Thursday of the 21st Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Yesterday, I told you about how one of my seminary professors used to tell us that the “Christian disciple looks like something.” In the first reading yesterday, we found that the Christian disciple is not disorderly and lazy, but works tenaciously. In the Gospel, that disciple was described as authentic and righteous as opposed to being hypocritical.

Today’s readings give us another look at what the Christian disciple looks like. In the first reading, the Christian disciple is grateful. The more the disciple comes to know Christ and the more the disciple sees the work of God in himself or herself, as well as in others, the more grateful they become. That God’s purposes are being worked out in the world, through the disciple or the disciple’s friends or family or community, is a great cause for joy for all of us. We rejoice as we see the multitude of spiritual gifts at work in the community of believers. The Christian disciple has a grateful heart. We can cultivate that virtue of gratitude, brothers and sisters. Every night before bed we can think back on the day and reflect on the blessings of the day. A friend of mine even keeps a gratitude journal. Gratitude helps us to see God’s work more and more each day.

In the Gospel, the Christian disciple is awake and alert to God’s purposes in the world. We do not know on what day the Lord will come. Even more to the point, we don’t know, any of us, on what day we will go back to be with the Lord. We can’t live every day like we’re going to die, but we can live every day like we’re ready to meet the Lord. As faithful and prudent servants, we must be doing the work of Christ when the time comes. We must cast off drunkenness, distractions, and whatever keeps us from being ready for the Day of the Lord. The Christian disciple is not unaware of the presence of the Lord, but is always expecting the Lord to be present in every time and place.

The Christian disciple looks like something, indeed. With grateful hearts, may we always be hard at the Lord’s work, expecting his presence everywhere we look!

And yes, more on this tomorrow!

Wednesday of the 21st Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Today’s readings talk all about authenticity. As one of my professors used to say, “discipleship looks like something.” People ought to be able to look at the Christian person and know that they are in the presence of a Christian person.

In today’s first reading, Paul points out that, as an apostle, he could have relied on and insisted upon the help of the Thessalonians to sustain him while he was at work preaching among them. He could have taken their charity and food, but he didn’t. Instead, he and his companions worked and toiled night and day so that they wouldn’t be a burden on the Thessalonian community. And so he then insisted that the Thessalonians live the same way. His behavior was to be a model for them, and those among them who would not work should not eat. Indeed, they were called upon to distance themselves from any member of the community who made a practice of living in a disorderly way. The Christian disciple is not disorderly, but works tenaciously.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus insists that the Christian disciple is not a hypocrite. The Scribes and Pharisees claimed to frown upon their ancestors who murdered the prophets and insisted that they themselves would never do such a thing. But Jesus notices that their behavior is quite like their ancestors of old, and that the apple hasn’t fallen very far from the tree at all. The Scribes and Pharisees made every effort to appear righteous, but true righteousness was never a virtue they felt was worth pursuing. Jesus says, “on the outside you appear righteous, but inside you are filled with hypocrisy and evildoing.” The Christian disciple isn’t a hypocrite, but instead is a person who pursues righteousness inside and out.

The Christian disciple looks like something. In our prayer today, may we all seek the help we need to be certain that the Christian disciple looks like us.

The 21st Sunday of Ordinary Time: Decide Today whom You will Serve

Today’s readings

Canon law requires a retreat before a man is ordained as a deacon or a priest, so about this time last year, I made my diaconate retreat up at Bellarmine Retreat House in Barrington. It was one of the most important retreats I have ever made, with the possible exception of the retreat just before my priesthood ordination. I took the occasion of that retreat to meditate on the three promises I would be making to be sure I was ready to make them. Those promises, of course, are celibacy, obedience to the Bishop, and the promise to pray the Liturgy of the Hours every day. At the end of the retreat, obviously, I decided I was indeed ready for that commitment, and I was able to approach my ordination as Deacon last November with great joy.

I mention this because I think the making of a decision is an essential aspect of any retreat. No matter what kind of retreat you are on, the hope, I think is that at the end of it, you will have made some decision to approach your life, your vocation or your work with a renewal that will bring you joy. Many of you have been on Marriage Encounter retreats, and may have made a decision to approach your marriage with renewed appreciation for the love you share. A lot of you have made the ChRHP retreats and have made the decision to live your discipleship with a renewed energy and commitment to this parish. Some of the youth have made RPM or Reflections retreats and have made a decision to live your faith as you grow into young adulthood. Perhaps some have made personal retreats, and have made decisions that have strengthened your spiritual life. No matter what kind of retreat you may make, a decision is pretty standard fare at the end of it.

Today marks the last Sunday of a retreat of sorts that we have been making as a Church. For the last five weeks, we have taken a bit of a break from our reading of the Gospel of Mark to look at chapter six of the Gospel of John, commonly known as the “Bread of Life Discourse.” So this retreat has been all about the Eucharist, its importance in our lives, and a renewal of our joy for receiving it. Back on July 31st, we heard about Jesus feeding the five thousand on just five barley loaves and two fish: this wonderful miracle showed us how Jesus notices our needs, makes up for what we lack, and feeds us physically and spiritually with food more wonderful than we could ever imagine. The next Sunday, we celebrated the Solemnity of the Transfiguration. We were able to catch a glimpse of Jesus’ resurrected body even before he suffered and died: we were challenged to each transfigure our own world for the better, not the worse; for good and not for evil. The following Sunday, we returned to John’s Gospel and heard about Jesus being the true bread come down from heaven. That day, if you were at one of the Masses I celebrated, we reviewed how to receive Communion with reverence, faithfulness and joy. And last Sunday, Jesus proclaimed that only those who eat his flesh and drink his blood will live forever, that his body and blood are real food, come from heaven, to nourish all of us who believe. We dined at the rich table of Wisdom and the great banquet of the Lord and reflected on why the Eucharist and the sacraments are so important to us as Catholics.

This retreat has been rich and nourishing. It has provided us the opportunity to reflect on the wonderful gift of the Eucharist, and the Real Presence of Christ in our midst. We have been challenged, and we have been fed, perhaps we have even been refreshed. Hopefully the Eucharist, the receiving of which can become a routine when we do it week after week or day after day, has become even more important and awesome to us as we have reflected on it in these last five weeks. This has been such a wonderful opportunity for us to give thanks for the great Paschal Mystery which is the lifeblood of our Church and our spiritual lives. God willing, this retreat will nourish us and feed our spiritual lives in the months to come.

One of the hardest parts of any retreat is always the end of it. As wonderful as time away and time spent on our spiritual lives may be, we all have to go back to “real life” and all its responsibilities and demands. Back on Transfiguration Sunday a few weeks ago, Peter, James and John found the same to be true. They had experienced the Lord in an incredibly intimate way, but now they had to come down the mountain and live their lives. We have to come down a mountain of sorts every time we end a retreat, as we are doing today. And so as wonderful as our reflection on the Eucharist has been, we now have to come down the mountain into our lives as Christians. And for this retreat, it really is a coming down. From here on out, when we return to the Gospel of Mark, it’s all going to be about the Cross. Everything will be told from Mark’s point of view as a shadow of the suffering and death of Jesus. We will have to take the strength of the Eucharist upon which we’ve reflected in these last weeks into the real demands the Gospel and the Cross make of us as disciples.

Today’s Liturgy demands a decision of us. Now that we have reflected on the Eucharist, what’s it going to be? Are we going to follow Christ or not? Who will be our God? And make no mistake, brothers and sisters in Christ: these are not frivolous questions about which we can make a flippant comment and let that be that. No, these questions are life and death questions that will define who we are as a people and define who we are in the sight of God. If you come up to receive Communion today, you will have publicly answered those questions for yourself, and the implication of those answers for your life will be absolutely irrevocable. We know how powerful this decision is because, in the very first verse of the next chapter of John, we are told: “After this, Jesus moved about within Galilee; but he did not wish to travel in Judea, because the Jews were trying to kill him.” There are no promises of glamour or grandeur here, brothers and sisters, because sometimes discipleship is just that serious.

In today’s first reading, Joshua puts it very clearly to the Israelites: “Decide today whom you will serve.” They are told they can either serve the gods of their ancestors, a kind of ancestral spirit worship. Or they can serve the gods of the people whose land they have taken over. Those gods were based on worship to affect the richness of the land. Or, they could serve the LORD, whose mighty deeds and outstretched arm delivered them from their oppressors in Egypt and literally gave them the land in which they were now dwelling. Joshua then makes a declaration that has always inspired me, a decision that has echoed through the centuries ever since: “As for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.” The decision he was asking them to make was one that would absolutely define who they were as a people. Either they would continue the ancestral worship of their fathers and mothers and be defined as individual clans, or they would worship the gods of the Amorites and be identified with the people they were supposed to be overcoming. Or they could worship the Lord and be defined as God’s people. They chose the latter, and that has defined them ever since, and it is the background of how we define ourselves as a people.

In the Gospel reading, it is Jesus who demands the decision. People have just heard his Bread of Life discourse, and many found it troubling. Either they were angry that he was claiming to be “bread come down from heaven” when they knew his mother and father and where he was from, or they were put off by his teaching that they should eat his flesh and drink his blood. One claim was pure blasphemy, and the other was just plain gross. The drinking of blood was also specifically prohibited by the deuteronomic law. So for one reason or the other, many of those who had been eagerly following Jesus now turned away, murmuring as they went: “This saying is hard; who can accept it?” Jesus then turns to his disciples and very bluntly asks them, “Do you also want to leave?” His question makes no specific judgment but does demand a decision.

It is Peter who answers, and not just for himself but for the other eleven too. He makes a beautiful profession of faith in three parts. First, he states that there is no one else to whom they can go, because nobody else preaches authentically as Jesus does. Second, he states that Jesus proclaims words of eternal life, words that really matter, words that are backed up by action, words that will lead them to the Kingdom of God. Finally, he professes faith in a Messianic identity of Jesus: he and the others are absolutely convinced that Jesus is the Holy One of God. Peter and the others have made their decision. Just as Joshua and the Israelites defined themselves as followers of the LORD, so Peter and the other disciples would define themselves as followers of Jesus. The implication of that decision for Peter and the other disciples (except for Judas) was martyrdom, as we know that they were later to suffer death for the faith they now professed.

So the questions are poignant for us now, aren’t they? We have just heard the same discourse the disciples did. Do we also want to leave? Who will we serve? Who will be our God? What will our faith look like? How will we choose to live? What meaning does the Eucharist have in our lives? What are its implications? We have many ways that we can answer those questions. We have many opportunities to continue this retreat we have been enjoying these last five weeks. We can join a small Christian Community as we will be hearing about today. We can go to Hesed House and serve the poor as a way of feeding others as we have been fed. We can teach the faith to our children, junior high students, or youth as we have been asked the last few weeks. We can become lectors or extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion. And those are just to name a few. Perhaps some of us may even need to discern a call to priesthood, the diaconate or religious life.

But all of these decisions begin with the one we will make in a few minutes. We will soon have the opportunity to come forward to receive the Eucharist about which we have been reflecting all these weeks. Receiving our Lord means we have decided who is our God and how we will live. As we receive the broken body and blood of our Lord, so we too have promised to lay down our lives for others. It’s that simple and that difficult, friends. Decide today whom you will serve.

Saturday of the 20th Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Today, Jesus has yet another altercation with the Scribes and Pharisees, groups of religious Jews who were very scrupulous in their study and observance of the Torah, or Law. They went to great lengths to be sure that they, and others, did not break any of the 613 laws given in the Torah. Jesus, as we know, had a long-standing, ongoing feud with them. His problem with these groups was based on the fact that, though they knew how to follow the law, they didn’t know how to go beyond it. They couldn’t accept the Gospel that Jesus preached because they were devoted to the letter of the law, so much so that they often missed the law’s spirit.

The message Jesus gives his disciples then and now is not that we can disregard our parents or authorities. The message he gives us is that we must go far beyond that; we have to put God as the foremost of our authorities. This meant for the Scribes and Pharisees that they could not claim righteousness when the followed the law but ignored the real needs of other people. He might say the same to us today. We could get all caught up in the rules that define our society and our Church. And I won’t deny that these rules are important. But God’s law of love as shown in service to others surpasses any other rule we can name. Those of us who would be great must be the slave of all. Sometimes we will have to step aside and let go of things that had been important to us, and to take hold of the Gospel by serving the poor, visiting the lonely, healing the broken and comforting the sorrowing. The foremost of our authorities is not the law or rules, but the spirit of the Gospel, and the foremost of our energies has to be directed toward living that way.

St. Bartholomew, Apostle

Today's readings | St. Bartholomew

Will the real St. Bartholomew please stand up?  Bartholomew is one of the saints that we know almost nothing about.  He is mentioned in the lists of the apostles, but nowhere else in Scripture.  So, as is true of many of the saints, what we know about him belongs mostly to the realm of the Church’s tradition.  Not that we should look down on tradition, because it comes from the lived experience of the early Church, and is also inspired by the Holy Spirit. 

What tradition tells us about St. Bartholomew is that he is often identified with Nathanael in the Gospel.  That explains why Nathanael is prominent in the Gospel reading for today.  Nathanael – or Bartholomew, take your pick – is picked out of the crowd by Jesus.  Nathanael is surprised at what Jesus says about him: “Here is a true child of Israel.  There is no duplicity in him.”  We should recall that Jesus considered it his primary mission to seek out the lost children of Israel, so seeing Nathanael as a “true child of Israel” with “no duplicity in him” means that Jesus considered Nathanael a role model for his people.  He was one whose faith reached beyond mere observance of the Law or the Torah, and extended into the realm of living the Gospel.  And because he was able to do that, then we should consider him a role model for all of us as well. 

It’s very interesting, I think, that we do know so little about the Chosen Twelve.  I mean, aside for characters like Peter, John, Matthew, and, well, Judas, we don’t have a lot of details.  Still, these Twelve were chosen as Apostles to bring the Gospel to all the corners of the world.  And maybe that’s all we need to know about them.  It is because of their efforts that we know about Jesus today and are able to seek after the life of grace.  Their preaching continues today in every land as Jesus intended, and we continue to have as our example these men in whom there is no duplicity; indeed the sole purpose of their life became the preaching of the Gospel.

That’s where we are all led, I think.  When it comes down to it, there is nothing more important than living the Gospel, and every one of us is called to do it.  If our spiritual life is not our primary concern, then we have nothing to look forward to.  But the good news is that, by the intercession and example and preaching of the Apostles like Bartholomew, we have every hope of eternal life.

The Queenship of Mary

The Queenship of Mary

On this, the octave day of the Assumption of Mary, we celebrate another great Marian feast, that of the Queenship of Mary. The Queenship of Mary has been celebrated ever since Pope Pius XII instituted this celebration in 1954. But the feast itself is rooted in Sacred Scripture. In the Old Testament, the mothers of the king had great influence in court. Certainly this would be the case between Mary and Jesus; we know that Mary’s intercession is a powerful force for our good. The Queenship of Mary, though, is most properly understood as a sharing in the Kingship of Christ the King. St. Paul speaks of the crown that awaited him after a long life, filled with fighting the good fight. And we know that that same crown – the crown that comes from Christ himself – awaits all who believe in Jesus and live lives of faith.

The origin of Mary’s crown, I think, can be seen at the very end of today’s Gospel reading. Having heard the overwhelming news from the angel Gabriel, Mary responds in faith: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.” Her faith, a faith that responded to the Lord’s call even though the details were not clear, is the kind of faith we’re all called to model. The kind of faith that responds to God’s movement with childlike trust in his providence. Mary models that kind of response for us, and perhaps her reward is a model of what we can hope to receive. Just as she responded in faith and was rewarded with a crown of glory, so we too can hope to have the same crown if we live the kind of faith she did.

And that’s the goal of our spiritual lives, brothers and sisters. We are to discern God’s call and respond with faith that leaves the details to God alone. Mary is always the model for us. She paves the way to living the Gospel as we are all called to do. But Mary is also the intercessor for us. She knew the difficulties and the sorrows that taking up the cross of the Gospel means for us, so we can depend on her intercession to help us through it. So on this feast day of her crowning, may we all look at our own calls in this life, and respond with the fiat: “Let it be done for me according to your word.”

20th Sunday of Ordinary Time: The Rich Table of the Lord

Today's readings

For my flesh is true food,
and my blood is true drink.
Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood
remains in me and I in him.

Today we continue the preaching of John's "Bread of Life Discourse" and it may seem like we are beating home a point you already know. Perhaps by now you're more than a little tired of it. But as I said last week, it's important to do this every so often because anything we do over and over again can become routine and can cause us to become lax. We are receiving the great gift of our Savior's own body and blood, and we should always treat that as an unbelievably valuable treasure. So today I thought I'd share with you a little of the reason that preaching on the Eucharist is so important for me personally. I don't like to make my homilies about me, but I'm doing this because maybe you've had a similar experience, or maybe it's something your teenage, college-age, or young adult children are going through right now.

A few years before I went to seminary, some of my friends would sometimes go to Willow Creek Community Church, the evangelical mega church in South Barrington. They liked the church and were very fired up about it, and eventually talked me into going with them. I enjoyed it and found that the preaching was excellent, and so I went back many times with them. I still went to my home parish on the weekends, but during the week I would worship with my friends at Willow Creek. My friends eventually severed their ties with my home parish and went to Willow Creek exclusively. They were hoping I would do the same, and I considered it very seriously. The preaching was good – better than at my parish – and I think that's because the preaching mostly supported the spiritual life I was already living. I had discussions with my parents about leaving the church, and those went about like you think they would, but I continued to pray about my decision.

The answer I got from my prayer is that mostly God wanted me to make my own decision, but that when I came to a decision, God wanted me to commit to it and live it fully. And so I began to look at the membership materials from Willow Creek and thought I would probably join them. One Wednesday I went and they were celebrating their once-monthly so-called "communion service." The speaker, an ex-Catholic, talked about the forgiveness of sins and how, growing up in our Church, he had to go to weekly confession and the priest forgave his sins, or at least said he forgave them. It was a strong message against our sacrament. Then they passed the bread and wine, which after prayer, remained only bread and wine, mere symbols of the Eucharist. Listening to all that, I was struck to the core of my being. I knew then and there I could never be a member of Willow Creek or any other church than the Catholic Church, because there was no way I could live a spiritual life without the benefit of the Sacraments. I honored my promise to God to commit to my decision once I made it, and well, here I am today.

The point, dear brothers and sisters in Christ, is that the words we say are not mere words; they are so much more powerful than that. And the sacraments we celebrate are not mere symbols of Christ and his love for us; they are the real body and blood of Christ, the real presence of our Savior; the real experience of grace. Jesus makes it very clear that is flesh is true food and his blood is true drink. That thought repelled a lot of those who heard him say it at the time, as we will hear next week, and maybe it frightens some of those who hear it today. But for we who believe, and for we who are Catholics, there is no better news. The experience of the Eucharist is such an intimate experience and so precious to us because we're not getting second-rate symbols, we're getting the real body and blood of our Savior Jesus Christ! And it is His own body and blood that nourishes us and strengthens us and enlivens us so that we can become the presence of Christ in our world, reaching out to those in need in our homes and in our communities. The consequence of not coming to partake of the Eucharist is very dire, as Jesus tells us today:

Amen, amen, I say to you,
unless you eat of the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood,
you do not have life within you.

That's pretty direct language, and I don't think we can misunderstand its implication for us. Jesus is not talking about just the mere death of our bodies, but the infinitely more serious death of our souls. Nothing can take the place of receiving the body and blood of Christ. Only those who eat his flesh and drink his blood will have eternal life, and will be raised on the last day. It doesn't matter what kind of preaching you're getting somewhere else. If you're not being filled with the body and blood of Christ, nothing on earth can fill up that emptiness.

Looking at today's Liturgy of the Word as a whole, the implications for the preacher are humbling. Hopefully what we're providing is part of the rich table of Wisdom that we hear about today. It's much like what one of my professors in seminary told us, "If you're going to stand there and take up ten or fifteen minutes of the People of God's time, you better darn well make sure you have something to say." And my homiletics professor once said that at the end of our homilies, we should be able to say "The Word of the Lord." When we preach, it's not about us, it's about what the Lord wants to speak to all of us here. The words we speak must be meaty, rich and spicy, and not bland platitudes that nobody will ever notice.

And there is much on which to be fed in our Church's teaching. Indeed the rich table of Wisdom that comes to us from the Church is a long and Spirit-filled tradition. We have at our disposal the great words of Sacred Scripture, the teachings of the early Church fathers, the great Tradition of the Church which comes out of a lived history over 2 millennia old, and the Magesterium, the official teaching of the Church. Many churches base their official teachings on the words of Scripture alone, which sounds nice until you look at it more closely. Because everyone has to interpret Scripture, and there has to be some kind of teaching that guides how you do that. We start out knowing that Scripture alone is not enough. Indeed, if there were no Church teaching, there would be no Scriptures, because it's the Church that put the book that we call the Bible together in the first place. Our Scriptures, Tradition and Magisterial teachings all work together to give us guidance and focus our efforts on living the Truth. This is that wonderful Wisdom banquet that our first reading talks about this morning.

St. Paul tells us that we must not live as foolish persons but as wise, and that we must not continue in ignorance but try to understand what is the will of the Lord. I thought of this line this week as I read about the protesters that were here, at our parish, to demonstrate at the funeral of a young man who gave his life in service to our country. This wasn't some random group, friends, it was a church, or at least a so-called church, whose leader preaches that this kind of abominable behavior is not only okay to do but is actually the will of God. Can you imagine such a thing? Do you see what kind of foolishness we run the risk of falling into when we stray from the truth and fill our ears with only the things we want to hear? This is exactly the kind of thing St. Paul was preaching that we should avoid, and it obviously didn't go away with the Ephesian community. We must constantly be on our guard and always dine at the table of Wisdom, and e
ven more than that, never to fail to dine at the table of the Lord.

Because if we dine at the table of Wisdom, we will know the things of God. These are the things we really need to know, not the banal temptations of drunkenness and debauchery which the world dangles before our eyes in so many ways every day. And if we dine at the table of the Lord, we will be caught up in the life of God, we will have eternal life, and we will be raised up on the last day to live with God forever. That's the goal of our spiritual lives, brothers and sisters in Christ, and let nothing distract us from it. I found that I could not live without the Sacraments, and I am guessing you know that too. Let us all celebrate those Sacraments with reverence and joy, and treat them as the indescribable and precious gift that they are to us. Let us always speak of our love for the Eucharist in our conversations with others, so that they too might come to dine at the rich table of God and be caught up in all its fullness. Let us all taste and see the goodness of the Lord.