The Transfiguration of the Lord: Listen to him.

Today's readings

transfiguration

"This is my beloved Son. Listen to him."

This feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord can be a puzzling one for us to understand. It's an event we've heard about in Gospel readings, but it's not something that we've ever seen. So it's hard, I think, for us to figure out. If that's true of us, we shouldn't feel too bad: it's clear that Peter, James and John, disciples who were clearly in Jesus' "inner circle" didn't get it either. In fact, they were so frightened by it that they hardly knew what to say. God's glory can be frightening like that sometimes. As they walked down the mountain, all they could talk about was what Jesus meant by rising from the dead. Thankfully, though, we have the help of the Church's developed theology which those chosen three did not have at their disposal. So we can delve into the mystery of this Transfiguration, and in it perhaps, be transfigured ourselves.

The Transfiguration is a sign for us of three things: it's a sign of who Jesus really is, a sign of what would happen in the paschal mystery, and a sign of what is to be for those who believe.

First, then, it is a sign of who Jesus really is. We get three very beautiful clues to Jesus' true identity here. First, there is the transfiguration, or change, itself. Jesus is transfigured, and his clothes become dazzling white. He literally shines with the Glory of God. This reminded the people of Jesus' time of the way Moses' face was said to shine after he came down from the mountain where he conversed with God. It also reminds us of the way the figure who was "one like a son of man" shone in today's first reading. The transfiguration tells us that Jesus is no ordinary man, that the divinity the had from the beginning but set aside at his Incarnation, that divinity was ready to burst forth from him at any moment. It did in today's Gospel, and Peter, James and John were witnesses of it. The second clue is the appearance of Moses and Elijah with Jesus. This appearance linked Jesus with Israel's past, Moses representing the Law and Elijah the Prophets. His conversation with Moses and Elijah underscore that Jesus' ministry in the world was part of God's plan for our salvation. The third clue is the voice of God. "This is my beloved Son. Listen to him." If there had been any doubt, it had to be gone by now. Rarely does God speak in such a direct manner to his creation, but he did it here. Jesus was his beloved Son, and Peter, James and John – and all of us too – would do well to listen to him.

Now all of this was important, because in Mark's Gospel, from here on out, the story is all about the cross. Jesus was going to suffer and die a terrible, tortuous and ignoble death. But that kind of suffering wasn't punishment, or a sign of God's disfavor. Indeed, it was a sign that Jesus is God's beloved Son. Though he will suffer for a time, God always intended to raise him up. And so, if we, we who are God's beloved children, if we have to suffer for a time, we too can know of God's favor. We too can know that God always intended our salvation, all the way back to the time of Moses and the prophets. Jesus' true identity is a source of joy for all of us that we are beloved and that those who listen to his beloved Son will inherit the glory that bursts forth from Jesus on the mountain.

Second, the Transfiguration is a sign of what would happen in the Paschal Mystery. As I've said, from here on out, the message of Mark's Gospel will always refer to the cross of Christ. The incredible event of Jesus' Transfiguration foreshadows the glory of the Resurrection. It's a peek at what Jesus would look like after he rose from the dead. You may remember that the first witnesses of the Resurrection had a hard time recognizing Jesus. That may be because he was transfigured by the Resurrection, and so today's event is perhaps a taste of what that would be like. Yes, Jesus would have to suffer and die, but his Resurrection and Ascension would be glorious, and would open the possibility of glory to all of us as well.

Third, the Transfiguration is a sign of what waits for us who believe. The glory that we see in Jesus today is the glory that waits for all of us. We have hope of the Resurrection, we have hope of an eternal home in heaven. The transfiguration shows us that this hope is ours, if we but listen to the one who is God's beloved Son. Sure, we come to that as those who don't deserve that kind of glory. We are in need of our own kinds of transfigurations. We are in need of our sins being transfigured into faithfulness, of our failures being transfigured into joys, of our death being transfigured into everlasting life. All of those transfigurations are accomplished in us when we but listen to God's beloved Son.

It is important that we realize that, just as Peter, James and John had to come down from the mountain in today's Gospel, so we too must come down the mountain of this celebration of our faith, into our daily lives, and transfigure our world into the true image of Jesus Christ. We must transfigure the violence, hatred, and injustice that is so prevalent in our world into true peace, inclusion, love and justice that is the image of God, the glory that longs to burst forth from us and every part of our world.

Today's feast will forever be linked with a horrible event that stands in sharp contrast to this message. On August 6th in 1945, our country dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, killing over 100,000 people that day and in the days and years that followed, as they suffered and died from diseases that were the effect of exposure to radiation. This horrible event unfortunately ushered us into the nuclear age, one in which nations with nuclear capability have the power to destroy the world many times over. This sad day commemorates a bright light that was anything but God's glory, a day in which our world was transfigured, but in all the wrong ways.

Our world has long been saddened by that horrible, devastating event. Ever since, people in every nation have implored their governments to never repeat that day of death. Ever since, popes and bishops have sought to remind us that this kind of destruction is not God's will for us. Our beloved Pope John Paul II, of blessed memory, said in 1981:

"To remember the past is to commit oneself to the future.
To remember Hiroshima is to abhor nuclear war.
To remember Hiroshima is to commit oneself to peace."

He also reminds us that nuclear devastation is not a foregone conclusion to our world:

"In the face of the man-made calamity that every war is, one must affirm and reaffirm, again and again, that the waging of war is not inevitable or unchangeable. Humanity is not destined to self-destruction. Clashes of ideologies, aspirations and needs can and must be settled and resolved by means other than war and violence."

In this day of advanced and horrible weapons, every war has the frightening possibility of transfiguring our world in horrible and irrevocable ways. We must make peace our constant prayer. For those of you whose sons and daughters are off fighting for freedom in other lands, please don't hear this as a condemnation of what they do. Please do hear it as a call to prayer, that our world can be transfigured into a place where they don't have to do that, never again.

In Hiroshima there is a Peace Memorial with a statue of Sadako, a teenage girl who suffered leukemia as a result of the bomb
. After she got sick she tried to fold a thousand paper cranes because she believed she would be cured of her disease if she did. She folded more than 800 before she died. Her friends completed the project. About her
cranes Sadako wrote, "I will write Peace on your wings and you will fly all over the world." Folded cranes have become a symbol and wish for peace and an end to nuclear weapons.

Sadako's wish is one way to transfigure our broken world for peace. We who are disciples are called to actively seek ways to transfigure our world through faith, hope and love. As we come to the Eucharist today, let us all reflect on those transfigurations that need to happen in us, as well as those transfigurations that need to happen through us, transfigurations that God longs to work in our world, transfigurations that will make this world brightly shine with the image and glory of God.

Thursday of the Seventeenth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Today’s readings present us with two very interesting images. The first is that of a potter working at the wheel. When the object turned out badly, the potter re-created the object until it was right. Jeremiah tells us that just so is Israel, in the hand of the LORD. Not that God couldn’t get it right the first time. This prophecy simply recognizes that through our own free will we go wrong all the time, and Israel’s wrong turns are legendary throughout the Old Testament. Just as the potter can re-create a bowl or jug that was imperfect, so God can re-create his chosen people when they turn away from him. God can replace their stony hearts with natural ones, and give them new life with a fresh breath of the Holy Spirit.

The image in the Gospel is a fishing image. The fisher throws a net into the sea, casting it far and wide, and gathers up all sorts of fish. Some of the fish are good, and are kept; the others are cast back into the sea. So will it be at the end of the age. God will cast the nets far and wide, gathering up all of his creatures. Those who have remained true to what God created them to be will be brought into the kingdom; those who have turned away will be cast aside, free to follow their own whims and ideas. Turning away from God has a price however; following one’s own whims and ideas leads to nothing but the fiery furnace, where there is wailing and grinding of teeth.

The message that comes to us through these images is one of renewal. We who are God’s creatures, his chosen people, can often turn the wrong way. But our God who made us is not willing to have us end up in that fiery furnace; he gives us the chance to come back to him, and willingly re-creates us in his love. Those who become willing subjects on the potter’s wheel will have the joy of the Kingdom. Those who turn away will have what they wish, but find it ultimately unsatisfying, ultimately sorrowful, ultimately without reward.

St. Alphonsus Liguori: Patron of Moral Theologians

Today's Gospel: Matthew 5:13-19 | Saint of the Day

"Whoever obeys and teaches these commandments will be called greatest in the kingdom of heaven."

Teaching the commandments was something that was always near and dear to the heart of St. Alphonsus Liguori. St. Alphonsus has been called the patron saint of moral theologians since 1950. During his lifetime, St. Alphonsus devoted himself to reform of the church and the proper teaching of moral issues. Then, preaching moral issues from the pulpit was often done, but unfortunately with a rigorism that made moral teachings hard for the average person to follow. Today, perhaps, we have the opposite. Preachers often shy away from moral issues in the pulpit, not wanting to rock the boat. Neither of these is acceptable, of course, and Alphonsus would want us to follow more of a happy medium.

Alphonsus received a doctorate in civil and canon law at the age of 16 and practiced it for a while, but soon gave it up to pursue apostolic activity. He was ordained a priest and concentrated on preaching parish missions, hearing confessions, and forming Christian groups. He was a prolific writer, writing often on moral theology. He also wrote some popular devotional books, including the Glories of Mary, which was extremely popular during his lifetime, and Visits to the Blessed Sacrament. He is also known for starting the congregation of the Redemptorists, which continues to this day.

His great reforms were enacted mostly in the pulpit and the confessional, where his simple approach to morality, Christian life, and Scripture were well-received over the sometimes pompous oratory of his day. His preaching resulted in much increased devotion, and, at age 66, he was made a bishop, over his own objections to the title.

St. Alphonsus was one who obeyed and taught the commandments with great simplicity and grace, and was one who was truly salt and light for the world. What we should see in his life and in these scripture readings, brothers and sisters in Christ, is that preaching and teaching is something we all must do. Alphonsus would remind us that our preaching and teaching need not be elaborate, but also must not be onerous or pompous. Indeed, our best teaching of the commandments may well be in our living of them. May St. Alphonsus Liguori lead us all to be great in the kingdom of heaven.

Seventeenth Sunday of Ordinary Time: God’s abundant care for us.

We are taking a bit of an excursus or diversion here for the next few Sundays. You may know that throughout this Church year, we have been reading from the Gospel of Mark. Well, for the next several Sundays (with the exception of next Sunday because it is a special feast), we are reading from the Gospel of John. We are reading a very important part of John's Gospel at that: it is the sixth chapter, known as the Bread of Life Discourse. In this chapter, John shows us how Jesus is Eucharist for us. Today we begin with a familiar story: the feeding of the multitudes.

Someone once explained this miracle to me by saying that it happened because people were moved by Jesus' preaching and works among them, so in response, they took food they had with them and shared them with one another. As the food was passed around and the remnants were gathered up, it turned out they had enough to feed everyone after all – and then some. This wonderful story, they told me, showed the power of sharing in response to the work of God in our lives.

That's a lovely explanation, isn't it? Too bad it's garbage.

Yes, garbage. It's garbage for a few reasons. First, if that's the way it happened, why didn't the evangelists record it that way? This miracle has the distinction of being recorded in all four Gospels. One would think that if this had been a miracle about sharing, one of them would have reported it as such. But they didn't. Maybe you're thinking that the Gospel authors wouldn't have reported it that way because it would be embarrassing to Jesus. But that doesn't work either, because they reported embarrassing things about Jesus all the time. Just a few weeks ago, we read how Jesus could not accomplish any miracle in his home town. That was sure embarrassing. So I'm thinking that if the miracle turned out to be a case of wonderful sharing, that's how the story would have been told.

Another reason this explanation doesn't work is that it misses the point entirely. The sharing explanation seems to take the power out of Jesus' hands and put it in the hands of the crowd. We like that kind of explanation in our culture, because we want it to be about us. We want to feel in control, to feel that we have the power to fix our problems and handle our own lives. But the truth is that we are not in control: all we have are five barley loaves and two fish, and that seems woefully inadequate to address the incredible needs we and our contemporaries have every day. The whole point of this story is that we can't address all our hungers, but Jesus absolutely can do so, and because of that the story of sharing does not make much sense at all.

The real explanation here is that Jesus took five barley loaves and two fish, and passed them around, and they became enough to feed thousands. We believe in miracles, brothers and sisters in Christ, and a miracle is exactly what we believe happened here. And it wasn't a miracle of human making, it was a miracle of Jesus' power at work in the world which addressed a need that Jesus noticed, made up for human inadequacies, and fed the crowd more wonderfully than they could ever have imagined.

First of all, Jesus notices a need. He sees that the people are coming to him, clamoring after his healing miracles and the words he has been preaching. They recognize he is someone special, someone they want to hear more of, and they follow him without any thought for their own comfort. And so Jesus notices that they are hungry. Now let's just stop for a minute and acknowledge that there are probably two kinds of hunger going on here: certainly physical hunger, since they have not eaten, but also a spiritual hunger. A hunger for eternal life that will only ever be fulfilled in God himself. Jesus here intends to feed them in both ways.

Second, Jesus makes up for our inadequacies. Having seen the need, he asks Philip to arrange to feed them. Philip falls for it, hook, line and sinker. "Two hundred days' wages worth of food would not be enough for each of them to have a little." Philip says there is no way they could take care of the physical hunger of the crowd, and with his response, betrays that he is also quite unprepared to take care of their spiritual hunger. But Jesus takes them where they are at. Andrew offers the five loaves and two fish that come from one of the boys in the crowd. That's all they can find. We should note that barley loaves are particularly inadequate since they were considered the bread of the poor. But even with that little, poor bread, Jesus feeds the great crowd. So little food is obviously inadequate for the hunger of so many, but Jesus uses it and makes up for the lack, feeding the people and satisfying their every hunger.

Third, Jesus feeds the crowd more wonderfully than they could have ever imagined. John's Gospel is filled with images of superabundance: huge jugs of water made into incredible wine at Cana, and now five loaves and two fish that feed a large crowd, and provide twelve wicker baskets of leftovers. Jesus takes care of every need with overwhelming power. He does not just provide a little afternoon snack; he provides a glorious meal, feeding crowds of people with bounty and grace. Indeed this is a miracle of Jesus our God taking notice of our needs, filling up our lack, and feeding us with superabundance. This is no simple sharing ritual, but a gracious act of God in our world to make his presence and care for his people known.

What is important here is that we need to know that this kind of thing goes on all the time, even in our own day. Jesus always notices the needs and hungers of his people. Perhaps you have seen a need in your community, maybe a family who is in need, or a whole segment of the population not served in some way. You need to know that you noticed that because of the spirit of Jesus working in you. It's very easy to go through life noticing nothing and no one, but that doesn't happen in disciples. Disciples are the ears and eyes of Jesus, and he notices the needs of his people through us every day. Now, having noticed a need, we may very well feel inadequate to fill it. What good is our few hours of time or few dollars going to do for such a huge need? How can our imperfect talents make up for such a need? Here we have to trust that Jesus will do with our imperfect offerings as he did with the five loaves and two fish. Jesus makes up for our lack, and we can take comfort in that. If we are faithful to respond to the need with what we have, we can be sure that Jesus will use what we have to feed our hungry world with superabundance.

We can do that because Jesus feeds us all the time. Every time we come to the Table of the Lord, we are given a little bit of bread and a sip of wine that has become the Body and Blood of Christ our Savior. At every Eucharist, we are fed more wonderfully and superabundantly than even the crowd in today's Gospel. We are fed with food that will never pass away or perish, we are fed with the Bread of Eternal life. Since we disciples have that gift at our disposal, we would do well to bring ourselves to it as often as we can, and as well-disposed for it as we can. We must make it our constant care to attend Mass every week, and even during the week if we can, and to use the Sacrament of Penance to prepare ourselves to receive the grace of the Eucharist. Disciples who regularly and faithfully feed themselves with the Bread of Life will find it natural to offer their meager gifts to feed great hungers in our world, hungers that our God longs to fill.

And so we gratefully come to the Eucharist today, to take part in a meal even more wonderful than the feeding of the multitudes, and partake of a bread far more nourishing than barley loaves. We come to the Eucharist today to have all of our hungers fed, and to take baskets of leftovers to feed those who hunger in and around us this week. We pray for the grace to notice the needs of others and
the grace to offer what we have to serve the poor, trusting in God to make up for what we lack. We pray the words of the psalmist with trust and gratitude: "The hand of the Lord feeds us; he answers all our needs."

St. Martha

Today's readings | Saint of the Day

Along with her sister Mary, and brother Lazarus, St. Martha was a personal friend of Jesus.  He seems to have come to their house by invitation, not to affect a conversion or anything like that, but just to share some time and a meal.  And you know the rest of that story, right?  Mary sits at Jesus’ feet while Martha makes all the preparations in the kitchen.  Martha quite rightly (in my opinion!) demands that all should lend a hand in the preparation of one’s house for guests.  Jesus’ response there is that “Mary has chosen the better part:” this reminds us that everything isn’t always up to us.  We are called to do our part and rest in God’s loving care for us.

But today’s Gospel reading is really the great story of Martha’s saintliness.  She says three very faith-filled things in and around this passage.  The first is that she runs out to greet Jesus and proclaims a small part of her faith: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.  But even now I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you.”  Here her faith is not quite perfect.  She is confused that Jesus was detained and her brother died.  But there is that aspect of trusting faith that knows that Jesus has power to do whatever he wills.  The second great thing she says here comes right at the end of the story we hear today.  In this, she proclaims a more perfect faith: “I have come to believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world.”  In this great profession of faith, Martha is just as bold and courageous as St. Peter who proclaims the same kind of faith when Jesus asks him “who do you say that I am?” 

The final great thing that Martha does comes right after the story we read today.  Having professed her faith in Jesus, Martha now returns to her sister and calls her to come to Jesus: “The teacher is here and is asking for you.”  Those who profess their faith in Jesus cannot possibly keep it to themselves.  And Martha does not.  She goes to retrieve her sister, who once sat at the Lord’s feet, but now for some reason chose to remain at home.  Perhaps Mary was hurt that Jesus had not come right away.  Whatever the case, Martha’s faith does not leave her sister in the dark.  Like Martha, we who believe in Jesus must tell everyone who needs to hear it that the Teacher is asking for them.

Thursday of the 16th Week of Ordinary Time: Blessed are Your Eyes and Ears

Today's readings 

If your spiritual life is anything like mine, it often seems like God still speaks in parables. We often wonder what is the right direction to go in a given situation. We ponder why bad things happen to good people. We puzzle over the meaning of natural disasters, civil unrest, wars and terrorism. We often search for the meaning of life, only to be frustrated in our attempts time and time again. Just as the disciples asked Jesus why he spoke to the crowds in parables, so we too might ask why God seems to speak in so many incomprehensible ways every day.

I wish I could give you an answer for all that. All I can say is that traditional spiritual wisdom tells us that we do not have the ability to see the events of our lives in the context of the “big picture” that God is part of by his very essence. What we know about life, our world, and the events that surround us is so miniscule compared with the knowledge of everything and everyone and every time that is the mind of God. The answers to all these puzzling things will not be ours this side of the Kingdom of God. All that we can really hope for is that when we come to the Beatific Vision in heaven, we too will be able to understand things with the mind of God himself.

Having said that, there are things that we can know because we are people of faith. We know that God is at work in our world because our faith reveals miraculous events all the time. The sick are healed, good things happen, areas destroyed by natural disaster or civil unrest are rebuilt, lives of the faithful are lived with beauty and grace; all of this because we have faith. Those without faith would never see these things, or if they did would not think much of them or see them as the beautiful hand of God at work in our crazy world. Things happen all the time for which we cry out “thank God!” and we know that we are blessed to see them. Because of our faith, we can make sense of some of the incomprehensible events of our world. And we know that Jesus is speaking to us, too, when he tells the disciples:

“Blessed are your eyes, because they see,
and your ears, because they hear.
Amen, I say to you, many prophets and righteous people
longed to see what you see but did not see it,
and to hear what you hear but did not hear it.”

This verse has special meaning for me. Last summer, when I was doing my hospital chaplaincy, my group would often puzzle about all the horrible things we had seen and been part of. But when one of my fellow students brought in this very Gospel reading for reflection one morning, we realized all the really wonderful things we had heard and seen in the midst of the pain and sorrow we had experienced with our patients. As we come to the Eucharist today, then, maybe we can all thank God for the good things he has revealed to us through faith.

The Feast of St. James: We are called to be sacrament for the world

Today's readings

"Can you drink the chalice that I am going to drink?"

Yesterday, I attended the funeral of a family friend. He was just 37 years old, had six children; two of them with special needs. It was probably one of the longest funerals I had ever been to, and certainly one of the most memorable. Rob was a police officer, and there were probably 150 or so officers in attendance from his department and several other departments throughout the suburbs. But that was nothing compared to three times that many sitting in the body of the church. Rob had been a part of the church, active in youth ministry when he was in high school, and was in my parents' religious education class in his freshman year. He was involved in several community projects, as well as the Special Olympics. He was a very giving and loving young man, and he will be missed.

One of my memories of him was just last year at this time, when I was working as a hospital chaplain at Good Samaritan in Downers Grove. One Sunday morning, we had a terrible accidental death that came in, and the family members were feuding about it, accusing one another of causing the death. I had been running back and forth between the two groups, and finally I was told the detective was here, and the family was with him. I went in to check on them, and noticed that the detective was Rob, who had the family calmed down – much more than their chaplain had been able to do – and the situation was finally under control for the moment. He had the ability to do that, and many will miss that about him.

Rob found out six months ago that he had stage four cancer and would not have long to live. I am told he lived his last months with great beauty, continuing to love his family and respect those who cared for him. I think Rob knew what St. Paul said to the Corinthians in today's first reading:

We are afflicted in every way, but not constrained;
perplexed, but not driven to despair;
persecuted, but not abandoned;
struck down, but not destroyed;
always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus,
so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our body.
For we who live are constantly being given up to death
for the sake of Jesus,
so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh.

stjamesapostle

Like St. James and his brother John, we are all called to drink from the chalice which Jesus drank. That means that we will always bear the dying of Jesus in our own bodies. We can't explain why bad things happen to good people, but we can explain how good people handle bad situations well: they handle it well because they know Christ and live in Christ every day of their lives. Sometimes the chalice we will have to drink will be unpleasant, distasteful and full of sorrow. But with God's grace, our drinking of those cups can be a sacrament of the presence of God in the world.

Everyone who is great among us must be a servant, and whoever wishes to be first among us must be our slave. Rob knew how to do that and be joyful in it. May we all be that same kind of sacrament for the world.

Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time: My Shepherd is the Lord

Today’s readings

I don’t know how you feel about being compared to sheep without a shepherd, but I have to tell you, I’m not all that flattered by it! Yet there’s some painful truth to that statement, and some rather beautiful truth as well. Because we do need leaders, those who will walk before us to show us the right way in the world, and even the right way to the world yet to come. I don’t think the problem is a lack of shepherds. There are many voices out there from which to choose. The problem is, which voices are trustworthy? Who do we listen to; who do we follow?

Many people prefer to listen to nobody. They want to do their own thing, make their own way, to be independent, free spirits. Our American culture tends to herald those folks and applaud their pioneer spirit. But the problem with that philosophy is that it only goes so far. At some point the freest spirits out there need to look at other free spirits and independent thinkers so that they can fashion their way of life. Nobody has ever made their way through life before, and the only way any of us can do it is to look to someone else. So even the most independent of us has to get his or her ideas from someone else. While they may prefer to listen to nobody, they do in fact listen to somebody, and then we’re back at the question we started with: who do we listen to?

Jeremiah prophesies woe to the false prophets:

You have scattered my sheep and driven them away.
You have not cared for them,
but I will take care to punish your evil deeds.
I myself will gather the remnant of my flock…

Jeremiah’s problem is with the leaders of the people, the monarchy. Not only have they neglected the people of God – the people they were supposedly chosen to serve – but they have also misled them, causing them to be scattered into Exile. Since they could not be counted on to lead people to God, then God himself would be the one to remedy the situation. God would punish these leaders, and gather up his lost children under the leadership of the one true shepherd.

Would that the false prophets had disappeared after Jeremiah’s prophecy. Unfortunately, I think, we still have plenty around today, and we have to take care to discern them in our midst. So many will flock to the latest self-help book or program, or will model their life and philosophy after the likes of Oprah, Dr. Phil or – God help us – Martha Stewart. And as interesting as they may be, we must be very careful not to swallow their philosophies whole and entire. Because their concern is not that you would have eternal life; their concern is that you would watch their shows and buy from their advertisers. I’m not trying to tell you not to watch their television shows … well, that’s not entirely true, maybe I am. What I do want you to hear though is that these folks are not the true shepherds that Jeremiah foretells. If you want a voice to lead you in life, you’re going to have to look somewhere else.

Thankfully, God has made good on his promise to send a true shepherd, and that would be Jesus Christ. This Jesus who sent his apostles out on mission in last week’s Gospel, now gathers them together and invites them to take time away. But, as so often happens in Mark’s Gospel, this time away is interrupted by pastoral need. Before they ever reach the deserted, out-of-the-way place Jesus called them to, the people are there looking for them. Maybe they were the recipients of the Apostles’ ministry as they were sent out two-by-two last week. Or maybe they have just heard the amazing news about the things Jesus did – or maybe a little of both. Whatever the case, they came hungering for more, and Jesus takes pity on them.

This word “pity” has many negative connotations in our culture. Pity reeks of insincerity or superiority or condescension, and when we hear that word or use it, I think we kind of recoil a bit. But that’s not what is happening here when Jesus pities the crowds. The Greek word that we translate “pity” here is splanchnizomai. Now I’m not a Greek scholar, so there are two reasons I bring this up. First is that I like to say splanchnizomai – it’s kind of fun, and I know you’ll all be using it at your next cocktail party. But my second – and more serious – reason is that splanchnizomai is an example of onomatopoeia: it sounds like what it is. It has kind of a deep, guttural sound, and that’s kind of what it means. Splanchnizomai is a kind of pity that causes a reaction deep inside; it’s a strong concern that cannot help but translate into action. It’s a kind of pity that has none of the superiority, insincerity or condescension we hear in our word; it’s a pity that evolves into care and blessing. It’s such a strong term that Mark only uses it in his Gospel to refer to Jesus, or coming from the mouth of Jesus.

This reaction of care and blessing answers the question of who exactly is the true shepherd. We cannot possibly miss it from today’s Scripture readings. If the monarchy of Jeremiah’s time had abandoned and misled the people, then Jesus in his time was all about bringing people back together and leading them to the Father. In another place, Jesus says that he is the way, the truth and the life, and the only way to the Father. He is the shepherd that the people have been longing for, all the way back to Jeremiah’s day and before.

Back in our own day, we have to come to see Jesus as our true shepherd also. We too, are like sheep without a shepherd at times. We have all sorts of trials in our lives. We struggle with finding the right spouse for marriage. We debate the best ways to raise our children. We agonize over the best neighborhoods in which to live and the choice of a school in which to educate our children. We struggle with the illness or death of those we love. We have problems at work, or lose a job. Life can often be uncertain at best, and we need direction to follow the right way. The good news is that Jesus has splanchnizomai for us too. He longs to gather us up, to teach us “many things,” and to lead us home to the Father. That’s the way it was always supposed to work in the first place.

The problem is that we are not exactly like sheep, are we? We have our own wills and we tend often to ignore the voice that’s leading us in the right direction. It’s long past time that we all followed Jesus to a deserted, out-of-the-way place and put our complete trust in his love and guidance. We might not be able to take a week-long retreat or find a desert in which to come to Jesus. But we can come here to Church, maybe more than just on Saturday or Sunday. We have available the great gift of daily Mass, and a church building that is open early in the morning until late in the evening. We have the Sacrament of Reconciliation to help us to come back to Jesus and to receive the Church’s direction in our troubles. We have the Blessed Sacrament in our Tabernacle in the Chapel where we can pray and actually be in the physical presence of our Lord. Brothers and sisters in Christ, this parish church is our out-of-the-way place. This is the place where we can steal away even for just a few minutes in our hectic day and be one with the Lord. And even if we cannot come to church on a given day, maybe we can find the space in our homes to close the door and be alone with Jesus for a few minutes.

The important piece is that Jesus is our true shepherd. He is the only voice that has the splanchnizomai to lead us in the right direction, which is home to the Father. We must hear this and turn to Christ our shepherd with the words of the psalmist today: “My shepherd is the Lord; nothing indeed shall I want.”

Friday of the 15th Week of Ordinary Time

Today's readings

Getting worship right isn't as easy as we make it out to be sometimes. Often we pay so much attention to picking the right songs, taking care of the art and environment, and the many other details. And these things are all very important and need to be done. But none of them eclipses putting the right song in our hearts, beautifying our souls and living the details of our faith with fortitude.

Hezekiah had lived faithfully and so he cried out to the Lord when he heard of his impending death. The Lord in his faithfulness granted Hezekiah fifteen more years to serve him, as well as giving him rest from the bitter onslaught of the Assyrians. Hezekiah's response to all of this was a response of worship. Today's responsorial psalm consists of the verses of Isaiah that follow what we have heard in today's first reading. In those verses, Hezekiah sings the praise of God:

You have given me health and life;
thus is my bitterness transformed into peace.
You have preserved my life from the pit of destruction,
when you cast behind your back all my sins.
For it is not the nether world that gives you thanks, nor death that praises you;
Neither do those who go down into the pit await your kindness.
The living, the living give you thanks, as I do today.
Fathers declare to their sons, O God, your faithfulness.
The LORD is our savior; we shall sing to stringed instruments
in the house of the LORD all the days of our life. (Isaiah 38:16b-20)

The Pharisees, however, in all their good fortune, never gave true worship a moment's thought. Their worship consisted in simply following the rules, and never coming to an understanding or an application of the spirit of the Law. Had they been able to get worship right, Jesus' followers wouldn't have had to break the Sabbath by picking grains of wheat to eat. They would have been taken care of by the hospitality of others.

Because worship isn't just about what we do here in this place; it's all about what we do when we go in peace to love and serve the Lord. Every moment we have is a gift from God, and in every one of those moments, we must make the decision to worship with our thoughts, words and actions. When we do that, I guarantee that we will come to realize how truly blessed we are and realize the many wonderful ways God has saved our lives as he did for Hezekiah.

Monday of the 15th Week of Ordinary Time: Upsetting our Apple Carts

Today's readings

It seems to me that the readings this morning are pretty direct, aren't they? Isaiah makes it clear that if we pretend to worship God, no matter how beautiful our Liturgy may be, but forget about God as soon as we leave the parking lot, we might as well not worship at all. Isaiah came to prophesy that God does not want a proliferation of heartless worship or empty pomp and circumstance. No, God wants our hearts. Toward that end, we must reform our lives, clean our hands and our hearts, free ourselves from the false idols of our lives, and turn wholeheartedly and abandon ourselves to God. We must worship not just here in this Church, but in every moment of our lives.

Jesus is pretty direct too, isn't he? We might want simple words of peace – I know I could have used some today – but that isn't what he wants to offer. He wants to upset the apple carts of our lives, to afflict us in our comfort. He isn't asking us to abandon our families, but he is asking us to put discipleship on the front burner. His message is that every action of our lives must be directed toward taking up our crosses and following him. That might mean a simple glass of water offered to someone doing the Lord's work. Or it might mean answering a call we have received to be involved in a certain ministry. But whatever it means, there is nothing more important, and that call must be answered now.

But all of this comes with a promise. Whoever abandons themselves to wonderful pure worship in every moment, a worship that puts discipleship first and takes up his or her cross, that one will surely be rewarded.