Twenty-Second Sunday: True and False Holiness

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

DT 4:1-2, 6-8; PS 15:2-3, 3-4, 4-5; JAS 1:17-18; 21b-22, 27; MK 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

This week, after a tour through John 6, we return to our “Year B” reading of Mark’s Gospel.  It is as if, having discovered Jesus in the Eucharist, we now want to follow him more closely, and hear his words of eternal life.

Our Gospel reading this week revolves around the word “defile.”  The Pharisees “observed that some of his disciples ate their meals with unclean, that is, unwashed, hands.”  The translation is a little unclear: we are talking about ritual uncleanness; the King James says “defiled.”

Jesus responds, “Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person; but the things that come out from within are what defile.”  You are not what you eat; you are what you do: “From within people, from their hearts, come evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly.”

But even “defile” is a bit of an unclear translation.  In fact, the Greek word is “make common.”  This takes some translation.  We might tend to hear the contrast “clean-unclean” as if all things are clean, and then some things get dirty.  To the contrary, the Old Testament distinction was between “common” and “sanctified.”  The “defiled” hands, or hearts, are not ones that have become dirty; they are ones that have not been made holy.  They are, in the ritual language of Scripture, “common.”

That isn’t to say, of course, that we can’t make the ordinary holy.  The point is that we need to make it holy.  Meals can be holy events – but only if we make them holy, by lifting up our hearts, at least, in prayer.


Our Gospel reading has two connected themes that subserve this main theme of what makes things holy.  The first is “human traditions” versus “divine commandments.”  Now, the problem here is not that they have human traditions.  The problem is that they do not have divine commandments.  Human traditions are fine – they can be ways of sanctifying our lives.  But not if we ignore God’s word.

The second subtheme is like the first: the distinction between the exterior and the interior.  “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.”  Now, again, honoring God with our lips – or our hands, and hand-washings – is not a bad thing.  But it needs to express what is within us.  That is what really matters.

The problem with human traditions is when we are more worried about pleasing men than with pleasing God.  God sees our hearts.  And he speaks his word to pierce us to the heart.


Thus the Lectionary pairs with this Gospel reading a passage from Deuteronomy about obeying God’s word.  “You shall not add to what I command you [‘the commandments of the Lord, your God, which I enjoin upon you’] nor subtract from it.  Observe them carefully, for thus will you give evidence of your wisdom and intelligence to the nations.”

Obviously we can “add” in the sense that not every step of our life is directly explained in Deuteronomy – as Christians, we add many observances that remind us of Christ and our Christian dignity.  But we must not add in a way distracts us from the piercing word of God.  All our observances must drive us back to obedience to that word.

Why?  First, because it is wise.  He has the words of everlasting life.  He tells us the way, so that the nations will say, “This great nation is truly a wise and intelligent people.”  His word is good.  It makes us distinctly wise because human wisdom cannot match the wisdom of God’s word.

Second, because it is part of God’s closeness to us: “For what great nation is there that has gods so close to it as the Lord, our God, is to us whenever we call upon him.”  Listening to his word is a practice of God’s distinct presence to us as Christians.  That is what makes us holy, not common – not our brilliant new ideas.


Finally, we begin this week a five-week tour of the Letter of James, the great instruction on acting on our faith.

He begins with the well-known words, “all good giving and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights.”  But then he specifies: “Humbly welcome the word that has been planted in you and is able to save your souls.  Be doers of the word and not hearers only.”  Hear his word.

And what does his word tell us?  “Religious that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their affliction.”  Action.

What opportunities are there in your day and week to let the word of God be planted in your heart?

Twenty-first Sunday: A Spiritual Communion

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

JOS 24:1-2a, 15-17, 18b; PS 34:2-3, 16-17, 18-19, 20-21; EPH 5:21-32; JN 6:60-69

This Sunday is our last week reading through John 6 and Ephesians.

In John 6 we come to the conflict: Jesus said to his disciples: “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.”  When many of his disciples heard this, they said: “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?”  But Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

As Catholics we know we stand with St. Peter, who accepts Christ’s teaching on the Eucharist, against those who reject it.  But as we did last week, let’s try to go deeper, and see what it means to accept this teaching.


Jesus’s response to those who are scandalized points us to the heart.  “It is the spirit that gives life,” he says; “the flesh is useless.  The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.”

This is a curious response, when he has just been insisting on eating his flesh: “the flesh is useless.”  On one level, obviously he means that in order to believe the Eucharist is his flesh, we need to rely on more than our fleshly eyes.

But he says more than that.  What makes the Eucharist powerful?  How does it give us “life”?  As we saw two weeks ago, the Holy Spirit is the leaven of the Eucharist; by eating the Body of Christ, we receive the Spirit of Christ.

The tradition of the Church – St. Thomas, for example, and the Council of Trent – talks about a “spiritual communion” in a way different from how we talk about it today.  Today, by spiritual communion we often mean, not physically receiving – as if the spiritual was deficient.  But traditionally, the Church talks about spiritual communion primarily as a good communion: the sinner might receive Christ physically, but not spiritually; we want to receive him physically and spiritually; we want our every communion to be spiritual.


Our reading from Joshua gives a metaphor for this spiritual receiving.  Joshua tells the people, “choose this day whom you will serve.”  The people “forget not all his benefits”: they say, “it is the Lord our God who brought us and our ancestors up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. . . .  He protected us.”

As our Psalm says, they have tasted and seen the goodness of the Lord.

The Exodus is a metaphor of the Christian life.  God has saved us, taken us out of slavery, brought us to the promised land – so that we may live in relationship to him, so that we may serve him.

One way to think of a truly spiritual communion is that we give thanks to the Lord for all his goodness to us, and so we pledge our lives to him.

More deeply, before we give our lives to him, we receive our lives from him.  At the communion rail, he gives us life – and we go out with that life within us.  To receive him spiritually is to let his life penetrate into us, to be transformed by the gift we receive.


Again, the greatest image of this is in our reading from Ephesians.  This week it is the famous second half of Ephesians 5, on husbands and wives.  But note, before we start: Paul doesn’t just talk about husbands and wives.  Rather, he uses husbands and wives as a model of all kinds of relationships.  This is a teaching on marriage – but it is also a paradigm of the Christian life.

The Lectionary, then, rightly introduces the teaching on marriage with a few lines from the beginning of the chapter, where Paul is speaking more generally: “live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us.”  This is true spiritual communion: to receive the love that Christ gives us, and to be transformed by it.  This is the whole of the Christian life.

As I am sure you know, he begins with the infamous words about wives – “be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord” – but spends much more of his energy on what the husband should be like.

In fact, he concludes his words on wives by saying Christ is the head because “he is the Savior.”

The first model of the husband’s love he gives is as Savior: “just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, in order to make her holy.”  This love is self-sacrificial, yes – but with a purpose.  The husband is to have received Christ’s saving love, and so to live only to bring holiness to those around him.  Because true love focuses on the only real happiness of the other: holiness.

So the second model he gives is of the body: “For no one ever hates his own body, but he nourishes and tenderly cares for it.”  True love sees the other’s good as my own.

To both spouses – and to all of us – he says, seek not your own advantage; seek not worldly pleasures; but be transformed by the love of Christ, the Spirit you receive in Eucharistic communion.

What is one way you could be more Eucharistic to someone close to you today?

Twentieth Sunday: Bread of Life

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

PRV 9:1-6; PS 34:2-3, 4-5, 6-7; EPH 5:15-20; JN 6:51-58

This past Sunday was the culmination of our reading from John 6, the Bread of Life discourse.  There will be one more concluding week of our tour through this discourse, but this is the height.

Now, there’s a small danger for Catholics when we read John 6.  We can get stuck in apologetics.  Yes, apologetically, John 6 is a nice place to go if we want to prove to non-Catholics that Jesus really does want us to eat his real flesh and drink his real blood.  And there are times for that conversation, for proving that our faith is indeed the Biblical faith.

The danger is that we reduce our faith to winning arguments, reduce our faith in the Eucharist to another way to say other people are wrong.  The danger is that we can fail to draw life from the Eucharist, and from Scripture, because we’re so busy trying to win arguments.

Pope Benedict said, “the only true apologetic is the beauty of holiness and the holiness of beauty.”  Thomas Aquinas actually says something similar.  A key argument of this web page is that the intellect is part of our faith – because the intellect is part of contemplation, not because it is an instrument of winning arguments.  Let us focus on being made holy.


Jesus says in this Sunday’s reading, “the one who feeds on me will have life because of me.”  To really understand the Eucharist, we have to understand not just that it is Jesus’s body, but what it means to draw life from it.  If it does not make us part of his body, we do not really know what it means to say it is his body.

Jesus uses one of John’s favorite words, “remain” (also translated “dwell”).  “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him.”  We dwell within him, and he within us, when we receive communion.  We practice this at adoration – but we dwell with him by eating him.

And finally, “Just as the living Father sent me and I have life because of the Father, so also the one who feeds on me will have life because of me.”  When we go forth after Mass, it is like the Son going forth from the Father, full of the life he received, and bringing that life to the world.


Our short reading from Proverbs again emphasizes the contemplative element, the enlightenment we receive from communion.  “Wisdom has built her house . . . she has spread her table. . . . To the one who lacks understanding, she says, Come, eat of my food, and drink of the wine I have mixed!”

Just as John calls Jesus the Logos, the Word of the Father, God’s intelligence and wisdom, so here the one who feeds us is Divine Wisdom, and what she feeds us is understanding.

We enrich the images we just saw in John 6.  We dwell in the house of the Father and the Son, and from dwelling there, we receive their wisdom.  We are sent out full of that wisdom – the Eucharist penetrates to the way that we see the world.

And so our reading concludes, “Forsake foolishness that you may live; advance in the way of understanding.”  We live differently – we have new life within us – because our perspective is changed from this deepest form of contemplation, Eucharistic communion.


But again, the deepest wisdom of the week is from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians.

First, “Watch carefully how you live, not as foolish persons but as wise.”  Ah: live by that wisdom we receive in the Eucharist, from dwelling in the house of the Father and the Son.

“Making the most of the opportunity,” he adds, “because the days are evil.”  If it were up to me, we’d maybe read the King James Bible, a Protestant translation with imperfections, but very literal and such rich language.  Not “making the most of the opportunity” but “redeeming the time.”  What rich language!

We are called to be redeemers.  Literally, it means “buying back” each day, purchasing it for God, by bringing his divine wisdom into it.  Transforming the evil days into the time of Christ.  That’s what we are sent forth from communion to do.

And, as we saw last week, we are to “be filled with the Spirit,” but he adds, “addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.”  As God’s Wisdom, God’s Love, God’s Holy Spirit comes to dwell in us through communion, we should become living hymns of praise, “giving thanks [in Greek, eucharist-ing] always and for everything.”

How could you draw deeper life from the Eucharist as you go forth into the world?



Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time: The Leaven of the Spirit

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

1 KNGS 19:4-8; PS 34:2-3, 4-5, 6-7, 8-9; EPH 4:30-5:2; JN 6:41-51

There are four key moments in the Eucharistic Prayer (the anaphora).  Of course there is the Institution Narrative: “This is my Body.”  Immediately after is the anamnesis, the offering prayer: “as we celebrate the memorial . . .” (by looking back in the Institution Narrative) “we, your servants and your holy people, offer to your glorious majesty . . . this pure victim.”  And there is finally the Doxology: “through him, with him, in him . . . .”

But our readings this Sunday – more from Ephesians, and the third of our five readings from John 6 – point us to the first key moment of the anaphora, the epiclesis: “make it spiritual” or “Make holy, therefore, these gifts, we pray, by sending down your Spirit.”

In the West, we use unleavened bread for the Eucharist, better to memorialize the Last Supper, at Passover.  But in the East, as probably for the first millennium in the West (so St. Thomas reports), they use leavened bread, to signify the presence of the Holy Spirit – leavening, as it were, the unleavened bread of the Old Testament.

A good Eucharistic theology keeps together all four key moments, so we needn’t take sides on which of these is better.  But today, let us think about the presence of the Holy Spirit in the Eucharist.


The reading from 1 Kings is a beautiful Elijah story.  Elijah is dying of hunger in the wilderness.  (Are we not?)  An angel says, “Get up and eat,” and offers him bread.  “Get up and eat,” he repeats, “otherwise the journey will be too much for you. . . . Then he went in the strength of that food.”

Bread signifies strength, basic nourishment.  In the Eucharist, the Holy Spirit “leavens” the ordinary bread, and gives it the new strength, strength of the Spirit.


John’s Gospel often seems like a commentary, a reworking, of the other Gospels, to teach us deeper truths.  Matthew, Mark, and Luke tell us of an event in Jesus’s preaching, when the audience says, “Where did this this man receive such wisdom, and these mighty works? Is not this the carpenter’s son?”

John puts this in the Bread of Life discourse: “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know?  How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?”

Jesus himself is full of the Holy Spirit.  He is man, truly son of Mary – but he is infinitely more, by the coming of the Holy Spirit to the womb of Mary.  The Holy Spirit makes this man God; he makes this bread God; and he fills us with God.

The bread does not retain its true nature, because the bread itself is no longer needed – but we men become even more deeply human.  The Eucharist is, Jesus shortly later says, “the bread that I will give for the life of the world.”  The bread that does not destroy our nature, but fills us with life.  (And who is “the Lord, the giver of life”?  The Spirit.)

In the Eucharist we are “drawn by the Father.”  We are “taught by God” through the word of Christ, and by faith in Christ, “whoever believes has eternal life.”  And we are filled with the Holy Spirit, the leaven of the Eucharist.

(Perhaps it is right to use unleavened bread, for this is no natural leaven.  This is the leaven of the Spirit we cannot see, but receive in faith.)


The work of the Spirit in us is realistic.  In our reading from Ephesians, Paul says that by the Spirit we “were marked with a seal for the day of redemption.”  The heart of Christian morality – and spirituality – is “do not grieve the Holy Spirit.”  We receive the very joy of God.  To live as a Christian is to live by that joy.

In Galatians 5, Paul will say, “If you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.”  Christianity is not about rule-following, but the Spirit who takes us deeper than the rules.  Nonetheless, the rules show us what the joy of the Spirit would never lead us to do: “the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these: fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousies, wraths, factions, divisions, parties, envyings, drunkenness, revellings, and such like.”  This is a life without the Spirit.

“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, meekness, self-control; against such there is no law.”

Here in Ephesians, Paul says, “Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice.”  These concrete things turn to sadness the joy of the leaven of the Spirit.

Rather, “be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another.”  Kindness.  It sounds hokey – but the point is, how do we live if we have the joy of the Holy Spirit within us?  We “live in love,” and we live as “a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God,” a bread of life, a spotless victim, holy and acceptable to God.

A little leaven leavens the whole lump.

How could you practice better devotion to the leaven of the Spirit in the Eucharistic bread of life?




Seventeenth Sunday: The Multiplication of Love

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

2 KNGS 4:42-44; PS 145:10-11, 15-16, 17-18; EPH 4:1-6; JN 6:1-15

In this Year B we are reading Mark’s Gospel.  Year A is Matthew, Year C is Luke; John, more festal and less parallel to the others, gets read throughout all of them.  But since Mark is short and John 6 is important, we read John 6 during Mark’s year.  Last Sunday, Jesus went to a deserted place.  The next reading in Mark would be the loaves and fishes – but the Lectionary switches over to John 6, which begins with John’s account of the loaves and fishes.  We don’t read all of John 6, but we get most of it; we skip, for example, Jesus walking on the water, on the way from the loaves and the fishes to Capernaum, where he will give the Bread of Life discourse.

Meanwhile, we have been reading Ephesians.  The Sunday Lectionary runs more or less continuously through the Gospels, and picks Old Testament readings to match.  But the Second Reading, the Epistle, goes on its own cycle; for two weeks we have been reading Ephesians, and we will continue for the next five weeks, as we finish John 6.  Since Ephesians is about the divine unity of the Church, it’s not a bad match.  We don’t read all of Ephesians on ordinary Sundays, but we get about one third of the verses.


We know the Gospel reading well enough.  “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?”  “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.”  5,000, five barley loaves, two fish, twelve baskets.

The most important lines in our liturgical context may be the conclusion.  “Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king.”  The Bread of Life discourse that we will begin next week touches often the problem of consumerist religion.  Jesus will begin, “You seek me because you ate of the loaves and were filled.”  He will respond, “Work not for the food that perishes, but for the food that abides unto eternal life.”


The Old Testament reading, from Second Kings, amplifies the Gospel.  “A man came bringing food from the first fruits to Elisha, the man of God: twenty loaves of barley.”  His servant asks, “How can I set this before a hundred people?”  But “the servant set it before them, they ate, and had some left.”

This reading brings our Gospel reading into focus.  It’s the same barley loaves.  But with Elisha it’s 20, with Jesus it’s 5.  And Elisha miraculously feeds 100, Jesus feeds 5,000.

The numbers in the Elisha story are small enough to think about.  20 loaves for a 100 people . . . that does seem thin – especially when you realize the thickest loaves they made were just one inch.  So here we have a story of how God provides: “for thus says the Lord,” says the prophet, “They shall eat and have some left.”  God takes a little and makes it enough.

But Jesus takes the same story, the same principle, and makes it ridiculous.  We are beyond mere provision.  We are into the divine.  Mere provision might still let us think of God as a mere provider.  This kind of miracle makes us think about him as God.


The reading from Ephesians helps us apply this to our lives.

“I, the prisoner in the Lord,” says Paul, “beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called.”  The insertion, “prisoner of the Lord,” puts a point on it.  We are not called to comfort, but to radical discipleship.

As throughout Ephesians, the emphasis is on unity: “one body and one Spirit, one Lord, one faith, one baptism.”  “One body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all.”  Notice there is a repetition here, a formula, something drilled into them.  Notice too that all of this unity is divine – we are only one body because of the divine Spirit, divine hope, and faith, and baptism.

We are called “to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace,” “with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love.”  Now, there are human elements here.  Humility, gentleness, patience, forbearance: those are things we can put effort into.

But our effort is a participation in something divine.  Our contribution is not just twenty loaves multiplied to a hundred, but five multiplied to five thousand.  We are called to try, to pitch in – but we are called, more, to let Jesus build up the unity of the Church – and of our family, and neighborhood, and parish – with all his divine miraculousness.  That is the calling to which we are called: to let Jesus work miracles of love in us.

Where are you being called to let Jesus multiply your love?

Sixteenth Sunday: Contemplative Shepherds

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

Jer 23:1-6; PS 23: 1-3, 3-4, 5, 6; EPG 2:13-18; MK 6:30-34


Our Sunday readings this week take us deep into the connection between contemplation and shepherding.  They show us why our shepherds need to be contemplatives – but they also show us why we who seek the spiritual life need also to seek our neighbors, and children, and families.

Our reading from Mark states the theme.  Jesus’s words to the apostles, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while,” are a classic call to the contemplative life.

But those whom he calls are apostles (just “returned from their mission”) and “many saw them going and recognized them,” even “arrived ahead of them.”  My children seem to do the same, every time I pick up my spiritual reading.

But the next sentence is a classic call to the apostolic life: “As Jesus went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.”  Is this how I behave, when my children interrupt my prayer?


The other two readings take us deeper into the Gospel image.

The reading from Jeremiah opens with a roar: “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!”  Later he says, “It is you who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them.”

The last clause is the key: “and you have not attended to them.”  How do the shepherds “destroy and scatter the sheep”?  How do they “drive them away”?  A flock of sheep does not need to be driven away.  They need attention.  They need to be gathered.

In short, the shepherds are guilty not because of what they have done, but because what they have not done.  He who does not gather, scatters.  The shepherd who neglects his flock is guilty of driving them away.


So God goes on, “I myself will gather the remnant of my flock.”  (Notice that the sheep will be alright –it’s those who ought to be shepherding them who will suffer most.)  God will do what they did not do: gather the sheep.  “I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them”: he will gather them by gathering gatherers.

Then the metaphor shifts, from shepherd to king: “I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.”  Jesus and David are shepherd kings.  But the true shepherd of men does more than gather: he deals wisely with them, brings justice and righteousness, acts like a king.

Vatican II’s Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, defines our own moral life as participation in Jesus’s kingship.  We are called to help Jesus bring wisdom and justice and righteousness to the world.  If we don’t, we are like shepherds who scatter their flocks – and like sheep who fail to follow their good shepherd.


Jesus calls us to share in his care for his people, to enter deeply into his heart.  Our reading from Ephesians takes us into that heart.

“He is our peace.”  He “has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.”  Ephesians is about the unity of the Church.  It illustrates that unity by the unity between Jews and Gentiles; in our reading, too, it sees the ultimate peace as the possibility of these two enemies becoming one Church.

But the point is not merely the unity of Jew and Gentile, but the unity of the heart of Christ itself.  If even they can be united, Ephesians argues, we are all called to the unity of Christ.

“He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances,” says Paul, “that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace.” This sounds subversive.  Is Jesus doing away with the Law?

Of course not.  He is fulfilling the Law.  But the point is, mere commandments are not enough to make peace.  Jesus calls us not just to follow his Law, but to see the very heart of the Law, which is his heart – to go beyond Thou Shalt Not to love, and purity, and spiritual freedom.  He calls us not just to grudgingly do what we are told, but to embrace the fullness of his will – and he makes new hearts in us, so that we may love with his heart.

“Through him both of us,” Jew and Gentile, and every kind of enemy, “have access in one Spirit to the Father.”

This is the real key to action and contemplation, coming away to a deserted place and having compassion on the sheep.  What we seek in both is union with the heart of Jesus.  Without contemplation we cannot receive that heart – but without compassion, our contemplation is proved false.

Where is Jesus calling you to receive his heart?

Twelfth Sunday: Which Raging Sea?

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

JB 38:1, 8-11; PS 107:23-24, 25-26, 28-29, 30-31; 2 COR 5:14-17; MK 4:35-41

During Sunday Mass this past weekend, my ten-year-old son leaned over to me during the Psalm and mused, “I wonder who it’s talking about?”  I think it was during this verse:

“They cried to the LORD in their distress;

from their straits he rescued them,

He hushed the storm to a gentle breeze,

and the billows of the sea were stilled.”

It’s a remarkable question for getting at the “four senses” of Scripture.


My first answer was on the level of what the Tradition calls, “the literal sense.”  When the Tradition talks about how we read Scripture, “literal” doesn’t mean, “without metaphor.”  It means, “what did it mean to the human author at that time?”  So I pointed earlier in the Psalm:

“They who sailed the sea in ships,

trading on the deep waters,

These saw the works of the LORD

and his wonders in the abyss.”

“Trading on the deep waters”: This is interesting.  The people of the Bible are mostly land-bound.  It is more their pagan neighbors, the Phoenicians, who “traded on the deep waters,” doing commerce throughout the Mediterranean.

But the people of the Bible were familiar with the Phoenician business, and sometimes used it as a metaphor for themselves.


This takes us to the first “spiritual” or “mystical” sense of the reading, what is called the “moral” or “tropological” sense.  Here, “moral” doesn’t mean, “what rules are we breaking?”  It means, “how do we live our own lives?”

My son’s question puts it better: whom is the Psalmist speaking about?  Well, on one level, the Phoenician trader.  But on a deeper level, he’s talking about “us”: us now, and even the us of then.  The Phoenician trader is a symbol of the Israelite’s own life.  Even if he doesn’t go on the waters, he sees in that ship an image of himself.

Our first Sunday reading works this way.  The Lord asks Job:

“Who shut within doors the sea,

when it burst forth from the womb…

When I set limits for it

and fastened the bar of its door,

and said: Thus far shall you come but no farther,

and here shall your proud waves be stilled!”

Now, Job was not a sea-faring man.  The sea only appears in this book in these big general kind of statements.  But the sea is a potent symbol: first, of our own helplessness, as we feel threatened by the impending storm; then, of the power of God, who made those crashing waves, and has the power to get us through them.

Whom is the Psalmist talking about?  Job.  Me.

This is the “moral meaning.”

(But notice that this symbolic reading is rooted in the literal meaning.  Unless you clearly see the image of the Phoenician trader, you have no symbol to apply to yourself.)


Who else is the Psalmist talking about?  Obviously Jesus, who in this week’s reading was “asleep on the cushion” as “a violent squall came up and waves were breaking over the boat” – not on the “deep waters” of the Mediterranean, but on the See of Galilee, not with “traders” but with fisherman, but still the same idea.  That’s how metaphors work – different situations can still be basically the same.

But this Gospel reading itself works on multiple levels.  First we see the historical, “literal” meaning: Jesus with the disciples.  Once we have that image, we can see the “moral” reading: this Gospel reading, too, is about me.

On the stormy sea of my life, I too say, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” and Jesus responds, “Why are you terrified? Do you not yet have faith?” and now and then I have the wisdom to say, “Who then is this whom even wind and sea obey,” who can actually bring me safe through the mess of my life?


But here we see, too, the “allegorical” or Christological meaning.  Paul takes us deeper into this in our reading from Second Corinthians, where our image of the tossing sea leads us to the Cross.

“We have come to the conviction that one died for all; therefore, all have died.”  The boat can be an image of fallen humanity.  Christ has entered in with us, experienced the very depths of our stormy sea – even unto death – and so we are no longer alone on that sea, no longer alone in the terror of this valley of tears.

This changes everything.  Now those who live in this life – and face death – “no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.”  Now we are “a new creation.”  Because now we are out on the sea with Jesus.

Whom is the Psalmist talking about?  Jesus, who calms the storms by becoming flesh, even unto death.


Finally, a brief word on the “anagogical” or eschatological sense.  Whom is the Psalmist talking about?  Whom is the Gospel talking about?  It is also about heaven, where finally the winds will cease and we will know the perfect calm of the infinitely powerful God.

How could you use the four senses of Scripture – literal/historical, “moral”/practical, Christological, and eschatological – in your own prayer life?  How could it help you understand your own stormy seas?

Eleventh Sunday: The Power of the Gospel

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

EZ 17:22-24; PS 92:2-3, 13-14, 15-16; 2 COR 5:6-10; MK 4:26-34

At last we return to Ordinary Time and our orderly reading through Mark’s Gospel.  Appropriately, this week’s readings give us a straightforward account of the power of clinging to the Gospel.

The Gospel reading is direct.  The Kingdom of God is compared to seed sown, “as if a man were to scatter seed on the land and would sleep and rise night and day and through it all the seed would sprout and grow, he knows not how.”  And then again it is compared to a mustard seed: “once it is sown, it springs up and becomes the largest of plants.”

The point is simple and profound: the power of Christ is beyond our imagining.  We see something small and weak; we tend, sometimes, to diminish our faith, and look for salvation from something stronger.  But what appears to us like nothing has the power to “put forth large branches, so that the birds of the sky can dwell in its shade” – far beyond what we can accomplish.


Now, we can say “Gospel” in two ways: we can mean the message itself, or the books that contain it.  In both senses, the Gospel is powerful.  When the message is planted in us, when we receive it with faith, it grows up into that great tree.

But the Alleluia verse makes reference to another similar parable, saying, “The seed is the word of God.”  Here too is the power of the word, the Biblical texts that carry the Gospel to us.  Traditional Catholic spirituality above all allows the Biblical word to be planted in our soul.

And indeed our Gospel reading ends with a reference to this: “Without parables he did not speak to them, but to his own disciples he explained everything in private.”  Christ’s words themselves are like the seed: parables that seem pointless, but when received into our heart, when planted in the depths of our souls, infinitely powerful.  Let us put ourselves at the feet of Christ, and listen to his words.


The Old Testament reading, from Ezekiel, gives another variant on this theme of the power of the Gospel: “I, the LORD, bring low the high tree, lift high the lowly tree, wither up the green tree, and make the withered tree bloom.”

We should hear allusions to Our Lady’s song, the Magnificat:

“He has cast down the mighty from their thrones

And has lifted up the lowly

He has filled the hungry with good things

And the rich he has sent away empty.”

God is more powerful than human strength.  He has power to cast us down, but thank God if he does, for then we might be weak enough to let his power lift us up.  This is the fundamental message of the Gospel.


But our reading from Ezekiel has two other interesting parallels to the Magnificat.

Mary goes on, “He has come to the help of his servant Israel.”  In Ezekiel, God says of his little plant, “on the mountain heights of Israel I will plant it.”  The mountain heights of Israel is where Jerusalem is.  God does not just push people around.  Above all he builds his people, builds his Church – all this use of power is at the service of building up the true Israel.  Let us find ourselves in that Israel, locate ourselves always within the Church.

Mary concludes,

“. . . Remembering his mercy

The promise he made to our fathers

To Abraham and his children forever.”

And Ezekiel concludes, “As I, the LORD, have spoken, so will I do.”  Again, it is not just a matter of power; God uses his power to be faithful to his promises.  The Gospel is the promise.  Let us listen to that promise, let us trust in it, let us stake all on believing his word to us.  That is where the power is.


Finally, Second Corinthians is all about encouragement in suffering.  But our selection this Sunday says, “we walk by faith, not by sight.”  It uses other language about being “at home” in the body, or in the Lord – at home is a loose translation, but the point is where we find ourselves.  Here we find ourselves in the land where God’s power seems weak, where the Gospel seems hard to understand, hard to believe, where human power – Egypt – seems  more reliable.

We need first simply to recognize this fact: the Gospel is fundamentally about living by a power it is hard for us to see.


But we need also to strive forward, “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ.”  Well, again, “judgment seat” is a loose translation: we will stand at the feet of Christ, stand before him.  One day, we will see that he alone is strong.  Let us, on the one hand, tremble before that day, realize that nothing can matter but aligning with his strength, weak though it may seem in this land of faith.

But let us, too, take consolation in knowing that one day the veil will be torn away, and we will see the truth of our faith, the truth of the Gospel, the truth of the promises and the power of Christ.

Where are you being called to walk by faith?

Corpus Christi – “The Blood of the Testament”


EX 24:3-8; PS 116:12-13, 15-16, 17-18; HEB 9:11-13; MK 14:12-16, 22-26

This Sunday we celebrate the Feast of Corpus Christi.  In the simplified liturgy after Vatican II, it is called “The Body and Blood of Christ,” though in the past there was a separate feast for the Blood, July 1, and there is still a tradition of thinking about the Eucharist in June and the Precious Blood in July.

The Gospel reading takes us back to Holy Week.  This year we are reading Mark, so we get Mark’s account of the Last Supper.  This backward reference is the liturgical key to the feast.  Holy Thursday is a busy day: such an important feast, and there are so many things to think about.  So a separate Thursday was set aside to think just about the Eucharist.  But we celebrate Easter for seven weeks, and then Pentecost for a week after that, so really, this week is the very first free Thursday.  (That’s kind of funny.)

Yes, it should be on Thursday, and yes, the Bishops always transfer it to Sunday.  But until we have been bishops (that is, never) let us lay off criticizing their prudential judgments.  That could be a nice way of remembering the feet-washing part of the Eucharist: Christ doesn’t give us his body so that we can tear one another apart.  Let us focus not on our judgment of the bishops, but on this great gift to us.


This year, the readings focus on the Precious Blood.  In the Gospel, let us just notice two points.  First, in the Synoptic Gospels, the Last Supper is introduced with “when they sacrificed the Passover lamb.”  We imagine the blood of Christ shed.  Perhaps when we hear “a man will meet you, carrying a jar of water” we should think of the union between the blood of Christ and Baptism – and Baptism as our preparation for the Eucharist.

Second, Jesus’s words about his blood are more complicated than those about his body.  First he simply says, “Take it; this is my body.”  But then he says, “This is my blood of the covenant, which will be shed for many.  Amen, I say to you, I shall not drink again the fruit of the vine until the day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.”

The Roman Canon used to make it clear, too, that the blood specifically is the “mystery of faith.”  The blood is significant. . . .

And so in the reading from Hebrews, too, we hear, “he entered once for all into the sanctuary, not with the blood of goats and calves but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption.”  What is going on with this “blood of the covenant”?


The richest reading this week is perhaps the first, which tells us of the original Passover, in Exodus.  This is the symbolic world that Jesus perfects with his own blood.

At the end of the reading, Moses “took the blood and sprinkled it on the people, saying, ‘This is the blood of the covenant that the LORD has made with you.’”  When in Matthew’s Gospel the Jews says, “His blood be on us, and on our children,” they are not embracing their guilt.  In the Jewish tradition, this is about accepting Christ himself.  Those are the words we should say.


Now, there’s a bit of a controversy about translation.  Nowadays we often use the word “covenant,” which talks about mutual relationship.  That’s definitely present in this reading.  The people say, “We will do everything that the LORD has told us.”  They offer sacrifice.  And the book of the Law is called “the book of the covenant.”  “Covenant” nicely describes how this is a two-way relationship.

But we can learn something from the older usage, which translated the same Greek and Hebrew word as “testament.”  Testament seems above all to refer to a will, a promise to give an inheritance to someone when you die.  The New Testament often invokes exactly that idea.  A testament is not a two-way relationship: one side gives, the other receives.

We could almost translate this as “promise”: God’s promise to us.  And then we might think of our moral obligations, and our obligation to sacrifice, not as upholding our half of the deal but as our inheritance.  The Law is not what we give to God – it is what God gives to us, sheer gift.

So too the Eucharist.  It is not our end of the deal.  Christ’s Precious Blood is given to us as sheer gift, his “testament” to us.  The Mass is something we do – and something we give thanks for getting to do.  Thank God we have been given his blood to “splash on the altar.”  His blood be on us and on our children!

How could we express greater gratitude for the Mass in our daily life?


Fifth Sunday in Easter: Words and Deeds


ACTS 9:26-31; PS 22:26-27, 28, 30, 31-321 JN 3:18-24; JN 15:1-8

As we continue through Easter, we move deeper into the risen Christ’s presence in his Church.  This week’s reading have an interesting back-and-forth between words and deeds.

We are moving towards Ordinary Time, toward the time after the Ascension: the life of the Church once Christ has gone to heaven.  How does Christ continue to live in his Church?  We will find, as Easter launches us into Ordinary Time, that Christ dwells in his Church especially through his words.


Our meditation begins with our reading from John’s First Letter.  It begins with an opposition between words and deeds: “let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”

I think we are sometimes tempted to read the same opposition into Jesus: we care about his deeds, not his words.  (It is surely clear by now that a central theme of this blog is the importance of Jesus’s words – all the words of Scripture – and not just our meditation on pictures.  A word of Scripture is worth a thousand pictures.)

In fact, the reading goes on to emphasize that though we must love more in action than in words, it is his words that cause us to love.  We “do what pleases God,” he says, when “we obey his commandments.”

“And his is God’s commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us.”

Now, I have taught and meditated on First John for years, and honestly, it’s not clear me what he means by Christ’s commandments.  I’m certain he thinks that the “new commandment” (that’s an idea John gives us in his Gospel) never contradicts the “old commandments,” the Ten Commandments.   Jesus’s command to love as he loved includes – among many other things – never breaking the Old Law.  But whether John wants us to think about the Old Law or only about the New, I don’t know.

In any case, we must obey the commandment to “love one another” and we must “believe in the name.”  It is his words, about himself and about our neighbor, that transform our deeds.  We must let his words be active in us.


The reading from Acts is remarkable, for Paul/Saul’s most important deeds are his words.  In the reading, he is still notorious for persecuting the Church: “he attempted to join the disciples; and they were all afraid of him.”

But Paul proves himself to them by words: Barnabas testifies (by words) that “in Damascus Saul had spoken boldly in the name of Jesus.”  Then Paul did the same in Jerusalem: “He spoke and argued with the Hellenists; but they were attempting to kill him.”

For us, the point is that he has to prove his sincerity to them.  That requires more than words, it requires deeds.  But Paul’s most powerful deeds are his words: his willingness to speak out, to witness to Christ.  It’s “words not deeds,” in the sense that he doesn’ft just say, “trust me,” he shows them they can trust him.  But he shows them through the boldness with which he speaks of Jesus.

And his words, again, are rooted in the word he has heard: Barnabas “described for them how on the road he had seen the Lord, who had spoken to him.”


Our Gospel is about the vine and the vinegrower: “He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit.  Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit.”

But how does he prune us?  By his word: “You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you.”

This is important: the word is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword.  Consider the commandments: they are important because those words prune our actions, they point out what we don’t see.

This might be what John is talking about in our Epistle: “And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and God knows everything.”

How do we get past our impressions, our feelings, our fallen, misguided, unjust sense of justice, intemperate sense of temperance, imprudent sense of prudence?  God speaks to us, and his word penetrates our darkness.

His word prunes us, reminds us of the power of what is good, shows us the evil of what is bad.

“If you abide in me, and my words abide in you,” he says in our Gospel, “ask for whatever you wish.”  If his words abide in us, they will show us what to wish for, show us the power of prayer.  But we need to cling to those words.  They are powerful, they are the source of good deeds.

Where is Scripture in your daily life?