WATCH LIVE   ·  English  ·  Français   ·   中文    

The Passion of Jesus Is Our Reason for Hope

Carracci Flagellation cropped

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

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

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

Zooming in on Mark’s Passion narrative

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

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

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

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

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

Viewing Mark’s Passion through the lenses of fidelity

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

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

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

Who, if not the condemned Savior?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Image: The Flagellation of Christ by Annibale Carracci)

Gazing Upon the Face of Jesus

JP Good Friday cropped

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

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

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

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

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

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

Garden of suffering

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

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

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

John Paul II’s agony

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Image: CNS photo/L’Osservatore Romano)

Nicodemus’ Search for the “Soul of Theology”

Jesus and Nicodemus cropped

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

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

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

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

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

Lifted up

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

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

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

Nicodemus and the synod

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

At the synod, the Holy Father and the bishops of the world addressed the present impasse in Scriptural studies, often caused by the atomization and dissection of the Scriptures, and a lack of integration of biblical studies with faith, the liturgy and lived spirituality. If Biblical texts are read and taught only for their historical and philological accuracy or inaccuracy, we fail to read the Bible as a book of faith that is the privileged possession of a living, breathing, praying community. We run the risk of selectivist and relativist interpretations of God’s Word.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Burning Love for the Father’s House

Jesus Temple cropped

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

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

John’s account of Jesus’ cleansing of the temple is in sharp contrast to the other Gospel accounts of this dramatic story. In the Synoptic Gospels, this scene takes place at the end of the “Palm Sunday Procession” into the holy city. With the people shouting out in triumph, Jesus entered into the temple area, not to do homage but to challenge the temple and its leaders. He overturned the tables of the moneychangers and upset the stalls of those selling birds and animals for the sacrifice. What a teaching moment this was! Jesus quoted from the Scriptures: “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations … but you have made it a den of robbers” (Mark 11:17, Isaiah 56:6-7, Jeremiah 7:11).

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

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

Extreme Jesus

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

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

Jesus was not exclusively, not even primarily, concerned with social reform. Rather, he was filled with a deep devotion and burning love for his Father and the things of his Father. He wanted to form new people, created in God’s image, who are sustained by his love, and bring that love to others. Jesus’ disciples and apostles recognized him as a passionate figure — one who was committed to life and to losing it for the sake of truth and fidelity.

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

Message of the Cross

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moriah, Tabor, Calvary: Darkness Can Be Radiant

Transfiguration

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Ways of the Desert

Jesus Tempted cropped

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

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

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

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

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

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

God’s in charge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Overcoming a Globalization of Indifference

Overcoming cropped

Biblical Reflection for Ash Wednesday – February 18, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let Us Not Fear the Sepulchers of This Earth

Lepers Christ cropped

Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B – February 15, 2015

The first reading for this Sunday outlines the harsh laws for people with skin diseases usually labeled correctly or incorrectly as a form of leprosy (Leviticus 13:1-2; 44-46).

Throughout history, few diseases have been as dreaded as the horrible affliction known as leprosy. It was so common and severe among ancient peoples that God gave Moses extensive instructions to deal with it as evidenced in chapters 13 and 14 from Leviticus. The belief that only God could heal leprosy is key to understanding today’s miracle that proves Jesus’ identity.

Leprosy in the Bible appears in two principle forms. Both start with discoloration of a patch of skin. The disease becomes systemic and involves the internal organs as well as the skin. Marked deformity of the hands and feet occur when the tissues between the bones deteriorate and disappear.

In Jesus’ time, lepers were forced to exist outside the community, separated from family and friends and thus deprived of the experience of any form of human interaction. We read in Leviticus 13:45-46 that lepers were to wear torn clothes, let their hair be disheveled, and live outside the camp. These homeless individuals were to cry “Unclean, unclean!” when a person without leprosy approached them. Lepers suffered both the disease and ostracism from society. In the end, both realities destroy their victims’ lives. One may indeed wonder which was worse: the social ostracism experienced or the devastating skin lesions.

Mark 1:40 tells us that the leper appears abruptly in front of Jesus: “begging him and kneeling before him.” The news about Jesus’ miraculous powers has gotten around, even to the reviled and outcast leper. “If you choose, you can make me clean,” the leper tells Jesus. In even approaching Jesus, the leper has violated the Levitical code. By saying, “If you choose, you can make me clean,” the leper not only indicates his absolute faith in Jesus’ ability to cleanse him of his disease, but also actually challenges Jesus to act. In the ancient Mediterranean world, touching a leper was a radical act. By touching the reviled outcast, Jesus openly defied Levitical law. Only a priest could declare that someone was cured of the skin disease. As required by ancient law, Jesus sent the man to a priest for verification. Even though Jesus asked him not to, the man went about telling everyone of this great miracle.

My encounter with lepers

I had never encountered leprosy until I was pursuing my graduate studies in Scripture in the Holy Land. In 1992, I was invited by the Religious Sisters of the Sacred Heart to come down to Egypt from Jerusalem and spend several weeks teaching and preaching Scripture — first in Cairo, then down (or up!) the Nile River into Upper Egypt. We visited many of the very poor Christian villages where the sisters and other religious worked among the poorest of the poor. That journey remains engraved in my memory, for the remarkable women religious encountered along the way, and for the horrible human situations of suffering that we witnessed.

When we arrived in one of the Egyptian villages along the Nile, one of the sisters took me outside the central part of town, to an area where lepers and severely handicapped people were kept, in chains, in underground areas hidden away from civilization. It was like entering tombs of the living dead. Their lot was worse than animals. The stench was overpowering, the misery shocking, the suffering incredible.

I descended into several hovels, blessed the people with my best Arabic and said some prayers with each person. The sister accompanying me said: “Simply touch them. You have no idea what the touch means, when they are kept as animals and monsters.”

I laid hands on many of these women and men and touched their disfigured faces and bodies. Tears streamed down my face as the women and men and several children shrieked at first then wept openly. They reached out to hug and embrace me. Then we all shared bottles of Coca Cola! Those unforgettable days, deep in the heart of Egypt, taught me what the social and physical condition of lepers must have been at the time of Jesus. There was not much difference between then and now.

As we read the story of Jesus among the outcasts, let us recall with gratitude the lives of three remarkable people in our Catholic tradition who worked with lepers and dared to touch and embrace those who were afflicted with that debilitating disease.

First, Blessed Joseph DeVeuster, (known as Father Damian of Molokai) who was born in Belgium in 1840, entered the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts at the age of 20 and was sent as a missionary to the Hawaiian Islands. After nine years of priestly work, he obtained permission in 1873 to labor among the abandoned lepers on Molokai. With Blessed Father Damien, let us pray that we not fear the sepulchers of this earth. He descended into the lepers’ colony of Molokai — then considered “the cemetery and hell of the living” — and from the first sermon embraced all those unfortunate people saying simply: “We lepers.” And to the first sick person who said, “Be careful, Father, you might get my disease” he replied, “I am my own, if the sickness takes my body away God will give me another one.”

Becoming a leper himself in 1885, he died in April 1889, a victim of his charity for others. In 1994, Pope John Paul II proclaimed him Blessed. In 2009, he was canonized by Pope Benedict XVI.

Second, Saint Marianne Cope (1838–1918), mother to Molokai lepers. In the 1880s, Sister Marianne, as superior of her congregation of the Sisters of St. Francis in Syracuse, responded to a call to assist with the care of lepers on the island of Molokai, Hawaii. She worked with Father Damien and with the outcasts of society as they were abandoned on the shores of the island, never to return to their families.

In the late 19th and early 20th century, about 10% of the Hansenites (people with leprosy) on Molokai and the Peninsula of Kalaupapa were Buddhists. Many practiced the native, indigenous religions of the Polynesian Islands. Some were Protestant and some were Catholic. Sister Marianne loved them all and showed her selfless compassion to those suffering from Hansen’s disease. People of all religions of the islands still honor and revere Father Damien and Mother Marianne who brought healing to body and soul.

Be not afraid

Finally, let us recall with gratitude Blessed Teresa of Calcutta (1910-1997), who was never afraid to see and touch the face of Jesus in the distressing disguise of the poorest of the poor.

Mother Teresa wrote:

“The fullness of our heart becomes visible in our actions: how I behave with this leper, how I behave with this dying person, how I behave with this homeless person. Sometimes, it is more difficult to work with down-and-outs than with the people who are dying in our hospices, for the latter are at peace, waiting to go to God soon.

“You can draw near to the sick person, to the leper, and be convinced that you are touching the body of Christ. But when it is a drunk person yelling, it is more difficult to think that you are face-to-face with Jesus hidden in him. How pure and loving must our hands be in order to show compassion for those beings!

“To see Jesus in the spiritually most deprived person requires a pure heart. The more disfigured the image of God is in a person, the greater must our faith and our veneration be in our search for the face of Jesus and in our ministry of love for him.”

Most people will never encounter lepers. Nor will we know what it means to be completely ostracized by society. But there are other forms of leprosy today, which destroy human beings, kill their hope and spirit, and isolate them from society. Who are the modern lepers in our lives, suffering with physical diseases that stigmatize, isolate and shun, and cut others off from the land of the living? What are the social conditions today that force people to become the living dead, relegating them to cemeteries and dungeons of profound indignity, poverty, despair, isolation, violence, sadness, depression, homelessness, addiction and mental illness?

Let us not fear the sepulchers of this earth. Let us enter those hovels and bring a word of consolation and a gesture of healing to others. In the words of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta: “Let us do so with a sense of profound gratitude and with piety. Our love and our joy in serving must be in proportion to the degree to which our task is repugnant.”

[The readings for this Sunday are: Leviticus 13:1-2, 44-46; 1 Corinthians 10:31-11:1; and Mark 1:40-45]

(Image: “The Healing of Ten Lepers” by James Tissot)

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

Healing the Fevers of Life

Peter's Mother-in-law cropped
Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B – February 8, 2015

The centerpiece of the stone ruins of the village of Capernaum on the Sea of Galilee’s northwest shore is the black octagonal Church of the Panis Vitae (Bread of Life), built directly above what is believed to be Simon Peter’s house, the setting for this weekend’s Gospel story [Mark 1:29-39]. One of my mentors and teachers, the late Passionist Father Carroll Stuhlmueller, once told me that the real centerpiece of Capernaum should be a huge memorial statue dedicated to the mothers-in-law of the world!

Try for a moment just to imagine the setting of this day in the life of Jesus. The newly constituted group of disciples who had left their nets, boats, hired servants, and even their father, to follow the Lord [1:16-20] are delighted in his presence. Jesus’ words and actions completely overpower evil. His personality is so compelling and attractive. Leaving the synagogue where an evil spirit has been overcome, Jesus and his disciples walk only a few feet before encountering further evils of human sickness, prejudice and taboo. We read: “The whole city gathered together about the door” [1:33-34]. What a commotion!

In Mark’s Gospel, the very first healing by Jesus involves a woman. He approaches Simon’s mother-in-law as she lay in bed with fever. He takes her by the hand and raises her to health [1:31]. Such actions were unacceptable for any man — let alone someone who claimed to be a religious figure or leader. Not only does he touch the sick woman, but also he then allows her to serve him and his disciples. Because of the strict laws of ritual purity at that time, Jesus broke this taboo by taking her by the hand, raising her to health, and allowing her to serve him at table.

Peter’s mother-in-law’s response to the healing of Jesus is the discipleship of lowly service, a model to which Jesus will repeatedly invite his followers to embrace throughout the Gospel and which he models through his own life. Some will say that the purpose of this weekend’s Gospel story is to remind us that this woman’s place is in the home. That is not the purpose of the story. The mother-in-law’s action is in sharp contrast to that of her son-in-law, Simon, who calls to Jesus’ attention the crowd that is clamoring for more healings [1:37] but does nothing, himself, about them.

In Mark’s Gospel stories of the poor widow [12:41-44], the woman with the ointment [14:3-9], the women at the cross [15:40-41], and the women at the tomb [16:1], women represent the correct response to Jesus’ invitation to discipleship. They stand in sharp contrast to the great insensitivity and misunderstanding of the male disciples. The presence of Jesus brings wholeness, holiness and dignity to women. How often do our hurtful, human customs prevent people from truly experiencing wholeness, holiness and dignity?

In the Old Testament reading from Job [7:1-7], Job doesn’t know it yet, but he is part of a “test” designed between Satan and God. Prior to Sunday’s verses, Job has endured immense suffering and loss. He knows that the shallow theological explanations of his friends are not God’s ways; but still, he is at a loss to understand his own suffering. Job complains of hard labor, sleepless nights, a dreadful disease and the brevity of his hopeless life. For Job, all of life is a terrible fever! How often do we experience “Job” moments in our own life as our fevers burn away?

The healing of Simon’s mother-in-law proclaims Jesus’ power to heal all sorts of fevers. Around the year 400 A.D., St. Jerome preached on Sunday’s Gospel text in Bethlehem: “O that he would come to our house and enter and heal the fever of our sins by his command. For each and every one of us suffers from fever. When I grow angry, I am feverish. So many vices, so many fevers. But let us ask the apostles to call upon Jesus to come to us and touch our hand, for if he touches our hand, at once the fever flees” [“Corpus Christianorum,” LXXVIII 468].

With Jesus, healing of mind and body becomes a clear sign that the Kingdom of God is already present. Jesus’ healing Word of power reaches the whole person: it heals the body and even more important, it restores those who suffer to a healthy relationship with God and with the community.

May we pray with confidence the words of Cardinal John Henry Newman’s Sermon on Wisdom and Innocence: “May he support us all the day long, till the shades lengthen, and the evening comes, and the busy world is hushed, and the fever of life is over, and our work is done. Then in his mercy may he give us a safe lodging, and a holy rest, and peace at the last.”

Finally, it is important to recognize what Jesus did after he healed the woman in Sunday’s story. He took time away to strengthen himself through prayer. Do we do the same in the midst of our busy worlds in which we live, in the midst of the burning fevers of life and the burdens of our daily work?

May these first moments of Jesus’ ministry in Mark’s Gospel teach us to recognize the goodness which God brings into our lives, but also that this goodness is not ours to horde for ourselves. The healing power of Jesus is still effective today — reaching out to us to heal us and restore us to life.

[The readings for the Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time are: Job 7:1-4, 6-7; 1 Corinthians 9:16-9, 22-23; and Mark 1:29-39.]

(Image: “Jesus Healing the Mother-in-law of Simon Peter” by John Bridges)

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

“To take Jesus in our hands and enfold him in our arms…”

PL15

The Feast of the Presentation of the Lord – Monday, February 2, 2015

In 1997, Saint John Paul II established the special Day of Consecrated Life to coincide with the Feast of the Presentation of the Child Jesus in the Temple of Jerusalem (February 2).  The Pope gave three reasons for his selection of February 2 as a special day for religious women and men: first, to praise and thank the Lord for the gift of consecrated life; second, to promote the knowledge and appreciation of consecrated women and men by all the People of God; and third, to invite all those who have dedicated their life to the cause of the Gospel to celebrate the wonderful ways that Lord has worked through them.

The special scripture readings for the Feast are the readings for Sunday (Malachi 3:1-4; Psalm 24:7,8,9,10; Hebrews 2:14-18; and Luke 2:22-40).

Biblical background

According to the Mosaic law (Leviticus 12:2-8), a woman who gives birth to a boy is unable for forty days to touch anything sacred or to enter the temple area by reason of her legal impurity. At the end of this period she is required to offer a year-old lamb as a burnt offering and a turtledove or young pigeon as an expiation of sin. The woman who could not afford a lamb offered instead two turtledoves or two young pigeons, as Mary and Joseph do in today’s Gospel. They took him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord: as the firstborn son (Luke 2:7) Jesus was consecrated to the Lord as the law required (Exodus 13:2, 12), but there was no requirement that this be done at the temple. The concept of a presentation at the temple is probably derived from 1 Sam 1:24-28, where Hannah offers the child Samuel for sanctuary services. The law further stipulated (Numbers 3:47-48) that the firstborn son should be redeemed by the parents through their payment of five shekels to a member of a priestly family. Luke remains silent about this legal requirement.

Let us reflect on the very poignant Gospel scene of the Presentation of the Child Jesus in the Temple found in chapter 2 of Luke’s Infancy narrative (2:22-38). In this touching scene, we encounter four individuals who embrace the new life of Jesus held in their arms: the elderly and faithful Simeon, the old, wise prophetess Anna, and the young couple, Mary and Joseph, who in faithful obedience offer their child to the Lord.  Luke writes that “when the parents brought in the child Jesus to perform the custom of the law in regard to him, the old Simeon took the baby into his arms and blessed God” (Lk 2:27-28). At that point the evangelist places on Simeon’s lips the canticle Nunc Dimittis – this beautiful prayer is really an anthology of the prayer of ancient Israel.  The liturgy has us repeat it daily at night prayer:  “My eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all peoples, a light of revelation to the Gentiles and glory for your people Israel” (2:30-32).

The Holy Spirit was at work in Simeon and also in the life of the prophetess Anna who, having remained a widow since her youth, “never left the Temple, but worshipped night and day with fasting and prayer” (2:37). She was a woman consecrated to God and, in the light of God’s Spirit, especially capable of grasping God’s plan and interpreting God’s commands. “And coming forward at that very time, Anna gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were awaiting the redemption of Jerusalem” (Lk 2:38). Like Simeon she too, without a doubt was moved by the Holy Spirit in her encounter with Jesus.

PL15.1The prophetic words of Simeon and Anna not only announced the Savior’s coming into the world and his presence in Israel’s midst, but also his redemptive sacrifice. This second part of the prophecy was directed precisely to Mary, mother of the Savior: “He is destined for the rise and fall of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted (and you yourself a sword will pierce) so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed” (2:34-35).

Two important perspectives for the Consecrated life flow from this deeply touching Gospel story.  The Presentation of God’s own son into Jerusalem’s majestic temple takes place amidst the many comings and goings of various people, busy with their work: priests and Levites taking turns to be on duty; crowds of devout pilgrims anxious to encounter the God of Israel in his earthly dwelling in Jerusalem. Yet none of them noticed anything special about the scene unfolding before them. Jesus was a child like the others, a first-born son of very simple, humble, holy parents.

The temple priests, too, were incapable of recognizing the signs of the new and special presence of the Messiah and Saviour. Rather it was two elderly people, Simeon and Anna, who were able to discover the great newness present in the person of the child Jesus. Because they were led by the Holy Spirit, Simeon and Anna found in this Child the fulfillment of their patient waiting and faithful watchfulness.  Upon seeing the Child, Simeon and Anna understood that he was the long Awaited One.  He was the fulfillment of their hopes and dreams.

Simeon and Anna, coupled with the simplicity and piety of Mary, Joseph and the baby reveal the sheer humanity of this meeting.  The old man holds the child in his arms – the torch of life somehow spanning two generations of faithful Jews.  Holding this child in his arms, he knows that he is holding his very future close to his heart.  What contentment to know that he is embracing in his arms the continuity of his own life! Simeon has hoped, he has believed and now his hope, in the shape of a baby, is here, full of vitality and future promise.  The old man rejoices that others will continue his work; he is happy that in his own decline there is indeed a reawakening, a rebirth, a future that is opening up.

Anna, too, is not afraid to bless the newness and challenge that this child brings.  It is not easy for the old person that lies within each one of us to welcome the new, to take the baby up in our arms.  There is always the fear that the baby will not survive, that the newborn will not share the same ideals, that this child will betray our ideals and in so doing put us aside and take our place. Though elderly, Simeon and Anna embodied a hopeful, youthful vision. They were evergreen.

PL15.2This story is played out each time I have visited my elderly confrères in our various retirement homes and congregational infirmary.  There are those who rejoice in us younger brothers, like Simeon and Anna, because they see us carrying the torch forward.  And there are those who fear that we will not survive, that we will betray their ideals and not pay attention to them because they are simply old.  If we hope to be consecrated men and women of vision in the Church today, it is because we are standing on the shoulders of giants, of those who have gone before us.  We must never forget this fact.  Each time we have attempted to go forward, not remembering what and who went before us, we have paid a dear price.

The second unique perspective of Luke’s Presentation Gospel scene is that of bearing Christ to the world. If our religious congregations, our local communities, our educational institutions, our parish structures, our varied apostolic works do not bear Jesus to the world, and do not speak about him openly, then we are not fulfilling the mission entrusted to us by God and the Church.

The newness, effectiveness, power of proclamation of our educational and pastoral efforts do not primarily consist in the use of dazzling, original methods or techniques, which certainly have their effectiveness, but in being filled with the Holy Spirit and allowing ourselves to be guided by Him. The novelty of authentic proclamation of the Good News lies in immersing ourselves deeply in the mystery of Christ, the assimilation of His Word and of His presence in the Eucharist, so that He Himself, the living Jesus, can act and speak through poor instruments like us.

Pope Francis is a magnificent example of the New Evangelization in the flesh. He speaks so often about the “culture of encounter” that brings us face to face with other human beings.  If you want to know what Evangelization looks like, feels likes, smells like look at Francis, himself an elderly man, who lives the Gospel of Joy.  Pope Francis as not lost his hopeful, youthful vision.  He, too, is evergreen.

In paragraph #88 of his recent Apostolic Exhortation “Evangelii Gaudium,” the Bishop of Rome writes:

“Many try to escape from others and take refuge in the comfort of their privacy or in a small circle of close friends, renouncing the realism of the social aspect of the Gospel. For just as some people want a purely spiritual Christ, without flesh and without the cross, they also want their interpersonal relationships provided by sophisticated equipment, by screens and systems which can be turned on and off on command. Meanwhile, the Gospel tells us constantly to run the risk of a face-to-face encounter with others, with their physical presence which challenges us, with their pain and their pleas, with their joy which infects us in our close and continuous interaction. True faith in the incarnate Son of God is inseparable from self-giving, from membership in the community, from service, from reconciliation with others. The Son of God, by becoming flesh, summoned us to the revolution of tenderness.

A Kairos Moment

When Mary and Joseph arrived at Jerusalem’s Temple, with the Child Jesus in their arms, it was not just one more ordinary moment in the life of an old priest and a faithful prophetess on duty that day.  It was the divinely appointed moment.  Ordinary time “chronos” was suddenly transformed into “the moment from God.”

Because we live in this very same kairos, the “appointed time and hour” of our history, we cannot speak of the future of the Church, the future of our parish community, the future of our dioceses and religious congregations,, the future of our activities of education and evangelization, indeed the future of anything!  The only real issue for us is Jesus and the future of the Church, Jesus and the future of our parish community, Jesus and the future of our dioceses and religious communities, Jesus and the future of our educational and pastoral programs and activities, Jesus and the future of everything!  Too often our look at the future is purely scientific or sociological, with no reference to Jesus, the Gospel or the action of the Spirit in history and in the church.

On this special day when we give thanks to God for the Consecrated Life, we must ask ourselves some significant questions.   Why do some of our contemporaries – brothers and sisters in religious life – see and find Christ, while others do not? What opens the eyes and the heart? What is lacking in those who remain indifferent? Does our self-assurance, the claim to knowing reality, the presumption of having formulated a definitive judgment on everything not close us off and make our hearts insensitive to the newness of God? How often are we dead certain of the idea that we have formed of the world, of the Church, of the consecrated life, and no longer let ourselves be involved in the curiosity and intimacy of an adventure with God who wants to meet us and draw us closer to Him?

How frequently do we place our confidence in ourselves rather than in the Child of Bethlehem, and we do not think it possible that God could be so great as to make himself small so as to come really close to us?  How could it be that God’s glory and power are revealed in a helpless Baby?

The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, and the carefully chosen words of Simeon’s prayer invite us into contemplation and adoration of the Word made flesh, dwelling powerfully among us.  We all lead busy lives.  We do important, good works.  Many of our lives are deeply enmeshed with the institutions and enterprises we serve.  At times are we not so caught up with the comings and goings of so many people in our daily existence, that we forget to notice Jesus in our midst?

Jesus, who comes to us in the distressing disguise of the poor, the unbalanced, the angry, sad and confused people who make up our worlds?  Jesus, who comes to us from very simple, humble, holy parents who cannot do anything for us, except simply to be there?  Could it be that we consecrated women and men, like those in Jerusalem’s temple, are incapable of recognizing the signs of the new and special presence of the Messiah and Saviour?  And when we do encounter the radical newness that is Jesus, will we hold the baby in our arms, welcome him, make room for him in our lives?  Will the ‘newness’ he brings really enter into our lives or will we try to put the old and the new together hoping that the newness of God will cause us minimum disturbance?

How do we see God’s glory in our lives?  Do we thirst for justice and peace?    What are the new situations and who are the new people who have entered our lives in the last little while?  What new realities are we avoiding or afraid of or rebelling against?  How are we truly light and salvation for other people? Are we capable of warming human hearts by our lives?  Do we radiate joy or announce despair? Do we live the Gospel of joy?

I conclude with the striking words of a great theologian and teacher of the second century, Origen (185-223).  They are from his homily on Luke’s account of the Presentation of the Child Jesus in the Temple:

“Simeon knew that no one could release a man from the prison of the body with hope of life to come, except the one whom he enfolded in his arms. Hence, he also says to him, “Now you dismiss your servant, Lord, in peace” (Lk 8,44). For, as long as I did not hold Christ, as long as my arms did not enfold him, I was imprisoned, and unable to escape from my bounds. But this is true not only of Simeon, but of the whole human race. Anyone who departs from this world, anyone who is released from prison and the house of those in chains, to go forth and reign, should take Jesus in his hands. He should enfold him with his arms, and fully grasp him in his bosom. Then he will be able to go in joy where he longs to go… .”

Fr. Thomas Rosica, C.S.B., is CEO of the Salt and Light Catholic Media Foundation in Canada and President of Assumption University in Windsor, Ontario. He is also English Language Assistant to the Holy See Press Office.

[The readings for the Presentation of the Lord are: Malachi 3:1-4; Psalm 24:7,8,9,10; Hebrews 2:14-18; and Luke 2:22-40.]