Twenty-Second Sunday: The Wedding

Our Gospel this Sunday tells us to choose the lower seat so that, instead of being humiliated, we can be called up higher.

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The story is more complicated than it first appears.  First thing: it has two parts.  The first part is about being called up higher.  It seems to be practical advice, a shrewd way to behave. 

But the second part is different in an important way.  Jesus is at table at a Pharisee’s house.  The first part he addresses to the others at table.  The second part he addresses to the host.  To the host he says, “When you hold a lunch or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your wealthy neighbors, in case they may invite you back and you have repayment.  Rather, when you hold a banquet, invite the poor . . . . For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

The difference is that the first piece of advice seems to be worldly.  It suggests a way to get repayment in this world.  But the second says we should not seek repayment in this world.  Is Jesus giving us practical advice for how to improve our reputation?  Or he is pointing to something deeper?

***

A second complication: His advice to the other guests, in that “first part,” is not as straightforward as it seems.  Our translation says, “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not recline at table in the place of honor.” The translation is interpreting the Greek so as to make it match the situation where Jesus is sitting: invited to a table.

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One parallel is real: He is speaking to those who “were choosing the places of honor” and challenges them not to take “the place of honor.”  But he’s speaking about a distinctly different situation.  The Greek says he is at the home of the Pharisee not “to dine” but to “eat bread”: very tangible.  But he speaks about “a wedding.”  Now, the word wedding, in Greek as in English, implies something about a banquet—but Jesus says nothing about tables or eating.  He just talks about the wedding.  He’s not describing the situation they are in, he’s talking about something else.

Oddly, Luke says, “He told a parable to those who had been invited.”  Luke doesn’t seem to think this is practical advice about the current situation.  It is a parable.

And with the words “invited,” “guest,” and “host,” our translation obscures something evangelical: it is all about those who are “called,” and “the one who calls.” 

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Suddenly, this all sounds more like . . . the parable of the wedding feast, in Matthew 22.  Which wedding is Jesus talking about?  And who calls us to that wedding?  Is he giving practical advice about how to score social points in this world?  Or is he teaching us about seeking our reward in the next life?  Whose voice do I want to hear saying, “Friend, rise up higher”?

Luke is putting that parable from Matthew into the context of ordinary life.

***

Our reading in Hebrews is one of the most beautiful in Scripture.  “You have approached Mount Zion and the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem,” etc.  It describes the great wedding feast.  We are already there.

It contrasts that wedding feast to Moses on the mountain of the Ten Commandments, “a blazing fire and gloomy darkness . . . and a voice speaking words such that those who heard begged that no message be further addressed to them.”  The Old Law was given with a threat of punishment, while God still seemed far away.

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But now the Bridegroom has come among us, and we wait eagerly until he comes again.  It is that joy of the Bridegroom, that anticipation of the great nuptials of the Lamb, that should color how we behave when we do things as ordinary as “eating bread.”  Jesus isn’t telling us to play the social scene to our greatest advantage.  He is telling us to live in the joy of his presence, which makes all social striving seem silly.





But now the Bridegroom has come among us, and we wait eagerly until he comes again.  It is that joy of the Bridegroom, that anticipation of the great nuptials of the Lamb, that should color how we behave when we do things as ordinary as “eating bread.”  Jesus isn’t telling us to play the social scene to our greatest advantage.  He is telling us to live in the joy of his presence, which makes all social striving seem silly.

***

Sirach gives us wisdom.  Seek humility rather than to be “a giver of gifts.”  How ironic, that we often hoard money in the name of being generous to others.  Forget the hoarding, seek the lowest place.  Find favor with God.

Listen to the proverbs.  Don’t think you have penetrated the higher things.  Be taught.  Listen to the Gospel.

And give alms, which quench sin like water on fire.  Don’t hoard, but pour yourself out.  Hoarding is the root of all sin.

***

Our Psalm response says, “God, in your goodness, you have made a home for the poor.”

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First, let us see ourselves as the poor.  God is good.  Trust him.  Don’t hoard, don’t calculate, don’t angle—trust that God is good. 

And second, let us see God’s love for the poor.  Because if we trust that God is good, we will give.  We will trust that he will provide, even if we don’t hoard.  And we will see that life is not about calculating how we can rise higher, but abandoning everything for the pearl of great price, the joy of the heavenly Jerusalem, the great wedding of the Lamb.

What parts of your life are worldly?

Twenty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time: Strive

In this week’s Gospel, Jesus once again turns our thinking inside out.

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(Notice that he is still on his way to Jerusalem, the organizing principle of Luke’s Gospel.  What does Jesus’s pilgrimage to die in Jerusalem mean?)

On the way, someone asks, “Will only a few people be saved?”  We tend to think of religion, and lots of other things, as an alternative between two answers to that question.  “Liberals” say, hey, everyone’s fine, no need to judge; their answer to the question is, “many will be saved, everyone!”  “Conservatives” say people are not fine, people do deserve to be judged, only a few will be saved—but tend to define the standard of judgment as “like me” or “not like me.”  (Our current trends toward nationalism and tribalism—on both the Left and the Right—show how far we can go in judging people based on their conformity to us.)

Jesus is not a liberal or a conservative.  He doesn’t answer the question how many will be saved.  Instead, he changes the perspective.

He says, “Strive to enter through the narrow gate,” and our reading concludes, “Some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.”  On the one hand, he seems to say that many will not be saved: “for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough. . . . He will say to you in reply, ‘I do not know where you are from.  Depart from me, all you evildoers.’” Jesus is opposed to liberal presumption.  We can lose our salvation.

***

But he is also opposed to conservative presumption, to the presumption that other people will be condemned, but people like me are going to be fine.  “Some are first who will be last” means, you might think you’re in the in-crowd—but if you think that way, you will end up on the outside.

It’s striking how his metaphor proceeds.  Right after talking about the gate, he switches to the metaphor of knocking on the door after it has been locked.  Those on the outside will say, “Lord, open the door for us,” and the Lord will respond, “I do not know where you are from” (or maybe, “I don’t know you—where did you come from?”) 

But then they give their wonderfully presumptuous answer: “We ate and drank in your company and you taught in our streets.”  They say, “Hey, Jesus, let me in, you know me, we hung out together!”  They think they are insiders.

But the Gospel is full of humor, and this is a funny way to describe being insiders: We ate and drank, and you taught.  They are passive.  But Jesus says, “Strive.”  (Maybe the more important part of the metaphor is not the “narrow door” so much as the “striving”: you have to work hard to be a real Christian.)  Their self-description, “We ate and drank in your company,” makes Christianity sound like eating popcorn at the movies.

And their passivity is a description of going to Mass.  “You taught in our streets” (literally, our big open areas, our plazas) is the Liturgy of the Word.  “We ate and drank in your company” is the Liturgy of the Eucharist.  And Jesus says, showing up at Mass and sitting there passively while I preach, and then mindlessly eating my Body and Blood, will not get you into heaven.  “Being Catholic” won’t get you into heaven.

As he says elsewhere, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!”  Or as he says here, “struggle to enter in,” “strive to enter through the narrow door.”

***

The context of our Gospel is a series of stories where more people get into heaven than you’d think: Luke 13 begins with the Galileans crushed with their sacrifices, who are not as unrighteous as you’d like to think; then the barren fig tree, that gets a second chance; then a woman cured of her disability, when the Pharisees would tell Jesus to stop his works; then the mustard seed and the leaven, which become a huge tree, home for the birds, and the kingdom leavens three whole measures of flour.  Many will be saved.  But not you, if you take it for granted and rest on your “identity.”

Something similar happens in our reading from Isaiah, almost the very last verses of that hopeful but strange book.  In third- and second-to-last verses, Isaiah speaks of new heavens and a new earth, when “all flesh shall come to worship.”  Many will be saved!

And yet the last verse of the book is, “And they shall go out and look on the dead bodies of the men who have rebelled against me. For their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh.”  Those who trust in the Lord will be saved, he can do it, he will reach out to every nation.  But those who think they are in the nation of the saved and are eager to treat others as outsiders, those who think they don’t need a savior and don’t need to repent, those who rebel against his command, they will not be saved.

Thus in our reading from Hebrews he says, “At the time, all discipline seems a cause not for joy but for pain, yet later it brings the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who are trained by it.”  If we let the Lord be our Lord, how great a salvation!  But you have to strive for it!

Do you catch yourself thinking you’re already righteous, already an insider?

How to Preach: Some Thoughts

Searching the Scriptures

I am a layman, not a preacher.  But I listen to plenty of preaching, teach seminarians preparing to preach, and study the theology that is supposed to give life to preachers.  And one of the reasons I write Sunday reflections on this website is to help me appreciate the life of preaching that my teaching is supposed to support.  So here are some thoughts on how to approach preaching, for the preachers who are reading:

1. Be clear about the heart of your preaching, the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  I think the best summary of that Gospel is not just “God loves you,” which leaves a lot out, but “the love of God is poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit who is given to us” (Romans 5:5).  Preach God’s love.  Preach that we are not only to be loved, but ourselves to love with that love.  Preach that God transforms us, by the Holy Spirit, that the ability for us to love is his gift to us.  Preach the Holy Spirit, who is God’s love poured into our hearts.  The theological name for all of that is “grace,” specifically “sanctifying grace”: God makes us holy by sharing his heart with us.  But whatever you call it, keep it foremost in your mind.  Too much preaching, liberal and conservative, sounds like God is completely passive, like we have to do it all ourselves—or like God expects nothing of us.  That’s heresy, and it covers over the heart of the Gospel.

2. Preach Jesus Christ.  It’s through him, only through him, that we receive God’s Spirit.  It’s he who shows the Spirit and he who gives the Spirit.  As JPII said, “contemplate the face of Christ.”  Again, a bizarre amount of preaching hardly mentions Jesus.  Talk about him!

3. Preach Scripture.  Scripture is God’s Word, Jesus’s Word, the Holy Spirit speaking through the prophets.  It spells out the basic Gospel.  The Gospel is simple: the love of God is poured into our hearts.  But there’s a million applications of that.  That’s why the Bible is so long.  And the reason Jesus gives us the Bible is that it’s pretty hard to apply the Gospel right, pretty easy to apply it wrong.  Pretty easy to preach what’s comfortable for the preacher instead of the actual consequences of the Gospel.  Let Scripture call you out of yourself.  Let Scripture show you what needs to be said.  Let Scripture show you the multitude of things to be said: one week (or one day) one thing, but the next week, a different thing, because there are many different things that need to be said.  If you’re left to your own resources, it’s going to be lousy.  Preach God’s word, not your own.  Make it a joy to be learning God’s word beside your congregation, instead of pretending that you’re Mr. Know-It-All, which you’re not.

Love as I have loved

4. Lean into the details of Scripture.  To prepare a homily, read the readings and look for what is striking.  Too much preaching sounds like the preacher had something he already wanted to say, and then he just used whatever miniscule part of the readings (if he used the readings at all) confirmed him in what he already wanted to say.  Instead, look for where Scripture surprises you.  When the word choice is weird, don’t ignore that, lean into it.  When the progression of ideas is weird, think about that.  When Scripture surprises you, let yourself be surprised, because that’s when you are being led out of your thinking into God’s thinking. 

5. I highly recommend good Bible software.  I love E-Sword (and I-Sword on my phone), a free program that makes it easy to look up the original languages.  Look at where words come from, what word the original author is actually using.  You don’t need to know the original languages (though it helps).  I don’t know Hebrew, but when I’m curious what an English word in the translation means, I can still look up the definition of the Hebrew word, and find what words it’s derived from or related to, what pictures the word is evoking.  Again, the point is to find out what Scripture is saying, not what you (or the translator) wants it to say.

6. Lean, too, into the connections.  Read the readings together.  See how one reading helps you understand the other.  Scripture is all connected, ultimately all written by the same author.  You understand one part better by looking at the others.  And the Lectionary is a great gift the Church gives us, to help us think Biblically.  The more you love the Lectionary, the more you teach your people to love the Lectionary, the more you think with the Church and teach your people to think with the Church, the more you help your people (and yourself) understand that all the details of our faith fit together. 

7. Lead into the Creed.  Right after you preach, on Sundays, comes the Creed.  Love the Creed.  Make it your own prayer.  Pray it thoughtfully, carefully, every day in your rosary, or elsewhere in your prayer.  Figure that the best judgment of whether you prayed a good homily is whether you’ve helped them understand the beauty and richness of the creed.  That doesn’t mean that you have to talk about specific lines in the Creed—though it wouldn’t hurt.  But it does mean you have to have them thinking about the central realities of our faith.  (The same could be said about the Eucharist, and the other verbal prayers of the Mass: but the Creed is a good focal point.)

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8. Finally, I ought to say something about your people.  Talk to your people.  Know your people.  Love your people.  Want your people to be holy, and to grow in Biblical, Catholic faith.  My advice is to aim at the more serious parts of your congregation.  You are not the only evangelizer in the parish.  It is not your job to sink to the lowest common denominator, or to preach the thinnest gruel possible, so as to reach everyone.  It is your job to build up saints in your community who can evangelize others.  Respect the people in your parish who are trying to grow in holiness.  Feed them.  Show the others that holiness is real by talking about holiness with the people who believe in holiness; if you sound like you don’t expect anyone in your congregation to be serious about the faith, you send a horrible message to everyone.  Don’t sink to the lowest common denominator.  But do love your people, and try to speak to them. 

That said, I think you do best not to focus on what you think those people need to hear, but on what Jesus is saying through Scripture in the readings at that Mass.  Preach God’s Word, not your own.

Sixteenth Sunday: Martha’s Complaint

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I am on a road trip with my family, so I didn’t get to write about last Sunday’s readings, with the Good Samaritan, one of the most important passages in Scripture.  But this week’s Gospel, Mary and Martha, follows directly on it, and builds on it.  In fact, the Lectionary for these several weeks has given us a close reading of Luke 10, all the passages immediately following Luke 9:51, the turning point of this Gospel, where Jesus sets his face for Jerusalem, and the passage right after that, “let the dead bury their dead.”  The Lectionary doesn’t have space just on Sundays to read all of Luke’s Gospel (one great reason to go to daily Mass is to read more Scripture), but Luke 10 we have been reading very closely.

To me the most interesting part of Mary and Martha is how it contrasts with the Good Samaritan.  The Good Samaritan is good because he takes action.  “He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him.”  The question is, “Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” And the answer is, “The one who showed him mercy.”  The moral of the story, it seems, is service.

But Mary and Martha is the opposite.  Mary, who “has left me by myself to do the serving,” “has chosen the better part.”  Martha, “burdened with much serving,” seems to get scolded.  You might say these two stories represent two opposite interpretations of Christianity: action or contemplation, God or neighbor, mercy or prayer.  And Luke puts them right next to each other, at the end of this magnificent chapter 10.

***

But notice, first, the introduction to the Good Samaritan.  In the introduction to the parable, Jesus gets a scholar of the law to summarize it: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.”  The Good Samaritan is about the question, “And who is my neighbor?” the second half of the great commandment.  But Mary and Martha is about the first half of that commandment: Mary loves Jesus, who is God.

Here it’s worth reading carefully.  Jesus does not scold Martha.  He does not tell her, “service doesn’t matter, as long as you pray.”  He says, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things.”  This is more subtle.  First: she is worried about “many things,” but “there is need of only one thing.”  In the Greek the parallel between “many” and “one” is strong.  Second, the word for “anxious” is more literally “divided in parts”—the same word as when he says, “Mary has chosen the better part.”  (Even the word for “chosen” has the sense of “selected,” as in, picked this “one” out from the “many.”)  Jesus doesn’t say, “don’t serve,” he says, “focus.” 

What is distracting Martha’s focus?  Is it service?  Or is it complaint?  Jesus has just commended the Good Samaritan for his service.  The difference between Martha and him is that Mary complains: “Do you not care that my sister has left me to do the serving?”  Her complaint poisons her service.  The ill is the complaint, not the service.

***

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Jesus is on the road, and he is sending his disciples on the road.  It is interesting that these two parables are about being on the road.  Mary and Martha is about welcoming him in: “Whenever you enter a town and they receive you, eat what is set before you.”  The Good Samaritan is about a traveler: “a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion.”  Jesus is both the guest we welcome and the Samaritan who comes down the road to heal us; he is the God we worship and the man we follow; he is the one we serve and the one we adore. 

Jesus teaches us to be Mary and Martha—without the complaining.  Because he teaches us to love God with all our strength—and to love neighbor as part of that love, because of that love.  If we love service but do not love God, we miss the meaning of our service. 

***

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Our other two readings underline this point.  Abraham is Martha, whipping up a meal for God, who comes to him in the mysterious three travelers.  But he doesn’t complain, he rejoices: “If I may ask you this favor,” “Now that you have come this close to your servant, let me bring you a little food.”  For this service, Abraham receives the gift of more joyful service: a son.  What if Martha had talked like that? 

So too in Colossians, Paul says, “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake.”  “I am a minister” (it’s the same Greek word Martha complained about, “diakonia”) “in accordance with God’s stewardship given to me,” the awesome privilege to share in God’s service to his people.  But that ministry is to make known “Christ in you, the hope for glory”: Christ in the ones we serve, so that we worship as Mary through the works of Martha, and Christ in us, so that we share in his mission to the world. 

What service do you ruin through complaint?

Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time: Receive

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Our Gospel this week continues the Gospel from last week.  Last week Jesus set his face for Jerusalem, and told those who wanted to follow him that, regardless of whether they went to bury their dead or say farewell, they must keep their face set on that goal: to heaven through the cross.  This week begins with him sending others “to every town and place he intended to visit.”  The verb for sending is the word for apostles, but I think it’s not so much that these are “other” apostles, as that even those of us who are not apostles are still sent. 

The first reading, from the end of Isaiah, sets the tone in a surprising but helpful way.  “Rejoice with Jerusalem . . . .  Oh, that you may suck fully of the milk of her comfort, that you may nurse with delight at her abundant breasts!”  The Lord strangely unites himself to Jerusalem: “You shall be carred in her arms . . . ; as a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you.”  Through Jerusalem, the image of the Church and the heavenly city, God comforts us.

The rest of the readings will be about the crosses we face.  But we can face those crosses because we know that God comforts us.  We set our face joyfully towards Jerusalem, the place of our crucifixion, because the cross seems like nothing, knowing that God is there.

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So too at the end of Galatians, in our second reading, Paul says, “I never boast except in the cross” and “neither does circumcision mean anything, nor does uncircumcision, but only a new creation.”  There are all these sides issues that people get really focused on—but all that matters is passing through the cross with Jesus, entering into God’s new creation, the power of his Spirit and his comfort.  (Paraclete is Greek both for the Holy Spirit and for comfort.)

***

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In the second part of our Gospel, Jesus talks about going into the cities.  “I am sending you like lambs among wolves.”  Yes, the world is hostile.  Yes, the world is full of the cross.  But he doesn’t say, “so you’d better get ready to fight.”  He says the opposite, “Carry no money bag, no sack, no sandals.”  This is the freedom of the children of God: to march toward the cross fearlessly, knowing that we have God, and God’s comfort, and nothing can hurt us.

There’s a scene where Plato describes Socrates wandering around a battle field with his head in the clouds.  He was a terrifying warrior, because he didn’t care what happened to him.  That’s not a perfect parallel, but it’s kind of like what Jesus describes.

Go into the houses.  Offer peace.  Sure, you can eat, “for the laborer deserves his payment,” but don’t seek out great opportunities, don’t worry.  Just proclaim, “The kingdom of God is at hand for you” and “Peace”: and the kingdom and the peace of God will be at hand for you, whether or not they receive it.  If they don’t receive it, shake the dust from your feet—no big deal—and move on. 

There is a kind of carefree attitude of the disciples of Jesus. 

***

The third part of our Gospel (after the Lectionary skips a couple verses of extended scolding of those who haven’t received Jesus) says that when the seventy-two returned, they rejoiced, saying, “Even the demons are subject to us because of your name.” 

Jesus responds, sure, yes. “I have observed Satan fall like lightning from the sky.”  You are winning a cosmic battle—or, sharing in my victory, which obviously you can’t make happen on your own.  And you will win earthly victories, “tread upon serpents and scorpions.”  Nothing can hurt you.

And yet, again, the attitude is care free. Jesus is not saying, “you have almighty power!  Strike them!”  He is saying, “don’t worry, I have the victory.”  And so he concludes, “Do not rejoice because the spirits are subject o you, but rejoice because your names are written in heaven.”

Keep your face set on Jerusalem.  Find your comfort there.  The battle is won not by focusing on the battle, but by focusing on the Lord.  Satan can do nothing to you if you live for Jesus Christ.

***

The first part of our Gospel had the line, “The harvest is abundant but the laborers are few; so ask the master of the harvest to send out laborers for his harvest.”

Often we read this line in terms of evangelization: we need missionaries to go bring people to Jesus.  And that’s fine, sure.  And the seventy-two are somehow “apostolic.”

But it isn’t just about evangelization, the harvest isn’t just converts.  (And anyway, if it is effective to pray for God to send out other apostles, then it doesn’t sound like God exactly needs our help.) 

The harvest is also all God’s goodness.  He sends us out into a world brimming with his presence, if we want it, a world where the kingdom is near and his peace is there for the taking.  Receive, and pray that others will gather the same riches for themselves.

Do you get so focused on the fight that you forget to be grateful?

Thirteenth Sunday – Follow Me: Death and the Kingdom

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We finally return to Ordinary Time, and our orderly reading through Luke’s Gospel. 

We begin at the defining turning point of Luke’s Gospel, Luke 9:51: “When the days of Jesus’ being taken up were fulfilled, he resolutely determined [literally: set his face] to journey to Jerusalem.” 

(Much of the material from Matthew and Mark comes before this turning point: Luke 1-4, like Matthew 1-4, is the infancy and then the temptation and baptism, but Luke 5-9 crams in the rest of Matthew 5-25: calling the disciples, cleansing lepers, healing paralytics, questions about fasting, Lord of the sabbath, the sermon on the mount/plain, the centurion’s servant, the widow’s son, the woman who anoints his feet, the parables, the storm, the demonaic, the sending of the apostles, the five thousand, the confession of Peter—phew.  From Luke 9:51 until chapter 22, the last supper and the crucifixion, we find all the exciting, unique parts of Luke: the Good Samaritan, Martha and Mary, the midnight begger, the rich fool with his barns, “come up higher,” inviting the poor to your feast, the prodigal son, the dishonest steward, the rich man and Lazarus, “we are unworthy servants, only doing our duty”, the persistent widow, the Pharisee and the tax collector, let the children come to me, Zacchaeus the tax collector, weeping over Jerusalem, the widow’s mite.)

***

The second half of our Gospel reading is more memorable: “foxes have dens,” “let the dead bury their dead.”  But the deeper point is in the first half.

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Jesus sets his face toward Jerusalem.  That is his identity: focused on his mission, facing the cross, pressing on.  For Luke, this is the heart of the Gospel.  But as he goes through Samaria (the region between Galilee and Judaea, where Jersualem is), “they would not welcome him because the destination of his journey was Jerusalem”—or, literally, “because his face was of one going to Jerusalem.” 

Now, part of of the Samaritans’ problem was that they were the location of the Lord’s temple before David and Solomon built the capital and the temple in Jerusalem; they dispute the importance of Jerusalem.

But in our context, the bigger point is that Jesus was facing his destiny—and they didn’t want that.  They were comfortable where they were.  That’s the setup for what’s coming, about foxes having dens, etc.

Then Luke gives a brilliant flipside.  James and John respond, “Lord, do you want us to call down fire from heaven to consume them?”  (What an odd question!)  Ironically, in their opposition to the Samaritans, James and John are a lot like them: they too are focused on here and now, on winning battles, on control—whereas Jesus is focused on going to meet his destiny in Jerusalem.  James and John—and all of us, in our nasty anger—want to have dens like foxes, and to destroy anyone who tries to invade our comfort.  That is not Jesus.

***

In the second half, Jesus is not as contrary as we think.  (This is impotant, because there’s a tendency to say Jesus is using “Semitic exaggerations,” and he doesn’t really mean what he says.  I think it’s better to look at what he actually says, which tends to be true, and to demand that we take him literally.)

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The first guy says, “I will follow you wherever you go.”  Jesus responds, “Foxes have dens . . . but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head.”  That’s not a rebuke, it’s only a warning.  Yes, good, follow me.  But know that you’re not following me to a place of comfort and rest, but to the cross.  That’s what it means to follow.

The second guy, on the other hand, says nothing—till Jesus says, “Follow me.”  He responds, “Lord, let me go first and bury my father.”  We read too fast, and we think Jesus says, “No, you’re not allowed to bury your father, you have to follow me”—and we think, on the one hand, that Jesus doesn’t seem to appreciate the goods of this world, and on the other hand, that we can’t possibly take him literally.

But that isn’t what Jesus says.  Jesus says, “Let the dead bury their dead.  But you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”  Notice the details.  Jesus tells him to “go.”  In fact, it’s the same word the man says, “Let me go.”  In the Greek, it’s even specific, in both cases, “let me go away.”  Jesus does let him go away—he commands him to go away, which is, on the literal level, the opposite of “follow me.”  Jesus was setting him up: he says, “follow me,” and then lets the guy discover what that following means: for him, yes, it does mean “going away,” instead of following Jesus to Jerusalem.

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But what Jesus changes is what the man is going away to do.  He doesn’t tell him not to bury the dead.  He does tell him to “proclaim the kingdom of God.”  Since Jesus has his face set toward Jerusalem—and one of the last things he said before he set his face toward Jerusalem was, “The Son of Man is about to be delivered into the hands of men,” he understands death.  Yes, whether you go with me to Jerusalem or whether you stay to bury your father, you are entering into death.  But proclaim the kingdom of God.  That’s what it will mean for you to “follow me”: whether in Jerusalem or right where you are, death and the kingdom.

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And so when the third guy says, “I will follow you, Lord, but first let me say farewell to my family at home,” Jesus does not say, “nope, you’re not allowed to say goodbye,” but “No one who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what was left behind is fit for the kingdom of God.”  In plowing, as in sailing, you cut a straight line by keeping your eye on your destination—your face set on Jerusalem.  If you look away, you go off course. Just as with the previous man, he doesn’t tell him to ignore his family.  He does tell him that, wherever he goes, he needs to keep his face set on Jerusalem.  It’s as if, just as the first man says, “I will follow you wherever you go,” Jesus says, “I will follow you, wherever you go.”

It will take Jesus thirteen chapters to make his way to Jerusalem.  There’s plenty for us to do between here and there, and Jesus is not denying that we should do it.  He is saying that we must keep our face resolutely set on the goal, facing death and the kingdom of God without flinching, no matter what we do.

Are there parts of your life where you think you need to take your eyes off of Jesus?

Corpus Christi: Give Him Thanks

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Yesterday we celebrated the feast of Corpus Christi.  As in the late twentieth century the Pope accepted a visionary’s call to make a feast to emphasize the ever-present Divine Mercy, so in the thirteenth century, a Pope accepted a similar call to make a feast for the Eucharist.  It’s supposed to be the first Thursday after Trinity Sunday—that is, the first Thursday after Holy Thursday, except (it’s kind of funny) after Easter and Pentecost week.  But of course we usually switch it to Sunday.  (But maybe instead of griping over days of the week, we should focus on loving Jesus in the Eucharist.)

The original liturgy was written by none other than Thomas Aquinas.  The opening prayer, which he wrote, and which we also use for Benediction, is interesting: grant that we may so venerate that we may perceive (sentiamus) the fruits in ourselves.  Our act of veneration is, on the one hand, a gift from God, and on the other hand, a way that we can “experience” God’s goodness to us.

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The Vatican II Lectionary uses the readings Thomas picked, including John 6, only for Year A (though we also read John 6 during August of year B, and every year at the weekday Masses of Easter Week Three).  Year B for this feast we read Mark’s account of the Last Supper, and this year, Year C, we read Luke’s account of the feeding of the Five Thousand.  John 6, in fact, is also the feeding of the Five Thousand, teaching us to think of that miracle in terms of the Eucharist.

The theme throughout this year’s readings is precisely the idea, in Thomas’s opening prayer, that we experience God’s work in us by celebrating it.

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Genesis 14, when Melchizedek sacrifices bread and wine for Abraham, is at the beginning of his story: before his name is changed from Abram to Abraham, before the covenant, circumcision, the visitation at the oaks of Mamre, the destruction of Sodom, or the promise and sacrifice of Isaac—and long before the establishment of the priesthood of the Levites.  Melchizedek is the original priest, and this sacrifice is the root of Abraham’s story.

They are celebrating a military victory, and Abraham is refusing to attribute that victory to the king of Sodom.  Instead, Melchizedek says Abraham is blessed by “the creator of heaven and earth . . . who delivered your foes into your hand.”  Melchizedek offers bread and wine, and Abraham gives him a tithe, as a sign of his own sacrifice.

The point of their acts of sacrifice, their acts of reverence, is what the opening prayer says: by venerating God, by these actions of giving thanks, they increase their awareness, their perception of God’s work in their life.  God has no need of our thanks, but we are blessed by acknowledging that every good and perfect gift comes from him.

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So too in 1 Corinthians 11, when Paul gives his account of the Last Supper, and says that “as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes.” 

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The Last Supper itself was an act of thanksgiving.  By lifting up bread and wine, and the Paschal Lamb, Jesus proclaimed the goodness of God, both in his daily giving of bread and in his historic saving action.  When he gave that action to us—“do this”—he added to it a memorial of his own death, so that we give thanks for the “fruit of the earth and work of human hands” and also for his saving action for us on the Cross, for creation and redemption.

The Real Presence does two things: sacrifice and communion.  First, it perfects the sacrifice, so that what we lift up and offer really is the saving work of Jesus Christ himself, and somehow participates in his own self-offering on the Cross.  Second, through communion it unites us to him, so that our act of veneration is itself his gift to us: he is the one we offer, and he himself offers in and through us, by uniting us to himself in communion.  He perfects our act of thanks, he “grants us” that act of veneration.

But what we do with the Real Presence is this act of sacrifice, this lifting up, that just as with Melchizedek, makes us more deeply aware of God’s goodness in our life precisely through our giving thanks to him for it.

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This post is long enough, so in the Gospel, I will only point out one nice little thing from the Greek.  The Twelve say, “Dismiss the crowd so that going away [poreuthentes] they can go to the surroundingvillages and farms and find lodging and provisions.”  When Jesus says, “Give them some food yourselves,” they reply, “unless we ourselves going away [poreuthentes]buy food for all these people.” 

They think they need to find sustenance somewhere else, to go away from Jesus to get what they need.  But he tells them to “have them sit down”: stay right here.  (The groups of fifty must have some deep significance, but I like how it makes a hundred groups of fifty, as if just to emphasize what a huge crowd Jesus can provide for.) 

Jesus provides.  We don’t need to go away.  We need to stay close.  He provides our deepest, sweetest food in the Eucharist.  He provides himself, and his grace, and his love.  And, as Creator, he provides all our other needs, too.  What we need to do is to stay close and become aware, perceive, through our acts of thanksgiving and sacrifice and Eucharist, how good he is to us.

What parts of your life do you try to solve by “going away” from Jesus?

The Good News of Holy Trinity

Proverbs 8:22-31, Psalm 8, Romans 5:1-5, John 16:12-15

I said on Sunday that one way to preach about the Trinity is just to look at what the readings say.  This year’s readings were wonderful.

The first reading, from Proverbs, assumes we know the prologue to John: “In the beginning was the Word . . . all things were created through him.”  Here, “Thus says the wisdom of God”: that is, his Word, his great act of intelligence.  Most of the reading walks us through the beauties of nature—the depths and the springs, the mountains and hills, the earth and fields, and the sky—and says, “I was there.”  The Word, the “Second person of the Blessed Trinity,” was the wisdom God used in creating the world.

That’s heady stuff.  But it does a couple things for us.  First, it affirms the divinity of Christ: what it means to say Jesus is God is to say that he too is “creator of heaven and earth.”  Second, it affirms God’s wisdom, and God’s plan—and Jesus’s part in that wisdom.  God isn’t random and thoughtless (like we are), everything is wonderfully made, wonderfully laid out, to culminate in Jesus.  Third, “I was his delight day by day, playing before him all the while . . .and I found delight in the human race”: the idea of “play” affirms the joyfulness and gratuity of God’s love in Jesus Christ.  This is good news!

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The second reading, from Romans, concludes, “the love of God has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”  Where the first reading called Jesus God’s wisdom and Word, the second reading calls the Holy Spirit God’s love.  And it affirms, simply, that God’s love has been poured into our hearts.  This is the Gospel—I tell my seminarians that I think this line is THE finest statement of what Christians believe.  It’s not just that God loves us, but that he shares that love with us, lets us love with his heart, by giving us the Holy Spirit.

The rest of that reading leads up to this proclamation by saying we are justified by faith, have access by faith to this grace in Jesus, and that have endurance.  What does faith in Jesus mean?  What does grace mean?  It means that the love of God is poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.  Good news!

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Our Gospel this year is from John, and typical for John, it’s heady stuff. 

First, Jesus calls the Holy Spirit “the Spirit of truth,” who will teach us what we “cannot bear now.”  He is the teacher, and the teacher about Jesus.  The Spirit gives us strength, too, and love, but we should rejoice also in this contemplative aspect, where the Spirit gives us a different perspective, helps us see in a new way.

Then come three “declare’s.”  The word is an-angelei, and it is related to both “angel” and Gospel, ev-angel.  The Spirit brings us glad tidings.

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First, he will declare “what is coming.”  What we do not yet know, what we are not yet ready for, the Spirit will open the way for us.  It’s not so much, I think, that he will tell us the future as that he will tell us the present: The Holy Spirit is with us every step of the way to reveal God’s presence here and now.

Second, “He will glorify me, because he will take from what is mine and declare it to you.”  He declares the now, by declaring Jesus.  The Spirit, need it be said, is not an alternative route, not, as some older people seem to think, a way to God that bypasses Jesus.  He is the one Jesus gives us, and the one who reveals Jesus to us, because he and Jesus are One, and Equal, and he is equal to the task of revealing the fullness of Jesus to us.  And because Jesus, in the Incarnation, is one with us, revealing our “now” and revealing Jesus go hand in hand: the work of the Spirit is to show me how this moment in my life is the moment of union with Jesus.

And third, “Everything that the Father has is mine; for this reason, I told you that he will take from what is mine and declare it to you.”  The Spirit declares Jesus to us because Jesus and the Father are one; the reason we want to know Jesus is because he is One and Equal with the Father.

What a nice little meditation on the Trinity: The Spirit reveals his presence in our life so that he can reveal Jesus’s presence in our life, which is to reveal the Father.  That’s good news!  Glory to the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit! 

How does the Holy Spirit reveal Jesus present in your life today?

Preaching Holy Trinity

Today was the feast of the Holy Trinity, an awkward day for priests everywhere. For a variety of reasons we need not explore today (from nominalism to pelagianism to the sixties), few priests seem clear on the connection between dogma and the life of their parishioners. A feast like this, then, which is obviously dogmatic–the very word Trinity is an abstraction neither in Scripture nor obviously connected to life–leaves priests grasping at how to preach, for once, about doctrine. It often doesn’t go well. Perhaps in giving advice to priests, I can help the rest of us too.

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The first step is the distinction between explanation and proclamation. The Holy Trinity (or any other dogma) does not need our explanations, especially not the explanations of people who haven’t given it much thought. Explanation of anything is irrelevant until people know that it exists and matters to them.

Even some of the things we think are explanations are really proclamations. Our parish is St. Patrick’s, and there’s a marvelous statue right where we sit of Patrick gazing thoughtfully at a shamrock. Shamrocks are a terrible explanation of the Trinity. Patrick wasn’t telling them the Trinity is “like” a shamrock. He was using the shamrock as a reminder, a symbol, a pointer, to make them think about the triune God. I don’t even think Augustine’s deep meditations on how the human memory-intellect-will is “like” the Trinity was meant as an explanation of the Trinity, so much as a way of getting very thoughtful people to gaze even more thoughtfully at their shamrocks.

What the Trinity needs is not explanation, but proclamation.

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One way to proclaim the Trinity is with the creed. It begins with “I believe.” Not “I understand,” or “it was proven to me,” or “I learned in school.” The first thing to proclaim is that Christians believe some things about God.

I believe there is only one God, only the Creator of earth. He created not only what is seen, but even what is unseen, even the heavens: absolutely everything. That’s the “unity” part of the Trinity: I believe in only one God, and that matters.

But I believe that God the Creator is also a Father. That is a proclamation. Other religions don’t believe that. Even the Old Testament doesn’t call God Father. We are so inured to our faith that we don’t realize what an awesome thing it is to call God Father, we think everyone must do that. Proclaim it! Believe it!

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We believe in Jesus Christ, that the one who was born of the Virgin Mary and crucified also rose from the dead and ascended to heaven, and is our Lord and judge. Those are things we believe about his humanity, and those things need to be proclaimed and believed. You don’t need to “explain” the resurrection, you need to proclaim it: hey, Christians, this is what we believe!

But we also believe that the man Jesus Christ is the Son who makes God Father, the only-begotten, one in being, God from God, Light from Light, True God from True God! When we talk about the Trinity, we’re not talking about how you explain how something can be both one and three–that’s not the important part of the Trinity. What we’re talking about is the proclamation that Jesus is God. One and three isn’t that important on its own. But that Jesus is God is a Big Deal. That God is Father and Son is a Big Deal.

In fact, historically, the debates about the Trinity, especially in the fourth and fifth centuries, when most of this stuff was first hammered out, had very little to do with whether you could explain the connection between one and three. The debates were about whether Jesus is God or not. Who do you say that I am? When we talk about the Trinity, that’s what we’re talking about.

Proclaim that! Believe it! This Jesus, who gives himself to us in the Eucharist, whose face and wounds we adore on the crucifix, whose words we hear in the Gospel: he is God himself, come to speak with us, come to all us into communion with himself!

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And then a corollary is about the Holy Spirit. Historically, this issue came up at the same time. What about the Holy Spirit? What about the Spirit who, in the second half of the third part of the Creed, has inspired the prophets, who makes the Church one and holy and catholic and apostolic, who is given to us in Baptism, and is the forgiveness of our sins, who raises the dead and gives us life everlasting? What’s the deal with him?

He is God too! If God the Creator of heaven and earth is the kind of thing that can be both Father and Son, heck, why not, he can be Holy Spirit, too. It’s not that first we came up with an abstract theory about threeness and oneness, and then we realized that we could plug Father Son and Holy Spirit into that formula. The only reason we believe three and one is because we believe in these three, Father, Son, Holy Spirit.

The Son who saved us is God! The Holy Spirit who speaks to us and makes the Church and enters into our hearts, he is God! That’s what we are proclaiming, when we proclaim the Trinity. No explanation necessary, but we do need to believe that God is active in our life, in this distinctly Christian way.

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Equality and unity? I noticed those words in some of today’s liturgy. Abstract, mathematical words. But their point is not to manipulate numbers. Their point is to talk about Father Son and Holy Spirit. Equality means that the Son is nothing less than God the Creator, that’s who we’re talking about when we talk about Jesus. And the Holy Spirit, too, is nothing less. Equality doesn’t mean “three equals one” it means “Jesus and the Holy Spirit are no less than God himself.”

And unity means that they are one with God–they are one-ness with God, and what they offer to us is to enter into that oneness, to be not sorta kinda vaguely in relationship with God, but to be one with him. And not in a way that destroys our individuality, but as in the Trinity, so with us, there is perfect Unity while the individual plurality of persons remains.

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What we need to talk about is not numbers but persons. What we need to do is not explain how it works or makes sense–and certainly not how it makes sense in the abstract, apart from Father Son and Holy Spirit–but to proclaim that what it means to be a Christian is to believe these awesome things, about the Creator, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. That’s why in our baptismal promises we say, not “Do you understand how three-in-one works?” but “Do you believe in the Father . . . and the Son . . . and the Holy Spirit?”

One way to proclaim that, as I have done here, is with the Creed. We’d all do well to start praying the Creed as the awesome meditation it is meant to be, in the Mass, in our rosary, maybe even elsewhere in our prayer life.

But another way to proclaim that is just by reading Scripture. We have an awesome Lectionary, which gives readings about who the Son and the Holy Spirit are: this year they were about the plan of God’s creation, the love of God poured into our hearts, and the Son who receives everything from the Father, and the Spirit who leads us into the Son. You wouldn’t have to explain anything about Three-in-One just to meditate on those awesome words which “he has spoken through the prophets.”

How do you nurture your faith in Father-Son-Holy Spirit?

Pentecost: A Spirit of Wisdom

I am happy to say that I had excellent experiences of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal when I was in college.  I have seen it as a place where people learned to live their faith to the fullest, and I learned there to believe in the Holy Spirit as a real force in our lives. I learned a lot about Pentecost there.

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I am sad to say, then, that in one respect, Charismatic prayer serves as a perfect example of what the Holy Spirit is not.  I think there is something to the modern phenomenon of “speaking in tongues,” meaning gibberish, as a way of discovering prayer that transcends our minds.  But in the New Testament, speaking in tongues is the opposite: not gibberish nonsense, but sense.  In defense of charismatics, I can only add that, ironically, Traditionalists make the same mistake, thinking that prayer is more legitimate if it’s in a language you don’t understand.  So does a certain kind of “contemplative” spirituality that thinks that silence is truer prayer than the Liturgy or lectio divina. 

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“When the time for Pentecost was fulfilled . . . there came from heaven a noise like a strong driving wind.  Then there appeared to them tongues as of fire, which parted and came to rest on each one of them.”  Thomas Aquinas points out that one of the main characteristics of tongues of flame is that they stretch upward.  When the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of God, the Spirit of the Son, comes upon us, he becomes a power within us leaping upward toward heaven.

But in a pun (that doesn’t exactly work in English), Acts then says they “began to speak in different tongues, as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim.”  Charismatics, Traditionalists, and contemplatives are all correct in thinking that the Holy Spirit is tongues of fire leaping upward, in a way that transcends human strength, toward heaven.

But they fail to see that what happens then is not gibberish but intelligence.  The most confusing thing of all is that we become intelligent: “they were confused because each one heard them speaking in his own language” (or “tongue”).  “We hear them speaking in our own tongues of the mighty acts of God.”

The Spirit does not make the apostles dumb.  He makes them intelligible.  And in so doing, he binds together what man had separated.

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For the second reading, we have a choice between 1 Corinthians 12 or Romans 8, two of Paul’s greatest passages on the Holy Spirit.  In both, we learn that the Spirit teaches us to speak: “No one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit.”  “A spirit of adoption, through whom we cry, ‘Abba, Father!’”  Mumbo jumbo is mysterious.  But the greater mysteries are to call God Father and Jesus Lord.  Nothing that empties the mind can fill us with deeper awe than these words.

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The Spirit brings order, too.  In Romans 8, he “raised Christ from the dead” and “will give life to your mortal bodies also,” for “the spirit is alive because of righteousness.”  It is not mindless chaos that the Spirit brings; rather, he undoes that chaos by teaching us to live as sons.  So too in 1 Corinthians 12 the Spirit binds the many together in one body, the body of Christ.  “To each individual the manifestation of the Spirit is given for some benefit.”  The Spirit teaches us to speak, and to bring order.

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We have two options for the Gospel, as well, one from John’s Last Supper discourse, the other from Jesus’s appearance on Easter night (at the same supper table, in the upper room).  In the first, Jesus says the “Advocate” (or “Paraclete” or “comforter” or “helper”: all the same word in Greek) will lead us to “keep my commandments”: not to be unruly, but ruled.  So too we will “keep my word.”  “The word you hear is not mine but that of the Father who sent me,” for the Father is an intelligent, wise God, a God of words, who speaks his word in Jesus Christ.  And their Spirit “will teach you everything”—that is “remind you of all that I told you.”  The Spirit does not replace Scripture, but takes us deep into the words of Jesus.

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And this is the way of “peace.”  On Easter night he twice says, “Peace be with you.”  He shows them his hands his side, reveals to them who he is, not in a cloud of mystery, but in the deeper mystery that can be spoken in words, and infinitely transcends any cloud of mystery.  And then he gives them the Spirit of peace: “Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.”  The balance creates an orderly ministry: not a lawless chaos where sin doesn’t matter, but an orderly ministry of forgiveness.  And the conclusion of that forgiveness is not sin, but peace, union, intelligence, and order.  

Are there any ways that you under-appreciate the wisdom of God?