The Passion of Saint John the Baptist

Today’s readings

What we are celebrating in today’s feast is the fact that prison bars cannot silence truth. John the Baptist was not asked to renounce his faith; indeed Herod was probably very interested in John’s faith and may have even asked him about it on occasion. Not that he wanted to convert, mind you, but he just seemed to have a kind of morbid fascination with the man Jesus, and anyone who followed him. But the real reason that he kept John locked up was that Herodias didn’t like John, who had a following, publicly telling them what they should and should not do. Herod’s taking his brother’s wife was not permitted in Judaism, but, in her mind, it would all blow over if John would just stop talking about it.

But that’s not how the truth works. And John’s one purpose in life was to testify to the Truth — Truth with a capital “T” — to point the way to Jesus. So he was not about to soft-pedal the wrong that Herod and Herodias were doing. And that was something Herodias just could not live with. As soon as the opportunity presented itself, she eagerly had John beheaded and rid herself of his prophecy. But that didn’t make her any less accountable to the truth.

This could be a rather sad feast. The end of one who worked hard for the reign of God, and over something seemingly so silly. But, as St. Bede the Venerable says of him: “There is no doubt that blessed John suffered imprisonment and chains as a witness to our Redeemer, whose forerunner he was, and gave his life for him. His persecutor had demanded not that he should deny Christ, but only that he should keep silent about the truth. Nevertheless … does Christ not say: ‘I am the truth?’ Therefore, because John shed his blood for the truth, he surely died for Christ.”

And so, for those of us who are heirs of the Truth, this is indeed a joyful feast. John the Baptist could not keep silent about the truth, whether it was truth with a capital or lower-case “T”. We must not keep silent about the truth either. We are called to offer our own lives as a testimony to the truth, even when it’s inconvenient.

The Twenty-first Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

One of my jobs before I went to seminary was in the sales department of a computer supply company.  In that job, they taught us that one of the first good rules of sales was never to ask a question to which you didn’t already know the answer.  I think teachers get taught that principle as well.  I can’t help but think that Jesus’ question to the disciples in today’s Gospel falls under that heading.  Because Jesus certainly knew who he was.  But, as often happens in our interactions with Jesus, there’s something more going on.  And to figure out what that something more is, all you have to do is go back to the Gospels the last couple of weeks and see in them that Jesus is thirsting for people’s faith.  He was thirsting for faith from Peter when he called him to walk on the water.  He was quenched by the faith of the Canaanite woman last week as she persisted in her request that Jesus heal her daughter.  And now he thirsts for the disciples’ faith – and ours too – as he asks us the 64 thousand dollar question: “Who do you say that I am?”

He actually starts with kind of a soft-ball question. “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they recount all the obvious and probably much-discussed options of the time.  If there were bloggers and talk radio people and CNN in that first century, they too might have said “John the Baptist” or “Elijah” or “Jeremiah” or “one of the prophets.”  So this is an easy question for the disciples to answer.  But when he gets to the extra credit question, “But who do you say that I am?” there’s a lot more silence.  And, as often happens with the disciples, it’s the impetuous Peter who blurts out the right answer, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”  Very good, Peter, you have been paying attention.

But here’s the thing: that answer is going to require much of Saint Peter.  You see, his answer not just a liturgical formula or a scriptural title or even a profession of faith in the formal sense that Jesus is looking for here.  He is looking for something that goes quite a bit deeper, something that comes from the heart, something integrated into Peter’s life.  He is looking for faith not just spoken but faith lived, and that’s why Peter’s answer is so dangerous.  If he is really convinced that Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the living God” then that conviction has to show itself in the way Peter lives.  He can’t just believe that and keep it under his hat.  If Jesus really is the One who is coming into the world, the Promised One of all generations, the salvation of the world, then Peter has to proclaim it from the rooftops.  He has to be the rock on which Jesus will build his Church.  And some people are just not going to want to go there.

So I’m very sorry to tell you all this, but we have all gathered here on a very dangerous Sunday.  We too, you know, are being asked today, “But who do you say that I am?”  And Jesus isn’t asking us just to recite the Creed, the Profession of Faith.  That’s too easy; we do it all the time.  He doesn’t want to know what you learned at Bible Study or what you read on Facebook.  Those things are nice, but Jesus isn’t going for what’s in your head.  Jesus is calling all of us today to dig deep, to really say what it is that we believe about him by the way that we act and the things that we do and the life that we live.  It’s the dangerous question for us, too, because what we believe about Jesus has to show forth in action and not just word.  Our life has to be a testament to our faith in God.  And if we cannot answer that question out of our faith today, if we are not prepared to live the consequences of our belief, then we have a lot of thinking to do today.

Because if we really believe – really believe – that Jesus is who he says he is, then we cannot just sit on the news either.  Like Peter, we are going to have to proclaim it in word and deed.  In our homes, in our workplaces, in our schools, in our communities – we must be certain that everyone knows that we are Christians and that we are ready to live our faith.  That doesn’t mean that we need to interject a faith lesson into every conversation or badger people with the Gospel.  But it does mean that we have to live that Gospel.  In St. Francis’s words, “Proclaim the Gospel at all times.  If necessary, use words.”  People absolutely need to be able to tell by looking at our lives that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God.  If they can’t, then our faith is as tepid as the Pharisees’ and that’s certainly no cause for pride!

Every part of our Liturgy has consequences for us believers.  “The Body of Christ.”  When we hear that proclamation and respond with our “Amen,” we are saying “yes, that’s what I believe.”  And if we believe that, if we are then filled with the Body of Christ by receiving Holy Communion, then we have made a statement that has consequences.  If we truly become what we receive, then how does that change the way that we work, the way that we interact with others?  “Go in peace, glorifying the Lord with your life.”  “Thanks be to God.”  If we accept that command, then what?  What does it mean to glorify the Lord with our life?  Does it mean that we just do some kind of ministry here at Mass?  Absolutely not.  The first word in the command is “Go” and that means we have to love and serve the Lord in our daily lives, in our business negotiations, in our community meetings, in our interactions with peers or the way that we mentor those who work for us.

So if we really believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, then our lives just became a whole lot more complicated.  We may have to give up some of our habits and vices, we may have to make a concerted effort to be more aware of Christ in our daily lives, we may have to learn to treat other people as the Body of Christ.  We may have to do all this preaching in a hostile environment, because sometimes people don’t want to hear the Good News, or even be in the presence of it.  And this is dangerous, because if we really believe, then we have to preach anyway.  Peter did, and it eventually led him to the cross.  What will it require of us?

So I don’t know just how dangerous this will be for me or for you.  I’m not even sure how we will all answer the question right now.  But one thing is for sure, all of us sitting here today have the same one-question test that Peter and the disciples had.  Who do you say that the Son of Man is?

Saturday of the Twentieth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

One of the spiritual principles that often speaks to me is: “it’s not about me.”  It’s a spiritual principle I have to remind myself of often, because in our human weakness, we’re always thinking about ourselves first.  But here today, we have two wonderful Scriptural examples of this beautiful spiritual principle.  First we have Ruth, a foreigner, who came to the aid of her mother-in-law Naomi in her time of need.  Naomi had no heir, and her son, Ruth’s husband, had died. This left both of them in a very precarious position.  Neither of them had a male figure in their lives to afford them any legal status in that society, so that was very dangerous for them in that day and age.  And they were in the middle of a famine, which made things all the more frightening.  So Ruth could have gone her own way, returned to her land, and been safe, but she doesn’t: she takes care of Naomi anyway, offering to glean ears of grain so that they’ll have something to eat.  She didn’t have to do that, she could have left her mother-in-law high and dry, but she didn’t.

Boaz, too, didn’t have to be so welcoming to Ruth.  It was expected in Jewish law that after the harvest, whatever was left on the stalks was to be left for the poor.  But he didn’t have to provide her with water, and see that the men didn’t take advantage of her.  But he did.

All of this prefigures what Jesus was telling the people about the Pharisees in today’s Gospel.  These Pharisees did everything to be seen, because it was all about them.  They had the law, so they were teaching the right things, but not for the right reasons.  Do what they say, Jesus tells them, and not what they do.  Because it’s not about us.

Saint Pius X, Pope

Today’s readings

A good starting place for our prayer this morning might be asking ourselves, what is it that holds us back?  The rich young man seemed to have it all together: he acknowledged Jesus as the good teacher, so he must have been familiar with what Jesus said and did.  He says he kept all the commandments, so he certainly had a religious upbringing and was zealous to follow the law.  But, with all that, he still knew that something was lacking.  “What do I still lack?” he asks.  When Jesus reveals that the next step in following the Gospel involves letting go of his worldly possessions, he finds that to be somewhere he can’t go.  He had many possessions, and he wasn’t yet ready to give them up.

Today we celebrate Saint Pius X, a man dedicated to pastoral ministry, and helping people to let go of whatever would hold them back on the journey of faith.  He was born Joseph Sarto, the second of ten children in a poor Italian family.  He became pope at the age of 68, and he wanted to open the banquet for all those who would come worthily.  He encouraged frequent reception of Holy Communion, which was observed sparingly in his day, and especially encouraged children to come to the Eucharist.  During his reign, he famously ended, and subsequently refused to reinstate, state interference in canonical affairs.  He had foreseen World War I, but because he died just a few weeks after the war began, he was unable to speak much about it.  On his deathbed, however, he said, “This is the last affliction the Lord will visit on me.  I would gladly give my life to save my poor children from this ghastly scourge.”

Our God has blessed us with love beyond all imagining and invites us to the table of the heavenly kingdom.  To get there, we have to be ready to let go of whatever holds us back from accepting the life that God wants for us.  What he has is so much better than whatever it is we’re holding on to.  So once again, the question is, will we give up what is holding us back, or will we give up eternal life?  We’re going to have to live with the answer to that question for a very, very long time.

Reflections on the Twentieth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Friends, I wasn’t going to do a homily today since it’s my last day of vacation.  But I got a message from a friend who was troubled by the Gospel, and I realized it’s so commonly misunderstood that it can be troublesome.  So that said, I’ll just make a few important points.

First of all, let’s just agree that Jesus was always going to help the Canaanite woman’s daughter.  Probably even before the Canaanite woman asked.  He’s God, after all, and he knows our needs.  And we dare not accuse Jesus of being unchristian!  So some might tell you he did that to test her.  Well, that might be comforting if you love a God who has nothing better to do than test us and make us dance for him.  But that’s not our God.

Instead, I think he wanted the Canaanite woman’s faith to be noted by the people looking on, including the disciples, and perhaps even by the woman herself.  Because the Canaanites were a people that were presumed to be faithless and have no claim on the grace and mercy of God (as if any of us do!).  The Canaanites were the inhabitants of the Promised Land, which was given to the Israelites after being led of of Egypt by Moses.  So the disdain for them was long-standing by this point.

But Jesus notes her faith as opposed to the faith noted elsewhere in Matthew’s Gospel.  In just a couple of chapters from now, Jesus will berate the “faithless generation” that included the scribes and Pharisees.  And just last week, Jesus chastised Peter for being “of little faith” when he pulled him up out of the water.  Contrast that with what he says about the Canaanite woman:  “O woman, great is your faith!”

All of this begs the question for us: where are we on the journey of faith.  For most of us, it probably depends on the day.  But are we bold enough of faith to implore God’s mercy when we have no claim on it?  When our sins have been dragging us down and we’ve been committing the same ones over and over?  When we aren’t where we think we should be in our lives?  When we feel like we’ve disappointed almost everyone?  When we’ve disappointed ourselves?

In those moments, are we of enough faith to call on the Lord and implore his mercy?  Because if we are, God is ready to answer us.

The Nineteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today's readings

I have to tell you, we have two of my very favorite readings in today’s Liturgy of the Word.  I like them because they both show God interacting with us, his creatures, in powerful ways.  In the first reading, we see the prophet Elijah literally running for his life.  He has just embarrassed, and then put to death, the four hundred or so “prophets” of Baal – the pagan god worshipped by the gentiles.  Because of this, Jezebel, the wife of king Ahab, vowed to do the same thing to Elijah himself.  So Elijah is fleeing, and complains to the Lord God that everyone in Israel has rejected the Lord, turned to other gods, and have put all the legitimate prophets to death, and that Elijah is the only one left.  So God says that Elijah should stand on the mountain and wait, and soon the Lord would be passing by.

So in Scripture, when it says of the Lord that he would be “passing by,” it means something different than just that the Lord was out for a little walk.  Passing by means that he would be doing “a God thing,” something that God alone could do.  It’s a little like saying that God would be revealing his power to his creatures.  For Elijah, that was intended to be a consolation and a revelation that the Lord God would be with him even though things looked pretty darn bad.  And it’s interesting how it happens.  Elijah experiences some frightening things: destructive and heavy winds, an earthquake and a blazing fire.  But he did not experience God in any of those things.  He only experienced God in a “tiny whispering sound.”

And I wonder about that, to be honest.  Yes, we can take that as a revelation that we have to quiet ourselves and listen for the voice of God’s presence.  But I want to carefully note that this does not mean that God wasn’t present in those other things.  Because we often find ourselves in the midst of mighty winds, earthquakes, or fire.  Even if not literally, we experience these things all the time in the form of the crises of our lives.  And I want to assure you that God is with you in those moments.  But it may take us stepping back a bit, and listening for the whispering sound, to note that happening.

Okay, so that brings us to the second of my favorite readings today, and that is the Gospel.  Because I love Saint Peter.  He’s always making mistakes, but he is always letting Jesus take what little he can give and turn it into something huge.  I love this reading so much that I have this painting on the wall of my office.  It’s a painting that was given to me for my ordination by the seminarians of that time.  It’s even signed by our own Father David!  They gave me that painting because they know of the special place that particular Gospel story had in my faith life.

So in today’s Gospel reading, Jesus has just fed the multitudes, as you may remember from last week’s Liturgy.  After that, he takes some time alone to pray, and during the fourth watch of the night, walks across the water toward the disciples who were on a boat bound for the other side of the lake.  In Saint Mark’s version of this reading, it says of Jesus at this point that “He intended to pass them by.”  Does that sound familiar?  Yes, very similar to the first reading, Jesus intends to do a “God thing,” to reveal himself to his disciples this time in a very powerful way.  They think they’re seeing a ghost, but Jesus reassures them that it is he, and Peter immediately asks if he can come out and walk on the water too.  Jesus says, “come.”

So think about that.  You see the Lord walking on the water, and you actually ask if you can get out there and join him.  Who even has the nerve to say something like that to Jesus?  Well, Peter, impetuous as always, he does.  And for a while, he does okay. He’s making progress, walking toward Jesus. But then he stops looking at Jesus and starts looking at the storm, and when he sees the storm what happens?  The story tells us: “But when he saw how strong the wind was he became frightened; and, beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’” So let’s stop right here.  Do you see that? While he’s looking at Jesus, he is able to walk toward him, but as soon as he takes his eyes off Jesus in favor of looking at the storm, he sinks. “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” Jesus asks him, pulling Peter out of the water.

We might be tempted to criticize Peter for his lack of faith.  But I’m in favor of cutting him so slack.  What I think we have to realize is that he at least had enough faith to get out of the boat.  The other eleven did not.  He got out of the boat because that’s where Jesus was – out there on the water.  Was Jesus present for him when the wind and the waves threatened to take his life?  Absolutely.  God is present for us when we are in the middle of the storm.

So I think that’s where these wonderful readings of God’s mighty power take us this week: into the midst of our storms, whatever they may be.  If we’re not going through one now, one will come our way at some point.  And, please God, may these readings help us to find our Lord in the midst of the wind and the earthquakes and the fire.  I hope that the faith these readings inspire in us will help us to step back in those storms and see our Lord passing by in power and might and lifting us up out of the waves.

Now let’s try a little prayer experiment.  I’m going to ask you to close your eyes.  And with your eyes closed, I invite you to think about a crisis you’ve been in recently, or even one that’s still going on.  It might be little or big, but whatever it is, bring it to mind.  That crisis is the waves in the story.  Now you get to be Saint Peter.  You’re on the boat, that safe refuge that is leading you to the place that Jesus has in mind for you.  Only on the voyage, your crisis begins a storm that tosses you around so badly that you can’t even see your destination anymore, and you fear for your life.  But you see Jesus out there, on the water, in the distance.

You call out to him and he calls back for you to come to him.  You think about it for a minute, but you realize you have to give it a shot: after all, you want to be where Jesus is, and Jesus is not in the boat.  So you get out of the boat, that safe refuge that gives you some comfort even in the storm, and you start to walk toward Jesus across the stormy sea, with the wind and the waves of your crises swirling around you.  And you do okay for a while, looking at your Lord, but then you wonder if your prayers will ever be answered, or if you should even bother God with your little prayers, or if there is any hope for your situation at all.  You feel the wind pushing at you and notice that the waves of your crisis are a lot uglier than you thought they were.  And you begin to sink into them, despairing that there is no hope for your situation.  At this point, Jesus reaches out his hand to you, pulling you up out of the stormy sea.  The storm is still raging, but with Jesus’ help, you get back into the boat, and the waves calm down, and you continue the journey to the place where Jesus wants you to be, having made just a little bit of progress, confident that he is with you even in the storm.

That’s a prayer exercise that you can come back to.  Maybe you don’t have a crisis now to bring to that prayer, but when you do, you can pull this out of your prayer toolbox.  Whether we are experiencing wind, waves, earthquakes or fire, we can be confident that our Lord is with us.  We might still have to experience all those things, but we can go through them with hope that comes from the presence of our God, who is with us in our darkest times, whispering to us, or calling out to us from the water.

Saturday of the Eighteenth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

“Because of your little faith.” If that was what Jesus said about his disciples, those men and women walking with him in person day after day, how much more does it apply to us today?  How many situations absolutely confound us?  How many injustices seem chronically irreparable?  How many emotional crises seem insurmountable?  There are demons of all shapes and sizes and types.  How effective are we at casting out those demons of addiction, ignorance, or apathy?  Why can’t we drive them out?  Well, because of our little faith.

I always bristled a bit at the instruction at the end of today’s Gospel about moving a great mountain.  I was pretty sure I’d never have faith that big, and even if I did, why would I want to move a mountain?!  But we get all this wrong.  It’s as if it depends on us, and it certainly does not.  Are we convinced that God can move mountains, that he can drive out demons, that he can respond to addiction, ignorance and apathy?  Well, sure.  But that kind of believing has to get beyond just being in our heads and come out in our words and actions and living.  That’s the hard part!

Because faith is useless if we never put it into practice.  It might be tough to be in the midst of addiction, emotional crisis, or injustice, but that’s when we need to depend on our faith, because what else is there?  What good is our faith unless it can lead us through hard times and accomplish great things in the midst of the messiness of life?  Our faith tells us that whatever happens, God will never stop being with us.

So maybe we’ll never move a mountain.  Who wants to anyway?  But with faith we can certainly the mountains that confront us: emotional crises, addictions, sin, and all kinds of sadness.  With faith, we can certainly move from a dark place to light, from despair to peace, from sadness to joy.