Fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time [C]

Today’s readings

You know, since I’m currently serving in this, my home parish, I’m going to pass on the opportunity to comment on today’s Gospel: I’ve already reflected long and hard on how a prophet is not accepted in his own native place!  I’d like to talk instead about our second reading today.  Paul’s explanation to the Corinthians about the nature of love is one that we’ve heard a million times, especially if we’ve been to any number of weddings.  We may have heard this reading so often that on hearing the opening words of it, we tune out and just let the words flow past us.  But I think Paul’s ruminations about the nature of love are important, so I’d like us to take a little pause in our lives to consider them.

The other day, I was finishing up at the office after having met with a nice couple who were planning to get married here next year.  The night was crisp, well cold actually, but very clear, and I could see the almost-full moon bright and large in the sky.  Again, this is something that we see enough that maybe we might just be tempted to walk past it and get to someplace warm.  But I didn’t.  It struck me that during the winter, we don’t often get to see such a beautiful sky; too often the beauty around us is masked by gray clouds.  And so that beauty caused me to stop where I was – even though it was cold – and look up at the sights for a minute or so.

I realized that that beauty brought me joy, even in the dark of winter, and I remembered that joy is, as Teilhard de Chardin wrote, the most infallible sign of the presence of God.  And I got a little choked up, as I stood there, thinking about how God loved me enough to give me a glimpse of beauty that was really nothing compared to what lies in store for us.  As Saint Paul says today, we currently see indistinctly, as in a mirror, but then we shall see face-to-face.  And what beauty, what joy there will be on that great day!

That beauty that we shall see one day is what theologians call the beatific vision.  That is the joy that we hope for in the life to come, and nothing on earth can compare to it.  But sometimes, once in a while, probably more often than we take time to realize, God gives us a little glimpse at that beauty, that joy here on earth.  The Catechism teaches us about this too.  It says, “Faith makes us taste in advance the light of the beatific vision, the goal of our journey here below.  Then we shall see God ‘face to face,’ ‘as he is.’  So faith is already the beginning of eternal life.  When we contemplate the blessings of faith even now, as if gazing at a reflection in a mirror, it is as if we already possessed the wonderful things which our faith assures us we shall one day enjoy.” (CCC, 163)

One of those little glimpses of the beatific vision, is love.  We know that God is love, that God cannot not love, that anything that is not loving is not God.  I often say that the way that I know that God loves me is by just thinking about the good people God has put in my life.  My family, my friends, my parish family, my brother priests, all of these good people love me in ways that can only come from God.  And experiencing the love that they have for me, and the love I have for them, I get a little glimpse of God’s love for me.  And so it is no wonder that Saint Paul today takes such a good, long look at the nature of love.  He tells us what love is, and also what love is not; he defines love in at least sixteen different ways.

Perhaps the most important thing to take away from this reading though, is that love is the most important thing of all.  That makes sense if we keep in mind that God is love, doesn’t it?  But we often get bogged down in looking for other things.  And Paul knows this too.  He says that even if we spend all our time working on developing our spiritual gifts – which is not a bad thing to do, of course – but don’t work on loving, then those spiritual gifts are meaningless.  It could never happen, given our imperfect natures, but even if we could speak and understand every human and angelic language, even if we could prophesy perfectly, even if we came to know every possible thing that could be known, even if we could move mountains with our faith, if we don’t also love, then we are nothing at all.  If we don’t get love, we don’t get God, we don’t get anything.  All that other stuff is nice, but love is the still more excellent way.

For all of us busy twenty-first century people, I think the challenge is making time for love.  We get caught up in our work, our serving, our sports, our kids’ activities, and so on and so on.  But if we don’t take time to love, all that stuff is nothing.  We had a hard week last week, dealing with the tragic death of one of the teacher’s aides in our school.  The day that we told the teachers, I was just drained by the end of the day.  But I went to my mom’s house to celebrate the second birthday of my youngest niece, and she gave me the biggest hug I’d had in a long time.  Katie was God’s love for me in that moment, and I didn’t miss the significance of that at all.

Love is a lot of things – it’s so complex and yet so simple.  The love that we experience here on earth is just a little glimpse of the love that is our God – but it is absolutely a glimpse of the love that is our God.  Who cares what else we accomplish, what else we can do – if we can’t love, we can’t be part of God’s life, because God is love itself.  That’s why Paul tells us that everything else will pass away – all our spiritual gifts, all our accomplishments on earth, all of our prestige and importance and everything else on earth will pass away one day.  And on that day, it will be just fine to be without all that stuff, because the three things we are left with – faith, hope and love – will never pass away and will lead us to eternal life and a sharing in the life of God.

And the greatest of these is love.

Friday of the Third Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Personal integrity is the thing that can bring down the best of us.  The easiest thing for us to do is to live one life, and that life would be the life that God gives us.  God’s grace is buried when we try to live another life entirely.  David’s momentary lust gave way to a double life that included adultery and murder, which forever sullied the greatness that God wanted for him.  Sin complicates things in unbelievable ways.  Grace gives us the opportunity to live simply and to live fully.

Wednesday of the Second Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

“Whoever has ears ought to hear.”

Hearing is sometimes a difficult challenge for us.  We have laundry lists of things we would like for God to hear.  We can be real good at praying when it entails telling God what we think needs to happen.  But it’s harder for us to just listen, and even harder for us to really hear.  Most often, hearing means conversion, and that can be messy and even uncomfortable – perhaps even painful.  But real disciples are called to be pray-ers who hear, not just speak.  Whoever has ears ought to hear.

Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul

Today’s readings

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.

Third Sunday of Ordinary Time – Respect Life

Today’s readings

Today’s Liturgy of the Word is kind of a homily about the Liturgy of the Word.  We hear in the readings about how powerful the Word of God is, and what an important part of our lives hearing those words is for those who believe.  Our first reading and our gospel reading both show moments where the word is proclaimed.

In the first reading, the people are returning from a disastrous exile in Babylon.  Because they had not previously acted on God’s word, the Babylonians overtook them, and the cream of their population was carted off to exile.  The religious and political leaders, the learned teachers, the strong soldiers, all of these were taken from their midst.  So today’s reading finds them on the other side of that event: they are returning and beginning to think about the daunting task of rebuilding their society and its infrastructure.  They pause at the beginning of that to remind themselves of the words of Scripture that had been so important to them.

The gospel reading finds the Israelites at a much later time, obviously, a time where the Temple had been destroyed.  In order to preserve their religion, the practice of meeting in synagogues had come about.  There, the words of Scripture would be read, and someone would give an interpretation of those words.  This time the proclaimer and interpreter is Jesus himself.

What is common in these two readings is that each of them shows us three Scriptural moments. In the first moment, the Word is proclaimed. Second, that Word has an effect on its hearers. Finally, the Word is fulfilled. So first, the Word is proclaimed. 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. This went on most of the day, I might add, so don’t complain if my homily is more than nine minutes!  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, and remembered that not following those commandments is what cast them into exile. Ezra 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. The words of Scripture than made the Israelite’s weep in Nehemiah and Ezra’s day are fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ and continue to be fulfilled in our own day.  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.

The Word of God, we are told, is a living and active thing.  The Word leads us to a certain way of life, a belief that God is among us, and that he gifts us overwhelmingly every single day of our lives.  This time each year, we pause to be reminded particularly of the gift of life.  Perhaps we might find ourselves of the same mind as the Israelites who wept when they considered how far they had been from keeping God’s law.  The same could be said of our own society, which seems to value life less and less all the time.  Against this, the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, “Human life is sacred because from its beginning it involves the creative action of God and it remains for ever in a special relationship with the Creator, who is its sole end. God alone is the Lord of life from its beginning until its end: no one can under any circumstance claim for himself the right directly to destroy an innocent human being.” (CCC, 2258)

This past Friday was the 37th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision that in effect legalized abortion in the United States.  The Church teaches us that abortion is a violation of the fifth commandment, which states: “Thou shall not kill.”  Participation in an abortion – which includes having one, paying for one, encouraging one, performing one, and helping in the performance of one – is a mortal sin.  Because we oppose abortion, we as a Church are committed to making alternatives to abortion more available, including adoption, financial assistance to parents and especially mothers in need, and education about the sanctity of life.

Since 1973, when Roe v. Wade was decided, our society has tumbled down the slippery slope of devaluing life and we are seeing the rotten fruits of it all over. War, violence, hatred, lack of concern for the poor and needy, lack of respect for the elderly and terminally ill, all of these things are symptoms of the culture of death that surrounds us. Far from liberating women and giving them choice over the use of their bodies, the legalization of abortion has driven many women to have an abortion simply because they thought that was their only option or because it was more convenient for family or the father.

But respecting life goes beyond merely opposing abortion.  Our Church teaches us that we cannot claim to be Pro Life if we are in fact only anti-abortion. Our claim to righteousness has to be based on more than never having had the disastrous occasion of having to choose to participate in an abortion, or it’s not really righteousness at all. If we pray to end abortion and then do not attend to our obligation to the poor, or if we choose to support the death penalty, or if we engage in racial bigotry, then we are not in fact Pro Life. Every life, every life, every life is sacred, no matter what we may think of it.  It’s sacred because God created that life after his very own image and likeness.

And I say all this not because I don’t think that abortion is anything short of a disaster: it most certainly is.  Abortion ends the life of a child, it ruins the lives of everyone involved, it damages society in ways we may never fully know.  I say this because it’s way too easy for us to oppose abortion and then call ourselves Pro Life and then go out and violate life in some other circumstance. We must be very careful of doing that, because not being completely Pro Life weakens our witness to the sanctity of life.  The world is watching us closely.  And we absolutely cannot be at all weak in our witness for life: our society needs our strength and passion for life so that there can be conversion and change and unity and peace.

The Word of God continues to be proclaimed, to have an effect on us who hear it, and to be fulfilled in our hearing.  Our witness for life is an important way that the Word is fulfilled in our own day.  The Scriptures tell us that the culture of death doesn’t get the last word – God does, life does.  And for that, as Ezra exhorted the Israelites, we should rejoice.

Friday of the Second Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

I think mercy may well be one of the hardest virtues to cultivate; but then again, maybe I am just projecting my own issues!  But in this day of entitlement, I think many people are quick to call others to task for just about anything that irritates them.  How, then, would we have treated Saul if we were David, given that Saul was distracted, and David was there unnoticed, and had the means necessary to take his life?  He even had good reason: Saul was trying to kill him.  But instead he shows him mercy, and relies on God’s justice.  We will be called upon to be merciful often.  How often will we take that opportunity, knowing that God’s justice is greater than anything we can imagine?

Thursday of the Second Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Today we hear about the amazing power of spiritual friendship.  If it were not for Jonathan, Saul would have murdered David not just in the story we heard today, but many times.  The Lord’s rejection of Saul was driving him to madness, and, as many insecure people do, he was doing everything possible to sabotage the one who was making him look bad.  But Jonathan’s intervention changed things, and David lived to become a great king.

But I’m not just extolling friendship alone here.  Make no mistake; friendship is a good thing.  But I said this reading was about the amazing power of spiritual friendship.  Spiritual friendship has its basis in God’s grace, and is definitely a gift from God.  A spiritual friendship is a kind of companionship in which the companions, in their affection for one another, lead each other to God.  Jonathan and David did that in many ways, and the fruit of that was that Jonathan protected David’s vocation to be king.  Spiritual friends always bring out the best in each other; they help each other become what God created them to be.

Today, pause and be grateful for those who have been spiritual friends to you.  Think of those who have helped you become what God created you to be; those whose encouragement has brought you closer to God.  May God bless those who have been a blessing to us.

Wednesday of the Second Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

If David had advanced against the Philistine with the finest weapons and the most advanced armor possible, the story we have in our first reading would just be nice.  But instead of relying on all kinds of technology to take down the giant, he relied on something more certain than technology and way bigger than the giant: he relied on the power of God’s grace.  And that, my friends, makes for a darn good story!  So what huge, giant thing are you facing these days?  Have you been relying on yourself and on everything but God to slay it?  If so, it’s not going to happen.  But relying on God for the grace we need in every situation is the technology that has power to not just change our situation, but even to change us.  And that’s a story worth telling!

Monday of the Second Week of Ordinary Time: Christian Unity

Today’s readings

In today’s Gospel, Jesus is challenging some age-old practices.  He is not saying that fasting is a bad thing, but instead he is saying that something new is going on.  He has come to usher in a new age, and fasting is inappropriate while he is there bringing it in!

Today is the beginning of the annual week of prayer for Christian Unity.  This week we remember that Christ came to found one and only one Church and, sadly, we have messed that up through our own sin and pride.  But this week we also celebrate that some of that is changing.  Slowly, but surely.  Catholics, Lutherans and Methodists are beginning to come to agreement on what “justification by faith” means.  Orthodox and Catholics are beginning to talk about Eucharist and the role of the pope.  Even Catholics and Evangelicals are coming to trust each other more, and have come together in many ways to promote the sanctity of life from conception to natural death.

We still have a long way to go, but these steps are signs of progress.  We focus on what we all believe in: a loving, Trinitarian God, salvation in Christ, the gift of the Holy Spirit, our common Baptism and the promise of everlasting life in heaven.  From these we can begin our prayer for unity, that, as Christ desired, we may all be one.  The bridegroom is among us, even in our fractured state, and doing something new, something wonderful, something life-changing.  There is new wine and new wineskins; for that we can all be grateful.

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