What Christ Has Given Us Is Multiplied In Its Giving

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Thirty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A – November 16, 2014

Today’s Gospel story presents us with the last of the three parables that form Jesus’ final discourse in Matthew’s Gospel. Each of the three parables relates a different kind of accountability required of Christians as they prepare for their glorious encounter with Christ. The well-known Gospel text of the master, the slaves, and their talents (25:14-30) addresses what we do with the native abilities or talents that we have been given, those things which we hold most dear, and that which we have a tendency to possess too tightly. The central message of today’s Gospel parable concerns the spirit of responsibility with which to receive God’s Kingdom: a responsibility to God and to humanity.

Why Jesus taught the parables

We must not forget that Jesus taught the parables based on the way he saw life being lived out before his very eyes. As he taught the different parables, he neither blessed nor condemned the behaviour he described in each story. Rather, he used the way that his contemporaries were carrying out their everyday lives and activities to teach and model appropriate behaviour in view of God’s in-breaking Kingdom.

Today’s parable raises several questions and problems for us. The story seems to endorse a highly capitalistic mode of living regarding the use of one’s wealth and appears to be at odds with Jesus’ teaching on the use of money elsewhere in the Gospels. A second problem surfaces regarding the master’s method of reckoning upon his return. His behaviour towards his servants has some allegorical reference to the final judgment.

By means of this parable, was Jesus illustrating differing human capacities regarding God’s gift of the Kingdom? The first two slaves understand that the gifts they have are freely given by a God who is abundantly generous, and they therefore try to imitate the giver of all good gifts in the very ways that they live out their daily lives. Does God conform to the master described by the unhappy third slave: “a harsh man who reaps where he did not sow and gathers where he did not scatter” (25:24)?

The poverty of the cautious slave

I have always been intrigued by the reaction of the third slave whom I consider to be the “cautious” or “careful” slave. He seems to be an upright, honest man. He was not the smartest of the three, for he got the least amount of money, but if he weren’t a decent person, his master would have hardly entrusted him with a share of his money at all. The first and second slaves were shrewd operators; they knew how to play the market and doubled their investment. The third slave lived in fear because his master was a greedy, demanding man who liked his money and did not look kindly upon the foolishness and failure of those in his employ. Deciding to play it safe, the third slave refused to take any risks and thus buried his money. The rabbinical tradition taught that burying one’s money was the best security measure against theft or loss. I know many people who behave like this third slave.

The problem with the third slave is that he refused to take risks; he would not step out into the unknown. Filled with anxiety and fear, he projected his guilt upon his own master. In the end, he loses everything he owned. Had he acted with some degree of innocence, he may have received a much more understanding treatment from his master.

The moral of the story for us

Those who have a poor, limited, negative, or miserly image of God and God’s dealings with human beings, will end up treating their fellow human beings in the same poor, limited, and miserly ways. Such people are incapable of seeing the Kingdom of God unfolding before their very eyes and in their own time. Is this not the poverty and blindness of the third slave? He was incapacitated by fear, and was impeded from reaching out to those in need around him. Fear paralyzes each one of us and prevents us from reaching out to those in need around us.

The Good News of Jesus Christ is that we must abandon fear and be industrious, reliable, and creative in doing God’s will, lest we turn out to be like the third slave, “worthless, lazy louts”! To be a disciple of Christ, we have to lose our life in order to find it. If we risk ourselves for a perfect Christ we cannot see, we risk perhaps more in committing ourselves to an imperfect Church we can see. If our faith is seen as something that has to be protected, it is probably not genuine – and it certainly will not grow and mature if its fundamental approach is to “play it safe.”

Next Sunday’s magnificent Gospel scene of the last judgment presents us with the opposite example of the third slave. It will teach us that we find the deepest truth about ourselves when we move beyond our own fears and limitations and feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, and visit the sick and imprisoned.

The element of surprise in today’s parable

From the beginning of today’s parable, we are told that the master gave each slave a certain amount of money as pure gift. The master demonstrated a gratuitous generosity. The third slave pigeonholed his master and simply could not fathom that the master was being so generous. The slave seemed to be basing his actions on some kind of strict or literal justice that enabled him to justify his own miserly actions. In the end, the third slave lost everything.

When we apply this concept to God and Jesus, a lesson emerges for us. When we truly understand and appreciate the greatness of God’s gift to us in his Son Jesus, we experience a special freedom and gratitude, and we are willing to take risks. To do God’s will becomes an enterprising, risk-taking adventure, based on God’s gratuitous generosity, justice, mercy, and boundless trust in human beings. Today’s parable emphasizes actions and enterprise, and helps us to prepare the way for the great works of mercy and justice in the final judgment scene of Matthew’s Gospel.

A treasure made to be spent, invested and shared

In his Angelus address of Sunday, November 16, 2008, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI referred to today’s parable and revealed its rich teaching for us:

The “talent” was an ancient Roman coin, of great value, and precisely because of this parable’s popularity it became synonymous with personal gifts, which everyone is called to develop. In fact, the text speaks of “a man going on a journey [who] called his servants and entrusted to them his property” (Mt 25: 14). The man in the parable represents Christ himself, the servants are the disciples and the talents are the gifts that Jesus entrusts to them. These gifts, in addition to their natural qualities, thus represent the riches that the Lord Jesus has bequeathed to us as a legacy, so that we may make them productive: his Word, deposited in the Holy Gospel; Baptism, which renews us in the Holy Spirit; prayer the “Our Father” that we raise to God as his children, united in the Son; his forgiveness, which he commanded be offered to all; the Sacrament of his Body sacrificed and his Blood poured out; in a word: the Kingdom of God, which is God himself, present and alive in our midst.

This is the treasure that Jesus entrusted to his friends at the end of his brief life on earth. Today’s parable stresses the inner disposition necessary to accept and develop this gift. Fear is the wrong attitude: the servant who is afraid of his master and fears his return hides the coin in the earth and it does not produce any fruit. This happens, for example, to those who after receiving Baptism, Communion and Confirmation subsequently bury these gifts beneath a blanket of prejudice, beneath a false image of God that paralyzes faith and good works, thus betraying the Lord’s expectations. However, the parable places a greater emphasis on the good fruits brought by the disciples who, happy with the gift they received, did not keep it hidden with fear and jealousy but made it profitable by sharing it and partaking in it. Yes, what Christ has given us is multiplied in its giving!

It is a treasure made to be spent, invested and shared with all, as we are taught by the Apostle Paul, that great administrator of Jesus’ talents. The Gospel teaching that the liturgy offers us today has also had a strong effect at the historical and social level, encouraging an active and entrepreneurial spirit in the Christian people.

[The readings for the Thirty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time are: Proverbs 31:10-13, 16-18, 20, 26, 28-31; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-6; and Matthew 25:14-30.]

(Image: Parable of the Talents by Willem de Poorter)

The Beatitudes: Blueprint for Holiness

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Solemnity of All Saints – Saturday, November 1, 2014

The following words of Cardinal Angelo Amato, S.D.B., Prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, spoken during the Synod of Bishops on the Word of God in 2008, still resound in my mind and heart on this Solemnity of All Saints:

Jesus says: “Learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:29). For more than 2,000 years men and women, old and young, wise and ignorant, in the East as in the West, applied themselves to the school of the Lord Jesus, which caused this sublime commandment to echo in their hearts and minds: “You must therefore be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect” (5:48) […]

Their library was largely composed of the life and the words of Jesus: blessed are the poor, blessed are those who mourn, blessed are the gentle, blessed are those who hunger and thirst for uprightness, blessed are the merciful, blessed are the pure in heart, blessed are the peacemakers, blessed are those who are persecuted. The saints, understanding that the Beatitudes are the essence of the Gospel and the portrait of Christ Himself, became their imitators. 

The Beatitudes: Blueprint for Holiness

The Beatitudes in Christ’s Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:1-12) are a recipe for extreme holiness. As has been pointed out by many others in the past, though the Mount of the Beatitudes is a few dozen feet above sea level, it is the really the highest peak on earth! On this holy mountain in Galilee, Jesus proclaimed the new law that was expression of Christ’s holiness. They are not an abstract code of behavior. Jesus is the poor in spirit, the meek, the persecuted, the peacemaker. He is the new “code of holiness” that must be imprinted on hearts, and that must be contemplated through the action of the Holy Spirit. His Passion and Death are the crowning of his holiness.

Holiness is a way of life that involves commitment and activity. It is not a passive endeavour but rather a continuous choice to deepen one’s relationship with God and then to allow this relationship to guide all of one’s actions in the world. Holiness requires a radical change in mindset and attitude. The acceptance of the call to holiness places God as our final goal in every aspect of our lives.

Looking at Jesus, we see what it means to be poor in spirit, gentle, and merciful, to mourn, to care for what is right, to be pure in heart, to make peace, to be persecuted. This is why he has the right to say to each of us, “Come, follow me!” The call of Christ is not simply, “Do what I say.” He says, “Come, follow me!” 

Taking stock of our treasury of Saints

The Saints and Blesseds are travel companions along our journey, in our joy and in our suffering. They are men and women who turned a new page in their own lives and in the lives of so many people. This was the core of Saint John Paul II’s message to humanity: holiness is not a gift reserved for a few. We can all aspire to it, because it is a goal within our capacity – a great lesson articulated by the Second Vatican Council and its call to universal holiness (cf. Lumen Gentium).

The Solemnity of All Saints is a wonderful opportunity for the whole Church to take stock once again of the way that Pope John Paul II changed our way of viewing the Saints and Blesseds. In nearly 27 years of his pontificate, he gave the Church 1,338 Blesseds and 482 Saints!

John Paul II reminded us that the heroes and heroines the world offers to young people today are terribly flawed. They leave us so empty. The real “stars” are the Saints and Blesseds who never tried to be regarded as heroes, or to shock or provoke. To believe greatness is attainable, we need successful role models to emulate. There is a desperate need for real heroes and heroines, models and witnesses of faith and virtue that the world of sports, cinema, science, and music simply cannot provide.

Standing at the radical centre

Many think that sainthood is a privilege reserved only for the chosen few. In fact, to become a saint is the task of every Christian, and what’s more, we could even say it’s the task of everyone! How many times have we thought that the Saints are merely “eccentrics” that the Church exalts for us to try to imitate – people who were so unrepresentative of and out of touch with the reality of the human scene? It is certainly true that all of those men and women were “eccentric” in its literal sense: they deviated from the centre, from usual practice, from the ordinary ways of doing things, the established methods. Another way of looking at the saints is that they stood at the “radical centre.”

Be the Saints of the New Millennium

Saint John Paul II spoke powerfully to young people about the call to holiness and their vocation to be saints. In his message for World Youth Day 2000 in Rome, he wrote to his “dear young friends” throughout the world unforgettable words that became the rallying cry for the greatest celebration of the Jubilee Year:

Young people of every continent, do not be afraid to be the saints of the new millennium! Be contemplative, love prayer; be coherent with your faith and generous in the service of your brothers and sisters, be active members of the Church and builders of peace. To succeed in this demanding project of life, continue to listen to His Word, draw strength from the Sacraments, especially the Eucharist and Penance. The Lord wants you to be intrepid apostles of his Gospel and builders of a new humanity.

Two years later for our World Youth Day 2002 in Canada, John Paul II took up the theme of holiness and saints with renewed vigour:

Just as salt gives flavor to food and light illumines the darkness, so too holiness gives full meaning to life and makes it reflect God’s glory. How many saints, especially young saints, can we count in the Church’s history! In their love for God their heroic virtues shone before the world, and so they became models of life which the Church has held up for imitation by all. […] Through the intercession of this great host of witnesses, may God make you too, dear young people, the saints of the third millennium!

At the concluding World Youth Day Mass at Downsview Park in Toronto on July 28, 2002, Saint John Paul issued a stirring challenge:

And if, in the depths of your hearts, you feel the same call to the priesthood or consecrated life, do not be afraid to follow Christ on the royal road of the Cross! At difficult moments in the Church’s life, the pursuit of holiness becomes even more urgent. And holiness is not a question of age; it is a matter of living in the Holy Spirit, just as Kateri Tekakwitha did here in America and so many other young people have done.

Pope Benedict XVI continued the momentum of John Paul’s invitations and exhortations to holiness at World Youth Day 2005 in Cologne, Germany. At the opening ceremony on August 18, 2005, Benedict addressed the throng of young people gathered from across the entire world:

Dear young people, the Church needs genuine witnesses for the new evangelization: men and women whose lives have been transformed by meeting with Jesus, men and women who are capable of communicating this experience to others. The Church needs saints. All are called to holiness, and holy people alone can renew humanity. Many have gone before us along this path of Gospel heroism, and I urge you to turn often to them to pray for their intercession.

Benedict XVI continued this theme at the great Vigil on Saturday evening, August 20, 2005 at Marienfeld:

It is the great multitude of the saints – both known and unknown – in whose lives the Lord has opened up the Gospel before us and turned over the pages; he has done this throughout history and he still does so today. In their lives, as if in a great picture book, the riches of the Gospel are revealed. They are the shining path which God himself has traced throughout history and is still tracing today.

Then Pope Benedict XVI cried out in that great assembly of over one million young people gathered in prayer at Marienfeld in Cologne:

The saints…are the true reformers. Now I want to express this in an even more radical way: only from the saints, only from God does true revolution come, the definitive way to change the world.

The core of the proclamation of Saints and Blesseds

Every crisis that the Church faces, every crisis that the world faces, is a crisis of holiness and a crisis of saints. Holiness is crucial because it is the real face of the Church. The core of the proclamation of the Saints and Blesseds was always hope, even in the midst of the darkest moments of history. It’s almost as if in those times of darkness the light of Christ shines ever more brightly. We are living through one of those times, and the Lord is still taking applications for his extreme form of holiness and sanctity.

Believers in Jesus and his message must allow themselves to be enticed and enchanted by his life and his message contained in the Beatitudes. Today we must hold up the Beatitudes as a mirror in which we examine our own lives and consciences. “Am I poor in spirit? Am I humble and merciful? Am I pure of heart? Do I bring peace? Am I ‘blessed,’ in other words, ‘happy’?” Jesus not only gives us what he has, but also what he is. He is holy and makes us holy.

[The readings for the Solemnity of All Saints are: Revelation 7:2-4, 9-14; 1 John 3:1-3; and Matthew 5:1-12a.]
All-Saints-Rosica

Being Christian is not the Result of an Ethical Choice

Mt Teresa cropped

Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A – October 26, 2014

Today’s first reading from Exodus (22:21-27) and Matthew’s Gospel story about the greatest commandment (22:34-40) challenge us in the ways that we love God and neighbour. The Exodus reading relates some specific provisions of the Law regarding widows, orphans, and the poor. The Lord reminds his people that they themselves were once strangers in a foreign land. To the strangers, widows, orphans, and the poor we must show justice and compassion. If not, the Lord himself will punish wrongdoers and defend the helpless.

The Lord deals severely with our negative attitudes and action towards others, particularly the poor, strangers, the disadvantaged, and those different from us. The authenticity of our faith, our love of God, and our relationship with Christ is measured by the way we treat others.

The readings challenge us to seek repentance and forgiveness for our negative attitudes towards others and the way we tend to treat them. Today’s Gospel contains the fundamental prayer of the Shema – the Hebrew profession of faith: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord” (Deuteronomy 6:4). Just as we profess our faith with the Creed in Christian worship, the Jewish people profess their faith with the Shema in their synagogue services. The Shema is a summary of true religion: “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” (6:4-5).

Matthew 22:34-40 has a Marcan parallel (12:28-34) which is an exchange between Jesus and a scribe who is impressed by the way Jesus has conducted himself in the previous controversy, and compliments him for the answer he gives him. Jesus responds by saying he is, “not far from the kingdom of God” (12:34). Matthew has further developed that scene.

The scholarship of the Pharisees was the knowledge of the Law, which they regarded as the sum of wisdom and the only true learning. The position of scribe in the Jewish community was a respected place of leadership. At first glance, the scholar’s question to Jesus appears to be very honest.

The teachers of the Torah (scribes and Rabbis) had always argued about the relative importance of the commandments in the Old Testament. Scribes were the scholars and intellectuals of Judaism. The Pharisees identified 613 commandments in the Torah (the first five books of the Bible). Of those 613: 248 were positive, “you shall” commandments, while 365 were negative, “you shall not” commandments. The fundamental question, “Which is the first of all the commandments?” offers Jesus an important teaching moment as he is “put to the test.”

In his response, Jesus quotes Deuteronomy 6:4-5 and the Shema, recited daily by the Jews. Even though Jesus is asked for one commandment, he provides two in his response. In combining the two commandments, Jesus goes beyond the extent of the question put to him and joins to the greatest and the first commandment, a second: love your neighbour (Leviticus 19:18). The double commandment is the source from which the whole law and the prophets are derived. Jesus does not discard other commandments. He explicitly adds: “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matthew 22:40). The remarkable thing about the Marcan parallel is that the “scholar” expresses agreement with Jesus by paraphrasing him without any hint of hostility or irony (Mark 12:33-34).

Love of God and neighbour not an original idea of Jesus

Love of God and love of neighbour as the fulfilment of the law is not an original idea of Jesus. It exists very early in the Hebrew Scriptures. There is something unique, however, in Jesus’ assertion that they are alike. Jesus teaches that we cannot have one without the other.

Motivation to love our neighbour springs from our love of God; our love of God is demonstrated and strengthened by our love of neighbour. Love of neighbour is not only a love that is demanded by the love of God, an achievement flowing from it; it is also in a certain sense its antecedent condition. There is no real love for God that is not, in itself, already a love for neighbour; and love for God comes to its own identity through its fulfilment in a love for neighbour.

Teaching of Moses and Jesus

Moses teaches in the Shema (cf. Deuteronomy 6:5; Leviticus 19:34) – and Jesus reaffirms in today’s Gospel – that all of the commandments are summed up in the love of God and loving-kindness towards one’s neighbour. Every time that Jews recite the “Shema Israel” and when Christians recall the first and second great commandments, we are, by God’s grace, brought closer to each other. Whenever we make the sign of the Cross, we are tracing the Shema upon our bodies as we touch our head, heart, and shoulders and pledge them to God’s service.

God is Love

In light of today’s Scripture readings, let us reflect on two texts this week. The first is #42 of Lumen Gentium, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church from the Second Vatican Council:

“God is love, and he who abides in love, abides in God and God in Him.” But, God pours out his love into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, Who has been given to us; thus the first and most necessary gift is love, by which we love God above all things and our neighbour because of God. Indeed, in order that love, as good seed may grow and bring forth fruit in the soul, each one of the faithful must willingly hear the Word of God and accept His Will, and must complete what God has begun by their own actions with the help of God’s grace. These actions consist in the use of the sacraments and in a special way the Eucharist, frequent participation in the sacred action of the Liturgy, application of oneself to prayer, self-abnegation, lively fraternal service and the constant exercise of all the virtues. For charity, as the bond of perfection and the fullness of the law, rules over all the means of attaining holiness and gives life to these same means. It is charity which guides us to our final end. It is the love of God and the love of one’s neighbour which points out the true disciple of Christ.

The second text is from the opening paragraphs of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s first encyclical letter Deus Caritas Est (“God is Love”), published in 2005, and beautifully summarizes the message of today’s Scripture readings:

Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction […] In acknowledging the centrality of love, Christian faith has retained the core of Israel’s faith, while at the same time giving it new depth and breadth. The pious Jew prayed daily the words of the Book of Deuteronomy which expressed the heart of his existence: “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God is one Lord, and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your might” (6:4-5). Jesus united into a single precept this commandment of love for God and the commandment of love for neighbour found in the Book of Leviticus: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself” (19:18; cf. Mk 12:29-31). Since God has first loved us (cf. 1 Jn 4:10), love is now no longer a mere “command”; it is the response to the gift of love with which God draws near to us.

Blessed Teresa of Calcutta

I once had some lengthy discussions with several good Catholics who claimed to be “prophetic” in their embrace of social justice issues in the Church. While they held up some great role models of authentic social justice in the Catholic tradition like Archbishop Oscar Romero and Dorothy Day, they were quite negative about Blessed Teresa of Calcutta and claimed that she never addressed the “systemic evils” of our day. They said that Mother Teresa never embodied authentic prophetic criticism, claiming that she was simply a safe role model for a male-dominated Church!

What has always impressed me about Mother Teresa and her sisters is that when they speak of loving God and neighbour, and “sharing poverty,” it defies the logic of many of our institutions and agencies today that prefer political agendas for the poor instead of deep, personal communion with individual poor people. The agents and instruments of this type of communion are dismissed as being irrelevant.

What the Church looks for in saints is not just good works – for that there are Nobel Peace Prizes and other such worldly awards – but solid evidence that the candidate for canonization or beatification was transformed, inwardly and outwardly, by God’s grace and embodied a deep love of God and neighbour.

Years ago when I first met Mother Teresa of Calcutta after teaching a group of her young sisters at their formation house on the outskirts of Rome, she placed firmly into my hands one of her famous business cards unlike any “business” card I had ever seen. On the front of the card were printed these words:

The fruit of silence is PRAYER.

The fruit of prayer is FAITH.

The fruit of faith is LOVE.

The fruit of love is SERVICE.

The fruit of service is PEACE.

God bless you. Mother Teresa

I still carry that card with me. There was no address, phone number, e-mail or FAX on the card. Today, we don’t need any of her contact information, as she is available to all of us in the communion of saints. May Blessed Teresa of Calcutta pray for us and teach us how to love God and neighbour in unity and harmony.

[The readings for the Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time are: Exodus 22:21-27; 1 Thessalonians 1:5c-10; and Matthew 22:34-40.]

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

Vatican Connections: May 30, 2014

This week we’re unpacking the souvenirs from Pope Francis’ pilgrimage to the Holy Land, including the pending prayer meeting with Mahmoud Abbas and Shimon Peres. We speak to Fr. Thomas Rosica about the symbolism of the papal itinerary and the significance of his gestures during the visit.

Late Breaking Update: Shimon Peres and Mahmoud Abbas will meet at the Vatican on June 8 for their Prayer meeting.

***
Pope Francis is not the only pontiff to leave his hosts, and the world, with long lasting souvenirs of his visit.

The soon to be beatified Pope Paul VI could be the first pope who left his mark while traveling. His 1964 pilgrimage to the Holy Land was the first time a pope traveled outside Italy. It changed the idea of a pope being a monarch of monarchs to whom others made pilgrimage, into a traveling pastor who left home to tend to his flock.

During that 1964 voyage, Paul VI met with Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras. It the first time in 1000 years that a pope and patriarch formally met. It also launched a dialogue process that continues to this day.

JPII in Poland

In 1979 Pope John Paul II visited his homeland for the first time since being elected pope. He gave an electrifying homily during Mass at Warsaw’s Victory Square. He closed his homily calling on the Holy Spirit to descend and renew the face of the earth, “this earth.” Although it was more than ten years before the country would be free of its Soviet-backed regime, that homily is seen as the catalyst, encouraging Poles to slowly, quietly, build a new nation.

Cuba

John Paul II had a more direct and immediate impact when he visted Cuba in 1998. He asked Fidel Castro to make Christmas Day a public holiday. Days later, Castro announced Christmas Day would indeed be a holiday for Cubans. Benedict XVI followed in his predecessors footsteps in 2012, asking Raoul Castro to make Good Friday a public holiday. His request was also granted. To this day Good Friday and Christmas Day are national holidays in Cuba.

Ascension of the Lord: “Space Travel” of the Heart

Men of Galilee cropped

Ascension of the Lord, Year A – Sunday, June 1, 2014

Matthew’s Gospel for the Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord (28:16-20) presents us the majestic, final scene in Galilee that brings the evangelist’s account to a fitting conclusion. In perfect harmony with his presentation of Jesus, Matthew has chosen to end his Gospel not with a visual or pictorial representation of Jesus’ new heavenly power, nor with sharing bread or touching his body, but with a profoundly simple scene featuring the words of Jesus, the great teacher and master (23:8-10). The ascension scene is the goal to which the Gospel tends and a provocative synthesis of its fundamental message.

Today’s passage is divided into two parts: the appearance of the risen Christ to the disciples in Galilee (16-18a), as promised in 28:7, and the instructions of Jesus, which conclude the Gospel (18b-20). The disciples go to the mountain Jesus had commanded, a reminder of three earlier mountains: the mountain (5:1-2) where Jesus gives the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7); the high mountain (17:1) where he was transfigured and his passion prediction (16:21) was ratified; and the Mount of Olives (24:3), the location of his eschatological discourse (chapters 24-25).

Matthew’s eleven

Let us consider the reality of this small group of apostles and disciples commissioned on the mountain in Galilee. Could any group of people be more human, more ordinary, more dysfunctional, more unpromising? How much more obvious could human frailty be than in this group… in the midst of treachery, cowardice, denial to name but a few of the weak points of those who would become the “pillars” of our Church! Only when the one called “Rock” realized the full significance of his denial would the ministry of church leadership and unity be placed on his shoulders. Two of them, James and John, displayed such naked ambition. Some would ask questions that clearly revealed their profound ignorance of the master’s message and life. Such pathetic frailty and brokenness… . Yet Matthew’s Gospel cuts through all of it by telling us that “the eleven disciples” made their way to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. No longer the twelve, that symbolic number that gave them continuity with the long history of Judaism, but the eleven, recalling the tragic defection of Judas Iscariot who would fail miserably. Yet in spite of such blatant humanity and brazen failure, the eleven are entrusted with the dream and mission of the Risen Lord.

A universal mission

In verse 18, the Risen Jesus claims universal power in heaven and on earth. Since this universal power belongs to the Risen Lord, he gives the eleven a mission that is universal. They are to make disciples of all nations. While “all nations” is understood by some scholars as referring only to all Gentiles, it is probable that it included the Jews as well. Baptism is the means of entrance into the community of the Risen One – the Church. The end of Matthew’s Gospel also contains 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 the one baptized with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

In verse 20, Jesus’ injunction “to observe all that I have commanded you” refers certainly to the moral teaching found in Matthew’s gospel, preeminently that of the Sermon on the Mount (5-7). The commandments of Jesus are the standard of Christian conduct, not the Mosaic law as such, even though some of the Mosaic commandments have been invested with the authority of Jesus.

The words “And lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world” (20) have a special ring to them. They send us back to the beginning of Matthew’s account when Jesus is given the name “Emmanuel.” In that name we find the answer to humanity’s deepest longings for God throughout the ages. Emmanuel is both a prayer and plea (on our behalf) and a promise and declaration on God’s part. When we pronounce the word, we are really praying and pleading: “God, be with us!” And when God speaks it, the Almighty, Eternal, Omnipresent Creator of the world is telling us: “I am with you” in Jesus. At the conclusion of the Gospel, the name Emmanuel is alluded to when the Risen Jesus assures his disciples of his continued presence: “I am with you always, until the end of the age” (20). God did indeed keep his promise in Jesus.

It is the Eucharist that confirms these words “I am with you.” Christ said to his Apostles, “Go forth . . . and teach all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” From Christ the way of Christian initiation leads directly to the Eucharist: “I am with you,” “I am with every one of you.” “I become part of your flesh and blood.” “I share your very existence.”

Touching the Risen Lord

In his book “Jesus of Nazareth – Holy Week: From the Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection” (Ignatius Press, San Francisco – USA – 2011), Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI writes of the mystery of the Ascension of the Lord (p. 286):

…The old manner of human companionship and encounter is over. From now on we can touch Jesus only “with the Father”. Now we can touch him only by ascending. From the Father’s perspective, in his communion with the Father, he is accessible and close to us in a new way. This new accessibility presupposes a newness on our part as well. Through Baptism, our life is already hidden with Christ in God—in our current existence we are already “raised” with him at the Father’s right hand (cf. Col 3:1–3).

If we enter fully into the essence of our Christian life, then we really do touch the risen Lord, and then we really do become fully ourselves. Touching Christ and ascending belong together. And let us not forget that for John the place of Christ’s “exaltation” is his Cross and that our own ever-necessary “ascension”, our “going up on high” in order to touch him, has to be traveled in company with the crucified Jesus. Christ, at the Father’s right hand, is not far away from us. At most we are far from him, but the path that joins us to one another is open. And this path is not a matter of space travel of a cosmic-geographical nature: it is the “space travel” of the heart, from the dimension of self-enclosed isolation to the new dimension of world embracing divine love.”

“Christ has come so close to us”

Only in his physical separation from the historical scene can Jesus’ spiritual union with the entire 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. We move towards heaven to the extent that we approach Jesus. The words of one of Blessed John Henry Newman’s parochial sermons inspire us on this great feast (PPS, vol. 6, no. 10):

Christ’s going to the Father is at once a source of sorrow, because it involves His absence; and of joy, because it involves His presence. And out of the doctrine of His resurrection and ascension, spring those Christian paradoxes, often spoken of in Scripture, that we are sorrowing, yet always rejoicing; as having nothing, yet possessing all things (II Cor 6:10).

This, indeed, is our state at present; we have lost Christ and we have found Him; we see Him not, yet we discern Him. We embrace His feet, yet He says, “Touch Me not.” How is this? it is thus: we have lost the sensible and conscious perception of Him; we cannot look on Him, hear Him, converse with Him, follow Him from place to place; but we enjoy the spiritual, immaterial, inward, mental, real sight and possession of Him; a possession more real and more present than that which the Apostles had in the days of His flesh, because it is spiritual, because it is invisible.”

Christ, the reason for our joy

Finally, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI leaves us with a consoling image of the Risen Lord who never leaves us. Once again “Jesus of Nazareth – Holy Week: From the Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection” (Ignatius Press, San Francisco – USA – 2011), he writes (pp. 284-285):

Because Jesus is with the Father, he has not gone away but remains close to us. Now he is no longer in one particular place in the world as he had been before the “Ascension”: now, through his power over space, he is present and accessible to all—throughout history and in every place. There is a very beautiful story in the Gospel (Mk 6:45–52 and parallel passages) where Jesus anticipates this kind of closeness during his earthly life and so makes it easier for us to understand.

After the multiplication of the loaves, the Lord makes the disciples get into the boat and go before him to Bethsaida on the opposite shore, while he himself dismisses the people. He then goes “up on the mountain” to pray. So the disciples are alone in the boat. There is a headwind, and the lake is turbulent. They are threatened by the power of the waves and the storm. The Lord seems to be far away in prayer on his mountain. But because he is with the Father, he sees them. And because he sees them, he comes to them across the water; he gets into the boat with them and makes it possible for them to continue to their destination.

This is an image for the time of the Church—intended also for us. The Lord is “on the mountain” of the Father. Therefore he sees us. Therefore he can get into the boat of our life at any moment. Therefore we can always call on him; we can always be certain that he sees and hears us. In our own day, too, the boat of the Church travels against the headwind of history through the turbulent ocean of time. Often it looks as if it is bound to sink. But the Lord is there, and he comes at the right moment. “I go away, and I will come to you”—that is the essence of Christian trust, the reason for our joy.”

[The reading for the Ascension of the Lord are: Acts 1.1-11; Ephesians 1.17-23; and Matthew 28.16-20.]

The Advocate Gives Us A Reason For Our Hope

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Sixth Sunday of Easter, Year A – Sunday, May 25, 2014

The first six Chapters of Acts tell the story of the foundation and up building of the Church in Jerusalem. In today’s first reading (Acts 8:5-8, 14-17) and again in Acts 10:44-48 and Acts 19:1-6, Luke distinguishes between baptism in the name of the Lord Jesus and the reception of the Spirit. In each case, the Spirit is conferred through members of the Twelve (Peter and John) or their representative (Paul). This is most likely Luke’s way of describing the role of the church in the bestowal of the Spirit. Elsewhere in Acts, baptism and the Spirit are more closely related (Acts 1:5; 11:16).

What can we learn from this experience? Luke’s writings in the Acts of the Apostles make clear that the gift of the Spirit is not a personal privilege. Nor is the proclamation of the Scriptures a mere cerebral process involving theory and intelligence. Rather, it is a process that demands an experiential knowledge of Jesus of Nazareth, the crucified and risen one. No apparent obstacle – whether physical defect, race or geographical remoteness – can place a person beyond the saving call of the good news. God is actively fulfilling his purposes for the scope of the church’s mission (Lk 24:47; Acts 1:8). The Lord Jesus sets his eyes on potential witnesses and does all he can to form them, empower them and send them out on the roads of the Word.

Sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts

Today’s second reading from the First Letter of Peter 3:15-18 reminds us that by Christ’s suffering and death, the righteous one saved the unrighteous (I Peter 3:18); by his resurrection he received new life in the spirit, which he communicates to believers through the baptismal bath that cleanses their consciences from sin. As Noah’s family was saved through water, so Christians are saved through the waters of baptism (I Peter 3:19-22). Hence they need not share the fear of sinners; they should rather rejoice in suffering because of their hope in Christ. Their innocence disappoints their accusers (I Peter 3:13-16; cf Matthew 10:28; Romans 8:35-39).

Peter’s words to the early Church continue to speak powerfully to us two thousand years later (I Peter 3:15ff): “Sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts. Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope, but do it with gentleness and reverence, keeping your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who defame your good conduct in Christ may themselves be put to shame.”

What is the reason for our hope? I wish to recall the words of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI in his homily for the Solemnity of Sts. Peter and Paul in Rome on June 29, 2009:

“Very briefly, I would like to call your attention further to two other affirmations in the First Letter of St Peter which concern us in a special way in our time. There is first of all the sentence, today discovered anew, on the basis of which medieval theologians understood their task, the task of the theologian: “in your hearts reverence Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who calls you to account for the hope that is in you”. (3: 15). Christian faith is hope. It paves the way to the future. And it is a hope that possesses reasonableness, a hope whose reason we can and must explain. Faith comes from the eternal Reason that entered our world and showed us the true God. Faith surpasses the capacity of our reason, just as love sees more than mere intelligence. But faith speaks to reason and in the dialectic confrontation can be a match for reason. It does not contradict it but keeps up with it and goes beyond it to introduce us into the greater Reason of God.

“As Pastors of our time it is our task to be the first to understand the reason of faith. It is our task not to let it remain merely a tradition but to recognize it as a response to our questions. Faith demands our rational participation, which is deepened and purified in a sharing of love. It is one of our duties as Pastors to penetrate faith with thought, to be able to show the reason for our hope within the debates of our time.”

The new advocate among us

In John’s Gospel, the sense of loss among the apostles is palpable as Jesus prepares to take leave of them. Peter asks: “Lord where are you going?” (Jn 13:36) and “Lord, why can I not follow you now?” (Jn 13:37). To this poignant longing Jesus responds: “If you love me you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father and he will give you another Advocate to be with you forever” (Jn 14:15). Then Jesus identifies the new Advocate (paraclete) as the Spirit of truth, unknown to the world but an abiding presence within the disciples (Jn 14:17). This then is the foundation of our trust in the guidance of the Spirit.

The Greek term “paraclete” has its roots in legal terminology, meaning advocate or defense attorney. It can also mean spokesman, mediator, intercessor, comforter, consoler, although no one of these terms encompasses the meaning in John. The Paraclete in John is a teacher, a witness to Jesus, and a prosecutor of the world, who represents the continued presence on earth of the Jesus who has returned to the Father.

Jesus is the first advocate (paraclete); see 1 John 2:1, where Jesus is an advocate in the sense of intercessor in heaven. The coming of the Paraclete in the Christian community signals the start of a worldwide mission impelling the early Christians beyond their geographic boundaries. If Jesus was Advocate during his earthly presence, the Spirit now is a new Advocate, the presence of Jesus until his return. This Advocate is not a stranger, but is the guarantee of fidelity to Jesus: “The Advocate, the Holy Spirit whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and remind you of all that I have sent to you” (Jn 14:26). Again he adds that the Advocate will testify on his behalf and enable the disciples also to testify. As background to these passages we recall the uncertainty and fear of the disciples at the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles. With the coming of the Spirit they are enlightened and emboldened and become witnesses with clarity and courage.

Not trapped in the past

The Advocate will not only be the assurance of faithfulness and the source of bold proclamation but also the guide into a veiled future: “I have still many things to say to you, but you cannot hear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come” (Jn 16:12-13). This assurance of the presence and guidance of the Spirit empowers the disciples to move into the future, to meet new challenges in creative ways. Authentic disciples are faithful to the person and message of Jesus yet they are not trapped in the past. It is the Spirit that enables flexibility, adjustment, adaptation and newness to occur, always within a context of fidelity.

The Church’s living memory

The new Advocate is not a kind of a proxy sent to replace the absent Lord: on the contrary, it assures his presence as well as the Father’s. They will “come to” the one who remains faithful to Jesus’ word, and they will dwell “with” him. Not with the others–those who do not love the Lord and do not keep his word. The Paraclete dwells in everyone who loves Jesus and keeps the commandments, and so his presence is not limited by time (14:15-17). The Paraclete is just as present in the modern disciples of Jesus as he was in the first generation. No one should think that Jesus has abandoned his Church in our times. Jesus continues to send us God’s Spirit of Truth. We are told in the Gospel that the “one whom the Father will send will teach us everything, and remind us of all that Jesus has said to us (v. 26). This reminding or calling to memory is beautifully expressed in a new term used in the Catechism of the Catholic Church to describe the work of the Paraclete: “the Holy Spirit is the Church’s living memory” (#1099).

The coming of the Paraclete signals the start of a worldwide mission impelling the early Christians beyond their geographic boundaries. As Christians, the person of Jesus Christ is our “starting-point”, our hope and our goal. Christ asks the Church to “make disciples of all nations.” (Mt 28:19). To guide the work of the Church in its mission, Christ sends the Holy Spirit into our midst. Jesus identifies the new Advocate as the ‘Spirit of truth’, unknown to the world but an abiding presence within the disciples (Jn 14:17). This then is the foundation of our trust in the guidance of the Spirit. Jesus was Advocate during his earthly presence with the disciples. The Holy Spirit is a new Advocate, the presence of Jesus guiding the Church until His return. This Advocate is not a stranger, but is the guarantee of fidelity to Jesus: The Advocate, the Holy Spirit whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and remind you of all that I have said to you (John 14:26).

[The readings for the Sixth Sunday of Easter are: Acts 8.5-8, 14-17; 1 Peter 3.15-18; and John 14.15-21.]

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

(Image: The Holy Spirit by Corrado Giaquinto)

The Canonization of JPII and John XXIII in 14 great photos

On Divine Mercy Sunday, Pope Francis declared Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II saints. In an unprecedented ceremony, approximately 800,000 people filled St. Peter’s Square, the streets around the Vatican, bridges over the Tiber and many squares in Rome. The ceremony was also attended by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.

bar20140427cnsbr5198_640Retired Pope Benedict XVI embraces Pope Francis before the canonization Mass. (CNS photo/L’Osservatore Romano via Reuters)

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A large crowd is seen in and around St. Peter’s Square as Pope Francis celebrates the canonization Mass. (CNS photo/Massimo Sestini, Italian National Police via Catholic Press Photo)

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Belgium’s former Queen Paola and former King Albert II, left, are seated next to Spain’s King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia before the start of the canonization Mass. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

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Bishops process to their seats before Pope Francis celebrates the canonization Mass. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

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Pope Francis kisses the relic of St. John XXIII presented by Father Ezio Bolis, director of the Pope John XXIII Foundation. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

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Poland’s flag is seen as pilgrims wait on Via della Conciliazione outside St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican April 26, the eve of the canonization of Sts. John XXIII and John Paul II. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

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Pope Francis celebrates the canonization Mass. (CNS photo/Lisa Johnston, St. Louis Review)

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A large crowd is seen as Pope Francis celebrates the canonization Mass. (CNS photo/Evandro Inetti, pool)

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Pope Francis waves to the crowd as he arrives for the canonization ceremony. (CNS photo/Lisa Johnston, St. Louis Review)

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Polish Sister Tobiana Sobodka, who ran St. John Paul II’s household, and Joaquin Navarro-Valls, who served as spokesman for the new saint, arrive for his canonization Mass. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

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Devotees carry relics and candles of Sts. John XXIII and John Paul II during their canonization Mass. (CNS photo/Paul Haring) 

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Woman involved in miracle for St. John Paul II carries relic at canonization MassFloribeth Mora Diaz, accompanied by her husband Edwin, carries the relic of St. John Paul II, after presenting it to Pope Francis. Mora Diaz’s cure from an aneurysm in 2011 was the second miracle in the sainthood cause of St. John Paul. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

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Polish pilgrims Andrzej and Yvonne Szczesny hold images of St. John Paul II April 28 before a Mass of thanksgiving. (CNS photo/Paul Haring) 

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People in Wadowice, Poland, St. John Paul II's hometownPeople in Wadowice, Poland, St. John Paul II’s hometown, celebrate his canonization April 27. (CNS photo/Agencja Gazeta/Michal Lepecki, Reuters) 

Ambassadors for Christ

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Ash Wednesday – March 5, 2014

Ash Wednesday makes one’s faith very visible and public. Not offensively — but also not easy to miss — the sign of our faith shows up in the office, at school, on buses and subways, in lines at the grocery store, or at the gas station. This small symbol of the cross of ashes on our foreheads expresses an important truth: Faith doesn’t happen only at church, but lives among us, in public, every day.

The Scripture texts for the liturgy of Ash Wednesday do not only remind us of sin and death; they are a loud call to overcome sin, to be converted to Christ and the Gospel and to prepare for the new life of Easter. I would like to offer some reflections on what it means to be reconciled to God, to be an “Ambassador for Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:20-21), and the meaning of authentic piety and devotion as outlined in Matthew’s Gospel text for today’s liturgy (6:1-6, 16-18). I will conclude with some thoughts on Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s profound 2010 Lenten reflection on God’s justice.

Be reconciled to God!

Today — the liturgy tells us — is the “acceptable time” for our reconciliation with God. Reconciliation is a gratuitous gift of God. Reconciliation must involve everyone: individuals, families, nations and peoples.

In the passage from 2 Corinthians 5:20-21, Paul encouraged the fractious Corinthian community to recognize that God has “reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation” (5:18). Paul speaks of “the new creation in Christ” (cf. 2 Corinthians 5:17) and goes on to tell us: “God in Christ was reconciling the world to himself, not holding individuals’ faults against them, and he has entrusted to us the news that we are reconciled. […] The appeal we make in Christ’s name is: be reconciled to God” (2 Corinthians 5:19-20). [Read more…]

It took 40 days…

Ash Wednesday – March 5, 2014

The readings for Ash Wednesday are: Joel 2:12-18; 2 Corinthians 5:20–6:2; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18

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 sinful-ness 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 into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret.”  We fast: “so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father.”  We give alms: “Beware of practising your piety before people in order to be seen by them … so that your alms may be done in secret, and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
[Read more…]

Moving Forward: From Benedict to Francis

It’s been a year since Pope Benedict shocked the world by announcing his resignation, and so much has happened since: At not even a year of Pope Francis’ papacy it’s almost as if he’s been Pope forever. Join Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB as he looks back at the historic events of the last year in Rome, with Cheridan Sanders, Alicia Ambrosio and Sebastian Gomes, who provide expert analysis.