Monday of the Fourth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

We could look at today’s Gospel reading as an interesting miracle story of Jesus casting a demon out of a long-possessed man. But I think we should dig a little deeper than that this morning. Because many of us, I think, have to tangle with the unclean spirit from the tombs that infests us from time to time. If you’ve been in that situation, you probably can relate to having chained that spirit down with mighty strong chains, only to have them smashed to pieces. Then that unclean spirit starts crying out once again and injuring us in the process.

For some, that demon is some kind of addiction. Or perhaps it’s a pattern of sin. Maybe it’s an unhealthy relationship. Whatever it is, there is nothing we can do to stop it all on our own. None of us is strong enough to subdue it. It is instructive that, when Jesus asks the demon what his name is, the demon responds in the plural: “we are Legion.” Indeed, legion are the demons that can torment us, legion are the past hurts and resentments, legion are the sins, legion are the broken relationships.

When we find ourselves in that state of affairs, we have to know that human power is useless to subdue our demons. We have to do the only thing that works, which is to beg Jesus to cast those demons out. I often tell people in Confession that it’s okay to pray for yourself and that God doesn’t expect us to subdue our demons on our own. Jesus is longing to cast out our legion demons, all we have to do is ask. The voice of the psalmist today sums up the peace that can come from this Gospel: “Let your hearts take comfort, all who hope in the Lord.

Fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time: Speaking the Truth in Love

Today’s Readings

Today’s opening prayer gave us a kind of theme for today’s Liturgy of the Word. That theme is love. Listen to the words of that prayer again: “Lord our God, help us to love you with all our hearts, and to love all people as you love them…” That could well be a morning prayer for all of us, every single day. But it’s the implications of that kind of love that unfold in today’s readings. Love is not just some warm, fuzzy feeling that we have for those closest to us. Love is instead a way of life, modeled on God who is love itself. This love is a love that is sacrificial in nature, a love that expresses itself in prophecy, a love that will never pass away. We hear that in the preface to our Eucharistic prayer today which says that “So great was your love that you gave us your Son as our redeemer.”

Today’s second reading from St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians is very familiar to many of us. If you’ve been to a wedding where that was not one of the readings, you were at a very rare wedding indeed! It’s easy to see why so many couples would choose that reading: the romantic nature of the love they have for one another wants a reading as sweet and beautiful as this to be proclaimed at their wedding. But I always tell them that they should be careful of what they’re asking for. Because the love that St. Paul speaks of is not something that you feel, it’s more something that you do. Or, even better, something that you are.

Because, in any relationship, love is a choice. If it were just a feeling that you automatically had for someone close to you, it would be so much easier. If love happened automatically like that, there would be no abusive relationships. Young people would never turn away from their families. Parents would never neglect their children. Spouses would never separate. We wouldn’t need the sixth commandment, because no one would ever thing to commit adultery. Priests would never leave the priesthood because their love for their congregations and the Church would stop them from any other thoughts. But love isn’t that way, is it?

And that’s why St. Paul has to tell the Corinthians – and us too! – that love is patient, kind, not jealous, and all the rest. In fact, that passage from St. Paul defines love in fifteen different ways. Because love absolutely has to address pomposity, inflated egos, rudeness, self-indulgence, and much more. All of us, no matter what our state of life, must make a choice to love every single day. If you are married, you have to choose to love your spouse; if you are a parent, you have to choose to love your children. Children must choose to love their parents; priests have to choose to love their congregations, and the list goes on. Love is the most beautiful thing in the world, but love is also hard work.

As today’s Liturgy of the Word unfolds, we can see that love – true love – makes demands on us, demands that may in fact make us unpopular. In the first reading, Jeremiah is told that he was known and loved by God even before he was formed in his mother’s womb. That love demanded of him that he roll up his sleeves and be a prophet to the nations. God tells him that his prophecy won’t be accepted by everybody, that the people would fight against him. But even so, Jeremiah was to stand up to them and say everything that God commanded him, knowing that God would never let him be crushed, nor would God let the people prevail over Jeremiah.

For Jesus, it was those closest to him who rejected him. In the Gospel today, while the people in the synagogue were initially amazed at his gracious words, soon enough they were asking “Isn’t this the son of Joseph?” as if to say, “Who is he to be talking to us this way?” When Jesus tells them that his ministry will make God’s love known to the Gentiles – those whom God had supposedly not chosen – it is then that they rise up and drive him out of the city, presumably to stone him to death.

Prophets are unpopular. It is the prophets’ love for God and for the people they are called to serve that stirs them into action. St. Paul tells us that love “does not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices in the truth.” Speaking that truth to others can be incredibly difficult. It was for Jeremiah, who proclaimed God’s word to people who had no intention of hearing it. It was difficult also for Jesus, who proclaimed God’s word to people who were close to him and thought he shouldn’t be correcting them. Jesus eventually had to give his life to witness to the truth, and to proclaim the unending power of God’s love.

We are called by our baptism to be prophetic people. We may be called to speak out to our elected officials in order for them to take notice of the needs of their constituents. We may be called to speak out in our workplaces in order for businesses to be successful and responsive to their communities. We may need to speak out in our churches so that the baptized will respond to God’s grace and live the Gospel. We may be called to speak out in our families to keep our loved ones on the right path.

What is tragically frustrating for all of us prophetic people, though, is that like Jeremiah and Jesus, our words may go unheeded, or even be unwelcome. But like Jeremiah, we must be encourages to persevere in our ministry, knowing that we must speak the truth as God has given it to us. We know that many who hear our words will fight against us but not prevail over us, for God is always with us to deliver us. Our baptism demands that we always speak the truth in love, regardless of whether those words are welcome or unwelcome. When our prophetic voices are grounded in love we know that we are speaking the truth, because, as St. Paul tells us, “faith, hope and love remain, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”

The Conversion of St. Paul

Today’s readings | today’s feast

If we think that we are the ones who get to determine the direction of our lives, we are dead wrong.

Look at Saul: educated in all the finest Jewish schools, well-versed in the Law and the Prophets, and zealous for the faith to a fault. He was absolutely the model Jewish man and had credentials that came directly from the high priests. Everyone knew of him, and his fame – or infamy – spread all over the Judean countryside. He had participated in the stoning of St. Stephen, letting the cloaks of the ones stoning him be piled at his feet. He was bringing all the followers of Christ back in chains to be tried and punished for following this new way. He was even on his way to Damascus to collect “the brothers” – the apostles – and put them on trial. The man was greatly feared.

Look at Ananias. He was no fool. He was well-acquainted with Saul’s evil plans and did everything he could to stay out of his path. He obviously wanted to stay out of prison, but more than that, he wanted to keep people like Saul from destroying the community of the followers of Jesus. Ananias was every bit as zealous for the faith as Saul was.

They both knew the direction of their lives and thought they had it all planned out. But they were dead wrong.

God can take the most zealous and stable of us and throw our whole lives into confusion. He sometimes uses great means to get our attention and move us in a new direction. Like a bright light, or a vision. But sometimes he uses quiet words in prayer or the gentle nudging of a friend. Conversion is a life-long process for all of us, and in St. Paul’s and Annanias’s stories, we can see the danger of being too entrenched in what we think is right. The only judge of what is really right for us is God alone, and when we forget that, we might be in for a rude awakening.

The whole purpose of all of our lives, brothers and sisters, is to “Go into the whole world and proclaim the Gospel to every creature.” The way that we do that is to constantly listen for God’s voice and always be willing to go wherever he leads us.

Tuesday of the Third Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

I’ve never liked going to the dentist. All my life I’ve dreaded it, and all my life I’ve had terrible teeth. I inherited that from both sides of my family. During seminary, I had very lousy dental insurance and no money, so even though there was dental work to be done, it didn’t get done. All of that adds up to disaster eventually, and just before Christmas I broke a tooth. It didn’t hurt, and with Christmas being busy, I just ignored it and figured I would have it fixed after the holidays. Well, as soon as the holidays ended, I of course had a terrible toothache. And, as sometimes happens with us people of faith when things like this happen, I think I prayed something like “why can’t you give me better teeth?!”

Of course, that’s just silly, and yesterday I went for a root canal and things are on the mend. I actually liked the dentist that some folks here recommended to me, and this might be a real surge of dental health for me in my life – finally. This all reminded me of what the psalmist was praying today:

I have waited, waited for the Lord,
and he stooped toward me and heard my cry.

How often have we waited, waited for the Lord? You probably can think of at least a handful of times – maybe you’re even going through one right now – where you were desperate for the Lord’s help and yet he seemed so far away from you. But today’s psalm reminds us that that’s just not the way God is. God is aching to reach into our lives to help us if we will tune our hearts toward him and let him in. He will literally stoop toward us and hear our cry, putting a new song into our mouths. What we have to know is that for this to happen, we have to be ready to follow God’s will for us. We have to pray every day the response to the psalm today: “Here I am Lord; I come to do your will.”

Third Sunday of Ordinary Time: Fulfilled in your hearing!

Today’s readings

I want to begin this morning by reminding you of what we just heard in the first reading from Nehemiah:

He read out of the book from daybreak till midday,
in the presence of the men, the women,
and those children old enough to understand;
and all the people listened attentively to the book of the law.

Did you hear that? He read from the Scriptures from daybreak until midday! So if Mass goes a little long today, there better not be any complaining!

Today’s Liturgy of the Word speaks of the Scriptures themselves. This is a time to re-assess what the Word means in our lives. There’s a little story that I often tell about the importance of knowing and living as people of the Word. It goes that a certain person was having some personal problems, and while she had never been particularly religious, she thought she ought to start praying. Not knowing how to do this, she reached for the dusty old Bible on the shelf. She figured that if she could get inspiration anywhere, it was in the Bible. She didn’t know where to start, so she opened the Bible at random, closed her eyes, pointed to a verse, opened her eyes and read: “Judas went out and hanged himself.” She didn’t think that was very good advice, so she decided to try again. This time, opening her eyes, she read: “go thou and do likewise!” She decided to try just one more time, and this time when she opened her eyes, she read, “Friend, whatever you do, do it quickly!”

So many people seem to want to save the Scriptures just for a rainy day, and are surprised when they find that they can’t find the answers to their problems in the first five minutes they have the book in their hands. We are all called to be people of the Word, but that can only happen if we take some time regularly to immerse ourselves in Scripture or even learn more about it. I had a teacher in the seminary who used to tell us to make sure we let the Scriptures “wash over our lives” every day of our life. He always said that if we were in bed and realized we had not opened the Bible that day, we should get out of bed, read a few verses, and then go to sleep. “When you close your eyes in death”, he used to tell us, “you will be able to open them in the kingdom of heaven and know exactly where you are because you will have regularly read all about it.” The Scriptures are our roadmap to a life with God, and yes they will show us the way, but not if we just look in the Bible randomly whenever we’re troubled. We have to be people who read the Scriptures every day.

I would say that even I don’t read as much of the Scriptures as I’d like. Our lives too easily get in the way, and it can’t be that way for us. Vatican II tells us that the Mass is the “source and summit” of our lives. And the Liturgy of the Word, the Scriptures are a huge part of that. Along with the Eucharist itself, the Word is that Source of which Vatican II speaks. It’s in the Eucharist and in the proclaimed Word that we get strength and guidance for our living and that all-important roadmap to a life with God.

There are three Scriptural moments in today’s Liturgy of the Word. First, the Word is proclaimed. Second, that Word has an effect on its hearers. Finally, the Word is fulfilled. So first, the Word is proclaimed. We see that twice. First, in the first reading, Ezra the priest reads from the scroll from daybreak to midday, in the presence of the men, the women, and those children old enough to understand. It was quite the proclamation, and also included a kind of homily, apparently, since the reading tells us that Ezra provided an interpretation. The second time we see this is in the Gospel reading. Jesus takes the scroll of the law, and finds a particular passage from the prophet Isaiah and proclaims it. He too provides an interpretation, in the form of his very life

The second Scriptural moment is the Word’s effect on its hearers. For Ezra, the Word produced a very emotional response. The people bowed down in the presence of the Word, and began to weep. The weeping is presumably because, hearing the Word, they realized how far they were from keeping its commandments. Nehemiah then instructs them not to weep, but instead to rejoice and celebrate, because the proclamation of the Word on this holy day was an occasion for great joy. We don’t get any idea of how the rest of the congregation at the synagogue reacted to Jesus’ proclamation of Isaiah, but one would think that it would have been a pretty tame reaction until he announced that he was the fulfillment of the prophecy. Then we can imagine they had a lot to say and a perhaps indignant reaction.

Finally, the Word is fulfilled. Jesus’ instruction in the Gospel that the words of Isaiah have been fulfilled in the synagogue-goers hearing tells us that Word is never intended to be a static thing. We do not just passively sit through the proclamation of the Word, nod our heads, and move on to the Eucharist. The Word is a living thing and it is intended to have an effect on its hearers. Indeed, the Word is always intended to be fulfilled, and that fulfillment began with the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In his person, all of the promises of the Old Testament are brought into being, and the real hope of the world begins.

We continue to celebrate the Word in those three moments. We come now come to this holy place to hear the Word proclaimed, and have it interpreted in the homily. Our Liturgy of the Word, then, goes back to ancient times, and looks much the way Ezra proclaimed the Scriptures. Except, of course, it’s a lot shorter now! We continue to be affected by the Word’s proclamation. Of the stories we hear, we have our favorites, and there are stories that move us within, emotionally and spiritually. We too may be moved to tears as we hear of God’s goodness, and think of the way we have fallen short. We too need to hear Nehemiah proclaim that the preaching of the Word is a time for great joy. Finally, the Word continues to be fulfilled among us. Having sent his Holy Spirit, Jesus continues to be the fulfillment of Scripture, every time someone hears the Word and acts on it.

I want to try a bit of an object lesson. Jesus, quoting from Isaiah, said that the Spirit of the Lord was upon him. That is true too for all of us who have been Confirmed. So I would ask all of you who have received the sacrament of Confirmation to please stand. Please hear these words from Isaiah spoken not just to Jesus, but also to all of us:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon you,
because he has anointed you
to bring glad tidings to the poor.
He has sent you to proclaim liberty to captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.

You may find yourself ill-equipped to break people out of prison. But I know that some of you go to visit the imprisoned. And for those who don’t, I know that you know at least one person who is in some kind of prison. Maybe they are imprisoned by illness or old age. Maybe they are imprisoned by fear of acting to better their lives. These people need you to journey with them and be present to them, thereby setting these captives free. You may not be too sure about how you can proclaim recovery of sight to the blind. Maybe you don’t even know anyone who is physically blind. But you probably know somebody who is blind to the fact that they are in an unhealthy or abusive relationship. Or maybe you know somebody who is blind to the fact that they are suffering from an addiction of some sort. Maybe you know somebody who is blind to the fact that someone they are close to needs them in a special way. You can be present to these who are blind and to gently but firmly lead them to recovery of sight. You probably have no idea how to let the oppressed go free. But you may have an hour or two to serve a hot meal to those oppressed by homelessness at Hesed House. You may be able to spend some time occasionally with those who are oppressed by not knowing how to read. By giving of yourself, you can let these oppressed go free.

Those of you standing in this Church have been anointed with the Holy Spirit in order to bring glad tidings to the poor. By acting selflessly, can turn things around in your own corner of the world. By hearing and acting on the Word, you can proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord. May the Words of this Holy Book be fulfilled today – and every day – in your hearing.

Saturday of the Second Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

“He is out of his mind.” Well that’s a fine way for relatives to receive a person, especially Jesus. But maybe everyone has relatives with whom they don’t see eye-to-eye. People who, it would seem, should know us best, often misunderstand us.

But the story of Jesus’ life is that his family isn’t necessarily those who are related to him by blood. As he says in another place, his family is those who hear the word of the Lord and act on it. It may seem crazy to some who are related to us when we sacrifice to do the will of God, but maybe they don’t know us for the people we are; the people we have been created to be.

If even Jesus’ relatives thought he was out of his mind, it’s not so hard to see how he may have been understood by the scribes and Pharisees. But Jesus was not out to do things the way they always had been, or to please those who supported the status quo. Jesus was out to change things, and that was destined to look crazy to some people. But that didn’t stop him from living his mission.

Thursday of the Second Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

There is something about this Gospel reading that I think makes us feel a little breathless, a little claustrophobic even. Jesus really had to love human contact in order to keep on going when he was pressed in on every side. He really loved people, and had great compassion for them. Knowing the great need of people for healing, he continued to find ways to reach out to them – this time by preaching from a boat – so that he could minister to them.

Sometimes I think we often think of our own needs for healing as unworthy of our Lord’s attention. Maybe our own problems or health needs are unpleasant, but surely God has more important things to do than take care of our petty needs, right? But that’s not the message here. Here we see that Jesus didn’t use the boat to withdraw from the people, but instead called for the boat so that he could continue to reach out to the people.

If Jesus would go to such great lengths then, he certainly has not abandoned us in our needs now. It may take some persistence in prayer to align our will with God’s and to accept the healing the way he desires us to have it, but we will certainly receive answer to our prayer. We must never withdraw from Jesus thinking that he has more important things to do. His love for us and his compassion knows no limits. We should not impose limits for him.