One thing is sure about the prophet Amos: he doesn’t mince words. In fact, if you read the whole of his book and don’t find yourself feeling at least a little guilty, you might not be capable of that emotion! In today’s first reading, Amos puts forward what is, really, the theme of his preaching: stop offering token sacrifices and then doing evil. God does not want our ritual offerings if we are then going to steal from the poor, and marginalize the most vulnerable members of our society. If we want to offer the kind of sacrifice God desires, then it has to be the sacrifice of laying down our lives and pouring ourselves out in service to those who are in need. When we’ve done that, then, and only then, are we ready to offer sacrifice.
In today’s Gospel, Peter and the others are asked, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” Both Peter and Paul were committed to the truth about who Christ was. They had too much at stake. Having both messed up their estimation of who Jesus was earlier in their lives, they knew the danger of falling into the trap. So for them Jesus could never be just a brother, friend or role model – that was inadequate. And both of them proclaimed with all of their life straight through to their death that Jesus Christ is Lord. We too on this day must repent of the mediocrity we sometimes settle for in our relationship with Christ. He has to be Lord of our lives and we must proclaim him to be that Lord to our dying breath. We must never break faith with Saints Peter and Paul, who preserved that faith at considerable personal cost.
Today’s readings: 2 Timothy 2:22b-26; John 17:20-26
When a person faces opposition from erroneous ideology, there is a difference between refutation or winning an argument and correction. It might even be fair to say that many people are up to the task of winning an argument, but it takes a saint to be content with correction. This subtle difference is one that Saint Irenaeus knew quite well.
Irenaeus was a student, well trained, no doubt, with great patience in investigating, tremendously protective of apostolic teaching, but prompted more by a desire to win over his opponents than to prove them in error. Irenaeus did major work in responding to the Gnostic heresy. Gnostics claimed access to secret knowledge imparted by Jesus to only a few disciples, and their teaching was attracting and confusing many Christians. After thoroughly investigating the various Gnostic sects and their “secret,” Irenaeus showed to what logical conclusions their tenets led. These he contrasted with the teaching of the apostles and the text of Holy Scripture, giving us, in five books, a system of theology of great importance to subsequent times. Moreover, his work, widely used and translated into Latin and Armenian in his day, gradually ended the influence of the Gnostics.
Just like Jesus in today’s Gospel reading, Irenaeus was concerned with protecting the truth. But more than that, he was zealous about teaching the truth so that people would turn away from harmful errors. All of us are expected to stand up for the truth too, in our own way, among those people God has placed us. The simplest way to do that is to live the truth and to be people of integrity. Our witness goes a long way to teaching the truth and winning people over to the Gospel, which is way more important than simply proving others wrong and making them look foolish. Through the intercession of Saint Irenaeus, may we all gain many souls for the glory of the Kingdom of God.
“For freedom Christ set us free.” These readings seem to me to be a beautiful reflection for this time of year, when we are getting ready for our Independence Day celebrations next week. When our nation’s founders set up this fledgling republic 234 years ago, freedom was certainly one of their primary concerns. Freedom of religion was particularly important, as was freedom of expression, freedom of association, and many others. We are the beneficiaries of their hard work. To use a current catch phrase, freedom isn’t free, it is purchased at a price, and at this time of year we remember those who purchased it for us.
In today’s second reading, St. Paul is reflecting on the freedom that the early Christians had. This freedom was a freedom from the constraints of the Jewish law that encouraged people to replace true devotion and zeal with mere surface-level observance of their religion’s many – and I do mean many! – laws. Those early Christians were beneficiaries of the hard work of others, also. Particularly, Paul reminds them, their freedom was purchased at the incredible price of the blood of Jesus Christ the Lord who died that we might have life. Their freedom wasn’t free either, and they, and of course we, are beneficiaries of the sacrifice of Christ.
For the Galatians, as well as for all of us, freedom had to be defined a little more exactly, and that was St. Paul’s purpose in today’s second reading. Because freedom isn’t free, it can’t be taken lightly or casually, and so he makes it clear what the freedom truly is. The Galatians had the mistaken notion that freedom meant the same thing as license, which isn’t the case at all. Freedom didn’t mean license to act against the law and to live lives of immorality and corruption. That would be replacing one form of slavery with another, really, since immorality has its own chains. The freedom Christ won for us is a freedom to live joyful lives of dedication and devotion and discipleship, all caught up in the very life of God. Real freedom looses us from the bonds of the world and sets us free to bind ourselves to God, who created us for himself and desires that we would be free from sin and death. Real freedom is freedom to be who we have been created to be.
This distinction between true freedom and license for immorality is one that we must take seriously especially in our own day, even as we prepare to celebrate our nation’s own independence. Because in our own day, we too have confused the freedom we have inherited from our founders with a license to do whatever the heck we want. You know this is true. People say what they want and do what they want and feel entitled to say and do it. People abandon the practice of their faith when it suits them – like when they have a soccer game or a baseball tournament, or want to take a trip or don’t feel like getting out of bed to go to Mass. And that, brothers and sisters in Christ, is not the gift we have been given. Freedom of expression doesn’t mean we have the right to express ourselves in a way that slanders or ridicules others. Freedom of religion doesn’t mean freedom from religion, and it doesn’t mean that we have to practice our faith in secret and not let people know that Jesus Christ is Lord. Being free doesn’t mean we have license to do whatever we want; being free means we are free to better ourselves, our families, our churches and our communities. Real freedom is freedom to be who we have been created to be.
This freedom to be who we have been created to be is a matter of some urgency for Elisha in today’s first reading and the disciples that Jesus met in today’s Gospel. All of them received the message that when God calls, the time to answer is now. But all of them found that there were things going on inside them that kept them from answering the call that kept them from being free to follow God in the way they were created to do that. And the rebukes they all received seem a bit harsh to our ears. After all, they had good excuses, didn’t they? Who would deny a person the right to say goodbye to their families or bury their dead? But there are a couple of subtle distinctions that we have to get here. First, it wasn’t as if they had ever been told to follow the call instead of taking care of family and burying the dead. Yet they were using those things as an excuse to put off their response to God’s call. Second, following God’s call very well could have meant doing those things they were involved in, but in a way that honored God. The demand was to put God first, and one could conceivably do that and still take care of family, friends and even business.
What’s at issue here is right relationship. Responding to God’s call must always come first, but responding to God’s call may mean raising one’s family, tending to a sick parent or elderly relative, reading to one’s children, grieving the loss of a loved one or battling an illness. It’s a matter of priorities, and true freedom means putting God first in all of that, trusting that God will help us to make sense of the ordinariness of our lives.
Because we really are usually called out of the ordinariness of our lives. That was true of Elisha today. He was minding his own business – literally – by plowing the fields. He certainly must have been a man of means, because he had twelve yoke of oxen – that would have been a lot in those days. And yet he gives it all up on the spot to follow God as Elijah’s successor. The way Elisha’s call happened might appear a little strange, but we actually use elements of that call in our own Church’s Liturgy. Elisha’s call happened by Elijah throwing his cloak over him. It seems like an odd gesture, but it symbolized Elisha taking over the mantle of authority from Elijah. It’s a symbol I can resonate with, because at my Ordination to the priesthood, one of the most profound moments for me was the moment in the rite when two of my priest friends took off my deacon’s stole and put the priest’s stole over my shoulders. I knew in that moment that the Ordination was done; that I really had become a priest. I could almost literally feel the weight of following Christ in that particular way. It was an incredible moment for me, and it must have been so for Elisha. In fact, he was so excited that he ran back, slaughtered his oxen and chopped up the yokes to use as fuel to cook the flesh and feed his people. Doing that was a complete break with his former life – he had nothing to go back to, and it showed the lengths to which he would go in order to do God’s will.
So as we prepare to celebrate Independence Day next Sunday, may we all remember that true freedom doesn’t mean doing whatever we want, regardless of the implications for others. True freedom doesn’t mean license to live an immoral life. Instead, true freedom is about living the life God has called us to live and following as committed disciples, free to be bound up in the life of Christ. True freedom means breaking with anything that holds us back from becoming the free sons and daughters of God we were created to be. True freedom means putting God first and serving him in the ordinariness of our lives, following his call to our dying breath. True freedom means finding the same joy that our Psalmist finds today when he sings, “You are my inheritance, O Lord.”
It might seem like the leper overstated the obvious: “Lord, if you wish, you can make me clean.” Certainly the Lord can do whatever he wants whenever he wants. But it is a statement that is well for us to hear, I think. Our plans need to be centered around God’s will for us. God wants the best for us, and has our welfare in mind. But we have to give ourselves over to his plans for us if we want to experience the happiness we seek. The Leper’s statement is an act of faith and perhaps it can also be our prayer today. “Lord, if you wish, you can make me clean…” you can give me strength, you can lead me to true peace, you can make me whole.
Today we celebrate a feast that is a bit unusual for us. When we celebrate a saint’s day, it is usually celebrated on the feast of their death, not their birth. But today we do gather to celebrate the birth of a saint, Saint John the Baptist, and the fact that we’re celebrating his birth points to the fact that St. John the Baptist had a very special role to play in the life of Christ. In fact, the only other saint for whom we celebrate a birthday is the Blessed Virgin Mary, so that tells us something about how important John the Baptist is.
Just as for Jesus, we don’t know the precise day John the Baptist was born. So the feast of their Nativity – their births – was a tradition developed by the early Church. The dates the Church selected are significant. Jesus’ birthday was placed around the time of the winter solstice, mostly to counteract pagan festivals of the coming of winter. John the Baptist’s birthday was then placed around the time of the summer solstice for similar reasons. But there’s more to it even than that. Saint Augustine reminds us that in the Gospel of John, there is a passage where John the Baptist says of himself and Jesus, “I must decrease, he must increase.” So John’s birthday is placed at the time when the days start to become shorter, and Jesus’ birthday is placed at the time when the days start to become longer. John the Baptist must decrease, Jesus must increase.
Today’s readings have a lot to do with who the prophet is. St. John the Baptist was the last prophet of the old order, and his mission was to herald the coming of Jesus Christ who is himself the new order. Tradition holds that prophets were created for their mission, that their purpose was laid out while they were yet to be born. Isaiah, one of the great prophets of the old order, tells us of his commissioning in our first reading today. He says, “The LORD called me from birth, from my mother’s womb he gave me my name.” The rest of the reading tells us of his mission, a mission of hardship, but one of being compelled to speak the word of god as a sharp-edged sword. His calling began as a call to preach to his own people, but by the end of the reading, it is clear that that commission became a call to preach to every nation on earth.
Isaiah says that he was given his name while in his mother’s womb. The same was true of Saint John the Baptist, whose name was given to Zechariah and Elizabeth by the Angel Gabriel. There’s a dubious story in my own family’s history that my mother had my name picked out from the time she was twelve. But it’s pretty hard for me to believe that a young Italian woman would have picked the name Patrick Michael for her son. But that’s how the story goes. Names have meaning. Maybe you know what your name means. But far more significant are the names of the prophets we encounter in today’s Liturgy of the Word. Isaiah means “The LORD is salvation,” which pretty much encompassed the meaning of Isaiah’s mission, proclaiming salvation to the Israelites who were oppressed in exile. The name given to the Baptist, John, means “God has shown favor.” And that was in fact the message of his life. He came to pave the way for Jesus Christ, who was the favor of God shown to the whole human race.
Whatever our particular names may mean, we are also called Christian, and there is meaning behind that name. To be called Christian is to be called a follower of Christ, which means that like Jesus, we must lay down our lives for our friends, that we must preach the Good News of Salvation in our words and in our actions, and that we must always help people to come to know the love of God. And that, ultimately, is the purpose for which we have been created, the purpose God had for us from the time we were in our mother’s wombs. The way we do that might be different for each of us. Some will work out their purpose in the married life, raising children to love and honor God. Some will do that as religious sisters or brothers or as priests, bearing witness to all God’s people of the love God has for them. Some will do that in the single state, as models of chastity and courage in a world that can be dark and lonely.
Ultimately, the purpose for St. John the Baptist’s life was summed up in his statement: “I must decrease, He must increase.” And so it must be for us. Sometimes we want to turn the spotlight on ourselves, when that is exactly where it should not be. For John the Baptist, the spotlight was always on Christ, the One for whom he was unfit to fasten his sandals. Just as the birth of St. John the Baptist helped his father Zechariah to speak once again, so his life gives voice to our own purpose in the world. Like St. John the Baptist, we are called to be a people who point to Christ, who herald the Good News, and who live our lives for God. We are called to decrease, while Christ increases in all of us. We are called to be that light to the nations of which Isaiah speaks today, so that God’s salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.
St. John the Baptist, pray for us.
The process of discernment is one that takes the better part of one’s life to learn, I think. This is a skill that involves a great deal of trial and error, quite a bit of learned wisdom, and of course the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. “By their fruits you will know them,” Jesus tells us in today’s Gospel. I fear that we may be rather disconnected from our rural roots and may not have the experience of finding a rotten tree by its fruits. But anyone who does a good bit of grocery shopping will tell you there are some places you shop for produce and others you don’t. That’s the indicator Jesus wants us to know today. Against this lens we have to hold up our relationships, our pending decisions, our choices for how to spend our time. What comes of these things? If good things follow, then they are meant for us. If bad things follow, we have to uproot them mercilessly in order that they may not poison our spiritual lives. By their fruits we will know them.
When I hear that the road that leads to life is narrow and constricted, that makes me a bit uneasy. The reason for that is I am a lousy packer. I pretty much always over-pack, not being able to shake the worry of not having something I might need. What if the weather is cold? I’ll need some warm clothes. If it’s hot, I sure won’t want those warm clothes then, so I’ll need something light. Better take along some Tylenol in case I get a headache, and well, the list goes on. I just hate packing to go on a trip, because I always imagine what I pack will take up less space than it does.
I think that can be true of us on our spiritual journeys as well. We want to fill up every silence we have. Better take our iPods, a book in case we’re bored, the laptop so we’ll be able to get our email, our cell phones, and who knows what else. Heaven forbid we should let the silence be silent so that our God can speak to us. I’m every bit as guilty of over-packing in that way too.
But God doesn’t want our iPods or laptops or cell phones. God just wants us. He wants us to give him ourselves completely. Sure, there’s an easier way to go, unfortunately that particular way leads to destruction. But if we give up what holds us back, then travelling that narrow road to life won’t be so hard.
What do we need to unpack from our lives today?
St. Aloysius Gonzaga was a well-connected young man who lived during the Renaissance. His father longed for him to become a military hero, and brought him up in the court society. But Aloysius was affected from an early age by a desire to become one with God, and often practiced great penance and asceticism. By age eleven, he was teaching catechism to poor children, and fasting three times a week. I don’t really remember what I was doing at age eleven, but I know my piety was not nearly as advanced as Aloysius! He eventually decided he would like to join the Jesuits, but had to wage a four-year battle with his father, who eventually relented and let him forsake his right to succession and join the novitiate.
Sometimes our plans, for ourselves or for others, are far different than the plans God has. I always tell people that if you really want to be happy with your life, you have to do what God wants you to do, whatever that is. That takes a lot of discernment, which can take a lot of time. But maybe the first step is to remove that nasty splinter in the eye of our heart. We have to be able to see what God wants for us, but that might mean we have to get our own desires, our own self-centeredness, our own plans out of the way so that we can see clearly. All those splinters keep us from true happiness, from the blessed life God wants for his holy ones.
Who we are is something many of us spend a lifetime trying to figure out. Our identity is important to us: it tells us how we fit into the social structure as well as what makes us unique from others. Until we really know who we are, we are very unlikely to accomplish anything of importance or even be comfortable in our own skin. And so when Jesus asks the disciples “Who do the crowds say that I am?” it is a question with which we all resonate on some level, some time in our lives.
Now, I’m not suggesting Jesus was having an identity crisis. Clearly, his asking that question wasn’t so much for his own information or even to see where he was in the social structure of Israel, but more for the disciples to begin thinking about what Jesus meant to them and to the world. Jesus knows who he is and why he is here, but it’s for us and for those first disciples to begin to see Jesus in deeper ways.
The answers the disciples give to that question are interesting. John the Baptist risen from the dead, Elijah returned from the whirlwind, or that one of the ancient prophets had arisen. Clearly he had no parallel on earth at the time; all their answers involved the return of someone from the dead or the beyond. The reason this is significant is because, at the time, the possibility of there being anything beyond death or any kind of resurrection was in great dispute. The Pharisees believed in a life after death, the Sadducees did not; that is the reason many of the Gospel stories show those two groups in opposition to each other.
But the real significant part of their answers lies in what is going on in the disciples’ minds as they answer Jesus. You can almost hear the excitement in their voices. They had been seeing Jesus healing diseases and casting out demons. Not only that, they had just returned from their own missionary journey in which Jesus gave them authority to do those same things. Clearly they were in the presence of a superstar, and his charisma was rubbing off on them. They were ready for the glory.
But now Jesus wants to dig a little deeper. “But who do you say that I am?” he asks them. Peter speaks for the disciples and gets the answer right the first time: “The Christ of God.” I think he answers that with deep reverence and awe, but unfortunately, he didn’t know the half of it.
Jesus affirms his correct answer, but then goes on to reveal what that means for him. Yes, he is the Christ of God, but the Christ isn’t what they were expecting. This was not going to be simply some glory trip. The Christ would have to suffer, be rejected, be killed, and then … then be raised from the dead. And that whole being killed part is the sticking point, but it’s absolutely necessary, he can’t be raised from the dead if he isn’t killed; that’s not a step one can skip.
When you think about it, the disciples’ early answers as to who the crowds said Jesus was had some merit. They all spoke of someone who came back from the dead, which Jesus the Christ would indeed do. But not just yet.
This all had to be pretty hard for them to digest. But it’s nothing compared to what Jesus reveals next. Those disciples who thought they were on the glory train could also expect to suffer:
“If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself
and take up his cross daily and follow me.
For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it,
but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.”
We don’t get to skip a step either. We too will be called to the cross. If we want eternal life, we have to be willing to give up this life. There is no resurrection without a cross; there is no Easter Sunday without a Good Friday. Not for Jesus and not for his disciples, not even for you and me.
We know that suffering is part of life. We have experienced illness, injury, pain, loss of a job, death of a loved one, physical or psychological abuse – the list is long. So often all this suffering seems pointless. We might even be tempted to quarrel with God: if God is loving, why to innocent people have to suffer, why do we have to suffer? Why can’t it be the guy who cuts us off in traffic while he’s drinking coffee with one hand and talking on a cell phone in the other?
The truth is, the justice of suffering is beyond us. Who knows why bad things happen to good people? Suffering can often seem so capricious, so random, so devoid of meaning. And it is, if we let it be. You see, sometimes we just get it wrong. We sometimes think that Jesus came to take away suffering and we get mad when that’s not what happens. But if Jesus came to take away suffering, he certainly wouldn’t have had to go through it himself. He didn’t come to take away suffering, but to give meaning to it, to redeem it.
We can see in the cross that the path to glory and the path to life leads through suffering to redemption. There’s no way around it. The cross Jesus took up will be ours to take up daily if we wish to follow Jesus to eternal life. Our own identity as disciples and followers of Christ is bound up in the ugliness of suffering and the agony of the cross.
That flies in the face of our culture that wants us to take a pill for every pain and medicate every burden. Jesus says today that that kind of thinking is simply losing our lives trying to save them. The rest of life passes us by while we are self-medicated beyond our pain. But, if we lose our life for the sake of Jesus, if we take up our crosses and follow him, if we bear our burdens and our sorrows and our pain and our brokenness, if we join our sufferings to the suffering of Christ on the cross, then we too can experience what he did: the glory of eternal life. That was the only hope of those first disciples, and it is our only hope too, fellow disciples of the Lord.