Thursday of the Twenty-first Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

When I was little, I often remember my grandmother saying “thank God for small favors!” Now that’s a holy and pious thought, and I’ll have you know my grandmother was certainly holy and pious. But when she said it, it was usually because someone had just done the least they could possibly do, or something they should have done long ago. So the sense of the saying was more like, “could you spare it?” or “well, finally!” Still, I love that phrase, “thank God for small favors” because it reminds us that everything, no matter how big or small, is God’s gift to us, and we should be grateful for it.

One of the most important marks of the Christian disciple is thankfulness. St. Paul was a man of thanksgiving, and we see that theme often in his letters. He may berate his communities when they were missing the point, but he would always also praise them for their goodness, and see that as an opportunity to thank God for giving the community grace. Today, it’s the Thessalonians he is grateful for. He praises them for their great faith and then says, “What thanksgiving, then, can we render to God for you, for all the joy we feel on your account before our God?” Because it’s always God at work in the believer and never the believer all on his or her own. It’s grace, and we are thankful for grace.

God continues to work his grace in our community as well. We are a community of faith, and we see that faith in action in the many ministries of the parish. But even more than that, we see that faith in action in our workplaces, communities, schools and homes. There is never a time when we are not disciples. We are grateful for God’s grace working in and through us in every situation. The word “Eucharist” means thanksgiving, and so the heart of even the most basic and solemn parts of our worship is thanksgiving. We are thankful for all favors, big and small!

Martyrdom of St. John the Baptist

Todays’ readings

baptistBeheadedWhenever you hear the stories of the saints, if you can’t read between the lives that they are always and everywhere pointing to Christ, then you’re missing the point. That’s a general rule of thumb when it comes to studying the saints, which by the way, is a very praiseworthy endeavor. One of the very best illustrations of that rule of thumb is the life of St. John the Baptist. Of course, it’s easier to see that in him, because he’s prominently mentioned in the Gospels.

St. John the Baptist bore the marks of all the prophets that came before him. He was called from his mother’s womb. We see that in the stories of the Annunciation and the Visitation. He called for repentance – a complete change of heart and mind. We see that in the baptism that he made available, a baptism that even Christ himself received. His words were sometimes unwelcome. We see that in the Gospel story this morning. And finally he was murdered in reaction to his ministry. All of the prophets before him had those same marks, and most of them ended in the same way.

But through it all, he pointed the way to Christ. In the Gospel of John, we read:

“So they came to John and said to him, ‘Rabbi, the one who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you testified, here he is baptizing and everyone is coming to him.’ John answered and said, ‘No one can receive anything except what has been given him from heaven. You yourselves can testify that I said [that] I am not the Messiah, but that I was sent before him. The one who has the bride is the bridegroom; the best man, who stands and listens for him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. So this joy of mine has been made complete. He must increase; I must decrease'” (John 3:26-30).

John’s life and death were a giving over of self for God and other people. His simple style of life was one of complete detachment from earthly possessions. His heart was centered on God and the call that he heard from the Spirit of God speaking to his heart. Confident of God’s grace, he had the courage to speak words of condemnation or repentance, of salvation. Everything that he did and everything that he was pointed to Christ.

Twenty-first Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s Readings

“Strive to enter through the narrow gate,
for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter
but will not be strong enough.”

Those are kind of chilling words, in a way. We’ve been so conditioned to think that the spiritual life has to be easy. We are a society that has no patience for anything that requires a lot of work or effort. We have this sense of entitlement that eschews anything that makes demands of us. It’s no wonder that our society in general can often be so spiritually shallow, no wonder that we are caught up in consumerism, no wonder that people have little respect for one another. Because if the spiritual life is going to require work, then many people say they’re just not going to do it. That’s why so many people have left the Church. They might say there are other reasons, and for some people there genuinely are other reasons, but for many people, it’s just not worth the effort to get up on Sunday and come to Church.

To all of us who are tainted by spiritual laziness once in a while, or even very often, Jesus says today, “Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough.” It’s going to take some work, maybe even a lot of work, but if we have decided that eternal life with God our creator is worth it, then we will do what it takes. And it’s not enough to just say, “I’m okay because I believe in Jesus.” Some Churches teach that’s all it takes. But that’s not Biblical, and today’s Gospel is all the evidence for that that we need.

I was thinking about this yesterday when I was at the Cathedral in Joliet for Deacon Tom Marciani’s Ordination. As part of that rite, the bishop hands the newly-ordained deacon the Book of the Gospels and says, “Receive the Gospel of Christ, whose herald you now are. Believe what you read, teach what you believe, and practice what you teach.” I remember that very well from my own Ordination as Deacon a couple of years ago, and I was thinking that part of that instruction really applies to all of us. Because we are all called upon to believe what we read, teach what we believe, and practice what we teach.

We are called to believe what we read because the Word of God is Truth. We might all be interested in what’s on the news, or what Oprah and Dr. Phil are saying, but none of that is Truth with a capital “T”. No, the only real Truth, the only Truth that matters is the Truth that comes from God who is Truth itself. That Truth is revealed in the person of Jesus Christ and in the writings of Holy Scripture. Other information we get on a daily basis might be more or less true, but the Word of God is Truth. We are called upon to believe it and live it.

We are then called to teach what we believe because if there is just one source of Truth with a capital “T” then we need to make sure everyone knows about it. What good is Truth if everyone is believing something else? And before you object that you’re not a teacher, forget it. Every one of us is a teacher in some way. We might be called to teach in a classroom, but not everyone can do that. We might instead be called to teach in our workplaces by being people of integrity. We might be called to teach our children by living lives of faith and passing that faith on to them in word and action. We might be called to teach the world by participating in acts of justice and charity. We must all teach the Truth, because the Truth is worthy of so much more than being hidden by believers.

Finally, we have to practice what we teach. Because it’s not enough just to believe and teach. Authenticity in believing and teaching comes in our living. If we are people of faith, then we have to live that faith by reaching out to those in need. If we are people of Truth, then we have to stand up for that Truth by our integrity of life and our passion for justice.

All of this requires commitment and effort and real work from all of us. We have to strive to enter through that narrow gate, because we don’t want to ever hear those bone-chilling words from today’s Gospel, “I do not know where you are from. Depart from me, you evildoers!” God forbid.

Saturday of the Twentieth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

You may often have heard me speak of one of my favorite spiritual principles, and that is: “it’s not about me.” Today, we have two wonderful Scriptural examples of that very principle. First we have Ruth, a foreigner, who came to the aid of her mother-in-law Naomi in her time of need. Naomi had no heir, and her son, Ruth’s husband, had died. This left both of them in a very precarious position. Neither of them had a male figure to afford them any legal status in that society. But Ruth takes care of Naomi anyway, offering to glean ears of grain so that they’ll have something to eat. She didn’t have to do that, she could have left her mother-in-law high and dry, but she didn’t.

Boaz, too, didn’t have to be so welcoming to Ruth. It was expected in Jewish law that after the harvest, whatever was left on the stalks was to be left for the poor. But he didn’t have to provide her with water, and see that the men didn’t take advantage of her. But he did.

All of this prefigures what Jesus was telling the people about the Pharisees in today’s Gospel. These Pharisees did everything to be seen, because it was all about them.. They had the law, so they were teaching the right things, but not for the right reasons. Do what they say, Jesus tells them, and not what they do. Because it’s not about us.

St. Pius X

Today’s readings | Today’s saint

pius saintYahweh-shalom is what Gideon called the altar he built to the LORD at Ophrah. “The Lord is our peace” is how we would translate that Hebrew name into English. It was certainly divine revelation that gave him that thought, because the oppression Gideon’s people were suffering under the Midianites was anything but peace. Gideon, however, was led to see that even in suffering, the Lord could bring peace.

St. Pius X was born Joseph Sarto, the second of ten children in a poor Italian family. He became pope at the age of 68, and he too yearned for peace in a generation that wouldn’t really have any. He famously ended, and subsequently refused to reinstate, state interference in canonical affairs. He had foreseen World War I, but because he died just a few weeks after the war began, he was unable to speak much about it. On his deathbed, however, he said, “This is the last affliction the Lord will visit on me. I would gladly give my life to save my poor children from this ghastly scourge.”

“For God, all things are possible,” Jesus tells us in today’s Gospel. Even when peace seems remote, as perhaps it does today, we can rely on our God who will bring peace to our world just as surely as he was able to deliver the Israelites from the Midianites. Yahweh-shalom: the Lord is our peace.

Lord of All Hopefulness

One of my favorite hymns from the Liturgy of the Hours is “Lord of all Hopefulness,” based on the Irish tune Slane. I found these two versions on YouTube, and think they are both good in their own way. The first is Winchester Quirister Harry Sever.

This second one, I can’t tell if it’s offered tongue in cheek or not. This is how the performer envisions Liberace playing it. It’s a very nice piano rendition, regardless.

Twentieth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

The Church’s Catechism tells us that “Fortitude is the moral virtue that ensures firmness in difficulties and constancy in the pursuit of the good. It strengthens the resolve to resist temptations and to overcome obstacles in the moral life. The virtue of fortitude enables one to conquer fear, even fear of death, and to face trials and persecutions. It disposes one even to renounce and sacrifice his life in defense of a just cause.” (CCC, 1808) Jesus puts it even more succinctly in today’s Gospel: “I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing!” He wants us to be a people on fire, a people who will not waver in our pursuit of living the Gospel, a people who will not back down in the face of obstacles or even oppression, a people who live their faith joyfully and with firm conviction that our God is trustworthy and faithful. The Christian believer is called to exercise the virtue of fortitude because nothing else is worthy of our God.

Nobody says fortitude is easy. Jesus himself was very realistic about this, and warns us today that fortitude in living the Christian life can be a very divisive way of life. The disciple can and will run into all sorts of oppression, and can even lead to broken relationships with those who are dearest to us. If that Gospel calls upon us to take an unpopular position, and speak up on behalf of the poor, the alien, the prisoner, or a pro-life position, we may even find that some of our friends or family cannot go there with us. Being a Christian can make us feel like foreigners in our own land. It’s as if we are carrying a passport from another place. And we are, for those who are first of all citizens of God’s reign, Jesus’ vision and values come first in our lives. All because Jesus has come to set a blazing fire on the earth and that fire burns already in us.

Today’s reading from the letter to the Hebrews makes it clear that we aren’t running the race of fortitude alone. We have at our disposal the support and encouragement of a “great cloud of witnesses” which the Church calls the Communion of Saints. Some of these people may have already died, but their lives remain as testimony to the virtue of fortitude. Perhaps these people were friends or relatives who have gone before us, marked with the sign of faith, loved ones who were examples of unselfish commitment. Or maybe they are relative strangers to us, people whose courage in the face of death has caused us to stand in awe. They may be people among us who are still alive, people in the neighborhood or in the workplace or at school whose friendliness brightened our day. This great cloud of witnesses cheers us on, and are God’s way of helping us to live lives marked by fortitude.

Very often on the journey of discipleship, we may find that the oppression and division that the Gospel causes casts us down. Like poor Jeremiah in today’s first reading, maybe we find that we have been thrown into a cistern of despair or hopelessness. Fortitude is the virtue that helps us in the midst of all that, to wait with faithfulness on Ebed-melech the Cushite to come to our rescue and draw us up out of the pit.

The truth is, today’s Liturgy of the Word can come across as very negative. Who wants to hear about being cast into a cistern? Are we eager to find that we are going to be in angry division with those we love most? The temptation to let all of this go in one ear and out the other, remaining instead in the comfort of our luke-warmness is almost overwhelming. But that’s just not good enough. We can’t live that way and still call ourselves disciples. It is not enough to love God in our heads. We are told in the book of Revelation how God wishes to spew the luke-warm among us out of his mouth. We need to be on fire, actively living the graces of baptism that we have received – to live with fortitude, integrity, conviction, fervor, and burning zeal. We have to be willing to live in the shadow of the cross, where we resolve all our divisions and receive the baptism that promotes Gospel peace.