Monday of the Thirty-fourth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Very often, when we hear this story about the widow’s mite, the story is equated with the call to stewardship. That’s a rather classic explanation of the text. And there’s nothing wrong with that explanation. But honestly, I don’t think the story about the widow’s mite is about stewardship at all. Yes, it’s about treasure and giving and all of that. But what kind of treasure? Giving what?

I think to get the accurate picture of what’s going on here, we have to ask why the Church would give us this little vignette at the end of the Church year, in the very last week of Ordinary Time. That’s the question I found myself asking when I looked at today’s readings. Well, first of all, it’s near the end of Luke’s Gospel so that may have something to do with it. But I think there’s a reason Luke put it at the end also. I mean, in the very next chapter we are going to be led into Christ’s passion and death, so why pause this late in the game to talk about charitable giving?

Obviously, the widow’s mite means something other than giving of one’s material wealth. Here at the end of the Church year, we are being invited to look back on our lives this past year and see what we have given. How much of ourselves have we poured out for the life of faith? What have we given of ourselves in service? What has our prayer life been like? Have we trusted Jesus to forgive our sins by approaching the Sacrament of Penance? Have we resolved to walk with Christ in good times and in bad? In short, have we poured out everything we have, every last cent, every widow’s mite, for our life with Christ? Or have we held something back, giving merely of our surplus wealth?

In this last week of the Church year, we have to hear the widow telling us that there is something worth giving everything for, and that something is our relationship with Christ.

Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe

Today’s readings

I wonder if this solemnity of Christ the King is one to which many people can relate.  In our American society, so many people don’t recognize or accept any authority outside of their own personal opinion of what is okay, let alone grasp the concept of a monarchical, top-down method of government.

And even if we were looking for a king, what kind of king is this?  Our gospel reading today presents a picture of a king who, objectively speaking, seems to be rather a failure.  This is not a king who lived in a lavish palace and expected the blind obedience of all those around him.  This is not a king who held political office, or led a great army.  His message has always been quite different than that, and now today, look at him hanging on the cross between two hardened criminals.  That one of them thinks to ask Jesus to remember him when he comes into his kingdom is almost laughable, but, well, there it is.   There is our king.  This feast leaves us on the very last Sunday of the Church year with more questions than, it would seem, could ever possibly be answered.

This wasn’t the kind of thing the Jews were expecting, of course. They had long been expecting an Anointed One, but never one like this. Their whole picture of a Messiah had been one of political greatness and military strength, one who would restore the sovereignty of Israel and reestablish Jerusalem as the great political and religious city that it had once been. That was the Messiah they were looking for, but what they got was one who was so much of a suffering servant that he ended up on a cross. Pilate’s inscription, “This is the king of the Jews” was sarcastic and completely offensive to them, which of course is exactly what he intended.

So it’s easy to see why the Jews might not have noticed that this one was their king. It’s easy enough to even see why they would have chosen to ignore his kingship. But we can’t miss it: we have heard the Word proclaimed all year long and we know that this is the way that God chose to save the world. There are times, of course, when we could do with a bit more opulence and certainly a lot less suffering. But Jesus is the king of our reality, not of our fantasy, and so he is not ashamed to herald the cross as the gateway to the kingdom and the instrument of our salvation.

And we have to admit that we are a people who need a king like this. We might want a king to give us greatness and rest from our enemies, but that’s not real. What’s real is our suffering, whether it’s illness, or grief, or job dissatisfaction, or personal troubles, or family strife, or broken relationships, or any other calamity. Suffering happens, and that’s why Jesus chose the image of the Suffering Servant as the motif of his kingship. St. Paul says today in our second reading from his letter to the Colossians that “in him all things hold together.” Even when the world seems to be falling apart for us, we can trust in the Suffering Servant to walk with us and hold everything together.

And so, as preposterous as it may sound to others, we know that Christ is our King.  His Kingship, he says in another gospel, is not of this world.  No, he was not a king who came with great fanfare, oppressing peoples and putting down vast armies.  No, he was not the king who restored Israel to the Davidic monarchy that began in this morning’s first reading.  His power was not exercised over the political forces of this world, as much as it was exercised over the power of evil in the world.  He is the King who conquered, once and for all, the things that really plague us: evil, sin and death.  His Kingdom was not defined by his mortal life, but in fact begins just after he gives up that mortal life.  Unlike earthly kings, his power is everlasting.

In 1925, Pope Pius XI, in the face of rising nationalism and Fascism, instituted the Feast of Christ the King to reassert Christ’s sovereignty over all forms of political governance.  Jesus Christ is not just one king among others, but rather he is the King of kings and Lord of lords.  Perhaps, if this feast had been instituted today, our Church might be reasserting Christ’s sovereignty over all powers of cynicism, relativism, and apathy.  Jesus Christ our King is, as he says in another place, “the way, the truth, and the life” and there is no other way to the Father, no other way to the kingdom, no other way to life eternal than to take up our cross and follow our King through the sadness of sin and brokenness, through the pain of death, to the glory of his kingdom.  And so we have to say with boldness and conviction on this day that one religion isn’t as good as another; that it’s not okay to skip Mass to go to your child’s basketball game; that Sunday isn’t just a day to sleep in, or shop the malls, but rather a day to worship our King who is the only One who can give us what we really yearn for; what this life is all about.

And so this is how we wrap up our Church year.  Next week we begin anew, the first Sunday of Advent.  On this last Sunday of the year, it makes sense that we stop for a minute, and look back at the year gone by.  How has it been for us?  Have we grown in faith?  Have we been able to reach out to the poor and needy?  Has our faith really taken root in our lives, have we been people who witness to the truth with integrity and conviction and fearlessness?  Have we put our King first in our lives or have we been worshipping false gods, attaching our hopes to impotent kings, recognizing false powers, and wandering off the path to life?

If we have been lax about our faith this year, if we have given ourselves to relativism and apathy, then this is the time to get it right.  On this eve of the Church’s new year, perhaps we might make new year’s resolutions to worship our King in everything we say and everything we do.  Because nothing else is acceptable, and anything less is offensive to our King who gained his Kingship at the awesome price of his own precious life that we might be able to live with him in his kingdom.  Maybe we can resolve to get to Mass every Sunday and Holy Day of obligation, not just when it works out in our schedule, and including those times when we travel (there are Catholic churches pretty much everywhere).  Or perhaps we can resolve to reinvigorate our prayer lives, making time every single day to connect with our Lord, to remember our Sunday worship, to seek his guidance in all our endeavors and plans, to strive to catch a glimpse of the Kingdom in the quiet moments of our prayer.  And certainly we must resolve to live the Gospel in its fullness: to reach out to the poor and needy, to live lives of integrity as we participate in our work and in our communities, to love every person God puts in our path.  On this “new Church year’s eve” we must resolve to be followers of the King in ways that proclaim to a cynical and apathetic, yet watching world, that Jesus Christ is King of kings and Lord of lords and that there is absolutely no other.

Our prayer on this glorious Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ the King must be the prayer of Saint Dismas, the “good thief” as he hung upon the cross: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom!” Pray that with me in song…

Saturday of the Thirty-second Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

You know, this Gospel reading is filled with all sorts of off-putting comments, isn’t it? I don’t know about you, but I bristle at the thought of comparing God to a dishonest judge! But that’s not the point here. Of course, Jesus means that God is so much greater than the dishonest judge, that if the dishonest judge will finally relent to someone pestering him, how much more will God, who loves us beyond anything we can imagine, how much more will he grant the needs of this children who come to him in faith?

But people have trouble with this very issue all the time. Because I am sure that almost all of us have been in the situation where we have prayed and prayed and prayed and nothing seems to happen. But we can never know the reason for God’s delay. Maybe what we ask isn’t right for us right now – or ever. Maybe something better is coming our way, or at least something different. Maybe the right answer will position itself in time, through the grace of God at work in so many situations. Most likely, we just don’t have the big picture, which isn’t ours to have, really.

But whatever the reason, the last line of the Gospel today is our key: “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” And that’s why we have this particular Gospel reading at this late date in the Church year. As the days of Ordinary Time draw to a close, we find it natural to think of the end of time. We don’t know when the end of time will come; Jesus made that clear – nobody knows but the Father. But when it does come, please God let there be faith on earth. Let that great day find us living our faith and living the Gospel and loving one another.

Friday of the Thirty-second Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

So many religious people tend to get concerned about the end of time.  Some years ago, there was a serious of books called Left Behind, and a couple of movies made from them.  The premise was that Jesus returned to take all the faithful people home, and “left behind” everyone else.  It’s a notion known as the rapture, which is not taught by the Catholic Church, because it was never revealed in Scripture or Tradition.  In fact, no Christian denomination taught this until the late nineteenth century, so despite being a popular notion, at least among those who clamored after that series of books, it is not an authentic teaching.

I mention this because you might hear today’s Gospel and think of the rapture.  But Jesus is really talking about the final judgment, which we hear of often in the readings during these waning days of the Church year.  In the final judgment, we will all come before the Lord, both as nations and as individuals.  Here those who have made a decision to respond to God’s gifts of love and grace will be saved, and those who have rejected these gifts will be left to their own devices, left to live outside God’s presence for eternity.

So concern about when this will happen – which Jesus tells us nobody knows – is a waste of time.  Instead, we have to be concerned about responding to God’s gift and call in the here-and-now.  The first reading from the book of Wisdom warns us to be attentive to this: “All men were by nature foolish who were in ignorance of God…”

The day of our Lord’s return will indeed take us all by surprise.  We’ll all be doing what we do; let’s just pray that we’re all doing what we’re supposed to do: living our call as disciples.

Thursday of the Thirty-second Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Let’s be honest; we want it to be easy, this spiritual life, this journey to the kingdom.  We look longingly for signs that we’re headed the right way; we want more than anything to know we’ll end up in the right place.  And so we pay attention, sometimes, when people say, “Look, there he is,” or “Look, here he is.”  We let ourselves get distracted by people who seem important or things that promise some kind of easy comfort.  But none of that is the Kingdom of God.

In himself, our Jesus has shown that the journey will not be an easy one.  He himself suffered greatly and was even rejected by his own generation.  If the Son of God, the second person of the Blessed Trinity, if even he would embrace suffering and rejection as a pathway to glory, then we have to be ready to do the same.  He never expects us to trod a path that he wouldn’t – didn’t – do himself.  So we need to be ones who embrace the spiritual life, with all its frustrations, suffering, and pain, so that one day we who have joined our sufferings to Christ, might be one with him in glory.

And Jesus points out that this really should be easy; certainly easier than we’re making it.  The Kingdom of God is among us, if we would take the time to observe it, if we would open ourselves up to enter into it.  Even if the Kingdom seems cloaked from our current view, we must not give in to temptation.  We must stay the course, live in the moment, be true to our calling as disciples.  For then we cannot fail to enter into the Kingdom.

The Thirty-second Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

What if this life was all there was?  I’m sure you know some people who think that.  I’m not sure how people who think that can get out of bed in the morning, let alone keep on living day after day. Questions about life and death and last things and life after the last things are what’s going on in the Church’s mind and imagination in these last days of the Church year.

It’s little wonder these questions grab us in these waning days of the year. The trees are losing their foliage. The daylight hours are getting shorter. The air is a bit colder, unseasonably so these days.  It’s as if winter can’t wait to get here!  We can sense there is a change approaching, and perhaps it isn’t one that we look forward to.  Even with the festive atmosphere of the upcoming holidays, or perhaps even because of the holidays, many of us feel depressed or blasé, and the festivity of the holiday season only serves to highlight it for us.  Please God, let there be something more.

Fundamentally, we human beings need to make connections.  We want life, we want light, we want peace, we want love.  And because we want all these things, we know we are alive.  We attempt to fill them up as best we can.  We hope that our attempts are healthy, but honestly sometimes we find ourselves stuck and attempt to fill our desires with things that are well, just shoddy.  We anesthetize ourselves with drugs or alcohol or internet pornography or retail therapy.  We enter into relationships that are unhealthy.  We work ourselves to death. We distance ourselves from loved ones.  We sin.  We often just try to fill up the something more that we desire with something less than that of which we are worthy.

And that’s exactly what the Sadducees were doing in today’s Gospel reading.  The Sadducees, we are told, were a group of religious authorities that taught there was no resurrection.  So these Sadducees come to Jesus and seem to have an earnest question.  They speak of a woman seven times widowed and wonder whose wife she will be in the resurrection of the dead.  Except that their question wasn’t earnest at all.  Clearly they were out to discredit Jesus, even embarrass him.  “So you think there will be a resurrection,” they say, “well then, what about this…?”

The Sadducees didn’t get it when it came to the resurrection, and they weren’t willing to open their minds to any kind of new possibility.  If what Jesus said didn’t fit what they believed, then it absolutely must be wrong.  They were filling their desires with the sin of pride instead of the possibility of eternal life.  What a horrible, shoddy way to fill up their desires!

But swing that around and look at the seven brothers in the first reading.  All they would have to do was eat a little pork and they could have lived.  I mean, who’s going to begrudge them a little bacon?!  Yet they patently refused to do so.  One by one, they are tortured and killed.  Why would they have let themselves be treated that way?  All they had to do was eat some pork, for heaven’s sake; surely God would forgive them, right?  But listen to what the first brother says: “You are depriving us of this present life, but the King of the world will raise us up to live again forever.  It is for his laws that we are dying.”  These brothers and their mother realized that there was something greater, something more.  They knew their desire could never be filled up with a little pork, or the shoddy life that would come about as a result of giving up their beliefs.  What a stark contrast they are to the prideful Sadducees!

We may be tempted to settle for something less, but we know there is something so much better in store for us.  There is something that will fill up our desires once and for all, and that something – or rather that someone –  is Jesus Christ.  It’s not going to be our pride, boasting of our elaborate wisdom or ability to take care of ourselves.  It’s not going to be a little pork, or giving in to whatever temptation comes our way to take us off the path.  It’s not going to be alcohol, or drugs, or unhealthy relationships or self-help gurus, or anything else.  It’s only going to be Jesus – only Jesus! – who will fill up the desires that touch us to the core of who we are.

The Church in these waning days of the Church year would never deny that there is suffering in the world.  But she will encourage us to open up our desires to be filled with our Savior who comes not to make our suffering go away, but instead to fill it up and sanctify it with his presence.  There is something more, and we can expect to be filled up with it when we realize that the fit for the hole we have in our hearts is Jesus Christ.

That, friends, is why it is so important that we gather as believers every Sunday, and avail ourselves of the other sacraments, especially reconciliation, on a regular basis.  We have an unquenchable desire that can only be filled up with Christ, that Christ who longs to be our life, who died to be our savior, who rose to be our salvation.

Our God is not a God of the dead, but of the living.  To him all are alive.  So in these last days of the year, if we find ourselves desiring peace, desiring wholeness, desiring comfort, desiring love, desiring fulfillment, or desiring anything else, that’s okay.  Because what we’re really desiring is Christ, and he is always there to fill us beyond our wildest imaginings.

The Thirtieth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

This weekend we continue our preaching series at Saint Mary Immaculate called “A Crash Course in Catholicism.”  Please continue to pray for the success of this preaching series, and for the openness for all to receive the grace God is pouring out on us in these days.   So far we have spoken about the fundamental Good News of our faith that we are saved by Jesus Christ.  God did not abandon us in our sinfulness, but in love sent us His Son, Jesus, to free us from sin and death by His own life, death and resurrection. God desires our salvation and healing.

In following God’s plan, we connect our lives to His through prayer, which we spoke of at length last week.  Hopefully over the past week you’ve had a chance to reflect on the way you pray, why you pray, and perhaps even tried some new way of prayer.

So this week, we are reflecting on our call to discipleship, our living of the Good News of Jesus Christ in such a way that it is infectious to others.  This call to discipleship isn’t just for Sundays, or even primarily for Sundays, but an everyday decision to follow Christ and walk in the way he has marked out for us.

Looking at the parable in today’s Gospel reading, I’m going to be very bold and say, you know, the Pharisee was quite right. His righteousness was beyond reproach. He has been innocent of greed, dishonesty and adultery. He has been more pious than even the law requires. Fasting was only required once a year, on the Day of Atonement, but he fasts twice a week. Tithes were only required to be paid on one’s earnings, but he pays them not only on his earnings, but also on all of his possessions, basically, he paid the tithe on his total net worth. He was probably quite right about his own righteousness, and he may well have been right about the failures of righteousness in the tax collector as well.

And, in those days, tax collectors were despicable human beings. There was no taxation with representation, so the tax collectors worked for the Romans and were in league with the foreign occupation. They were told what they had to collect, and whatever the collected over and above that was theirs to keep. Now certainly, they were entitled to some income, so a modest markup would have been understandable – that was how they were paid. But mostly the modest markup was far from modest, and often bordered on extortion. The tax collector in our parable today does not deny that he has participated in those activities. He does not even pray about anything he has done except for one thing: he has sinned. “O God, be merciful to me a sinner,” he says.

Both of these men were right in what they said about themselves. From an objective point of view, they have presented themselves honestly before God and everyone. So what’s the problem? Where has the Pharisee gone wrong and how did the tax collector, of all people, end up justified?

It’s pretty easy to see what went wrong when we step back and look at the nature of their prayers. The Pharisee uses the word “I” four times. It’s all about him. The tax collector does not use the word “I” at all; he uses the word “me.” What’s the difference? Think back to your grammar lessons: “I” is the subject, “me” is the object. So, for the Pharisee, it was all about what he had done through his own righteousness, and not about what God had done or could do. The text even says that the prayer he prayed, he said to himself.  Did you catch that?  Not to God, but to himself!  For the tax collector, it wasn’t about him at all. He acknowledges his sinfulness and asked God to have mercy. And that’s the second difference. The tax collector asks for something, namely mercy, and receives it: he goes home justified. The Pharisee asks for nothing, and that’s just what he gets: nothing.

So I think today’s Liturgy of the Word is asking us a very important question: have you been aware of your need for a Savior? Because sin is exhausting. Anyone who has struggled with sin, or a pattern of sin, in their lives can tell you that. Those who have been dragged down by any kind of addiction or who have tried to work on a character flaw or striven to expel any kind of vice from their lives often relate how exhausting the sin can be. Sin saps our spiritual energy, weakens our resolve to do good, and causes us to turn away in shame not only from God, but also from family, friends, and all those whose spiritual companionship we need in order to grow as Christians. That’s just the way sin works.

But today’s Liturgy gives us very good news. Sirach says in today’s first reading that “The prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds; it does not rest till it reaches its goal, nor will it withdraw till the Most High responds, judges justly and affirms the right, and the Lord will not delay.” We see that very clearly in the parable in today’s Gospel. The lowly tax collector cannot even bring himself to raise his eyes to heaven. “O God, be merciful to me a sinner,” he says. It is the perfect Act of Contrition. He acknowledges his sin, he prays for God’s mercy. And God responds. He can go home justified.

So who here was the disciple?  It would seem like it would have been the praying, fasting Pharisee.  But is it?  Discipleship involves discipline – they have the same root word – a discipline that binds oneself to God and is committed to real change.  The Pharisee was self-righteous: he prayed to himself, did what made himself look good, it was all about him.  The tax-collector, on the other hand, had a righteousness that came from the mercy of God.  Because he depended on God, he was able to find forgiveness, bind himself to mercy, and go home justified.  Disciples don’t follow themselves, they follow Jesus.  They don’t pray to themselves, they follow Jesus.  They aren’t righteous in themselves, they are righteous in Jesus.

Disciples aren’t perfect – certainly the tax-collector was not – but disciples are open to conversion, open to a true change in their lives that allows the mercy of God to make them a new creation.  Disciples think of everything in terms of their walk with Christ and living the Gospel.  They do it every day, not just Sunday.  When a decision needs to be made at work, they think about Jesus’ example and how the decision might affect others.  When deciding where to spend their family’s resources, they think about the good they are called to do.  When working through a relationship issue, they think about where God is in that relationship and direct their energies in that way.  Disciples see themselves first and foremost as sons and daughters of God, and everything else in their lives falls in line with that identification.  They may not be perfect, but they are open to being perfected.

Disciples find themselves in the Church, receiving the Sacraments the Church offers them in order to perfect their lives of faith.  They receive the mercy of God in sacramental confession, and they live on the strength of God by receiving God’s Word and the Body and Blood of our Lord at Mass.

Just like the Pharisee and the tax collector, we have come to this holy place to pray today. What is our prayer like? Are there sins that have become a pattern for us? Do we have addictions that need to be worked out? Have we failed in some way in our daily life? What dark corners of our lives desperately need God’s light and God’s mercy? In what ways do we need a Savior? Have we asked for God’s mercy, or have we been like the Pharisee, asking for nothing and receiving exactly that?

I want to give you the opportunity to pray with this today…

Pray the tax collector’s prayer after me: “O God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”

Saturday of the Twenty-ninth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Sin is exhausting.  Just like the barren tree was exhausting the soil.  Anyone who has struggled with sin, or a pattern of sin, in his or her life can tell you that.  Those who have been dragged down by any kind of addiction or who have tried to work on a character flaw or striven to expel any kind of vice from their lives often relate how exhausting the sin can be. Sin saps our spiritual energy, weakens our resolve to do good, and causes us to turn away in shame from family, friends, and all those whose spiritual companionship we need in order to grow as Christian men and women and flourish in the world.  That goes all the way back to Adam and Eve, who suddenly became aware of and ashamed of their nakedness in the Garden of Eden, and to Saint Paul who prayed over and over to get rid of his “thorn in the flesh. ” So when we are exhausted by sin, we should not be surprised.  That’s just the way sin works.

But we don’t have to be content with that either.  Our God continues to cultivate our soil and fertilize our lives with the Sacraments.  And, as Saint Paul tells us in the first reading today from his letter to the Romans, sin doesn’t get the last word.  Those who did not know Christ had to live according to the law, with all of its precepts and principles and technicalities.  But the law doesn’t sanctify a person, it only makes them more aware of their guilt and unworthiness.  That’s why God sent his only Son into our world.  It is only through our relationship with Jesus Christ that we can ever be cleansed, only through his sacrifice on the Cross, that we can ever be reunited with our God.

As the Psalmist says today, we are the people who long to see God’s face.  Because nothing else will heal us.  Even if our sin makes us want to turn away and hide, we cannot hide from our God – indeed we dare not hide from our God if we ever want to be unburdened of the exhausting weight of our sinfulness.  At this Eucharist, we celebrate our Lord who cares enough about us to bring us back unstained to the banquet of the Kingdom.  We open ourselves to his mercy, revealing our brokenness, our sinfulness, our shame and our unworthiness.  He opens himself to us in love, binding up that brokenness, erasing the sinfulness, healing our shame and lifting up whatever in us is unworthy.  Jesus Christ is our salvation and our redemption.  Our sins do not define who we are before our God, and we who receive him in the Eucharist today do not ever have to settle for being exhausted by our sins.

Thursday of the Twenty-ninth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Today’s Responsorial Psalm, Psalm 1; has always been one of my very favorite psalms. One interpretation of this Psalm is to look at it as a blueprint for blessedness. In Biblical terms, of course, blessedness equals happiness. So the person who doesn’t follow the counsel of the wicked or walk with sinners but instead meditates on the law of the LORD is happy, or blessed. This person is productive and vibrant, and all of his activities are prosperous. This person is contrasted to the wicked person who is anything but enduring. These are unhappy people who are driven away by the first storm that comes along.

On the other hand, the Church has also looked at the blessed one in this psalm as referring to Christ himself. None of us is able to steer clear of evil all the time, nor meditate on God’s law day and night. But Jesus is the One who is like us in all things but sin and who is the fulfilled promise of God’s law. Jesus definitely is the tree planted near running water, which takes root strongly and shades us from the burning heat of evil under his never-fading leaves. Jesus is the one who can prosper any work that we do, if we just ask him to do so. If we want to know the person who really embodies the spirit of Psalm 1; then all we have to do is look to our Savior.

But that doesn’t absolve us of our responsibility to become holy enough to take up the spirit of this Psalm within ourselves. We certainly don’t want to be the chaff which is driven away by the wind. Joining ourselves to our Savior, meditating on him day and night, as best we can, we can be refreshed by those running waters and become the sturdy trees that shelter the Church in good times and in bad. Blessed indeed are all of us who hope in the Lord.

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