even refuses to admit him two times.

Peter had to be converted before he could convert Cornelius. Peter came to the realization that God’s gifts were given to all those who listened to the Word of God. His question “Can anyone forbid water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” [10:47] echoes the Ethiopian’s question and Philip’s response in the earlier story: “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” [8:36].

Peter and CorneliusPeter’s actions with Cornelius had far-reaching implications. Struck at once with the exceptional sincerity, hospitality and deep goodness of Cornelius and his household, Peter spontaneously exclaimed: “God has made it clear to me that no one should call anyone unclean or impure. God shows no partiality.”

That statement broke centuries of customs, and even of theology, that Israel alone was God’ s chosen people, separated from all other nations as God’ s very own [cf. Deuteronomy 7:6-8; Exodus 19:5-6]. Peter had no choice but to baptize the household of Cornelius and he was criticized for his ‘ecumenical’ approach, but responded to his critics: “Who am I that I could withstand God?” [11:17]. When his critics heard these words, they were silenced and began to glorify God [11:18].

Paul, too, found the same spontaneous manifestation of the faith among the gentiles, and so made the exciting declaration: “We now turn to the Gentiles!” The controversy over the law was to linger for a long time, so that Paul dedicated to this topic his most comprehensive theological work: the Letter to the Romans.

I call you friends

In today’s Gospel text from St. John [15:15], we hear the powerful words: “No longer do I call you servants … but I have called you friends.” We are not useless servants but friends! The Lord calls us friends; he makes us his friends; he gives us his friendship.

Jesus defines friendship in two ways. There are no secrets between friends: Christ tells us everything he hears from the Father; he gives us his full confidence and, with confidence, also knowledge. He reveals his face to us, his heart. He shows his tenderness for us, his passionate love that goes to the folly of the cross.

If we were to name one of the most frequent and important themes of Benedict XVI’s teaching and preaching over the past four years, it would certainly be his invitation to be a friend of Jesus. He sounded this theme clearly during the Mass “for the election of the Roman Pontiff” in St. Peter’s Basilica, before the conclave. “Adult and mature is a faith profoundly rooted in friendship with Christ. This friendship opens us to all that is good and gives us the measure to discern between what is true and what is false, between deceit and truth,” he said.

I remember how moved I was as I listened to the Holy Father’s homily at the beginning of the Petrine Ministry of the Bishop of Rome on April 24, 2005. Three times during that memorable homily, Benedict XVI spoke of the importance of “friendship” with Jesus:

“The Church as a whole and all her pastors, like Christ, must set out to lead people out of the desert, towards the place of life, toward friendship with the Son of God, toward the One who gives us life, and life in abundance. […]

“There is nothing more beautiful than to know him and to speak to others of our friendship with him. […]

“Only in this friendship are the doors of life opened wide. Only in this friendship is the great potential of human existence truly revealed. Only in this friendship do we experience beauty and liberation.”

Eight months later, in his Angelus address of Jan. 15, 2006, Benedict XVI said:

“Friendship with the Teacher guarantees profound peace and serenity to the soul, even in the dark moments and in the most arduous trials. When faith meets with dark nights, in which the presence of God is no longer ‘felt’ or ‘seen,’ friendship with Jesus guarantees that in reality nothing can ever separate us from his love” (cf. Rom 8: 39).

Again on Aug. 26, 2007, the theme of friendship was front and center:

“True friendship with Jesus is expressed in the way of life: It is expressed with goodness of heart, with humility, meekness and mercy, love for justice and truth, a sincere and honest commitment to peace and reconciliation.”

We might say that this is the “identity card” that qualifies us as his real “friends”; this is the “passport” that will give us access to eternal life. How do we understand the tremendous gift of friendship in our lives?

Matter of the heart

For many years, I have looked to the life and writings of Cardinal John Henry Newman [1801-1890] as a brilliant model of friendship. Newman truly speaks heart-to-heart — “cor ad cor loquitur” — a phrase that he chose as his personal motto. There was nothing superficial about Newman’s way of relating to so many different people. He looked at them and loved them for who they were.

The beloved English Cardinal had a great appreciation for the nobility of human virtues as evidenced in the literature and history of ancient Rome and Greece. At the same time the saints that he most admired — St. Paul, the ancient Church Fathers, his spiritual father St. Philip Neri, and St. Francis De Sales — could all be described as humanly attractive

Newman had an extraordinary capacity and gift for friendship, which often translated into leadership. No one could describe Cardinal Newman as extroverted or light-hearted. We need only to glance at the many volumes of his letters and diaries, or look at the index of names in his autobiographical works, to see that he shared deep friendships with hundreds of people throughout his life. This personal influence has been exerted very powerfully upon millions of people who have read his works and discovered what friendship really means.

Authenticity

I could not write about friendship without passing along a warning to countless women and men who search for it every day. The great popularity of online social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook merits careful attention, reflection and scrutiny. It has been said that if Facebook were a country, it would be the eighth most populated nation worldwide!

We must carefully ask several questions: What is it doing for us?

These tools help to bring people together and improve social networks. For example, homebound, infirm, chronically ill and elderly people can connect with a community of others in the same situation and new bonds of solidarity are born.

But there are also related questions: What is it doing to us? What is it doing to our sense of social boundaries? To our sense of individuality? To our friendships?

Friendship in these virtual spaces is quite different from real time friendship. Friendship is a relationship that involves the sharing of mutual interests, reciprocity, trust, and the revelation of intimate details over time and within specific contexts. True friendship depends on mutual revelations, and can only flourish within the boundaries of privacy and modesty.

On social networking sites, however, there is a concept of public friendship which is not the friendship spoken of by Jesus in the Gospel, nor Benedict XVI in his wonderful writings, nor Cardinal Newman in his letters. The distance and abstraction of our online friendships and online relationships can lead to a kind of systemic desensitization as a culture if we are not wise, prudent and attentive to these new realities.

We expose everything, but are we feeling anything?

Such friendships, or rather acquaintances, are quite different from the “cor ad cor loquitur” so ardently desired and experienced by Jesus with his disciples, or by an impetuous Peter, a Roman official named Cornelius, a British Cardinal named John Henry and a German Pope named Benedict XVI who have modeled their lives on the Good Shepherd and faithful friend to every human being.

[The readings for this Sunday are: Acts 10:25-26, 34-35, 44-48; 1 John 4:7-10; John 15:9-17.]

(Images: “Last Supper” by Philippe de Champaigne; “Peter baptizing Cornelius” by Francesco Trevisani)

Making Our Home in Jesus

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Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year B – May 3rd, 2015

In John’s Gospel (15:1-8) for the 5th Sunday of Easter, we have the image of the vine and its branches to express the relationship between Christ and his disciples. We should not be surprised that at one level it seems utterly simple, but that at other levels it fills us with a sense of mystery, awe, and beauty, always leaving us wanting more.

The branches of a vine have an intimate relationship with the vine, depending on it at all times and forming one living organism with it. The vine, which can be a bit foreign in northern climates, is natural for anyone in the Middle East, where many families possess a vine, a fig tree, or olive trees in their gardens.

Jesus tells his followers that he is the true vine, the real vine, and that they are the branches, whose task is to bear fruit by sharing his life: “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Abide in me, and I in you. If you abide in me, and my words in you, ask whatever you want. Apart from me, you can do nothing.”

While the images of Christ as king and lord, teacher, shepherd and judge, have their own importance in forming our perspective on how Christ relates to us, these images need to be balanced by such images as the vine, which integrate the disciple into the life of Christ and Christ into the life of the disciple in an intimate unity and closeness that the other images might not always convey.

Today’s passage is one of the classic descriptions of authentic Christian spirituality. The image of the vine, while inviting us to a depth of spirituality, sets that personal quest within the larger context of the family of God, stretching through time from Abraham to the present day and beyond, and through space from the Middle East in the first century to the four corners of the earth today.

If Jesus is the vine, we are summoned to ‘abide,’ to ‘live,’ to make our home ‘in him.’ The Gospel text of the vine challenges us: How do we maintain intimacy with the living God as we strive to be obedient to our vocation of bearing fruit for the world? What does it mean, to ‘abide’ or ‘dwell’ in the vine, to be intimately attached to Jesus?

Abiding in Jesus includes being part of the life of the Church, committed to the daily and weekly fellowship of his people, in mutual support, prayer, common worship, sacramental life, study and not least, work for the Gospel in the world. In every Eucharistic celebration we are drawn into that intimate fellowship both with Jesus himself and with each other at his table.

Authentic Christian spirituality is the personal knowledge of Jesus Christ given to us, as the vine gives its sap to the branches, so that we can be extensions of his work, his love, his fruitbearing, his glorifying of the Father. That is the heart of the Eucharistic mystery.

And yet as soon as Jesus introduced the theme of the vine and the branches in the Gospel passage, he speaks of his Father, the vinedresser, doing two things that require a knife. Every branch that doesn’t bear fruit, the Father removes, cuts away; and every branch that does bear fruit the Father prunes, so that it may bear more fruit.

The spirituality to which this Gospel passage invites us is not one of unbridled personal development, fulfilling all the potential we might discover within ourselves. As we follow Jesus and come to know him personally, we find him calling us to submit to the pruning-knife, to cut out some things from our lives that are good in themselves and that would even have had the potential to develop into fruitbearing branches, in order that other things may flourish. Pruning is always a painful process. It is a form of loss or death. The vinedresser is never more intimately involved than when wielding the pruning-knife!

The call to abide in the vine is a call to a personal and intimate knowledge of Jesus himself, not an idea, but a living person. True disciples of Jesus are dependent on the inner presence and activity of Christ for the renewal and regeneration of their own life into one of faith and love. True disciples can only be effective in the regeneration of the lives of others when they are “plugged into Jesus,” grafted onto his life, allowing his very presence to pulsate through their minds and hearts.

The images of vine and vineyard are brought together beautifully in that well-known passage from “Lumen Gentium,” No. 6, the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church:

“The Church is a piece of land to be cultivated, the tillage of God. On that land the ancient olive tree grows whose holy roots were the Prophets and in which the reconciliation of Jews and Gentiles has been brought about and will be brought about. That land, like a choice vineyard, has been planted by the heavenly Husbandman. The true vine is Christ who gives life and the power to bear abundant fruit to the branches, that is, to us, who through the Church remain in Christ without whom we can do nothing.”

To illustrate this dependency, this grafting on the Lord, let me share with you some profound words of a great woman of the Church, St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross [Edith Stein] (1891-1942), Carmelite, martyr, co-patroness of Europe, and one who knew what it meant to be intimately connected to the Lord. They are taken from Chapter 6 of her “Essays on Woman” (ICS Publications).

“The notion of the Church as community of the faithful is the most accessible to human reason. Whoever believes in Christ and his gospel, hopes for the fulfillment of his promises, clings to him in love, and keeps his commandments must unite with all who are like-minded in the deepest communion of mind and heart. Those who adhered to the Lord during his stay on earth were the early seeds of the great Christian community; they spread that community and that faith which held them together, until they have been inherited by us today through the process of time.

“But, if even a natural human community is more than a loose union of single individuals, if even here we can verify a movement developing into a kind of organic unit, it must be still more true of the supernatural community of the Church. The union of the soul with Christ differs from the union among people in the world: It is a rooting and growing in him (so we are told by the parable of the vine and the branches) which begins in baptism, and which is constantly strengthened and formed through the sacraments in diverse ways. However this real union with Christ implies the growth of a genuine community among all Christians. Thus the Church forms the Mystical Body of Christ. The Body is a living Body, and the spirit which gives the Body life is Christ’s spirit, streaming from the head to all parts (Ephesians 5:23,30). The spirit which Christ radiates is the Holy Spirit; the Church is thus the temple of the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 2:21-22).”

This week, let us pray that our belonging to Christ be profound and real, going beyond all of the turbulence that exists on life’s surface. May Christ’s very life flow through us, building up the Body of Christ that is the Church.

[The readings for this Sunday are: Acts 9:26-31; 1 John 3:18-24; John 15:1-8.]