Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time: Blessed are they who hope in the Lord

Today’s readings

When I was growing up, I always liked the “Peanuts” comic strip. Some of the best were the ones that started with “Happiness is…” So they would show pictures of Peppermint Patty hugging Snoopy with the caption “Happiness is a warm puppy” while another said, “Happiness is a good friend.” I think those cartoons were so appealing because we all naturally want to know how we can be happy, and most of us spend a good deal of our lives trying to figure that out. Often we will try one thing or another to see if it will make us happy. Maybe a self-help book here, or a TV Infomercial get rich scheme there. Maybe we’ll do whatever Oprah or Dr. Phil tell us will make us happy, or perhaps we’ll go power shopping. Maybe we will look for happiness in relationships that are not life-giving, or in owning things we do not need. Perhaps happiness is waiting for us in the right career, or the right school. But all too often we will become frustrated by the lack of happiness all these ideas give us, and then we mask the frustration and unhappiness in some kind of addiction. Happiness can be a rather elusive thing if we let it be.

Today’s Liturgy of the Word is, in some ways, a reflection on what happiness is. We hear the readings today talk a lot about blessedness, and when the Scriptures speak of blessedness, they are talking about happiness. In the Hebrew of the Old Testament, the word is ‘esher, and in New Testament Greek it is makarios. Both of those can be translated “blessed” or “happy.” These ancient languages and cultures made a very strong link between the concept of being happy, and the blessings one had received. There’s even a sense of that in our own words. Dictionary.com has as one of its definitions of blessed, “blissfully happy or contented.” The elusive pursuit of happiness throughout time has included the idea of having been blessed by someone.

But today’s Scriptures don’t quite go there. Today we hear the idea of happiness as a choice – our choice. We are given the choice of happiness and blessing or woefulness and curse, and we have the freedom to choose either path. Now the first reading from the prophet Jeremiah starts out with the rather ominous “thus says the Lord…” Usually that is followed by some foreboding of doom or prediction of dire consequences for impure behavior. But that’s not what we get in this reading. Here, Jeremiah speaks to a people who had been through exile and oppression, and he speaks words of comfort to them. But these words of comfort are more the like of tough love. His hearers are given two possible paths to follow: one can trust in human beings, or one can trust in the Lord. Guess which one is the right answer? Trusting in the power of people is what got them into trouble in the first place – that kind of nonsense will only bring them continued curse. But, those who trust in the Lord will find themselves blessed and fruitful, drawing their life from the ever flowing waters of the grace of God. But they have to choose one way or the other.

Now we’ve all heard the Beatitudes before. But we are perhaps more familiar with Matthew’s version of them, which foretells blessing for the pure of heart and peacemakers and all the rest. Luke has just four beatitudes of blessing, but contrasts them with beatitudes of woe. These parallel quite closely the idea of curse and blessing we hear in Jeremiah’s reading. Those who are blessed – the happy ones – are those who choose to find their strength in God. Those who rely on themselves or other human beings or anything that is not God will find themselves filled with woe. What is so incredible about these beatitudes is that they are completely counter-intuitive. One would expect to be completely happy if one were rich, filled up, joyful and laughing, and well-spoken-of. But that’s not how it works in the Kingdom of God. Those filled ones are also filled with woe. Why? Because there is nothing in them left to be filled with the presence of God. Now, those who are poor, hungry, weeping and hated have all the room inside them in the world, and that can be filled with the incredible blessing of God. These will find themselves completely happy indeed. But one has to choose that path.

The point that we absolutely have to get here – the point that I want you to take away even if you hear nothing else today – is that when we look for happiness anywhere else than in the blessing of God’s presence in our mind, we will always be ultimately unsuccessful. So part of today’s reflection on happiness has to find us taking a long, hard look at ourselves. I have to admit that I had the hardest time figuring out today’s homily. When I prayed about it, I found that there were indeed areas where I was looking for happiness in something far less than God, and I was resisting going there. When we reflected on this reading in our staff meeting on Friday, one of the staff said that it was hard to hear this version of the beatitudes because it was like a mirror was being held in front of you, and you found yourself having to see the mistakes and imperfections and flaws in your life. And she was right, that’s exactly what these readings are doing in us.

So if you found yourself squirming a bit as woe was foretold to the rich, or to those filled up, or to those laughing or well-spoken of, then I think you’re starting to get the message. If we who are extremely blessed in our lives are so rich or filled up or jovial or well-spoken of that we find ourselves ignoring the cries of the poor, the hungry, the grieving and the oppressed, then we have some work to do in our spiritual lives. And work on it we better, or we will absolutely find ourselves ultimately, and perhaps eternally, unhappy. That’s what we hear in today’s readings.

So are we finding our happiness in enough money, the right job, the best toys, the finest food, drink and entertainment? Those things aren’t bad in and of themselves, but if that is the ultimate goal of our lives, then we have to hear in today’s Gospel that we’ve got it all wrong. St. Ignatius spoke often of detachment, meaning the ability to have things but not center our lives around them, or even the ability to give them up if necessary. Today’s Liturgy of the Word impels us to look at the things we are attached to, and to give them up if they are ultimately keeping us from God.

The Protestant Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr famously spoke of this in his “Serenity Prayer.” We’ve all heard the first part of it:

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.

But maybe you haven’t heard the rest of that prayer. Listen closely:

Living one day at a time;
Enjoying one moment at a time;
Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace;
Taking, as Jesus did, this sinful world
as it is, not as I would have it;
Trusting that He will make all things right
if I surrender to His Will;
That I may be reasonably happy in this life
and supremely happy with Him
Forever in the next.
Amen.

What is going to have us living supremely happy with God forever in the next life? Living and enjoying one moment at a time, accepting hardship, and dealing with the world as it is. But even more than that, happiness comes in trusting God to make everything right. So if we find ourselves in the woeful condition of poverty, hunger, grief and oppression, we can indeed look forward to great happiness in God.

What these readings are calling us to do is to stand in front of that mirror and take a long, hard look at ourselves. If we see in that reflection any attachments that have us neglecting God or others, it’s time to ruthlessly cut them out of our lives. Lent is coming in just over a week. Maybe we will see in that mirror something we need to give up. I know everyone wants to hear me say that you don’t have to give anything up for Lent as long as you do something nice for others and try to be a good person. But that kind of advice is spiritual garbage, and you can hear that kind of thing from Oprah and Dr. Phil – you don’t need to hear me say it. You’re supposed to do something nice for others and be a good person all the time. Lent is an opportunity and a call to look at your spiritual life and get right with God. It is a time to turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel as we’ll hear on Ash Wednesday. So please hear me say that if there is something in that mirror that is keeping you attached to something other than God, you absolutely have to give it up, and giving it up for Lent is a good start.

We have before us two paths. Going down one, you will trust in yourself and others. This is the path that leads to woe. Going down the other, you will trust in God alone. Those who trod this path will be truly blessed, truly happy. Blessed are they who hope in the Lord.

Friday of the 26th Week of Ordinary Time: Who are we to answer God?

Today’s readings

[Mass for the school children.]

Our first reading today sounds almost like God could be asking us all the same questions. He asked Job these things to help Job understand that God knows things that Job will never come to understand. We’re like that too. How many of us have ever told the sun to rise and had the sun obey? How many of us have walked on the ocean floor? Who of us knows for certain how big the world or the universe is? Could any of us have thought up the system of having the darkness and the light take charge of the various times of day? Well, no, none of us could ever have thought of or done any of those things. Only God could have.

I told the adults who came to morning Mass yesterday that Job had a really hard life. We’ve been hearing a little of his story all this week. Job was a good man. He had a good family, a nice place to live, and many flocks of animals. But one day Satan came to God and said that it’s only because God has been so good to Job, and that God has given Job all these things that Job is such a good man. Satan said that if God really wanted to see if Job was a good man, he should take away everything and see what happens. So God allowed Satan to test Job. In an instant, everything Job had was gone. His children were all killed in a horrible accident. All of his livestock were killed too. The house in which they live was destroyed and Job was left with nothing but sadness.

With that kind of sadness, we could sure understand if Job was angry. I don’t know if he was or not, but he certainly was confused. This is what he says just a bit before the reading we heard today:

Why doesn’t God All-Powerful
listen and answer?
If God has something against me,
let him speak up
or put it in writing!
Then I would wear his charges
on my clothes and forehead.
And with my head held high,
I would tell him everything
I have ever done.
I have never mistreated
the land I farmed
and made it mourn.
Nor have I cheated
my workers
and caused them pain.
If I had, I would pray
for weeds instead of wheat
to grow in my fields.
Job 31:35-40a, CEV

So Job is challenging God to tell him why all this bad stuff was happening. And God replies in the reading we heard today: If Job was not going to be able to understand how the sun came to rise and set, and why the ocean only went so far and didn’t swallow up the whole earth, if Job didn’t understand how the world was made, well then, he certainly wasn’t going to understand why things were happening in his life.

And we’re just like Job sometimes. Bad things happen to us. Maybe we fail a test, or get into an argument with a friend. Maybe our parents get angry with us. Or maybe some really bad things happen like someone we love dies. The one thing that we learn in life is that sometimes bad things happen. We all experience sadness and pain sometimes. And when that happens, we always try to understand it. That’s just the kind of people we are. We try to understand everything in the world. And we have come to learn a lot. We can understand all kinds of scientific things. But how was the world created? None of us were there and there’s no tests we can do, so anything we say about that is just a theory. So if that’s hard for us to understand, we can be sure that the reasons for our sadnesses and pains are going to be hard to understand too. We may never understand them in this lifetime.

The only one who understands is God. The mind of God is bigger than anything we can imagine. God is present to the past, present and future all at once. God sees the “big picture.” When we are going through those sad times, we have to come to trust God just like Job did at the end of our reading today. He said, “who am I to answer you?” God is in control of all our lives, in control of our coming and going. We have to trust in God to make sense of it all, even when we are most confused and very sad. We have to trust in God to change our sadness into joy, just as he did later on in the story for Job. It may take a while, but God will surely heal us and comfort us if we let him.

Today we are celebrating a Mass of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. In this Mass, we remember how much God loves us. God loved Job very much, and healed him and gave him great joy after all of his sadness. We can trust that God, through the Sacred Heart of Jesus, loves us just as much as he loved Job, if not more. Whenever we have sadness and pain, we can know that God will eventually give us comfort and joy, even greater than we ever had before.

Thursday of the 26th Week of Ordinary Time: I know that my Vindicator lives!

Today’s readings

This is the first opportunity I’ve had to preach on the ongoing reading of the book of Job this week. I have to admit that the book of Job disturbs me all the time, just because of the seeming unfairness of it. The whole idea of Job being a pawn in the ongoing contest between God and Satan is disturbing. But I know that I need to bracket that, because that’s not the point of the book of Job. The book of Job should rather be a textbook of the spiritual life.

Put yourself in Job’s position. Everything he’s ever cared about is gone. His possessions, flocks, livelihood, all of his children, gone in an instant. In that kind of situation, I don’t think any of us would think ill of him for being sad, depressed, even angry. Those reactions are absolutely natural, I think. And to be fair, he did go through those, I think, but I guess what really impresses me is that through it all, there was still that faith, a faith that is almost hard to understand. Listen to his words again from today’s first reading:

But as for me, I know that my Vindicator lives,
and that he will at last stand forth upon the dust;
Whom I myself shall see:
my own eyes, not another’s, shall behold him,
And from my flesh I shall see God;
my inmost being is consumed with longing.

These words are a common reading for a funeral Liturgy, and they of course are the source for the hymn, “I Know that My Redeemer Lives.” They provide a great deal of consolation for all of us who have to go through trials and grief. We may never be tested the way Job was tested – at least we hope not! – but our own trials and grief are every bit as valid and heartbreaking. So we will often be faced with the same decision that Job had to make. Will we give in to the sadness, anger, grief and pain, or will we remember that our Vindicator lives? Will we cling to the hope that we will see God, or will we turn away from our faith? In our grief and pain, it’s often hard to consume ourselves with longing for God, but that’s exactly what we are called to do, what Job did in his own grief.

In our darkest moments, may we all cling to the hope of one day seeing our Vindicator face to face.

26th Sunday of Ordinary Time: It’s not about me.

Today’s readings

Today we should spend some time reflecting on one of the essential truths of our faith, and that is:

It’s not about me.

In fact, I hope you will memorize those four words and find yourself repeating them all through the coming week. If we are ever to get anything out of our relationship with God, we are going to have to wholeheartedly embrace the notion that it’s not about me.

Our first reading and the first part of our Gospel today each relate a similar story. Someone from the inside group notices that someone on the outside group is acting in the name of the teacher, and they are indignant about it. The teacher in each case replies that there is no need to be indignant because those who act in God’s name can hardly be against God.

In the first reading, it’s Joshua that is all bent out of shape. Eldad and Medad were missing from the meeting and, in his view, should not have received authorization to go out and prophesy in God’s name. But that’s exactly what is happening. So he complains to Moses, who is anything but indignant. “Would that all the people of the Lord were prophets,” he says. 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. Moses makes it clear to Joshua that it’s not about him. It’s not about either of them, quite frankly, and God can bestow his spirit on anyone he wants.

In the Gospel, John is upset because they found that someone outside the group was casting out demons in Jesus’ name. The disciples even tried to prevent him because the man was not from their group. But Jesus does not share their concern. 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! Jesus even goes so far as to say that if people are bringing others back to God, which is the fundamental mission of Jesus in the first place, then they really are members of the group. Anyone who is not against us is for us. Anyone who heals a person in God’s name is accomplishing the mission, so praise God. As for John and the others, well, it’s not about them, is it?

In the second reading, St. James comes about this fundamental spiritual principle in a bit of a different way. He chastises those who hoarded wealth, and especially those who hoarded wealth and did not care for the poor. He speaks of clothes that are moth-eaten. Moths mostly get to eat clothes that are not worn. So those who hoarded clothes, just for the sake of having them, have deprived the poor of the opportunity to have something to wear and instead have given the moths food to eat. That kind of hoarding and callous disregard for the poor is scandalous. We should note here, though, that James was probably not speaking primarily about people in his own community. At that time, there were very few members of the Christian community who had any appreciable wealth, so mostly it was those outside the community who hoarded wealth and made life miserable for Christians. But he was clearly saying that if any Christian found himself or herself wealthy, that person must care for all the others, because even in wealth, it’s not about us.

This principle can be hard to hear and hard to live in this society. We are a people all about entitlement. In our society, it’s all about our rights. We have the right to all kinds of things, and we take those rights to the nth degree. We have a right to say whatever we want, regardless of what that does to others. We have a right to have whatever we want, regardless of the needs of others. We have a right to do whatever we want, regardless of how that affects the basic rights of others. When we do not get what we want, we yell and we complain and we file suit. Then we gossip, and we slander others, and we try to get everyone to be on our side. In our society, we have the right to do this. But in our faith, we do not. Our faith tells us that this kind of attitude and all these actions are deeply un-Christian and even seriously sinful. This kind of action can indeed be the kind of thing that can “cause one of these little ones … to sin” and it would certainly be better that we would be bound to a millstone and thrown into the sea than for us to perpetuate this kind of attitude and action. Brothers and sisters in Christ, we have to come to know that it’s not about us.

If the early Christians were not wealthy people, these days, the tables are a bit turned. There are many wealthy Christians, and these words are extremely poignant for us. As those who live in one of the wealthiest counties in the wealthiest nation on earth, we must be very careful that our riches are not hoarded and that we have a diligent concern for the poor. Those of you studying the prophets in CREEDS know that the prophets tell us that God had a special concern for the widow, the orphan and the resident alien, because all these people were the poor and the dispossessed of that time. It is now our task to be sure that we care for their modern equivalents, perhaps the single mother or battered wife, the abused child, and the homeless person. On this respect life Sunday, we are also called to care for those whose life is fragile, especially the unborn. We have to zealously defend all life, from conception to natural death, even if it’s difficult to speak out in those ways, because it’s not about us.

None of this is to say that wealth in itself is bad, or that we shouldn’t stand up for our basic rights. But we have to be constantly on guard against taking any of these things too seriously, or insisting on them so much so that we lose our relationship with God, which is the pearl of great price that should never be squandered. Today’s Gospel makes quite clear that whatever it is that has us so wrapped up in ourselves that we forget about God must be ruthlessly and immediately chopped off, lest we end up burning in Gehenna. Gehenna was an area just outside the city where the community would dump their garbage, and it was always burning. I’m sure it was none too fragrant. So Jesus calling it to mind here was probably something the people were very aware of. Later the fires of Gehenna came to be seen as an image of the fires of hell. Nobody wants to be left burning in Gehenna, or in the fires of hell, so it would be far better to go without something they had a right to, like a hand or a foot or an eye. Because, in our relationship with God, it’s not about us.

What are the things that we need to chop out of our lives? Maybe we don’t need to chop off a hand, but instead chop off some of the things those hands do. Maybe it’s a job that is not worthy of our vocation as Christians. Maybe it’s a sinful activity that we no longer should be engaged in. We probably don’t need to lop off a foot. But maybe we do 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, they have to go. Some people may find that they need to get rid of the computer or television, or put them in a more public spot. It may be hard to do without these things, but better that than being so wrapped up in our own needs that we forget about God. Because it’s not about us.

The readings today make it quite clear that if we are serious about our spiritual life, we have to get past ourselves. Whether it’s because we see people outside our group doing great things, or because we are wrapped up in a sense of entitlement, or because we can’t get past the “stuff” that we own or because we are tangled up in things or sinful patterns that have a hold on us, all these things keep us from God. And we were made for God, brothers and sisters in Christ, so we need to ruthlessly chop away whatever keeps us from him. The psalmist tells us that “the precepts of the Lord give joy to the heart.” That’s what we have to be focused on, because, when it comes right down to it, it’s not about us.

A Letter to Diognetus: We’re Not Home Yet

Today's Office of Readings has as its second reading an excerpt from a Letter to Diognetus.  This is one of my favorite readings.  I'm not sure why, because every year when I read it, it makes me feel uneasy, unworthy — yeah, all of that.  Listen to this portion of it:

Christians love those who hate them just as the soul loves the body and all its members despite the body's hatred. It is by the soul, enclosed within the body, that the body is held together, and similarly, it is by the Christians, detained in the world as in a prison, that the world is held together. The soul, though immortal, has a mortal dwelling place; and Christians also live for a time amidst perishable things, while awaiting the freedom from change and decay that will be theirs in heaven. As the soul benefits from the deprivation of food and drink, so Christians flourish under persecution. Such is the Christian’s lofty and divinely appointed function, from which he is not permitted to excuse himself.

That just reminds me that no, we're not home yet.  We are supposed to live as full citizens of the world, but also as aliens in it — the whole Catholic both/and approach to theology in general.  We must take our place here and make present the Kingdom of God on earth.  But we must always live remembering that we are not ultimately destined for life in this world, and so must not be too attached to things, people, anything that drags us away from our Creator.

Things we ought to give up for Lent

A surface reading of Catholic blogs lately has made me ponder the purpose of these things. Since it’s Lent, I thought maybe all of us, bloggers or readers, could resolve to give up some things:

  • The use of the phrase “put the smackdown on…” in reference to religious leaders. For example, “Pope Benedict or Pope John Paul or Cardinal N. or Bishop N. or Father N. put the smackdown on liberals or gays or liturgical musicians or abortionists or anyone else.” Such an image is tantamount to religious “my father can beat up your father-ism” and is totally unbecoming and unflattering to a man who has given his life to be a servant of Jesus Christ. Jesus himself did not delight in putting the smackdown on anyone, which is not the same thing as saying he condoned everyone’s behavior. For example, look at how he dealt with the moneychangers in this week’s Gospel.
  • The ridiculing of anyone who does not share one’s own liturgical sensibilities, most especially one’s own liturgical music preferences, which can be quite subjective. You don’t have to agree with everyone, and you don’t even have to like their music. But ridiculing a brother or sister in Christ does violence to the Church (which is, after all, the whole point of the words of absolution in the Sacrament of Penance, “By the ministry of the Church…”) and is completely incompatible with worshipping Christ in the Liturgy.

I noted in another place that such resolutions would likely result in empty blogs (and I guess even message boards) here and there, but maybe that’s a good thing. Lent is a time for conversion; would that we all would pursue that conversion in word and action during these forty days. Perhaps then we could approach worship of the Lord in the Paschal triduum with renewed hearts and minds (cf. Rite of Penance, 13).

I do not wish the sinner to die, says the Lord,
but to turn back to me and live.
(Ezekiel 33)

Say More About That

The paradox of transformation is the paradox of death/resurrection, a time of dying to what was, as we move into what will be. It's a strange mix of color and darkness, of both knowing and not knowing. This somewhat abstract image reflects on the leap we take into the mystery of our own tansformative journeys. Here we face the changes and sometimes the death of our hopes, our dreams, our bodies and our relationships. As we stand in these times of change, we simply ask to be faithful and to trust in a loving God who can truly make all things new.   Painting by Doris Klein, CSA.
In CPE, we had a little “inside joke,” if you will, about the statement, “say more about that.” That’s one of those phrases often used in counselling, spiritual direction, and CPE. It’s a good, open-ended question, better than something that would call for a “yes” or “no” answer. But it gets thrown around so much, that our group laughed about it a lot, unless we really meant to use it.

I know if my group were with me right now, they’d be asking me to say more about how things felt with all of the tragedy that’s happened on our campus these last days. And there has been a lot. The two deaths alone would have been enough (kind of a reverse “dayenu” prayer), but another one of our brothers contracted West Nile Virus and is not well, and the mother of one of our professors died in Georgia. So we’ve had enough, and then some.

So how does that make me feel? Well, I guess I’ll say more about that…

First of all, it pisses me off that the availabilty of counseling has not been trumpeted from the rooftops. If this had been a public elementary school, counselors would have been available the next day. Despite news reports to the contrary, that has not yet happened here. Sure, there are spiritual directors and faculty to talk to, but nothing organized, nothing systematic to make sure nobody slips through the cracks. I know that people are slipping through the cracks and will continue to do so, and we should know better than that.

So I guess I’m in the anger stage of my grief right now. That feels pretty lousy, but I know I have to go through it. I do intend to find someone to talk to about it. Friends have been good, but it’s time for an objective point of view, I think.

Cardinal George was on campus the other night to talk to us about the tragedy. I know that what he said was true: we have to learn from this event, use it in our formation; we have to care for one another; we have to model our lives on the saints as we embrace the grief and pain and move through it. But he said nothing about how to take care of ourselves. Nobody has. And that’s what pisses me off most. It’s easy enough to say “you’re here to become priests, so buck up and stay the course.” But it’s quite another thing to have to do that, and quite frankly His Eminence’s words, while well-intentioned and probably the best he could do when it comes to pastoral care, just ring hollow.

So I still miss Matty and Jared. Matty especially, since I knew him best of the two. I miss his music, his laughter, his outreaching friendship for everybody. Grief just stinks.

From the holy card from Matty’s funeral, the Memorare:

Remember, O most gracious Virgin Mary,
that never was it known that anyone who fled to your protection,
implored your help or sought your intercession was left unaided.

Inspired with with confidence,
I fly to you, O virgin of virgins, my Mother.
To you I come,
before you I stand,
sinful and sorrowful.

O Mother of the Word Incarnate,
despise not my petitions,
but in your mercy, hear and answer me.
Amen.