The Fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time: Loving Communities of Faith

Today’s readings

Today’s second reading is certainly familiar to anyone who has been to a church wedding. It’s easy to see why so many couples would choose that reading: the romantic nature of the love they have for one another wants a reading as sweet and beautiful as this to be proclaimed at their wedding. But I always tell them that they should be careful of what they’re asking for. Because the love that St. Paul speaks of is not something that you feel, it’s more something that you do. Or, even better, something that you are.

Because, in any relationship, love is a choice. If it were just a feeling that you automatically had for someone close to you, it would be so much easier. If love happened automatically like that, there would be no abusive relationships. Young people would never turn away from their families. Parents would never neglect their children. Spouses would never separate. We wouldn’t need the sixth commandment, because no one would ever think to commit adultery. Priests would never leave the priesthood because their love for their congregations and the Church, and above all, for God, would stop them from any other thoughts.

So as we hear that reading from Saint Paul today, I believe he’s giving it to us to show us how to be a community of faith. Because, in community, love absolutely has to address pomposity, inflated egos, rudeness, self-indulgence, and much more. All of us, no matter what our state of life, must make a choice to love every single day. If you are married, you have to choose to love your spouse; if you are a parent, you have to choose to love your children. Children must choose to love their parents; priests have to choose to love their congregations, and the list goes on. Love is the most beautiful thing in the world, but love is also hard work, and it is that hard work that makes us a community of faith.

As today’s Liturgy of the Word unfolds, we can see that love makes demands on us, demands that may in fact make us unpopular. In the first reading, Jeremiah is told that he was known and loved by God even before he was formed in his mother’s womb. That love demanded of him that he roll up his sleeves and be a prophet to the nations. God gives him the rather ominous news that his prophecy won’t be accepted by everybody, that the people would fight against him. But even so, Jeremiah was to stand up to them and say everything that God commanded him, knowing that God would never let him be crushed, nor would God let the people prevail over Jeremiah.

For Jesus, it was close friends and neighbors who rejected him. In the Gospel today, while the people in the synagogue were initially amazed at his gracious words, soon enough they were asking “Isn’t this the son of Joseph?” as if to say, “Who is he to be talking to us this way?” When Jesus tells them that his ministry will make God’s love known to the Gentiles – those whom God had supposedly not chosen – it is then that they rise up and drive him out of the city, presumably to stone him to death.

So love has to endure all of that. Jeremiah had to weather the storm for love of God. Jesus had to eventually go to the cross for love of sinners, you know, like you and me. In a community, we will have to work hard to love one another and help one another to know God’s love and care for them. We will have to extend ourselves and take a step of faith so that love can be proclaimed and lived and shared.

Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul

If we think that we are the ones who get to determine the direction of our lives, we are dead wrong.

Look at Saul: educated in all the finest Jewish schools, well-versed in the Law and the Prophets, and zealous for the faith to a fault. He was absolutely the model Jewish man and had credentials that came directly from the high priests. Everyone knew of him, and his fame – or infamy – spread all over the Judean countryside. He had participated in the stoning of Saint Stephen, letting the cloaks of the ones stoning him be piled at his feet. He was bringing all the followers of Christ back in chains to be tried and punished for following this new way. He was even on his way to Damascus to collect “the brothers” – that is, the apostles – and put them on trial. The man was greatly feared.

Look at Ananias. He was no fool. He was well-acquainted with Saul’s evil plans and did everything he could to stay out of his path. He obviously wanted to stay out of prison, but more than that, he wanted to keep people like Saul from destroying the community of the followers of Jesus. Ananias was every bit as zealous for the faith as Saul was.

They both knew the direction of their lives and thought they had it all planned out. But they were dead wrong.

God can take the most zealous and stable of us and throw our whole lives into confusion. He sometimes uses great means to get our attention and move us in a new direction. Like a bright light, or a vision. But sometimes he uses quiet words in prayer or the gentle nudging of a friend. Conversion is a life-long process for all of us, and in St. Paul’s and Annanias’s stories, we can see the danger of being too entrenched in what we think is right. The only judge of what is really right for us is God alone, and when we forget that, we might be in for a rude awakening.

The whole purpose of all of our lives, brothers and sisters, is to “Go into the whole world and proclaim the Gospel to every creature.” The way that we do that is to constantly listen for God’s voice and always be willing to go wherever he leads us.

The Third Sunday of Ordinary Time: Fulfilled in Your Hearing!

Today’s readings

I want to begin my homily by reminding you of the words we heard in our first reading from Nehemiah:

He read out of the book from daybreak till midday,
in the presence of the men, the women,
and those children old enough to understand;
and all the people listened attentively to the book of the law.

So when you think Mass is too long, just think about that! We could be going from daybreak to midday!

Today we’re talking about teaching and the Scriptures, which is to remind us that we are all, always and forever, in the “school” of the faith. We don’t ever graduate from that school, until, of course, that great day, when we stand before our Lord to be judged, relying on his mercy and on our relationship with him, which is always a gift. Those who unite themselves to our Lord in faith throughout their lives, those who continue to study the Scriptures and see them fulfilled in our hearing, they have the promise of eternal life in the Kingdom of God.

Saint Jerome underlined this for us. He said that ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ, because for all of us who did not live in the same time as Jesus, we rely on the Scriptures not just to tell us who Christ was, but also to have a relationship with him, remembering that Jesus is always present in the proclamation of the Word of God.

There are three Scriptural moments in today’s Liturgy of the Word. First, the Word is proclaimed. Second, that Word has an effect on its hearers. Finally, the Word is fulfilled. So first, the Word is proclaimed, and we see that twice. In the first reading, Ezra the priest reads from the scroll from daybreak to midday, in the presence of the men, the women, and those children old enough to understand. It was quite the proclamation, and also included a kind of homily, apparently, since the reading tells us that Ezra provided an interpretation. The second time we see this is in the Gospel reading. Jesus takes the scroll of the law, and finds a particular passage from the prophet Isaiah and proclaims it. He too provides an interpretation, in the form of his very life.

The second Scriptural moment is the Word’s effect on its hearers. For Ezra, the Word produced a very emotional response. The people bowed down in the presence of the Word, and began to weep. The weeping is presumably because, hearing the Word, they realized how far they were from keeping its commandments. I think we might have that same reaction sometimes, and when it produces repentance, that’s really not a bad thing at all. But Nehemiah instructs them not to weep, but instead to rejoice and celebrate, because the proclamation of the Word on this holy day was an occasion for great joy. In contrast, we don’t get any idea of how the rest of the congregation at the synagogue reacted to Jesus’ proclamation of Isaiah in the Gospel reading, but one would think that it would have been a pretty tame reaction until he announced that he was the fulfillment of the prophecy. Then we can imagine they had a lot to say and a perhaps indignant reaction.

Finally, the Word is fulfilled. Jesus’ instruction in the Gospel that the words of Isaiah have been fulfilled in the synagogue-goers hearing tells us that Word is never intended to be a static thing. We do not just passively sit through the proclamation of the Word, nod our heads, and move on to the Eucharist. The Word is a living thing and it is intended to have an effect on its hearers. Indeed, the Word is always proclaimed with the intent that it be fulfilled, and that fulfillment began with the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In his person, all of the promises of the Old Testament are brought into being, and the real hope of the world begins.

We continue to celebrate the Word in those three moments. We come now come to this holy place to hear the Word proclaimed, and have it interpreted in the homily. Our Liturgy of the Word, then, goes back to ancient times, and looks much the way Ezra proclaimed the Scriptures. Except, of course, it’s a lot shorter now! We continue to be affected by the Word’s proclamation. We too may be moved to tears as we hear of God’s goodness, and think of the way we have fallen short. We too need to hear Nehemiah proclaim that the preaching of the Word is a time for great joy. Finally, the Word continues to be fulfilled among us. Having sent his Holy Spirit, Jesus continues to be the fulfillment of Scripture, every time someone hears the Word and acts on it.

I want to try a bit of an object lesson. Jesus, quoting from Isaiah, said that the Spirit of the Lord was upon him. That is true too for all of us who have been Baptized and Confirmed, because we receive the Holy Spirit in both Sacraments. So I would ask all of you to close your eyes for a minute and listen to these words from Isaiah spoken not just to Jesus, but also to all of us:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon you,
because he has anointed you
to bring glad tidings to the poor.
He has sent you to proclaim liberty to captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.

You may find yourself ill-equipped to break people out of prison. But I know that you know at least one person who is in some kind of prison. Maybe they are imprisoned by illness or old age. Maybe they are imprisoned by fear of acting to better their lives. These people need you to journey with them and be present to them, thereby setting those captives free. You may not be too sure about how you can proclaim recovery of sight to the blind. Maybe you don’t even know anyone who is physically blind. But you probably know somebody who is blind to the fact that they are in an unhealthy or abusive relationship. Or maybe you know somebody who is blind to the fact that they are suffering from an addiction of some sort. Maybe you know somebody who is blind to the fact that someone they are close to needs them in a special way. You may even know somebody who is blind to the fact that they are a beautiful, gifted, and beloved son or daughter of God. You can be present to these who are blind and to gently but firmly lead them to recovery of sight. Finally, you probably have no idea how to let the oppressed go free. But you may have an hour or two to serve a hot meal to those oppressed by homelessness at a homeless shelter or soup kitchen. You may be able to spend some time occasionally with those who are oppressed by not knowing how to read. By giving of yourself, you can let these oppressed go free.

We have been anointed with the Holy Spirit in order to bring glad tidings to the poor. By acting selflessly, we can turn things around in our own little corner of the world. By hearing and acting on the Word, we can proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord. May the Words of this Holy Book be fulfilled today – and every day – in your hearing.

Saint Agnes, Virgin & Martyr

Today we celebrate the feast day of Saint Agnes, a virgin and martyr of the Church. She is thought to have lived and died in the third century, but little is really known of her life. She is mentioned in the first Eucharistic Prayer in the list of saints: “Agnes, Cecilia, Anastasia, and all the saints.”
What is known about Saint Agnes might not be one hundred percent factual, but it is instead meant to foster our own lives of holiness and dedication to the Lord. Legend tells us that Agnes was a young girl, probably twelve or thirteen years old, and very beautiful. Many young men longed for her, lusted after her, really, and one such man, having looked at her lustfully, lost his eyesight. But his sight was restored when Agnes herself prayed for him.
Because of her dedication to Christ, she refused the advances of the men who lusted after her. And one such man, having been refused, reported her to the government for being a Christian. She was arrested and confined in a house of prostitution, and was eventually put to death, although the method of her death is unclear. She was buried near Rome in a catacomb that was then named in her honor, and Constantine’s daughter later built a basilica in her honor.

Saint Ambrose wrote of her in his discourse on virginity, saying: “This is a virgin’s birthday; let us follow the example of her chastity. It is a martyr’s birthday; let us offer sacrifices; it is the birthday of holy Agnes: let men be filled with wonder, little ones with hope, married women with awe, and the unmarried with emulation. It seems to me that this child, holy beyond her years and courageous beyond human nature, receives the name of Agnes [which is the Greek word for “pure”] not as an earthly designation but as a revelation from God of what she was to be.”

May the intercession of Saint Agnes lead us all to a reclaiming of virtue and holiness, and above all, an uncompromising love for Christ.

Monday of the Second Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

One of the great problems that many people have with living the spiritual life is that they want it on their own terms.  So often, we think we know what God wants, or even worse, we want God to want what we want.  And so we act according to our own desires instead of God’s, and then we’re surprised when it doesn’t work out.  If we’re honest, we all struggle with this on some level from time to time in our lives.

Certainly Saul struggled with it.  Anointed as king over Israel, he was given very clear instructions as to what God wanted.  God wanted Saul and his army to overtake the Amalekites and destroy them from the face of the earth.  This sounds harsh, but we need to read it spiritually.  The Amalekites represented the worldly, sinful influences that the Israelites – and we! – struggle with, so they have to go.  But Saul allowed his soldiers to do what they wanted: they kept the livestock and justified it by sacrificing the best of them to God.  But God didn’t ask for sacrifice, he asked for obedience, and that disobedience will prove to be their undoing.

Similarly, the Pharisees expected the disciples of Jesus to fast.  But Jesus hadn’t asked for fasting, he asked his disciples to follow.  The Pharisees couldn’t see that, and so they too acted in disobedience.

We are all asked by God to do something all the time.  It’s not up to us to decide what God wants or how he wants us to do it.  Our task as disciples is to follow, to obey the Lord.  Because that’s the only way we’re ever going to triumph over sin and death, the only way that we will ever be truly happy.

Thursday of the First Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Today, Jesus manifests himself not just as one who came to do flashy deeds and heal the sick, but as one who does will that we would be made clean.  When Jesus performs a miracle, there’s always something deeper he’s getting at, always something more profound that he intends to reveal.  The healing of the leper reveals that Jesus is one who intends to heal us from the inside out.

“If you wish, you can make me clean.”  It’s kind of a weird statement, don’t you think?  On the face of it, it’s obviously true.  Jesus can do anything he wishes.  So it really seems to be a test of what it is that Jesus wishes to do.  And in the light of continuing Epiphany, Jesus reveals that he does, indeed, wish that the leper – and all of us too – would be made clean.  Notice that the leper doesn’t ask to be healed of his leprosy, although being made clean could certainly be construed to mean just that.  And Jesus doesn’t say, “I do will it, you’re healed.”  He says instead, “be made clean.”

I think Jesus intends for the leper, as he intends for all of us, that his sins would be forgiven, and that he would indeed be clean on the inside just as much as on the outside.  This may even have been the deepest desire of the poor leper’s heart, as it certainly should be for all of us.  To be made clean inside and out is certainly within the power of Jesus’ abilities, if he would just will it.  And today, we don’t have to tap dance around the issue or walk on eggshells to see if Jesus wills our complete healing.  We see that he certainly does, and for that Epiphany we should continue to rejoice.

Tuesday of the First Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

It is always interesting to me how clearly the unclean spirits know who Jesus is. For them, Christ our God inspires fear and rebellion. But even these unclean spirits, hearing his voice, begrudgingly obey. Jesus teaches with authority, as the people standing by admit of him. This is a teaching that cannot be ignored. Each person may hear it and respond differently, but they do respond. Many hear his voice and follow. Others turn away.

In these early days of Ordinary Time, we essentially have the continuation of the Epiphany event. We continue to see Christ manifest in our midst, and continue to decide what to make of him. Today we see him as one who teaches with authority and who has authority over even the unclean spirits within us. Today he speaks to our sinfulness, to our brokenness, to our addictions, to our fallenness, to our procrastinations, to whatever debilitates us and saddens us and says “Quiet! Come out!”

This Epiphany of Christ as dispossessor of demons is an epiphany that does more than just heal us. It is an epiphany that calls us out of darkness, one that insists we come out of our hiding and step into the light, so that the light of God’s love can shine in us and through us.