Tenth Sunday: The Power of the Word

 

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

1 KGS 17:17-24; PS 30: 2, 4, 5-6, 11, 12, 13; GAL 1:11-19; LK 7:11-17

Last Sunday our readings talked about prophets and healing.  The connection goes deeper than it first appears.

We are at last back to Ordinary Time.  In this third year of the cycle, we are reading through Luke’s Gospel in order.  In this section of the year, we are also reading Paul’s letter to the Galatians; since we are reading both of these things in order, the connections are somewhat coincidental, typically rich but subtle.  But the Old Testament reading is chosen for its explicit connection to the Gospel.

The Gospel for this tenth week is the widow of Nain; the Old Testament widow of Zarephath is an obvious parallel.  In both cases, a widow has lost her only son.  There are immediate emotional resonances.  These resonances are powerful, but they go deeper.

In both cases, the man of God–Elijah and Jesus–accomplishes one of his greatest miracles by bringing the young man to life.  Elijah is thus a “type,” a pre-figurement, of Jesus.  The Old Testament is like a prism, separating the intense light that is Jesus into myriad lesser lights.  The prism makes a rainbow – and all those colors are contained in the white light that enters the prism.  Jesus contains the greatness of Abel, Abraham, Isaac, Moses, David, Elijah, and all the rest.  The stories of Elijah bring out certain parts of the greatness of Jesus.  

But it is deeper than it seems.

***

In each case, the response is not just about the emotional experience of receiving the dead son.  The widow of Zarephath says to Elijah, “Now indeed I know that you are a man of God.”  The miracle points beyond the gift it gives, to the power from which that gift is given.  It testifies beyond itself, to Elijah’s message.  She adds something deeper and more specific: “The word of God comes truly from your mouth.”

So too, the people who surround the widow of Nain say to Jesus, “A great prophet has arisen in our midst” and “God has visited his people.”  This is the essence of a miracle: not only that something remarkable is done, but that it points beyond itself, to God’s deeper gifts of presence to his people.

In both cases, they note that the wonder worker is a prophet, a speaker.  “The word of God comes truly from your mouth.”  

The prophet speaks to God and for God.  “Elijah called out to the Lord.”  He remonstrated: “O Lord, my God, will you afflict even the widow with whom I am staying by killing her son.”  And he pleads with God: “O Lord, my God, let the life breath return to the body of this child.”  And “The Lord heard the prayer of Elijah.”  

Elijah is a prophet – one from whom we hear God’s word – because he is first a man of prayer, someone who speaks to God and is heard.  Yes, the miracle testifies to God’s favor in him.  But it goes deeper.  There is something deeper here, about speaking with the Lord.

***

It goes even deeper.  Elijah’s prayer emphasizes the breath of the young man.  (I am on vacation and don’t have my Bible software, but I think there are important Hebrew words here about the Spirit and the Word.)  “Let the life breath return to the body of this child.”  “The life breath returned to the body of the child.”  It is not just life that comes to the young man, but the power of speech.

In the Gospel, the same thing is explicit.  “The dead man sat up and began to speak.”  The gift of God, the gift of life, is the gift of speech.

These prophets, these men who speak God’s word, are men who speak to God and give the power of speech.  God’s spirit, his own power of speech, empowers them to prayer, it empowers them to speak his word, it empowers them to put the word into others.  God’s word that made the world gives life and speech to us.

There is more going on than we realize when God gives us his word in Scripture.  The Bible itself is this power of life-giving speech, God’s word become ours.

***

And this is the theme at the beginning of Galatians.  Galatians 1 is the central discussion of what it means to be an Apostle.  Paul is confirming the authority of his preaching.

Here, the first authority is a different kind of healing.  Whereas Elijah is proved a prophet by giving breath to the young man, Paul is proved a prophet by the changing of his speech, from persecution of the Church to proclamation.  Elijah and Jesus gave speech to the young men whom they raised from the dead; Paul was dead not in body but in speech, and Jesus restored him by giving him new speech.

Paul emphasizes that he didn’t need to learn the Gospel.  This is a strange theme: Paul did not become an apostle because he read it in a book or learned from tradition, but because God’s spirit, God’s breath, was in him inspiring his speech.  

And yet for this reason, Paul himself becomes a font of Scripture, Tradition, and Magisterium.  And so the central act of his conversion is to go spend fifteen days “conferring” – that is, speaking – with Peter and James, the leaders of the Apostles.  

Their words are inspired.

How can you let yourself be filled with God’s speech?

Trinity Sunday

Holy Trinity, Rublev

Holy Trinity, Rublev

PRV 8:22-31; PS 8:4-5, 6-7, 8-9; ROM 5:1-5; JN 16:12-15

This Sunday we celebrate the Trinity, the most obscure but also most glorious mystery of our faith.

Historically, this feast has two origins. First, it is the Octave of Pentecost. In the early middle ages, there grew a practice of recelebrating a feast one week afterwards, and every day in between. Divine Mercy Sunday is the Octave of Easter: it is like the whole week repeats the glory of Easter, and the liturgy even says that “today” is Easter throughout. One day cannot contain its glories. Christmas, too, has an octave. Pentecost was the third to get an octave – and after that, they started giving octaves to all sorts of lesser feasts.

Now, Easter season is the octave of octaves. Pentecost, the Sunday after seven weeks of seven, is the final day of this super-octave. It seems to be in for this reason that they dropped the Pentecost octave in the reform of the liturgy after Vatican II – we should think of Pentecost as part of Easter, not a separate season. But we retain Trinity Sunday as kind of a reduplication of Pentecost – that is, as a celebration that Jesus the Son of God, the victor of Easter, and the Holy Spirit, whom he pours into our hearts, are truly God from God, light from light, true God from true God.

***

There was also an independent tradition that at some places had a Trinity Sunday as the final Sunday before Advent, as the culminating feast of the Church year. The readings at the end of the year point to the end of time, and the readings of Advent to the second coming of Christ. Thus a feast was added to ponder the final mystery, the mystery in which all things culminate, the life of God.

And in fact, before Vatican II the liturgy for the feast focused less on the mystery of the Trinity than on the mystery of God. The first reading (they didn’t used to have an Old Testament reading) was from Romans: “O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments, and His ways past finding out! For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who became His counselor?

The Gospel had the Baptismal formula from the Great Commission, but juxtaposed with Romans and the other prayers of the day, the point seemed only to be that we are baptized into the mystery of God. That is part of what Trinity Sunday does: it just leads us to think about God. It is the feast of God – and the feast of the mysteriousness, the unthinkability of God.

Preachers are sometimes scared of Trinity Sunday. But we should dwell on that: that we cannot understand God is precisely the point.

***

And yet the readings of the reformed liturgy do lead us into a meditation on the three persons. The first reading, from Wisdom, talks about the wisdom, the Logos, who was in the beginning with God, through whom all things were made (as John says in his prologue). Although the tradition would probably focus on the Son, you can think of it speaking of the Spirit, too: “When the Lord established the heavens I was there, when he marked out the vault over the face of the deep,” etc.

We ponder, at the end of this Easter season, the true identity of the Son and the Spirit. True God, in the beginning with God.

***

The first reading from the New Testament, from Romans, is more specific.

“We have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access.”  The whole point of the original controversies about the Trinity, in the fourth century, was that Jesus can only give us access to God because he is God – and man. A bridge must reach to both sides: if he is less than God, he cannot connect us to God. But he is that great, that awesome – and our redemption is that great.

So too the Spirit: “the love of God has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” Not something less than God, but God himself, as love. How great is our dignity!

And this is our hope even in “afflictions”: through the trials of life, we are in union with God himself, nothing less.

***

Most specific of all, of course, are the words of Jesus, from the prayer at the Last Supper in John’s Gospel. The Spirit “will take from what is mine and declare it to you,” and “everything that the Father has is mine.” Jesus can lead us to the Father because he is true God, nothing less. The Holy Spirit, poured into our hearts, unites us to Jesus because he is true God, nothing less.

How great is the mystery of God! And how great is our Redemption! Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit!

How would your day be different if you really believed that God himself was at work in your heart?

Third Sunday: The One and the Many

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

NEH 8:2-4a, 5-6, 8-10; PS 19: 8, 10, 15; 1 COR 12:12-30; LK 1:1-4, 4:14-21

We now begin Ordinary Time in earnest.

Ordinary Time is called that because we read through the Bible in order. This is the year of Luke, and so this week we get the opening of Luke’s Gospel (where he tells us his vocation as Gospel-writer) and then the opening of Jesus’s public ministry – skipping over his childhood and time in the desert to where he actually begins to preach. The Old Testament reading is chosen to harmonize with the Gospel.

Meanwhile, the Epistle, or second reading, is its own kind of semi-continuous “orderly” reading. Since the epistles are spread out over three years, we do not read straight through them. In fact, since 1 Corinthians is a little complicated, we read through one part of it at the beginning of each year.

In other words, the Epistle is chosen more to give us a sampling of the epistles than for its match with the Gospel. Nonetheless, the readings often illuminate each other in delightful ways.

***

This year, the third in the cycle, we begin late in 1 Corinthians, with its last section, beginning in chapter 12. 12 and 14 are about “one body, many members”; in the middle is chapter 13, about love. They go together: love holds the body together.

This week our reading is surprisingly insistent. Paul spends some thirteen verses on the metaphor of the body: “If an ear should say, ‘because I am not an eye I do not belong to the body,’” etc. Paul thinks this point needs to be driven home.

And so this week, let us try to drive it home. The Church has many parts. Most of us are not bishops. Most of us are not priests. Most of us are not theology professors. Some are mothers, some are fathers, some are neither. Some are more educated, some less.

More to the point: we all tend to think other vocations are treated better than ours. Priests and lay people are both tempted to think the other one has it easy – as are mothers and fathers, and all the rest.

We are tempted to inflate ourselves – but a funny aspect of that is that we tend to think other people have more influence. “If I were in that position, I would really fix things” – but where I am, what good can I do?

Paul insists: your position is important. Embrace your vocation. The Church needs you – just as a body without a gall bladder wouldn’t work very well, even though no one much cares about them. (I think – I don’t know anything about gall bladders!)

***

The Old Testament and Gospel are picked to match each other, and each adds an important commentary on 1 Corinthians 12.

The first reading is from Nehemiah. If you’ve never read Ezra and Nehemiah, do it sometime. They’re short, and inspiring.

The people have come back from the Babylonian exile. They are rebuilding. To make a long story short, they rediscover their religion – as if Ezra the priest has rediscovered the Bible in the basement of some musty old building. He reads it out loud to the people, and they gasp: what beauty! How much we have forgotten! How much we have to do!

Meanwhile, in the Gospel, Jesus pulls out a scribe of the Bible (Isaiah) in his home synagogue, and says, this is about me!

***

Each of these readings highlights both the oneness and the many-ness of the Church.

First, there are many vocations. All are not Ezra. All are not Jesus – or Luke, who at the beginning of our reading describes his vocation to be the one who, like Ezra, tells us the word of the Lord.

Sometimes we are in positions of authority – sometimes we are Ezra, or Luke, or somehow associated with Jesus. Usually we are not. But in each of these situations, it is glorious to be on the receiving end.

Ezra gets the limelight. But the people get to hear the Word of God! There’s no reason to be jealous because he gets to do the speaking. To the contrary, we should rejoice that we get to do the listening.

Only Jesus is savior. But we are the poor who hear good tidings, the captives who receive liberty, the blind who recover sight, the oppressed who go free. We should delight in our vocation, even if we’re not the one in charge.

We needn’t worry whether our leaders are doing a good job. We should worry about whether we’re doing a good job receiving what they give us. They may be less perfect at their job – but so are we, at ours. Let’s receive joyfully!

***

On the other hand, though we are many, we are also one. As we hear the word from Ezra and Luke, we are called to speak it – not, to be sure, from as exalted a pulpit as theirs, but in our little corners.

As Jesus heals and liberates us, so we ourselves become healers and liberators, carriers of his Gospel.

Though we are many, we are one in Christ.

Where could you be more joyful about your place in the Church?

Second Sunday: An Epiphany of Love

wedding-feast-a-cana09smThe last three weeks we have been looking at the three classic “epiphanies” of Jesus. The first, on the feast of the Epiphany, was his manifestation to the Wise Men. The second, the opening of Ordinary Time, was the voice of the Father at his Baptism. And the third, this week, is “the beginning of his signs, at Cana in Galilee,” in which he “revealed his glory, and his disciples began to believe in him.”

In each of these three classic Epiphanies, he reveals who he is. This week, he reveals himself as the Lover.

***

We warmed up with a reading from late Isaiah. “No more shall people call you ‘Forsaken,’ or your land ‘Desolate,’ but you shall be called ‘My Delight,’ and your land ‘Espoused.’ For the Lord delights in you and makes your land his spouse.”

We will not tarry on this reading, except to say that it gets us started with the idea of God’s love for us, a love compared to the love of a Bridegroom.

We see, too, God’s love for the land itself. I have been learning recently about the Song of Songs. There is a strong argument that there, too, the bride is no human woman, but the land of Israel itself. This helps makes sense of strange lines such as, “Thy teeth are like a flock of ewes” (Songs 6:6). It’s not just a bizarre metaphor. The Song of Songs is a love song of God for the nation as a whole – even the land where they dwell.

***

The central reading this week though is the magnificent Gospel of Cana. How does he love us? Let us count the ways:

He comes to the wedding. Jesus wants to be where his people are. He is not there to manifest himself – in fact, when Mary asks for a miracle, his first response his reluctance. He is there to be with the people he loves.

He has a mother, and follows her. Jesus loves the couple, but he loves his mother, too. The whole story is rich with presence, simply being with the people he loves.

He brings wine to the wedding. It’s nothing important, nothing salvific. It’s just kindness to the people he loves. The gratuity of Cana marks love – just as the celebratory aspect of a wedding marks nothing but the goodness of love.

***

Let us go a step deeper. When Mary says, “They have no wine,” Jesus responds, “What is this to me and to you, woman.” One way to interpret this is as the question: does this couple’s misfortune – and this kind of misfortune, lacking wine, not lacking anything really important – really affect us?”

The American Lectionary’s translation has, “Woman, how does your concern affect me.” But in the Greek, “What is this to me and to you” seems to put Mary and Jesus on the same side of the question. Not, “how does your concern affect me” but “how does their concern affect you or me?”

Mary’s response is itself a kind of question. (Deeper down there may be an important aspect of Jewish rhetoric here, where everything moves forward by questions, not assertions. Note, for example, that the twelve-year-old Jesus teaches them in the Temple by asking questions.) When Jesus says, “what is this to you and to me?” Mary responds by telling the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”

It is as if she responds to Jesus’s question with another question, or as if she says to him, “I don’t know, you tell me.” The ball’s in your court, Jesus. Does the lack of wine matter to you? Should it matter to me? I will do nothing but submit to your judgment: you act, and I will follow.

And he acts, with bravado. He chooses the water jugs for purification, so it is clear they are pure water. He has the servants fill them, so there are witnesses. He makes the wine excellent.

Mary says, “You tell me, Jesus, do you care about such things?” And he says, with his actions, “Yes, yes, I do.”

There’s so much to tell about this story, and yet it comes down to one thing: he loves us very much. Cana is a celebration of that love.

***

But his love is not really about wine – anymore than the couple’s love was really about the wine. The wine is just a manifestation, an epiphany, of that love.

So our reading from First Corinthians 12 shows us the real gifts of the Bridegroom: wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, might deeds, prophecy, discernment of spirits, tongues, the interpretation of tongues. The real gift is not the wine, but the Spirit.

And it is a gift, again, that leave us not merely as individuals, but drawn together into the Body of Christ – just as in Isaiah, the Lord’s love created a land for them, a nation, and just as at Cana he built up a marriage and a community of friends.

God loves us, and gives us love.

What would change for you today if you really believed God loves us?

Thirty-Third Sunday: The Apocalyptic Now

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

DN 12:1-3; PS 16:5, 8, 9-10, 11; HEB 10:11-14, 18; MK 13:24-32

We come now to the end.  Next Sunday will be the last Sunday of the Church year, Christ the King.  This Sunday we read about the end of time.

Our Gospel, it must be said, is somewhat confusing.  Perhaps it is meant to be.  Jesus talks about “after the time of distress.”  He says, “the sun will be darkened, the moon will lose its brightness, the stars will come falling from heaven.”  Then the Son of Man will come “in the clouds with great power and glory.”  It is clear he will be the master of the end of time.  It is not so clear what exactly the end of time will be.

He tells us to “take the fig tree as a parable”: its leaves are a sign of summer.  So too there will be signs that Jesus is coming.  But he concludes “as for that day or hour, nobody knows it” – not even the Son.

He says “all these things will have taken place” “before this generation has passed away.”  But what are “all these things”?  What is “this generation”?  Was Jesus wrong?

***

A little context helps.  Before our reading, Jesus has already been talking about the end for some twenty verses.  He talks about horrible things that will happen – “but the end is not yet.”  There will be many “false Christs and false prophets.”

Here is one way to read all of this: the Apocalypse is not about a “then” separate from our “now.”  It is not that the world is “stable,” and then at some point something abnormal will happen.

Rather, it is that the world constantly teeters on the edge.  He is coming soon.  All the horrible things that happen – as Friday evening in Paris – are not a break from normal.  They are normal: a world teetering on the edge, and constantly reminding us that Christ alone is the End.

He will come one day.  But every day – both “that generation” and ours – are days of expectation.

***

As an example of this, consider how our first reading, from Daniel, frames our Psalm.  By “framing” I mean it puts a context “around” the Psalm so that we notice new things.

The Psalm is beautiful, but normal enough.  “And so my heart rejoices, my soul is glad; even my body shall rest in safety.”  “O Lord, it is you who are my portion and cup.”

But the reading that precedes it is apocalyptic.  “There is going to be a time of great distress, unparalleled since nations first came into existence.”  Angels will war.  “Michael will stand up, the great prince who mounts guard over your people.”  Those who have learned virtue “will shine as brightly as the vault of heaven . . . as bright as stars for all eternity.”

After reading that, “even my body shall rest in safety” no longer sounds like a sleepy Saturday afternoon, but a promise of protection in a time of chaos far surpassing any terrorist attack.  “God, I take refuge in you” is no longer a sweet pat on the head, but a response to real terror – and a promise of divine intervention.  In the context of Daniel’s apocalypse, “You will show me the path of life, the fullness of joy in your presence” changes from a saccharine hope that everything will be just fine to a heroic passage through the gates of hell.

But the best part is that we can – we should – read the Psalm that way now.  The terror is not yet upon us – but God’s protection and his promises are.  The apocalypse reminds us to see our every day on the brink of eternity.

***

Above all, it reminds us to see our life under God’s protection.  Daniel promises that “all those whose names are found written in the Book” will be protected.  It is not a matter of our awesome strength, but of God’s providence.  We are safe because we have been chosen – because of his action, not ours.  He will teach us – and so “those who have learned will shine brightly” – but our trust is in him, not ourselves.

As we come to the end of the Church year, we come too to the end of Hebrews.  And we see Jesus “forever at the right hand of God; now [now!] he waits until his enemies are made his footstool.”  Our hope is in him.  Our help is in the name of the Lord.  Jesus is the victor of the cosmic battle.

The Greek word “apocalypse,” and its Latin translation “revelation,” both mean that the veil that covers reality has been pulled away.  This week we get a glimpse of what’s really going on – not just at the end of time, but in our apocalyptic now.

How do you remind yourself that heaven is more real than earth?

All Saints and the Transformation of Halloween

All-Saints

REV 7:2-4, 9-14; PS 24:1bc-2, 3-4ab, 5-6; 1 JN 3:1-3; MT 5:1-12a

Every year my wife and I have a big discussion about how we should deal with Halloween.  I’ll let you know if we ever come up with a good answer.  We have five little kids.  We don’t want them embracing the world’s standards of good and evil, beautiful and ugly.  We’re not excited about lots of candy.  And – on the other hand – we think that somehow, somewhere, there’s a good insight in Halloween, and we’re not into just ignoring our culture.

Halloween is, of course, really All-Hallow’s Eve, the night before All Saints.  The original insight is something along the lines of, All Saints (Nov 1) remembers those in heaven, All Souls (Nov 2) remembers those in Purgatory – and Hallow’s Eve (Oct 31) remembers the forces of Hell.  There’s something to that.

Our readings for the feast take us deeper.

***

The first reading is from Revelation.  All Saints is an apocalyptic feast.  It introduces November, the month of the dying of the year, by turning our gaze toward the end of time.

The reading from Revelation speaks of the great battle between the forces of heaven and the forces of hell.  It begins with “the four angels who were given power to damage the land and the sea” – the great destruction at the end of time.

The saints are gathered around the Lamb, singing his praises.  If we read more of Revelation, we know that its central image is “the Lamb who was slain,” a magnificent apocalyptic vision of Christ as victim.

The saints themselves are described here as “the ones who have survived the time of great distress; they have washed their robes and made them white in the Blood of the Lamb.”  Already we are turning the gore of Halloween inside out: the ax murderers and the zombies are replaced with those bathed in the blood of the Victim.

The destroying angels stand for God’s condemnation of the standards of this world.  Or, to put it more positively, all things are passing, God alone remains.  It is not God who condemns this world, but this world that condemns itself, by clinging to what does not remain and forgetting the one thing necessary.  The blood-stained saints have held on to Jesus when all else collapsed.

***

We need to be in this apocalyptic frame of mind to appreciate fully our Gospel reading.  It is perhaps the most profound reading in all of Scripture, all of literature: the Beatitudes.

We can read them against Halloween.  Against pirates and princesses, Christ proclaims, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.”  The world dresses up as the powerful and the plunderers – and Christ calls us to imitate him, the powerless who was plundered.

While the world celebrates conquest, Christ celebrates those who mourn.

The closest the world can get to those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, and the peacemakers is superheros.  But as the world decides whether to dress up as Batman or a zombie, we see that Christ calls us to a very different kind of heroism, our strength not in superpowers or high-tech weapons, but in the suffering of the Lamb.

bergognone-peter-the-martyrThe multitude of saints in Revelation have axes in their heads, not in their hands.

***

In this apocalyptic light we also read our epistle, from First John.

“See what love the Father has bestowed on us that we may be called children of God.”  How fascinating that, as our children dress up as adults, Christ calls us adults to become as children.

Yet avoiding the worldliness that affects our children, too.  “The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him.”  We are not called to become children in the sense that we mindlessly embrace the world’s standards of glory and go seeking after candy.  We are called to become children in the sense that we take God as our Father, Christ as our model, and the Holy Spirit as our soul and way of life.

Halloween reminds us of the world’s standards, the world’s mistaken views of good and evil, of glory and gory.  It reminds us that the saints live by an entirely different standard, one that turns worldly values inside out.

“Everyone who has this hope based on him makes himself pure, as he is pure.”  But part of that purity is seeing the foolishness of this world, associating ourselves with the victims, and the Victim, of this world’s crimes.

Like I said, I’ll let you know if I ever figure out how to turn these ideas into a children’s party.  But I think it means something deeper than just turning our backs on Halloween, or just embracing it.  To truly appreciate All Saints, and the fabulous new standards that it sets before us, we need to look Halloween in the face, and turn it on its head.

How does Halloween help you think about the Beatitudes, or the Apocalypse?

Thirtieth Sunday: The Remnant of the Poor

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

JER 31:7-9; PS 126: 1-2, 2-3, 4-5, 6; HEB 5:1-6; MK 10: 46-52

One of the most inspiring symbols in the Old Testament is “the remnant.”  It comes up in various contexts related to the exile.  The Assyrians and Babylonians have conquered Israel.  The leaders are all led into exile.  Both at home and in exile, the Israelites are giving up, blending in with their conquerors.  But a remnant remains, a small crew who are still faithful.

It’s an inspiring image because we often feel like a remnant.  It feels like so many have given up hope, given up faith.  In fact, we need to feel like a remnant, to try to be more faithful than the many.

But this Sunday’s readings teach us a little about what it really means to be part of the remnant.

***

Jeremiah is classic Exile literature.  Our reading this week is about the remnant: “Shout with joy for Jacob, exult at the head of the nations; proclaim your praise and say: the Lord has delivered his people, the remnant of Israel.”

We should rejoice to be among the chosen few, the band of brothers, the remnant.  But here’s the key, the part we sometimes forget: “the Lord has delivered.”

God says, “Behold, I will bring them back from the land of the north” (that is, from Assyria and Babylon).  But so often, in our heroism, we forget that he says, “I will,” and get a little too excited about our own heroism.

He continues: “I will gather them from the ends of the world, with the blind and the lame in their midst.”  The image is important: the remnant comes staggering home from exile to rebuild the kingdom – and they come limping.  It is not the strong who come.  The blind and the lame remind us that the battle belongs to the Lord.  They have been defeated.  But he is stronger.

With them come “the mothers and those with child.”  The image works on two levels.  First, they are another symbol of weakness.  Pregnant women are not warriors.  They have not conquered, God has.

And yet the new life they bring is the most perfect sign of restoration.

***

This is us, the remnant.  Not the strong and the heroic.  Merely those who are saved.

We come limping – and our limping is a sign of God’s strength, made perfect in our weakness.

We come as families.  But family makes us limp all the more.  We have no strength to conquer our enemies.  But the Lord is our strength, and in our children, in our pregnancies, in our weakness is the perfect sign of restoration.

***

This Sunday’s Psalm contains the line, “Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like the torrents in the southern desert.”

I share this video.

 

It is a sign of resurrection, of strength not our own.

***

The Gospel is blind Bartimaeus.  It’s an interesting scene: there is “a sizable crowd.”  And there is a blind man who “sat by the roadside begging.”  He could not see Jesus; he had no resources for knowing about Jesus; and he could not make his way through the crowd.  And he is the one who is saved.

My friends, serious Catholics talk a lot about rebuilding the culture, or converting the culture.  That’s fine.

But I think too often we trust in kings.  We think that what we really need is impressive people converting impressive people, with lots of impressive resources.

Bartimaeus was not an impressive person.  Those who rebuilt Israel were not impressive.  Our impressive resource is the power of God.  Our impressive people are the meek and the humble and the poor: people like Mary and Joseph.  No ones.

The poor are so critical to rebuilding the culture, because it is by the poor that we measure whether we really believe in the power of God, or whether we talk a bit talk but are “practical atheists,” who think everything depends on our cleverness.

The only Christian civilization is the one built around people like Bartimaeus.

***

And, at the center, the Crucified.

In our reading from Hebrews, we see Jesus, our high priest.  “He is able to deal patiently with the ignorant and the erring.”  He has taken on our sins, and comes among us.

And “it was not Christ who glorified himself,” but his glory is in “the one who said to him, You are my son: this day I have begotten you.”

Let us be the remnant not of the clever and amazing, but of those who put all our trust in the God of Jesus Christ.

In what ways are you tempted to think the most important Christians are the most impressive?

 

Twenty-Ninth Sunday: The Suffering Servant

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

IS 53:10-11; PS 33:4-5, 18-19, 20, 22; HEB 4:14-16; MK 10:35-45

Our Gospel for this week teaches, “Whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all.”  The Lectionary gives us two very helpful readings to help us understand this Gospel.

First is one of the “suffering servant” prophecies from Isaiah.  It begins with a strange statement:

“The Lord was pleased to crush him in infirmity.”

A word on the interpretation of prophecy.  A line like this refers both to a historical figure – Isaiah himself, in part – and to the ultimate fulfillment of the prophecy, Jesus.  In other words, the Holy Spirit inspires Isaiah to speak about Jesus in terms of his own experience.

An important aspect of this is that this experience is not entirely unique to Jesus.  Isaiah’s sufferings are not redemptive in exactly the same way Jesus’s are.  But there is some connection between their experiences.  Jesus has entered into our experience.

Which is all just to return to the question: “whom is he talking about?”  Well, he’s talking about himself, and about Jesus – and also about us.

***

“The Lord was pleased to crush him in infirmity.”  That is mighty strange.  Somehow God takes pleasure in our suffering.  Why?

Isaiah continues, “If he gives his life as an offering for sin, he shall see his descendants in a long life, and the will of the Lord shall be accomplished through him.”

“He gives his life.”  First of all, the Lord is pleased to give us suffering only when we ourselves embrace it.  The Lord’s pleasure is not in the suffering, but in the self-giving.

And yet self-giving is perfected in suffering.  Why?  “An offering for sin.”  These are rich words.  Let us only say, it has to do with sin.  It has to do with conversion.  Turning sin to righteousness is going to involve suffering.  Our own conversion is painful.  And our love for those who remain sinners is painful.

The Lord is “pleased to crush us” when we embrace the suffering of turning from sin to righteousness.

***

So “the will of the Lord shall be accomplished through him.”  The suffering servant embraces suffering as the deepest sign of embraced God’s will.  It’s about the will of the Lord, not about suffering – and yet suffering is where we see most clearly whether we embrace God’s will.

And so “he shall see his descendants”: because ultimately this is not about death, it is about life.  It is not about the Lord crushing us, it’s about welcoming the Lord into our lives, and receiving life from him, and from him alone.

***

The second reading, from our tour through Hebrews, focuses even more directly on Jesus.

“We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has similarly been tested in every way, yet without sin.”

His suffering is described as a test, a test he passes without sin.  Again, it is not about the suffering, but about holding fast no matter what – and yet it is in suffering that we discover whether we hold fast.

Jesus has come as our high priest.  Whatever else that may mean – we haven’t space to consider it here – it involves entering in our weaknesses, so that we can “approach the throne of grace to receive mercy.”

In short, Jesus is there.  Like the fourth son of man in Daniel’s fiery furnace, he walks beside us through the suffering.  He makes it a place of springs, a place of grace, a place of divine union.  He comes precisely to give us the grace to pass this test.

We must be purified of the dross of sin.  We must be converted.  It’s going to hurt, and it’s in suffering that we will discover what most needs to be purified.  But Jesus has come to console us, to give us strength, to give us union as we suffer for our sins and those of others.

***

In our Gospel, James and John seek the glory of Christ.  He calls them to drink his cup and be baptized with his baptism: to embrace his Cross.

Then he says, “to sit at my right or at my left is not mine to give but is for those for whom it is prepared.”  At first glance, we’re tempted to separate this from the cup and the baptism, as if Jesus gives those, and someone else decides about glory.  To the contrary, the cup and the baptism are the preparation.

There is no entrance into glory except through fire, because there is no entrance except through conversion.

And though suffering helps us understand this teaching, Jesus’s words point even deeper: we must be “the slave of all,” purified of our self-worship and transformed into love.

How is suffering calling you to conversion today?

Twenty-Seventh Sunday: Love and Marriage

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

GN 2:18-24; PS 128: 1-2, 3, 4-5, 6; HEB 2:9-11; MK 10:2-16

This Sunday Pope Francis’s great synod on marriage begins.  The Gospel for the Mass is Scripture’s bluntest statement against divorce – and together, the readings give the most beautiful picture of why marriage is a central icon of Christian love.

In our passage from Mark’s Gospel, the Pharisees ask Jesus whether divorce is lawful.  He goes out of his way to contradict Moses: he allowed divorce only “because of the hardness of your hearts.”  But Jesus quotes Genesis – “from the beginning of creation” – emphasizing the words “they are no longer two but one flesh.  Therefore what God has joined together no human being must separate.”  And therefore remarriage, he says, is no remarriage, but adultery.  Strong words.

Mark slightly streamlines this dialogue compared to the almost exact same account in Matthew 19.  But he eliminates Matthew’s confusing words about how fornication effects the situation.  And at the end of the story, when the disciples ask Jesus to explain this teaching in private, Matthew has Jesus admit that it is hard (“All men cannot receive this saying, save they to whom it is given”), but Mark just has him repeat it (“Whosoever shall put away his wife, and marry another, committeth adultery against her.”)  In Mark we simply have the teaching in its starkness.

***

But Jesus points to the beginning, and the Lectionary gives us the passage he cites from Genesis.  Genesis, in fact, gives us some keys for appreciating this stark teaching in the Gospel.

Jesus quotes Gen 2:24.  Immediately before those words (“This is why a man will leave his father and mother”) come Adam’s words of admiration for his wife, “This one, at last, is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.”

(In many modern translations, the words, “That is why” belong to the narrator.  But the Tradition often assumes that Adam is still speaking: he prophesies – and, despite our translation, it is in the future tense – “That is why a man will leave his father and mother.”  In his admiration of Eve, Adam prophesies all marriages to come.)

The first note, then, is similarity and equality.  After the rhetoric of the Sexual Revolution we forget, but the Christian prohibition of divorce is one of the most pro-woman decisions in the history of mankind.  Alongside the right of women to choose celibacy, it is the original feminism.  Moses did not allow women to leave their husbands – like every other non-Christian society, he only allowed men to leave their wives.  Jesus’s prohibition of divorce was first of all a rejection of this inequality – the inequality expressed every time someone abandons their promises.  The man has no right to abandon his family, because God created man and woman equals.

***

A second note: the unity of body and soul.  He admires that she is from his body: “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.”  But in the preceding story, the problem is one of soul.  He is alone (the Hebrew word is “separated” – already a word pointing toward divorce) and looking for a “suitable partner.”  He names the animals, but the animals cannot speak back to him.

In Eve’s bodily similarity to him he discovers her personality.  He knows that this one who has his flesh and bones will also be able to talk to him and so heal his loneliness.  Marriage, with all its fleshly privileges and obligations, points to a much deeper kind of unity.  Bodily union is an icon of spiritual friendship.  Jesus’s insistence on maintaining that fleshly union points deeper, to an abiding friendship.

***

We begin to see that the key words in what Jesus says are “hardness of heart.”  This is the true enemy of marriage.  And the deeper claim of Jesus is that this hardness of heart – which has reigned even through Moses – can now be conquered.

Our second reading begins a tour through the Letter to the Hebrews that will last the rest of the liturgical year.  It gives the theological key to this healing of our hard hearts.

In it, Jesus becomes “lower than the angels” – the Most High comes down – to taste death for us.  He consecrates us by suffering.  He becomes one of us, our brother – bone of our bones, flesh of our flesh.

Suffering among us, Jesus conquers hardness of heart.  It is by our union with him, and our willingness to suffer for others, that divine friendship becomes possible.  The heart of Jesus loving us even to the Cross is the icon of married love.

***

The long option for the Gospel brings us back, yet again, to the theme of children.  In Mark, it almost feels like this discussion of marriage is an interruption of a conversation about children.

Suddenly what we have learned about marriage floods out into how we see all people: we love them as we love ourselves; see their bodies as an icon of their souls; are called, even through suffering, to overcome our hardness of heart.  In marriage we have learned the grandeur of Christian love.

What does marriage teach you about loving your neighbor?