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?

Corpus Christi Sunday: Thanksgiving

Corpus-Christi-Holy-Quotes-Sayings-Wallpapers-Messages-SMS-3

GEN 14:18-20; PS 110:1,2,3,4; 1 COR 11:23-26; LK 9:11b-17

This Sunday we celebrate the Feast of the Body and Blood of Christ. Now, the real day for Corpus Christi is the Thursday after the octave of Pentecost, that is, the Thursday after Trinity Sunday. Last week we were talking about octaves, and how a single feast is drawn out over a long time. The reason we celebrate Corpus Christi on this Thursday is that it is the very next Thursday (not counting the weeks-long celebration of Easter) after Holy Thursday. Holy Thursday contains so much. On this “next” Thursday, we separate out just the element of the Eucharist.

(Of course, in the United States we transfer the feast to Sunday. This is because of the challenges of coordinating Masses in far-flung dioceses. I used to get annoyed about transferring feasts. But hey, it’s the priests’ and bishops’ job to figure out these details, not mine. My job is to enjoy the liturgy. Kvetching doesn’t help.)

***

In the three-year cycle of the post-Vatican II liturgy, we get different angles on this liturgy. This year, we focus on thanksgiving.

The first reading is Abraham’s mysterious encounter with the priest Melchizedek. Melchizedek, of course, gets a lot of play in Hebrews as a precursor of Christ. Psalm 110, “The Lord said to my Lord,” which we pray in this Mass, identifies the Messiah as a priest “in the order of Melchizedek.”

But a nice place to go to appreciate Melchizedek is in the Roman Canon, Eucharistic Prayer One, where after the consecration, the priest prays:

accept [these offerings], as once you were pleased to accept

the gifts of your servant Abel the just,

the sacrifice of Abraham, our father in faith,

and the offering of your high priest Melchizedek,

a holy sacrifice, a spotless victim.

Melchizedek is portrayed as one of the models of offering perfect sacrifice – and a model that helps explain the others.

Now, that’s surprising, because in our reading this Sunday, we see that his sacrifice hardly fits our definition of sacrifice. “Melchizedek, king of Salem, brought out bread and wine, and being a priest of God Most High, he blessed Abram.” He invokes God as “creator of heaven and earth . . . who delivered your foes into your hand” – but he doesn’t destroy anything. Doesn’t sacrifice mean death and destruction?

The tradition’s answer is, no it doesn’t. Sacrifice is an act of thanksgiving and worship, manifested with material things. We have a fine model of sacrifice in the American holiday of Thanksgiving. The turkey (one hopes) does not get burned, it gets eaten. And yet that sacred banquet is itself an act of giving thanks to God most high, creator of heaven and earth, who provides and protects and gives us a place of rest.

Melchizedek gives thanks and praise, as we do in the Eucharist – it is right and just, our duty and our salvation, always and everywhere to give thanks and praise, which is why it is called Eucharist, thanksgiving.

***

The Gospel reading this Sunday is also surprising. It is not the Last Supper – we hear about that only in the Epistle. It is the feeding of the five thousand. Now of course, in John 6, that apostle takes the occasion of the multiplication of loaves to give us Jesus’ central discourse on the Eucharist. But this year we read Luke.

All we have is Jesus: “looking up to heaven, he said the blessing over them, broke them, and gave them to the disciples to set before the crowd.” But the language is surprisingly reminiscent of the Mass: “and with eyes raised to heaven to you, O God, his almighty Father, giving you thanks, he said the blessing, broke the bread and gave it to his disciples.” That line, “with eyes raised to heaven” isn’t in any of the accounts of the Last Supper – the Roman Canon takes it from the multiplication of the loaves.

What are we to make of this? Again, the deeper point is Eucharist, thanksgiving, not destruction. Jesus gives them (as John tells us he said over and over at the multiplication of the loaves) not the bread of death, but the bread of life. He feeds them with finest wheat – his very life – and they are filled with praise and joy and thanksgiving.

***

Our epistle is 1 Corinthians 11, where Paul gives his own account of the Last Supper. He tells us the Eucharist was established “on the night he was handed over,” and “as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes.” Yes, it does call to mind his death – but as we await his coming. This eschatological aspect of the Eucharist reminds us that he is not dead, he is victorious. His death is the mystery we pass through on the way to his life and triumph.

And so “this cup is the new covenant in my blood,” the chalice, as the Roman Canon says, “of everlasting salvation.” We are filled not with death, but with “every grace and heavenly blessing.” We celebrate his triumph with hymns of praise and not with destruction, but with a festal banquet. The Eucharist is joy.

How could you express greater thankfulness to God?

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?

Good Shepherd: Union

good-shepherd-2

ACTS 13:14, 43.52; PS 100:1-2, 4, 5; REV 7:9, 14b-17; JN 10:27-30

Last Sunday is now well behind us, but despite a busy week, I don’t want to miss the opportunity to comment on its rich readings.

The Second Sunday of Easter taught us about God’s mercy for us; the Third Sunday taught us to worship; this Fourth Sunday, Good Shepherd Sunday, taught us about union.

***

The short Gospel reading was from the fabulous tenth chapter of John’s Gospel, which is all about the Good Shepherd. Pope Francis says a good shepherd smells like his sheep. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, is one with his sheep. He shares in our humanity so that we might share in his divinity.

Our reading begins, “My sheep hear my voice; I know them, and they follow me.” What is implicit is that, just as he knows them, so they know him – that’s why they recognize his voice, and follow. Sheep, as we have said in the past, have an important kind of intelligence: they know their shepherd. They don’t have to be driven with sticks; they follow. Faith is a gift – we recognize our shepherd because he has given his own knowledge to us.

They know him because he is among them. They trust him because he knows and cares for them. The shepherd and the sheep are one.

He gives them life, his life – and they will never be destroyed. The earthly shepherd is a dim image of the kind of care that our Good Shepherd gives us. He is the very giver of life. We live in his hands.

And then he concludes (in our little snippet from a long discourse), “The Father and I are one.” He alludes to a deeper discussion about the unity of the Trinity, a unity poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, who is given to us.

***

In our reading from Revelation, in a more mystical key, John portrays the shepherd as a sheep – the most vulnerable sheep, the Lamb. Of course, Jesus is the Lamb in John’s Gospel, too, but here we have it put together: “the Lamb will shepherd them, and lead them to springs of life-giving water.” He can shepherd us because he has united himself to us. We can trust him because this Lamb shows his concern for us in becoming one of us. When he offers us shelter from the sun and the heat, and relief from our hunger and thirst, we know it is for real.

We look to Jesus in his humanity and know he will care for us.

The Lamb, of course, is also an image of sacrifice. In Revelation he is “the Lamb who was slain.” In this reading, we wash our robes and make them white in the blood of the Lamb. There are two kinds of depth of unity in this remarkable phrase. First, he unites himself to us not only in our relief, but in our suffering. He loves us “to the end,” to the depths, to the most awful aspects of our existence, to blood and death.

And second, he washes us white, which is a sign of purifying us. He makes us good. He doesn’t merely shelter us from the outside, he transforms us from within. He is not merely a distant God who gives us earthly food, he is Jesus who transfigures us, makes our hearts like unto his Sacred Heart, washes us clean.

***

In our reading from Acts, these mystical images were made concrete and historical. Paul and Barnabas are missionaries. At this point they are in Syria, the northeast corner of the Mediterranean.

The Lord who has united himself to them speaks through them. He has given them his word and they become his mouthpiece. Paul and Barnabas “spoke to them and urged them to remain faithful to the grace of God.” It is Paul and Barnabas who speak, but it is Christ’s word, calling the people to Christ. Christ who has united himself to them unites them to himself.

And he sends them to suffer as he suffered. They are rejected by their people – Christ’s people. They are expelled from the territory, and shake the dust from their feet. And in being rejected with Christ, they are filled with joy and the Holy Spirit – the joy of the Holy Spirit, joy of Christ’s love, poured into their hearts.

The Lamb who shepherds them has made them shepherds. He who loves us calls us to love. Christ who has come to us makes us part of him, rejoicing with him in the Father, suffering with him for the sheep.

Christ calling you. How does he want to take flesh in your life this week?

Third Sunday of Easter: Worship

grunewaldchrisre

ACTS 5:27-32, 40b-41; PS 30: 2, 4, 5-6, 11, 12-13; REV 5:11-14; JN 21:1-19

Last week – the second Sunday of Easter, Divine Mercy Sunday – the Church focused on Mercy. This week our readings turn us to worship. Worship is the positive to the slightly negative side of mercy. Mercy comes in where something is lacking. But God’s mercy, by strengthening us in our weakness, allows us to worship – and God’s awesome mercy becomes a new reason for worship.

***

One of the great joys of the post-Vatican II revised Lectionary is that, beside the traditional readings from Acts of the Apostles and John’s Gospel, we now also get a taste of the Revelation, or Apocalypse, of St. John.

There are various ways to read this book. Protestants sometimes get into trying to predict the future. The Catholic tradition tends not to comment on the book too much – but isn’t into soothsaying. (Jesus said no one knows the day nor the hour, not “just decode the Bible.”) There’s a modern movement (by ex-Protestant Catholics) to turn this book into code for the liturgy. Probably closer to the mark, but I don’t know if it’s necessary.

Literally, “revelation” (in Latin) or “apocalypse” (the same word in Greek) means “pulling back the veil,” seeing what’s hidden. It’s not the future that St. John’s Apocalypse “reveals,” but the present – the spiritual battle that rages all around us. It is a great joy when we learn to read this book, and so to see through the veils to spiritual realities.

One of the greatest joys in this book is the image of the saints in worship. This Sunday we had the angels singing, “worthy is the Lamb that was slain,” and then “every creature in heaven and on earth” crying out, “To the one who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor, glory and might, forever and ever.”

This is not soothsaying. This is the song at the heart of every true Christian. This is worship. Let us discover it.

***

But if Revelation gives us the mysterious songs of heaven, this Sunday’s Gospel leads us into worship in the most human ways. “When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he tucked in his garment – for he was lightly clad – and jumped into the sea. The other disciples came in the boat.”

There is no other scene in the Bible that so brilliantly shows what worship means. Little children understand the story. Peter is so delighted to see Jesus that he turns to foolishness. Worship is not foolish, but there we have the heart of Christianity – deeper maybe, even, then the discovery of God’s mercy. To be so in love with Jesus as to put on your clothes and dive into the water.

Then they ate a meal with Jesus. There are several meals, but this one on the beach is the most touching. Just to be with him. This is why we go to adoration, what we’re really doing when we pray the rosary, the heart of everything: just to be with him.

And then the Gospel takes us a step deeper. “Do you love me, do you love me, do you love me?”

“Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” The threefold repetition, of course, overcomes Peter’s threefold denial. But let us not over-complicate things. The heart of worship is simply the repetition of love.

And finally, that love issues forth in service: “feed my lambs.” If you love me, love your neighbor. If you love me, do my work. If you love me, carry my cross. If you love me let them dress you and lead you where you do not want to go, and die for me, to “glorify God.”

That’s what worship means. Everything else comes back to adoration, profound love of Jesus and of the Father, nothing else.

***

And the reading from Acts of the Apostles takes us a step deeper into the same spirit. On the one hand, we have suffering. “We must obey God rather than men.” And so they had to “suffer dishonor for the sake of the name.” To love him is to be willing to suffer.

But let us not over-focus on the suffering. Let us not over-complicate. The heart is love. “We gave you strict orders, did we not, to stop teaching in that name.” They “ordered the apostles to stop speaking in the name of Jesus.” But the apostles rejoiced “that they had been found worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of the name.”

Yes, suffering. Yes, obedience. But deeper than that is their joy in savoring the name of Jesus. The name, which is not a talisman, not a magic word, not an obligation, but the simple savoring of the goodness of God. Oh, sweet Jesus!

That is worship.

Where is worship in your life?

Fourth Sunday in Lent: Through Death to Resurrection

The Agony in the Garden, Sandro Botticelli

The Agony in the Garden, Sandro Botticelli

JOS 5:9a, 10-12; PS 34: 2-3, 4-5, 6-7; 2COR 5:17-21; LK 15: 1-3, 15-32

This weekend we pass the mid-point of Lent and come to Laetare Sunday. There are three and a half weeks behind us, to Ash Wednesday, and three weeks ahead, to Easter. The Entrance Antiphon says, “Rejoice, Jerusalem, and all who love her. Be joyful, all who were in mourning,” etc., so this Sunday is called “Rejoice,” in Latin, Laetare. (An interesting point: in the reforms after Vatican II, they did not change these entrance antiphons, so that we could keep the wonderful old musical settings.)

We celebrate having survived halfway through the hardships. The liturgical color, as on Gaudete Sunday, halfway through Advent, is rose.

And the reading, in this year from Luke, is the great joyful Gospel of the Prodigal Son.

***

The punchline of our Gospel is at the end. The angry older brother complains at the fine treatment of his louse of a little brother. The father says, “Now we must celebrate and rejoice, because your brother was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.”

Recent preachers have sometimes liked to call this the Parable of the Older Brother. The older brother gets almost as many verses (eight) as the younger brother (thirteen). You could read the story as a set up for thinking about jealousy. There are many other such stories in the Gospel, such as the servant who is forgiven a great debt but will not forgive a much smaller debt. (That parable is in Matthew 18 – but Luke seems to draw a different point from it in the chapter after the Prodigal Son.) The older son, too, has received everything from his father. His jealousy is not becoming.

We can focus on the father, too, whose mercy is a beautiful icon of the “prodigal” mercy of our Heavenly Father, both clement (sparing in punishment) and merciful (pouring out bounty).

But in the context of Laetare Sunday, it perhaps makes more sense to focus on the Prodigal. As we hopefully look forward to Easter, and ponder our Lenten sacrifices, it makes sense to think of death and resurrection. The simple moral of the story seems to be that we have to bottom out to appreciate what we have. The experience of fasting, the experience of the Cross, makes us newly aware of the goodness of life. Indeed, it is in light of this truth that we understand the older brother’s stinginess and the father’s generosity. It is a basic fact of human existence that we have to lose things to appreciate them.

***

Death and resurrection is the theme to which the other readings point us. In our Old Testament review of the history of conversion, this week we get Joshua. Now, the story is truncated almost beyond recognition.

It begins with the Lord telling Joshua, “Today I have removed the reproach of Egypt from you.” But what has just happened is that, after forty years of wandering in the desert, God has opened the Jordan so they can cross through. The book gives us a strange historical detail: the wilderness generation had not circumcised their children, so God commands a general circumcision before they enter the land. Abraham had been given circumcision as a sign of the promised land; those who were told they would not enter seem to have been told to set aside that sign. But after their suffering, the sign is re-instituted.

Once again, it took forty years in the wilderness for the Israelites to appreciate God’s promises to them. And God called them to celebrate the promise through pain. Through death to resurrection.

In the paragraph we are given, God takes away the manna – because now they will have a land flowing with milk and honey. The manna was a sign of God’s provision, but they needed deprivation to see it. And even that heavenly bread is taken away as a stimulus to enter into the promise. Through death to resurrection.

***

As usual, our Epistle, from Second Corinthians, transfers these physical parables into spiritual realities. The center of our paragraph is all about reconciliation: “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ.”

But the first sentence is about death and resurrection: “Whoever is in Christ is a new creation: the old things have passed away; behold, new things have come.” That reconciliation involves leaving behind the old ways. Through death to resurrection – “passing away” is, in Greek too, a word connected to dying.

And the final sentence is about Christ’s death: “for our sake he made him to be sin who did not know sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him.” He entered into our punishment, into our penance, so that our Lent could be a path to moral resurrection.

Because finally, Easter is not about feasting on the fatted calf, but on knowing the Merciful Father himself.

What have you learned from your Lenten penances?

Crossing through the Desert

The Agony in the Garden, Sandro Botticelli

The Agony in the Garden, Sandro Botticelli

EX 3:1-8a; 13-15; PS 103: 1-2, 3-4, 6-7, 8, 11; 1 COR 10:1-6, 10-12; LK 13:1-9

In these middle Sundays of Lent, the Gospel readings call us to conversion, and the Old Testament readings give us a brief history of conversion in the Old Testament. This Sunday they give a dense meditation on the passage through suffering.

In the Gospel, “Some people told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with the blood of their sacrifices.” All year, we are in Luke’s Gospel; here, in chapter 13, we are after 9:51, the pivot point, when “Jesus steadfastly set His face to go to Jerusalem.” Luke’s Gospel, like Lent, is the journey to the Cross.

And some tell him about what horrible things Pilate does to people.

Jesus’s response is twofold. On the one hand, he says that having horrible things happen to you is not necessarily a bad thing. “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were greater sinners than all other Galileans? By no means!”

And yet he has already changed the subject, from the suffering they endure in their bodies to the state of their souls. The questioners say, “oh, they suffered!” Jesus says, “they are not sinners.”

And so the second thing he says – twice, after two parallel stories – is “if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did!” On the one hand, he says, don’t worry about the suffering. Suffering is not evil, sin is evil, and suffering – such as the suffering inflicted by the evil man Pilate – does not prove that you are evil. On the other hand, suffering is the destiny of evil people.

He underlines this second point with the story of the fig tree: it is given a few chances, but finally, if it does not bear fruit – the fruit of repentance – it will be cut down.

***

There are two kinds of punishment. There is vengeance, an expression of hatred. But there is also correction, or discipline, which is an expression of love. Correction often makes us suffer; often it is precisely through suffering that we correct the ones we love, as when we punish our children. But that suffering is a tool.

God never hates, he is never purely vengeful. To the contrary, the only suffering that does not correct is the suffering of Hell. But that suffering is self-imposed: if we refuse to embrace the good, we end up without it. Suffering in this life is a tool of love, meant to save us from the meaningless suffering of eternal emptiness.

***

Our Old Testament reading, from Exodus, and our Epistle, from First Corinthians, are both about Moses in the desert. The desert is the place of suffering, the epitome of Lent.

St. Paul tells us “our ancestors were all under the cloud and all passed through the sea.” They were saved in a fearful way. The cloud (which led them through the desert) did not feel like enlightenment. The sea (which parted to let them escape the Egyptians) was terrifying – it saved them because it destroyed what would hurt them, the Egyptians. But God saved them through those fearful ways.

He provided for them in the desert, with “spiritual food” and “spiritual drink.” It was precisely in lack that they discovered God’s sufficiency. The suffering of the desert was not a bad thing. It was a place to discover God.

“Yet God was not pleased with most of them,” and so “they were struck down in the desert.” We have to use that suffering well. Going out into the desert, we have to find God. If instead we make it a place of grumbling, the corrective suffering of love turns to the empty suffering of Hell.

All of this, says St. Paul, a sign of our Baptism. We are plunged into the water. The Greek word for Baptism means the water goes over our heads, we are submerged. But if we find God, that drowning is a place of union.

***

In Exodus, Moses finds God in the desert. “Leading the flock across the desert, he came to Horeb, the mountain of God.” Horeb itself is a Hebrew word for “desolation,” in the midst of Sinai, which means “glaring,” as in, glaring sun on glaring sand and rock. It is in the desert that he meets God.

God is in a bush with “fire flaming” – the doubling is an emphasis. God is fire – but not fire that destroys. God has “heard their cry of complaint,” their “suffering,” their “affliction.” He has not abandoned them in the suffering. It is in their suffering, in the desert of Egypt, that they learn to turn to him.

And there Moses discovers God as I AM, as the only thing that is fully real. But we have to go to the desert, we have to pass through the suffering of Lent, to find him.

How is God purifying your sight through suffering?

Second Sunday of Lent: Our Citizenship is in Heaven

The Agony in the Garden, Sandro Botticelli

The Agony in the Garden, Sandro Botticelli

GN 15:5-12, 17-18; PS 27:1, 7-8, 8-9, 13-14; PHIL 3:17-4:1; LK 9:28b-36

On the Second Sunday of Lent the Church has always read the Gospel of the Transfiguration. Before Vatican II, it was always from Matthew; now it from Matthew, Mark, or Luke, according to the Gospel we are reading that year. It puts a positive spin on what Lent is about.

This year to help us understand we have a short reading from Philippians. First, St. Paul gives us a Lenten sounding message: “Many, as I have often told you and now tell you even in tears, conducts themselves as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction. Their God is their stomach. Their glory is in their shame.” Repent!

But then he gives the reason: “Our citizenship is in heaven.” From there comes Jesus, and “He will change our lowly body to conform with his glorified body.” From Lent we look up to the Transfiguration (and forward to the Easter and all that follows).

The key connecting verse is, “Their minds are occupied with earthly things.” The problem with those who oppose the cross, worship their bellies, etc., is not so much the wickedness of the earthly things as the forgetting of things heavenly. God has so much to offer us – and we pay no attention. “Their end is destruction” because they chase after what passes away (full bellies, etc.) and forget the glory that last forever.

***

The first reading is the Lord’s promise to Abraham. It’s a peculiar progression. First God promises: “Look up at the sky and count the stars, if you can. Just so shall your descendants be.” (That’s as heavenly as the Old Testament promises get.)

Abraham believes, and God counts it as righteousness. (That’s the key verse in Romans, you know: our righteousness is in trusting God’s promises.) Abraham trusts God.

But then God reminds him, as last week, that he is nothing but a wandering Aramean, and Abraham asks – with that righteous faith – “how am I to know that I shall possess it?”

There follows a strange scene: Abraham cuts up some birds, fire passes between them: odd. A key line, however, is “a deep, terrifying darkness enveloped him.” Abraham discovers the truth of God’s promises by passing through the darkness. Then “a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch”: God illumines the terrifying darkness, but with terrifying fire. The Lectionary leaves out the verses in between, where the Lord tells him of Egypt: “your seed shall be a stranger in a land not their own, and shall serve them. And they shall afflict them four hundred years.”

Abraham knows the truth of God’s promises not in success but in captivity, not in glory but in darkness. His act of sacrifice leads him into total trust that the Lord who has promised will do it. And so his eyes are lifted to the stars.

***

Now, in Matthew (26) and Mark (14), the Gospel of the Transfiguration occurs at the very end, just before the Cross. But Luke structures his whole Gospel around the journey to Jerusalem, so the account we read this year is early, in chapter 9.

Jesus has just told them “the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be slain, and be raised the third day” – the first prediction of the cross in this Gospel, I think. And then he applied it to the disciples: “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow Me.”

After the Transfiguration, Jesus will express his frustration at this “faithless generation.” He will tell them again that he will be delivered into the hands of men – and they will respond by talking about who is the greatest.

And then comes the great pivot point of Luke’s Gospel, 9:51, “when the time was come that he should be received up, he steadfastly set his face to go to Jerusalem” – to his death.

That is the context of the Transfiguration.

***

Then we can start to hear the words of this Gospel. “Moses and Elijah spoke of his exodus that he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem.” The word in Greek is exodus – it means his road out, a path both of liberation and of death. In his glory, they speak of the passage through death to glory.

Peter wants to stay with the vision – but they are taking about the road. The Transfiguration is a call forward. Our citizenship is in heaven. We are called beyond.

And they hear the words “This is my beloved Son,” like Abraham, from a frightening cloud.

The Transfiguration is a call to glory. A call to the road that leads, yes, through the Cross, but to heaven.

How do your Lenten practices call you on to heavenly glory?

First Sunday in Lent: Saved by Faith

The Agony in the Garden, Sandro Botticelli

The Agony in the Garden, Sandro Botticelli

DT 26:4-10; PS 91:1-2, 10-11, 12-13, 14-15; ROM 10:8-13; LK 4:1-13

I was struck this year on Ash Wednesday by the Offertory Prayer, which asked that through our Lenten observance we “may become worthy to celebrate devoutly the Passion.” The word for worthy could also be translated as “fit.” It’s hard to enter into Christ’s cross unless we have some sense of the Cross ourselves. We need to spend some time meditating on suffering if we want to understand what happens for us on Good Friday.

Our readings this Sunday help us to think about suffering in terms of abandoning ourselves to God’s care.

***

The translation of our first reading, from Deuteronomy, is marvelous. Moses is giving instructions for the people when they finally claim the Promised Land. “When you come into the land which the LORD your God gives you for an inheritance, and possess it, and live in it,” say the verses immediately before our reading, “you shall take of the first of all the fruit of the earth which you shall bring of your land that the LORD your God gives you, and you shall put it in a basket. . . . And you shall go to the priest in those days, and say to him, I profess today to the LORD your God that I have come into the land which the LORD swore to our fathers to give us.

All that we have is a promised gift from God.

But then comes the great part: “Then you shall declare before the LORD, your God, ‘My father was a wandering Aramean who went down to Egypt.” Now, this is a bit of an overstatement. Their father – Jacob-Israel, who went down to Egypt – was born and spent most of his life in the Promised Land, but his wife and his mother were from Aramea (in the Syrian desert). The point of the wonderfully Jewish exaggeration is to say, “I am nobody, I come from nothing.”

But from that nothingness, through the suffering of Egypt, God brought us to the promise. It is not we who are strong, it is the pure generosity of God.

That is the first reading’s commentary on suffering: we join ourselves to Christ on the Cross, where we finally become aware that only God can raise us up.

***

The second reading, from Romans, takes us deeper into the element of faith. “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”

Some of our Protestant brothers and sisters take this verse out of context, but the point is important.

“One believes with the heart and so is justified.” We have no way of become just, righteous, good, except through faith – faith, indeed, in the promise. Christianity is all about promises, just as the Israelites experienced the Promised Land. I cannot raise myself from the dead – whether from physical death or from the more important spiritual death that is sin. Everything depends on the Promise and God’s strength.

“And one confesses with the mouth and so is saved.” And then we come to salvation, we reach the finish line, only if that trust in God’s promise bears fruit in a life of conversion, a life that, with the mouth and every other part of our life, bears witness that Jesus is Lord.

Not just that Jesus is Savior, but that he is Lord: our life, our profession of faith, has to show that he is master of all of our life. We can only do that if we abandon ourselves to faith in him.

***

“The word – the word of faith that we preach – is near you, in your mouth and in your heart,” says Paul in our reading from Romans, commenting on Deuteronomy.

Our Gospel this week is Jesus battling Satan in the desert. He embodies this teaching on two levels.

First, Jesus himself bespeaks his faith in the power of his Father by having the word of Scripture in his mouth. Jesus shows us that our greatest defense against the devil is to quote the Word of God against him, to trust in revealed wisdom.

(The devil, of course, also quotes Scripture, out of context – and Jesus puts it back into context, by knowing Scripture better.)

So Jesus teaches us to rely on faith. But he is that faith itself: the most powerful word of Scripture is the very name of Jesus. He is the victor, he alone.

***

This is the Lectionary’s commentary on suffering, to begin our journey toward the Cross. We must become absolutely weak, abandon our strength, and join ourselves to Christ, abandoned on the Cross – with absolute faith that it is God who will save these wandering Arameans from the power of Egypt.

I am weak, but he is strong.

How does your Lenten penance help you experience your weakness?

Fourth Sunday: More Excellent Gifts

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

JER 1:4-5, 17-19; PS 71: 1-2, 3-4, 5-6, 15-17; 1 COR 12:31-13:13; LK 4:21-30

Last week in First Corinthians we read about the diverse spiritual gifts that make up the one body of Christ. This week our reading begins, “Strive eagerly for the greatest spiritual gifts. But I shall show you a still more excellent way.” What follows if, of course, the sublime hymn to charity of 1 Corinthians 13.

Our reading from 1 Corinthians 13 has important connections with 1 Corinthians 12, in both directions. On the one hand, chapter 13 interprets chapter 12. Chapter 12 discusses all the various individual gifts – but urges the Church to be bound together. Chapter 13 says that the way we are bound together is through charity. That’s why our reading from chapter 13 says things like “If I speak in human and angelic tongues” – because love is correcting and completing the less important gifts, such as tongues, about which we read in chapter 12.

On the other hand, chapter 12 interprets chapter 13. Chapter 12 is about all the different kinds of gifts. Talking about those diverse gifts helps emphasize that they are gifts, not things that come naturally to us. (A holy old friend used to smile about the line in 12:28 about the gift of “administration”: he had that gift, but many of us do not.) In chapter 12 we see that God – God – has made us each special. In chapter 13 we talk about what is not unique; charity is the call of all Christians. But chapter 12 reminds us that this too is a gift, “the greatest spiritual gift,” “the more excellent way.” The love that binds us together is itself God’s greatest gift.

***

The Old Testament reading, from Jeremiah, and the Gospel, from Luke 4, obviously harmonize. Jeremiah is being sent to preach, among opposition: “gird your loins; stand up and tell them all that I command you. Be not crushed on their account, as though I would leave you crushed before them.”

Jesus is doing the same: last week we heard that he stood up in his home synagogue to preach, telling them that the passage from Isaiah, “he has anointed me to bring glad tiding to the poor,” is fulfilled in him. This week, the people are angry at him: if he is the Messiah, why won’t he give them any miracles? “They rose up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town had been built, to hurl him down headlong.” Already at the beginning of his ministry, they want to kill him. But, as with Jeremiah, God protects him: “Jesus passed through the midst of them and went away.”

***

First Corinthians gives us a key to these readings. As with First Corinthians, there is a struggle in our Gospel between partial, passing gifts and the ultimate gift. They want a miracle: “Do here in your native place the things that we heard were done in Capernaum.” He doesn’t give it to them.

Or rather, he does – but he gives them a more excellent miracle. He preaches good news to the poor. And he survives their attacks. They say, “Physician, cure yourself” – and in fact, God does maintain Jesus’s health. But Jesus tries to teach them that the miracles they want are only partial. Those other miracles are only there to bring us to the Gospel of love. If we prefer bodily healings to the Gospel message, we have turned it all upside down.

 Jeremiah gives a different turn to the same theme. Before God promises to protect him, we have the verse we know from the pro-life movement: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I dedicated you, a prophet to the nations I appointed you.” The point is that God is the Creator, the master of life. God can protect Jeremiah. God is worthy of his preaching, and God will give him the strength necessary for his preaching: “I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord.”

God is our strength. There are limited gifts that help remind us of this truth. But what we must discover through those gifts is that love is the greatest, most spiritual gift, the more excellent way. Let us discover that love, too, is a gift. There are many kind of gifts you can give to your brothers,
sisters, children, wife, husband, like the Best Gifts For Husbands in 2017 | Find Exciting New Gifts.

What would change if you thought of love as a spiritual gift, not a natural endowment?