The Twenty-Second Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Today again, we see Saint Peter sinking into the waves after walking on the water.  Just last week, Peter eloquently professed his faith.  After Jesus asking who they said he was, Peter replies, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”  But just a few short verses later, in today’s Gospel, he rebukes Jesus for talking about his impending demise.  He has once again taken his eyes off of Jesus and gotten too caught up in the storm.  “Get behind me, Satan,” Jesus says to him, “You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.”

Which is what Saint Paul is warning the Romans, and us, to avoid in today’s second reading: “Do not conform yourselves to this age,” he writes, “but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect.”  So I think the challenge for us today is one of renewing our minds so that we can know and participate in God’s will.

This is not something, I am convinced, that we do once and for all.  Because we are often tempted, as Peter was, to look somewhere else than at God’s will.  There are plenty of distractions out there: bad television, impure relationships, and so much more.  We have to constantly be on guard against these temptations, as Jesus was.  When Peter tempted him to forget about the cross, Jesus reminded him that we have to think as God does, not as human beings do.

Learning to think this way takes some work.  It takes prayer, it takes discernment, it takes getting advice from wise and trusted people, it takes a complete openness to God’s will.  The question for us is always this: are we thinking as God does, or as human beings do?

What would it look like if all of our decisions in life were evaluated in this way?  What would our workplaces be like?  What would our schools and communities be like?  What would our homes and families be like?  Part of our reflection on these wonderful readings might be to do a little “holy dreaming” as to how this would play out in our lives, and what might be accomplished if we did it.  That kind of “holy dreaming” is a great part of a vibrant prayer life.

The Psalmist sums it all up for us in his prayer: “My soul is thirsting for you, O Lord, my God.”  During this week, may we all drink deeply of the well that is God’s life.

The Queenship of Mary

On this, the octave day of the Assumption of Mary, we celebrate another great Marian feast, that of the Queenship of Mary.  Today we celebrate the fifth glorious mystery of the rosary: Mary is crowned queen of heaven and earth.  The Queenship of Mary has been celebrated ever since Pope Pius XII instituted this celebration in 1954.  But the feast itself is rooted in Sacred Scripture.  In the Old Testament, the mothers of the king had great influence in court.  Certainly this would be the case between Mary and Jesus; we know that Mary’s intercession is a powerful force for our good.  The Queenship of Mary, though, is most properly understood as a sharing in the Kingship of Christ the King.  St. Paul speaks of the crown that awaited him after a long life, filled with fighting the good fight.  And we know that that same crown – the crown that comes from Christ himself – awaits all who believe in Jesus and live lives of faith.

The origin of Mary’s crown, I think, can be seen at the very end of today’s Gospel reading.  Having heard the overwhelming news from the angel Gabriel, Mary responds in faith: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.”  Her faith, a faith that responded to the Lord’s call even though the details were not clear, is the kind of faith we’re all called to model.  This kind of faith responds to God’s movement with absolute trust in his providence.  Mary models that kind of response for us, and perhaps her reward, too, is a model of what we can hope to receive.  Just as she responded in faith and was rewarded with a crown of glory, so we too can hope to have the same crown if we live the kind of faith she did.

And that’s the goal of our spiritual lives, brothers and sisters.  We are to discern God’s call and respond with faith that leaves the details to God alone.  Mary is always the model for us.  She paves the way to living the Gospel as we are all called to do. But Mary is also the intercessor for us.  She knew the difficulties and the sorrows that taking up the cross of the Gospel means for us, so we can depend on her intercession to help us through it.  So on this feast day of her crowning, may we all look at our own calls in this life, and respond with the fiat: “Let it be done for me according to your word.”

Friday of the Twentieth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

So today we have a Pharisee who is a scholar of the law engaging Jesus in conversation.  I think it’s important for us to know that this scholar wasn’t really interested in Jesus’ point of view, he didn’t expect to learn anything from Jesus.  Instead he was looking for Jesus to say something incongruent with their way of thinking so that they could brand him as a heretic and get rid of him.  That’s what the Pharisees did in those days.

But Jesus knows that.  So what he gives this scholar, and all those who were listening in, was a very fair summary of the law and the prophets: love God and neighbor.  And he does it in a way that is familiar to them.  He quotes one of their most famous rules of life: “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.”  Every Jew memorized that as the greatest and first commandment, so his addition of loving neighbor wasn’t going that far beyond what they had been taught.  And now they have nothing to say to him.

But what is important here is that these words are for us.  All of our life needs to be centered around love.  If love is what summed up the law and the prophets, it is certainly what sums up the Gospel.  We too are called to love God who loved us first and loves us best.  We too are called to put that love into action by loving others, every person we come in contact with.  Some are easy to love, others not so much.  But we are called to love them anyway.

How will we love others today?

The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Today’s readings

The tradition of the Assumption of Mary dates back to the very earliest days of the Church, all the way back to the days of the apostles. It was known that Mary had “fallen asleep” and that there is a “Tomb of Mary” close to Mount Zion, where the early Christian community had lived. The Council of Chalcedon in 451 tells us that, after Mary’s death, the apostles opened the tomb, finding it empty, and concluded that she had been taken bodily into heaven. The tradition was spoken about by the various fathers of the Church, and in the eighth century, St. John Damascene wrote, “Although the body was duly buried, it did not remain in the state of death, neither was it dissolved by decay . . . . You were transferred to your heavenly home, O Lady, Queen and Mother of God in truth.” The current celebration of Mary’s Assumption has taken place since 1950, when Pope Pius XII proclaimed the dogma of the Assumption of Mary in his encyclical, Munificentissimus Deus, saying: “The Immaculate Mother of God, the ever-virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heaven.”

And so we have gathered here this morning to celebrate the life of Mary, Mother of God, the first of the disciples of Jesus her son.  And there is plenty to celebrate in her life.  We who would be Jesus’ disciples too, can learn much from the way she lived her discipleship.  We can see in her life, I think, at least three qualities of discipleship.  The first is joy.  She is one who not only allowed something incredibly unbelievable to be done in her, but allowed it with great joy. That she did this with joy tells us something very important about who she was. Teilhard de Chardin wrote, “Joy is the most infallible sign of the presence of God.” Those who live with joy, true joy, do so because God is at work in them and God is at work through them. Mary knew this from the moment the angel came to her.

The second quality we see in Mary’s prayer is humility. She knew this wasn’t about her; this was about what God was doing in her and through her. It wasn’t she that did great things, no, “the Almighty has done great things for me,” she tells us, “and holy is his Name!”  The third quality is faith: Mary’s simple faith allowed her to say “yes” to God’s will and made possible the salvation of the world.  Because of that faith, she had a bond with our Savior beyond anything we could ever hope for.  Indeed without Mary’s fiat, her great leap of faith, the salvation of humanity may have gone quite poorly.

What is important for us to see in this feast, though, is that it proclaims with all the joy the Church can muster that what happened to Mary can and will happen for us who believe. We too have the promise of eternal life in heaven, where death and sin and pain will no longer have power over us. Because Christ caught his Blessed Mother back up into his life in heaven, we know that we too can be caught up with his life in heaven. On that great day, death, the last enemy, will be completely destroyed, as St. Paul tells us today.

Mary’s life wasn’t always easy, but Mary’s life was redeemed. And that is good news for us who have difficult lives or find it hard to live our faith. Because there are those among us too who have unplanned pregnancies. There are those among us whose children go in directions that put them in danger. There are those among us who have to watch a child die. But because Mary suffered these sorrows too, and yet was exalted, we can hope for the day when that which she was given and which we have been promised will surely be ours.

Mary’s life was a prophecy for us.  Like Mary, we are called to a specific vocation to do God’s work in the world.  We too are called to make sacrifices so that God’s work can be accomplished in us and through us.  We too can be joyful because God is at work in us.  We too are called to humility that lets God’s love for humanity shine through our lives.  We too are called to lives of faith that translate into action on behalf of others, a faith that leads God’s people to salvation.  And we too, one day, will share in the glory that Mary has already received in the kingdom of God.

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

Twentieth Sunday of Ordinary Time [A]

Today’s readings

Today’s readings are challenging ones for us.  Certainly we hear a challenge to be welcoming: God’s house is a house of prayer for all peoples, Isaiah tells us.  But I don’t think these readings are just a spot check of our desire to be a welcoming community.  Instead, I think the readings go a little deeper.  And I refer especially to the Gospel.  In that story, it wasn’t really all about whether or not Jesus was welcoming; it was about the Canaanite woman’s faith.  This is what I think Jesus wants us to reflect on in today’s Liturgy of the Word.

As we have been reading from Matthew’s Gospel this year, we have seen various levels of faith: “lacking faith” as seen in the Jewish community, most particularly in the Pharisees and Sadducees, “little faith” as seen in the disciples, and particularly in the Twelve, and “great faith” as seen in surprising places, like in the Canaanite woman today. We’re all on different places in our faith life, and I think today’s Scriptures give us time for a quick summer check-up to see where we are in that spectrum.

Throughout our Gospel readings this past year, Jesus has run up against the religious leaders and even some of the Jewish people, those he was sent to save first, and found them seriously lacking in faith.  They have heard him preach and seen his mighty deeds just like everyone else, but could not square it with what they believed, so they refused to believe in him.  They thought he words were scandalous and his wondrous deeds were black magic.  It’s almost as if they wouldn’t recognize a miracle if one came up and bit them in the … behind.

We have also seen Peter’s faith on display.  He is kind of the spokesman for the rest of the disciples, often putting into words what they may have been too chicken to express.  In last weekend’s Gospel, Peter was able to walk on the water when he had his eyes fixed on Jesus, but began to sink when he looked at the storm-tossed waves. Jesus pulled him out of the waves, saying “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?”  The disciples are those men of little faith, who were with him all the time, but often missing the point.  And Jesus often seems to be frustrated with their little faith and slow understanding.

In today’s Gospel, though, we have “great faith” and from a surprising source.  The woman is a Canaanite, a member of the race of people who lived in the Promised Land until God gave it over to the Jews.  She is an outsider, who risked her life to cross into enemy territory.  She knows enough to give her daughter’s situation to Jesus.  And she is persistent enough to keep asking even though she is initially rebuffed.  The disciples find her so irritating, they want Jesus to send her away.  But he recognizes in her what he has been thirsting to find all along: great faith.  And with that great faith, she was able to return to her daughter, freed from the demon, healed from the inside out.

So we have been able to see in Matthew’s Gospel over these past months, the range of faith.  From the lack of faith of the Jews and religious leaders of the time, to the little, almost fledgling faith of the disciples, to the surprisingly great faith of the Canaanite woman.  This begs the question in us, I think, of where we are in the journey of faith.  Have we yet to begin, or worse, have we chosen not to begin?  Do we hope our mere physical presence at Mass will be good enough?  Do we hear the word of God but refuse to let it sink in, to travel from our brain into our hearts?  Have we heard the Gospel but been very lax about living it?  Do we come to Mass only to leave this holy place and become a very different person in the parking lot, or in our homes, businesses and schools in the week ahead?  Do we find ourselves as lacking in faith as the Pharisees and Sadducees?

Or are we tentative in our faith?  Are we among those who want to believe, but are afraid to take a leap of faith, afraid to walk on that choppy water?  Are we discouraged by what seems to be a lack of response to our prayers?  Are we angry with God because of something that happened – or didn’t happen – in the past?  Do we think it’s okay to miss Mass because we have other things to do?  Have we not gone to confession in a long time because we think our sins are too big, or because we think we don’t really sin that much?  Are we hesitant to pray about something because we think it’s too big for God to handle, or too little to bother him about?  Have we been looking for excuses to avoid something we know is God’s call in our life?  Have we been of “little faith?”

Maybe we have found ourselves in one or the other of those places in the faith journey at different points in our lives.  I know I have.  But maybe too – I hope – we have found ourselves on more solid faithful ground.  Maybe we have taken a leap of faith and found ourselves blessed beyond our wildest imaginings.  Maybe we have answered God’s call and found grace to do the things we never thought we could.  Maybe we have given a problem or situation over to God and found out that in God’s time, healing came in unexpected ways.  Maybe we have been surprised by our faith from time to time and heard God say, “Great is your faith!”

Like I said, I think many of us are in all of these places at different times of our lives.  And that’s okay as long as we make a little progress all the time, as long as we eventually find our faith taking us places we never thought we would go.  The life of faith is full of surprises, most of them good, some of them challenging or possibly even disheartening.  But when we approach it all in faith, all of it will work out for good in God’s own time.  When we give our lives to God, when we take the leap we know God is calling us to take, when we get out of our boat, we might just find ourselves walking on water, or feeding thousands, blessing others and sometimes saying just the thing someone else needs to hear.  All of this is God working through us, of course, all of it is because we have trusted God in some significant way.  In those moments, may we hear what Jesus said to the Canaanite woman: “Great is your faith!”

Saint Dominic, Priest

Today’s readings

On a journey through France with his bishop, St. Dominic came across the Albigensian heresy. The Albigensians believed in just two principles in life: good and evil. For them, anything material was evil, and so they denied the Incarnation and the sacraments. On the same principle they abstained from procreation and took a minimum of food and drink. This seems like it would be heroically ascetical, but it denied that God’s creation was good, a fundamental principle for us Catholics.

St. Dominic sensed the need for the Church to combat this heresy, and was commissioned to be part of the preaching crusade against it. He saw immediately why the preaching was not succeeding: the ordinary people admired and followed the ascetical heroes of the Albigensians. Understandably, they were not impressed by the Catholic preachers who traveled with horse and retinues, stayed at the best inns and had servants. Dominic therefore, with three Cistercians, began itinerant preaching according to the gospel ideal.

One of the ancient histories of the Dominican order says of him, “Two or three times he was chosen bishop, but he always refused, preferring to live with his brothers in poverty. Throughout his life, he preserved the honour of his virginity. He desired to be scourged and cut to pieces, and so die for the faith of Christ. Of him Pope Gregory IX declared: ‘I knew him as a steadfast follower of the apostolic way of life. There is no doubt that he is in heaven, sharing in the glory of the apostles themselves.’” (Office of Readings)

Dominic continued his preaching work for 10 years, being successful with the ordinary people but not with the leaders. Eventually, he founded his own religious order, the Order of Preachers, or Dominicans, that was dedicated to preaching the Gospel to ordinary people.

We too are called to preach to every person. We do that not just in words, but mainly by the way we live. When people see our faith at work in our actions, they may well be moved by our example to draw near to God who longs to draw near to them. As we approach the Eucharist today, may we all turn to God for the words to speak and the actions to do, that all the world may come to know that our God is merciful and the source of all grace.

The Nineteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time [A]

Todays’ readings

I think that today’s readings are readings that call us to hope.  The hope that we have is the presence of our God, even when things are falling apart – even when the wind and the rain and the earthquakes and fire threaten us, God is there.  I thought of that a lot this week.  A former parishioner’s house burned down after it was struck by lightening in one of the freakish storms we’ve been having.  A parishioner’s brother died saving a young man from drowning.  I visited one of my own relatives in the hospital today, and she was so agitated, so afraid she might die.  Even the most faithful among us has to ask, where is God in all this?

I think Elijah can relate to us when we’re feeling this way.  The back story on our first reading is that Elijah has just come from soundly defeating all of the pagan “prophets” of Baal, which was very embarrassing to King Ahab and especially to Queen Jezebel, who vowed to take Elijah’s life in retaliation.  So he has been hiding out in a cave, not for protection from inclement weather, but for protection from those who sought his life.  In the midst of this, God asks Elijah why he is here.  Elijah explains that the people of Israel have been unfaithful and have turned away from God, not listening to Elijah’s preaching, and they have put all the other legitimate prophets to death.  Elijah alone is left.

So God says that he will be “passing by” which in biblical language means that God will be doing a “God thing.”  God will be revealing his presence.  And so we have the story: there is a mighty wind, an earthquake and even fire.  But Elijah only recognizes the Lord’s presence in the tiny whispering sound.  The text says that the Lord was not in the wind, the earthquake or the fire.  I’m not sure I agree with that.  I do think that God is with us even in calamity, but wherever we experience his presence is where he is for us.  For Elijah, he needed the peace of the tiny whisper.  But we might need reassurance in the earthquake or the fire.

Our gospel reading today I think proves that God is where we need him.  Jesus has just fed the multitudes, as you may remember from last week’s gospel.  After that, he takes some time alone to pray, and is so filled with the Spirit that he actually walks on water.  Again, here is Jesus “passing by” the disciples on the boat.  He reassures them that it is him, and Peter, the impetuous one, immediately asks if he can come out and walk on the water too.  Jesus says, “come.”

For a while, he does okay. He’s making progress, walking toward Jesus. But then he stops looking at Jesus and starts looking at the storm: “But when he saw how strong the wind was he became frightened; and, beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’” Do you see that? While he’s looking at Jesus, he is able to walk toward him, but as soon as he takes his eyes off Jesus in favor of looking at the storm, he sinks. “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” Jesus asks him, pulling Peter out of the water.

So we might be tempted to criticize Peter for his lack of faith.  But we should remember that he, at least, had enough faith to get out of the boat.  The other eleven did not.  He got out of the boat because that’s where Jesus was – out there on the water.  Was Jesus present for him when the wind and the waves threatened to take his life?  Absolutely.  God is present for us when we are in the middle of the storm.

Let’s try a little prayer experiment.  I’m going to ask you to close your eyes, but you have to promise not to fall asleep!  I want you to think about a crisis you’ve been in recently, or even one that’s still going on.  It might be little or big, but bring that to mind.  That crisis is the waves in the story.  Now you get to be Peter.  You’re on the boat, that safe refuge that is leading you to the place that Jesus has in mind for you.  Only on the voyage, your crisis begins a storm that tosses you around so badly that you can’t even see your destination anymore, and you fear for your life.  But you see Jesus on the water.

You call out to him and he calls back for you to come to him.  You think about it for a minute, but you realize you have to give it a shot.  So you get out of the boat, that safe refuge that gives you some comfort even in the storm, and you start to walk toward Jesus across the stormy sea.  And you do okay for a while, but then you wonder if your prayers will ever be answered, or if there is any hope for your situation at all.  You feel the wind pushing at you and notice that the waves of your crisis are a lot uglier than you thought they were.  And you begin to sink into them, despairing that there is no hope for your situation.  And Jesus reaches out his hand to you, pulling you up out of the stormy sea.  The storm is still raging, but with Jesus’ help, you get back into the boat, and the waves calm down, and you continue the journey to the place where Jesus wants you to be, having made just a little bit of progress, confident that he is with you even in the storm.

Whether we are experiencing wind, waves, earthquakes or fire, we can be confident that our Lord is with us.  We might still have to experience all those things, but we can go through them with hope that comes from the presence of our God, who is with us in our darkest times, whispering to us, or calling out to us from the water.