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?

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?

 

 

 

Twenty-Sixth Sunday: The Realism of the Gospel

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

NM 11:25-29; PS 19: 8, 10, 12-13, 14; JAS 5:1-6; MK 9:38-43, 45, 47-48

This Sunday’s readings teach us to be realists.  Now, the word “realist” can be used in two almost opposite ways.  Often by “realist” we mean “compromise.”  A realist in this sense abandons his idealism because he thinks it’s too hard to live.  The Gospel is “unrealistic” in this sense – or rather, the Gospel’s “realism” remembers above all that the God who made the world is the God who pours his love into our hearts.  We never need to compromise our values – if they are truly God’s values, Gospel values – because the promise of the Gospel is that God gives us the strength to live out those values.

But in another sense, “realist” means we are focused more on the world “out there” than on the world “in here.”  Realist spirituality cares about the “real world,” not just our feelings.  That is the realism we learn this Sunday.

***

Our first reading plunges us into the theme.  God has anointed Moses as leader, but now is sharing that leadership with the “seventy elders.”  “Taking some of the spirit that was on Moses, the Lord bestowed it on the seventy elders; and as the spirit came to rest on them, they prophesied.”

Three quarters of this short reading are about Eldad and Medad, two of the seventy who were not there when the Spirit was shared, but who nonetheless receive the Spirit and themselves prophesy.  When someone complains that these two are prophesying, Moses says, “Would that all the people of the Lord were prophets.   Would that the Lord might bestow his spirit on them all!”

The main point is that God’s interior anointing bears fruit in exterior prophesy.  What makes them leaders is the action they take, in the real world.  God enables them to do that – but he enables them to do that: to act, in the real world.

***

Our Gospel begins with something parallel, the story of people driving out demons in Jesus’s name though they are not followers of the apostles.  The Evangelists deal with this story differently, but here in Mark, Jesus’s comment is “Whoever is not against us is for us.”  Like Moses’s prophetic elders, they are judged by their fruit.  Their external action is good, whether or not they are obviously part of the club.

But Mark – the roaring lion, always insistent on making us see things together – add three more statements of Jesus that round out the theme.  First, he speaks of, “anyone who gives you a cup of water because you belong to Christ.”  Next, it is “whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin.”  And finally it is, “If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off.”

At first glance, this is a strange bunch of sayings to tie together.  The one who drove out demons in the first story was not giving water to the apostles, and cutting off your hand has little connection to either one.

But the point in all four is objectivity, realism.  Focus not on who is in the club, but on how they behave: casting out demons, caring for little ones, not scandalizing them, and not sinning

This does not exclude the importance of the internal.  As in the first reading, elsewhere we could emphasize that it is precisely the Spirit of Christ that allows us to be good.  This is not about some secular righteousness, in which Christ doesn’t matter.  But here, at this moment, Mark is emphasizing that if our roots are in Christ, we ought to act like it, objectively, in the real world.

(He underlines his seriousness with three references to Gehenna, “where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.”  The Lectionary reduces these three to one – but the seriousness is still apparent.)

***

The second reading is from that most objective, realist Letter of James.  As always, the Epistle’s commentary enriches the theme.

First he emphasizes the objective weakness of worldliness: “your wealth has rotted away, your clothes have become moth-eaten, your gold and silver have corroded.”  The Gospel is about our interior.  But the exterior bears “testimony against you.”  This world is passing away.  Set not your heart on passing things.

But again he returns to economic justice is a key element of an objective spirituality.  “The wages you withheld . . . are crying aloud.”  Why do the poor matter?  Because, whether the little children or the workers, they point us outside ourselves.

There is no place in Christianity for moral preening, congratulating ourselves for membership in the club when we don’t act the part.  A tree is known by its fruit.

Are there places in your spiritual life where your interior gets too far separated from your exterior actions?  Where do you need to get real?

 

 

Twenty-Fifth Sunday: The Lord Upholds My Life

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

WIS 2:12, 17-20; PS 54:3-4, 5, 6, 8; JAS 3:16-4:3; MK 9:30-37

This Sunday’s readings are about trusting in God.  The real proof of our faith is whether we believe God is active and will preserve us.  This is the real depth of humility: to trust in God, not in horses or princes.

In the Gospel, Jesus continues to teach the disciples about his coming death: “The Son of Man is to be handed over to men and they will kill him, and three days after his death the Son of Man will rise.”  “But they did not understand.”  (Interesting: “they were afraid to question him” – because they did not trust in him to care for them.)

What part did they not understand?  Perhaps they did not understand the opposition, why anyone would want to kill Jesus.  But gosh, there’s been plenty of opposition in the Gospel.  That men are violent and unjust is not hard to understand.

What they did not understand was the rising part.  In fact, they did not understand the dying part because they did not understand the rising part.

So often our trust in God is thin.  We believe he will protect us through human means.  We trust in God to the extent that we hope he’ll make everything be fine.  But in the Cross, Jesus calls them to trust even when things are not fine.  God wants to take us to where there is nothing left but trust in him.

***

In the second half of our Gospel reading, we see the practical circumstances.  The disciples are arguing about who is, already, the greatest among them.  Jesus tells them, to be great, become little.

Because the only true greatness is the greatness that is given by God alone. Divine greatness comes from so trusting in God that we do not try to become great by human means.

From this comes, again, love of the poor.  Here it is in the form of a child: “whoever receives one child such as this in my name, receives me.”  But the point is, children are not the way to greatness.  We’re looking for the way to become important.  Jesus says the only way is to focus on the things that don’t make you important – and trusting in God, God alone, to raise you to glory.  To find glory, do not seek it – except in God alone.

On one level, Jesus says that he is in the child: whoever receives the child receives him.  But in another way, he is in the renunciation.  By focusing on the child – on the person who can give you no glory; not advance your career; not make you popular – you assert, with your deeds, that you trust in God alone, seek your glory in God alone.

That’s one reason the poor and the little ones matter: because they are a way of renouncing the quest for human glory.  Do you really believe God will give you glory?  Or do you seek it in human achievement?

***

Our Old Testament reading, from the book of Wisdom, talks about this dynamic in terms of the Law.  To follow God’s law is here above all a renunciation of human glory.

The wicked fear the law will get in the way of their worldly success.

But the constant refrain of the just is that “God will defend him and deliver him,” “God will take care of him.”

And so he is gentle and patient.  He does not need to fight – he renounces the fight – because he trusts in God.

***

And in our continued tour through the Letter of James, we get one of his central, defining passages.

On the one side is the way of war.  “You covet but do not possess.”  We have desires and we hope to fulfill them – by taking, and fighting, and scratching to the top.  “You kill and envy but you cannot obtain; you fight and wage war.”  It doesn’t work.  The way of the world seems “practical” – but it doesn’t get us where we want to go.

And, perhaps, this mentality affects us, too.  Unlike our Old Testament reading, James isn’t talking “us” vs. “them.”  Here it’s his own audience, his own congregation, whom he accuses of war.  He underlines this by saying, “You ask but do not receive, because you ask wrongly.”  These are people who pray – but whose heart is not set on God.

He contrast them with “the wisdom from above,” which is “peaceable, gentle, compliant, full of mercy.”  The way of peace – he repeats that most beautiful word three times.

But the way of peace is “first of all pure” – because it sets its heart not in this world, and this world’s means of grasping after worldly success.

Where is God calling you to trust more deeply in him alone?

Twenty-fourth Sunday: Trust

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

IS 50:5-9a; PS 116:1-2, 3-4, 5-6, 8-9; JAS 2:14-18; MK 8:27-35

This Sunday’s reading from our tour through James has another great Catholic apologetics line: “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone says he has faith but does not have works?”

But once again, that we’re-better-than-you line ends up being a real challenge to Catholics ourselves.

***

The trouble is most direct in the Gospel.  “Who do people say that I am?”  “Who do you say that I am?”  Peter says, “You are the Christ.”

 

We Catholics have a double triumph here.  First, we are right and everyone else is wrong about faith.  Hurrah, us!

And if, as I have argued, John’s Gospel is a kind of theological commentary on the other Gospels, John reinterprets this scene in terms of the Eucharist.  In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, we can say, “we are right about who Christ really is!”  (Deepest down, this is what Catholic devotion to Mary is about: maintaining the truth about Christ.)  In John, we find that the ultimate confession, the one that separates the true from the false disciples, is in the Eucharist.  And we are right about that, too!

And then on another level, this is about Petrine primacy.  In Matthew’s version of the story, this is where Jesus proclaims Peter the “rock” upon which he will build his church.

We could call this “Catholic triumphalism Sunday”: no faith without works, Mary (and the true profession of Christ), the Eucharist, and the Pope, all in two New Testament readings!

***

But now the trouble sets in.  Peter himself, in his moment of triumph, immediately falls: “Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him” – to rebuke Jesus . . . – “At this he [Jesus] turned around and, looking at his disciples, rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan.’”  Hmm.

The problem is especially rich in Mark’s Gospel.  The early Church all agreed that Matthew’s Gospel was written first, with Mark obviously based on it; and that Mark was the disciple of Peter himself.  This is Peter’s version of the Gospel.

And nowhere does Peter’s version more heavily edit Matthew’s than here.  In Matthew, it seems so easy: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”  “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church.”  Hurrah!

But in Peter’s version, Mark leaves some of that out, tones it down.  Peter only says “You are the Christ.”  Not till Jesus dies on the Cross can anyone truly say, “Truly this man was the Son of God” (Mk 15:39).

The reason Peter tones down the story is because, even if he said “Lord, Lord” with his lips – even if he did say Jesus was the Son of God – he denied it with his actions.

And he denied it by denying the Cross.  Immediately – even in Matthew’s version – Jesus says he must suffer greatly and be rejected and be killed.  That’s unthinkable to Peter, at that point in the story, despite his correct profession of faith.

And immediately after that, he says that we must die, too: “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.  For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the gospel will save it.”

It’s not enough to be “right” about faith and works, Marian Christology, the Pope, and the Eucharist, unless we embrace the Cross.  In fact – how wonderful! – it is precisely the Cross to which all those things call us.

***

James goes on – just as papal teaching goes on (though many of us who proclaim our allegiance to the papacy quickly disavow the popes when they all remind us of this) – to again and again tell us of the poor.  “How I wish for a Church that is poor and for the poor,” says Francis.  (And we all proclaim: that wasn’t infallible!)

James is talking about “the necessities of the body,” actual physical action – real works.  Do we go there?  Or like Peter before Pentecost, do we rebuke anyone who makes our faith in Christ uncomfortable?  (And does anything make us more uncomfortable than true poverty?)

***

But if James calls us to embrace Christ on the Cross by being “for the poor,” our reading from Isaiah calls us to embrace him by being poor ourselves.

And it’s the worst part of poverty: “I gave my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who plucked my beard; my face I did not shield.”

And then, in the second half of our reading from Isaiah, is the key to all our readings this week: “The Lord God is my help . . . .  He is near who upholds my right. . . .  See, the Lord God is my help.”

It is one thing to proclaim orthodoxy.  It is a deeper thing, the real heart of all those doctrinal triumphs, to let God be our all in all.  Only then can we embrace the Cross, and be truly poor and for the poor.

Where do you find yourself shrinking away from the suffering Christ?  Is it a lack of faith in God our help?

Twenty-Third Sunday: The Preferential Option for the Poor

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

IS 35:4-7a; PS 146: 7, 8-9, 9-10; JAS 2:1-5; MK 7:31-37

I have been thinking about writing a little something, as non-partisan as possible, about the Black Lives Matter movement.  This Sunday’s readings do it better than I could have.

To the call, “Black Lives Matter,” American conservatives (and even the socialist Bernie Sanders, at first) respond, “All Lives Matter.”  True.

But the Catholic idea of a “preferential option for the poor” (clearly articulated over and over long before that phrase was coined in the 1960s) means that in order to show that all lives matter, you have to take special concern for the most vulnerable.  In order to treat all people the same, you need to treat the poor especially well.

Why?  First, because what it means to be rich and powerful is that you can take care of yourself; what it means to be poor and vulnerable is that you need help.  (This is not the place for a discussion of race, but that is the claim of “Black Lives Matter”: yes, all lives matter, but some are more vulnerable than others, and they want that to be recognized.)  The poor – and the marginalized – should get preferential treatment because they need it.

Second, because we are not inclined to give it to them.  To be poor also means having nothing to offer in return.  We are all inclined to favor those who will favor us.  Our faith calls us to favor those who cannot favor us, to go where we are not inclined to go.

***

This Sunday’s reading from James says precisely that.  He begins, “show no partiality” – “all lives matter”!  And then everything else he says is about a preferential option for the poor.  “Did not God chose those who are poor in the world” – well now, that almost sounds like God does “show partiality,” preferential treatment.

But James’s point, which is obvious enough (and obviously all over the Bible, the lives of the saints, and Church teaching), is that we are inclined to make the “poor person in shabby clothes” stand aside while we focus on the rich.  My friends . . . don’t get me started on the Church in America.

How often we claim that the powerful are more worthy of our attention than the poor, because of their supposed influence.  How often we trust in kings, and long for earthly treasures.

***

A deeper aspect of this teaching is in this Sunday’s Gospel.

The main story is “Ephphatha!” that is, “Be opened!”  “And immediately the man’s ears were opened, his speech impediment was removed, and he spoke plainly.”

But the deeper story is in the first sentence: “Again Jesus left the district of Tyre and went by way of Sidon to the Sea of Galilee, into the district of the Decapolis.”  Mark doesn’t waste words.  Why this geography?

The first thing to know is that the people of Tyre and Sidon were Phoenicians, not Jews; that the Decapolis was Greek, not Israelite; and that the Sea of Galilee, in between, is where Jesus is from.  He passed from one mission territory, right past his home, to another mission territory.

The other thing to know is that the Lectionary skips the uncomfortable story of the Syrophoenician woman, whom Jesus tells, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and cast it to the dogs.” There are better things for dogs, like supplements, you can learn more in this Terraman Pro review or at least that’s what labradoodle michigan breeders recommend.

In the story before that, which we read last week, Jesus’s people are complaining that he doesn’t keep the rules.  Then he goes to the Phoenicians, expresses some reluctance, some love of his own people – and then gives them a miracle.  Then this week another miracle to other Gentiles – though with a Hebrew word: ephphatha.

Jesus is going on mission to “the dogs”: the poorest among the pagans.

***

The pagans of the Decapolis “were exceedingly astonished and they said, ‘He has done all things well.  He makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.’”

Mark is a good writer.  He quotes words that sound Biblical.  It sounds like they are quoting a prophecy.  But they are not.  They don’t know the Bible, and their words aren’t anywhere else in it.  What they do know is that this man’s miracles of mercy commend him.

Our first reading, from Isaiah (the Biblical prophet), says similar things: “He comes to save you.  Then will the eyes of the blind be opened, the ears of the deaf be cleared; then will the lame leap like a stag, then the tongue of the mute will sing.”

The thing is, these miracles – miracles of compassion for the poor – are not things only the Biblically literate, privileged class can appreciate.  They are things that even the pagan dogs, and the poorest among them, can recognize.

Let Christ shine forth in our lives so that all will recognize him – by our preferential option for the poor.

Where do you think Christians prefer the rich and powerful?  How do you think that affects their witness?