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.

In today’s Gospel, 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 they complained about the actions of Jesus’ disciples rather than focusing on their own spiritual lives and what God wanted from them.  They wanted everyone to be religious in the same way they were, including, quite frankly, God himself.

Juxtaposed against this is the description of Jesus as a servant in the letter to the Hebrews.  Jesus is the Son of God who could have insisted on his glory and expected everyone to fall into line or be damned.  But that was not the Father’s will, and so for him, that is not his will either.  Instead, he suffered, learned obedience, and became the source of salvation for all of us.

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, the only way that we will find our salvation.

The Second Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Welcome to Ordinary Time!  This Church year, this year of grace, actually began last November with the First Sunday of Advent.  Since then, we’ve been through Advent and Christmas, Epiphany and the Baptism of the Lord.  Today is our first “green” Sunday; actually the Second Sunday of Ordinary Time.  Ordinary Time actually began this past Tuesday, right after the feast of the Baptism of the Lord on Monday.  So here we are at the early part of a new Church year with readings that speak of beginnings, which seems appropriate enough.  But before we launch into a look at the readings, just a word or two about Ordinary Time.  There’s a tendency, when we hear that phrase, to think of these Sundays as just “ordinary” or “blah” – nothing special.  That’s what the term “ordinary” means to us English Speakers.  But that’s not what the Church is going for.  A better translation would perhaps be “ordered time:” a time that is marked out, set aside, and always observed.  That means we don’t have permission to skip them, and that we ought to keep them holy.  At their core, “Ordinary Time” Sundays are Sundays made sacred because they are connected to the death and resurrection of the Lord.  They are ultimately a celebration of the Lord’s Day through and through.

So on this first of the “ordered time” Sundays, we have a look at some beginnings. The first of the beginnings is really more of a new beginning.  The prophet Isaiah speaks of the commissioning of a servant.  The servant is Israel, and God is speaking to the nation while they are in exile.  He is calling them back and foretelling that not only will they be God’s servant to bring back and restore and reunite Israel and Jacob, but they will also bring salvation to all the world.  That is how salvation works: when we are delivered, we expected to help deliver others.   Whenever we receive a gift, it is never just for us, so for Israel, they must go out to all the world and bring salvation.

The Psalmist follows up on that notion, giving the servant’s response: “Here am I, Lord; I come to do your will.” Let’s take a look at what goes on in this Psalm. First, the Psalmist seems to be involved in some sort of difficulty for which he has been waiting on the Lord. The Lord, for his part, has taken notice, stooped toward him and heard his cry. The response of the Psalmist to his deliverance is one of witnessing. He announces the justice of the Lord and does not restrain his lips.

The second reading from the beginning of First Corinthians seems to be kind of strange for a reading.  All we get are the first three verses of Paul’s letter to them, and it seems to just be a simple greeting: From Paul to the Corinthians, grace and peace.  But these few verses tell us a bit more than that.  They speak to the vision that Paul has of his own vocation, and of his belief in Christ.  First, he proclaims himself to be an apostle.  This is important, because an apostle is more than just a follower or even a disciple.  An apostle is one who is sent with the full authority of the one who sends him.  Paul has never met Jesus, at least not in person, but he had an experience that clearly revealed Jesus to him, and sent him forth with a mission.  Paul then tells us what he believes about Jesus.  He never mentions Jesus without referring to him as the Christ, that is, the Anointed One, the Messiah.  Jesus for him was no ordinary person.  If Jesus was just any old person, Paul would still be out persecuting the Christians instead of leading them as an Apostle.  Jesus is the one the Jews were always hoping for, the one to bring salvation.  Jesus is the Christ who sanctifies his people.

And finally we come back to John’s version of the Baptism of the Lord.  In this version, from the Gospel of John, we don’t see the actual moment, but hear John the Baptist’s take on it.  He stresses that he did not know who Jesus was; he mentions that twice in his account.  That almost seems weird in a way, because we know they were cousins, and that John actually leapt in his mother’s womb when Mary came to visit.  But that was infancy, and the way John came to know that Jesus was the Christ was through revelation.  He was told ahead of time what signs to look for, and when he sees the Spirit come down upon Jesus like a dove after he comes out of the water, then John knows that Jesus is the One.  So finally he becomes the herald of the Lord, the mission he was called to from his mother’s womb.  “Behold the Lamb of God,” he says, “who takes away the sins of the world.”  Now he sees and testifies that Jesus is the Lamb of God.

So we have three beginnings today.  We have the beginning of Israel’s call to be a servant of the Lord, to bring his salvation to the ends of the earth.  We have the beginning of Paul’s correspondence to the Church at Corinth, telling them that they are God’s holy people, having been sanctified by Jesus the Christ.  And we have the beginning of the recognition of who Jesus is in the Gospels, one anointed by the Spirit at his baptism, one who takes away the sin of the world.  It is appropriate that at the beginning of our celebration of ordered time, we would celebrate these three beginnings.

So this is, in a sense, a celebration of time itself, and what we need to get about time is that it is not pointless.  It’s not some meaningless trip through the ages that gets us nowhere.  Time is not a waste of time.  For the Christian, time is sanctified by God who entered into time with salvation through Jesus Christ.  And so today, God blesses our beginnings.  What is it that we need to begin these days?  Is there a call to something deeper as a disciple that we have been putting off?  Is our relationship with God at a turning point, and do we need to get out of our comfort zone to explore that relationship?  Are we being called to take our careers in a new direction, becoming people of greater integrity to witness to the Gospel in our workplaces?  Are students being called to take their studies more seriously, learning the great wonders that God has placed before them?  Are parents being called to bring their families to a holier place this year, remembering that all that they have and all that they experience is a gift?  Whatever it is that we need to start right now, God is sanctifying that beginning by reminding us that all of time is holy and that all of time is a gift.

We must make use of this present moment, this sacred space of time, because we can never get it back once it’s passed.  It’s not too late to make resolutions, and it’s certainly not too late to start working on the ones we have already made.  Today is a day of beginnings, beginnings not just for Israel and Corinth and Jesus, but also beginnings of our own histories, entering into the time with which God is blessing us.  Our offering today is an offering of these beginnings, looking at them as gifts of God, and responding “Here am I, Lord; I come to do your will.”

Saturday of the First Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

In today’s Gospel, we have the continued Epiphany of Jesus manifested as one who identifies with sinners.  That is not, of course, to say that he was a sinner; quite the contrary, because we know that Jesus was like us in all things but sin.  But today we see that he is certainly concerned with calling sinners to the Kingdom, and concerned enough that he will be known to be in their company.  He eats with them, talks with them, walks with them.

This of course, riles the Pharisees.  And, to be fair, for good reason; Jewish law taught that sinners were to be shunned; they were cast out of the community.  But Jesus has come to say that he hates the sin but loves the sinner; that nothing in us is beyond the power of God to redeem.  Nothing that we have done can put us so far away from God that we are beyond God’s reach.  And God does reach out to us, in tangible ways, in sacramental ways, in the person of Jesus and through the ministry of the Church.

Sin is a terrible thing.  It’s often cyclical.  Because not only does the judgment of the Pharisees – and others – make sinners feel unworthy; but also does the guilt that comes from inside the sinner.   The more one sins, the less worthy one often feels of God’s love, and so the more does that person turn away from God, and then they sin more, feel less worthy, turn away again, and so on, and so on, and so on.

But Jesus won’t have any of that – he has come to put an end to that cycle once and for all.  Jesus is the One who walks into the midst of sinners, sits down with them and has a meal.  He is the divine physician healing our souls, and those who do not sin do not need his ministry.  But we sinners do, so thanks be to God for the manifestation of Jesus as one who came to dine with sinners.

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.

The Epiphany of the Lord 

Today’s readings

I’m going to make things pretty simple today. If someone asks you what my homily was about, you’ll be able to sum it up in just four words: “Walk toward the light.”

And that’s good advice, I think, for us who walk around in what can be a very dark world. Today’s first reading speaks of that darkness: “See, darkness covers the earth, and thick clouds cover the peoples…” We’re not talking about some kind of simple darkness that is cured by simply turning on a lamp. This darkness is pervasive, not just physical darkness, but a darkness that has psychological effects, and even affects communities and nations. When Isaiah speaks of the thick clouds covering the peoples, that’s what he means: “peoples” means nations. 

And we don’t need to look too much farther than the newspaper or evening news to see that darkness. The year ahead of us might seem rather foreboding. We don’t live far from the city of Chicago, which just experienced the most violent year in its history, which is really saying something. We also just finished a rather contentious and divisive election season. The wars raging in the Middle East, in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Africa, all over the world really, those are dark places for combatants and non-combatants alike. Christians in other lands find their lives in danger every day. There’s plenty of darkness to go around, and it may not seem like there’s enough light in all the universe to make it better, to illuminate that darkness, to help us to break free of it all. 

There may be darkness in our own lives too. Maybe we have patterns of sin of which we cannot seem to break free, maybe there are family difficulties that cloud our day-to-day living, maybe there are old hurts among family or friends that prevent us from moving forward in grace. Even our own personal and spiritual lives can be such dark places at times. 

Today’s Liturgy acknowledges all the darkness and invites us: “Walk toward the light.” 

Because the light that we have to scatter all that darkness comes from God himself. Isaiah says again: “but upon you the LORD shines, and over you appears his glory.” A darkness as pervasive as the one that covers all peoples takes a very bright light to scatter it. Does this mean that all that darkness will go away immediately? Of course not. But it does mean that God has provided a way, lit up a path, for people of faith to take baby steps if necessary to walk toward that light. We see that light in the Church, through the Scriptures, in the Sacraments, in our celebration of the Eucharist, when we reach out to others in service, in our interaction with each other as people of faith. Those thick clouds may make it pretty hard to see at times, but ultimately they are no match for the bright light of the glory of the Lord. 

Isaiah goes on to point out that all that light isn’t intended just for us. When we have approached the light, we need to share that light with others. “Nations shall walk by your light,” Isaiah says, “and kings by your shining radiance.” Having received the light of the glory of the Lord, we are meant to spread it over our corner of the world. We are meant to radiate that light as a beacon in a dark place, so that all peoples – all those peoples that were covered by those thick clouds of darkness – can see their way to the Lord too. We spread that light by changing our lives. We spread it by being people of integrity. We spread it by doing everything we can to reinvigorate our spiritual and devotional lives. We spread the light by paying it forward, by giving of ourselves, by having concern for those in our lives and those the Lord puts in our lives. We spread the light by reaching out to those in need. 

And what is wonderful is that spreading the light never leaves us in the darkness. There is always more light to shine on us. Listen to Isaiah again:

Then you shall be radiant at what you see, 

your heart shall throb and overflow,

for the riches of the sea shall be emptied out before you,

the wealth of nations shall be brought to you.

The glory of the Lord is never diminished by shining on others. In fact, when we share that light with others, we only receive more, so that our hearts are throbbing and overflowing, beholding all the riches that we could ever hope to find. We may find a talent we never knew we had, one that can reach others for Christ. We may find a new energy that comes to a spiritual life that was previously rather listless. We may find new challenges, new opportunities, and always new grace. The riches and wealth of our God are never exhausted. 

All we have to do is walk toward the light. 

The word “epiphany” means “manifestation.” Today, and in the next couple of weeks, we will see Christ’s Lordship manifested in a few different ways. Each of these epiphanies will call us to a deeper appreciation of who Christ is in our lives and a deeper reflection on our own discipleship. 

The light that we walk toward today is very-likely life-changing. The Magi came to seek the light in today’s Gospel reading. All we get from Matthew is a description of the encounter. But we have no idea what the encounter did in the lives of those wise astrologers. We don’t know how it changed them, what it cost them, where it ultimately led them. We see that the light was not intended just for the Jews, but also for all of the nations, pagans and religious people alike. All could come to the light, all could be affected by the light, all could experience the true light of the world. 

And in just the same way, we have no idea how walking toward the light will affect us. We don’t know how it will change us, what it will cost us, where it ultimately will lead us. All we know is that, coming to the light, we will be changed, with the promise of grace upon grace. Just as the Magi were led to return by another way, we too might find ourselves taking another way in our lives. Epiphany is not the end of the story; it is just the beginning for us. What difference will what is manifested to us today make in our lives? Will we accept the one who not only lies in a manger as a newborn, but will also be rejected? Throughout this liturgical year we will hear Jesus’ preaching, observe his works, follow him to his death and then experience his resurrection. We will be exposed to the light many times and in many wonderful ways. It will be a year of many epiphanies for us. 

May this coming year find us walking toward the light countless times and in countless ways, and open to the many riches of grace that the Lord has in store for us. 

The Most Holy Name of Jesus 

Today’s readings 

Not everyone has St. John the Baptist around to point out the Messiah to them. Lots of us, I think, at one point or another, would have loved to have been in the sandals of those apostles when Jesus was passing by. As much as we believe that Christ is present in every person, place and time, I’m sure lots of us would love to have St. John the Baptist point out when we’re missing Christ’s presence in some person or situation. It’s harder when you don’t have the Forerunner showing you the way.

But not everyone even recognized Christ – or at least who he was – in that time and place either. St. John tells us in our first reading that people don’t recognize that we are children of God because they didn’t recognize God in Christ in the first place. So if we miss Jesus in some situation or person, well, our mistake is not unique to us.
During the Christmas season, we are celebrating the Incarnation: the presence of God among us. Of course, this isn’t just about the presence of God among us two thousand years ago, but his real presence among us in every person, in every place and blessing, and especially in the Eucharist. During this time, we might gaze on the manger and long to have been there gazing into the face of Christ. We can gaze into the face of Christ today by taking time for Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament or time to reach out to someone in need. During this time, we might imagine ourselves next to the Manger on that night long ago, and long to have been there, holding the Christ Child in our arms. In a few minutes, we can come to the Altar and receive our Jesus and hold him in our hands in the Eucharist, receiving him body and blood, soul and divinity. Jesus is just as incarnate, just as Emmanuel, God-with-us, now as he was back then.
We will be strengthened by the Word and the Eucharist today to go forward and see Christ all around us. Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world!

Solemnity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Holy Mother of God

Today’s readings

And Mary kept all these things,
reflecting on them in her heart.

Luke notes all throughout Jesus’ young life that Mary kept the events of Jesus’ life and reflected on them in her heart.  At the visit of the shepherds, and again after finding Jesus in the temple, Mary kept those memories for later reflection.  Maybe she understood them, or perhaps had to work them out later, but keeping them in her heart, she was able to ponder the Word.  It’s kind of like she was keeping a scrapbook of memories in her heart, and I found myself wishing during these Christmas days, that I could take a look at that scrapbook.  She had a first-hand view of how Jesus grew in wisdom and grace, and as Luke tells the story, her perspective of God’s work in the life of her family had to be incredible.

Mary’s reflection on the life of Jesus is really a model for us.  Keeping those events close to her and reflecting on them later is her way of reflecting on the Word of God.  Whether she understood them at the time or not,  she didn’t just live through the moment and move on.  She went back to those events later in her life – even after the death and resurrection of Jesus – and came to a new understanding guided by the Holy Spirit.  And thank God she did that.  It’s probably her later reflection on those events that made the early Church Evangelist able to record them and pass them on to us.

We too, must reflect on the Word of God.  We have to put ourselves in the presence of the Story, and ponder it in our hearts.  If we’re confused by Scripture, we have Mary as our patron to help us reflect on that Word and come to understand it, guided as we are by the Holy Spirit.  But we also have her encouragement to keep those Scriptures in the scrapbook of our hearts, to keep coming back to them.  That’s the only way the Spirit can work on us and help us to come to new and more beautiful understandings of the Word of God, and in doing that, to come to a renewed and vibrant relationship with our Lord.

If we would make a resolution for this new year, maybe it could be to follow Mary’s example.  Maybe we could set aside some time on a regular basis – even if just once a week – to put ourselves in the presence of the Word of God.  And not just here at Mass, although that’s a good start.  But maybe in private prayer or even in an organized Bible Study – we have a few of them going on in our parish on a regular basis.  If we regularly open ourselves up to the Word of God, maybe we too could come to new and more beautiful understandings of the Scriptures; and a closer and more beautiful relationship with Jesus Christ, the Eternal Word of God.

Mary, mother of God the Word, help us to understand the Word as you did.

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