Hosanna! Let Us Welcome the Lord Who Still Comes to Us Today!

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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.

Contemporary Meaning

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.

“I will open your graves and have you rise from them”

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Fifth Sunday of Lent, Year A – Sunday, April 6, 2014

Ezekiel’s dramatic vision and our

The historical background of today’s first reading from Ezekiel 37:12-14 is the great vision of the valley of the dry bones, one of the most spectacular panoramas in the whole of biblical literature. It dates back to the early sixth century B.C. when the hand of God came upon Ezekiel while the Jews were in captivity in Babylon. For about 150 years the political fortunes of the Jewish people had been in decline. The turning point came in 587 B.C. with the final catastrophic defeat and the beginning of the great exile for the Jewish people who were in deep despair, powerless over the situation which befell them. It is against this bleak background that Ezekiel’s dramatic vision unfolds- where the dead withered into whitened skeletons as the birds of prey had long finished destroying their flesh. What an incredible battlefield of unburied corpses! What a stench of death and decay!

The reluctant prophet Ezekiel was commanded by God to prophesy to these bones, to revive them. With the help of a massive earthquake, the bones rushed together with an eerie clamor. Sinews knitted them together, flesh and then skin clothed the corpses. The breath, “ruah”, Spirit of God came from the four extremities of the earth, as the limp bodies came “to life again and stood up on their feet, a great and immense army”. Where we now understand this incident as a pre-figuration of the resurrection of the dead, the Jews of Ezekiel’s time did not believe in such a conception of the afterlife. For them the immense resurrected army represented all the Jewish people, those from the northern kingdom who had previously fled to Assyria; those at home and those in exile in Babylon. They were to be reconstituted as a people in their own land and they would know that the one true God alone had done this.

Through the centuries, Christians have proclaimed this text during the liturgy of Easter night as we welcome new members into the Church. Ezekiel’s powerful words offer a stirring image of the God of Israel’s regenerative, restorative, renewing power for this life and for all eternity. Through the centuries, believers in the God and father of Abraham, Isaac and Jesus have taken heart in Ezekiel’s vision, because we believe it to be our story as well. We believe in the power of God’s forgiveness, the capacity of Christ and the Catholic tradition to revive us and bring us to life even when all around us seems to announce, night, darkness, death, dissolution and despair.

Christian life is a constant challenge

In writing to the community in Rome, St. Paul (8:8-11), we learn that through the cross of Jesus Christ, God broke the power of sin and pronounced sentence on it (3). Christians still retain the flesh, but it is alien to their new being, which is life in the spirit, namely the new self, governed by the Holy Spirit. Under the direction of the Holy Spirit Christians are able to fulfill the divine will that formerly found expression in the law (Romans 8:4). The same Spirit who enlivens Christians for holiness will also resurrect their bodies at the last day (11) Christian life is therefore the experience of a constant challenge to put to death the evil deeds of the body through life of the spirit (13).

Jesus’ gift of life leads to his own death

Today’s pathos-filled Gospel story, the raising of Lazarus, the longest continuous narrative in John’s Gospel (11:1-44) outside of the passion account, is the climax of the signs of Jesus. The story is situated shortly before Jesus is captured, tried and crucified. It is the event that most directly results in his condemnation by those seeking to kill him. Johannine irony is found in the fact that Jesus’ gift of life leads to his own death. Jesus was aware of the illness of his friend Lazarus and yet did not go to work a healing. In fact, he delayed for several days after Lazarus’ death, meanwhile giving his disciples lessons along the way about the light – lessons incomprehensible in the face of grave illness and death but understandable in the light shed by Lazarus’ and Christ’s resurrection.

Jesus declared to Martha: “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, he will live; whoever lives and believes in me, will never die (25).” And he adds: “Do you believe this (26)?” The Lord urges us to respond just as Martha did, “Yes, Lord! We too believe, despite our doubts and our darkness; we believe in you, because you have the words of eternal life; we want to believe in you, who gives us a trustworthy hope of life beyond life, of authentic and full life in your kingdom of light and peace.”

Lord, if only you had been here…

How often have we, like Martha and Mary, blurted out those same words of pain and despair: “Lord, if only you had been here (32), my brother… or sister or mother or father or friend would not have died.” And yet today’s pathos-filled story from John’s Gospel tells us what kind of God we have… a God who “groaned in spirit and was troubled. The Greek word used to describe Jesus’ gut sentiment in v.33 tells us that he became perturbed. It is a startling Greek phrase that literally means: “He snorted in spirit,” perhaps in anger at the presence of evil (death). We witness the Lord weeping at the tomb of his friend Lazarus; a Savior deeply moved at the commotion and grief of so many friends of Martha, Mary and Lazarus. The shortest line in the whole bible is found in this Gospel story: “Jesus wept” (35).

Jesus reveals to us God who is one with us in suffering, grief and death… a God who weeps with us. God doesn’t intervene to prevent the tragedies and sufferings of life. If we had a god who simply swooped down as some “deus ex machina” to prevent human tragedy and sinfulness, then religion and faith would simply be reduced to some form of magic or fate, and we would be helpless pawns on the chessboard of some whimsical god. Where is God in the midst of human tragedies? God is there in the midst of it all, weeping. This is our God who stands in deep, human solidarity with us, and through the glory of the Incarnation, embracing fully our human condition.

Death of the heart and spirit

The story of the raising of Lazarus also speaks to us about another kind of death. We can be dead, even before we die, while we are still in this life. This is not only the death of the soul caused by sin but also rather a death that manifests itself through the absence of energy, hope, a desire to fight and to continue to life. We often refer to this reality as death of the heart or spiritual death. There are many people who are enchained in this kind of death every day because of the sad and tragic circumstances of their lives. Who can possibly reverse this situation and revive us, stir us back to life, free us from the tombs that enchain us? Who can perform the spiritual cardio-pulmonary resuscitation that will reverse such desperate situations?

For certain afflictions, there exists no human remedy. Words of encouragement often fail to effect any change. Many times people in these situations are not able to do anything, not even pray. They are like Lazarus in the tomb. They need others to do something for them. Jesus once spoke these words to his disciples: “Heal the sick, raise the dead” (Matthew 10:8). Among the corporal works of mercy: feeding the hungry; giving drink to the thirsty; clothing the naked; sheltering the homeless; visiting the sick; visiting prisoners, the last one is burying the dead. Today’s Gospel tells us that in addition to this corporal work of mercy, we must also “raise the dead.”

Only the One who has entered death’s realm and engaged death itself in battle can give life to those who have died. John recounts the raising of Lazarus as a sign that transforms the tragedy into hope. Lazarus’ illness and death are the occasion for the manifestation of God’s glory. As Christians we do not expect to escape death; but we approach it with faith in the resurrection.

Implications of faith in the resurrection

Referring to the Lazarus story in his 2011 Lenten Message, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI wrote:

“On the fifth Sunday, when the resurrection of Lazarus is proclaimed, we are faced with the ultimate mystery of our existence: “I am the resurrection and the life… Do you believe this?” (25-26). For the Christian community, it is the moment to place with sincerity – together with Martha – all of our hopes in Jesus of Nazareth: “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, the one who was to come into this world” (27).

Communion with Christ in this life prepares us to overcome the barrier of death, so that we may live eternally with him. Faith in the resurrection of the dead and hope in eternal life open our eyes to the ultimate meaning of our existence: God created men and women for resurrection and life, and this truth gives an authentic and definitive meaning to human history, to the personal and social lives of men and women, to culture, politics and the economy. Without the light of faith, the entire universe finishes shut within a tomb devoid of any future, any hope.”

Living Lent this week

1. View the video “Lord, If Only You Had Been Here”.

2. Immediately before his own death and resurrection Jesus proclaims the words that form the very heart of today’s Gospel story: “I am the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25). The fourth century Bishop Gregory of Nazianzus (328-389) spoke about the miracle in Bethany that prefigured Jesus’ own death and resurrection. Meditate on these moving words of St. Gregory.

“He prays, but he hears prayer. He weeps, but he puts an end to tears.
He asks where Lazarus was laid, for he was a human being;
and he raises Lazarus, for He is God.
As a sheep he is led to the slaughter 
but he is the Shepherd of Israel and now of the whole world.
He is bruised and wounded,
but he heals every disease and every infirmity.
He is lifted up and nailed to the tree,
but by the tree of life he restores us…
He lays down his life,
but he has the power to take it again;
and the veil is rent, for the mysterious doors of heaven are opened;
the rocks are cleft, the dead rise.
He dies, but he gives life, and his death destroys death.
He is buried, but he rises again.”

3. Look around you and discover one or two people who are in the throes of death, especially the death of the heart and spirit, people who have lost the will and desire to live because of what has befallen them. Reach out to them, and with your words, revive their spirit, quicken their souls, unbind them and set them free. 

[The readings for the Fifth Sunday of Lent are: Ezekiel 37.12-14; Romans 8.8-11; and John 11.1-45.]

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.

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…]

Mary of Nazareth: Called, gifted and chosen to be with Jesus

Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception – December 9, 2013

This year, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception will be celebrated on Monday, December 9 due to the fact that December 8 was an Advent Sunday this year.

On December 8, the Church celebrates the Feast of the Immaculate Conception.  The Catholic belief that Mary was free from original sin from the moment of her existence was promulgated by Pope Pius IX in 1854.

While Marian devotion remains strong in the church, the Immaculate Conception is a complex concept that has interested theologians more than the ordinary faithful.  Many people still wrongly assume that the Immaculate Conception refers to the conception of Christ.  In fact, it refers to the belief that Mary, by special divine favor, was without sin from the moment she was conceived.  The main stumbling block for many Catholics is original sin.  Today we are simply less and less aware of original sin.  And without that awareness, the Immaculate Conception makes no sense.

The late American Bishop Fulton Sheen put it another way in 1974, speaking about the loss of the sense of sin.  Sheen said: “It used to be that the Catholics were the only ones to believe in the Immaculate Conception. Now everyone believes he is the immaculately conceived.”

Pope Pius IX proclaimed the dogma in 1854, but the idea that Mary was born without the stain of sin did not appear out of the blue. It took shape after a long and complicated theological debate that, in some respects, still continues.  Already in the earliest Christian times Mary was held to be an ideal model of holiness, and by the eighth century Eastern Christians were celebrating a feast in honor of Mary’s conception. [Read more…]

In Jesus, the Future Has Already Begun!

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Solemnity of the Ascension Year C – Sunday, May 12, 2013
The readings for the Ascension of the Lord are Acts 1:1-11; Ephesians 1:17-23 or Hebrews 9:24-28; Luke 24:46-53

Just as Jerusalem was the city of destiny in the Gospel of Luke (the place where salvation was accomplished), so here at the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles, Jerusalem occupies a central position. It is the starting point for the mission of the Christian disciples to “the ends of the earth,” the place where the apostles were situated and the doctrinal focal point in the early days of the community (Acts 15:2, 6).

The first verses of today’s first reading (Acts 1:1-2) connect the book of Acts with the Gospel of Luke, and show that the apostles were instructed by the risen Jesus (vv 3-5). The disciples were anxious for answers. They asked, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” They thought “the promise of the Father” would bring about an age of political sovereignty such as the nation had enjoyed under the reign of King David. But Jesus’ answer made clear that this is not what the promise is all about. Neither would the promise give them a glimpse of the end times, for “it is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set” for the end of time. The promise was not going to make their lives easier by restoring political or national dominance or by granting divine insight. When they received the Spirit they too would be baptized in fire. They would be empowered to take on the role of Christ: to teach and to nourish and to serve, to be ignored, to suffer and to die for him.After speaking, Jesus was lifted up into the heavens before his friends. Just imagine this awesome scene! How does it feel to them to watch their Lord and Master leave? The angels’ words to the “men of Galilee” are painfully blunt and leave little room for misinterpretation:”Why do you stand here looking up at the skies? This Jesus who has been taken from you will return, just as you saw him go up to the heavens.”

The disciples are given a last bit of instruction: “Don’t keep trying to stare into the future. Don’t be overly concerned about which hour he will come back.” We must not stand idly staring up into the heavens and moaning about the past, about which we can do nothing, except to bury it deeply in God’s hands and heart! The Lord will be glorified, and it follows that his disciples will also share in his glory. Let’s get going and carry a piece of heaven into the world. This is the meaning of the Resurrection and the Ascension of our Lord, not one of divine abandonment of the human cause, but divine empowerment of the Gospel dream!

Beginning From Jerusalem

The resurrection appearances in Luke’s Gospel take place in and around Jerusalem. Luke brings his Gospel story about the time of Jesus to a close (vv 50-53) with the report of the ascension. The Gospel ends as it began (1:9), in the Jerusalem temple (v 53). Luke will also begin the story of the time of the church with a recounting of the ascension. In Luke’s Resurrection chapter, the evangelist recounts the ascension of Jesus on Easter Sunday night, thereby closely associating it with the resurrection.

As I have pointed out in previous Easter reflections, Chapter 24 of Luke’s Gospel can be divided into four major sections: a) the story of the women at the tomb, which ends with Peter’s visit to the tomb to check it (vv 1-12); b) the story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus, which culminates in their learning that the Lord had also appeared to Peter (vv 13-35); c) the appearance of the Lord to his disciples at a meal, which culminates with their commissioning by Jesus (vv 36-49); and d) Jesus’ ascension into heaven (vv 50-52).

What should probably be understood as one event (resurrection, glorification, ascension, sending of the Spirit — the paschal mystery) has been historicized by Luke when he writes of a visible ascension of Jesus after 40 days and the descent of the Spirit at Pentecost. For Luke, the ascension marks the end of the appearances of Jesus except for the extraordinary appearance to Paul. With regard to Luke’s understanding of salvation history, the ascension also marks the end of the time of Jesus (Luke 24:50-53) and signals the beginning of the time of the Church.

Conformity to the Jewish Scriptures

The final scene of Luke’s Gospel emphasizes that what is written in the Jewish Scriptures must of necessity be fulfilled because it reveals the plan of God which cannot fail to be accomplished. The life, death and resurrection of Christ are fully in accord with the Scriptures. The clearest expression of this is found in the words addressed by the risen Christ to his disciples: “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you — that everything written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms must be fulfilled” (24:44). This statement shows the basis of the necessity for the paschal mystery of Jesus, affirmed in numerous passages in the Gospels: “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering … and after three days rise again”; “But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled which say it must happen this way?” (Matthew 26:54); “This Scripture must be fulfilled in me” (Luke 22:37).

Present in a thousand places

On the day of his Ascension, one might conclude that Jesus removed himself into a new form of divine exclusion. The case is exactly the opposite. In God, Jesus is “here” in a new and very specific way. Only in his physical separation from the historical scene can his spiritual union with the entire world for all time be complete.

In his “ascension” Jesus made a commitment to the earth that we live in. His footprints are not etched for tourists to view in the stone beneath us. But they are visible in the hearts of those who follow him. As he gave up the ability to be present in one place, he gained the capability of being present in a thousand places. When Jesus vanished, he filled the earth with the presence of God. God’s presence is still here and is available for us as the ultimate fulfillment of all our dreams. We know that we move toward heaven to the extent that we approach Jesus. We are assured that he hasn’t ever stopped being present with us throughout all time. And through us he wants to become even more present, especially as his Church.

Profound lesson

The Ascension of Our Lord teaches us a profound lesson about possessing and being possessed. Through his ascension, Jesus shows that clinging to him in time and history serves no purpose. Nor does he cling to the human beings around him, unwilling to let them go free in order to continue their Gospel mission. Rather, his whole life, death and resurrection teach us to accept everyone and everything as a gift, on loan to us.

It is not good to cling tightly to relationships or to hoard earthly treasures. Today let us learn to revere all that we have with deep gratitude, and hold everything in open hands. During our times of prayer, let us open our hands and surrender all the important treasures and relationships of our lives to God. Let us be aware of our feelings toward others, and toward the things we have. Let us spend time expressing our gratitude to God for each gift and relationship. And most important of all, let us find some concrete ways to express our love and gratitude to people we often take for granted, including Jesus.

Just as the Risen Lord entrusted himself into the hands of such pathetic, broken people, he does the same to us. The full significance of the Ascension reminds us that Christ accepts our lack of self-confidence in ourselves. He accepts the shadowy and dark areas of our humanity. He accepts our capacity for deceit, betrayal, greed and power. And having accepted us, he calls us, gives us the eternal commission to be his people, and sends us to serve him and love him, in spite of ourselves and because of ourselves.

On the day of his Ascension, one might conclude that Jesus removed himself into a new form of divine exclusion. The case is exactly the opposite. In God, Jesus is “here” in a new and very specific way. Only in his physical separation from the historical scene can his spiritual union with 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. In Jesus, the future has already begun!

“He whom you love is no longer where he was before. He is now wherever you are” (St. John Chrysostom).

(CNS Photo / Gregory A. Shemitz, Long Island Catholic)

Council of Jerusalem, the Advocate, and Pastoral Strategy

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Sixth Sunday of Easter – May 5, 2012

The readings for the 6th Sunday of Easter are Acts 15:1-2, 22-29; Revelation 21:10-14, 22-23; John 14:23-29

The early Church community in Jerusalem was not without its problems! Several of the controversies are evident in today’s first reading from Chapter 15 of the Acts of the Apostles.

When some of the converted pharisees of Jerusalem discover the results of the first missionary journey of Paul (vv 1-5), they urge that the Gentiles be taught to follow the Mosaic law. Recognizing the authority of the Jerusalem church, Paul and Barnabas go there to settle the question of whether Gentiles can embrace a form of Christianity that does not include this obligation. The Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15:1-35) marks the official rejection of the rigid view that Gentile converts were obliged to observe the Mosaic law completely. From here to the end of the book of Acts, Paul and the Gentile mission become the focus of Luke’s writing.

Early Church controversies

If the Gentiles are to become Christian, does that imply they must observe the customs of the Jewish converts to Christianity? This would mean imposing circumcision, dietary restrictions, and marriage regulations. The scene from today’s first reading not only presents us with one of the first great controversies of the early Church, but also gives us some excellent insights into our own understanding of tradition and continuity, and the resolution of conflicts in the Church.

In the reading from the Book of Acts, some unauthorized members of the Jerusalem church tried to insist upon circumcision as a necessity for salvation within the church at Antioch. The classical problem of the early Church revolved around the necessity of the Mosaic law for salvation. Jesus certainly kept it perfectly, from his birth, for he was circumcised on the eighth day (Luke 2:21) and he never annulled the force of the Mosaic law. In fact he states quite clearly: “Do not think I have come to abolish the law and the prophets. I have come, not to abolish them, but to fulfill them” (Matthew 5:17). Yet, Peter on the impulse of the Spirit had baptized the household of the Roman centurion Cornelius without requiring circumcision.

The Apostles and elders gathered for deliberation and came to an agreement with the Mother Church at Jerusalem that the Mosaic laws were not to be required, nor the many traditions of the rabbis. The converts, out of courtesy, were asked not to partake of blood, nor of animals improperly slaughtered without draining the blood, nor of strangled animals for the same reason, nor of marriages within certain blood bonds. [Read more…]

The New Jerusalem, Coming Down Out of Heaven From God

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5th Sunday of Easter, Year C – April 28, 2013
The readings are Acts 14:21-27; Revelation 21:1-5a; John 13:31-33a, 34-35

In light of today’s second reading from the book of Revelation (21:1-5a), I wish to offer some reflections on the Holy City of Jerusalem and its important place in Christian spirituality.

There is a wonderful rabbinic saying from the Babylonian Talmud (Kiddushin 49b) that reveals heaven, earth and Jerusalem as the essential components of the Hebrew soul. The rabbis say: “As the world was being created, God gave out 10 portions of joy to the world and nine were given to Jerusalem; 10 portions of beauty God gave to the world and nine were for Jerusalem; 10 portions of suffering God gave to the world and nine were for Jerusalem.”

Jerusalem is the city where the joys, aspirations and pains of humanity converge. It is the city where dreams are dreamt and either realized or shattered. A well-known medieval map shows Jerusalem and Solomon’s Temple at the center of the world, the continents of Europe, Africa, and Asia fanning out from the center like gigantic petals. It is a vision of world redemption arising from Jerusalem. Jerusalem is the heart of the world and the center of history.

The history of salvation revealed in the Bible is situated between two visions which form the beginning and the end of the human drama: The vision of paradise lost in the book of Genesis and the vision of the new Jerusalem which descends from God in the book of Revelation. We come from God, and we return to him. These two visions are the two beacons which shed their light on everything that comes between them concerning the history and fate of humankind made up of human suffering and joy. [Read more…]

Voice of the Good Shepherd

4th Sunday of Easter, Year C – Sunday April 21, 2013 
The readings for the 4th Sunday of Easter are Acts 13:14, 43-52; Revelation 7:9, 14b-17; John 10:27-30

As we move away from the day of Christ’s resurrection, the Sunday Scripture readings for the Easter Season help to deepen our understanding of what happened to Jesus and to the Church through his triumph over death. On the Second Sunday of Easter, we looked carefully at the wounds of Christ and renewed friendship with him at table in a locked upper room.

The Third Sunday of Easter this year (C) enabled us to peer into the intimate lakeshore scene, leading us through the ruins of denial and despair, and offering us a chance to recommit ourselves to loving Christ as friends.

On this Fourth Sunday of Easter, we encounter the Good Shepherd who is really the beautiful or noble shepherd who knows his flock intimately. “Good Shepherd Sunday” is also the World Day of Prayer for Vocations in the Church. In all three liturgical cycles, the Fourth Sunday of Easter presents a passage from John’s Gospel about the Good Shepherd.

In the Old Testament, God himself is represented as the shepherd of his people. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want” (Psalm 23:1). “He is our God and we are his people whom he shepherds” (Psalm 95:7). The future Messiah is also described with the image of the shepherd: “Like a shepherd he feeds his flock; in his arms he gathers the lambs, carrying them in his bosom, and leading the ewes with care” (Isaiah 40:11).

In the Bible and the ancient Near East, “shepherd” was also a political title that stressed the obligation of kings to provide for their subjects. The title connoted total concern for and dedication to others. Shepherd and host are both images set against the background of the desert, where the protector of the sheep is also the protector of the desert traveler, offering hospitality and safety from enemies. The rod is a defensive weapon against wild animals, while the staff is a supportive instrument; they symbolize concern and loyalty. [Read more…]

Peter’s Rehabilitation and Ours


3rd Sunday of Easter – April 14, 2013
The readings for the 3rd Sunday of Easter are Acts 5:27-32, 40b-41; Revelations 5:11-14; John 21:1-19 or 21:1-14

Today’s dramatic Gospel story (John 21:1-19) is set against the backdrop of the Sea of Galilee. Much of Jesus’ ministry took place along the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee, also known as the Sea of Tiberias (John 6:1) and the Lake of Gennesaret (Luke 5:1).

This “sea” is really a fresh-water lake in the shape of a small harp that is 12-13 miles in length and 7-8 miles wide. Fish and fishing played an important role in the New Testament and in the early Church. Fishing eventually became an important symbol of the church’s missionary task, since Jesus had invited his earliest disciples to “fish for people” (Matthew 4:19; Mark 1:17; Luke 5:10). There is something “fishy” about the origins of Christianity!

The “breakfast symphony” in two movements

Chapter 21 is an epilogue to the Fourth Gospel, a post-resurrectional “breakfast symphony” in two movements. The first movement (vv.1-14) describes the appearance of the Risen Jesus to his disciples “by the Sea of Tiberias.” It is concerned with fish and fishing. When Peter decides to go fishing, there is a certain feeling of resignation and bleakness about it, alluding to the depression and discouragement he and the other disciples must have experienced after Jesus’ death. Peter is simply taking up his old profession.” [Read more…]

Stay With Us, Lord!


Easter Sunday – March 31, 2013
The readings for Easter Sunday are Acts 10:34a, 37-43; Colossians 3:1-4 or 1 Corinthians 5:6b-8; 2 John 20:1-9 or Luke 24:1-12 or Luke 24:13-35

Pounding hearts, wounded hearts and burning hearts. The image of the human heart permeates the beautiful Easter Gospel of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35). It is a very human story, full of pathos; stylized in pattern, and suggesting a Eucharistic celebration (vv 30-32). The disciples come with their questions and doubts (vv 13-24); the Scriptures are recited (v 27); words of clarification and instruction are exchanged on the road (vv 25-27); and finally, the moment of recognition comes in the context of a meal (v 31).

These facts are clear from the account: On Easter night, Cleopas and his companion are going away from the locality where the decisive events have happened toward a little village of no significance. They did not believe the message of the resurrection, due to the scandal of the cross. Puzzled and discouraged, they are unable to see any liberation in the death, the empty tomb, or the message about the appearances of Jesus to the others. In their eyes, either the mission of Jesus had entirely failed, or else they, themselves had been badly deceived in their expectations about Jesus.

[Read more…]