Monday of the Twelfth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Pride is, perhaps, the most insidious of the sins with which we have to deal.  And I say “we” because yes, we all have to deal with it at some level at some point in our lives.  Pride keeps us from seeing that we’re headed down the wrong path.  Pride also keeps us from asking for help, or even from accepting help, when we’re in trouble.  Pride, as the saying goes, goes before the fall, and it can land us in some serious difficulty if we don’t work hard to eradicate it from our lives.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus clearly wanted to make sure his disciples were not bogged down with pride.  Perhaps he was trying to keep them from following the behavior of the Pharisees, or maybe he even saw traces of pride at work in them as a group.  Whatever the case, he warns them clearly that pride has no place in the life of the disciple.

Now, to be clear, he is not telling them that they can never pass judgment on anyone.  Judging is a part of law and order, without which no society can survive.  Also, he knows full well that rightly-disposed believers can and should stop others from heading down an erroneous or dangerous path.  What he is saying, though, is that the rod we use to measure the other is the same measure that will be used on us, so it would be well to make sure that our motives are pure in all cases.

It’s a chilling prediction, I think.  I shudder to think of the measure I use on others being used to measure me.  But if I measure with love and charity and genuine concern, I know that I can accept that same measure on myself.  It’s a good thing that’s the kind of measure God wants to use on all of us.  And he will, if we lay down our pride.

Solemnity of the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist

Today’s readings

Today we celebrate a feast that is a bit unusual for us.  First of all, it’s a saint’s feast day, and saints’ days don’t usually take precedence over a Sunday celebration.  Secondly, whenever we do 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 and his day at all on this Sunday 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 Nativities – 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.  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 St. 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.  I looked mine up this week and found that Patrick means “nobleman,” so if you feel like bowing when you see me, it seems like that would be appropriate!  But far more significant are the names of the prophets we encounter in today’s Liturgy of the Word.  Isaiah means “Yahweh 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.

The point is, these men were created for their prophetic calling.  That’s true for us too.  All of us who have been baptized have a prophetic calling that came before we were ever born.  God created us for something special.  He created us to be with him, he created us to follow him, he created us to draw other people to him.  This means that, according to our abilities, our vocation and station in life, we were meant to serve God in some way that God might be glorified and that others may come to know him.

During these couple of weeks, we have been asked to observe a fortnight of religious freedom.  As our nation’s bishops point out, religious freedom is one of our first and most cherished freedoms.  It was largely in pursuit of religious freedom that our nation’s forefathers came to this great land, and in defense of that freedom that they fought and died.  But now, many issues have put that freedom in danger.  The so-called HHS mandate is kind of the banner issue on the religious freedom front.  The HHS mandate requires all employers to pay for birth control regardless of whether it is against their moral teachings, as it is for us.

But this is just the tip of the iceberg.  Another sad assault on religious freedom has been the requirement of any adoption placement agency to place children for adoption with people in same-sex unions.  Since our religion forbids this practice, we have been unable to comply, and so we have been pushed out of the adoption process, something that has been an extension of our acts of charity since this country began.

The essence of the issue is that freedom of religion is now being defined in a very narrow way, which amounts to freedom of worship.  One is free to worship in any way one chooses, but must obey the law in all other things.  Let’s bracket for the moment the obvious objection that such a narrow definition was never intended by our founding fathers.  More important is that, for us, worship is not something we can separate from our daily living.  When we are sent out to “go in peace, glorifying the Lord by your life,” we are just beginning to worship.  What we do in our daily life is our real worship, not just the hour we’re here on Sunday.

So our worship of God may indeed call us to speak against issues of the day, or to take in an adoptive or foster child to share God’s love, or any number of charitable acts, and our Church should have the freedom to pursue those according to our moral teachings.  That’s the essence of religious freedom, and that is what we are seeking to defend.  The prophetic call in all of us absolutely must speak up for what we believe as a Church and preach the Gospel by the way that we live our lives.

We live in a society that is all about protecting and promoting ourselves.  Saint John the Baptist would have us promote Jesus instead.  That’s what he was about.  As it was for him, so it is for us: we must decrease, Jesus must increase.

Saint Barnabas, Apostle

Today’s readings

“Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied.”

Barnabas, a Jew of Cyprus, comes as close as anyone outside the Twelve to being a full-fledged apostle.  He was closely associated with St. Paul (he introduced Paul to Peter and the other apostles) and served as a kind of mediator between Paul, formerly a persecutor of Christians, and the still suspicious Jewish Christians.

When a Christian community developed at Antioch, Barnabas was sent as the official representative of the Church of Jerusalem to incorporate them into the fold.  He and Paul taught in Antioch for a year, after which they took relief contributions to Jerusalem.

We see in today’s first reading that Paul and Barnabas had become accepted in the community as charismatic leaders who led many to convert to Christianity.  The Holy Spirit set them apart for Apostolic work and blessed their efforts with great success.

Above all, these men hungered and thirsted for righteousness, a righteousness not based on the law or any merely human precept, but instead on a right relationship with God.  This is a righteousness that could never be disputed and the relationship could never be broken.  Just as they led many people then to that kind of relationship with God, so they call us to follow that same kind of right relationship today.

As we celebrate the Eucharist today, we might follow their call to righteousness by examining our lives in light of the Beatitudes.  How willing are we to enter into poverty of spirit, work for peace and justice and pursue righteousness?  Blessed are we who follow the example of St. Barnabas and blessed are we who benefit from his intercession.

Monday of the Ninth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

A man planted a vineyard, put a hedge around it,
dug a wine press, and built a tower.
Then he leased it to tenant farmers and left on a journey.

Today’s Gospel reading is one of those parables that we hear often, but I think we can be puzzled by it and so just put it aside, spiritually speaking.  One of the details that I often miss is this little introduction: the surprising part is the action and mayhem that takes place in the body of the parable, so this detail is hardly even noticed.

But look what it gives us.  A man plants a vineyard.  The “man” of course is God, who has planted a vineyard for us to grow in and thrive and work.  We are the “tenant farmers” to whom he leases the vineyard.  With the vineyard, he puts a hedge around it, digs a wine press and builds a tower.  Everything we need for the work of the vineyard to be accomplished is given to us.  The question before us is how industrious will we be, what will we accomplish to give God glory?

We could be those who ignore the messengers and not give God his due.  Or we could even go so far as to kill the heir, as the religious leaders of Jesus’ time certainly did.  But we disciples aren’t like that, instead, we need to tend to the hedge, press the grapes and bring the harvest to the tower for God’s glory.

The Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity

Today’s readings

I don’t see many movies, but one that I saw recently and liked very much was “The Avengers.”  One of my favorite theological moments in this film is when the Black Widow character is describing Thor and his dark-side brother Loki to Captain America and she says, “They’re like gods.”  Captain America won’t have any of that and says, “There’s only one God, ma’am, and I’m pretty sure he doesn’t dress like that!”  Indeed, God doesn’t dress like Thor or Loki or any superhero, because of course, he dwarfs all of them.  But we disciples do know that God what God looks like because we have been privileged to see him time and time again.  I’ll come back to that in a minute.

First, I want to stress that I don’t think any of us is going to leave this holy place understanding the Trinity in all God’s divine completeness today.  Or if we do, it’s certainly not going to be because of my inadequate words, but rather the doing of the Holy Spirit who is the One who helps us to enter into the mystery of God.  A story about Saint Augustine illustrates the mystery: The story goes that Saint Augustine was walking along the beach, trying to figure out the nature of the Holy Trinity.  As he walked along, he came across a little boy who had dug a hole in the sand right next to the shore.  With his little hands he was carrying water from the ocean and was dumping it in the little hole.  St. Augustine asked, “What are you doing, my child?”  The child replied, “I want to put all of the water of the ocean into this hole.”  So St. Augustine asked him, “But is it possible for all of the water of this great ocean to be contained in that little hole you’re digging ?” And the child asked him in return, “If the water of the ocean cannot be contained in this little hole, then how can the Infinite Trinitarian God be contained in your mind?”   With that the child disappeared.

Now, having said that, I do still think we can know something about God.  Indeed coming to know God and to appreciate the mystery that is God is one of the great projects of our lives.  So many of the Saints have pondered the meaning of the Most Holy Trinity.  Saint Patrick attempted to describe the Trinity by using the shamrock as an icon.  The three leaves represented the three Divine Persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, each separate and distinct, but each part of each other on the same shamrock.

Saint Augustine gets another mention today in his description of the Holy Trinity.  He speaks of the Father as the lover and the Son as the beloved and the love between them – a love so complete, so perfect that it can only be embodied in a Divine Person – as the Holy Spirit.  And this, I think, is where we get an icon of the Blessed Trinity.  We know very well this union of love when we look around at the relationships that we have that work.

Strong families of a mother, a father and children mirror God’s love in their love and nurturing of one another.  A parish can be an icon of God’s love when we come together and reach out to others, healing the broken, feeding the hungry and proclaiming the Word.  Even a business can be an icon of this love when it treats its employees with respect and dignity, fosters family life, is socially responsible, and conducts its affairs with honesty and integrity.  When we look around and see real love in action, we get to have a little glimpse of God, I think.

Some days God will look like the Father: a loving parent who corrects our faults, nurtures our growth, and tends to our woundedness.  Some days God will look like the Son: a brother who walks with us and is the path to our salvation.  Some days God will look like the Holy Spirit: reminding us that this body of ours is not as good as it gets, helping us to long for spiritual perfection, leading us to repentance and to seek reconciliation with God and others, and inspiring us to do the really good things that we’re not capable of all on our own.

I think God comes to us as Trinity because one face of God is not sufficient to be God for us creatures who are constantly changing, and constantly struggling.  One day we need the Father, tomorrow we may need the Son and down the road the Holy Spirit.  The point is that we know what God looks like and whatever we need, God is there.  Always was, always will be.  That’s the real joy of this mystery of the Most Holy Trinity.

Because we have seen God, or as Captain America would say, we know how he dresses, we also know that the goal of all our lives is to return to him one day.  God created us for heaven, God accomplished our redemption to make it possible for us to go there, and God continually inspires us so that every day we would yearn for our heavenly inheritance more and more.  God gives us our families, our communities, and our parish because God himself is, in a way, a community.  And that being the case, God can only be truly experienced when we enter into community.  And so as Saint Benedict once wrote, may God bring us all together to life everlasting!