Tuesday of the 24th Week of Ordinary Time: Unity does not mean same-ness

Today’s readings

In today’s first reading, St. Paul speaks to the Corinthian community about the necessity and source of unity. He lists several gifts that people in the community have and then speaks how they all work together to form the body of Christ. Many people have interpreted that to mean that everyone in the church is the same, and that the source of unity is our same-ness. But, if we look very closely, we can see that that’s not what St. Paul was saying. He chose the analogy of the body, I think, very carefully. Yes, every part of the body works together to make the whole person. But we have to admit that some parts of the body are more critical to have than others. People have gotten through life very well without an appendix or a spleen, but nobody has ever been able to live without a heart or at least one working kidney. Some parts of the body fulfill a more critical function than other parts.

We all have incredible gifts. We would prefer not to be deprived of any of them in our community. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone is the same. Some have been called to positions of leadership, and we need them. Others have been called to be on committees, to work behind the scenes, and we need all of them too. But we aren’t all the same. We all bring different gifts. But they aren’t all the same. It’s not the same-ness of our gifts that unifies our community. What unifies our community is that everyone is willing to use their gifts for the greater honor and glory of God. What unifies us is our desire to fulfill the Lord’s desire to spread the Gospel – together, but each through the gifts that he or she has.

Comparing our gifts to those of others, or taking note of the hierarchy of our callings must not consume us. Instead, we each must take up our cross and work tirelessly according to our gifts and our calling to build up the body of Christ. We must not withhold our gifts nor leave the calling to others. The body would be severely disabled if many parts of it were missing. We must be a community unified in our task of living the Gospel and proclaiming the kingdom, each in our own way.

Let Us Pray

This afternoon I got a voice mail from the local paper asking for my comment on the Pope’s statement that has angered Muslims. I’m so not going there. I liked what Cafeteria Catholic said to do. So let us pray…

Prayer for Pope Benedict XVI

Lord, source of eternal life and truth, give to Your shepherd, the Pope, a spirit of courage and right judgement, a spirit of knowledge and love.

By governing with fidelity those entrusted to his care may he, as successor to the apostle Peter and vicar of Christ, build Your church into a sacrament of unity, love, and peace for all the world.

We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, Your Son, Who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.

Prayer from Catholic Culture

24th Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

One of the things I have always enjoyed is reading a good mystery novel. My mother was a big fan of mysteries, especially Agatha Christie, and she passed the love for that on to me as I was growing up. I still love to read mysteries today, and when I’m not reading them, I’m usually watching shows like Law & Order or CSI – I enjoy these because of the mysteries that unfold just watching them. I remember in high school, the theater club was staging Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap, and they checked the books out of the libraries around town so nobody would read ahead and find out who did it! I had already read the book, of course, but it was great fun to see it on stage. I think what I love about mysteries is the opportunity to keep guessing at the solution right up to the very end, and the process of learning new things about the characters all along the way. If you like mysteries too, then you know a really good mystery is one that isn’t solved all in the first six pages.

Today’s readings are a wonderful source of the mystery that still is part of our Church. In the first reading, the figure speaking is commonly referred to as “the Suffering Servant,” a figure that is later identified with Jesus. Whoever the figure is, he or she has incredible faith. One might expect that faith to be rewarded, but it’s not. Instead, his back is beaten, his beard is plucked, and his face is buffeted and spat upon. Yet, he continues to have faith, setting his face, knowing that he will not be put to shame. Maybe you have met a person who has gone through incredible trials like unemployment, family strife, or serious illness, and has remained faithful. If you know a person like that, don’t you just sense a little bit of Jesus working in that person?

In the second reading, St. James tells us that our faith must be living, or it is not faith at all. He has seen far too many people who will say nice things to people and claim to have faith, but refuse to help alleviate anyone’s real needs. “Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well” are nice-sounding words, but are actually meaningless when spoken to people who have personal problems, no place to live and keep warm, and little if anything to eat. James’s faith is one that sees the great mystery of Christ’s presence in those who are in need. We have the same challenges today, of course. There are many who are needy among us, and we disciples are called to a living faith that reaches out to those in need. Perhaps you’ve had the opportunity to work at a soup kitchen or a shelter, or go on a mission trip. If you’ve done that, maybe you have seen the face of Christ in those you’ve served.

The Gospel continues the theme of mystery by asking the question point-blank: “who do you say that I am?” The people of Jesus’ time, the disciples included, were constantly trying to figure him out. Peter seems to have figured out one of the clues: Jesus is the Messiah. But he totally misses the boat on what kind of Messiah Jesus is to be. When Jesus talks about the necessity of his suffering and death, Peter just can’t wrap his mind around it. Jesus’ response to Peter is that to really know who Jesus is, Peter needs to think like God, not like a human being. The strangeness of this mystery is so great that it applies not just to Jesus, but also to anyone who would want to follow him. Disciples like us must take up our cross: if we wish to save our lives, we must give them away. This is a very great mystery indeed.

We Catholics believe that the mystery all started with the Incarnation: with Jesus’ coming into the world. The mystery continued with his death, resurrection and ascension. We all know the situation well. Throughout history, our ancestors turned away from God time and time again. As a result, there was a great chasm of sin and death that separated us from God, and we had no hope. But then Jesus was born among us. He did not come with great fanfare and splendor, but as a poor little baby, born to an everyday couple. He grew up and walked among us; he lived our life and experienced all of our joys and sorrows, all of our happiness and pains. He eventually died our death, but that was not to be the end of the story. He rose from the dead and appeared to many believers. Finally, he ascended into heaven to prepare a place for us in his kingdom, where sadness, death, and pain are forever banished. We call all of this the “Paschal Mystery.”

But here’s what makes this even more mysterious. We don’t just believe that this happened at one time, two thousand years ago. We believe that it happened and is happening in all time: the Incarnation, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus are happening throughout all time, for all of us. And every single celebration of the Eucharist does not just remember that great mystery that happened once upon a time, every single celebration of the Eucharist makes that great event present once again, right here among us. That’s why it is so important to gather every week for Mass, and not just when we have time to work it in. What could possibly be more important than celebrating the Eucharist, which makes the presence of Christ and his Paschal Mystery present in our lives?

The Church teaches that, when we gather for Mass, Christ is present in four ways. First, he is present in the gathered community. In the Gospel, Jesus tells us that “wherever two or more of you are gathered in my name, I am there among you.” We are the face of Christ for one another. We bring his presence to one another by greeting one another, by worshipping together, and by serving with and for one another. Second, Jesus is present in the Word proclaimed. Literally. The words we hear are not just words about Jesus, those words are Jesus. When the community gathers and retells the story of our salvation, Christ is present. Third, Jesus is present in the minister. The priest stands in persona Christi Capitas: that is, in the person of Christ the Head. The priest makes Christ present by administering the sacraments and proclaiming the Gospel. Also, whenever any of us takes on a ministry and serves others, that person makes Christ present to others in some way. Fourth, Jesus is present in the sacraments, but most especially in the Eucharist. The Eucharist is the Real Presence of Christ our Savior, body and blood, soul and divinity. When we come forward to receive the Bread of Life and Cup of Life, we receive our God who is life itself. The mystery of the Incarnation, of the presence of Christ, is experienced every time the community gathers, proclaims the word, ministers to one another, and receives the Eucharist.

This presence of Christ among us is a true mystery, but also a great gift. It is the presence of Christ in us and around us that enables us to embrace suffering. Children embrace suffering every time they refuse to join in making fun of another child, or when they reach out to another person who’s having a bad day, or when they share with those who don’t have the things they do. Teens embrace suffering when they choose not to take part in a gathering where there will be alcohol or drugs, even when their friends are all going. Adults embrace suffering when they give up a promotion in favor of spending more time with their family. Seniors embrace suffering when they sit at the bedside of a spouse or friend in the last days of their lives together. Our lives are filled with all kinds of suffering, and suffering is not good in and of itself. It is only when we choose to go through it with faith, a faith rooted in the Incarnation and Paschal Mystery of Christ, a faith that comes from Christ being in us and around us, it is only then that suffering is redemptive. Because it is only God who can give us the grace to make it through the suffering, and only God that can help us to find life in the death of our pain.

The psalmist sums it all up for us today. Yes, the suffering in our lives leads us to experience the cords of death that encompass us. We often fall into distress and sorrow. But when we embrace that suffering and call on the Lord, we will find ourselves freed of death and able to walk before the Lord in the land of the living. We who have embraced and remembered and celebrated the mystery of Christ’s presence in our lives, in our Church and in our world can approach suffering with great faith. There’s a contemporary Christian song that says “sometimes he calms the storm, and other times he calms his child.” God won’t always make our tears and pain go away. But he does promise that we will never go through them alone. We will probably never completely figure Christ out this side of the Kingdom. The disciples didn’t and we won’t either. But when we enter into the mystery, we can keep turning the pages and finding more and more clues. When we enter the mystery, we can look forward to the great unveiling of the solution when we enter our heavenly reward.

Saints Cornelius and Cyprian

Today's readings

I remember building sand castles as a kid. There was always a price to pay for laying the foundation of it too near the water. It might go well for a while, but one good wave, and all my hard work would be washed away. The same is true for our spiritual lives, as we are told in the Gospel. Perhaps for a while we are offering our prayers on the run, not really taking time to be with the Lord. That might work okay for a while, but all it takes is the wave of one good trial or crisis, and everything we think we've built up is gone. We find ourselves lost, scattered by the disarray of our spiritual lives. Building that firm foundation is extremely important, and it's something we can never fake.

St. Cornelius knew that well. He was elected pope after a 14 month vacancy in the office, because of all the infighting in the Church at the time. He had to mediate many crises, most especially the heresy of Novationism, which denied that anyone who sinned could be reconciled. Because of his stand, his detractors elected the first anti-pope, and had Cornelius exiled to Civitavecchia, where he died as a result of his exile. His friend, St. Cyprian, a bishop, was also involved in the Novation controversy. He too was exiled in the persecution of Valerian, and martyred on September 14, 258.

We honor Saints Cornelius and Cyprian today, two men who built their faith on solid foundation. With that foundation, they were able to withstand heresies, persecution, exile and martyrdom, and come at last to the heavenly kingdom. May we, like them, build our spiritual lives on firm foundation so that we may withstand whatever persecutions life may bring our way.

Our Lady of Sorrows

Today’s Feast | Today’s Readings

ourladyofsorrowsIn the very early morning hours of September 15th last year, I got a page on my fire department pager. I looked at the page, which told me that they were responding to a vehicle accident, but they were asking for fire-medics and not a chaplain. So I deleted the page and went back to bed. At 7:00am, I went to the chapel for Mass, at which time I found out the details of that page I got earlier in the morning. Four seminarians had been returning from off campus, and were involved in an accident on our property, across the lake from the school. The rector announced that one of the students, Matty Molnar, had been killed in the accident, and that another, Jared Cheek, was critically injured. Jared died the following day.

You can imagine the shock to our relatively small community. The details of the incident unfolded in the days and weeks following the accident, but information alone did not make us feel any better. The significance of the accident happening on the feast of Our Lady of Sorrows was not lost on us, and the celebrant’s homily, a homily he prepared the day before the accident, could not have been more fitting if it had been planned that way. There were few, if any, dry eyes in the chapel that day, which is really striking when you consider it was a room full of mostly men who don’t often show that kind of emotion.

Today, we offer a mass of memorial for Matty and Jared. We might also remember the many loved ones from each of our families who have gone before us, marked with the sign of faith. Mary reaches out to us in our sorrow today, she who knew well the sorrows that life could bring. Just as Jesus reached out to her from the Cross, entrusting her to the care of his beloved disciple, so he reaches out to us in our own sorrows, entrusting us to the care of those among us who are his beloved disciples. Mary is our intercessor in the sorrows of this life, and our leader into the joys of the life to come.

Our Lady of Sorrows, pray for us.

The Exaltation of the Holy Cross

Today’s feast | Today’s readings

Theologian Bob Barron tells about an interreligious dialogue between Catholics and Buddhists. At one point, one of the Buddhists said to him, “Why is that obscene image on every wall in your buildings?” He was, of course, referring to the Cross. The Buddhist explained that it would be considered a mockery in his religion to venerate the very thing that killed their leader. The truth is, of course, that it is obscene. It is strange, and Barron wrote a whole book about it called The Strangest Way .

sandamianocrossAnd we all must have thought about this at one time or another. Why is it that God could only accomplish the salvation of the world through the horrible, brutal, and lonely death of his Son? That question goes right to the root of our faith. We know that we had been alienated from God, separated by a vast chasm of sin and death. Jesus becomes incarnate, is born right into the midst of all that sin and death. He walks among us, and goes through all of the sorrows and pains of life and death right with along with us. If sin and death have been the obscenities that have kept us from God, then God was going to use those very things to bring us back. Jesus comes into our world and dies our death because God wants us to know that there is no place we can go, no experience we can have that is outside of God’s reach.

Today’s feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, also called the Triumph of the Cross, was celebrated very early in the Church’s history. In the fourth century St. Helena, mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine, went to Jerusalem in search of the holy places of Christ’s life. She razed the Temple of Aphrodite, which tradition held was built over the Savior’s tomb, and her son built the Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher over the tomb. During the excavation, workers found three crosses. Legend has it that the one on which Jesus died was identified when its touch healed a dying woman. The cross immediately became an object of veneration.

About this great feast, St. Andrew of Crete wrote: “Had there been no cross, Christ could not have been crucified. Had there been no cross, life itself could not have been nailed to the tree. And if life had not been nailed to it, there would be no streams of immortality pouring from Christ’s side, blood and water for the world’s cleansing. The legal bond of our sin would not be cancelled, we should not have attained our freedom, we should not have enjoyed the fruit of the tree of life and the gates of paradise would not stand open. Had there been no cross, death would not have been trodden underfoot, nor hell despoiled.”

Because of the Cross, all of our sadness has been overcome. Disease, pain, death, and sin – none of these have ultimate power over us. Just as Jesus suffered on that Cross, so we too may have to suffer in the trials that this life brings us. But Jesus rose from the dead and ascended into heaven to prepare a place for us, a place where there will be no more sadness, death or pain, a place where we can live in the radiant light of God for all eternity. Because of the Cross, we have hope, a hope that can never be taken away.

The Cross is indeed a very strange way to save the world, but the triumph that came into the world through the One who suffered on the cross is immeasurable. As our Gospel reminds us today, all of this happened because God so loved the world.

We adore you, O Christ, and we praise you, because by your Holy Cross you have redeemed the world.

St. John Chrysostom

Today's Readings

John Chrysostom was a desert monk, living a harshly ascetical life, but a life that was fulfilling for him.  After twelve years of service as a priest in Syria, he was brought to Constantinople in an imperial ruse to make him bishop.  Even though the beginnings of his episcopal service were thus clouded in intrigue, his service as a bishop in one of the most important sees of the Eastern Church was incredible.  He quickly made efforts to clean up the Church, deposing bishops who had bribed their way into office, and refusing to become beholden to any political authorities.  His preaching was the hallmark of his service.  He was called "golden-mouthed" and his sermons were steeped in great knowledge of the Scriptures and spiritual insight.  Some of his sermons were over two hours!  (But, don't worry, I'll try to keep this one under an hour or so…)  He tended to be aloof, but energetic and outspoken, especially in the pulpit.  Soon he began to draw ire from the politically powerful, and was falsely accused of heresy.  The Empress Eudoxia finally had him exiled, and he died in exile in the year 407.

John Chrysostom was a great preacher of today's Gospel reading.  Against the politically powerful and those who bought their place in society, he preached "woe to you who are rich, woe to you who are filled now, woe to you who laugh."  Against religious leaders who were beholden to the politically powerful, he preached "woe to you when all speak well of you, for their ancestors treated the false prophets in this way."  Far more significant, though, is that he lived the beatitudes, and lived as one who was truly blessed when "people hate you, and when they exclude and insult you, and denounce your name as evil."  He knew that the most important judge of his ministry did not sit on an earthly throne, but rather had Kingship in heaven.  And he knew that even death in exile was not too great a price to receive the heavenly reward.

Our task is to live those beatitudes well.  We are blessed when we are poor, because the riches of God are incomparable.  We are truly blessed when we hunger, because only God can really fill us.  We are blessed when we grieve, because God can comfort us and give us true peace.  We are blessed when people hate us, because God's love is beyond all price.  There is a price to pay for all this blessedness, of course.  We may, like John Chrysostom, suffer the ill thoughts of others.  We may not have everything we hunger for in this life.  But we must be confident that living the Beatitudes will lead us to the rejoicing and leaping for joy of which Jesus speaks today.

Anniversary of 9/11 Memorial Mass

Readings: James 4:1-10 | Psalm 23 | Matthew 5:2-24

911iconTragedy has a way of freezing time for us, of creating a kind of horrible snapshot that we’ll never forget, no matter how hard we try. Growing up, people always used to say that they’d always remember where they were when John F. Kennedy was shot. Since I was still in the womb, that’s not something I could identify with! But I’ll always remember where I was when the space shuttle Challenger exploded. And, like all of you, I’ll never forget the day the twin towers crashed to the ground.

I was in my third week of seminary, and getting ready to start my day. The first class of the day was one I had taken back in my college days, so I got to start my day a little later. I went to my computer to read the news headlines and saw something like “Plane crashes into World Trade Center.” I tried to click on the link to read the story, but the internet was clogged and I couldn’t get to it. So I turned on the news and saw the whole horrible thing. I watched in horror and grief as the second tower crashed to the ground, and then I caught up with my classmates who were getting ready for the second class and told them what I’d seen. Needless to say, we didn’t have that second class either.

But the snapshot I’ll always remember was going home that weekend and attending a prayer service at my home parish. It was a Friday evening, and the church was packed, and I mean packed . We sat before the Blessed Sacrament and prayed for peace and strength and comfort. It was a whole church full of people seeking to make sense of it all. And my home parish was not alone, of course. Attendance at churches all over America was off the charts in those days following the nightmare.

But five years have gone by and things have changed. The nightmare isn’t so fresh in our minds any more. If we didn’t know anybody killed in the twin towers, we may have moved on, content to leave the clean up to the city of New York and the working out of the consequences to the government. If one of our children or relatives is not overseas fighting the war on terrorism, this whole event may not be on our radar screen from day to day. We’re sympathetic to those who mourn the loss of their loved ones, but unless we have to get on an airplane and travel somewhere, the issue is not all that real to us, I fear.

Yet, as today’s scriptures tell us, the issue is right there in front of us. Each of us is on the front lines of the war against terrorism, war and hate right in our own hearts. We don’t have to travel abroad to seek out the enemy, because the enemy of enemies confronts us every day. Saint James makes it perfectly clear that the war is inside us when he says:

Where do the wars and where do the conflicts among you come from?
Is it not from your passions that make war within your members?
You covet but do not possess.
You kill and envy but you cannot obtain;
you fight and you wage war.

The Church teaches us that the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” is first of all violated when we hate and bear grudges. This teaching comes from what Jesus tells us in today’s Gospel:

“You have heard that it was said to your ancestors,
You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment.
But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother
will be liable to judgment,
and whoever says to his brother, ‘Raqa’
will be answerable to the Sandedrin,
and whoever says ‘You fool,’ will be liable to fiery Gehenna.

Anger and name-calling are indeed slippery slopes that can send us crashing right down into murder and war, or at least inciting that in others. For the Christian disciple, taking up the cross means leaving behind our grudges, jealousies, and bitterness so that we can embrace every person God puts in our midst with the love he has for that person. No other attitude is acceptable in any way, and may indeed be sinful.

Purple is the color of reconciliation, and it’s for that reason that we have purple vestments today. What we need to hear from today’s scriptures is that we must put the events of 9/11 back on our radar screen. We need to do that by looking at what can be the darkest and scariest place of all, right into the depths of our own hearts. When we do this, we receive the promise that James writes about, “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.” God longs to help us root out the war that rages in our own hearts. He deeply desires that his people should experience the peace that only he can give. With great abandon, he wants to embrace us all and help us to come to healing, peace and grace.

Too much blood has been shed in the days around and since 9/11, brothers and sisters in Christ. Thousands died in the towers, including many rescue workers. Many have become sick and died since from the affects of cleaning up the mess that was left. Hundreds have died on the battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq since that day. We cannot dishonor their memories by letting the snapshot of 9/11 fade into distant memory. We owe them more than the selfishness of letting them and their comrades work to protect us.

What can we do? We have to start with us. We have to heed these words of Scripture calling us to repentance, because peace is built one heart at a time. We have to pray for peace in every place, because we are all interconnected, and strife in one area of the world affects us all in some way eventually. And we have to remember those who died and who have since given their lives, because they are part of our communion of faithful departed. Above all, if we have come to the altar today with something against one of our brothers or sisters, we need to leave our gift here, and go out and be reconciled to them. As Jesus tells us today, only then can we offer our gift. And only then can we receive the great gift of God’s peace and comfort and healing. If we could all do that in some way, we have to believe that the snapshot that would be created – one free of horror and death and pain – would be a snapshot that was truly worth remembering.

Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord,
And let perpetual light shine upon them.

May the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.

23rd Sunday of Ordinary Time: Ephatha!

Today’s readings

A shortened homily today because of a witness talk being given by our teens, on behalf of those preparing for Confirmation.

To those of us with good hearing and the ability to speak clearly, today’s Gospel seems like just a nice story. Jesus takes the deaf man who had a speech impediment, and touches him and cures him. The first word the man ever hears is the miraculous word, Ephatha, or “be opened.” This opens a whole new world to this man who had been shut out because he could not hear or speak. And even though Jesus urges everyone to be silent about the miracle, there is no way to stop the cured man from singing praise and telling the whole story.

But, as my teachers used to say when I was little, there are two kinds of deafness. There’s the kind we just heard about in the Gospel, and then there is the deafness of those who refuse to hear. If we’re honest, there’s probably a little of that kind of deafness in all of us. There are all sorts of things we refuse to hear, or just don’t want to hear about. We may refuse to hear the needs of those closest to us, preferring to remain in the deafness of our own selfishness. Or we may choose not to hear the voices of those who are poor, those who are victims of wars and all kinds of injustice, those who are unjustly deprived of their freedoms. In this case, we prefer to remain in the deafness of our own self-righteousness.

Just as there are two kinds of deafness, so there are also two kinds of muteness. Some may be like the man in the Gospel, who have difficulties with everyday speech. Or perhaps we live in our own kind of muteness: a muteness that will not speak to teach the faith our children, preferring to leave that to the professionals. Or maybe it’s a muteness that will not speak out on behalf of those suffering from all kinds of injustice, preferring to leave that to the government.

An honest look at ourselves can reveal all kinds of deafness and muteness in us. To all of that, may we hear the words of Christ speak clearly to us today: Ephatha – be opened! May the deafness of our selfishness and self-righteousness be turned into the joy of hearing everything with clarity. May the muteness of our fear be turned into the freedom to speak out so that all might know the Gospel. That Ephatha word of healing was intended for us every bit as much as the man in today’s Gospel reading. May we today hear that word and be healed by it.

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