Monday of the Twenty-second Week of Ordinary Time 

Today Jesus tussles not with the scribes and Pharisees as he often does, but instead with the people of his own home town. They are amazed at his words and speak highly of him, right up until the time when he begins to challenge them. Then they have no more use for him. They become offended that he is making himself out to be better than they are, that he is making himself out to be God.

God uses all kinds of people to make his message known. They may be strangers, but they might be people we know very well. We disciples today need to ask ourselves, who are those prophets among us and what message are they bringing us? God may well be using someone in our workplaces or homes or schools or wherever we find ourselves this day to speak a message to us. The question is, will we be open to hear it?

The Twenty-second Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

So often, when someone thanks us for something, we might say, “It’s the least I could do.” As if it were some kind of badge of achievement to do the least thing possible. I think it’s human nature to try to do as little as possible, without being perceived as lazy or something. Sometimes we want to do as little as possible, and have others feeling good about it.

Well, I think it’s that kind of attitude that is behind today’s Liturgy of the Word. Certain things are expected of believers, and over the course of history, people have tried to get away with doing as few of those things as they absolutely need to do. The first reading sets the stage: Moses places the law before the people and tells them that they are a great nation, because they have a God so close to them, and who loves them enough to give them the whole law that they have received.

Now the whole law is more than we might think. Perhaps when we hear that, we think of the Ten Commandments, to which we also are bound in our discipleship. But for the Jewish community back then, there were a total of over six hundred laws and precepts that made up the law. Because of that, there was constant discussion over which of the laws was most important, and often people would be concerned more about a tiny little precept than about the whole big picture that God was trying to accomplish.

This is the attitude Jesus came to address with the Gospel. He wanted the people to get it right. He wanted them to have concern for people more than for semantics in the law. He wanted them to love as God loves, because if you do that, you’ll be keeping the law anyway. But people didn’t always accept that teaching. If they did, Jesus wouldn’t have had to go to the Cross, and there would have been no need to preach the Gospel.

So in today’s Gospel reading, Jesus makes a major correction. There was a law of purifying vessels before festivals, which is not unlike the way the priest washes his hands before the Eucharistic Prayer or the way that the vessels for Mass are purified after Communion. But somewhere along the way, the precept got mangled, and everyone was bound to scrupulously wash themselves and every vessel they owned before a feast. And Jesus chastises them for having more concern about a human tradition than about the real intent of the law.

The real intent of the law was obviously something way more important, way more personal. The real intent of that purification was the purification of our hearts. Jesus gives a rather horrifying list of sins at the end of the Gospel reading and notes that these are the things that defile; not some dirt on the outside of a cup or hands that had not been scrupulously cleaned. If we want to really purify ourselves for the festival, which is to say the Eucharist, then we have to be cleansed of our sins. That’s why we have the Sacrament of Penance, right?

James, in the second reading, picks up on the theme. If we really want to be thought to be wise in regard to keeping the law, then we have to keep ourselves unstained by the world, which would be the same thing as Jesus was saying, but also to care for those in need, with which Jesus would certainly not disagree!

The thing is, we are hearers of the Word. We have experienced the love of our Lord in so many ways. Everything that we have is a gift to us. We have to be wise in regard to all that, and to be certain that we keep the whole of the law. Not just those little minutiae, but the very spirit of the law, the law of love which binds all disciples and all people of good will.

Because, as the Psalmist says today, it is they who do justice who will live in the presence of the Lord. And that’s just where we all want to be.

Saint Augustine, Bishop and Doctor of the Church

Today’s readings
(Mass for the school children.)

“You made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”

This is one of the most famous lines from Saint Augustine’s writings. We celebrate his feast day today, and it is somewhat of a miracle that we celebrate his feast at all. He was the son of a Christian woman and a man who was a pagan, and a crabby pagan at that! His mother, Saint Monica, was persistent in prayer, and eventually her husband was converted to Christianity.

But Augustine, a young man now, had not converted. He lived a rather immoral life, and had come to follow a particular heresy known as Manicheanism, which took ideas from all kinds of different religions and put them all together. He was a very smart man, and became a professor in Milan, Italy. His mother followed him there from where they lived in Africa, and continued to pray for him.

Eventually Augustine came to know the man who would become known as Saint Ambrose, who was the bishop of Milan at the time. He learned a lot from Saint Ambrose, and was very taken by the way that he preached. Eventually through his preaching and Saint Monica’s prayers, Augustine was converted and was baptized at the Easter Vigil.

After that, Augustine and his mother returned to Africa, where he lived a quiet life for about three years. Then he heard the bishop of that area, Valerian, talk about the priest shortage, and the people of the area said “Let Augustine be our priest!” So he became a priest, and eventually became the bishop when Valerian died.

So when Augustine wrote that “our hearts are restless until they rest in you,” he knew what he was talking about. His life was a crazy mess until Saint Monica’s prayers were answered and he was baptized. Then the true purpose of Saint Augustine’s life was revealed, and he followed God’s call. God will call all of us to do something at some point in our life. It might take a while to figure out what that call is, but once we know, we absolutely will never be happy until we follow it.

Today, Jesus tells the story about the wise virgins who were ready for the wedding feast, and the unwise virgins who didn’t come prepared. This is a story that is really about looking to God for our happiness. If we are ready and we wait for the Lord to lead us in our lives, we will be able to come in and feast with him in the life to come. Just like Saint Augustine, if we calm ourselves down and hear the voice of the Lord calling us, we can know a peace and happiness that nothing else in life can ever give us.

“You made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”

Saint Monica

Today’s readings

The kind of persistent prayer for those who were important to Saint Paul, as he speaks about in today’s first reading from his second letter to the Thessalonians, was something that Saint Monica practiced every day of her life. This was a woman in love with God and the Church, and her family, although the latter was pretty difficult for her. But her persistent prayer won them for Christ and the Church.

Although she was a Christian, her parents gave her in marriage to a pagan, Patricius, who lived in her hometown of Tagaste in North Africa. Patricius had some redeeming features, but he had a violent temper. Monica also had to bear with a cantankerous mother-in-law who lived in her home. Patricius criticized his wife because of her charity and piety, but always respected her. Monica’s prayers and example finally won her husband and mother-in-law to Christianity. Her husband died in 371, one year after having been baptized.

Monica’s oldest son was Augustine. At the time of his father’s death, Augustine was 17 and a rhetoric student in Carthage. Monica was distressed to learn that her son had accepted the Manichean heresy and was living an immoral life. For a while, she refused to let him eat or sleep in her house. Then one night she had a vision that assured her Augustine would return to the faith. From that time on she stayed close to her son, praying and fasting for him. In fact, she often stayed much closer than Augustine would have liked!

Augustine, followed by his mother, eventually traveled to Rome and then Milan, where he came under the influence of the bishop, St. Ambrose, who also became Monica’s spiritual director. There Monica became a leader of the devout women in Milan as she had been in Tagaste.

She continued her prayers for Augustine during his years of instruction. At Easter, in the year 387, St. Ambrose baptized Augustine and several of his friends. Soon after, his party left for Africa. Although no one else was aware of it, Monica knew her life was near the end. She told Augustine, “Son, nothing in this world now affords me delight. I do not know what there is now left for me to do or why I am still here, all my hopes in this world being now fulfilled.” She became ill shortly after and suffered severely for nine days before her death.

Monica was a woman who accomplished much by her persistent prayer. She may well be a patron for all parents who have prayed much for the conversion of their children. It might be well for us today to ask for a portion of her spirit of prayer that we might accomplish God’s glory in our own time and place.

Saint Bartholomew, Apostle

Today’s readings

What tradition tells us about St. Bartholomew is that he is often identified with Nathanael in the Gospel.  That explains why Nathanael is prominent in the Gospel reading for today.  Nathanael – or Bartholomew, take your pick – is picked out of the crowd by Jesus.  Nathanael is surprised at what Jesus says about him: “Here is a true child of Israel.  There is no duplicity in him.”  We should recall that Jesus considered it his primary mission to seek out the lost children of Israel, so seeing Nathanael as a “true child of Israel” with “no duplicity in him” means that Jesus considered Nathanael a role model for his people.  He was one whose faith reached beyond mere observance of the Law or the Torah, and extended into the realm of living the Gospel.

That’s where we are all led, I think.  When it comes down to it, there is nothing more important than living the Gospel, and every one of us is called to do it.  If our spiritual life is not our primary concern, then we have nothing to look forward to.  But the good news is that, by the intercession and example and preaching of the Apostles and especially Bartholomew today, we have  hope of eternal life.

The Twenty-first Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

In every homily there is, or should be, a “so what” moment. That’s the moment, very often toward the end of the preaching, where the Word that was preached is related to the people who heard it. I try to make every homily answer the question, “So what?” in some way. Maybe it’s a question that the hearers need to answer, or a challenge to the way we live, or a consolation in a difficult time. We believe that the Word of the Lord is living and active, and so it will always answer the question, “So what?” in some way.

Over the past five weeks now, we have been hearing an extended homily of sorts in the Gospel readings. Our Gospels have all been from John chapter six, which is commonly called the “Bread of Life Discourse.” As I’ve mentioned before, John’s Gospel doesn’t have a Last Supper scene where Jesus gives the Eucharist to the Apostles. Instead, John’s Gospel has this discourse, in which Jesus gives the Eucharist to all the people.

It all began, five weeks ago, with Jesus taking five loaves and a couple of fish, and with them feeding thousands of people, and leaving twelve baskets of leftovers. That was quite a miracle! Since then, the people naturally stuck with Jesus, wanting to see more, wanting more bread. But Jesus has been taking the opportunity to preach to them about the Bread of Life. Over the past weeks, he has made it clear that his gift of the Bread of Life was better than the manna Moses gave their ancestors. He made it clear that in both cases it was actually God the Father who gave the people what they needed. He made it clear that he – Jesus – is the way to the Father, that those who eat his Flesh and drink his Blood will have eternal life.

And now it all comes down to the “so what?” piece. Many of the people find the whole image of eating someone’s flesh and blood disgusting, and so they walk away. Others take offense at Jesus telling them that this is the only way they can have eternal life; they take offense that he is telling them that he is God, and so they walk away. So then he turns to the disciples and says, “Will you also leave?” Peter speaks for them and makes a beautiful profession of faith: “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

Jesus will ask every single person who wants to follow him the same question at some time: “Will you also leave?” I remember in my young adulthood, before I went to seminary, having a crisis in my own faith. I had been attending Willow Creek – the big megachurch up in Barrington – with my friends. The music was nice and the sermons sounded good. But along the way my pastor called me in and had a come to Jesus with me. I remember he told me, “I know you would never be able to go to the chapel and stand in front of the Tabernacle and say that Jesus wasn’t there.” I took a while to think about that, and one night when I went to Willow Creek they were having their monthly communion. They passed around bread and grape juice and I realized that Father Mike was right: Jesus was in the Tabernacle, not there at Willow Creek, and that I would never be able to live without it.

We all are offered the gift of the Bread of Life. Jesus offers us his true Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity, in the Holy Eucharist so that we might eat of it and come at last one day to Eternal Life. There is absolutely no other way to get there. And yet, we could all think of someone, or several someones, that should be here today. They may have been away for a long time. We know that they are missing out on the Gift beyond all gifts, that they are not getting the Food that strengthens us for what this life throws at us, and gives us the ability to come to eternal life one day.

Maybe they don’t care, or can’t be bothered, or love their sins, or have soccer practice or dance class or sleep in time, or whatever. Maybe they don’t really believe in the Eucharist. Like those marginal disciples in the Gospel reading today, they may have decided it was all just too hard, too much to take, and have returned to their former way of life. But for us who remain, Jesus looks at us, deep into our eyes and our souls, and says to us: “So what? What about you? Will you also leave?”

We’ll have to live with the answer to that question for a very, very long time.

Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, abbot and doctor of the Church

Learning to follow the path of perfection is the most important goal of the spiritual life. How do we get our relationship with God right so that we can live with him forever in heaven? That was certainly the goal of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, whose feast we celebrate today.

In the year 1111, at the age of 20, Bernard left his home to join the monastic community of Citeaux. His five brothers, two uncles and around 30 of his friends followed him into the monastery. Within four years a that monastic community, which had been dying, had recovered enough vitality to establish a new house in the nearby valley of Wormwoods, with Bernard as abbot. The zealous young man was quite demanding, particularly on himself. A minor health problem, though, taught him to be more patient and understanding. The valley was soon renamed Clairvaux, the valley of light.

Bernard’s strong support of the Roman See was well known; in fact it was Bernard who intervened in a full-blown schism and settled it in favor of the Roman pontiff against the antipope. The Holy See then prevailed on Bernard to preach the Second Crusade throughout Europe. His eloquence was so overwhelming that a great army was assembled and the success of the crusade seemed assured. The ideals of the men and their leaders, however, were not as pure as those of Abbot Bernard, and the project ended as a complete military and moral disaster. Bernard felt responsible in some way for the degenerative effects of the crusade. This heavy burden possibly hastened his death, which came on August 20, 1153.

In striving for perfection throughout his life, Bernard readied himself for the wedding feast that Jesus spoke of in today’s Gospel reading. We too are called to clean up the garments of our lives so that we can come to the feast. Reflecting on the life of the saints, like Saint Bernard, can help us to follow that rather demanding path. One day, we hope that our striving for perfection will lead us to eternal life, the goal of all our lives.