Today on Perspectives, Pope Francis appoints a new Bishop for the Diocese of Peterborough, daily mass from Domus Sanctae Marthae and a look at prayer in lent.
Palm Sunday, Year A – Sunday, April 13, 2014
In preparation for Easter three years ago, I had the privilege of an early Lenten retreat on the events of Holy Week as I read and pondered Pope Benedict XVI’s latest book: “Jesus of Nazareth – Holy Week – From the Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection” (Ignatius Press, San Francisco – USA – 2011). This book should be required reading for every bishop, priest, pastoral minister and serious Catholic who would like to meet Jesus of Nazareth and deepen one’s knowledge of the very person of Jesus and the central mysteries of our faith that we celebrate this week. I could think of no better way to prepare for Holy Week and Easter than to read this masterful text. I recommend it to all those who have found these weekly Scripture texts helpful for your personal prayer and preaching of the Word of God.
Each year during Holy Week, we accompany Jesus up to Jerusalem amidst the crowds crying out “Hosanna, Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!” A day filled with exceeding praise and jubilation, but looming on the horizon is a wave of hatred, destruction and death. We, too, are caught up with the crowd acclaiming their Messiah and King as he descends the Mount of Olives… coming not with the trappings of a royal motorcade but on a beast of burden. What striking images of royalty, humility and divinity all packed into this paradoxical scene of Jesus’ entering his city! Full of enthusiasm, they welcome him on Palm Sunday as the King of Peace and the Bearer of Hope. Full of hate, five days later, the people demand his death on the cross.
The Gospel Passion narratives recount how the sins of some of the people and their leaders at the time of Jesus conspired to bring about the Passion and death of Christ, and thereby suggest the fundamental truth that we are all to blame. Their sins and our sins bring Christ to the cross, and He bears them willingly. And we must learn from what happened to Jesus and ask ourselves not only about the identity of those who tried, condemned and killed Him long ago, but also what killed Jesus and what vicious circles of violence, brutality, and hatred continue to crucify Him today in His brothers and sisters of the human family.
Matthew’s Passion Narrative
This year we read Matthew’s Passion Narrative (Matthew 26:14-27:66). Matthew follows his Marcan source closely but with omissions (e.g., Mark 14:51-52) and additions (e.g., Matthew 27:3-10, 19). Some of the additions indicate that he utilized traditions that he had received from elsewhere; others are due to his own theological insight (e.g., Matthew 26:28 “…for the forgiveness of sins”; Matthew 27:52). In his editing Matthew also altered Mark in some minor details. But there is no need to suppose that he knew any passion narrative other than Mark’s.
As we listen to Matthew’s account, we are caught up in Jesus’ encounter with destiny made inevitable by the strong commitments of Jesus’ mission from God and the fierce resistance of the power of death. In the first chapter of “Jesus of Nazareth” entitled “The Entrance into Jerusaelm,” Pope Benedict invites us to consider Zechariah 9:9, the text that Matthew and John quote explicitly for an understanding of “Palm Sunday”: “Tell the daughter of Zion, Behold, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey” (Mt 21:5; cf. Zech 9:9; Jn 12:15). Benedict writes: “He [Jesus] is a king who destroys the weapons of war, a king of peace and a king of simplicity, a king of the poor. And finally we saw that he reigns over a kingdom that stretches from sea to sea, embracing the whole world; we were reminded of the new world encompassing kingdom of Jesus that extends from sea to sea in the communities of the breaking of bread in communion with Jesus Christ, as the kingdom of his peace. None of this could be seen at the time… .” (p. 4).
The Meaning of Hosanna
“Hosanna” was originally a pilgrim blessing that priests addressed in the Temple, but when it was joined to the second part of the acclamation “who enters in the name of the Lord” it took on Messianic significance. It had become a designation of the one promised by God. It now became praise of Jesus, a greeting to him as the one who comes in the name of the Lord, the one awaited and proclaimed by all the promises.
We can ask why the word “hosanna” was preserved for us in Hebrew. Why ask didn’t the Gospels translate it into Greek? The full translation of “hosanna” could read: “Help [or save], please, O Son of David. Blessed in the name of the Lord is he who comes. Help [or save], please, O Most High.” The crowd’s welcome of Jesus with cries of “hosanna,” for help, and the waving of palm fronds, thereby invoked the liturgical formulas of Sukkot, which had already been politicized by its use in the festival of independence, the first Hanukkah. The use of this liturgical formula to welcome Jesus was clearly purposeful. Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem was followed by his cleansing of the Temple (Matthew 21:14-16). This was plainly a scenario in emulation of the Maccabean liberation, calculated to stir messianic hopes. When the crowd called “hosanna” and waved palm fronds, they knew full well what they were doing.
In the hosanna acclamation, we find an expression of the complex emotions of the pilgrims accompanying Jesus and of his disciples: joyful praise of God at the moment of the processional entry, hope that the hour of the Messiah had arrived, and at the same time a prayer that the Davidic kingship and hence God’s kingship over Israel would be reestablished (“Jesus of Nazareth” pp. 8-10).
“Hosanna” as an urgent plea to help and save is universally valid. It is perennially appropriate to the human situation. It is a one-word prayer with potential political impact to unsettle oppressors everywhere, now as in ancient days, and should thus be translated and understood.
The prophet from Nazareth
In the beginning when people had heard of the prophet from Nazareth, he did not appear to have any importance for Jerusalem, and the local inhabitants did not know him. The crowd that paid homage to Jesus at the gateway to the city was not the same crowd that later demanded his crucifixion. In this two-stage account of the failure to recognize Jesus— through a combination of indifference and fear— Benedict XVI says that we see something of the city’s tragedy of which Jesus spoke a number of times, most poignantly in his eschatological discourse.
Unique emphases of Matthew’s Passion
For Matthew, the ultimate turning point in Jesus’ history was his death and resurrection. At the very instant of Jesus’ death, a death suffered in fidelity to his mission, new life breaks out: The earth quakes, the rocks are split, the tombs are opened and the saints of old are raised from their tombs to march triumphantly into God’s city. In writing these words, Matthew evokes the great vision of the dry bones in Ezekiel 37. God breathes spirit into the bones, and they rise from the dead to become a new people. Matthew believed that out of the death of Jesus came new life for the world; out of the seeming death of the Jewish Christian mission to Israel, the early community rose to envelop the Mediterranean world and to forge a new people from Jew and gentile. Death-resurrection was not only the pattern for Jesus’ destiny but would also be the pattern for the destiny of the community itself within history.
What does Matthew’s passion say to us today? I am convinced that it offers us distinct biblical lenses through which we look upon this current moment of the history of the Church and the world. We receive our marching orders and pastoral plan for mission, not only from the Church but also from the world in which we live. The tremendous biblical drama found in Matthew’s passion teaches us that what we often consider to be “secular events”, even those that are destructive, damaging and even terrorizing and blinding, move us forward into God’s future for us, and set the stage for God to reveal himself to us.
Greeting the Lord in the Eucharist
I conclude with Benedict’s words on this Palm Sunday Gospel scene:
“The Church greets the Lord in the Holy Eucharist as the one who is coming now, the one who has entered into her midst. At the same time, she greets him as the one who continues to come, the one who leads us toward his coming. As pilgrims, we go up to him; as a pilgrim, he comes to us and takes us up with him in his “ascent” to the Cross and Resurrection, to the definitive Jerusalem that is already growing in the midst of this world in the communion that unites us with his body.” (Jesus of Nazareth p. 11).
[The readings for Palm Sunday are: Isaiah 50.4-7; Philippians 2.6-11; and Matthew 26.14-27.66.]
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.
Second Sunday of Lent, Year A – Sunday, March 16, 2014
Abraham, our Father in Faith
Abraham was a man with a mission and we could rightly consider him to be the quintessential missionary. He is revered by the followers of three world religions: Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. He is the founder of the nation of Israel. He is mentioned by name 308 times in the Old and New Testaments. He is a man whose life changed the course of world history. In today’s first reading from Genesis 12:1-4a, God’s word to Abram begins with a command, “Go from your country and your kindred and our father’s house.” God commands Abram to cut his ties to his larger nation, his ties to his larger kinship group, and finally even his ties to his immediate family or father’s household . God calls Abram to a loyalty and commitment that transcends even his family ties, the most important of all relationships in the ancient world. But this command comes with a powerful promise. God promises Abram a “land that I will show you.” Secondly, God promises to make of Abram’s offspring a great nation with the implication of a long line of descendants. Thirdly, God promises to “bless” Abram. Blessing involves fertility, life, success, well-being, and a good name.
We learn from today’s first reading and indeed for the whole story of Abraham that God’s chosen people never exist in isolation. They are called to a wider mission than just self-preservation. They are never allowed to claim an exclusive hold on God’s concern. God remains committed to all creation and all humanity. Abraham embodies such blessing and help to other nations within his own lifetime through his assistance to his nephew Lot and his bold intercession on behalf of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah [Genesis 18:22-33] and his covenant with King Abimelech [Genesis 21:22-34].
Nor can we forget the backdrop of today’s story. Part of this blessing is that God promises Abram to “make your name great.” Interestingly, the tower builders in Genesis 11:1-9 had built their tower with the purpose of making a name for themselves . Their self-centered and heaven-storming strategy led only to confusion and scattering. But God now promises to give Abram a great name as a gift with the purpose that “you will be a blessing” . Abraham’s friends will be blessed, and his enemies will be cursed.
As we listen to the marvelous archetypal story of Abraham, our father in faith, we must ask ourselves if we are men and women of mission. Abraham listened attentively to God’s voice, God’s commands and God’s promptings. Do we know how to listen to God and his Son, Jesus Christ? Faith means taking God seriously, at his Word and then leaving Ur for the Promised Land. The greatest adventure we will ever know begins the moment we say yes to God’s call in our life. God asks of us nothing more than he asked of Abraham: that we listen to Him, believe His Word and act upon it. Even though our faith may be weak, we have the certainty that God is strong. Even though we might now see the path ahead, the all-seeing God has charted our course and will lead us out of Ur into the Promised Land. In order for the process to begin, we must listen, trust and obey the Word of God.
Seeing the Glory of Christ
In his Lenten Message for this year, Pope Benedict XVI summarizes beautifully today’s Gospel story of the Transfiguration [Matthew 17:1-9]:
The Gospel of the Transfiguration of the Lord puts before our eyes the glory of Christ, which anticipates the resurrection and announces the divinization of man. The Christian community becomes aware that Jesus leads it, like the Apostles Peter, James and John “up a high mountain by themselves” [Mt 17:1], to receive once again in Christ, as sons and daughters in the Son, the gift of the Grace of God: “This is my Son, the Beloved; he enjoys my favor. Listen to him”. It is the invitation to take a distance from the noisiness of everyday life in order to immerse oneself in God’s presence. He desires to hand down to us, each day, a Word that penetrates the depths of our spirit, where we discern good from evil [cf. Heb 4:12], reinforcing our will to follow the Lord.
One 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 on the mountain. Before their eyes, the Jesus they had known and walked with 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. They were conversing with Jesus about his death and resurrection that would take place in Jerusalem. The disciples were totally confused, awestruck. Peter fumbled for the right words. “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us erect three tabernacles, for you and for Elijah and Moses.” But suddenly out of a translucent cloud came a voice like thunder, the voice of God: “This is my beloved son, listen to him.”
Matthew’s details of the Transfiguration story
Let us look closely at several of Matthew’s emphases in this majestic Gospel story. Matthew’s account of the transfiguration [17:1-9] confirms that Jesus is the Son of God  and points to fulfillment of the prediction that he will come in his Father’s glory at the end of the age [16:27]. It has been explained by some as a resurrection appearance retrojected (read back) into the time of Jesus’ ministry, but that is not probable since the account lacks many of the usual elements of the resurrection-appearance narratives. Matthew’s account of Jesus atop Mount Tabor draws upon motifs from the Old Testament and non-canonical Jewish apocalyptic literature that express the presence of the heavenly and the divine, e.g., brilliant light, white garments, and the overshadowing cloud.
The high mountain has been identified with Tabor or Hermon, but probably no specific mountain was intended by the evangelist or by his Marcan source [Matthew 9:2]. Its meaning is theological rather than geographical, possibly recalling the revelation to Moses on Mount Sinai [Exodus 24:12-18] and to Elijah at the same place [1 Kings 19:8-18; Horeb = Sinai].
The face of Jesus
Matthew describes the face of Jesus that shone like the sun, reminiscent of Daniel 10:6. Jesus’ clothes “white as light” recalls Daniel 7:9 where the clothing of God appears “snow bright.” [The bright white garments of other heavenly beings, are also mentioned in Rev 4:4; 7:9; 19:14]. In verse 4 we hear of the three tents – the booths in which the Israelites lived during the feast of Tabernacles [cf John 7:2]. The tents were meant to recall their ancestors’ dwelling in booths during the journey from Egypt to the Promised Land [Lev 23:39-42]. When Matthew speaks of the cloud that cast a shadow over apostles on the mountain , it recalls the cloud that covered the meeting tent in the Old Testament, indicating the Lord’s presence in the midst of his people [Exodus 40:34-35]. The cloud also came to rest upon the temple in Jerusalem at the time of its dedication [I Kings 8:10].
The voice from heaven
The voice of God heard atop the mountain repeats the baptismal proclamation about Jesus [3:17], with the addition of the command “listen to him.” The latter is a reference to Deut 18:15 in which the Israelites are commanded to listen to the prophet like Moses whom God will raise up for them. The command to listen to Jesus is general, but in this context it probably applies particularly to the preceding predictions of his passion and resurrection [16:21] and of his coming [16:27, 28]. Most significant about the statement of the heavenly voice is that here as in the Old Testament generally, “Word” is given priority over “vision.” Mystical experience of heavenly realities in the form of visual images certainly has its place, but a very healthy emphasis is placed upon God’s will as communicated through God’s Word. Matthew alone uses the word “vision”  to describe the transfiguration. Seeing Jesus transfigured high atop Mount Tabor has meaning and value only if it leads the apostles and disciples to listen obediently to his divinely authorized teaching.
Witnessing glory and agony
Peter, James and John are with Jesus in this moment of glory on Tabor. The resurface with Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane as their master struggles with his fate. Those who witness his heavenly glory must also witness his earthly agony. If the followers of Jesus wish to share his future glory, they must be prepared to participate in his suffering.
The awesome Gospel story of the Transfiguration challenges us to ask how we listen to the Word of God in our lives. The voice of God heard atop the mountain repeats the baptismal proclamation about Jesus [3:17], with the addition of the command listen to him. The latter is a reference to Deut 18:15 in which the Israelites are commanded to listen to the prophet like Moses whom God will raise up for them. The command to listen to Jesus is general, but in this context it probably applies particularly to the preceding predictions of his passion and resurrection [16:21] and of his coming [16:27, 28]. How do we act upon the Word we have heard? How have some of our own mountain top 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?
The awesome event and memory of the Transfiguration would serve as a reservoir of grace, consolation and peace for the apostles and disciples of Jesus when in Jerusalem on another hilltop, they would witness that shining face bloodied and spat upon, those dazzling clothes torn into souvenir rags by soldiers who cast dice for them. Jesus’ face did not shine radiantly on the cross. Perhaps we ask ourselves: Why did God hide all the glory on Mount Tabor, where no one could see? Why didn’t God save it for the cross?
We must experience both mountains– Golgotha and Tabor– in order to see the glory of God. Let us look upon the Transfiguration as the celebration of the presence of Christ that takes charge of everything in us and transfigures even that which disturbs us about ourselves. God penetrates those hardened, incredulous, even disquieting regions within us, about which we really do not know what to do. God penetrates them with the life of the Spirit and acts upon those regions and gives them his own face, his consolation and his peace.
Living Lent this week
1. View this video on the Transfiguration. What are the moments of Tabor and Golgotha in your own life?
2. In light of today’s readings, let us look to Verbum Domini, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s postsynodal exhortation on “The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church,” and reflect on how we can let the Bible inspire our pastoral activities (#73).
Along these lines the Synod called for a particular pastoral commitment to emphasizing the centrality of the word of God in the Church’s life, and recommended a greater “biblical apostolate”, not alongside other forms of pastoral work, but as a means of letting the Bible inspire all pastoral work”. This does not mean adding a meeting here or there in parishes or dioceses, but rather of examining the ordinary activities of Christian communities, in parishes, associations and movements, to see if they are truly concerned with fostering a personal encounter with Christ, who gives himself to us in his word. Since “ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ”, making the Bible the inspiration of every ordinary and extraordinary pastoral outreach will lead to a greater awareness of the person of Christ, who reveals the Father and is the fullness of divine revelation.
For this reason I encourage pastors and the faithful to recognize the importance of this emphasis on the Bible: it will also be the best way to deal with certain pastoral problems which were discussed at the Synod and have to do, for example, with the proliferation of sects which spread a distorted and manipulative reading of sacred Scripture. Where the faithful are not helped to know the Bible in accordance with the Church’s faith and based on her living Tradition, this pastoral vacuum becomes fertile ground for realities like the sects to take root. Provision must also be made for the suitable preparation of priests and lay persons who can instruct the People of God in the genuine approach to Scripture.
Furthermore, as was brought out during the Synod sessions, it is good that pastoral activity also favour the growth of small communities, “formed by families or based in parishes or linked to the different ecclesial movements and new communities,” which can help to promote formation, prayer and knowledge of the Bible in accordance with the Church’s faith.
3. Pray for the “Mondo X” Community of laypersons who now staff the retreat house atop Mount Tabor in central Israel. This wonderful Italian healing community, founded by Franciscan Father Eligio in 1967, has provided a welcoming home for men on the road to recovery from many sadnesses and tragedies in their lives. Having visited the community several times in the very place where Jesus was transfigured, I have witnessed how the transforming presence of Christ has brought people back to life, healed and restored them, and given much hope to those who are lonely, broken suffering and without faith.
4. Pray especially for the peace in the world, especially for the people of Ukraine in this moment of strife. May the Lord’s transfiguring power protect those in peril, bring consolation to those who suffer, peace to those who weep and mourn, and right judgment and compassion to those who govern.
[The readings for the Second Sunday of Lent are: Genesis 12.1-4; 2 Timothy 1.8b-10; and Matthew 17.1-9.]
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.
Today on Perspectives: Pope Francis will visit South Korea this summer, the Roman Curia is away on their Lent retreat, Cardinal Francis George of Chicago makes a sad announcement, and Greek Orthodox nuns from Maaloula are released after more than three months in captivity.
This week was big in many ways: Pope Francis made some significant appointments, including naming his personal secretary to the number two position at the newly created Secretariat for the Economy. Wednesday was the beginning of Lent and Pope Francis’ first Ash Wednesday liturgy as pontiff. It was also the day one the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera published it’s exclusive interview with Pope Francis.
The sit down with Corriere editor Ferrucio de Bortoli was supposed to be a sort of “taking stock” of Pope Francis’ first year as pontiff. Even though the first thing the pope said was “I only take stock every 15 days with my confessor” the interview covered everything from his relationship with Benedict XVI to relations with China.
Pope Francis said he has asked his predecessor for advice, stating “the pope is not a statue in the museum.” He also said some people wanted the retired pope to disappear into a monastery somewhere. Pope Francis views the Pope Emeritus as a grandfather and said grandparents “do not deserve to end up in a rest home” because their wisdom strengths the family unit.
Pope Francis revealed he wrote to the Chinese president Xi Jinping when he was elected and the president replied. While he wouldn’t reveal more than that, Pope Francis said “there are relations.”
The pope said abuse is a “tremendous” scandal because it leaves victims with such profound wounds. He also said no other body has done as much as the church to act against sex-abuse. Several victims’ groups immediately reacted to the statement. You can read an in depth analysis of that debate by the Boston Globe’s John Allen Jr.
WOMEN IN THE CHURCH
Women need to be more present in the church at all levels, but simply naming women to decision making positions is little more than going through the motions, according to Pope Francis. He said there needs to be a deepening of the theology on the role of women, something currently happening in the Pontifical Council for the Laity. Pope Francis also said he is reading the book “Pietro e Maddalena” (Peter and Magdalene) by Italian priest and theologian Fr. Damiano Marzotto, which is about the female dimension of the Gospel.
THE FAMILY, CIVIL UNIONS, HUMANE VITAE
The recurring theme is the need to carefully reflect on and respond to the needs of specific situations instead of applying one formula across the board.
The family: Pope Francis said the Church must respond to the problems facing the families today, but must reflect carefully in order to respond to each unique case effectively.
On civil unions: Civil unions are state-created constructs, according to Pope Francis. They are generally motivated by a government’s need to regulate financial matters and deliver services to people in a variety of co-habitating situations. The pope said there are many different types of civil unions, and each case must be looked at individually.
Humane Vitae: Pope Paul VI was courageously counter cultural, according to Pope Francis, but he also advised confessors to respond to people with mercy, paying close attention to what is possible in their specific situation.
You can read a full English translation of the interview here.
As Rome prepares for another tourist season, one expected to be especially robust given the double canonization just after Easter, the Vatican announced the opening of the papal gardens at Castel Gandolfo.
Castel Gandolfo is actually the name of the town 24 kilometers south east of Rome where popes traditionally spend their summer holidays. The gardens of this papal villa have never been open to the public. Tickets to the gardens can be purchased through the Vatican Museums. Tickets can be purchased either just for the gardens, or as a combo-pack along with tickets to the Vatican Museums. For more details and to reserve or purchase tickets visit the “Guided Tours” page of the Vatican Museums website.
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…]
This week Pope Francis released two special messages: his message for Lent, and a message for World Youth Day. Lent begins on March 5 this year and World Youth Day will be celebrated at the diocesan level on April 13, which is also Palm Sunday. The full text of the Pope’s Lenten message is published below. You can read his message for World Youth Day 2014, here.
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
As Lent draws near, I would like to offer some helpful thoughts on our path of conversion as individuals and as a community. These insights are inspired by the words of Saint Paul: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich” (2 Cor 8:9). The Apostle was writing to the Christians of Corinth to encourage them to be generous in helping the faithful in Jerusalem who were in need. What do these words of Saint Paul mean for us Christians today? What does this invitation to poverty, a life of evangelical poverty, mean for us today?
1. Christ’s grace
First of all, it shows us how God works. He does not reveal himself cloaked in worldly power and wealth but rather in weakness and poverty: “though He was rich, yet for your sake he became poor …”. Christ, the eternal Son of God, one with the Father in power and glory, chose to be poor; he came amongst us and drew near to each of us; he set aside his glory and emptied himself so that he could be like us in all things (cf. Phil 2:7; Heb 4:15). God’s becoming man is a great mystery! But the reason for all this is his love, a love which is grace, generosity, a desire to draw near, a love which does not hesitate to offer itself in sacrifice for the beloved. Charity, love, is sharing with the one we love in all things. Love makes us similar, it creates equality, it breaks down walls and eliminates distances. God did this with us. Indeed, Jesus “worked with human hands, thought with a human mind, acted by human choice and loved with a human heart. Born of the Virgin Mary, he truly became one of us, like us in all things except sin.” (Gaudium et Spes, 22).
By making himself poor, Jesus did not seek poverty for its own sake but, as Saint Paul says “that by his poverty you might become rich”. This is no mere play on words or a catch phrase. Rather, it sums up God’s logic, the logic of love, the logic of the incarnation and the cross. God did not let our salvation drop down from heaven, like someone who gives alms from their abundance out of a sense of altruism and piety. Christ’s love is different! When Jesus stepped into the waters of the Jordan and was baptized by John the Baptist, he did so not because he was in need of repentance, or conversion; he did it to be among people who need forgiveness, among us sinners, and to take upon himself the burden of our sins. In this way he chose to comfort us, to save us, to free us from our misery. It is striking that the Apostle states that we were set free, not by Christ’s riches but by his poverty. Yet Saint Paul is well aware of the “the unsearchable riches of Christ” (Eph 3:8), that he is “heir of all things” (Heb 1:2).
So what is this poverty by which Christ frees us and enriches us? It is his way of loving us, his way of being our neighbour, just as the Good Samaritan was neighbour to the man left half dead by the side of the road (cf. Lk 10:25ff ). What gives us true freedom, true salvation and true happiness is the compassion, tenderness and solidarity of his love. Christ’s poverty which enriches us is his taking flesh and bearing our weaknesses and sins as an expression of God’s infinite mercy to us. Christ’s poverty is the greatest treasure of all: Jesus’ wealth is that of his boundless confidence in God the Father, his constant trust, his desire always and only to do the Father’s will and give glory to him. Jesus is rich in the same way as a child who feels loved and who loves its parents, without doubting their love and tenderness for an instant. Jesus’ wealth lies in his being the Son; his unique relationship with the Father is the sovereign prerogative of this Messiah who is poor. When Jesus asks us to take up his “yoke which is easy”, he asks us to be enriched by his “poverty which is rich” and his “richness which is poor”, to share his filial and fraternal Spirit, to become sons and daughters in the Son, brothers and sisters in the firstborn brother (cf. Rom 8:29).
It has been said that the only real regret lies in not being a saint (L. Bloy); we could also say that there is only one real kind of poverty: not living as children of God and brothers and sisters of Christ.
2. Our witness
We might think that this “way” of poverty was Jesus’ way, whereas we who come after him can save the world with the right kind of human resources. This is not the case. In every time and place God continues to save mankind and the world through the poverty of Christ, who makes himself poor in the sacraments, in his word and in his Church, which is a people of the poor. God’s wealth passes not through our wealth, but invariably and exclusively through our personal and communal poverty, enlivened by the Spirit of Christ.
In imitation of our Master, we Christians are called to confront the poverty of our brothers and sisters, to touch it, to make it our own and to take practical steps to alleviate it. Destitution is not the same as poverty: destitution is poverty without faith, without support, without hope. There are three types of destitution: material, moral and spiritual. Material destitution is what is normally called poverty, and affects those living in conditions opposed to human dignity: those who lack basic rights and needs such as food, water, hygiene, work and the opportunity to develop and grow culturally. In response to this destitution, the Church offers her help, her diakonia, in meeting these needs and binding these wounds which disfigure the face of humanity. In the poor and outcast we see Christ’s face; by loving and helping the poor, we love and serve Christ. Our efforts are also directed to ending violations of human dignity, discrimination and abuse in the world, for these are so often the cause of destitution. When power, luxury and money become idols, they take priority over the need for a fair distribution of wealth. Our consciences thus need to be converted to justice, equality, simplicity and sharing.
No less a concern is moral destitution, which consists in slavery to vice and sin. How much pain is caused in families because one of their members – often a young person – is in thrall to alcohol, drugs, gambling or pornography! How many people no longer see meaning in life or prospects for the future, how many have lost hope! And how many are plunged into this destitution by unjust social conditions, by unemployment, which takes away their dignity as breadwinners, and by lack of equal access to education and health care. In such cases, moral destitution can be considered impending suicide. This type of destitution, which also causes financial ruin, is invariably linked to the spiritual destitution which we experience when we turn away from God and reject his love. If we think we don’t need God who reaches out to us through Christ, because we believe we can make do on our own, we are headed for a fall. God alone can truly save and free us.
The Gospel is the real antidote to spiritual destitution: wherever we go, we are called as Christians to proclaim the liberating news that forgiveness for sins committed is possible, that God is greater than our sinfulness, that he freely loves us at all times and that we were made for communion and eternal life. The Lord asks us to be joyous heralds of this message of mercy and hope! It is thrilling to experience the joy of spreading this good news, sharing the treasure entrusted to us, consoling broken hearts and offering hope to our brothers and sisters experiencing darkness. It means following and imitating Jesus, who sought out the poor and sinners as a shepherd lovingly seeks his lost sheep. In union with Jesus, we can courageously open up new paths of evangelization and human promotion.
Dear brothers and sisters, may this Lenten season find the whole Church ready to bear witness to all those who live in material, moral and spiritual destitution the Gospel message of the merciful love of God our Father, who is ready to embrace everyone in Christ. We can do this to the extent that we imitate Christ who became poor and enriched us by his poverty. Lent is a fitting time for self-denial; we would do well to ask ourselves what we can give up in order to help and enrich others by our own poverty. Let us not forget that real poverty hurts: no self-denial is real without this dimension of penance. I distrust a charity that costs nothing and does not hurt.
May the Holy Spirit, through whom we are “as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything” (2 Cor 6:10), sustain us in our resolutions and increase our concern and responsibility for human destitution, so that we can become merciful and act with mercy. In expressing this hope, I likewise pray that each individual member of the faithful and every Church community will undertake a fruitful Lenten journey. I ask all of you to pray for me. May the Lord bless you and Our Lady keep you safe.
From the Vatican, 26 December 2013
Feast of Saint Stephen, Deacon and First Martyr
From the Office of Readings for Holy Saturday; From an ancient homily for Holy Saturday
Something strange is happening – there is a great silence on earth today, a great silence and stillness. The whole earth keeps silence because the King is asleep. The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and he has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began. God has died in the flesh and hell trembles with fear.
He has gone to search for our first parent, as for a lost sheep. Greatly desiring to visit those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death, he has gone to free from sorrow the captives Adam and Eve, he who is both God and the son of Eve. The Lord approached them bearing the cross, the weapon that had won him the victory. At the sight of him Adam, the first man he had created, struck his breast in terror and cried out to everyone: “My Lord be with you all.” Christ answered him: “And with your spirit.” He took him by the hand and raised him up, saying: “Awake, O sleeper, and rise from the dead, and Christ will give you light.”