Saints Michael, Gabriel and Raphael, Archangels

Today’s readings

This is the beginning of a rather angelic few days for us Catholics.  Today we celebrate the feast of the archangels, and on Monday we will have the joy of honoring our guardian angels.  We celebrate the way the angels protect and guide us and keep us on the path to Christ.

Many people think that when people die, they become angels.  That’s not actually true.  Angels are a different order of creation from human beings.  There is a continuum of creation from things that are pure body, like a rock or lump of dirt, all the way to those who are pure spirit, which would be the angels.  We are somewhere in between, being the highest and greatest of the bodies, and the lowest of the spirits.  Everything has its place in creation, and was created the way God intended it.

So today we celebrate the highest of the highest of the Spirits: Michael, Gabriel and Raphael, the archangels.  Each of these angels is specifically mentioned in Scripture.  Michael is mentioned in the book of Revelation, as the protector of the heavens and the defender of the people of God.  He is the patron of police officers.  Gabriel is the announcer of good news, and we know him from the story of the Annunciation to Mary of her pregnancy.  Gabriel is the patron of communications workers.  Raphael is mentioned in the book of Tobit, in what is a beautiful story.  His purpose in that story is to protect Tobit on the journey to recover his family’s fortune and to introduce Tobit to Sarah, curing her of the despair she had over her last seven marriages, which all ended in death on the wedding night.  Raphael also cured Tobiah, Tobit’s father, of blindness due to cataracts.  Tobit and Sarah get married and live happily ever after, which is why it’s such a great story.  Raphael is the patron of travelers.

We know a little bit about all these angels because of today’s feast. But those stories are not finished just yet.  The angels are still working among us, guiding us, healing us, defending us, and bringing us good news.  The angels are probably working through people you know.  They’re even working through you whenever you help someone else.  The truth is, I don’t think we would live very safe and happy lives if it weren’t for the angels among us.  Today we should thank God for Saints Michael, Gabriel and Raphael, and for all the people who cooperate with those angels in all their work.

Monday of the Twenty-fifth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

I love the little line in the gospel reading that says, “Take care, then, how you hear.”  It almost seems like a throw-away line, but really, I believe, it’s an essential instruction from Jesus.  We disciples are to take care how we hear.  Not what we hear, although that’s probably part of it, but how we hear.

So how do we hear the words of the gospel?  Do we hear them as something that seems nice but doesn’t really affect us?  Do those words fly over our heads or go in one ear and out the other?  Do we hear them at Mass, and then live however it is we want, leave the same way we came, ignoring what we’ve just heard?

Or, do we really hear the Word of the Lord?  Does the gospel get into our head and our heart and stir things up?  Do the words of Jesus get our blood flowing and our imaginations racing?  Does hearing the gospel make us long for a better place, a more peaceful kingdom, a just society?

We believe that the Word proclaimed is the actual presence of Christ.  We are not just hearing words about Jesus, we are hearing Jesus, we are experiencing the presence of God right here, right now, among us.  If we open the door of our ears and our hearts, we might just find God doing something amazing in us and through us.

Take care, then, how you hear.

Friday of the Twenty-fourth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Today’s readings are a kind of blueprint for the life of the disciple.  We see that those who surrounded Jesus as his core group were but a few selected people.  We have the Twelve, of course, but also some women.  Common to all of them is that nowadays we would probably not see any of them as qualified for the job of being in the Savior’s inner circle.  The Twelve themselves were a ragtag bunch, tradesmen, fishermen, tax collectors – none of them were even particularly distinguished in their chosen careers.

The women mentioned were similarly unqualified.  The Gospel says that they had all been cured either of evil spirits or infirmities.  But they also provided for the ministry out of their means.  So it’s a humble group that surrounds Jesus, and clearly, that was fine with him.  He came, after all, to save those who needed saving, not those who had no use for a Savior.

Paul tells Timothy that those who would be disciples must “pursue righteousness, devotion, faith, love, patience, and gentleness.”  They must “compete well for the faith” and thus “lay hold of eternal life.”  Jesus chooses anyone he wants; not merely those who are outstanding in qualifications.  Blessed indeed “are those who are poor in Spirit, for the kingdom of heaven is theirs.”

Monday of the Twenty-fourth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

This whole Gospel story can be a little bit jarring, I think. I was particularly struck by what the messenger said to Jesus when he asked him to come to the centurion’s house: “He deserves to have you do this for him.” As if any of us is ever worthy of God’s mercy! To his credit, the centurion must have heard about this, because he hurries to Jesus to set things right: “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you enter under my roof. Therefore, I did not consider myself worthy to come to you; but say the word and let my servant be healed.” And what he says also explains why he sent a messenger to come to Jesus instead of coming himself. For his part, Jesus is impressed with the man’s faith: “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith,” he says. And so the healing of the man’s slave takes place at once. It’s an interesting exchange, to say the least.

We have the privilege, every time we gather for the Eucharist, to echo the centurion’s faith. Just before we come to the Altar for Holy Communion, we say: “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof. But only say the word and my soul shall be healed.” And saying those words out loud is so important at that moment in the Mass. Unless we truly believe that Christ’s Body and Blood are sufficient for the healing of our souls, unless we truly know that we are completely unworthy of God’s mercy, then we don’t have the faith necessary to receive the Body and Blood of our Lord.

But when we do enter into that moment of Communion with hearts open in faith, everything changes for us. True healing can come about, and we can return to our daily lives and find our souls healed with the grace that prepares them for whatever this world brings them.

The Twenty-fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

The Liturgy in these past summer months has been teaching us how to be disciples of Jesus.  Today, the readings give us another tool for the disciple, and that tool is forgiveness.  These readings come on the heels of what we heard last week, which was about the way the Christian disciple resolves conflict.  Forgiveness is the natural conclusion to that discussion.

In the Gospel, Peter wants the Lord to spell out the rule of thumb: how often must we forgive another person who has wronged us?  Peter offers what he thinks is magnanimous: seven times.  Seven times is a lot of forgiveness.  Think about it, how exasperated do we get when someone wrongs us over and over?  Seven times was more than the law required, so Peter felt like he was catching on to what Jesus required in living the Gospel.  But that’s not what Jesus was going for: he wanted a much more forgiving heart from his disciples: not seven times, but seventy-seven times!  Even if we take that number literally, which we shouldn’t, that’s more forgiveness than we can begin to imagine.  But the number here is just to represent something bigger than ourselves: constant forgiveness.

The parable that Jesus tells to illustrate the story is filled with interesting little details.  The servant in the story owes the master a huge amount of money.  Think of the biggest sum you can imagine someone owing another person and add a couple of zeroes to the end of it.  It’s that big.  He will never repay the master, no matter what efforts he puts forth or how long he lives.  So the master would be just in having him and everything he owned and everyone he cared about sold.  It still wouldn’t repay the debt, but it would be more than he would otherwise get.  But the servant pleads for mercy, and the master gives it.  In fact, he does more than he’s asked to do: he doesn’t just give the servant more time to pay, he forgives the entire loan!  That’s incredible mercy!

On the way home, however, the servant forgets about who he is: a sinner who has just been forgiven a huge debt, and he encounters another servant who owes him a much smaller sum than he owed the master – for us it would be like ten or twenty bucks.  But the servant has not learned to forgive as he has been forgiven: he hands the fellow servant over to be put into debtor’s prison until he can repay the loan.  But that in itself is a humorous little detail.  In prison, how is he going to repay the loan?  He can’t work, right?  So basically the fellow servant is condemned for the rest of his life.

We don’t have to do a lot of math or theological thinking to see the injustice here.  The servant has been forgiven something he could never repay, no matter how much time he lived.  But he was unwilling to give that same forgiveness to his fellow servant; he was unwilling to give him even a little more time to repay the loan, which the other servant certainly could have done.  That kind of injustice is something that allows a person to condemn him or herself for the rest of eternity.  The disciple is expected to learn to forgive and is expected to forgive as he or she has been forgiven.  “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”  We can’t just say those words when we pray; we actually have to do it.

This call to a kind of heroic forgiveness takes on a new meaning when we consider the state of our world today.  We still have conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, North Korea, Syria, and in many other places.  In fact, I’ve read that as many as a third of the nations of the world are currently involved in some sort of conflict.  And we owe a great debt to those who are fighting to keep our nation safe.  But I don’t think we can stop with that.  We will never find the ultimate answer to terrorism and injustice in human endeavor.  We have to reach for something of more divine origin, and that something, I think, is the forgiveness that Jesus calls us to in today’s gospel.

And it starts with us.  We have been forgiven so much by God.  So how willing have we then been to forgive others?  Our reflection today might take us to the people or institutions that have wronged us in some way.  Can we forgive them?  Can we at least ask God for the grace to be forgiving?  I always tell people that forgiveness is a journey.  We might not be ready to forgive right now, but we can ask for the grace to be ready.  Jesus didn’t say it would be easy, did he?  But we have to stop sending people to debtor’s prison for the rest of their lives if we are going to honor the enormous freedom that God’s forgiveness has won for us.

Every time we forgive someone, every time we let go of an injustice that has been done to us, the world is that much more peaceful.  We may well always have war and the threat of terrorism with us.  But that doesn’t mean we have to like it.  That doesn’t mean we have to participate in it.  Real peace, real change, starts with us.  If we choose to forgive others, maybe our own corner of the world can be more just, more merciful.  And if we all did that, think of how our world could be significantly changed.

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.

The Twenty-third Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

So today our Gospel, at the end of it, talks to us a bit about what prayer looks like.  And that reminds me of one of my favorite little stories.

So this person was not a real person of faith, but they were going through some hard times.  So since everything else she tried didn’t work, she decided to pray about it.  Not knowing really where to start, she reached for the old Bible that was up on a shelf in her room, took it down and dusted it off.  She said, “Okay God, I need to hear you tell me how to fix this situation.”  So she decided to point to a verse and see if that was God’s answer.  She opened up the Bible and did just that and then read it: “And Judas went out and hanged himself.”  That was pretty horrifying, and she didn’t think that could possibly be what God was telling her, so she decided to try again.  Opening to a different place, she read the verse: “Go thou and do likewise.”  Now it was getting personal, but she decided to try one more time: “Go and do quickly what you must do.”

I have to say, when the Scriptures talk about prayer, I get a little uneasy.  Not because I don’t like to pray, or think prayer is a bad thing.  But more because I think mostly we misunderstand prayer, and usually a brief mention in the readings like we have today can do more harm than good.  The line almost at the end of the Gospel reading is the culprit: “if two of you agree on earth about anything for which they are to pray, it shall be granted to them by my heavenly Father.”

Really? Anything? I don’t know about you, but I personally can think of examples – plenty of examples – of times where I had prayed with friends or family for something and ended up not getting it.  You can probably think of examples too.  People tell me all the time, “Father, I have prayed and prayed about (fill in the blank), and I never get any answer, it doesn’t seem like God even hears me.”  Have you ever thought that?  Lots of us have.  So what are we to make of this?  Why would Jesus make a promise like that if he wasn’t prepared to deliver on it?  Well, I’d like to make three points about prayer that maybe will help with that conundrum.

First, in the line right after this, Jesus says, “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”  Notice how he says, “in my name.”  So it’s not like a couple of us can get together and pray for something crazy and hold God accountable for granting it.  That would be absurd; I’m sure you realize that.  If we’re gathered in anything less than the name of Jesus, we’re in the wrong place, and you don’t get what you want, or even what you need, when you’re in a place other than where Jesus is.

Second, reflecting on that same line, I would point out the last phrase: “there am I in the midst of them.”  Sometimes God doesn’t answer all our prayers in the way we think he should, or in the way we would like him to.  God isn’t a divine vending machine.  But he definitely always answers them with his presence.  Sometimes that leads to resolution of a problem that is greater than we could have imagined.  Sometimes it makes us a stronger, more faith-filled person.  And sometimes the answer to a prayer means that we are the ones who have to change, not the situation, or the other people, or whatever is going on.  So the abiding presence of our God, most perfectly experienced in community, when two are three are gathered in his name, is the most important answer to every prayer.  And even if it’s the only answer, it surely is enough.

Finally – and I can’t say this often enough, nor stress it strongly enough – prayer is not a magic wand.  You might read in this brief little passage that all you have to do is pray for something and you get it.  “God help me win the lottery.”  Not so fast.  Prayer is always experienced in relationship: relationship with God and relationship with others.  That’s why this brief little passage mentions praying together, and praying in Jesus’ name.  Those are important points, and it’s best not to overlook them.

Prayer is a relationship, prayer is work – sometimes hard work, prayer is a way of life for the disciple of Jesus.  We enter that relationship at our Baptism, and it’s our task as disciples to nurture that relationship our whole lives long.