The celebration of the archangels is a chance for us to see heaven touching earth. The Psalmist says today, “In the presence of the angels I will sing your praise; I will worship at your holy temple and give thanks to your name.” And that’s the whole point of our life of faith, after all, for heaven and earth to touch, for us to be caught up in that heavenly worship where we can look on our Lord who made us for himself. Today, we are thankful for the angels who help us to worship; for Michael who keeps security forces safe; for Gabriel who watches over communications and helps us to proclaim the word; and for Raphael who shepherds travelers and the blind. Today you are likely to see heaven touching earth here at Mass, or in a quiet moment of prayer, or playing with your children, or visiting a sick friend. Wherever and whenever you experience that joy; take a moment to rejoice with the angels and sing God’s praise.
We should all be paying very close attention to the words of Job in our first reading. It started yesterday, and will go on for a little while. It’s important for us to hear from Job, because we have been, are, or will be where Job is any number of times in our lives. Job is on a journey that will deepen his faith, but it won’t be pretty. As always, it will involve some suffering as he moves along the way. And for much of it, it seems like God is silent and one wonders if God is even there. Job will see that God is with him all the way, even when he seems absent. Job’s story will be one that can inspire us as we journey through the sufferings that this life brings us sometimes; and Job’s story can be one that helps us move to deeper faith too.
St. Vincent became a priest with the expectation of enjoying the easy, affluent sort of life priests had in those days. That was his goal in some ways until he heard the deathbed confession of a dying servant. That encounter led him to realize the extremely great needs of the poor in France.
The servant’s Master had been persuaded by his wife to endow and support a group of missionary priests to serve the poor. The countess asked Vincent to lead the group, and although he declined at first, he later returned to lead a group now known as the Congregation of the Mission or the Vincentians. They took vows of poverty, chastity, obedience and stability and devoted themselves to serving the poor in smaller towns and villages.
Later, along with St. Louise de Marillac, he organized the rich women of Paris to collect funds for his missionary projects, founded several hospitals, collected relief funds for the victims of war and ransomed over 1,200 galley slaves from North Africa. Over time, this became a parish-based society for the spiritual and physical relief of the poor and sick. This organization is now known as the St. Vincent de Paul Society.
In our gospel today, Jesus lifts up the poor and lowly among us: “For the one who is least among all of you is the one who is the greatest.” St. Vincent de Paul didn’t have this attitude in his youth, but age brought him the wisdom to change. He converted from the cynical and even slothful ambitions of the clergy in those days, and turned instead to follow his true passion, bringing Christ to the needy and the downtrodden.
The past two weekends, we have had the first reading come from the book of the prophet Amos. I love Amos. He doesn’t mince words, and you can usually tell what he’s getting at right away. Today, though, I think it’s a little harder to understand what he means. The line that jumps out at me is the line, “Improvising to the music of the harp, like David, they devise their own accompaniment.” It almost sounds like a good thing. David, of course, was a wonderful musician, so why would it be a bad thing that they are able to devise their own accompaniments, like David did?
Well, let me tell you a story from my own life that might shed some light on it. This, too, is a musical analogy. Back when I was in my early twenties, I was taking voice lessons. I had a really good teacher who taught me all the mechanics of voice as well as some music theory. He also tried to teach me how to play piano, but that never took. But I have to admit, sometimes I took things for granted and let my practicing slide. And that’s exactly what I had been doing that for a couple of weeks at one point. The lesson right after that went okay, but I have to admit I didn’t really learn anything because I hadn’t put anything into it. At the end of the lesson, we sat down and talked for a while. Mostly my teacher was talking and I was getting an earful. But I thought he was praising me for my abilities and progress – the words he used were very positive and I left feeling really good about myself. But afterward, while I was driving home, I started to feel the kick in the pants that the talk really was. I got the message, loud and clear.
I think that’s what Amos is doing here. Listen to that line again: “Improvising to the music of the harp, like David, they devise their own accompaniment.” Again, it almost sounds like a good thing, but it isn’t at all. David could devise his own accompaniment, because he was singing those Psalms with the voice of God. But if everyone in our choir devised their own accompaniment, we’d have a cacophony. So here Amos is making the point that devising their own accompaniment meant that they listened to what they wanted to hear, not what God was telling them. They did whatever they wanted to do, because it seemed like God was blessing them. It’s kind of like the expression, “she dances to her own music.” It’s not a compliment at all.
The rich man in today’s Gospel devised his own accompaniment too. He ignored poor Lazarus every single day of his life. He knew Lazarus’s need, and maybe he even thought he’d get around to helping Lazarus one day. Or maybe he thought, “What good can I do, I’m just one person?” Perhaps he thought, “If I give him something to eat, what good will that do, he’ll just be hungry tomorrow.” He probably came up with all kinds of excuses about why he couldn’t help Lazarus right here and right now. He was devising his own accompaniment.
And we all know the story about the rich man. Someday becomes never. It’s eventually too late: poor Lazarus dies and goes to be with Father Abraham. But in an ironic twist of fate, the rich man also dies, presumably soon after. But it seems that Lazarus and the rich man end up in different places, doesn’t it? The rich man learns that devising one’s own accompaniment does not help one to sing a hymn of praise to the Lord, and his choice in life becomes his choice in the life to come. If one doesn’t choose to praise God in life, one won’t have that option in the life to come. Devising our own accompaniment comes with drastic consequences.
Even in death, the rich man is devising his own accompaniment. Even now, he does not see Lazarus as anything more than a messenger to do his own bidding. “Father Abraham,” he cries out, “have pity on me. Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am suffering torment in these flames.” When he learns that’s not possible, he tries another tack: “Then I beg you, father, send him to my father’s house, for I have five brothers, so that he may warn them, lest they too come to this place of torment.” He never sees Lazarus as a brother, and that’s why they’re in different places. That’s why there is that great chasm that Father Abraham talked about between them – the rich man built it! Devising our own accompaniment means that we separate ourselves from the community, we literally excommunicate ourselves.
One of the principles of Catholic social teaching is solidarity with the poor and needy. This was a topic that the prophets, like Amos, preached about all the time. Solidarity with the poor is the teaching that says we need to be one with our brothers and sisters, and not ignore their presence among us. I became very aware of this as I walked around downtown Chicago one time. I had come with some money to give to the poor. But on the train ride home, I realize that I had just quickly given some of them some money, and never really looked at any of them. They were my brothers and sisters, and I didn’t take the time to look them in the eye. Solidarity calls me – calls all of us – to do just that. We have to step out of that universe that we have set in motion around us and realize that Christ is present in each person God puts in our path. We have to step out of our own cacophony where we have devised our own accompaniments and step into the symphony that God has set in motion. We have to be one with all people.
God knows about this principle of solidarity. Because God holds it so dear, he sent his only Son to take on flesh – our flesh – so that he could live in solidarity with us – all of us who are poor and needy in our sins. He shared in all of our joys and sorrows, and reaffirmed that human life was good. Life was made good at creation and remains good to this day. But if God could take on flesh in solidarity with us, then we must take on the burdens of our brothers and sisters and live in solidarity with them. We must abandon our own accompaniments and sing the song of our brothers and sisters in need.
In our second reading today, St. Paul tells us to “pursue righteousness, devotion, faith, love, patience, and gentleness. Compete well for the faith. Lay hold of eternal life, to which you were called when you made the noble confession in the presence of many witnesses.” We have to be serious about living our faith and proclaiming the Gospel in everything that we do. In solidarity with all of our brothers and sisters, we must sing to God’s own accompaniment and join in the wonderful symphony that is the heavenly worship.
One of the most important spiritual tools is that of mindfulness. You could translate that as a kind of being in the moment; being aware of what is happening, what God is doing here an now. This is a difficult concept for us modern people to get, because we fly from one thing to another so quickly, we hardly give things a moment to register. Before we can focus on what’s happening around us, our cell phone rings, or the television takes us to a different place and time, or it’s time to herd the kids into the car and take them to whatever the next thing is.
Mindfulness requires stillness, quiet and focus, and those things come to us in rather short supply. As frustrating as this may be for us, we find the first disciples today in pretty much the same boat. They don’t have the distractions of modern convenience, of course, but they were seeing incredible things from Jesus: miracles, healings, casting out demons, incredible words at war with the Scribes and Pharisees, walking on water, transfiguration on the mountain, all these just to name a few. Their minds had to be reeling trying to figure out what to make of it all. They hardly had time to process one thing before the next thing happened.
To them, and to us, Jesus says in the gospel today: “Pay attention.” He wants them to know that the cross stands ready for him, that he will have to suffer and die. We too, have to live in the shadow of the cross: we will have our own suffering, our own pain and sadness. None of us gets to the resurrection without the cross – Jesus didn’t, the disciples didn’t, and we won’t either. And so it would serve us well to be mindful, to pay attention, to what is happening in the present moment, to what God is doing now. If we miss that, the cross will overwhelm us and crush us in despair. But if we are mindful of God’s presence even in suffering, even in the shadow of the cross, then we will never be crushed under the weight of the cross, because we will be buoyed up by the hope of resurrection.
I like to be on time for things. It bugs me when people are late. I was raised to be punctual, so I am very aware of time. The author of Ecclesiastes is aware of time today also, but in a slightly different way. He knows that there is a time and a place for everything; that God is doing something different now than he was before. It is our task not just to be merely punctual in observing these times and seasons, but more so to be mindful of them. So often we fly from one thing to the next, hardly giving anyone or anything a second thought. The wisdom writer would have us be mindful, would have us be open to what God is doing in this moment, and to respond accordingly. What is God doing in your life, right now?
I have to tell you, today’s gospel reading gives me a little bit of a panic attack deep down inside! I tend to over-pack, and really, over-prepare for everything. Even though I was never a boy scout, the whole idea of being prepared just really resonates with me. And so when Jesus says we shouldn’t have a walking stick, food, money or a second tunic, well it’s almost hard for me to breathe! But the invitation is a good one, especially for those of us who tend to over-prepare. We are being invited to trust God first and foremost. If we accept that invitation, think of what great things God will be able to do in us and through us!