Twenty-fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time [B]

Today’s readings

Nobody ever becomes rich and famous by being righteous.    We may never forget who interrupted an awards show or a presidential press conference with an immature comment, but the most truly righteous people will hardly be remembered.

How many people even care about the idea of being righteous?  The world is so often full of jealousy and selfish ambition.  Indeed, we commend people who make good deals (for themselves, anyway), who get ahead (regardless of the cost), who get rich quick.  These people are strong, self-assured, ambitious, and clever.  Sometimes they are even entertaining.  But would we ever call them righteous?  Not very often, I think.

So our idea of who is a person worthy of our admiration needs to change a bit, I think.  Jesus puts it very plainly in today’s Gospel: “If anyone wishes to be first,
he shall be the last of all and the servant of all.”  That, after all, was the way that he lived his life, and the way that he expected his disciples to live as well.  This is the Jesus who said goodbye to his disciples by feeding them with his own body and blood and washing their feet.  He is the one who cured the sick and preached the word no matter what day it was, Sabbath or not.

Saint James in the second reading urges us all to be truly wise, not covetous and envious and full of hate.  He urges us toward the wisdom of the righteous one, the one who has the wisdom from above, who is “first of all pure, then peaceable, gentle, compliant, full of mercy and good fruits, without inconstancy or insincerity.”

The problem is, though, that the righteous one doesn’t always live a stress-free life.  Nice guys, as the proverb goes, tend to finish last.  And so, as our first reading tells us, the just one is often seen as an obnoxious irritant to those who do not see with wisdom from above.  And so they set out to knock the just one down a peg or two: “With revilement and torture let us put the just one to the test,” they say, “that we may have proof of his gentleness and try his patience.”

Jesus knows that just this kind of treatment is in store for him, and he discusses it with the Twelve as they walk along, out of the way of the crowds, so that he might better teach them what is to come. “The Son of Man is to be handed over to men and they will kill him, and three days after his death the Son of Man will rise.”  But the Twelve, as usual, miss the point.  And rather than ask the Teacher what he means, instead they engage in a frivolous argument about who among them is the greatest.

In some ways, it’s the classic schoolyard disagreement.  “My dad can beat up your dad.”  Or, even better, maybe it’s the classic sibling rivalry: “Mom likes me best.”  These things are sort of understandable among children.  Children growing up need to know where they fit in to the structure of society, so there are a lot of comparisons going on all the time.  But when that kind of argument begins to take place among adults, it’s not at all charming.

Jesus says that the way a person becomes first among us is that he or she gives everything, empties himself, becomes the last of all and the servant of all.  This is a spiritual principle called kenosis or “self-emptying” that calls the Christian disciple to go deep into himself or herself and to give up all of the back-biting, ambitious attitudes that come so naturally to us fallen people, and instead give everything they have and are for others.  This is righteousness, and it comes at a great cost.  This is our calling as followers of the Lord.

We have to realize that our salvation will only come about by pouring out our lives for our brothers and sisters.  We may think we can become number one by looking out for number one only.  We may think we can get ahead by tending to our own interests first and foremost.  But Jesus tells us today that quite the opposite is true.  To become number one, to really get ahead, we must serve all of our brothers and sisters.  We must lay down our lives in every way possible and raise up others whenever we see them down.  Getting this right, becoming truly righteous, will involve us tending to the needs of others first and foremost, knowing that God will take care of the just one.

Friday of the Twenty-fourth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Today’s readings are a kind of blueprint for the life of the disciple.  We see that those who surrounded Jesus as his core group were but a few selected people.  We have the Twelve, of course, but also some women.  Common to all of them is that nowadays we would probably not see any of them as qualified for the job of being in the Savior’s inner circle.  The Twelve themselves were a ragtag bunch, tradesmen, fishermen, tax collectors – none of them were even particularly distinguished in their chosen careers.  It is said that the only one of them who was distinguished and could possibly have been called qualified was Judas Iscariot, and we all know what became of him.

The women mentioned were similarly unqualified.  The Gospel says that they had all been cured either of evil spirits or infirmities.  But they also provided for the ministry out of their means.  So it’s a humble group that surrounds Jesus, and apparently, that was fine with him.  He came, after all, to save those who needed saving, not those who had no use for a Savior.

Paul tells Timothy that those who would be disciples must “pursue righteousness, devotion, faith, love, patience, and gentleness.”  They must “Compete well for the faith” and thus “Lay hold of eternal life.”  Jesus chooses anyone he wants; not merely those who are outstanding in qualifications.  Blessed indeed are those who are poor in Spirit, for the kingdom of heaven is theirs.”

Thursday of the Twenty-fourth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Simon the Pharisee had committed a grave error in hospitality, and a serious error in judgment.  In those days, when a guest came to your home, you made sure to provide water for him or her to wash their feet, because the journey on foot was often long and hot and dirty.  But Simon had done no such thing for Jesus, because his intentions were not hospitable, but rather he intended to confront Jesus on some point of the Law.  He judged the woman to be a sinner, and reckoned Jesus guilty of sin by association.  But Jesus is about forgiveness.  He didn’t care who the woman was, he just knew she had need of mercy.  Her act of love and hospitality, her posture of humility, her sorrow for her sin, all of these made it possible for Jesus to heal her.  But the one who doesn’t think he is in need of healing can never be healed.

Ss. Cornelius and Cyprian

Today’s readings

St. Cornelius was ordained as the Bishop of Rome in 251.  The Bishop of Rome is what we now call the Pope, so you can see the significance of his position.  His major contribution was to defend the faith against the Novatian schismatics, a group who denied the readmission of those who had lapsed in the faith by being made to perform a ritual sacrifice to pagan gods, under the threat of death by the Roman Emperor.  St. Cyprian was a brother bishop who helped him in this struggle.  Both men were subsequently martyred for the faith.  Cornelius died in exile in 253, and Cyprian was beheaded in 258.

The focus of both men was to preserve church unity during a time when there was much oppression against the church.  Cyprian wrote to Cornelius, “Dearest brother, bright and shining is the faith which the blessed Apostle (that is, St. Paul) praised in your community.  He foresaw in the spirit the praise your courage deserves and the strength that could not be broken; he was heralding the future when he testified to your achievements; his praise of the fathers was a challenge to the sons.  Your unity, your strength have become shining examples of these virtues to the rest of the brethren.”

The unity of the Church is one of the four marks of the Church, along with holy, catholic and apostolic.  So preserving our unity should be one of our primary duties.  That’s a challenge to us in these days of everyone wanting to do their own religious thing and following their own spiritual path.  This was not how Christ intended it to be.  What will our own efforts at unity look like today?

Our Lady of Sorrows

Today’s readings: Hebrews 5:7-9; Psalm 31; John 19:25-27
Stabat Mater (Sequence)

When I was growing up, I saw statues and pictures of Mary in our house and in the houses of my grandparents.  It was hard to relate to her, because she always seemed so radiant, distant, and glorified.  And there is truth to the fact that Mary, because of her many gifts, transcends our human nature in some ways.  But even then, she only portrays what we will one day experience.

I have come to relate to Mary much more as I have grown.  I know that she experienced all of the joys and sorrows we do: frustration, fear, love, worry, and especially what we celebrate today, sorrow.  She was the one who rejoiced at the birth of her son and took pride in what he became as he grew.  But she also worried about him as his ministry brought him to confrontation with the religious leaders, and she wept at the foot of the Cross.

The Sequence today sings of her sadness:

At the cross her station keeping,
Stood the mournful Mother weeping,
Close to Jesus to the last.

And so today, and any day when we experience sorrow, we know that we have an advocate in Mary, who experienced our sorrows, but was raised up beyond them in the joy of the Resurrection.

Pray for us, O Holy Mother of God, that we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.

The Exaltation of the Holy Cross

Today’s readings

Theologian Robert 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.

And 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. But into this obscene world, Jesus becomes incarnate; he 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 ever 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.

Saturday of the Twenty-third Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

I think the readings from St. Paul’s letter to Timothy the last couple of days have been so wonderfully challenging.  Today, in our first reading, he admits his sinfulness, relying on God to save him: he says, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.  Of these I am the foremost.”  This, as anyone who has struggled with addiction will tell you, is a very important first step.  Until we admit to what is dogging us, we will never be able to recover from it.

And sin does dog us, it is an addiction that will drag us down from our relationship with God and convince us that we are unworthy of salvation.  But, thank God, we couldn’t be more wrong.  We, like St. Paul, merely have to admit that we cannot break free of it all on our own, and trust in God’s mercy.  St. Paul says he is the foremost of sinners.  Well, so am I.  And I hope you’re ready to say that you are too.  Because there is not other way to be saved.

If we refuse to admit that we are sinners, how can we ever find salvation?  Well this is the question of our time, I think.  So many of us feel uncomfortable admitting sin or confronting it.  But if we are not sinners, then we don’t need a Savior.  That might explain the empty places in our church pews, but are we really ready to take that risk?  Are we really ready to think that our eternal life is something we can take care of on our own?  I know I’m not ready to go there.  The consequences for being wrong about that are just too horrifying.

Now I’m not saying we are all mass murderers or something horrible like that.  But we all have those times when we’ve turned away from God in little or small ways, times when we have rejected his Lordship or even his love.  And when we’ve done that, we have sinned.  There is no other word for it.  But the good news, as St. Paul says to us today, is that Christ came to save sinners.

There’s a wonderful little prayer that is deeply rooted in the Eastern churches that helps combat this attitude that sin does not affect us.  It’s called the Jesus Prayer, and it’s meant to be prayed contemplatively, almost as a mantra.  I find it great for calming me down in anxious moments, and focusing myself when I am scattered.  It takes about two minutes to learn it and you’ll remember it the rest of your life. So here it is, the Church’s ancient prayer for sinners, the Jesus Prayer:  “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy on me, a sinner.  Amen.”

Memorial of 9-11-01

Today’s readings

I think many of us will never forget where we were eight years ago today.  People say that about the day that President Kennedy died, or the day when the space shuttle Challenger exploded.  But in a particular way, I think we will never forget September 11, 2001, because it was a day that changed our world in some very unpleasant ways and shattered whatever remained of our innocence.  Traveling and doing business has changed so much in these years.  So many of us have known people who have died in the twin towers, or in the war that has raged since.

I remember the weekend following that horrible day.  I came home from seminary to visit with my parents, and we came here to church to pray.  The church was packed, on a Friday night.  And I know that in every church in America, pews were full every day and every weekend for quite a while.  Look around now, though.  Where is everyone?  Now that the world isn’t going to end as fast as we thought, do we no longer need God?  Or have we grown weary of the war that has been fought since and the changes in our world and just given up on God?

I think that as the war continues, and the lack of peace seems to continue, and the somewhat subdued, now, but ever-present sense of terror continues, it might just be time for us to do some examination and to discern what has led to that sense of unrest.  Today’s Gospel gives us the examination of conscience that will help us to do that.  What precisely is the plank of wood in our own eyes that needs to be removed before we can concentrate on the splinter in the eye of another?  What is it that is un-peaceful in us that contributes, in some small but nonetheless very real measure to the lack of peace in the world?

We all have to do that on an individual basis to start with. St. Paul does it in our first reading today when he admits to his friend Timothy, “I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and an arrogant man…”  And he acknowledges with deep gratitude and profound humility how God changed his life, had mercy on him, forgave him his sins, and gave him charge over one of the most significant evangelical and missionary ministries in the history of the world.  We, too, are blasphemers, persecutors and arrogant men and women, and it is time for us to humbly acknowledge that and urgently beg from God the grace to turn it around, that all the world might be turned around with us.

But we also have to do this on a communal basis as well.  We don’t go to salvation alone; that’s why we Catholics don’t get overly excited about having a personal relationship with Jesus.  For us, a personal relationship with Christ, is like that first baby step; once we’re there, we know that we cannot rest and admire our work.  A personal relationship with Christ is certainly a good start for us, but we know that we have to be faithful in community or nothing truly great can ever happen.  So it’s up to all of us together to work for true peace, figuring out what in our society has led to unrest and mercilessly casting it out, opening ourselves to the peacemaking power of God that can transform the whole world.  Together, as the Mass for the Feast of Christ the King will tell us, we must work with Christ to present to God “a kingdom of truth and life, a kingdom of holiness and grace, a kingdom of justice, love and peace.”

I get a little worked up when I think about this kind of thing, because I’ve come to realize this is the only way it’s all going to get wrapped up rightly.  Only when all the world has come to know the saving power of our God will we experience the return to grace that we lost in the Garden of Eden.  And that will never happen until all peoples have learned to love and respect one another, and have come to be open to the true peace that only God can give us.

It didn’t all go wrong on 9-11; if we are honest, that horrifying day was a long time coming.  But that day should have been a loud, blaring wake-up call to all of us that things have to change if we are ever going to experience the peace of Christ’s kingdom.  We are not going to get there without any one person or even any group of people; we need for all of us to repent if any of us will ever see that great day.  Today, brothers and sisters in Christ, absolutely must be a time when we all hear that wakeup call yet anew, and respond to it from the depths of our hearts, both as individuals, and as a society.

Truly we will never forget where we were on that horrible day of 9-11.  But wouldn’t it be great if we could all one day look back with fondness, remembering with great joy the day when we finally partnered with our God and turned it all around?

Thursday of the Twenty-third Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Christian disciples are called to go the extra mile.  Sure, it’s easy enough to love those who love you, and to do good to those who do good to you, and to give expecting reward.  How many of us have people over for dinner because we know those same people will return the favor to us?  How many of us have Christmas card lists that are basically reciprocation for those who send greetings to us?  We have no problem loving and giving our best to those who do the same for us, but more is expected of us.

For us disciples, we are expected to do the impossible: love our enemies, lend without expecting to be repaid, stop judging, stop condemning others, and to give with wild abandon.  Paul’s letter to the Colossians underscores the measure that will be used to measure us:

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly,
as in all wisdom you teach and admonish one another,
singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs
with gratitude in your hearts to God.

And so our reflection today calls for us to reach out and go beyond ourselves.  We have to step outside our comfort zone, reach higher, and give in the same way that God has given to us.  That is how we will find true joy, as St. Paul also says, that is how we will reach our potential as true disciples.

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