Fourth Sunday: the Beatitudes

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

This Sunday we read the Beatitudes.  To make brief comments is hopeless.  We need to memorize them, ponder them one at a time – perhaps one each day.  We need to spend time thinking about their path of upward ascent, taken all together.  We need to read books about them, ponder them, make them our rule of life.

Here I will only try to put them in context.


We have come to the fourth week in Ordinary Time, in the Lectionary year of St. Matthew.  The Beatitudes are Matthew 5:1-12, the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount and the beginning of the preaching of Jesus.

Consider how few words he has spoken up till now.  Chapters one to two were the infancy.  Luke gives the child Jesus a few words, when he is found in the temple, but in Matthew it is all the actions of Joseph.

Chapter three is John the Baptist.  Jesus only says John should baptize him, “to fulfill all righteousness.”  Righteousness.

Chapter four is the Temptation followed by the call of the first disciples (our reading last week).  Jesus has three words at the Temptation: “not by bread alone, but by every word from the mouth of God”; “do not test the Lord”; “you shall worship the Lord alone, him only shall you serve.”  Again, righteousness, with a deeper sense of following.

In the rest of chapter four, his only words are to Peter and Andrew: “come, follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.”  Our path of righteousness is moving deeper into radical union with Christ.

After the calling of Peter and Andrew, James and John, we read that he went around Galilee preaching and healing.  The Lectionary skips the last two verses of the chapter, which say his fame spread, and great multitudes came to follow him, from all over.


Sermon on the Mount, Fra Angelico

And so we come to the Beatitudes.  Jesus goes up the mountain, and his disciples come to him.  Disciple only means “learner.”  All those multitudes “followed him” with the same verb by which Jesus commanded Peter and Andrew, “follow me,” “and they followed him.”  He is not stepping away from the crowds.  He is going up where he can teach to them.

My point in reviewing all this background is to underline how central to Jesus’s mission are the Beatitudes, and the Sermon on the Mount, which they begin.  He has said nothing but “follow me.”  Now, at last, he opens his mouth and teaches.  (Matthew’s Gospel is the Gospel of Jesus’s teaching, organized in five great sermons.)

And Jesus says – his very first real teaching, about the righteousness and following and word of God that he had proclaimed – “Blessed are the poor in spirit.”  Not a side point.  The heart of the Gospel.

Poor, men of sorrows, meek, hungering for justice, merciful, pure of heart, peacemakers, and persecuted.  He describes himself, and he calls us to come follow him.

Living for the kingdom of heaven and the consolation of the Spirit and the inheritance, and justice and mercy, and the vision of God and sonship.


Our first reading, from the prophet Zephaniah, tells those “who have observed the law,” “seek the Lord.”  He speaks of a transition, a deepening.  We must observe the Law, but we must go deeper: “Lord, I have done all this,” says the rich young man in Luke’s Gospel, “what more?”  “Come, follow me.”  We must live for nothing but Jesus.  We must put on Jesus, poor, man of sorrows, meek, hungering for justice, merciful, pure of heart, peacemaker, and persecuted.

We must become “a people humble and lowly.” 

And we must “take refuge in the name of the Lord”: “the name of the Lord” is an Old Testament expression for God’s self-revelation.  We want nothing but to know Christ, and him crucified, and to put on his image, in the Beatitudes.  Sacred heart of Jesus, make our hearts like unto thine!  That’s the Gospel.


Our next reading from First Corinthians further emphasizes the “humble and lowly”.  God chose us – and Paul’s point is that he chose us not for our greatness but for his, not because we are powerful and wise and awesome but because he is.  He chose us not so we can boast, but to destroy our boasting.

And he made Jesus our wisdom from God, our righteousness, our sanctification, our redemption, and

The Stigmata of St. Francis

our only boast.

Humility means knowing that it is only in Jesus that we find greatness.  Humility means knowing that the way of Jesus, the self-portrait he paints in the Beatitudes, is a way of humility.  And humility means knowing that the Beatitudes are not only a way we would never guess unless he revealed it to us, but also a way we could never live unless he gives us his heart.

How are the Beatitudes calling you to deeper humility?

Third Sunday in Ordinary Time: Jesus at the Margins

After the Baptism of the Lord and the second Sunday (John’s commentary on the Baptism), this past, third Sunday we began Matthew’s Gospel in earnest.  Matthew 1-2 is the infancy, with the exile to Egypt

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

and the return to Nazareth.  Matthew 3 is John the Baptist and the Baptism of Jesus.  Matthew 4:1-11 is the temptation in the desert.

This week we launch in at Matthew 4:12, beginning a year of working through that great Gospel: “When Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee.”


There is much in that word “withdrew.”  The Greek means something like “went back.”  But the key to the word is the context.

We learned in the story of the Baptism that “Jesus came from Galilee” to meet John, who was “preaching in the wilderness of Judea,” at the Jordan.  Now, Judea is where Jerusalem is, and if he was at the Jordan River, that means he was some place between Jericho and the Dead Sea, less than twenty miles from the big city.  John was in the wilderness – but he was in the wilderness near where the action was.

It’s not surprising, then, that the Scribes and the Pharisees were there: “Jerusalem and all Judea went out to him.”  And it’s not surprising that John was thrown in prison – later in the Gospel we’ll learn of his feud with the king himself.  John was where the action was.


But Jesus “went back” to Galilee, in the North.  In our reading, we hear about that city in a quotation from Isaiah – and our first reading encourages us to dig deeper into that passage.

We might think Jesus was just going north to avoid arrest, but Isaiah gives us more.  He went to “Galilee of the Gentiles”; Galilee was on the borderlands of Israel, where the non-Jews were.  The old lands of the tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali are on the far margins.  It is “the way to the sea,” where there is traffic, but not Jewish traffic, not the important people.

Isaiah says these are the lands of “the people who sit in darkness . . . in a land overshadowed by death.”  But he says too that those lands “have seen a great light,” that God brings them “abundant joy and great rejoicing.”

In Matthew’s rereading of that text (and when the liturgy encourages us to dwell on it) we find Galilee as a special place of mission for Jesus.

Jesus is on the edge of nowhere – but he is there to fulfill the prophecies, and to bring light.  He is there on mission.

Jesus could have stayed in the heartlands of Judea and kept quiet.  Instead, he goes to the margins and proclaims, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”  Jesus isn’t avoiding trouble, he’s going on mission.  Notice the parallel to Luke, where Jesus starts his mission by proclaiming, “He has anointed me to preach Good News to the poor.”


The pattern is repeated in the calling of Andrew and Peter, John and James.  On the one hand, Jesus goes to the nobodies.  There would have been better candidates in the synagogues, or in the Temple, or in the Big City.  Today, we would go to media and university elites, people with influence.  Instead, Jesus goes to nobodies, the poor, the laborers.

But he calls them to follow him, and equips them for mission.  Right from the outset, from the very first words about these fishermen, we hear that Simon will be called Peter, the rock.  Jesus isn’t among the nobodies to avoid trouble.  He is there to stir up trouble.  He takes mission seriously enough to go to the margins.

“Fishers of men” sounds nice in English, partly because of the alliteration with “fishermen”.  But in Greek, the word for “fishermen” is derived from the word from salt – more like “salties”; the primary meaning is “sailor,” and it is fisherman by extension.  “Salties of men” doesn’t sound impressive.  But he chooses those laborers, those poor men, as the ones who know what salvation means.


At the beginning of the year, our Epistles are from First Corinthians.  The connection isn’t obvious: St. Paul is talking about division in the Church.  He says they ought to “be united in the same mind and in the same purpose.”  He was not sent to baptize but to preach the Gospel.

Alongside our Gospel, we can say this: the poverty and insignificance of Galilee and the salties reminds us to see no one but Jesus.  We must follow him – all the way to the margins – and focus on nothing else.

And so too, we must focus, not on the elite, but on the weak, “not with the wisdom of human eloquence, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its meaning.”

Where is Christ calling you to the margins, to the nobodies?  How are you tempted instead to seek the places of power?

Learning to Read (Aloud)

jeromeI’m not an expert on many things, but in one area I can count myself proficient: reading aloud.

I have five children (and another on the way).  My oldest is twelve now, and for various reasons has always been above average at listening to books.  From the time he was three continuing until now, he has loved to listen to chapter books.  So for almost ten years, with an ever growing audience, with always diverse ability levels, I have been reading halfway serious children’s literature (Arthur Ransome, Tolkien, Lewis, MacDonald, Laura Ingalls Wilder, etc.) aloud to my children.

That’s not to mention, of course, the myriad picture books.  But here’s the thing: pictures carry much of the weight in picture books, and the easier story lines and great repetition don’t require as much from the reader.  Whereas getting kids of all ages to understand and stay engaged in a semi-complicated story without pictures means you have to make the words come alive.

I hope you’re seeing where I’m going with this: the same is true of the liturgy.


Now, I know there are readers famous for their fun voices for different characters, but I don’t think that’s the key to reading literature aloud.  In fact, my children get angry with me when I do voices – partly, to be sure, because I’m not much good at them, but partly because voices get in the way of the story.  What makes a great story great is not the voices, which aren’t on the page anyway.  What makes it great are the words.

vespersMy insight, at this point, is that the real key to reading is pauses and, even more, emphasis, at the right places.  You have to understand what you’re reading, you have to see how the words come together to form small and big units, and you have to make that come across to someone who is listening, half distracted, not as experienced as you, and unable to look back to the page if she missed something.

Consider the following:

“He ran until he nearly reached the hedge by the footpath, then turned and ran until he nearly reached the hedge on the other side of the field.  Then he turned and crossed the field again.”

Now, in these two sentences, at the beginning of a great series of books on sailing, we are introduced to the pivotal concept of tacking.  But at this point, the listener knows nothing about the topic and doesn’t yet know if the book is interesting or understandable – and meanwhile, we’re also learning about hedges and footpaths and fields, all of which are also foreign (at least to my non-British, city kids) and which are painting a background.

The key, again, is pauses and especially emphasis:

“He ran .. until he nearly reached the hedge by the footpath, … then turned … and ran until he nearly reached the hedge .. on the OTHER side of the field….  Then he turned and crossed the field AGAIN.”

It’s an art.  I find that in order to emphasize a phrase, you emphasize not the most important word of the phrase, but the word that kind of ties the phrase together: it’s not, for example, that “nearly” is that important of a word, so much as that “nearly-reached” is the key to seeing him use the maximum of the space.  Then somehow you have to make clear that the-hedge-by-the-footpath is not a series of details, but one key part of his path.


A few months ago I was discussing Gregorian chant with an uncommonly excellent group of students.  Graduale_Aboense_2They said what’s great about Gregorian chant is that it creates a kind of monotone, so that you don’t have to pay attention to the speaker.  I was shocked that they’d get it so wrong, but I think it’s a common misconception.

What’s great about Gregorian chant (Leila Lawler’s lovely book The Little Oratory has a nice section on this) is precisely that it cares about the text.  Chant – when it’s done right – is all about loving the text, discovering the text, saying the text like you mean it.  And the same thing must happen with the readings and prayers of the Mass, whether chanted or spoken: like a father reading to his five-year-old, you’ve got to make the text come alive, both for your own sake and for theirs.  If there aren’t pauses in the right places, you’re doing it wrong.

We have a lot to learn about this.  There seem to be methods of teaching people to “read well” that involve hand gestures and voices and eye contact – but not the text.  That’s wrong.  And there are various forms of music, even common interpretations of chant, that are just as bad, monotones that obliterate the text instead of discovering it.

We need to learn to read aloud.  Which means we first need to learn to read.

How are you growing in your understanding of Scripture?

Second Sunday of Ordinary Time: The Lord the Giver of Life

This Sunday we enter Ordinary Time.  With Christmas on a Sunday, Epiphany ended up bumping the Baptism of the Lord, normally the first Sunday of Ordinary Time, to Monday of this past week.

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

Each year of the three-year cycle, the reading for Baptism of the Lord is from the year’s Gospel – this year, Matthew.  But the second Sunday lingers a little longer on the beginning of Jesus’s ministry by giving us a reading from the beginning of John.  The third Sunday then goes back to the year’s Gospel, with whatever story immediately follows Jesus’s temptation in the desert.  (The desert, of course, is saved for Lent.)

Meanwhile, the Epistle at the beginning of each year is First Corinthians, Paul’s letter on the sacramentality of the Church.  This year we’ll get selections from chapters 1-4, next year 5-10, and in year C, 12-15.


Let’s focus on the Gospel reading.

John’s Gospel is like a theological commentary on the others, a deeper insight into what’s going on.  On Monday, we read that (the other) John baptized Jesus.  Here, John gives Jesus three titles:

“The Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.”

“Who ranks ahead of me because he existed before me.”

“On whom the Spirit comes down and remains, he is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.”


Jesus is the Lamb of God.  Now, John came with a baptism of repentance, a symbolic pledge that we want to leave behind our sins.  But Jesus really takes away our sins.  And he takes away our sins not as a Baptizer but as a Lamb.  Jesus will make the perfect sacrifice.  Jesus’s baptism sets us free from sin because it plunges us into that perfect sacrifice; it is a union with the Cross of Christ.

The Lamb is a figure not of Baptism but of the Eucharist.  The Baptism of Jesus “washes away” our sins because it is our initiation into the Eucharistic Church.  Only Jesus can open the sacramental door that gives us access to the Most Blessed Sacrament.

Sin is an absence, a lack of love.  He takes away the sin of the world by filling us with his love.


Jesus is greater than John because he existed before John.  Jesus is the I AM, the eternal, God from God, light from light.  John’s Gospel doesn’t mess around: at the beginning, he professes that Jesus is “in the beginning.”Divine-Mercy

John – both Johns – always remind us that our union with God is not by our own effort, not by our blood (that is, by birthright), nor by the will of the flesh, nor by the will of man – and not because in Baptism we make a pledge that we’ll try harder.  Union with God is a gift from God.  Only he who was in the beginning can fulfill this pledge.

When John says Jesus is the Lamb, he speaks about Jesus himself.  When he says he was “before me,” he speaks about Jesus’s union with the Father.


And then he tells us about his union with the Holy Spirit: The Spirit descends on him, remains on him, and so he baptizes with the Spirit.

Only the one who has the Spirit can give us the Spirit.  And the Holy Spirit that Jesus gives us, the Spirit that fills all seven sacraments, is the Spirit of Jesus himself, and of the Father.  We receive the Spirit of the Lamb, the heart of the Crucified.  We receive the Spirit of union, the love between Father and Son.

John’s Gospel takes us deep into theology.  Jesus is no mere preacher.  John the Baptist is there, in fact, largely as a contrast, to remind us of the difference between someone who can only talk and offer symbols, and Jesus who is very God.


Dwelling in this Gospel, then, we see the meaning of the other two readings.  In the brief introductory verses of First Corinthians, we read that we are “sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be holy” – called to be holy only because we have been made holy by Christ, who pours his life into us in the sacraments.

good-shepherd-2And in our first reading, from Isaiah, we see on many levels what it means to be God’s servant.  Jesus is God’s servant, John is Jesus’s servant, and so too are we.  The servant is the one “through whom I show my glory”: it is the glory of God that shines on the face of Christ, and it is only Christ’s glory that can shine on the face of the saints.

We become a light to the nations, who can call back God’s beloved people – “to raise up the tribes of Jacob” – only when first we let Jesus, crucified Lamb of God, in the beginning with the Father, giver of the Holy Spirit, pour his life into us through the sacraments.

What do you need to do to more fully draw your life from Jesus?

Epiphany and the City of God

Next Sunday we celebrate the Epiphany of our Lord.  At Christmas we talked about Jesus appearing; in the East, this feast of Christ appearing to the Magi is the main celebration of Christmas.

As it happens, I am writing from the mountains of North Carolina, where I am on vacation with my extended family – and where, at the Tractor Supply and elsewhere, I’ve heard a lot more couAll-Saintsntry music than one finds in urban north New Jersey.  

I heard a song that helps (by contrast) to illustrate the meaning of our feast.  The chorus says, “Lord, when I die, I wanna live on the outskirts of heaven.”  He explicitly contrasts the “streets of gold” in the Biblical vision of heaven with his own vision: “there’s dirt roads for miles, hay in the fields, and fish in the river.”  It’s country-music fun, but it’s also an attractive image.

Now, before I say why it’s wrong, let me acknowledge: we should long for a world in harmony with nature, unstained by human destructiveness, and a cozier home, where everyone knows and loves one another, and no one is treated like a statistic.  There’s something right about this vision of heaven.


But it’s not the Biblical vision, which is the heart of our feast’s first reading.  “Rise up in splendor, Jerusalem! . . . Nations shall walk by your light, and kings by your shining radiance.  Raise your eyes and look about; they all gather and come to you.”

When the kings come to see the king of kings in Bethlehem, the Liturgy turns to the image of Jerusalem as capital city of the world.  God began his heavenly city in Jerusalem, and gradually calls all nations into that city.  The Church is a city.  Heaven is a city, the new Jerusalem: yes, with gates and streets (pearly gates and streets of gold) – and throngs of people.  Heaven ain’t in the country.

When Jerusalem is filled with throngs, “then you shall be radiant at what you see, your heart shall throb and overthrow” – not because of the gold and pearls, but because of the beauty of humanity, gathered together into the great kingdom.

That country song concludes, “the good Lord knows me, he knows I need blue skies and green grass forever.”  But that’s not the way the good Lord works.  He doesn’t change heaven to fit our earthly desires.  He changes our hearts to love the true heaven.  That’s what grace means.


The reading from Ephesians focuses on the gentiles coming in.  At Epiphany we see that Jesus is king not just of the Jews but of all the nations, which the kings personify.  “It has now been revealed . . . that the Gentiles are coheirs.”

The reading has two heavenly-city themes.  The first is immigration.  The Gentiles are “coheirs, members of the same body, and copartners in the promise.”  In the Greek the parallels are stronger: co-heirs, co-body, co-participants.  

The first image here is of family: heirs.  It insults our sensibilities to think of new people joining “our” family.  And it’s even more insulting when we think about inheritance: if we share, there won’t be enough!  But that’s just the point: God’s family is unlimited, because God’s riches are unlimited.  I lose nothing by sharing.  Country roads are ruined by too many neighbors, but the city of God is not.  

The second image is “body” – both the physical body and the “body politic”.  The city is a body, where we find ourselves as “parts.”  We rebel against the earthly city, because it always abuses its parts – but the heavenly city is one where we want to be parts.11_1_3_saints  

And the third image is general, metaphysical: “participant.”  We all fully enjoy our place, participating in the heavenly city.


The second city theme in our reading from Ephesians is of leadership.  Paul has been given “the stewardship of God’s grace, that was given to me for your benefit.”  “The mystery was made known to me for revelation” – we hear it through him.  Grace and revelation are given “to his holy prophets and apostles.”

We don’t come to God just as individuals, each on our own path.  Authority in the Church is precisely an indicator that we come as members of one body.  Knowing God and coming to Jerusalem are one and the same.  Deeper than sacramental authority, deeper than infallibility, Church authority is a sign of the unity of the body of Christ.


The Gospel plays it all out dramatically.

The earthly Bethlehem and Jerusalem, quite near one another, were the two cities of David, the king who was born in Bethlehem and would Jerusalem.  For both the earthly Jerusalem and the heavenly, Bethlehem is a little town and the seed of the big city.

ascensionWhen the kings came, “They saw the child with Mary his mother.”  Here is the beginning of the city: Mary and Jesus cheek to cheek.  Yes, it is a cozy, homey image.  But in that image of human closeness begins the streams of all nations, gathered together by closeness to God incarnate.

How does your vision of heaven correspond – or not – to the Biblical one?  And how does that affect your life?