Monday of the Sixth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Saint James today encourages us to consider it all joy when we experience trial.  I don’t know about you, but that’s not the emotion I usually find in frustrating or fearful circumstances.  And considering that the people to whom James was writing were probably being persecuted, they probably weren’t overjoyed at their trials either.  But the spiritual principle is that when one’s faith is tested, ones learns perseverance, and learns to trust in God.

But that presupposes that we will remain faithful in the midst of trial.  The minute we stop looking to our Lord for help in times of difficulty, perseverance and trust in God go right down the tubes.  The Pharisees in the Gospel had not yet learned faithfulness.  They kept their eyes on the minutiae of the Law instead of on God, and so they lost sight of faith and everything that was of true importance.  They were fearful; they wanted a sign, but they would never get a sign because they were always looking in places other than God.

Faithfulness is a difficult thing. When we are tested, it’s so easy to want to throw in the towel and leave behind everything we believe in. I have been there myself, but thankfully I still had prayer and people praying for me. I think we’re all in that place at some time or another in our lives. It’s easy to be faithful when there are no trials, but faith in times of trial produces the perseverance and lively faith that gets us through life. And we definitely should consider that all joy.

The Fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

One of the most basic spiritual principles is that the Christian life looks like something.  The Christian looks like something.  Perhaps we ought to change that to “looks like someone,” that someone of course being Jesus Christ.

In the Liturgy of the Hours, which clergy and others pray each day, today there is a reading from a section of Gaudium et spes, the Pastoral Constituition on the Church in the Modern World from Vatican II.  The line that jumped out at me was this one: “Man’s worth is greater because of what he is than because of what he has.”  So the Christian doesn’t look like her or his possessions; doesn’t look like what he does, but rather what he is.  And what she or he is is what Jesus is getting at in today’s Gospel reading.

Jesus gives us the images of salt and light, and I think those are very familiar images for us to grasp.  We all use salt and light every day, and it is interesting to hear Jesus say that that is what we are.  Anyone who cooks, or even anyone who eats, will tell you of the value of salt.  I like to watch the television show Chopped on the Food Network.  On that show, four chefs compete to make something edible of a basket of disparate and perhaps even bizarre ingredients.  Then three judges sample their dishes and decide who is not moving on to the next round; they are “chopped.”  At the end, one of them wins a bunch of money.  I can’t tell you how many people I’ve seen on that show get “chopped” because they under-seasoned their food.  A pinch of salt might be what got between them and ten thousand dollars!

So the Christian is salt for the world; we are called to season the world with joy and goodness and concern for the poor and genuine love, based on the Gospel.  But Jesus wonders what would happen if that salt were to lose its flavor.  Now I can’t imagine salt losing its saltiness.  In fact, I googled this one time and found a chemist who took this question on.  He indicated that salt, in its crystalline form, is pretty stable; it doesn’t lose its flavor.  So Jesus was using, as he often does, hyperbole to get our attention.  Suppose for the moment that salt could lose its saltiness: what would it then be good for?  Well, nothing, of course.

But Jesus seems to be saying that we, as the salt for the world, could lose our saltiness.  For example, we could become under-seasoned by skipping Mass to attend a sports event or sleep in.  We could become under-seasoned by neglecting our prayer life.  We could become under-seasoned by watching the wrong things on TV or surfing the wrong sites on the internet.  We could become under-seasoned by holding on to relationships that are sinful.  And when that starts to happen, our ability to season our world with the presence of Christ is diminished, little by little.  Our salt loses its saltiness.

And then we have the image of light.  When I preach this text for children, I often ask them how many of them are or ever had been afraid of the dark.  Lots of hands go up, as you can well imagine.  I think that’s probably true of all of us on some level; the darkness is a scary place.  There are all sorts of obstacles in the dark that could cause us to trip and fall, and you never know what might befall you on a dark and scary road.  All of us have had those experiences when we are in the dark, and it’s not a fun place to be.

So what do you do when you find yourself in the dark?  Well, you turn on the light, of course. The light changes everything: you can see the obstacles over which you might have fallen.  Anything lurking in the dark will now be identified in the light.  Sometimes a quick look around with the lights on will assure you that that noise you heard was just the house settling, or the furnace firing up, or something similarly innocuous.  The light just makes you feel a little safer.

And so we are called to be light too.  We don’t need much time to think about how dark our world can be at times.  We see on television the news about war and crime and terrorism and new diseases and things we shouldn’t be eating.  We hear about children bullying one another and people stalking others on the internet.  A quick moment of reflection reminds us of our own sinfulness; the bad that we have done and the good we have failed to do.  Darkness in our world can be pretty pervasive at times, and it makes the world a rather frightening place.

But we have the light.  We’ve been exposed to the light.  We have come alive in Jesus, the Light of the world – that’s what we celebrated last weekend during our feast of the Presentation of the Lord.  As those gifted with the Light of the world, we become people of light.  We become light for the world too.  Jesus insists that our light should shine so brightly that we affect the darkness of our world, completely overcoming that darkness with the Light of Christ.  He insists that we are now that city, set on a hill, that cannot be hidden.  

St. Therese of Liseaux used to talk about doing little things with great love for the glory of God.  She found joy in her “Little Way” and it has inspired so many people ever since.  Our Liturgy today calls us to do little things and big things, all for God’s glory.  It calls us to be salt for a world grown bland with despair and light for a world dwelling in a very dark place.  In our first reading, the prophet Isaiah tells us how to do it:

Share your bread with the hungry,
shelter the oppressed and the homeless;
clothe the naked when you see them,
and do not turn your back on your own.
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn…

If neglecting our prayer life and our integrity causes us to lose our saltiness, if giving in to shame and despair puts out our light, then we can never do what we were created for.  But we have been given salt and light to season and light our world.  We are the city set on the hill for all the watching world to see.  Would that they might see us doing little things and big things, all for the glory of God.

Tuesday of the Fourth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

There is a lot of anguish in the readings today, isn’t there?  Most markedly is the anguish of King David, mourning the death of his son Absalom.  His anguish was most surprising to his army, because they had been fighting Absalom’s thugs who were helping him to overthrow the government of David.  But even though Absalom was seeking his father’s life, Absalom is still his son, and his death is no occasion for joy.

Then there is the anguish of Jairus, the synagogue official, whose daughter was near death when he reached out to Jesus.  It becomes more distressing when, on the way to heal his daughter, they are confronted with the anguish of the hemorrhagic woman, who had been suffering for twelve years, at “the hands of many doctors,” who had apparently done nothing for her but take her money.  Knowing that he had healed someone, he stopped to reach out to her so as to heal her spirit.  All of which becomes even more distressing as they reach Jairus’s daughter, who has just died.

But Jesus is the enemy of death and anguish, so he heals the hemorrhagic woman, he raises the daughter of Jairus with a word of command, and he teaches us the essential truth that faith is essential to healing.  David had faith and poured out his heart to God in our psalm today, and was eventually given peace.  Jairus had faith, and found out that death is not more powerful than God.  The hemorrhagic woman had faith and found that God’s love can bind up the wounds of so many years.

Whatever our anguish is today, may we bring it to God, trusting as David did: “For you, O Lord, are good and forgiving, abounding in kindness to all who call upon you.”

The Presentation of the Lord

Today’s readings

Who is this king of glory?
The 
Lord of hosts; he is the king of glory.

Today we celebrate the traditional end of the Christmas season with this feast of the Presentation of the Lord.  The current liturgical end of the Christmas season was back on January 12th, the feast of the Baptism of the Lord.  But the older tradition reflected what we have seen in the readings for the Sundays ever since, and that is remnants of the Epiphany, or manifestation of who Christ is in our world.  On Epiphany, Jesus was manifested to the Magi as priest, prophet and king.  On the Baptism of the Lord, Jesus was baptized as the eternal Son of the Father, with whom the Father was well-pleased.  Today, Jesus is manifested as a light to the Gentiles and the glory of Israel, as the king of glory.

Like Epiphany, this feast of the Presentation of the Lord is a feast of light.  On Epiphany the world was illumined by a star that pointed to the true Light of the world.  Today, a world grown dark is illumined by that true Light and the glory of God sheds light on the whole world: Gentiles and Israelites alike.  So today, the Church has always blessed candles, which we did at the beginning of Mass today.  The reason the Church lights candles is always to draw our attention to Christ our Light, in the midst of whatever darkness the world throws at us.  This feast is a foreshadowing of the Easter Vigil, when the deacon proclaims in a darkened church, “Lumen Christi,” “The Light of Christ,” and the Church responds, “Deo Gratias,” “Thanks be to God.”  Today is a foretaste of Easter, when the true Light of the World, Christ our Light, will definitively conquer every darkness.

And so you will be invited today to purchase some of the candles we just blessed to take into your home.  Traditionally these blessed candles have been used in many ways: to be a sign of Christ’s presence when the priest is called to anoint a dying loved one; to be lit during a storm to remind us of Jesus who had power to conquer every storm; to be lit when the family gathers for prayer so that we remember that whenever we gather in Christ’s name, he is there in our midst.  Every family should have blessed candles in their home because every family has times when Christ’s light needs to be shown brightly.

Those blessed candles which remind us of the presence of our Savior in good times and in bad remind us that we, too are meant to be the light of Christ.  And we are called to be the light because the world has times of darkness too.  The world needs us to be the light that scatters the darkness of apathy by looking in on a sick neighbor or bringing a meal to a family that has suffered the death of a loved one.  We are called to be the light that scatters the darkness of ignorance by mentoring a young person, or opening our home to a foster child, or being a catechist.  We are called to be the light that scatters the darkness of racism by standing in solidarity with our brothers and sisters, no matter where they’ve come from.  We have to be the light that scatters the darkness of death by taking every opportunity to oppose abortion, euthanasia, and any endeavor that cheapens human life.  We have to be the light that scatters the sadness of a spiritually bereft world by joyfully living our faith and standing up for what we believe.  The world needs the light of Christ, and you might be the only candle someone sees on a given day.  Be the light, friends: be Christ’s presence.  People of faith don’t have any other option than that.

The Methodist minister William L. Watkinson once said, “It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.”  We can look at the darkness of our world – and there is plenty of it! – and shake our heads and walk away in sadness, but that doesn’t shed any light.  We have to acknowledge the darkness and remember, as the Gospel of John proclaims, “the Light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.”  We are Catholics and we believe and proclaim that there is no darkness on earth that Christ our Light can’t overcome with the brightness of his glory.  It is up to us to light the candle that helps others to see that glory.

In today’s Gospel reading, Simeon and Anna experienced the power of the Light of the World.  They had been waiting and praying and fasting for the day of his appearance, and those prayers were answered.  The Lord came suddenly to the temple, as Malachi prophesied, and they could now be at peace.  But that appearance of the Lord requires a response: one doesn’t just experience the light and remain the same.  Christ our light is that refiner’s fire that purifies the lives of his chosen ones so that they might go out and shed light on our dark world.

And I don’t mean for this to just be an academic or poetic discussion.  The light of Christ is not a mere metaphor.  Being the light for the world isn’t just a “yeah, maybe I should do that some day” kind of thing.  Every baptized one, according to her or his station in life, is called to actively shed light on the world.  So let’s take a few moments to pray with this.

  • Call to mind a darkness that you have noticed, either in your life, in your community, or in the world: a darkness that affects you or those around you.
  • Take a moment to talk with Jesus about that darkness and let him know your concern.
  • Listen for Jesus as he acknowledges the darkness and accepts your concern.  
  • Ask him for the grace to shed some light, small or big, on that darkness.  Listen for him to tell you what he wants you to do.
  • If you don’t hear that call right away, bring it to your prayer this week.  Ask Jesus for grace to be the light.

Saint John Bosco, Priest

Today’s readings

Saint John Bosco was a master catechist and a priest who was concerned with the whole person of the young people he taught: he wanted them to fill both their minds and their souls.  John was encouraged to enter the priesthood for the specific purpose of teaching young boys and forming them in the faith.  This began with a poor orphan, who John prepared for First Holy Communion.  Then he was able to gather a small community and teach them the Catechism.  He worked for a time as a chaplain of a hospice for working girls, and later opened an oratory – a kind of school – for boys which had over 150 students.  The needs of teaching them also encouraged John to open a publishing house to print the catechetical and educational materials used in the classrooms.

He was known for his preaching, and that helped him to extend his ministry by forming a religious community – the Salesians – to concentrate on education and mission work in 1859.  He later formed a group of Salesian Sisters to teach girls. By teaching children self worth through education and job training, John was able to also teach the children of their own worth in the eyes of God.

Saint John Bosco was tireless in his devotion to teaching this truth to young people. In today’s Eucharist, may our thanksgiving be for the teachers in our lives. And especially during this Catholic Schools Week, perhaps we can also commend the teachers and catechists of today’s young people to the patronage of Saint John Bosco.

Monday of the Third Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

This is a tough text from the Gospel today.  Jesus says that “whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never have forgiveness…”  This seems to be an incongruous statement from Jesus, who came to be all about forgiveness.  That he would withhold it from any sinner is shocking, I think.

But we have to remember what it is that Jesus was addressing here.  The scribes who had come from Jerusalem catch up with Jesus and begin to make trouble for him.  They are being obstinate in their unbelief, even to the point of being intellectually dishonest.  They know that Satan cannot — would not — cast himself out, but that’s just what they’re accusing Jesus of being and doing.  They would rather say foolish things than to believe that Jesus came to cast out sin and forgive sinners and address the fundamental issues of human existence.

Salvation and forgiveness are a gift, and gifts must be accepted.  If one refuses to be forgiven, he or she will never have forgiveness.  That is the infamous sin against the Holy Spirit.  If one refuses to believe that he or she needs a Savior, then he or she will never come at last to eternity.

May we always remember how much we need our Savior, and always give thanks for the demons he casts out.

The Third Sunday of Ordinary Time: Sunday of the Word of God

Today’s Readings
Pope Francis’s “motu proprio” APERUIT ILLIS, instituting the Sunday of the Word of God

About fifteen years ago now, my home parish put on a production of the musical Godspell, and somehow I found myself part of the cast.  If you’ve ever seen the musical, you know that it is based on the Gospel of Matthew, the Gospel that we are reading during this current Church year.  I remember the first song of the musical was kind of strange to me at the time.  It’s called “Tower of Babel” and the lyrics are a hodge-podge of lots of philosophies and philosophers throughout time.  I didn’t get, at the time, the significance of the song, but I do now.  “Tower of Babel” represents the various schools of thought about God, over time.  It shows how philosophy at its worst has been an attempt to figure out God by going over God’s head, by leaving God out of the picture completely.

The song ends abruptly and goes right into the second song of the musical, “Prepare Ye,” of which the major lyric is “Prepare ye the way of the Lord.”  The message that we can take from that is that the useless, and in some ways sinful, babbling of the pagan philosophers was once and for all settled by Jesus Christ.  If we want to know the meaning of life, if we want to know who God is, we have only to look to Jesus.  That’s true of most things in life.

That’s what is happening in today’s Liturgy of the Word too.  The people in the first reading and in the Gospel have found themselves in darkness.  Zebulun and Naphtali have been degraded.  They have been punished for their sinfulness, the sin being that they thought they didn’t need God.  They thought they could get by on their own cleverness, making alliances with people who believed in strange gods and worshiped idols.  So now they find themselves in a tower of Babel, occupied by the people with whom they tried to ally themselves.  Today’s first reading tells them that this subjection – well deserved as it certainly was – is coming to an end.  The people who have dwelt in darkness are about to see a great light.

The same is true in another sense for Peter and Andrew and the sons of Zebedee in today’s Gospel.  These men have been fishermen all their lives.  Reading the Gospels and seeing how infrequently they catch anything unless Jesus helps them, we might wonder how successful they were at their craft.  But the point is that fishing is all they’ve ever known.  These are not learned men, nor are they known for their charisma or ability to lead people.  But these are the men who Jesus calls as apostles.  One wonders if they had any previous about Jesus, because on seeing him and hearing him and recognizing the Light of the World, they drop everything, turn their backs on the people and work they have always known, and follow Jesus, whose future they absolutely could never have imagined.

All of this is good news for us. Because we too dwell in darkness at times, don’t we? We can turn on the news and see reports of men and women dying in war, crime and violence in our communities, corruption in government, and maybe worst of all right now, sniping between political candidates!  Then there is the rampant disrespect for life through the horrific sin of abortion, as well as euthanasia, hunger and homelessness, racism and hatred, and so much more.  Add to that the darkness in our own lives: illness of a family member or death of a loved one, difficulty in relating to family members, and even our own sinfulness.  Sometimes it doesn’t take much imagination to know that our world is a very dark place indeed.

But the Liturgy today speaks to us the truth that into all of this darkness, the Light of Christ has dawned and illumined that darkness in ways that forever change our world and forever change us.  One of the Communion antiphons for today’s Liturgy speaks of that change.  Quoting Jesus in the Gospel of John, it says this:

I am the light of the world, says the Lord;
whoever follows me will not walk in darkness,
but will have the light of life.  

There is an antidote available for the darkness in our world and in our hearts, and that antidote is Jesus Christ.  The limits that are part and parcel of our human existence are no match for the light that is God’s glory manifested in Christ.  This is what we mean by the Epiphany, and we continue to live in the light of the Epiphany in these opening days of Ordinary Time.  Now that Jesus Christ has come into the world, nothing on earth can obscure the vision of God’s glory that we see in our Savior.

Pope Francis has made this particular Sunday each year a celebration of the Word of God.  He means for us to spend time opening the Scriptures and finding the manifold riches that are there.  That’s what our Mass is always about.  Read carefully through the order of Mass and you’ll find scripture in every part of it.  Not just in the Liturgy of the Word – that’s a given, but in each and every one of the prayers of Mass.  Catholic worship isn’t something someone made up, it is literally a celebration of the Word of God from beginning to end.  And that makes sense, when you think about it: if we are called to “Go and announce the Gospel of the Lord,” as one of the dismissal formulas invites us, we can do that with confidence because we have just been fed on the Gospel in every part of our Mass.

The Mass, too, is an Epiphany celebration at every point of the liturgical year.  Because when we’re attentive to the Word of God and the prayer of the Mass, we can’t possibly miss Jesus present among us.  So Pope Francis on this Sunday of the Word of God encourages us to devote ourselves to God’s word: to join a Bible study – we have that here at Saint Mary’s, to help others break open the word by leading that part of the RCIA, to teaching the scriptures to children in our school and religious education programs, to proclaiming the Word at Mass.  Do any one of those things, sisters and brothers, and I guarantee you’ll grow in your knowledge of scripture.  And, turning a famous saying of Saint Jerome around to the positive, knowledge of scripture is knowledge of Christ.

Jesus came to be good news for us.  He is the Word of God incarnate among us, not just two thousand years ago, but even now if we would give ourselves over to loving the scriptures.  So for those of us who feel like every day is a struggle of some sort, and who wonder if this life really means anything, the Good news is that Jesus has come to give meaning to our struggles and to walk with us as we go through them. For those of us who are called to ministries for which we might feel unqualified – as catechists, Eucharistic Ministers, Lectors, RCIA team members, small group leaders or retreat leaders – we can look to the Apostles and see that those fishermen were transformed from the darkness of their limited life to the light of what they were able to accomplish in Christ Jesus. Wherever we feel darkness in our lives, the Good News for us is that Christ’s Epiphany – his manifestation into our world and into our lives – has overcome all that.

As the Psalmist sings for us today, the Lord truly is our light and our salvation.

Saint Francis de Sales, Bishop and Doctor of the Church

Saint Francis de Sales was born in the Savoy region of France-Italy in 1567.  His priesthood had him work diligently for the restoration of Catholicism in his homeland, reclaiming it from the clutches of the protestant reformation.  He became bishop of Geneva, and was known for his writings, work and example.  Astonishingly, he says that it took him 20 years to conquer his quick temper, a problem no one ever suspected he had, because he was known for his good nature and kindness.  His perennial meekness and sunny disposition won for him the title of “Gentleman Saint.”

This is a quality that I’m sure we all wish more people had, and perhaps we wish we had it as well.  I know I have to work on that every day, or it would be easy to let the frustrations of running a large place like Saint Mary’s cause me to give in to anger.  So for all of us who seek to overcome a quick temper, or overcome the disposition to say something we wish we hadn’t, or the tendency to press “send” on a tersely-written email, Saint Francis de Sales is our patron.  Saint Francis is also known to be the patron of the deaf, since he devised a kind of sign language in order to teach the deaf about God.  His beautiful writings have inspired many in their faith and earned him the title of Doctor of the Church.

Saint Francis was known to work on behalf of the poor, and even to be something of an ascetic himself.  He encouraged devotion in every person, regardless of their walk in life.  He writes: “I say that devotion must be practiced in different ways by the nobleman and by the working man, by the servant and by the prince, by the widow, by the unmarried girl and by the married woman.  But even this distinction is not sufficient; for the practice of devotion must be adapted to the strength, to the occupation and to the duties of each one in particular.”

In a moment we will offer our gifts, and pray for gifts and grace to lead a holy life.  Following the example of Saint Francis de Sales, maybe we can call on God for meekness, and humility, and patience. As St. Francis de Sales tells us: “The person who possesses Christian meekness is affectionate and tender towards everyone: he is disposed to forgive and excuse the frailties of others; the goodness of his heart appears in a sweet affability that influences his words and actions, presents every object to his view in the most charitable and pleasing light.” Who wouldn’t want to look at the world that way?

Thursday of the Second Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

In today’s first reading, we hear about the amazing power of spiritual friendship, through the lens of the relationship of Jonathan and David.  If it were not for Jonathan, Saul would have murdered David, if not in the story we heard today, then in many other occasions that we read in the books of Samuel.  This was just the beginning, it was only going to get worse.  The Lord’s rejection of Saul would drive him to madness, and, as many insecure people do, he would do everything possible to sabotage the one who was making him look bad.  

But Jonathan’s intervened, and made some good points about the fact that David risked his life for Saul, and that Saul delighted in the victory David won for him.  Because of Jonathan’s intervention, Saul’s anger was tempered, and David lived to become king.

Now, note that I’m not just extolling friendship alone here.  I think we can agree that friendship is a good thing, even a gift.  But I said this reading was about the amazing power of spiritual friendship.  Spiritual friendship has its basis in God’s grace, and is a special gift from God.  A spiritual friendship is a kind of companionship in which the companions, in their affection for one another, lead each other to God.  Jonathan and David did that in many ways, and the fruit of that was that Jonathan protected David’s vocation to be king.  Spiritual friends do that – they always bring out the best in each other; they help each other become what God created them to be.

Spiritual friendship is a very special gift, and it involves two people who have a strong relationship with God and an understanding that love means willing the good of the other.  If you have a spiritual friendship, it’s a very great blessing.  Give your friendships some prayerful thought today; pause and be grateful for those who have been spiritual friends to you.  Think of those who have helped you become who you are; those whose encouragement has brought you closer to God.  May God bless those who have been a blessing to us.

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