Men’s Ministry Lenten Breakfast Talk: How Do Men Observe Lent?

Last night, I was in church for the Living Stations.  The junior high kids were leading it and they did an awesome job.  They even got me to shed a few tears along the way.  I’m half Italian: we just do that!  But what was it that got to me and caused those tears:

  1. 1. That the kids took it seriously and were very reverent and prayerful?
  2. 2. Was it the story of salvation, in awe and wonder that God would send his Son to die that horrible death for me?
  3. 3. Or was it that I was hoping and praying those kids are being touched by the meaning of what they were doing?

And the answer is yes, all of that:  As the father of this big family, my heart is moved in all of those ways and more.  That’s what fathers do.  And so I’ve been reflecting on Lent and what that means for men.  How is it that we men observe Lent?

Maybe I should ask, how is it that we men should observe Lent?  Because I know that we live busy lives, and we can scarcely give Lent a second thought if we’re not careful.  But that does nobody any good: not us, not our families, not our communities or workplaces.  If we want to be the best we can for all of them, we have to let Lent permeate who we are and what we do.

And it’s a quandary with which I’m familiar.  When I worked in my pre-seminary days, if I didn’t put prayer on my to-do list – literally – there would be no prayer.  And when there was no prayer, I was not at my best at work, I was not at my best with anyone.  Lent gives us the opportunity to take stock of this and turn it all around.

Reading: Isaiah 64:4-7

I probably don’t have to pound home that point from Isaiah: we have become like unclean men.  The opportunities to go wrong abound, don’t they?  We intend to be men of integrity, but business is complicated.  We intend to love our families into heaven, but we’re tired, we’re busy, and we just don’t always have the patience.  Our sins abound, and we don’t intend that – we so wish we could turn back to God once and for all.  Would that he might meet us doing right.  Maybe that can happen this Lent.

Here’s a question to think about – we will discuss it later, but for now, just think:  have you ever had a really significant Lent: a time when you felt a new springtime in your faith, a time when you grew as a man and really came to know the plans God had for you?  If so, when was that, and what was it that got to you?

(Pause a minute or two.)

I think Lent encourages at least five manly traits, and I want to reflect on those a bit.  Then I want to take a look at the three habits that Lent demands of us.  Finally, without stomping too much on Dr. Muir’s presentation coming up, I want to take a brief look at three men of Lent and reflect on what they model for us.

So first: five manly traits that Lent encourages.

First, Lent encourages us to be men of prayer.  Yes, men of prayer are men who pray, but not just men who say prayers.  Men of prayer are men who:

  • • pray first and often
  • • look around them and see God’s hand at work
  • • are grateful for their gifts
  • • look for an opportunity to worship
  • • experience the sacraments
  • • teach their families how to pray, how to have a relationship with Jesus
    • o We never go alone to the kingdom … we are supposed to take everyone with us, especially our families!

Second, Lent encourages us to be men of faith.  Men of faith know that God is with them in good times and bad.  Men of faith have that relationship with Jesus that helps them to relate well with others.  Men of faith are courageous, and tenacious, and confident, but they are never arrogant.  Humility marks men of faith because they know the source of their strength.  This is not a false humility that makes them doormats for everyone who wishes to take them on.

Third, Lent encourages us to be men of charity.  This might not mean what you think it does.  It’s not primarily about giving money to the poor, or even doing good things for other people.  Yes, these are acts of charity, but what I mean by being men of charity takes us to the Latin root of the word, caritas.  Caritas is a kind of self-giving love, a love that looks for the good of others, a love that sometimes finds its expression in works of charity, but is always characterized by putting the other one first.  Men of charity are men who have a strong, burning love for God that translates into the way they love their families, spouses, children, co-workers, employees, everyone God puts in their path.  Men who exhibit this charity certainly do not overlook another’s faults, but gently and firmly corrects them because he knows that setting the person right is what is best for them.  Charity sometimes means saying no, or not yet; it means saying do this even though you don’t think you want to.  Think how often God does that to us!

  • • Example from my life: my parents urging me to go on a retreat or be part of a group.

Fourth, Lent encourages us to be men of integrity.  Men of integrity exhibit what we generally refer to as “character.”  These are men who do the right thing even though someone isn’t breathing down their neck or micromanaging them.  Integrity is what we all want to say that we have.  But integrity is definitely difficult to always achieve.  Because integrity means walking away from a lucrative business deal because it doesn’t feel right.  Integrity means setting priorities for yourself and your family that are probably counter-cultural, like saying no to sports or activities that make it impossible to go to Mass or to spend adequate time with our families.  Integrity means we are as good as our word, that we can always be relied on to do the right thing.  God does not want to be a micromanager: he wants to set us on the right path and have us walk it every day.  Men of integrity do that.

Finally, Lent calls us to be men of grace.  This doesn’t mean we are able to burn up the dance floor, it means rather that we are aware of God’s action in our life, that we live by that action, and that we spread it on to others.  Grace says that everything we have is a gift, no matter how hard we think we’ve worked for it.  Grace says that we are sinners, men who have committed sins and are guilty of every possible offense against God, but even so we are loved and forgiven and called and blessed.  Grace says that God is infinitely greater than our sins, that there is no way that we can fall so far that God can’t reach us, that he longs to pull us up out of the waters of death and give us life that lasts forever.

The truth of grace is this:  on one day in time, let’s call it December 25, of the year zero… (footnote Fr. Larry Hennessy).

Men of grace are aware of their sinfulness and bring it to the Sacrament of Penance on a regular basis; they are grateful for the gift of forgiveness and celebrate it at the table of the Eucharist.  Men of grace enthusiastically pass the faith on to their families, keenly aware of their vocational responsibility to help their spouse and their children get to heaven.  Men of grace witness to others by being men of prayer, men of faith, men of charity and men of integrity!

Another question to think about – of the five manly traits, which do you find most present in your life?  What do you think got you there?  Which do you find least present in your life?  What do you need to do to pursue it?

So now, three Lenten habits: fasting, almsgiving and prayer.

Fasting helps us to:

  • • give up what we truly do not need
  • • let go of things that keep us tethered to the world, to our own self-interest
  • • find in our hunger that there is nothing we hunger for that God can’t provide.

Almsgiving helps us to:

  • • realize that we are not the center of the universe, and also we are not alone
  • • see other people as God sees them and love them as God does.

Prayer helps us to:

  • • find God in the midst of our business, brokenness, despair
  • • have a relationship with God that sees us through good times and bad
  • o Joke about the guy who was going through a hard time and looked at the Bible randomly for some help
  • • see God’s work in our lives

A question to think about:  What’s your Lenten plan?  How will you implement fasting, almsgiving and prayer in your life?

Men of Lent

Peter: Matthew 14:22-33

  • o A man of fledgling faith
    • ♣ courageous, tenacious
  • o A man of grace
    • ♣ fallen and forgiven

Paul:  Philippians 1:19-26

  • o A man of converted faith (his past)
  • o A man of grace (knows who is in charge, where he is being led)
  • o A man of charity (is concerned about others, and fruitful labor)

A question to think about:  Which of these men inspires you most?  Why?  What can you take from his life to create a powerful life-changing Lent?

Wisdom Has Built Her House

Readings: Proverbs 9:1-6, 11, 10; Romans 11:33-36; Mark 6:1-6

A lecture presented to the CREEDS Scripture Study group, kicking off their study of Wisdom Literature and the Chronicler.

I. What is Wisdom Literature?

You’ll be treated this year in CREEDS to an introduction to Hebrew Wisdom Literature of the Old Testament. Wisdom literature is a general literary genre quite popular in the Ancient Near East. This type of literature is characterized by sayings that praise God and teach heroic virtue.

A. Wisdom in the Ancient Near East

Wisdom literature a controversial tradition that needs some explanation, but it is a tradition that I think you will find edifying, challenging and uplifting. Much of the Wisdom Literature of the Old Testament is omitted from the Bibles used in the Protestant churches, and even in some Jewish Scriptures. The main reason for that, at least among Hebrew scholars, was that the books were not found in Hebrew but only in Greek, and so they dated these books in the Hellenistic period which was thought to be too recent to be divinely inspired Scripture. Since then, however, many of the books have been found, at least partially, in Hebrew.

Before we launch into a whole preview of the Old Testament Wisdom tradition, I wanted to take a look at the whole idea of wisdom literature in the generic sense, or at least at wisdom literature in the ancient near east culture. Because what we know is that wisdom literature didn’t begin or end in ancient Israel, but rather part of the whole wisdom movement of that time and place. Lawrence Boadt tells us that there are known collections of proverbs from Sumeria and Babylon that date before 2000 B.C. and look quite a bit like counterparts found in the book of Proverbs. One example is the Sumerian proverb that says “A chattering scribe-his guilt is great” which corresponds to Proverbs 18:13 which reads “He who answers before listening-that is folly and shame.”

Now the wisdom tradition in Babylon appears to have been well established long before Israel ever existed as a nation, so it seems reasonable to expect that Israel borrowed much of its wisdom tradition from Babylon. Another great source of wisdom literature is found in Egypt, although it is not clear whether Israel borrowed from Egypt, or if both Israel and Egypt were using an ancient source that they both knew. In any case, wisdom literature was well-established in the ancient near east, and Israel’s wisdom tradition was a part of it.

While the content of Israel’s wisdom tradition appears to draw on the same questions and topics as other traditions, we should note, as Boadt does, that the answers are not the same. Even if the concerns of wisdom were universal, Israel’s answers to those concerns were uniquely their own. The uniqueness came of course from Israel’s finding the roots of all wisdom in the fear of the LORD (Proverbs 9:10). For Israel the source and summit of wisdom was to be found in right relationship (h?esed) with YHWH.

B. Wisdom in Ancient Israel

In Israel, the sources for wisdom have come from two places. The first is family. The proverbs especially tend to dwell on the right relationships between various members of the family. The right relationship of parents and children mirrors the right relationship between the people Israel and YHWH. Proverbs additionally prescribe relationships that make possible education of the young and moral instruction. These pearls of wisdom were passed on from generation to generation. Proverbs 4:3 tells us, “When I was a boy in my father’s house, still tender and my mother’s only child, he taught me and said, ‘Take my words to heart!'”

The second source of wisdom literature would be formal education. There was great value in a professional class of wise men and women for the royal court. These people could be counted on for wise advice that enabled the king to rule effectively. So while there was undoubtedly an informal wisdom education that took place within the family, a formal school for the study of wisdom was required. The Babylonian and Sumerian societies had such schools available, and these taught young boys to be scribes and prepared them for careers in the royal court. Scriptures indicate that Israel also had professional scribes, and a professional class of wise counselors that served as advisors to the king.

But the king himself was seen as the great source of wisdom. David was considered wise, and his wisdom contributed greatly to the Scriptures in the form of the many Psalms attributed to him. But perhaps the greatest wisdom figure in the ruling class was wise King Solomon, and we’ll hear more about him in a moment.

First, it’s important I think to take a look at the way the wisdom literature was transmitted. Wisdom literature in general used several distinctive forms, such as the proverb, the riddle and fables. But in Hebrew, it is mostly the proverb that is common. The proverb could distill the wisdom of the ages into a practical, memorable, pithy line or two that had a bit of sermon in it as well. The proverbs had to be memorable because it was by memory that most of them were handed down across the generations and perpetuated in the society.

Some of the proverbs, however, were in a more narrative form. Think of the book of Job, filled with the wisdom to be distilled from suffering. Here there is narration, dialogue and intrigue. Questions and answers are exchanged, and life’s lessons are learned. Proverbs had the ability to take the most difficult questions of life and make them seem somehow approachable by bringing them to the ordinariness of life.

II. Three Wisdom Figures

That is a bit of an introduction to the idea of wisdom literature and what it is, and how it came to be formed in the Hebrew community. You’ll read much more about that from Boadt and others and you study wisdom this year. So at this point, I would like to take a look at three wisdom figures which will bring us from ancient Israel to the present day. The first is wise King Solomon in all his glory. Secondly, I want to look at the wisdom of Jesus, which takes the wisdom of the Old Testament and grounds it in God’s plan for salvation. And lastly, I want to explore wisdom and the Christian Disciple which takes the abstract study of wisdom and brings it to our own faith response.

A. Wise King Solomon

Solomon was the son of David and Bathsheba. He becomes king by choice not by right, because that right should go to David’s first-born, Adonijah. But David had promised Bathsheba that Solomon would succeed him as king, and he does so, despite the interference of a bit of intrigue from Adonijah. At David’s decree, Zadok the priest anoints Solomon king of Israel and David is able to rest in peace.

After Solomon secured the kingdom and began his rule, his wisdom became apparent to all around him. After sacrificing to the Lord at Gibeon, the Lord offered Solomon whatever he wanted, all he had to do was make the request. And despite the many things he could have requested, he made just this one: “Give your servant, therefore, an understanding heart to judge your people and to distinguish right from wrong. For who is able to govern this vast people of yours?” (1 Kings 3:9) Humility in the service of the LORD is what Proverbs means when it says that the fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and Solomon had that figured out. And the LORD is pleased to grant Solomon’s request: “I give you a heart so wise and understanding that there has never been anyone like you up to now, and after you there will come no one to equal you.” (1 Kings 3:12)

Shortly after he is gifted with wisdom, he gets the chance to show it. You all know this story, I’m sure. Two harlots come to Solomon, arguing over the custody of a child. It seems they both lived in the same house, and both gave birth within a day of one another. But the first woman’s child died during the night, having been smothered by his mother lying on him. So she tries to pull the old switcheroo, taking the other woman’s live child and putting her dead child in its place. Nice. She protested to Solomon that she had done no such thing, and so it was a case of she-said, she-said. So, the king in his great wisdom, declares, “Cut the living child in two, and give half to one woman and half to the other.” (I Kings 3:25) The real mother, of course, gave in immediately. She would rather give the child up than have him cut in half. By this, Solomon knew for sure that she was the real mother and awarded custody of the child to her. You can read all about that at the end of chapter 3 of First Kings.

Solomon’s reputation for wisdom is what led many traditions to call him the author of several wisdom books of the Old Testament. A legend of the Talmud guessed that Solomon crafted the Song of Songs in his lusty youth, Proverbs in middle age, and Ecclesiastes as a skeptical old man. His authorship of these books is debatable, but his reputation as a wise ruler and king is not.

Solomon’s wisdom was so great, that he was able to build and complete the Temple, dedicating it with great joy. But, Solomon was human, and chapter 11 of First Kings describes his many sins, especially the sin of intermarrying with foreign women who began to turn his heart to strange gods. One would think wisdom would have protected him from that, but it didn’t. The greatest wise king in all of Israel was also tragically flawed, just as his father David was before him, and just as pretty much every king who followed him would be.

B. The Wisdom of Jesus

We could beat up Solomon, the kings of Israel, and pretty much everyone because of their being flawed, but that’s really the wrong direction to go, and not the direction that God required. Instead, God noted that our fallenness was evidence of our need for a Savior.

And so, in his great wisdom, God our Father noted that there was a vast chasm of sin and death separating us from him. To close up that chasm, he sent his only Son into our world. He was born among us, he lived our life and died our death. But his death was not the last word for him or for us, because God raised him up. As God raised him up, he canceled the power of sin and death to keep us from God, and gave us the possibility of new life that lasts forever. That’s the Gospel, brothers and sisters in Christ. That’s our heritage.

Wisdom is often personified as the nebulous figure that was with God at the beginning of creation. The presence of Wisdom in that time explains the Genesis account of creation being spoken in the first person plural. “Through him, all things were made,” is the part of the Creed that speaks this truth. Thus, this Wisdom is often equated with the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, God the Word. Wisdom personified is often portrayed as a female image, and sometimes even thought to be the female side of God’s human face.

St. Paul speaks of Jesus as the true wisdom of God. Listen to this reading from his first letter to the Corinthians:

For Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom,
but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles,
but to those who are called, Jews and Greeks alike, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.
For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.
Consider your own calling, brothers. Not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth.
Rather, God chose the foolish of the world to shame the wise, and God chose the weak of the world to shame the strong,
and God chose the lowly and despised of the world, those who count for nothing, to reduce to nothing those who are something,
so that no human being might boast before God.
It is due to him that you are in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, as well as righteousness, sanctification, and redemption,
so that, as it is written, “Whoever boasts, should boast in the Lord.” (1 Cor. 1:22-31)

Because it really would seem wiser to send a savior who could overcome death without being subject to it, right? But how would that close that gap between God and us? God’s wisdom, which is so far superior to anything we can muster, says that a Savior who walks our walk and talks our talk and suffers pain and sorrow and death is so much more likely to appeal to fallen human creatures who are subject to all those same things. It might appear to the world to be a foolish way to save us, but to God it is wiser than wisdom itself.

C. Wisdom and the Christian Disciple

Which brings us to me and you. What difference does our study of wisdom make to us disciples? For an exploration of wisdom and the Christian Disciple, I am going to turn to St. Bernard of Clairvaux. In his treatise, “On Loving God,” he says, “Man must seek in his own higher nature for the highest gifts; and these are dignity, wisdom and virtue. By dignity I mean free-will, whereby he not only excels all other earthly creatures, but has dominion over them. Wisdom is the power whereby he recognizes this dignity, and perceives also that it is no accomplishment of his own. And virtue impels man to seek eagerly for Him who is man’s Source, and to lay fast hold on Him when He has been found.”

St. Bernard makes two points here. First, wisdom directs us to look for the dignity that we have over every other created thing. As beautiful and complex and glorious as all of creation is, humanity has a dignity which holds humanity above and beyond all of it. Our ability to breathe puts us higher than the loftiest mountain. Our ability to sense the world around us puts us above the noblest sycamore tree. Our ability to reason and to love puts us beyond the noblest beast of the jungle. Moreover, we have been given dominion over all of them, to encourage their growth and flourishing, and to direct their living in the world.

Bernard’s second point is crucial. Here wisdom, directs us to realize with great humility that none of this dignity is of our own making. We have been given the dignity that we have as a free gift of the One whose dignity surpasses all of us. As high as we are above all of creation, God is higher than us to an infinite degree. Wisdom tells us that it’s not about us, that the beauty that is us is a gift of and is intended for the glory of our Creator God who breathed that dignity into us as he breathed life into us. We are created in the image and likeness of our God.

But St. Bernard teaches that wisdom looks like something. He says, “Clearly, you pour forth wisdom or understanding from your lips in three ways: if on your lips there is the admission of your own sinfulness, thanksgiving and the voice of praise, and words that encourage.” So we pour forth the wisdom that is ours by creation when we acknowledge that we are a sinful, broken people in need of a Savior. We sing wisdom when we cry out in thanksgiving for our many blessings and praise God for his goodness. And we exude wisdom when we encourage the downtrodden, the broken, the lost, the poor and needy, and help them to find the God who has gifted them with great dignity and worth.

If wisdom is right relationship with God, then we disciples must model that right relationship in the things we do, the words we say, the songs we sing, the prayers we offer and the sacrifices we make.

III. Wisdom Literature of the Old Testament

At this point, I want to take a look at the five books of Scripture commonly thought of as wisdom literature. This is going to be a quick rundown and is not intended as an exhaustive lecture on each of these books, because that’s coming at a later time. Think of this as a preview.

Ecclesiastes may be the most skeptical book of the Bible. Ecclesiastes is the Greek name for the central character in the narrative, whose name in Hebrew is Qoheleth. The refrain of this book is the author’s cry of “vanity of vanities, all things are vanity-and a striving after the wind” (Ecclesiastes 1:2 et. al.) The author decries the futility of striving for greatness in this world, only to reach the point of our own finiteness and come to a literal dead end. In the end, though, Qoheleth’s message is basically encouraging, and brings us back to the God who made us. At the end of his book, which is not part of today’s reading, he says: “The last word, when all is heard: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is man’s all; because God will bring to judgment every work, with all its hidden qualities, whether good or bad.” (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14)

Proverbs is the book we most often think about in this kind of wisdom literature. The structure of the proverb gives clear direction to life’s basic questions. Many of the proverbs were probably borrowed from other ancient civilizations including the Sumerians and Babylonians, but there are some that are clearly later additions, giving evidence that they came from Hebrew culture itself. Labels within the book itself attribute chapters 1-22 to Solomon, 22:17-24:34 to “sayings of the wise,” chapters 25-29 to Solomon again, chapter 30 to Agur, Son of Jakeh and chapter 31 to King Lemuel. We don’t know who Agur and Lemuel are, but that section of sayings of the wise appears to be an adaptation of Egyptian proverbs. The content of the book ranges from pragmatic secular advice to reflections on the role of God in Israel.

Sirach, also known as Ecclesiasticus, mixes proverbs with lengthy essays on common wisdom themes. These themes include “use of speech, self-control, evil friends, the value of work, death, (and) sickness.” Contrary to the way Proverbs is arranged, Sirach tends to group sayings and essays thematically. The entire book is like a hymn in praise of wisdom. The alternate name of the book, Ecclesiasticus, is translated as “the church book.” Because of this, and because it was not from the time of Ezra or before, most Jews were not comfortable including Sirach in their canon of Scripture. But because it speaks to the ethical aspects of everyday life, Sirach is a book which makes wisdom accessible to all of us.

Wisdom is written as a narrative in the voice of Solomon. It is known only in Greek and may have been the last book of the Old Testament to be written. The audience is Israel in exile in Egypt, and the major focus of the author is to reassure the Jewish community that keeping their faith, despite their many hardships, is worthwhile. Here, the reader can learn wisdom from the study of salvation history, and can hope for immortality as a reward for suffering.

Job is familiar to most of us. Job is a treatise on the meaning of suffering. The book can be divided into five major sections, with the first and last section comprising a religious folktale. In the first section, God tests Job who proves faithful. In the last section, God restores Job to his former greatness and way of life as a reward for his just actions. In between, there are three sections that seem to be a later addition. There is a dialogue between Job and three friends about the meaning of divine justice, the appearance of a fourth friend who challenges Job and the other three, demanding that they bow to God’s greatness and sovereignty, and section four, in which God appears and condemns Job’s demands for justice as arrogant, with Job submitting to God twice. The additions of sections two through four are a move beyond a simple folk tale into a complex treatise of suffering, justice and divine sovereignty. Eventually out of the book’s doubt and questioning, emerges a steadfast trust in God.

In your study of the wisdom literature, you’ll find some wonderful little gifts. Those include:

1. The importance of order for understanding creation and our role within it.
2. The importance of cause and effect, that actions have consequences and good deeds reap rewards.
3. That God is revealed in creation: beauty and order in the world around us can lead us to a greater understanding and appreciation of God in our lives.
4. That in suffering, we can find some meaning. Whether suffering is the result of evil done, as correction or discipline, or as a test of faith, all of it is part the plan of our loving and merciful God.
5. That life is positive. The world and creation are orderly, and there is hope all around us.
6. That we are responsible as stewards and co-creators of the world and all its wonders.
7. The divine plan is known by wisdom to be a gift that is beyond the human capacity to control or understand. We must be faithful to revelation and look to God for true wisdom.
8. Finally, wisdom knows its limits. If God’s thoughts are far beyond our understanding, then we must submit to that and let God be God.

These wonderful little gifts are like treasures waiting to be opened as you delve into the wisdom of God in the Scriptures. Along the way, you will undoubtedly find little lines that you can post on the refrigerator or jot down in a journal. And undoubtedly, as you meditate on them, they will bring you closer to the One who is wisdom itself.

IV. Meeting the Chronicler

Now before you get to your study of Wisdom literature, you’re going to spend some time delving into the books of First and Second Chronicles. So, you know, God help you! You could find the Chronicles a bit dry, so with that in mind I wanted to give you a pastoral tool. Should you find yourself nodding off in the midst of the Chronicles, here are my top ten things you could say if you’re caught sleeping in your CREEDS group:

10. “They told me at the blood bank this might happen.”

9. “I think that coffee is decaf after all.”

8. “I wasn’t sleeping! I was meditating on Second Chronicles!”

7. “I was up all night thinking about the implications of Fr. Pat’s Sunday homily.

6. “Darn! Why did you interrupt me? I had almost figured out the meaning of life.”

5. “Boy, that cold medicine I took last night just won’t wear off!”

4. “Sorry. I just spent the last four hours reading the Sunday bulletin.”

3. “I wasn’t sleeping. I was trying to pick up my contact lens without my hands.”

2. “Praise God! I think I just figured out the mystery of the Holy Trinity.”

And the number one thing you should say if you get caught sleeping at CREEDS…

1. “We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen!”

All kidding aside, you will find that the Chronicles closely mirror the books of Samuel and Kings. These were originally joined with Ezra and Nehemiah as one single historical work. The Greek name for the Chronicles is paraleipomena, or “things omitted,” ostensibly omitted from narratives found in the books of Samuel and Kings. The primary objective of the author, referred to as “the Chronicler,” was not simply to fix problems with those books, however. The Chronicler realized that the greatness of Israel as a political power, such as it was, was over, and the nation would now be a nation under God or nothing.

Given that new paradigm, it was important for the Chronicler to portray an accurate picture of the nation’s history so that it could learn from its past mistakes and survive. But that accurate history was to be told through a religious, rather than a political, lens. You’ll find the main themes in Chronicles to be a defense of the legitimate claims of the Davidic monarchy in the nation’s history, and a celebration of the greatness of Jerusalem and its temple worship as the center of the religious life of the Jewish community. The Chronicler then is less interested in the political importance of David and Jerusalem than he is in their religious importance. You will perhaps find that as a difference in comparing Samuel/Kings with Chronicles.

One example of this is that the Chronicler leaves out of his narrative of David’s life the painful and humiliating encounter with Bathsheba and the murder of Uriah, Bathsheba’s husband, to cover up the affair. While the book of First Kings found that an important detail to explain the transition of the monarchy from David to Solomon instead of Adonijah, the Chronicler would see that as a major character flaw for the king who was for him primarily a cultic figure.

The philosopher/theologian Walter Brueggemann said, “Historical persons are never ‘historical’ but always constructions and portraits, partly done for us and to us, and partly done by ourselves, as we are always busily constructing ourselves for the sake of appearance and for the sake of self-understanding.” History has a way of painting the truth into a whatever canvas a culture might need for survival at a given time and place. That may explain for us the difference between the Samuel/Kings history and that of the Chronicler.

So please find in your study of the Chronicles a David that is a great cultic figure who is capable of crafting and singing a book of Psalms, and a Jerusalem that is the place where God himself dwells. And may that study lead you to the song in your own heart, and the place within you where true worship happens.

V. Closing Prayer

As we close today, the best wisdom prayer that I could think of was that of Reinhold Niebuhr, commonly called the “Serenity Prayer.” You may or may not be familiar with the full version of the prayer, but it is really quite beautiful and a great way to sum up what we will be learning about wisdom in the weeks ahead. So let us pray.

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.

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.

Thirty-second Sunday of Ordinary Time

I should begin with at least an acknowledgement that this reflection is late. That had something to do with getting ordained to the diaconate on Friday, preaching on Saturday, and baptizing my niece on Sunday. More on all of that later. But when I preached on Saturday, I preached on this very text. So without further ado…

The kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins
who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom.
Five of them were foolish and five were wise.
The foolish ones, when taking their lamps,
brought no oil with them,
but the wise brought flasks of oil with their lamps.

First, we have to understand the parable. Wedding customs in first century Palestine were a little different than those we know today. The wedding was a drawn out affair, beginning with the betrothal. After that, the couple was married but would not live together until the complex negotiations regarding the dowry were complete. When that was done, the bridegroom would go to the bride’s house and bring her to his own house. Then there would be a splendid feast that would go on for several days.

So the parable happens just as the negotiations are complete and they are expecting the bridegroom to go to the bride’s house. He is delayed a bit, and they all fall asleep. But that is not the problem. The problem is that half of them were unprepared.

I think we bristle a bit at the wise virgins’ refusal to share their oil with the foolish. Jesus was always for sharing and charity, so what’s the deal here? Well, since we know Jesus regularly encourages such sharing, I think we can safely conclude that is not the point of the parable and move on. The point of the parable then, may well be the oil itself. Of what is this oil symbolic?

The Church Fathers help us a bit there. They talk about the oil as the oil of salvation. This would be an oil that can only be had in relationship with Jesus. It’s an oil that can’t be begged, borrowed, stolen or bought at an all-night Walgreens. We fill the flasks of our lives with that oil through daily prayer, devotion, the sacraments, and a life-long relationship with Jesus Christ, our Savior. So the foolish virgins were looking for oil too late — too late not just because it is midnight, but too late because they should have been filling their flasks with this oil all along. It’s not the wise virgins’ fault they did not share: indeed this is an oil that cannot be shared, any more than one could live another’s life for that person.

What gets me is that five of these virgins showed up unprepared. We may not be familiar with first-century Palestinian wedding customs, but they certainly were. So they would have known the wedding would go on for some days. How is it, then, that they forgot extra oil? Even if the bridegroom had not been delayed, they certainly would have needed it! What was so important to them that they forgot to attend to the most basic part of their job in preparation for the wedding banquet?

Just so, we certainly have nothing more important to do than to show up at the wedding feast of heaven with our flasks filled with the oil of salvation. No other concern should distract us for our most basic job on earth, which is preparing for our life in heaven. We must not be deterred from prayer, devotion, good works of charity, fasting, and zealous reception of the sacraments lest we hear those awful words the bridegroom spoke to the foolish virgins: “Amen, I say to you, I do not know you.”

When we get to the feast, if our flasks are not full, it is already too late. As we approach the immanent end of this Church year (there’s just less than three weeks left), let us look back and see how well we have filled our flasks in the last year. And let us steadfastly resolve to fill those flasks to overflowing in the year ahead. The only way we can do that is by zealously seeking our God, praying the prayer of the Psalmist:

O God, you are my God whom I seek;
for you my flesh pines and my soul thirsts
like the earth, parched, lifeless and without water.

26th Sunday of Ordinary Time

Jesus said to the chief priests and elders of the people:

It’s easy, I think, to distance ourselves from the point of the Gospel. We often think, well, I’m not one of the chief priests and elders, I’m a Christian, so I’m saved and I’m above reproach. But to do that does violence to the Gospel itself, and ignores the call to repentance that comes with Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom of God.

The point is that this call to repentance is for us. We are the chief priests and elders, and it’s our turn to hear the Gospel and react to its message. The point is that in Christ, God shows us sinners the way, as the psalmist proclaims:

Good and upright is the LORD;
thus he shows sinners the way.
He guides the humble to justice,
and teaches the humble his way.

We, then, must follow the way to justice, lest we remain in our sin as the chief priests and elders:

When John came to you in the way of righteousness,
you did not believe him;
but tax collectors and prostitutes did.
Yet even when you saw that,
you did not later change your minds and believe him.

So may we too change our minds and believe, and follow in his way, that we may sing with the Apostle:

Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father!

25th Sunday of Ordinary Time

“Going out about five o’clock,
the landowner found others standing around, and said to them,
‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’
They answered, ‘Because no one has hired us.’”

Often when I’m reading a familiar passage of scripture, some part of it will jump out at me which has never really struck me before. This week, the part shown above of the parable of the workers in the vineyard really got me. It got me because I think it’s perhaps the saddest part of the parable.

These who have been standing around idle all day may well be those who even at the eleventh hour have not yet had the Gospel preached to them. The parable tells us that our Lord pursues his children up until the very last minute, because He wills that all should be saved, and that all should be gathered in to the kingdom of heaven.

Indeed that kingdom of heaven is symbolized in this parable by the persistent landowner, who returns to find laborers at every moment of the day, who gives generously to all, and brings all to the same reward. We can take heart as the psalmist tells us, because that’s just how our God is:

Great is the LORD and highly to be praised;
his greatness is unsearchable.
The LORD is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger and of great kindness.
The LORD is good to all
and compassionate toward all his works.
The LORD is just in all his ways
and holy in all his works.
The LORD is near to all who call upon him,
to all who call upon him in truth.

22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time

O God, you are my God whom I seek;
for you my flesh pines and my soul thirsts
like the earth, parched, lifeless and without water.
Thus have I gazed toward you in the sanctuary
to see your power and your glory,
for your kindness is a greater good than life;
my lips shall glorify you.
Thus will I bless you while I live;
lifting up my hands, I will call upon your name.
As with the riches of a banquet shall my soul be satisfied,
and with exultant lips my mouth shall praise you.
You are my help,
and in the shadow of your wings I shout for joy.
My soul clings fast to you;
your right hand upholds me.

Yesterday I was out mowing the lawn. When I came back inside, I drank several glasses of cold, refreshing water to slake my thirst. So the image of “for you my flesh pines and my soul thirsts” is one that is clear to me. And the whole idea of being “parched, lifeless and without water” is terrifying. Only in God can we find water for our thirst and only God can fill up the void that is within us. All we have to do is be away from prayer for a short time and we can find that our lives are adrift. The only way to survive is for our souls to “cling fast to” God whose right hand upholds us.

Perhaps the second reading makes it even more clear. We can be tossed about by all the philosophies and teachings of a world adrift in its search for meaning. But the only way to find rock solid truth and surety in our time is not to be conformed to this age, but to “be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect.”

21st Sunday of Ordinary Time

Who do people say that the Son of Man is?

This is probably every bit as pertinent a question in our time as it was when Jesus walked the earth. Who do people say that the Son of Man is?

For many, the question seems surprising. Of course he is Christ, the Son of the Living God. Peter had it right. But does our behavior match what we would really say about that? Who is the Son of Man to us? What difference does it make that he is our God? It can often seem like the Son of Man is irrelevant in our world, and if we look deeply, sometimes in our lives too.

Because if we really knew that he is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, then maybe our lives would be more Gospel-centered. Maybe our words would be more healing and our actions more loving. Maybe we would take more time with our families than at our jobs. Maybe we would relentlessly pursue relationships with our God rather than relentlessly pursue more posessions that rob the world of resources meant for all. Maybe we would look past our own wants and see the needs of the poor and the oppressed. Maybe we would preserve the resources of the world that all might have enough.

Maybe if we really knew that Jesus is the Son of the Living God we would bind all those really important things and loose all the things that take us out of relationship with God. We really must live the truth that Peter proclaimed. It is only in doing that that we can one day hear Jesus say to us, “Blessed are you!”

The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Hail, holy Queen, Mother of Mercy!
Our life, our sweetness, and our hope!
To thee do we cry, poor banished
children of Eve, to thee do we send
up our sighs, mourning and weeping
in this valley, of tears.
Turn, then, most gracious advocate,
thine eyes of mercy toward us; and
after this our exile show unto us the
blessed fruit of thy womb Jesus;
O clement, O loving, O sweet virgin Mary.

Pray for us, O holy Mother of God

That we may be made worthy of the
promises of Christ.

Then I heard a loud voice in heaven say:
“Now have salvation and power come,
and the Kingdom of our God
and the authority of his Anointed One.”
Rev. 10:11ab

What I have come to love about the Solemnity of the Assumption of Mary is what it means for us. The Assumption marks the feast of Mary’s Assumption, body and soul, into heaven. The Church believes that Mary never saw death, because of her virginity and her participation in God’s plan of salvation through the conception, birth, death and resurrection of her son, the Son of God, our Lord Jesus Christ.

Mary was a young girl with all the concerns of a young girl in that time and place. She was as yet unmarried, yet faithfully embraced God’s call, strange and unfathomable though it must have been to her. For me, her faith is incomprehensible. If I could have a tenth of it, my own faith would be increased immeasurably.

This humble girl, with great faith, was raised on this day to the heights of heaven that we can yet hope for. What the Assumption means for us is that as Mary has gone to exaltation before us, so we can hope for exaltation on that Great Day.

Because there are those among us too who have unplanned pregnancies. There are those among us whose children go in directions that put them in danger. There are those among us who have to watch a child die. But because Mary suffered these sorrows too, and yet was exalted, we can hope for the day when that which she was given and which we have been promised will surely be ours.

We are called to simply live our faith, not knowing where it will take us always, but always having faith that God will reward our efforts and raise us up from our fallenness.

We too can hope to be assumed into the great heavenly vision and rejoice when we hear that great voice say:

“Now have salvation and power come,
and the Kingdom of our God
and the authority of his Anointed One.”

Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.