Saint James, Apostle

Today’s readings

“Can you drink the chalice of which I am going to drink?”

What does that even mean for us?  We know what Jesus’ chalice was like: it led him through sorrow, and abandonment, and ultimately to the cross.  If we have ever been in a situation in which we have felt intense grief, or felt abandoned, or had to stand by and watch the death of one that we loved, well then, we know a little bit of what that chalice is going to taste like.

Being a disciple is messy business.  It means that it’s not all the glory, pomp and circumstance.  It means that our faith sometimes has to move from the mountaintop experiences down into the valleys of despair.  It means that there are times when we will be in situations that are frustrating, infuriating, debilitating, grievous and horrible.  We will have to drink a very bitter chalice indeed.  And Jesus wasn’t just talking to John and James when he said “My chalice you will indeed drink.”  That’s the cup reserved for all of us who would be his disciples.

Very clearly those words of Saint Paul ring true for us:
We are afflicted in every way, but not constrained;
perplexed, but not driven to despair;
persecuted, but not abandoned;
struck down, but not destroyed;
always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus,
so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our body.
For we who live are constantly being given up to death
for the sake of Jesus,
so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh.

What is unspoken here but clearly implied is the grace.  Those who abandon their lives to take up the cross, wherever that leads them, will always have at their disposal the grace to live a life that is joyful in the face of affliction, confident in the midst of uncertainty, whole in the midst of destruction.  There is nothing that the world or its evils can throw at us that cannot be ultimately overcome by the grace of God.  We will still have to live through sadness at times, but that sadness can never and must never overtake the joy we have in Christ.

Like Saint James and his brother John, we are all called to drink from the chalice that Jesus drank. That means that we will always bear the dying of Jesus in our own bodies. We can’t explain why bad things happen to good people, but we can explain how good people handle bad situations well: they handle it well because they know Christ and live in Christ every day of their lives. Sometimes the chalice we will have to drink will be unpleasant, distasteful and full of sorrow. But with God’s grace, our drinking of those cups can be a sacrament of the presence of God in the world.

Everyone who is great among us must be a servant, and whoever wishes to be first among us must be our slave. Saint James learned how to do that and still thrive in his mission. May we all be that same kind of sacrament for the world.

The Sixteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

This week in my bulletin column, I have a reflection on the introductory rites of Mass.  But maybe in the homily, we can take a step back from that and think about what we’re supposed to do before Mass.  And what we do before Mass, and I mean before we even come to church, is live our life.  Because, as challenging as it is to worship when we’re here in church, it’s still way easier than worshipping out there in the world, isn’t it?

We may intend to work hard, and pray reflectively, but life sometimes – well, more than sometimes: often – throws us a curve ball and all our pious plans go out the window.  You know what I mean, right?  People at work don’t do what they’re supposed to.  Others in our family get into rough situations and test our patience.  Our commute is exacerbated by the pouring rain.  And it can go even deeper: news about a loved one’s illness, news about our own illness, and on and on.  And then we can slip up and fall into sin, that sin we have been praying hard to overcome and doing everything we can to avoid.  Our pious plans can turn into a very rough week indeed.  In among the blessings – and we have to admit, there are blessings – life can derail us and bring us to a frustrating place.

The good news is that our Liturgy of the Word speaks to that today, I think.  The wisdom writer in the first reading praises God who has the care of all, and who permits repentance for sins.  The Psalmist extols God who is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in kindness and fidelity.  Saint Paul tells the Romans, and us, that the Holy Spirit comes to our aid in our weakness, helping us to pray the right way, even praying in our stead when we cannot.  We need all that consolation when our week doesn’t go the way we hoped.

And we have the Gospel, which continues the theme of planting seeds that we heard last week.  Here we hear of the wisdom of God who allows the weeds to grow among the wheat and is wise enough to sort it all out at the harvest time.  This Gospel talks all about the Kingdom of God and what it will be like.  It will be like a tiny mustard seed that grows up to become a huge shrub.  It will be like a measure of yeast mixed with flour to become a loaf of bread.

Here are a couple of things I want us to take from this Gospel.  First, the Kingdom of God is now.  Jesus made it real, showing us that the kingdom is present in ordinary ways: a mustard seed, a measure of yeast.  He wants us to see that we don’t have to wait for a far-off distant Kingdom, but instead to live in the Kingdom now, where he is our King.

Second, the mustard seed, the yeast – that’s us.  We are the ones to make the Kingdom happen.  Jesus needs us to go out and proclaim the message, to witness to the presence of the Kingdom, to make people want to be part of it.  Our prayer, our love, our joy, all of that make it possible for people to come to know Christ.  The Kingdom of God is our true home; the rest of the world is just a travelling place.  When we live in the Kingdom here and now, we will be ready for the great coming of the Kingdom in heaven, where all will be made right and we will live forever with our God.

If we’ve had a less than stellar week, we need that good news, we need that Kingdom.   We need to know that God is patient, and forgiving, and allows us to come to maturity before there’s judgment.  We need to know there is mercy and forgiveness, and a Spirit that prays with us and for us in our weakness.  And we need to hear Jesus call us to be leaven in the world, even though we’re not perfect.  He needs us to work on changing sadness to hope, directing all eyes to the One who is our true King.

Saint Mary Magdalene

Today's readings

Today’s feast of St. Mary Magdalene is a good opportunity to set the record straight.  Mary Magdalene was not the woman caught in adultery, nor was she the unnamed “sinful woman” who anointed the feet of Jesus in Luke’s Gospel.  That said, she is the woman from whom Jesus expelled seven demons, also in Luke’s Gospel.  But the idea that she was possessed by demons does not necessarily make her sinful, as many theologians and Scripture scholars have pointed out.

So in fact, aside from the Blessed Virgin Mary, St. Mary Magdalene is perhaps the most honored woman in the New Testament.  She was one of the women who was supporting Jesus and his disciples financially out of her means, and most notably, in today’s Gospel, is the first to have seen the Lord after the Resurrection.  Think about that.  Of all the people to whom Jesus appeared immediately following his resurrection, he chose this particular woman, not one of the men, to spread the message to the rest of them.  For this reason, she is often called the “Apostle to the Apostles.”

So for the last twenty centuries or so, poor Mary Magdalene was a victim of mistaken identity.  What we need to see today is that we owe a great deal to her faith because it was she who was first to proclaim the Good News that Jesus had risen from the dead.

Monday of the Fifteenth Week of Ordinary Time 

Today’s readings

It’s a frightening thing, I think, to hear Jesus say in today’s Gospel reading, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace upon the earth. I have come to bring not peace but the sword.” And it’s frightening not because of some actual sword that might harm us, but instead because of the havoc a statement like that could cause in our spiritual lives. There’s an old trite saying that says Jesus didn’t come just to comfort the afflicted, but also to afflict the comfortable. It may be trite, but there is truth in there.

The spiritual life is one of precarious balance. Things can be going along alright, much like the relationship the Jews had with the Egyptian government while Joseph was alive. But then something can change in our lives: in the words of our first reading today, a new king, who knows nothing of Joseph, can take over. In the context of that first reading, the new king taking over didn’t know Joseph and thus have all the good feelings toward the Jews that Joseph inspired. In the context of our spiritual lives, the new king is whatever new distraction may come our way and, knowing nothing of Joseph, that is, knowing nothing of the harmony that is part of our lives when we walk the path of righteousness, that distraction takes over and tears us away from our God.

In that light, the first reading today is a discussion of the seductive power of sin. Just as the new king wanted to stop the increase of the Jews, so sin wants to stop our increase in the spiritual life. Just as the Egyptians oppressed the Jews with hard labor, so sin oppresses us by affecting our work, our relationships, and our life of faith. But just as the more the Jews were oppressed, the more they multiplied, so the more that we are oppressed by sin, the more we can multiply grace by turning back to God.

Sin is a dreadful power in our world. Sin knows nothing of Joseph, knows nothing of the life of grace and its joy. But we don’t have to let it oppress us. We can let Jesus bring the sword to afflict the comfort of our sin and help us to multiply and increase in the life of grace and faith. As our Psalmist says this morning, “Our help is in the name of the Lord who made heaven and earth.”

The Fifteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

I’m not very good at it, and I don’t do it much any more, but I used to help plant a family garden.  Now my sister mostly does that.  What’s remarkable to me about a garden is that the seed that is planted looks, for all the world, lifeless … like something that is already dead.  But when you put it in fertile soil, give it some water and nourishment, let the sun shine on it, well it grows up to become something wonderful: flowers to delight us, vegetables for our table.

A couple of weeks ago, not long after I started here at Saint Mary’s, I went on a walk with Father John.  We passed by one of the corn fields, and as I often am when I pass cornfields, I was really struck by the straight and orderly rows of corn that grow there.  The farmers take great care, it seems to me, to make sure they are planted that way.  So when I hear the story we have in today’s Gospel reading about seed being scattered willy-nilly all over the place, some of it not even landing on suitable soil, well, it makes me wonder.

But the original hearers of the parable would have understood what Jesus was saying.  It was a method used at that time: seed would be scattered, and then the soil would be tilled thus planting the seeds.  And so they would have understood that sometimes the seed falls in places the farmer didn’t intend, and those seeds don’t come to life, or if they do, it’s not for long, and it’s no big deal.

So Jesus explains the parable for his disciples and for us.  The seed is the seed of faith.  God scatters it with wild abandon, pouring it out freely that his chosen ones – which obviously includes you and me – would come to know him.  Sometimes it works: we receive the seed of faith, it’s watered in the sacrament of baptism, fed with the Eucharist and the other sacraments, and we make of ourselves fertile ground, letting it come up and grow and give life to the world.  But sometimes, of course it doesn’t work out that way.

The seed might fall in a place where the faith is not nourished and Christ is not known.  Maybe it’s a foreign land without benefit of missionaries, but it could even be a little closer to home.  Perhaps the seed falls on those whose turbulent lives can’t give the seed any roots: they receive the word of God with joy, but the trials and tribulations of daily living upset everything and the faith never really sinks in.  Or, maybe it falls on us embroiled as we are with the cares of the world.  The “weeds” of our living are improper relationships, too much time playing video games or surfing the wrong places of the internet, watching too much television, wasting time on passing things.  There is so much that can distract us from our faith, and too often, we are not as diligent about weeding the gardens of our souls the way we should be.

We, dear brothers and sisters in Christ, are called to be rich, fertile ground to give life to the faith planted in our hearts.  That means that we must keep ourselves fresh by renewing the waters of baptism in our hearts.  We must feed that seed of faith by dedicating ourselves to the Eucharist and coming to Mass all the time, whether it’s convenient or not.  We must weed out the distractions of our lives and give that seed of faith room to grow.  We must shine the brilliant sunlight of God’s love on that faith by living the Gospel and reaching out in love to brothers and sisters who are in need.

We are the ones who have been called to yield “a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold.”  The seed of faith comes in the form of something that might look dead – Christ’s saving action on the cross.  When we water and feed and weed and let the light shine on that faith, we can give life to the world around us and give witness that the world’s death is no match for the salvation we have in Christ.

St. Benedict, Abbot

It is with great fondness that I observe this feast of St. Benedict the abbot, and father of western monasticism. My Benedictine roots stem from my college days at Benedictine University in Lisle (then called Illinois Benedictine College), and I have a deep fondness for the monks of St. Procopius Abbey, who staffed the college, and in whose monastery I made my Priesthood retreat before I was ordained. Every now and then I go there for a few days of prayer, which helps me to be ready for whatever ministry is bringing my way. The motto Saint Benedict chose for his order was “Ora et Labora” – Prayer and Work — and for me it is a constant reminder of the balance we are called to have in life.

A wonderful source of inspiration to me while I was working in the corporate world, and still today, is reading from The Rule of St. Benedict, which is a great reflection on living life in such a way that it makes possible our salvation. It was also one of the most groundbreaking works of spirituality and monastic rule at that time. It remains a spiritual classic today. Recently, I read a quote from the rule that spoke of something the abbot of a monastery should bear in mind. My reflection on it got me to thinking it was also extremely wise counsel for pastors of parishes, and even fathers – and mothers – of families. It’s from the second chapter of the rule and here’s what it says:

Above all, the abbot should not bear greater solicitude for things that are passing, earthly, and perishable, thereby ignoring or paying little attention to the salvation of the souls entrusted to him. Instead, may he always note that he has undertaken the governance of souls, for which, moreover, an account will have to be rendered. And if perhaps he pleads as an excuse a lack of wealth, then he should remember what is written: “First seek the kingdom of God and his justice, and all these things will be added unto you” (Mt 6:33), and again: “Nothing is lacking to those who fear him” (Ps 34:10).

But it’s the second to last chapter that puts our lives into perspective.  This chapter teaches us to see others with patience and love as well as prioritizing what is truly important in life:  Just as there is an evil zeal of bitterness which separates from God and leads to hell, so there is a good zeal which separates from vices and leads to God and to life everlasting. This zeal, therefore, the monks should practice with the most fervent love. Thus they should anticipate one another in honor; most patiently endure one another’s infirmities, whether of body or of character; vie in paying obedience one to another—no one following what he considers useful for himself, but rather what benefits another—; tender the charity of brotherhood chastely; fear God in love; love their Abbot with a sincere and humble charity; prefer nothing whatever to Christ.

Prefer nothing whatever to Christ.  That’s a real challenge for us.  We have so many things that seem shiny and nice and call out to us.  But none of them can save our souls.  And the real truth is, Christ prefers nothing whatever to us.  So we need to be zealous about our love for the Lord and show it in the way that we treat one another.  When we follow Christ with this kind of zeal, Benedict says we can look forward to the ultimate reward: And may He bring us all together to life everlasting!

The Fourteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

You’ll often hear me say that the Liturgy of the Word for these summer Ordinary Time Sundays is designed to offer us a kind of toolbox for living our Christian discipleship.  And that’s important because discipleship isn’t an easy thing to live, and it would be far easier to just throw it aside and never give it a second thought, which is what so many people do.  But it can’t be that way for us; we know the Lord and have experienced his love, and so the only thing we can do in the face of that love and mercy is live the life he has called us to live.  The only option for us is being disciples.  And it’s not insurmountable for us, because we have the roadmap, the instructions if you will, for living that life.  We call them the Gospels.

So these Gospel readings during the summer and fall give us the tools we need to live the Christian life.  If that’s so, and I would obviously say it is, then the tool we are being offered today is the tool of the virtue called humility.  You may be thinking, “Well, no thanks, actually.  I may just leave that particular tool in the toolbox.”  Because being a person of humility in our culture can be seen as something of a character flaw.  For decades, maybe even longer, our society has encouraged us to toot our own horn, to look out for number one.  “Believe in yourself” has been the mantra of Oprah and Doctor Phil and all those other self-appointed gurus.  But we have to remember that we have not been breathed into existence in the image of Oprah or Doctor Phil.  We have been created in the image and likeness of God, and so we need to emulate our God as closely as we can.

So what does our God look like?  Well, Zechariah gives us a pretty clear portrait today: “See, your king shall come to you; a just savior is he, meek, and riding on an ass, on a colt, the foal of an ass.”  So our Savior was prophesied to be meek and just, and far from coming into the city riding on a mighty horse of a king, he comes in on a donkey, the beast of burden employed by the poor.  And that’s just how Jesus was, wasn’t he?  He could have insisted on his glory as our God, could have chosen not to take on our feeble and flawed flesh.  But he didn’t.  He humbled himself, becoming like ourselves in all things but sin.

So today, Jesus invites us to that same kind of humility.  He invites us to take his yoke upon our shoulders.  A yoke back then was an implement that kept the oxen together so they could work the fields.  So a yoke implies a few things.  First, it’s going to be work.  That’s what yokes are for.  So when Jesus says he’s going to give us rest, that doesn’t mean that there won’t be some work involved.  Disciples have work to do in this world, living the Gospel, witnessing to God’s love, and reaching out to a world that needs hope and mercy and grace.

Second, a yoke meant that more than one animal was working; they were working together.  So as we take Jesus’ yoke upon us, we are yoked to him and we are yoked to other disciples.  Jesus calls us to work for the kingdom, but never expects us to work for it alone.  That’s why his burden is easy and light: it’s still a burden, but we never ever bear it alone, Christ is always with us, and we always live our discipleship in community with other believers.

This model of working for the kingdom leads us right back to humility.  If we are yoked to the community and to our Savior, that means that we can’t take sole credit for the mighty things we are able to do.  Yes, we do great things, but we do them because he has transformed us and has taken the yoke with us; we do them with the help of other disciples to whom we are yoked for the particular purpose of being God’s presence in the world.  We are no longer men and women in the flesh, as Saint Paul says today, we are people of the Spirit, with the Spirit of Christ in us, and so in Christ we cast aside those deeds of darkness and, taking his yoke, we accomplish the work Jesus has given us.  Saint Augustine once said, “Humility must accompany all our actions, must be with us everywhere; for as soon as we glory in our good works they are of no further value to our advancement in virtue.”

And that is our goal as disciples: to advance in virtue.  Some days, that’s very hard work.  But we never have to go it alone, if we are truly humble people working in the image of our God.