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Deacon-structing the Voice

Voice

In the Gospel of John, Chapter 10, Jesus tells the disciples that he is the Good Shepherd and he says that he leads the sheep and they hear his voice. He also says that He knows his sheep and his sheep know him. In Chapter 14: 23, the Gospel of John tells us that Jesus says that those who “love me will keep my word.” And so I’ve been thinking about what it means to “know” Jesus and what it means to keep his word. This is the Jesus who can be known. That’s why in all the resurrection stories, it’s very clear that Jesus is not a ghost (Luke 24:39), but he is flesh and bones and he eats (Luke 24:41-42; John 21:9). He is alive and He is real. He can be known.

But I can’t help but think that there is a connection between knowing Jesus, keeping his word and hearing his voice.

But Jesus’ voice is but one voice among many: the voice of pleasure and the voice of power; the voices of pride and despair, of fear and doubt. How do we know the voice of Christ? We listen. That’s it. We have to make quiet time for listening so we can tune in to the voice of Jesus. If our prayer time is consumed with speaking: thanksgiving prayers and petition prayers and asking for forgiveness and offering praise – all the while listening to praise and worship music – then it’s a bit one-sided. We have to be quiet – silent – so we can listen. We need to start this today. Set aside quiet time each day. Be silent and listen.

And when you do, how do you know you’re listening to the voice of Jesus so that you can know him? How do we discern His voice among all the voices in the world? And how do we recognize his voice when it’s about something that Jesus didn’t speak about? It’s easy to keep His word when it’s about something that Jesus spoke about, but how do we keep His word about stuff that Jesus never spoke about? How can you “know” him if it’s not in Scripture?

Let me make a proposal: The voice of Jesus is the voice of the Church. Or rather, the voice of the Church is the voice of Jesus. Jesus gives His voice to the Church. He gives His voice to the apostles; He gives them His authority and that’s the way it’s been from the beginning of Christianity.

It was happening right in Book of Acts. In Acts 15:1—29 we have the disciples doing what Jesus asked them to do: They are keeping His word. They are going to the ends of the earth making disciples. And Paul and Barnabas are disciple-making machines. And most of their converts are gentiles: people of non-Jewish background. But what happens? They’re in Antioch and to Antioch comes a group of Jewish-Christians (converts from Judaism; called the Judaizers) and they tell the gentile-Christians that in order for them to be Christian, they have to follow the Law of Moses: all the Jewish Levitical laws.

Remember the Jewish people had strict laws about what they could eat and not eat, about washing about rituals and sacrifice and other things. And the main issue was the issue of circumcision. They said that in order to be saved, you had to be circumcised. Now, Jesus never spoke about this, but Paul and Barnabas are pretty sure that this teaching is wrong. But is it up to Paul and Barnabas to make this decision? No – they are not the Church leadership. They are important – but they are not the Church leadership.

So they take the matter to Jerusalem, to the Church leadership, the Apostles. And we have the first Church council. We call it the Council of Jerusalem. And ever since then, when the Church encounters a matter that needs to be defined or clarified, they gather in a council in order to define doctrine or teaching. We heard of the Council of Trent and the Council of Chalcedon and the two Vatican Councils. Well, in the Book of Acts we have the first Council in Jerusalem. They had a problem that had to be solved; a teaching that had to be defined. And it’s something that Jesus never spoke about: Circumcision. Jesus never spoke about what Gentiles should or shouldn’t do if they became Christians. So the Apostles and Church leaders gather and make a decision. And we know that they decide that you do not have to be Jewish, in order to be a Christian.

How do they decide? With the Holy Spirit. The letter they send back to Antioch says, “For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and us…” It doesn’t say they decided under the guidance of the Holy Spirit or that the Holy Spirit inspired them to decide… no: They decided together with the Holy Spirit. And that’s the way the Church has been since then. Together with the Holy Spirit, doctrine can be defined because the Church speaks with the authority and the voice of Jesus.

Back in the Gospel of John, Jesus says to the Apostles: “The Father will send you the Holy Spirit in my name and He will teach you everything and will remind you of everything that I have spoken.” (John 14:25-26) What does that mean? It means that of the things Jesus spoke about, the Spirit will remind us; but of the things Jesus didn’t speak about, the Spirit will teach us. So we are guaranteed that the Church leadership will always, together with the Holy Spirit speak with the authority and voice of Christ, whenever they speak as a whole. Jesus does not give His Spirit to 12 individual people; He gives His Spirit to them as Church and so it’s not whatever an individual Bishop says, but when the Bishops and the Holy Father speak as the College of Bishops or in the context of a Ecumenical Council.

Church leadership is important and it’s always been this way. The Book of Revelation (21:10-23) presents us with a beautiful and immense city: The New Jerusalem. And many scholars agree that when the Book of Revelation speaks of the New Jerusalem, it refers to the Church. See what this city looks like: It has a wall with 12 gates and over each gate are written the names of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. That’s where we came from. That’s our heritage – the old Jerusalem, the first Covenant. But the foundation – there are 12 foundations and over each foundation are written the names of the 12 apostles. Jesus said to Peter, you are a rock and on this rock I will build my Church. The foundation of the Church is the 12 apostles and it’s always been that way – and that foundation continues today with the successor of the Apostles, the Bishops and our Holy Father, Pope Francis.

So, if we want to know Jesus and keep his word we have to listen to the Church. If we do we will keep His word and the Father will come to us and the Father, Son and Spirit will come to us and make their home with us (John 14:23).

PedroGM1Every week, Deacon Pedro takes apart a particular topic, not so much  to explore or explain the subject to its fullness, but rather to provide insights that will deepen our understanding of the subject. And don’t worry, at the end of the day he always puts the pieces back together. There are no limits to deaconstructing: Write to him and ask any questions about the faith or Church teaching: pedro@saltandlighttv.org @deaconpedrogm

Deacon-structing Lent: part 4

Baptism_Lent

So far in part 1, we looked at questions people have regarding fasting and abstinence, in part 2 we looked at suffering and in part 3 we looked at what Scripture has to tell us about why Jesus had to suffer.  I think when people think of Lent, that’s what they think about: fasting, abstinence and suffering. Add to that penance.

It is true that Lent is a penitential season, but do you know that the word “Lent” comes from the old English word, “lencten” which  was the word used for “Springtime?” It comes from the old Germanic: “Lengen-tinza” which literally means “long days” (think of the English word “lengthen,” to make long – that’s the same root as the word Lent.) So the word ‘Lent’ refers to the lengthening of days; to the light that is defeating the darkness.  I think most of us think of penance and fasting when we think of Lent, but Lent is also about light defeating darkness. That’s what we see in the fourth Sunday of Lent this year. (On 4th Sunday in Cycle B with Jesus speaking with Nicodemus and also in Cycle A with the story of the man born blind).

How many of you, when you think of Lent, think of Baptism? (I would hope that those preparing for Baptism are thinking of Baptism during Lent; but the rest of us?) Recently, I received a book by Jerry Galipeau titled, You Have Put On Christ: Cultivating a Baptismal Spirituality. In it, he says that Lent is a baptismal time. He quotes the Second Vatican Council Document Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, #109:

“The season of Lent has a twofold character: primarily by recalling or preparing for baptism and by penance, it disposes the faithful, who more diligently hear the word of God ad devote themselves to prayer, to celebrate the paschal mystery. This twofold character is to be brought into greater prominence both in the liturgy and by liturgical catechesis.”

 And so, Lent has a two-fold character; two equally important strands: a baptismal one and a penitential one – we tend to over-emphasize the penitential one.  Traditionally, those preparing to be baptised or received in the Church do their final preparations during Lent. They are called Catechumens and we do see a special baptism emphasis for them during Lent, but all of us should be recalling our Baptism. At the Easter Vigil we will all be renewing our Baptismal promises.

I interviewed Jerry Galipeau for the SLHour for the first week in Lent and afterwards I decided that this Lent I was going to pay extra attention to the readings and prayers and look for all the baptismal themes. I was not sure as to what I was going to find. Then I came to the readings for the first Sunday in Lent. There are Baptismal elements in all the readings all throughout Lent, but let me use the first Sunday, Cycle B as an example:

The first reading from Genesis 9:8-15 takes place just after the flood. God is establishing a Covenant with all Creation; He will never again destroy with a flood. The flood was a cleansing, but also an opportunity for a new life, a regeneration. St. Peter, in the second reading (1 Peter 3:18-22) , tells us that the flood and the Ark prefigure Baptism. That’s what happens at Baptism: it is a cleansing and also an entering into a new life, a new life in Christ.

But the first reading is not directly about the flood; it is about God establishing a Covenant. Guess what I found: The YouCat (the Church’s youth catechism given to us by Pope Benedict XVI.) It says that “Baptism is a covenant with God” because “the individual must say Yes to it.” (YC#194) That makes sense since every Sacrament involves our action and God’s action: We do something and God does something – that’s a covenant. In Baptism, we do something: the prayers, the ritual, everything with the water, the oils, the white garment, the candle – that our part. Then God does his part; He sends us his Grace. In Baptism, we primarily receive two Graces: We are freed from sin and we are reborn as children of God (CCC#1213).  By going through the waters of Baptism, literally plunging into the waters (the word baptism comes from the Greek baptizein, which means “to plunge”) just as the people in the time of Noah went through the flood, we die to sin, all sin is buried in the waters, and we come up on the other side, reborn into Christ. Baptism is a death and a resurrection. St. Paul says that all who are baptised are baptised into the death of Christ, we are buried with him, so that as Christ is raised, we too can walk in the newness of life (Rom 6:3-4; Col 2:12). In Baptism, we are freed from all sin and we become children of God, no longer slaves to sin, but as adopted sons and daughters of God, who now have access to God’s very life, to the life that Adam and Eve had in the Garden of Eden. We must say yes to that. God does his part and we must agree. That’s what makes it a Covenant.

Now, the Gospel from the first Sunday in Lent is always about Jesus going to the desert. It’s easy to look at Mark’s version (1:12-15) and focus on the fact that Jesus goes into the desert – that’s very Lenten, very penitential. But what happens just before Jesus goes into the desert according to Mark? He is baptised! Then all Mark says about Jesus going to the desert is that “he was driven by the Spirit into the wilderness” and in the desert he overcomes temptation; he overcomes sin and he is among wild beasts and the angels minister to him. Who else lived among wild beasts and the angels ministered to them? Adam and Eve. So according to Mark, Jesus going into the desert is an analogy to what happens at baptism: We are freed from sin (Jesus never sins; he overcomes temptation), no longer slaves to sin but having all the benefits that come with being children of God, the Communion with God that Adam and Eve had.

And then what does Jesus do? He begins his ministry. And that’s what we forget about Baptism. Baptism is not the end of the journey, but the beginning. Baptism is the door to Faith and to ministry in the Church. God establishes a Covenant with us and we have to do our part.

So Lent is a time to remember and reflect on our Baptism. For most of us, we were baptised many, many years ago – we don’t remember it – some of us don’t even know when we were baptised or where. Some don’t have a relationship with their Godparents. We should know, at the very least when and where we were baptised. I was baptised on February 8th, 1969 at San Francisco de la Caleta Parish in Panama City, Panama. I know who was there, I have photos and I know who my Godparents are. Do you? Your baptism is where it all began. I would not be here today, as a Deacon, working at S+L and writing this, had I not been baptised. Most of you would not be reading this and would not be in Church every Sunday had you not been baptised – and I don’t mean Catholic baptism; I mean all Christian Baptism, because it’s all the same. We believe in one Baptism. If you are baptised in any Christian denomination, you are baptised – you’ve been freed from Original Sin and you have become a child of God. But we forget and don’t give Baptism the importance that it requires.

I used to think that since I was so young at my baptism and still very young at my Confirmation, there should be a second Confirmation – around our 30s when we truly accept, with full knowledge that we want to be Catholic followers of Jesus Christ – when we would renew our baptismal promises with full consent and knowledge. Most of us have forgotten our baptismal promises. But we don’t need a second Confirmation. At every Mass, when we pray the Creed, we are renewing our baptismal promises, and it is done with special importance, as a community during the Easter Vigil, at the end of Lent. So Lent is a time when we remember and reflect on our Baptism, so that at the Easter Vigil we can renew with vigour our part of the Covenant. God does his part; let’s prepare during this Lenten season so we can do ours.

Come back next time and we’ll deacon-struct Holy Week.

Deacon-structing Lent: part 3

Deaconstructing_Lent

In part 1 we looked at fasting and abstinence and in part 2 we looked at the meaning of suffering. Today, let me share with you something I like to do as part of my prayer (and we all know that Lent is a time to re-focus our prayer life.)

I love Scripture. I take to heart the words of St. Jerome, “Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ.” I truly believe that we must read the Bible daily. We must read it, study it and pray with it. That is definitely one way to get closer to Christ. But it’s also a good way to measure how you’re doing in your own life. When I was doing my pastoral placement while studying for the Permanent Diaconate, we were required to do “scriptural reflections” on specific pastoral experiences we’d had. So if I had met a patient who was in crisis in the hospital, I had to reflect on that experience by looking at it through a scriptural lens. I loved doing this and it was extremely helpful. Basically it’s looking at the life of Jesus (or other Bible characters) and seeing what it tells me about my life.  A lot of people will tell us that the Gospels are not factual. That Jesus didn’t really multiply the loaves and the fishes or that it wasn’t really water turned into wine, or that Lazarus wasn’t really dead. They’ll say that “resurrect” meant something else or that Jesus didn’t really die on the cross or didn’t really “resurrect.” See, (and I may get some responses from you for saying this) I don’t know if it really matters whether Jesus literally fed 5000 people with 5 loaves and 2 fishes or if he really walked on water; what matters is how these stories affect my life today. What really matters is the TRUTH behind all these stories.  The Bible may not always be FACT – but it is always TRUTH.

Let me explain to you the difference between “Fact” and “Truth.”

Let’s say you ask my five-year-old son how tall I am. My son says that I am 20 feet tall. Clearly that statement is not factual. I am not 20 ft. tall. But the truth behind that statement is that I am much, much taller than he is. He is short and I am a lot taller than him. So, in a way, his statement is true just not fact. Understand?

So the Bible is full of stories to show us the Truth.  That’s why we have to read the Bible as THEOLOGY and not so much as HISTORY. When we look at the Gospel stories and during Lent when we look at all the Passion Narratives, in trying to understand all the suffering, we must look for the Truth that is found in them.

The first Truth that I see is (as I said in part 2) that, although we may not be able to understand suffering, we believe in a God who suffers with us. He reigns from the Cross.

Jesus had to die because in dying He destroyed death. He destroyed Sin. His death frees us. In the Gospel of John, Jesus says: “I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” (A cliché from Jn 12:24?) What I take from this passage is that unless I die I will not produce fruit.  It means I have to die to myself. It means I have to not be so selfish and self-centred. If I stop being so self-consumed and focus a little bit more on others, chances are I will produce some good fruit. Lent is a good time to practice dying to ourselves.

Jesus dying on the cross in a way represents how we each have to die:  We have to die to ourselves. In the Gospel of Matthew Jesus says to his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” (Mt.16:24). Deny yourself. That means stop being so self-centred.

In Luke, Jesus says: “And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” (Lk 14:27) Does “our cross” mean, “our suffering”?  Does it mean that if I am not willing to suffer, then I can’t be a follower of Jesus?  Is He preaching a religion that requires suffering? But as I said last week this doesn’t mean that I have to create my own suffering. Our cross is not suffering for the sake of suffering.

What does Jesus say about suffering?  He healed the sick, he cured the lame and the blind; he resurrected Lazarus. He fed the hungry. So Jesus fought against suffering at every turn. In fact, when Lazarus died, people chastised Jesus for not going to Lazarus when he was sick and curing him. (Jn: 11:4) When he heard this, Jesus said, “This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.” So Lazarus died so that God may be glorified through it.

On the fifth Sunday in Lent, this year (Cycle B) we will hear the reading from John 12:20-33 about the kernel of wheat dying, that I mentioned above. It’s worth reading the whole passage. Jesus says:

“The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.

Amen, amen, I say to you,

unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies,

it remains just a grain of wheat;

but if it dies, it produces much fruit.

Whoever loves his life loses it,

and whoever hates his life in this world

will preserve it for eternal life.

Whoever serves me must follow me,

and where I am, there also will my servant be.

The Father will honor whoever serves me.”

He says it in response to some Greeks who wanted to see him. He’s speaking about what we have to do if we want to follow him.

But in a less-known passage, which follows, he says,

“I am troubled now. Yet what should I say?

‘Father, save me from this hour’?

But it was for this purpose that I came to this hour.

Father, glorify your name.”
Then a voice came from heaven,

“I have glorified it and will glorify it again.”

The crowd there heard it and said it was thunder;

but others said, “An angel has spoken to him.”

Jesus answered and said,

“This voice did not come for my sake but for yours.

Now is the time of judgment on this world;

now the ruler of this world will be driven out.

And when I am lifted up from the earth,

I will draw everyone to myself.”

He said this indicating the kind of death he would die.

Jesus is saying that some suffering glorifies God. Which kind of suffering? Self-centred suffering won’t glorify God, that’s for sure. He also says that we must accept the suffering that comes with following Him.

In the Passion of the Christ by Mel Gibson there’s a very moving scene: Jesus is carrying the cross on the way to his crucifixion. He has been tortured and can barely stand or walk. His face is bruised and bleeding and his eye is swollen shut. He has fallen a lot more than three times. Mary, his mother is trying to get to him through the crowds. She finally breaks through as Jesus falls one more time. He looks up at her and says: “See Mother, I make all things new.”

Jesus came to make all things new.  He came to renew.  He talked about a new commandment: Love one another. A new Covenant: His blood is the blood of the new Covenant. In Mark He says: “And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the wine will burst the skins, and both the wine and the wineskins will be ruined. No, He pours new wine into new wineskins.” (Mark 2:22)  And how does He do this? By suffering and dying on the Cross. Lent is a time when we focus on dying to ourselves – even if it means a little suffering – so that we can glorify God. That, in turn, will make us new. That is why Lent is also a time for transfiguration. The season of Lent may begin with the story of Jesus going into the desert, but the second Sunday in Lent always has the story of the Transfiguration.

When Pope Francis was interviewed for America Magazine and was asked, “Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?” he paused. He thought for a bit and then he said, “I am sinner. I am a sinner, whom the Lord has looked upon.”

That’s who we are: sinners, but that is just half of the story: We are sinners, whom the Lord has looked upon. Lent is not Lent if it doesn’t lead to Easter. Lent is a time when we focus a bit more on our sinfulness because the Lord has looked upon us; because Easter is just around the corner.

Come back next week and we’ll look at the two-fold character of Lent.

CNS photo/Vincent West, Reuters

Remembering Mary

Maria

The Season of Advent helps us to prepare for Christmas where we recall in faith Christ’s coming among us. It is also a time in which we look at our present lives and reflect on the second coming of Christ in our own lives and at the end of the ages.

It is definitely a season of joyous expectation in light of the Feast of Christmas. However it is also a time of preparation in which we are invited to renew our Christian faith. We can become more attentive to the gift of our faith and to explore the implications of what it means to believe in the person of Christ and above all to become more grateful for the presence of God’s love which is fully manifest in the person of Christ.

On the very First Sunday of Advent these very themes we addressed in the Opening Prayer at Mass:

Father in Heaven, our hearts desire the warmth of your love and our minds are searching for the light of your Word. Increase our longing for Christ our Saviour and give us the strength to grow in love, that the dawn of his coming may find us rejoicing in His presence and welcome the Light of his Truth.

Notice that in this prayer we acknowledge Advent as a time in which our hearts are to become more aware of the warmth of God’s love.

It is also a time for our minds to receive in new ways the Word of God through the Scriptures and thus to welcome the light of his Truth.

Finally it is a time to grow in the strength of Christ’s love, so that as we prepare to celebrate the dawn of his coming at Christmas he may find us rejoicing in His presence more fully each day.

In the Office of Readings St. Charles Borromeo also echoes the importance of this Advent season:

Each year the Church recalls this mystery and she urges us to renew the memory of the great love God has shown us.

He also goes on to state:

This holy season of Advent teaches us that Christ’s coming was not only for the benefit of his contemporaries (in history) but that the power of his coming has to be communicated to us all ( most especially in our present day) …

As Christians we are called to share in this power of His coming through faith.

The Church proclaims this faith in Christ’s coming through the prayers we express, the Scriptures we read, the songs and hymns we sing, in the very rituals and Sacraments we celebrate during this time of preparation.

One important gift of faith which we can receive in Advent and Christmas is a profound sense of gratitude for his presence and thus the need to prepare our hearts for the power of such an event in our lives today. This Christian attitude and disposition to gratitude is most vividly reflected in the role of Mary- the Mother of our Lord.

In the early Church we know that there was a progressive discovery through faith to see the fullness of Mary’s role in God’s plan of salvation history.

Scripture records her role in God’s plan of salvation from the outset as the Mother of our Lord.

In the first two chapters of Matthew’s Gospel he records the infancy of Christ but what is most interesting is that Mary is only named and speaks no words. The birth of our Lord is recorded almost exclusively from the viewpoint and experience of Joseph.

Maria2

In contrast, Luke’s gospel portrays Mary in a much more prominent role.

And thus it is through this inspired narrative that we see the outline of her vocation from God, the Annunciation – the greeting and the message from the angel Gabriel. The stirrings of Mary’s heart and her initial response in faith is that of a question “How can this be?” … then “Let it be done unto me according to your Word.”

The progress of her belief in God’s promises and her confidence to say “ Let it be done according to your Word” is truly inspiring for each Christian who has struggled to answer their vocation call.

Then through prayer and the reflection upon God’s grace at work in her life we see the ultimate response of gratitude: “Mary treasured all of these things and pondered them in her heart.”

In a homily given by John Paul II on the Solemnity of Mary the Mother of God he made the following statement: “Mary was the memory of the Church.”

From the beginning she was fixed on the mystery of this newborn child, that she was attentive to this experience as the mystery of God’s salvation, and that her “fiat,” her yes, progressively unfolded in her life and that thus her memory played an important role in the faith of the Church.

In the Advent season the Church’s memory becomes reflected through the memory of Mary.

To identify with Mary in faith during this season of Advent is to be open to receive what she received.

The first gift was that of a profound sense of gratitude for the warmth of God’s love given to her in Christ. His birth, his coming into this world was to reveal the fullness of God’s love and Mary was the first to believe in this love and to experience it in her life.

In my years of experience as a priest I have always been inspired and humbled by the stories that people have shared with me concerning their lives of faith, which I have encountered countless time through ministry. This sense of profound gratitude for how they have come to experience Christ has been a gift to me. Each story is unique but it is inspiring to see how they have come to the faith through family, parents and grandparents, through teachers at school, in the pastoral care of a parish community, the meeting with a priest or the impact and witness of individuals who live their life with joy because of faith. This gratitude is very evident in those men and women who are moved to inquire about the faith and enter the process of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) through our parishes. If you have ever been involved in this process of inquiry and catechesis in the faith you will see this expression of gratitude. The RCIA program is a process of birth in the Church; it is a symbol and sign of the Incarnation; it is a “Christ event,” a birth of faith.

The second gift that Mary received was the grace of being ready and attentive, of being open to God and the power of this event in her life. This coming of Christ would disrupt her plans, it would challenge her life, the relationships of family and friends, yet through her yes she would begin to see how God had chosen to reveal the Incarnate vision of His Son through her life. This is the grace that each of us receives to respond in truth and freedom to our vocation and calling in life. We are called to model our response of Mary in accepting and choosing our life’s vocation.

I witnessed this vocational gift in my ministry of seminary formation, in the accompaniment of those discerning their call to the priesthood. In a spiritual and communal way it was very evident when the men came together to pray the Rosary at night in the chapel. It was an expression of their devotion to our Blessed Mother but it was a daily time in which they entered into the mystery and the memory of Mary. I could not help but think in my prayer with them that Mary’s model and disposition of accepting her own vocation was being received as grace in such moments.

As Advent unfolds it is my hope that the gifts Mary received may be part of our own preparation and reflection of the coming of Christ in our lives: a gratitude for our faith and an openness to live our vocations in Christ with greater fidelity.

Most Rev. William McGrattan
Bishop of Peterborough

(CNS photo/Mike Crupi, Catholic Courier)
(CNS photo/Bob Roller)

Scripture Scholarship Today

LivingWord

Video of America Magazine and American Bible Society
Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB

As we look back over the sweeping changes in the life of the Church following Vatican II, we can never underestimate the important relation that exists between liturgy and the interpretation of the Bible. This relation is directly linked to the Church fathers who were first and foremost men of prayer, even when they were writing their learned treatises and pursing their theological investigations. They were never far from the Church’s worship. In the liturgy they came to know Christ not so much as a historical figure from the past, but as a living person present in the Eucharist. When they opened their Bibles they discovered this same Christ not only in the writings of the evangelists and St. Paul but also in the Old Testament. In the liturgy the words of the Scripture are alive and filled with the mystery of Christ.

The Church and the Word of God are inseparably linked. The Church lives on the Word of God and the Word of God echoes through the Church, in her teaching and throughout her life (cf. “Dei Verbum,” n. 8).

It is accurate to say that the Bible provided a lexicon of words for Christian speech and the liturgy a grammar of how they are to be used. This must always be a guiding principle in our own efforts to make God’s Word come alive for the Church today. If we read biblical texts and teach them only for their historical and philological accuracy or inaccuracy, we fail to read the Bible as a book of faith that is the privileged possession of a living, breathing, praying community. We forget that the Bible is more like a library than a single book.

In spite of its many accomplishments, a strictly historical approach to the Bible can only give us a medley of documents from different times and places in the ancient world. It cannot give us the book of the Church, the Scriptures as heard by Christians for centuries, the psalms imprinted on the Church‚s soul, the words and images that bear witness to the Trinity.

The key to biblical criticism is the recognition that, while the Scriptures are the word of God, they do not escape the limitations of history. It is not surprising that since then that several generations of Catholic biblical scholars has devoted themselves to catching up. Nor is it surprising that there have been excesses and criticisms along the way. The question is to what extent scientific methods of Scripture study should be used, as opposed to a more spiritual reading of the Bible. As one who has taught Scripture for many years, nothing that can help us understand the Biblical text should be excluded, just as long as we keep clear what the purpose of the different approaches are, and what their limits are as well.

How can we make Scripture once again the ‘soul of theology’ and bridge this growing divide between those who study scripture, those who teach theology, and those who are preparing for ministry in the Roman Catholic Church? How can the hearts of our students and pastoral ministers, and the faithful to whom they will minister, be set on fire by the Risen Lord who begs people to touch the text of his words?

I would like to suggest three ways to move beyond the impasse, and offer two examples of great Scripture scholars of our time who integrated the historical-critical method and their Catholic faith in remarkable ways.

Actualization

The ‘Interpretation of the Bible in the Church,’ a major document of the Pontifical Biblical Commission from 1993 emphasized the historical-critical method and accorded it primacy of place among the different methods and approaches discussed. The commission called this method ‘indispensable’ and insisted that the proper understanding of the Bible ‘not only admits the use of this method but actually requires it.’ But this important Vatican document also speaks of the importance of ‘actualization,’ a term that is new to church documents on Scripture. This term, transposed from the original French text, comes from actualiser, meaning ‘to make present to today.’

To realize the potential of actualizing the word, however, requires a change of attitude and reconsideration of the biblical formation we are presently offering in our seminaries, Faculties of Theology and universities. Actualization is necessary because biblical texts were composed in response to past circumstances and in a language conditioned by the time of their composition. Interpreting Scripture for today must not be a matter of projecting opinions or ideologies on the text, ‘but of sincerely seeking to discover what the text has to say at the present time.’ Actualization, unlike strict historical-critical exegesis, demands personal faith as a prerequisite and concerns itself with the religious meaning of the Bible. According to the commission, ‘the Church depends on exegetes, animated by the same Spirit as inspired Scripture.’

Lectio Divina

Another way of moving beyond the impasse is to rediscover the art of Lectio divina, ‘divine or holy reading,’ the continuous reading of all the Scriptures, in which each book and each section of it is successively read, studied and meditated on, understood and savoured by having recourse to the whole of biblical revelation, Old and New Testament. Thanks to this simple adherence to and humble respect for the whole biblical text, Lectio divina is an exercise in total and unconditional obedience to God who is speaking to human beings who are listening attentively to the Word.

Lectio divina does not select passages suited to themes and subjects already previously chosen with a view to needs or tastes already felt or noticed by the reader or the community engaged in the reading. It does not adopt the method of ‘biblical themes’ but prefers to keep away from any theological picking and choosing from the message of the Bible. It starts with the Word of God and follows it step by step from beginning to end. Lectio divina presupposes and takes seriously the unity of all the Scriptures.

The point of departure of Lectio Divina is ‘wonderment,’ a spirit which is accompanied by listening, silence, adoration of the divine mystery and placing oneself in front of Scripture as the Word of God. It is an ideal from which we are very far removed. Current methods of teaching Scripture do not encourage wonderment, reverence, listening, silence and adoration of the mystery of God and his divine communication with human beings.

The secret of the success of using Lectio Divina lies in the fact that we do not offer students, parishioners, young adults a philological lexicon, a catechism lesson or even a homily but rather the necessary means for them to put themselves face to face with the text so that they can try out lectio divina for themselves. Lectio divina prepares us for an encounter with the living Lord.

Experiencing the Holy Land: the Fifth Gospel

A final suggestion of moving beyond the impasse in contemporary Scripture teaching is to offer the Holy Land as a backdrop and stage for the Biblical story. It is essential to tell the biblical story in the context of a long pilgrimage against the background of the Holy Land. It is even more important to go to the land and let it speak. The Holy Land is the Fifth Gospel, the key to understanding the other four!

The psalmist praises those whose hearts are ‘set on pilgrim roads’ (Ps. 84:5). We who are entrusted with the ministry of teaching and preaching Scripture must help others to prepare themselves to make the journey ‘as pilgrims.’ Tourists pass quickly through places, but the places pass slowly through pilgrims, leaving them forever changed. Teaching the Scriptures without reference to the Holy Land, or without fostering, encouraging, and, when possible, leading others to visit it, is to tell only part of the story of the Bible.

All of the best biblical renewal programs in the world, the most eloquent Vatican documents, vision statements, and even the most current analyses of the future of the church can never substitute for the hope, power and strength of the Word of God in our individual and communal Christian lives. Documents, statements and catechisms might never renew us, but the Word of God, especially experienced in its natural habitat will.

Contemporary Scripture studies have been a great blessing to the academy and the Church. I would like to pay tribute to two remarkable individuals known to all of us, and who were good friends, professors and mentors to me. The late Passionist Fr. Carroll Stuhlmueller, C.P. and the Sulpician Fr. Raymond Brown, S.S. In Frs. Stuhlmueller and Brown I observed three outstanding qualities at work, which may be instructive for other pastoral ministers and students of Scripture in their own biblical research, teaching and preaching.

First was their ability to present the Bible in an accessible way, as a ‘user-friendly’ book or library. Both men often recounted basic principles they learned in their youth: ‘Read the Bible as we would listen to a friend.’ Reading as a listener implies an openness to hear what is being said and an attitude of expectancy; listening as to a friend implies a large measure of confidence that the message will ultimately be a helpful guide for living, and sometimes for specific situations. Of course, one listens to a friend critically, that is, with the full use of one’s faculties, education and experience. By the same token, in the Catholic tradition, one never undertakes Scripture studies to master or criticize the Word, but to be mastered and criticized by it. There is a way in which we must allow the Word of God to read us.

Second was their ability to present the Biblical story as a pilgrimage, a set of stories for the long haul. How well I can still hear Fr. Stuhlmueller saying these words on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, or sitting by the lake in Galilee as we directed Scriptural renewal programs for priests and pastoral ministers in the Holy Land! After all, what is the story of our salvation if not the passage from the Paradise Lost in Genesis to the Paradise found, and symbolized beautifully, in the New Jerusalem of John’s wild dream in Revelation?

Third is the ability to see how Scripture is vivified in prayer and liturgy. For it is in the silent adoration of prayer and in the congregation’s act of worship in liturgy that the Bible comes alive. Liturgy reveals the fruits of scholarship. Hence, we must ask ourselves if our teaching and preaching leads others into celebration, prayer and adoration of the Lord of history? Or has our reliance on scientific methods and writings only compounded the confusion already found in the world?

May Fathers Stuhlmueller and Brown intercede for each of us as we study and pray God’s life-giving Word. And may our hearts be set on fire by the Risen Lord who begs us to touch the text of his words.

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)