The Twenty-sixth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

When we think about prophets and prophecy, I think our minds always take us to ancient days. All the prophets we can think of lived many centuries ago: Moses, Elijah, Jeremiah, Amos and all the rest, right up to John the Baptist who was the last of the prophets of old and the beginning of the prophecy of the new kingdom. All of it culminating in the person of Jesus Christ, whose prophecy was the voice of God himself. But I think our readings today call us to look at prophecy in a new light, and to be open to the fact that there are many more prophets than we can think of right away, prophets that are a bit more contemporary than Moses and Elijah and all the others.

For Moses, prophecy was a huge task. He bore the responsibility of bringing God’s message of salvation to a people who had become used to living without it. He was to inaugurate the covenant between God and a people who had largely forgotten about God, or certainly thought God had forgotten about them. His prophetic burden was great, but God offered to take some of his prophetic spirit and bestow it on the seventy elders. So seventy were chosen, a list was drawn up, and a ceremony was prepared.

Two of their number – Eldad and Medad – were missing from the group during the ceremony, but the spirit was given to them anyway. But this had Joshua all bent out of shape. How could they be prophesying when they had not taken part in the ritual? So he complains about it to Moses, who clearly does not share his concern. He accuses Joshua of jealousy and says to him, “Would that all the people of the LORD were prophets! Would that the LORD might bestow his spirit on them all!”

Moses’ vision for the ministry was bigger than himself, bigger than Joshua, bigger than even the chosen seventy. And he makes a good point here. What if every one of God’s people knew God well enough to prophesy in God’s name? What if all of us who claim to follow God could speak out for God’s concern for the needy, the marginalized and the dispossessed? The world would certainly be a much different place. Joshua’s concern was that the rules be followed. Moses’ concern was that God’s work be done.

And so there’s a rather obvious parallel in the first part of today’s Gospel. This time it’s John who is all bent out of shape. Someone was casting out demons in Jesus’ name, and even worse, whoever it was was apparently successful! Jesus, of course, does not share John’s concern. Jesus’ vision of salvation was bigger than John’s. If demons are being cast out in Jesus’ name, what does it matter who is doing it? If people are being healed from the grasp of the evil one and brought back to the family of God, well then, praise God!

I think the point here that we need to get is that true prophecy doesn’t always fit into a neat little box. During the rite of baptism, the person who has just been baptized is anointed with the sacred Chrism oil – the oil that anoints us in the image of Jesus as priest, prophet and king. It is part of our baptismal calling for all of the people of the Lord to be prophets. And so we really ought to be hearing the word of the Lord all the time, from every person in our lives. God gives us all people who are prophetic witnesses to us: people who say and live what they believe. They might be our parents or our children, the colleague at work, the person who sits next to us in math class, or even the neighbor who seems to always want to talk our ear off. At the basic level, one of the most important questions that arises in today’s Liturgy of the Word is, who are the prophets among us? Who is it in our lives that has been so gifted with the spirit that they challenge us to be better people and live better lives?

But as much as we have those kind of prophetic voices in our lives, there are also the other voices. These are the voices of our culture that drag us down to the depths of brokenness, debauchery and despair. That, I think is what Jesus meant by all that drastic surgery he talked about at the end of the Gospel reading today.

I don’t think any of us needs to chop off a hand, but instead chop off some of the things those hands do. Maybe it’s a business deal that is not worthy of our vocation as Christians. Or it could be a sinful activity that we need to abandon. We probably shouldn’t lop off a foot. But we may indeed need to cut out of our lives some of the places those feet take us. Whether they’re actual places or situations that provide occasions for sin, they must go. I’m not suggesting that you gouge out an eye. But maybe cut out some of the things that those eyes see. Whether it’s places on the internet we ought not go, or television shows or movies that we should not see, we need to turn away from those voices. Some people may find that they need to get rid of the computer or television, or put them in a more public spot, or find an activity that takes them away from those things. It may be hard to do without them, but better that than being so wrapped up in ourselves that we forget about God. Better to live without these things than to be forever without God.

Prophecy is a huge responsibility. Being open to that prophecy is a challenge to humility. We might be the prophets, or we might be the ones hearing the prophets, but in either case we have work to do. Prophets need to be faithful to God’s spirit, and hearers need to be open to the word and ready to act on it. Prophecy nearly always calls us to a radical change. May God help us to recognize the prophets among us, and make us ready to hear the word of the Lord.

Would that all the people of the LORD were prophets! Would that the LORD might bestow his spirit on them all!

Thursday of the Twenty-fifth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

You know, I think Herod was asking the right question.  Sure, he was asking it for all the wrong reasons, but still, it is the right question.  And that question is, “Who is Jesus?”

What Herod was hearing about Jesus is pretty much what the disciples told Jesus when Jesus asked, “Who do people say that I am?”  Elijah, or one of the prophets, or maybe even John the Baptist.  But Herod was the one who killed John so he knew that couldn’t be it, so who is he really?  Herod kept trying to see him, and of course, he’d have more than ample opportunity soon enough, after Jesus is arrested.

So we have the question too.  Oh, we know well enough – intellectually – who Jesus is, but we still have to answer that question in our hearts.  Who is Jesus for us?  We know he is not just some prophet; that he is not like anyone who lived before or after him.  But have we stopped being intrigued by the question, have we lost our fascination with Jesus?  Herod kept trying to see Jesus, and it’s the right instinct, or at least it is for us.  We have to keep trying to see him too, whether that takes us to a rereading of the Gospels or to adoration of the Blessed Sacrament or to contemplative prayer or even to service to the poor.  Whatever the case, fascination with Jesus is the right way to go, and we have to let ourselves be intrigued by the question again.  Who is Jesus for us?

The Twenty-fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

There’s a principle in the spiritual life known in Greek as kenosis. Nobody likes to talk about it. It’s nicer to talk about the consolations of prayer and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and things like that. But nobody likes to talk about kenosis because, in English, we would translate that something like “self-emptying.” That means making all the stuff we like or tolerate in us to go away, so that we can be filled up with God. Now, the being filled up with God isn’t so bad; I think most people would like that. But getting rid of the stuff that’s in there so that we can be filled up with God isn’t so great.

Kenosis is what today’s Liturgy of the Word is all about. The first reading is from the book of Wisdom, which was composed about fifty years before the birth of Jesus. In today’s selection from that book, the Wisdom writer speaks of the just one, who is a foreshadowing of Jesus. The just one is obnoxious to the unjust, because his example challenges them and his words accuse them. Nobody likes to have that kind of thing thrown in their face, and so they plot to take the just one’s life, which is exactly what will happen to Jesus.

And that’s what Jesus tells his Apostles. In the Gospel reading, he takes them aside and confides something he doesn’t want to be widely known, at least not yet. He says that he will be handed over to men who will kill him, and then three days later he will rise. That’s what we call the Paschal Mystery, and unfortunately not even those Apostles were ready to hear it. Instead, they engage in a frivolous argument about who was the greatest among them. Can you imagine their embarrassment when Jesus asked them what they were arguing about along the way?

I can just imagine Jesus’ anguish as he reflected on that truth, knowing that the end was coming near and that he would die a horrifying death, and not even his closest friends could offer him a kind word. And so he confronts them about their embarrassing argument and tells them that the one who would wish to be the greatest must be the lowest of all, serving all the rest. That was true for him, and it would be true for them too. That’s kenosis.

So if the Apostles couldn’t handle a message of kenosis, then it’s going to be challenging for the rest of us too. Because our society doesn’t teach us to want to be the last of all and the servant of all. Our society tells us to look out for ourselves and take care of number one. Our society tells us to strive for every honor and glory for ourselves, to be known as the greatest, much like the Apostles wanted to be in that silly argument. We even hear about the so-called “Prosperity Gospel” in which televangelists and other preachers tell people how much God wants them to be rich and famous. Here’s a tip: God doesn’t care if we’re rich and famous or not, he just wants us to take care of others.

So if we want to enter the Kingdom, we’re going to have to empty ourselves out and get rid of all that nonsense. Because nothing that looks like our earthly glory and honor and prosperity will fit into heaven. We have to pour out the sin, the selfish ambition, the conceited entitlement and instead be filled up with Christ. That’s what kenosis looks like for us. And whether we like to talk about it or not, it’s the only way we’re getting into heaven.

Thursday of the Twenty-fourth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

It’s been a while now since I was thought of as “too young.” I remember on my ordination as a deacon, on my way to priesthood, the first reading was from the prophet Jeremiah in which he protests to the Lord that he is too young to prophesy. Bishop Kaffer, of happy memory, in his homily basically said, “you’re not too young at all; it’s about time we are here ordaining you!” So when I hear today’s letter from Saint Paul to Saint Timothy, I think it’s interesting that he enjoins him not to let anyone look down on his youth.

Now for those of us who don’t have that problem, maybe we have another. Maybe we let people look down on our age, or our experience, or whatever. Maybe we come up with all sorts of excuses as to why people wouldn’t listen to us anyway, so why bother trying to teach them? Since we have all been gifted by the Lord in some way, we have to use that gift, and not worry about people dismissing us because we aren’t the same as they are. God works in all of us, and we have to persevere in our task, so that we will save both ourselves and others.

The Exaltation of the Holy Cross

Today’s readings

In a lot of ways, this is a strange feast we are celebrating today. Think about it. This is the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, which in Jesus’ day would have been as big an oxymoron as one could possibly imagine. It’s like us saying that we are going to celebrate the exaltation of a lethal injection chamber. There is nothing exalted about an instrument of execution: it’s tortuous, humiliating, and as dark as one can get.

So to get from that to where we are now is nothing short of a miracle. A miracle, of course, of the highest order! God used this instrument of punishment to remit the punishment we deserved for our sins. God used the epitome of darkness to bathe the world in unfathomable light.

And he didn’t have to. The cross is what we deserved for our many sins. Today’s first reading gives us just a glimpse into the problem. The Israelites, fresh from deliverance from slavery in Egypt, are making their way through the desert. Along the way, they pause to complain that God’s food, which he provided in the desert, wasn’t good enough for them. They had chosen slavery over deliverance; food that perishes over food that endures unto eternal life.

But we’re there too, right? We often choose the wrong kind of food, get off the path, and choose slavery to our vices and sins over new life in Christ. In fact it was because of all that that Jesus came to us in the first place. God noticed our brokenness and would not let us remain dead in sin. So to put an end to that cycle of sin and death, he sent his only Son to us to die on the cross, paying the price for our sins. But that death may no longer have power over us, he raised him up, cheating the cross and the evil one of their power, and exalting the Holy Cross to the instrument not of our death, but of our salvation.

Because of the Cross, all of our sadness has been overcome. Disease, pain, death, and sin – none of these have ultimate power over us. Just as Jesus suffered on that Cross, so we too may have to suffer in the trials that this life brings us. But Jesus rose from the dead and ascended into heaven to prepare a place for us, a place where there will be no more sadness, death or pain, a place where we can live in the radiant light of God for all eternity. Because of the Cross, we have hope, a hope that can never be taken away.

The Cross is indeed a very strange way to save the world, but the triumph that came into the world through the One who suffered on the cross is immeasurable. As our Gospel reminds us today, all of this happened because God so loved the world.

We adore you, O Christ, and we praise you, because by your Holy Cross you have redeemed the world.

9-11: Taking the Wooden Beams Out of Our Eyes

Today’s readings

When I hear today’s Gospel reading, I think about my dad. When he was alive, he was a guy who seemed to know everyone. Anywhere we went, he’d find someone he knew, even on vacation! But he wouldn’t just know their names, he’d also know something about them. He would know their talents, stuff they were good at; he’d also sometimes know if they were going through some kind of difficulty or hard time. But most often, he always was able to see what was good in them.

That’s the kind of thing I think Jesus wants us to do in our Gospel reading. He wants us to know each other as brothers and sisters, instead of seeing everyone’s faults and sins and downfalls. Because we all have those things. And if we focus on them, we’ll never be the children of God we were created to be. He uses the hyperbole of seeing a splinter in the other person’s eye but missing the wooden beam in our own. We all have sins and downfalls, but we all have grace and blessing. We’ve got to look for that, look for the best in people, because that’s what makes us children of God.

Fourteen years ago today, right around this time in the morning, I was in my room in seminary. Most of the other guys in my class had a class at that time, but I didn’t. So I was working on some homework, and then decided to go online and read some of the news. The first headline I saw said something like “Airplane Collides with World Trade Center.” I turned on the television and saw the tower down, and thought it had to be some kind of horrible accident. Then I saw the second plane fly into the second tower, and at that point everyone knew something terrible was happening. I will never forget that horrible moment.

Over the course of the following days, we came to know that over three thousand people died that day, including many police and fire fighters. And our world has changed a lot ever since: there is more security when you get on an airplane, more security everywhere, it seems. And if we would listen to what Jesus is telling us today, maybe things like this wouldn’t have to happen.

Even this week, a Sikh man was attacked right near here in Darien, because the attacker thought he was a terrorist. We have to learn to take the wooden beams out of our eyes so that we can see each other as brothers and sisters. Only then will we become everything that God intends for us.

Today on this fourteenth anniversary of 9-11, we should do a lot of things. We should study what happened that day so that we won’t repeat the mistakes that were made. We should remember those who gave their lives that day, especially those who tried to help the victims, and we should pray for ourselves and all people that we can become peaceful people who love the Lord and see each other as brothers and sisters, without all those splinters or beams in our eyes.