Third Sunday of Lent: Meeting Jesus at the Waters

The first two Sundays of Lent we read the Temptation in the Desert and the Transfiguration, which for many centuries have set the tone for the season.  But for the next three Sundays, the revision of the Lectionary after Vatican II has rediscovered readings that the early Church used for people preparing for Baptism at Easter.  (These readings are mandated for this year, Year A; they are optional for Years B and C.)

Searching the Scriptures

We rediscover the true meaning of Easter and Lent.  Every Sunday we celebrate the Resurrection – but originally, Easter added to that a celebration of new Christians being plunged into Christ’s Death and Resurrection.  Easter is about Baptism.  Lent is about the preparation for Baptism.  And though at first, Lent was just for the catechumens, we all enter into their preparation – we all become catechumens, we all rediscover our need to be plunged into the waters of Christ at Easter.

The Old Testament readings for Lent give a quick overview of the history of God’s People before Christ – a catechumenate people, preparing to be plunged into Christ.  This year, those readings are Adam and Eve, the promise to Abraham, the Exodus in the desert, the choosing of David, and Ezekiel’s dry bones in the desert: all awaiting Easter.

The Gospel readings for these three weeks, from John, are the woman at the well, the man born blind, and the raising of Lazarus.  Each of them speaks of how we long to be plunged into Christ.

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This week’s Gospel, the woman at the well, is long.  The drama is exquisite, and I can write nothing to compare with hearing that story in its entirety.  Here I only point out some parallels to Lent.

The disciples are gone, allowing the woman to be alone with Jesus.  The intimacy is exquisite.  And we come to this desert of Lent to be alone with Jesus.

He speaks to her, enters into her daily life, even her prejudice and ignorance.  In this intimate time, Christ comes to meet us.

And when he does, he confronts her sin, her many husbands.  Pope Francis speaks of the kiss of Christ’s mercy on our sin.  In the desert of Lent, when the emptiness of our fasting meets the weak but real love of prayer and almsgiving, our sin is laid bare; but Christ is so near that rather than fear, we delight in his intimacy.  Search me and know me!

From talk of sin, he moves to talk about true worship: “You Jews worship in Jerusalem,” she says.  Jesus takes her beyond talk of externals: “true worshipers will worship the Father in Spirit and truth.”  In Lent we discover that worship is in the heart, and so it is about truth – the truth, for example, of our own moral state.  We need this time of silence to get to the heart.

Meeting Jesus

And then she goes into the town to tell her friends.  And we find that the roots of true mission are not in programs or training – this woman doesn’t come across as a brilliant talker – but in personal knowledge of Jesus.  She can speak of him, draw others to him, because she has been near him.  The only true source of evangelization is this encounter in Lent.

John repeats the point about evangelization.  When the disciples come, he says, “My food is to do the will of the one who sent me and to finish his work.”  It is John’s gloss on “Man does not live by bread alone.”  We fast, and learn that there is a deeper food that we need.  We need Jesus in our hearts – and we need to go forth.

And so the disciples, too, are sent into the fields to reap the harvest, based not on their genius, but on the work of Jesus in their hearts and in the world.

***

The other two readings give us a more practical and then a more spiritual take on this encounter at the well.

In the reading from Exodus, the Israelites complain, “Why did you ever make us leave Egypt?  Was it just to have us die here of thirst?”  Moses too complains, “What shall I do with this people?”

Really they ask, is the Lord in our midst or not?  But Jesus gives them to drink.  Just as he teaches the woman at the well through physical thirst, so he teaches them through a cup of cold water that yes, he

The Well of Mercy

cares for them.

But in the reading from Romans, we discover that the true fountain, the true living water, is not bodily, but spiritual.  “Because the love of God has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” Poured out from the pierced heart of Jesus, who “while we were still helpless, died at the appointed time for the ungodly.”

Mercy pours from his merciful heart.  These are the true living waters, the true refreshment for our souls, in this desert of Lent and in the baptismal waters of Easter.

Into what new intimacy is this Lent leading you?

Eighth Sunday: To Call Jesus Lord

A student recently asked me about St. Francis of Assisi.  Are we all called to be like him?  Or is that just a crazy vocation for one strange person in a strange, distant time?

Cimabue’s St. Francis

Well, the first thing to say is what another former student recently wrote to me: I am not called to be St. Francis, I am called to be St. ____.  In that sense, no, we are not called to be like Francis.  But we are called to be saints.

Vatican II declared the “universal call to holiness” just about the time that the American church was drifting into assimilated suburban comfort.  In that context, the call got sort of retranslated into a “universal proclamation of holiness,” as if Vatican II said everything is fine, whatever.  Actually, Vatican II said the exact opposite – and the tendency of our culture to ignore that call of the Council shows how important it was.  You and I are called not to assimilated suburban comfort, but to sanctity – yes, as radical as St. Francis.

***

Last Sunday we finished our reading of every verse in Matthew 5, the first chapter of the Sermon on the Mount.  The Lectionary finishes the Sermon by reading just the final verses of chapters 6 and 7, one Sunday for each.  With the location of Ash Wednesday this year, we won’t get to chapter seven until after Pentecost.

But the reading from chapter 6 is perfect for this last Sunday before Lent.  The first half of Matthew 6 is about almsgiving, prayer (with the Our Father), and fasting, the three practices of Lent; several of those verses are the annual reading for Ash Wednesday.  But the second half of the chapter explains the point of those practices, with six verses on laying up treasures in heaven and ten verses on worry.  The Lectionary’s summary of this chapter gives us the last verse on treasures in heaven and all the verses on worry, in a way that perfectly shows how the whole chapter hangs together.

***

“No one can serve two masters,” says Jesus, at the beginning of our reading.  The key is in lordship: it’s not that money is evil, it’s that money is an evil master.

He adds a line that can be overlooked as dull repetition: “He will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despire the other.”  The point is, sometimes you actively hate the thing that isn’t your

Crucified with Christ

master – sometimes, if money is your master, you hate God – but sometimes you just “despise,” or under-value, the one who isn’t your master.  Sometimes, that is, it’s more insidious than hate: we might not hate God, but our love of money can make us treat him with contempt.  Be careful.

This verse introduces the verses about worry, with their famously Franciscan lines about the birds in the sky and the wild flowers.  Jesus says God cares for them, and we should have confidence that God will care for us.  I am sure I’m not the only one who has had a priest directly contradict these verses, directly tell me that we shouldn’t be like crazy St. Francis and just assume God will take care of us, we have to be hard-nosed and worry about money.

Friends, I think this tendency to reject the direct teaching of Jesus is a disease, a heresy that threatens the American church to its core.

***

Now, Jesus doesn’t say you shouldn’t work for a living – even Francis went out begging.  But he does say you should be careful who your “master” is, and what you “worry” about.  He doesn’t say you shouldn’t seek your meal, but he does say, “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.”

The chapter (and our reading) ends with a verse that seems out of character, after all this happy stuff about lilies of the field: “sufficient for a day is its own evil.”  This verse has a clue for how to read the whole chapter.  This “evil” really is the word for evil, not just deprivation, like a couple weeks ago.  Each day has evil to be battled.

Temptation

What is the evil?  It is the very real temptation to make money our master, to worry more about food and clothes than about God and righteousness, to think that if we don’t outright hate God, then we don’t need to worry about despising, or undervaluing, him.

We don’t worry about this temptation enough.  But Jesus sees it as a major threat, and he hits it hard, here and elsewhere.  Every day, make sure you are more worried about calling Jesus Lord than about how much money is in your bank account.  That’s why we have Lent, with its threefold call to prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.

***

Our short reading from Isaiah reminds us that God is our Father.  Seek his kingdom and his righteousness, and you really will have everything.  The secret of St. Francis was his trust in the providence of God the Father.

Nothing but Jesus

Our reading from First Corinthians puts the same thing in more dire terms.  Our job in this world is not to lay up treasure on earth, but to steward our goods for Christ – and we should worry, above all, about

how Jesus will judge us on his return (he says it will be how we feed the hungry, not how big a house we owned).

Seek first the kingdom, and take seriously how easily our American values can get in the way of the Lordship of Jesus.

What part of your life demands clearer priorities?

 

 

Seventh Sunday: Perfect Love

This Sunday we complete Matthew 5, the first chapter of the Sermon on the Mount.  Although the Lectionary will only give us parts of the next two chapters, we get every verse of Matthew 5.  It is exquisite.

Searching the Scriptures

Our readings start with God saying in Leviticus, “Be holy, for I, the Lord, your God, am holy.”  Our Gospel concludes, “Be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  The key is in our second reading, where St. Paul says, “Do you not know that you are the temple of God?”  God dwells in us, and so we share in his holiness.

***

It is important to see the continuity between Leviticus and the Gospel.  Last week Jesus said, “I have come not to abolish the law or the prophets . . . but to fulfill.”  This week we are tempted to doubt that claim.

Our reading begins, “You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.”  The second half begins, “You have heard that it was said, You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.”  We get the idea that the Old Testament is all about vengeance, and Jesus has come to abolish it.

To the contrary, the Old Testament took us half way.  Eye for an eye was not an encouragement to poke people’s eyes out.  It meant, if someone pokes out your eye, you’re not allowed to kill his whole family in retaliation; and if no one has poked your eye out, you oughtn’t to poke out anyone else’s.  These laws from Leviticus are not an encouragement to retaliation, but a restraint on it.

So too, this week’s reading from Leviticus reminds us that the main teaching of the Old Law was “love your neighbor” – it just didn’t extend that love to the enemy.  “Take no revenge and cherish no grudge against any of your people,” we will hear.  “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

***

But Jesus goes much further: “turn the other cheek.”  He goes so far that we are tempted to think he is

Crucified with Christ

merely exaggerating.

The heart of the matter is in his first response: “But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil.”  Can he really mean that?

Now, Greek has three words for evil.  One is inherent wickedness.  The second is degeneracy – falling into inherent wickedness.  But the word here focuses not on the evil of the person himself, but on his effect.  Jesus does not say, “Let the wicked person be wicked.”  What he says is, “when someone, or even some thing, deprives you, let it go.”

The same word appears two other important places in the Sermon on the Mount.  It is at the end of the Beatitudes (thus returning us again to that fundamental teaching): Blessed are you when they say all depriving words against you, when their words strip you.

But it is also at the end of the Lord’s Prayer: deliver us from being deprived.  Throughout the Beatitudes, why are we blessed?  Because the one thing the deprivers cannot take from us is God.  And if we have him, we have everything.

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Jesus’s commentary on this “do not resist the depriver” nicely focuses on doubling.  In an eye for an eye, there is balance: his eye, your eye.  But in Jesus, instead of taking his eye, you give him your other one.  If they slap one cheek, let them slap the other.  If they sue you for your tunic, give them your cloak.  If they demand one mile, go two.  Doubling.

And the final doubling: “You have heard it said, You shall love your neighbor . . . .  But I say to you, love your enemies.”  The Old Law took us half way, Jesus takes us all the way.

That’s the real meaning of the last words, “Be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  The Greek word for “perfect” means “all the way to the end.”  Don’t go half way into love.  Go all the way – as God goes all the way.

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And that’s the reason we can go all the way: because God goes all the way.

We always doubt the prudence of what Jesus says.  I’m going to have no cloak!

To lose all and have Jesus

But in this week’s reading from First Corinthians, St. Paul warns us against “the wisdom of this world.”  Hanging on to your cloak won’t get you so far.

The wisdom of God is that “everything belongs to you . . . and you to Christ, and Christ to God.”  We are “the temple of God, and . . . the Spirit of God dwells in you.”  If you have God, why are you fighting over the cloak?  Go all the way, love to the end, let God be your all.

Where do you fight for worldly goods and forget the presence of God?  How do you live the wisdom of this age?

 

Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time: Greater than the Pharisees

I wonder if what really makes conservative Catholics angry at Pope Francis is that he refuses to pat us on the back.  It’s what liberals love about him, too.  It’s not that he’s nice to them – it’s that he’s tough on us.

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

Similarly, lately it seems to me like almost the central theme of the Gospel, almost more than the identity of Jesus, is his criticism of the Pharisees.

That’s the heart of this Sunday’s next section from the Sermon on the Mount.

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It’s the passage on the fulfilling of the Law: you have heard it said, but I say to you.  Jesus goes through the fifth, sixth, and seventh commandments, and says that beyond not murdering, committing adultery, and breaking our oaths, we should overcome anger, lust, and any kind of untruth.  Ouch.  That’s a tough standard.

But perhaps the heart of the reading is not the fulfilling of the Law but the scourging of the Pharisees: “Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.”  On the one hand, it sounds like they are pretty righteous.  On the other hand, it sure implies that they’re going to Hell.

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The second part of this reading, about adultery, is the most arresting but also the easiest to understand.  Jesus says two things: he condemns divorce, even pleasant, upright, Pharisee divorce.  And he condemns lust.  Ouch.

But that’s not all Jesus opposes.  We could be totally opposed to divorce and still be on the Pharisee side of this debate.

Jesus opposes anger, too.  There’s a sign of how shocking Jesus’s words are in the manuscript tradition.  A long line of Greek texts – including the ones the King James Version used – added the word “idly.”  If you’re angry for no good reason.  But that’s not what it says.

If your brother has something against you and you are bringing your gift to the altar – don’t bother.  Go be reconciled.  The Greek word is tough: not just “smooth it over,” but “change things completely,” before you come back to the Temple.  Ouch.

If you are on your way to court, make a settlement, don’t fight for your rights.  “Otherwise your opponent will hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard,” etc., “until you have paid the last penny.”

Maybe the best way to understand that text is in John’s Gospel.  (John is always recasting these sayings, to take us deeper.)  With the women caught in adultery, Jesus says, “he who is without sin, let him cast the first stone.”

If you want to think of yourself as righteous, go ahead.  But you will stand before the judge, too.  Jesus is not commending adultery.  (Nor is Francis.)  Rather, he is telling us that we need a deeper righteousness than the Pharisees and the stone throwers.

Jesus gives us no high fives, doesn’t tell us we Christians are awesome, unlike those other people.  He tells us to live love all the way to the end.  That means living the commandments, and a lot more besides – he’s not making things easier, he’s making them much harder.  We have to go all the way.

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This week’s reading from First Corinthians reminds us that we live by a higher wisdom, “God’s wisdom, mysterious, hidden.”  It is a wisdom, on the one hand, “for our glory.”  And it is a wisdom, on the other hand, without which “they crucified the Lord of glory.”

Jesus reveals to us his face, his face of righteousness and mercy, his face of the Beatitudes, his face hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, foreign, and imprisoned.  He calls us to take on that face, to put on his wisdom – and most of the time, like Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor, we would rather crucify him than follow that path.  We want a God who pats us on the back, not a God who calls us to glory.

The first reading, from Sirach, presents a simple choice.  “If you choose you can keep the commandments.”  Well!  That sounds Pelagian – but then he says, “If you trust in God, you too shall live.”

Jesus waits to make us holy, to clothe us in his righteousness and mercy.  The awesome challenge of the Sermon on the Mount, to be without anger and lust and untruth, is possible, if only we accept his grace.  But we have to receive it from him, and we can’t be self-righteous Pharisees.

The choice, says Sirach, is fire and water, life and death, good and evil.  Jesus is not messing around.  We can have all – or nothing.  But we must accept the way of the Beatitudes, the fulfillment of the commandments, the whole awesome love of Christ, and him crucified.

At what points do you find yourself stopping to throw stones, instead of following the Beatitudes of Christ?

 

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.”

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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?

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.

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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?

Second Sunday: Come O Wisdom from on High

I have been feeling down.  In my country there is Trump, in the Church there is Cardinal Burke.  In both cases, I am distressed at the opinions being voiced, but I am even more distressed at the bitter conflict, the inability for people to see eye to eye.  Jesus prayed that they may be one, but the world is full of such bitter division.

swaddlingI feel the darkness of December.  But Christ comes in the bleak midwinter, a little child, a tiny flame in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.  The darkness is our reminder to look for the dawn from on high.

***

Our first reading this Sunday is a long one from Isaiah.  We might know it best for the animal imagery: “the wolf shall be a guest of the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid,” etc.  There is an image of peace.

The tradition knows the reading better for its first part: “The spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him: a spirit of wisdom and of understanding,” etc.  Here are the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit.  (The ancient Greek translation finds different shades of meaning in the two lines about “fear of the Lord,” and thus the Latin tradition discovers a gift of “pietas,” or reverence for the Father.)

The key is in the union of these two themes: the wisdom on high is the way – the only way – to peace.

After it tells of the gifts that will rest on the Messiah – and on all of us who are in Christ – it tells of what kind of ruler he will be: “Not by appearance shall he judge . . . but he shall judge the poor with justice . . . . He shall strike the ruthless with the rod of his mouth. . . . Justice shall be the band around his waist.”

Christ the King, the king of kings and the only one who can make kings good, will bring peace because he will see rightly.  Only the wisdom from on high can make peace.

The animal imagery that follows gives symbols of nations.  We need not have particular nations in mind.  The point is, “the root of Jesse” – that is, Jesus, who is not only the son of David, but the source of David – will be “set up as a signal for the nations.”  All nations shall come streaming to Jerusalem, to be ruled by the one Good King.

Nations which could never be at peace – wolf and lamb, leopard and kid, calf and young lion, cow and bear – will be at peace, will be one, when Christ is King, when all are ruled by the wisdom from on high.

***

The reading from Romans teaches the same thing in a different way.  “Whatever was written previously was written for our instruction,” it says, and, “Christ became a minister of the circumcised to show God’s truthfulness.”  The New Testament is confirming the Old Testament, and thus making a deeper point about the Bible as a whole: “by endurance and by the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.”

By faith we will live – faith in God’s word, faith in the wisdom of Jesus.  And when we live by God’s word, we will, “Welcome one another, as Christ welcomed you, for the glory of God.”  In his wisdom is our peace.

***

The Gospel pushes us deeper into the heart of that wisdom.  As we prepare the way for Christmas, we have John the Baptist preparing the way by crying out, “Prepare the way!”

Again, the New Testament quotes the Old (“a voice of one crying out the desert” is Matthew quoting Isaiah), and the Old points to the new: “It was of him that the prophet Isaiah had spoken.”

Hail Mary ImageGod speaks.  He is not silent.  In Scripture we can hear his voice, and it transforms us.

There are two parts of the message.  First is John’s call to repentance.  It is a hard call: he calls those who think they are righteous “you brood of vipers,” and warns that we cannot rest on our merits, calling ourselves children of Abraham as if that excuses our failure to repent.

But second, John points to the source of that repentance.  To be baptized by John is only to embrace his message that we must change.  But he tells of one coming after him, who “will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”

Jesus is coming.  He speaks to us, and his word transforms us.  Through the sacraments, he acts on us, and gives us natural hearts, loving hearts, in place of his stony heart.

In the darkness of this December, this bleak midwinter of our world, we look to the dawn from on high, to the wisdom who alone can be our peace.

Come, Lord Jesus!

Do you feel the despair of human wisdom?  How do you look to Christ as our only Savior?

Thirty-First Sunday: Come, Lord Jesus!

It is cold.  We are coming to the end of the year.  And the Lectionary takes a turn toward the end of the world.

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

The place it happens most clearly is in the Epistle.  The Gospels we read in order (hence “ordinary” time); there we are reaching the end, approaching Jerusalem.  The Old Testament reading complements the main theme of the Gospel.

But the Epistles are chosen for the end of the year.  In Year B it’s the end of Hebrews, which looks toward the saints in heaven.  But in Years A and C it’s First and Second Thessalonians, which may be some of the earliest writings in the New Testament, and speak particularly of persecution, which they read in light of the final coming of Jesus.

***

The Lectionary is gentle with us, giving a taste of the End for those who read no further, and much deeper references toward the End for those of us who open our Bibles.

Thus our reading this Sunday, from the end of the first chapter of Second Thessalonians, begins, “We always pray for you” – but if you open your Bible, you’ll see that the sentence (and the verse) begins “Therefore.”  Wherefore?

Paul has been commending “your patience and faith in all your persecutions and tribulations which you endure.”  He looks forward to “when He shall come to be glorified in His saints and to be admired in all those who believe . . . in that Day.”  And he warns of “flaming fire taking vengeance on those who do not know God and who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

“Therefore, we always pray for you,” as our reading says – that God may make us worthy to stand when Jesus comes.

The second paragraph of our reading says “not to be shaken” by any false claims “to the effect that the day of the Lord is at hand.”  If you keep reading, St. Paul warns of the coming of “the lawless one,” the rebellion that comes before the End.  Don’t believe it’s already happened – look forward to his coming.

At the end of the year we face the end of time, and we pray for the grace to stand before the face of Jesus.

***

In that light, we have the reading from Wisdom, which helps us to focus on God’s mercy.

Wisdom is a philosophical book.  The argument this week is in three straightforward steps:

God can.  The universe is itty-bitty to him.  We are weak but he is strong.

God wants to.  All things exist because he made them.  “And how could a thing remain, unless you willed it?”  And he is especially, such beautiful words, “lover of souls.”  Among all created realities, nothing is so beautiful to him as our souls – in the words of Gaudium et Spes, “man is the only creature on earth [alongside the angels] which God created for its own sake,” to live forever with him.

And so – God rebukes us.  His mercy doesn’t leave us wallowing in our sin.  His mercy “rebukes offenders little by little,” gently leading us out of the coming darkness and into his own glorious light, “that they may abandon their wickedness and believe in you, O Lord!”

Jesus saves sinners.  Come, Lord Jesus!  Thy kingdom come!

***

As always, the Gospel makes it all incarnate.

Jesus is approaching Jerusalem, coming near to his cross.  In today’s reading, he gets to Jericho, the next big town over, to the northeast.  The end is near.

And we see a scene of mercy.  Zacchaeus is one of the most loveable figures in the Gospel: a tax collector, therefore a bad guy, but so short, and so shaken by the Holy Spirit moving him within, that he climbs a tree to see Jesus.  When Jesus comes to his house – “He has gone to stay at the house of a sinner” – Zacchaeus repents: “Behold, half of my possessions, Lord, I shall give to the poor, and if I have extorted anything from anyone I shall repay it four times over.”  Which is a lot.

But the punchline comes at the end: “Today salvation has come to this house . . . .  For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost.”

***

The liturgical year has us facing the end.  But as we face the end, we come to a greater encounter with the mercy of Jesus, who calls us out of this present darkness and into his glorious light.

What does “Come Lord Jesus” mean to you?

Thirtieth Sunday – Not Our Goodness, but His

Over the summer, at a marvelous summer camp, a wise old grandfather was telling me of his experience

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

praying for his descendents.  He said he keeps finding himself tempted to think, if I just pray x many rosaries, maybe I can get the upper hand, and force God to do what I want him to do – or at least earn it from him.

But to the contrary, we pray not to get power over God, but precisely because we know that’s not how it works.  We pray because we know all good things come from his hands, and all we have to do is ask.

There’s a similar lesson in many of our prayers.  The Memorare focuses, of course, on Mary’s faithfulness in responding to our prayers.  But this faithfulness is put in focus by the line, “sinful and sorrowful.”  See, the point is that in praying I renounce my merits.  I don’t say, “hey, I deserve this.”  I say, in your mercy, hear and answer.  The same thing happens in all the Psalms that say, “for thy name’s sake, O Lord.”  Not because I am good, but because you are.

(That, of course, is the point of a novena – or even the defined length of the liturgy of the hours, and the intercessory power of the Mass.  Not that I do so much that God has to listen, but that I say my prayers and then stop, trusting not in my goodness, but in his.  That’s why we pray to the saints, too – not my goodness, but his, in them who are close to him and full of him.  I don’t think myself worthy to storm into the throne room on my own.)

***

Our Sunday readings all talk about the power of prayer, and the power of our weakness in prayer.

The first reading, from Sirach, is about God’s preferential option for the poor – sort of.  “The prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds; it does not rest till it reaches its goal, nor will it withdraw till the Most High responds . . . and the Lord will not delay.”  Pretty effective!

But there’s a spin.  The reading begins not by saying the poor are God’s favorites, but by saying, “The Lord is a God of justice, who knows no favorites.”  He is “not unduly partial toward the weak – yet he hears the cry of the oppressed.”

It isn’t that they win because they are poor.  It’s that they win because they trust in his goodness, not theirs.

***

So too in our reading from Second Timothy, one of the “prison epistles,” written from Paul’s captivity.

“Beloved: I am already being poured out like a libation” – that is, like one of the “drink offerings” of the Temple, where the wine was a sacrificial victim, poured out on the altar.  Pretty good!  Paul himself is the sacrifice!  “I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith.  From now on the crown of righteousness awaits me, which the Lord, the just judge, will award to me.”  He’s got his act together, huh?

Then (the reading skips several verses), he talks about his trial.  “At my first defense no one appeared on my behalf, but everyone deserted me.”  It starts out sounding like he’s the hero, he alone is the deserving one.

“But the Lord stood by me and gave me strength.”  Nope.  The whole point is that he boasts of his weakness.  I didn’t stand a chance.  I couldn’t do it.  He did it.  His goodness, not mine.  So Paul talks about being “rescued from the lion’s mouth” – like Daniel, who is not the one who shut up the lion’s mouth.  “The Lord will rescue me . . . .  To him” – not me – “be glory forever and ever.  Amen.”

That’s the meaning of being a libation.  Not that I was so strong that I made myself a sacrificial victim – but that I was so weak that the only thing I could do was be broken down, and trust in the goodness and the strength of God.  It is good to be weak, for then we know that he, he alone, is strong.

***

And so the Gospel is obvious.  We pray not like the Pharisees, “convinced of their own righteousness,” who say, “O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity.”  Our prayer is not, “I fast twice a week,” look at me!

No, our prayer is like the tax collector: “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.”

For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.

How do you find yourself trying to coerce God, instead of depend on his mercy?  How could your prayer be more focused on his goodness, and less on yours?

Twenty-Third Sunday: God’s Plans

Thank you to all my readers who have prayed for my son Joseph while he was in the hospital.  The news, in short, is that he is home, but still waiting for something to heal – and there is no guarantee that it won’t heal without surgery.  So please do keep praying for us!

 

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

As the second readings of the Sunday Lectionary take us through the Epistles of the New Testament, this week we get a taste of the shortest of Paul’s letters, Philemon.  Philemon was the owner of the slave Onesimus.  They were both Christians.  Paul speaks here, in a different key from his other letters, about the relation of slaves and masters.

It is sometimes said that the value of science fiction (or also fantasy, like Tolkien or Lewis) is to put human beings in a circumstance very different from usual – and thus to discover what remains true of us in all circumstances.  There is something of that in the differences of earthly vocation.  Paul uses slave and master, the greatest distance, to bring out the essential sameness of human persons.  Slave or master, here or in space or in Mordor, we are human beings.

In our reading, Paul has taken the slave Onesimus to be with him for a time.  Now he sends him back to his master Philemon.  He says, “Perhaps this is why he was away from you for awhile, that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a brother, beloved especially to me, but even more so to you, as a man and in the Lord.”

As things are moved around, we discover what they truly are.  When Paul can dislodge Onesimus from the standard order of things, Philemon can rediscover him for what he truly is, a brother in Christ.

***

“Perhaps this is why.”  The first reading is from the Wisdom of Solomon.  Its central point is that the reason God’s plans don’t make sense to us is not because they are senseless, but because we are.

I have spoken of this problem before.  Modern Christianity has a tendency to exalt God’s freedom and “will” as if God’s actions were without intelligence.  But no, Scripture is so clear: everything makes perfect sense to God.  Everything is orderly.

But for us, says our reading today, “the corruptible body burdens the soul, and the earthen shelter weighs down the mind that has many concerns.”

There are at least two ways the “corruptible body” darkens our intellects.  One is passion: we are so fixed on our own little expectations that we cannot sit back and discover God’s plan.  A second is indeterminacy: we cannot follow through on our plans, nor can anything we see infallibly hit its mark, and so from our perspective, the world often seems random.  But it is not random from God’s perspective.  He has a plan.  He has a way.

***

In our reading, Paul says, “perhaps this is why.”  But our reading from Wisdom says, “Scarce do we guess the things on earth . . . .  Who ever knew your counsel?”

Perhaps it is important that Paul says “perhaps.”  We don’t know why things happen.  We don’t know why Onesimus was born a slave, Philemon a master, some of us rich, some of us poor.  We are so quick to assume we have it figured out, and so to harden our ways.  “Onesimus deserves to be a slave!”

Instead we should focus on what we do know: God has called us to love.  And he has a plan, for Onesimus and for Philemon, to discover his love.

***

Our Gospel is the infamous, “If anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother, wife and children,” etc.

This reading too focuses on knowledge.  Most of the reading is taken up with Jesus’s metaphors of starting projects – building a tower or going to war – without proper planning.  The punchline is: “In the same way, anyone of you who does not renounce all his possessions” (or rather: “all that he has,” including family) “cannot be my disciple.”  We should plan ahead, and recognize the cost of discipleship.

But we can go a step deeper in light of our other two readings.  Obviously Jesus does not want us to hate our families.  But he does want us to realize that we don’t know his plan.  Like the slave master, we can be tempted to think we know exactly what role God wants us to play in the lives of our families.  Things harden in our foolish little plans.

Let go, says God.  It’s not that everything is random, that family doesn’t matter.  But you don’t know what plans God has for your family, how he wants to use those relationships, where he will take you.

Even in the metaphor of army and building, it’s not that the wise men know exactly what’s going to happen.  It’s that they have the flexibility to adapt to events.

God’s plans are richer than ours.  Let us not be too quick to think we’ve got it all figured out.

 

What parts of your life would benefit if you weren’t so sure of what’s supposed to happen?