Tuesday of the Twenty-second Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

The presence of God, in some ways, is quite often really unwelcome, at least to those who have made their own gods. Saint Paul urges the Corinthians in today’s first reading to be good discerners of this reality; to turn away from the spirit of the world so that they can turn toward the Spirit of God. That’s good advice for us too, of course. In today’s Gospel the demons that possessed the poor man knew who Jesus was and what he came to proclaim. Those demons wanted no part of Jesus, in fact, they wanted him to go away. But of course, Jesus who is the way, the truth and the life will not let the man remain possessed, and the demon flees.

But the demons that oppose God’s presence remain in our world and are quite active. They possess people, institutions, and social systems. They attempt to cloud a respect for life by preaching the so-called truth of “choice.” They attempt to oppress whole peoples and developing nations with greed and rampant consumerism. They attempt to derail justice with corruption, peace with selfishness, respect for authority with a kind of false freedom of expression. We have even seen evil present in our Church in these days.

So the demons would like Jesus to go away and not even recognize them, but Jesus will not go away; he will not be overcome by anything; he will be always omnipresent. Evil will never be triumphant. Jesus speaks words of authority; an authority that gives him power even over these unclean spirits. So we have come to believe that the forces of darkness will never have the last word. For the truth will overcome them like the thief in the night, and all that darkness will be put to flight in the bright light of day. We then are people of light, and we are called to sing of the Lord’s truth so that all people will continue to be amazed, just like the bystanders at the casting out of the demon. And with the Psalmist, we can rejoice that “The LORD is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and of great kindness.”

The Twenty-second Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

So often, when someone thanks us for something, we might say, “It’s the least I could do.”  As if it were some kind of badge of achievement to do the least thing possible.  I think it’s human nature to try to do as little as possible, without being perceived as lazy or something.  Sometimes we want to do as little as possible, and have others feeling good about it.

Well, I think it’s that kind of attitude that is behind today’s Liturgy of the Word.  Certain things are expected of believers, and over the course of history, people have tried to get away with doing as few of those things as they absolutely need to do.  The first reading sets the stage: Moses places the law before the people and tells them that they are a great nation, because they have a God so close to them, and who loves them enough to give them the whole law that they have received.

Now the whole law is more than we might think.  Perhaps when we hear that, we think of the Ten Commandments, to which we also are bound in our discipleship.  But for the Jewish community back then, there were a total of over six hundred laws and precepts that made up the law.  Because of that, there was always this constant discussion over which of the laws was most important, and often people would be concerned more about a tiny little precept than about the whole big picture that God was trying to accomplish.

This is the attitude Jesus came to address with the Gospel.  He wanted the people to get it right.  He wanted them to have concern for people more than for semantics in the law.  He wanted them to love as God loves, because if we do that, we’ll be keeping the law anyway.  But people didn’t always accept that teaching. If they did, Jesus wouldn’t have had to go to the Cross, and there would have been no need to preach the Gospel.

So in today’s Gospel reading, Jesus makes a major correction.  There was a law of purifying vessels before festivals, which is not unlike the way the priest washes his hands before the Eucharistic Prayer or the way that the vessels for Mass are purified after Communion.  But somewhere along the way, the precept got mangled, and everyone was bound to scrupulously wash themselves and every vessel they owned before a feast.  And Jesus chastises them for having more concern about a human tradition than about the real intent of the law.

The real intent of the law was obviously something way more important, way more personal.  The real intent of that purification was the purification of our hearts.  Jesus gives a rather horrifying list of sins at the end of the Gospel reading and notes that these are the things that defile; not some dirt on the outside of a cup or hands that had not been scrupulously cleaned.  If we want to really purify ourselves for the festival, which is to say the Eucharist, then we have to be cleansed of our sins.  That’s why we have the Sacrament of Penance, right?

James, in the second reading, picks up on the theme.  If we really want to be thought to be wise in regard to keeping the law, then we have to keep ourselves unstained by the world, which would be the same thing as Jesus was saying, but also to care for those in need, with which Jesus would certainly not disagree!  Indeed, that’s what was really at stake in the Gospel reading: people were more concerned about the minutiae of the Law than they were for securing justice for all God’s people.

The thing is, we are hearers of the Word.  We have experienced the love of our Lord in so many ways.  Everything that we have is a gift to us.  We have to be wise in regard to all that, and to be certain that we keep the whole of the law.  Not just those little minutiae, but the very spirit of the law, the law of love which binds all disciples and all people of good will.  Because when we lose sight of that, the whole Church can go off the rails.  And we have certainly seen the rotten fruit of that in these past weeks, haven’t we?

So our reflection in these days has to be on where and how we need to realign ourselves with the Law of love and resolve to live it more faithfully. Because, as the Psalmist says today, it is they who do justice who will live in the presence of the Lord. And that’s just where we all want to be.

Friday of the Twenty-first Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

I’m sure you’ve had the experience, when you were talking to someone, that you felt like you weren’t both having the same conversation. Or, even though you were both speaking English, you weren’t talking the same language. Sometimes that happens: you think you’re both talking about the same thing, but very clearly, one or both of you is missing the point.

I think Saint Paul’s message to the Corinthians today might be something like that. They think they know what wisdom is, and I believe they really do know how the world defines wisdom, but the thing is, God’s wisdom is very, very different from the world’s wisdom. God’s wisdom is way beyond anything anyone has ever thought. Because, for God, wisdom looks like that Cross up there. And the Cross is what the world thought of as the ultimate defeat. It was a death saved for the most horrible criminals. It was a very public way to put an end to someone’s criminal foolishness.

But God used that horrible thing to make the best thing ever happen. He used the Cross to overcome the worst death ever by raising Jesus up on the third day. The worst death ever became the best life ever, where there is no more pain or sadness or death. It turns out God’s wisdom is very, very wise indeed!

For Jesus in today’s Gospel the call to be truly wise was a bit more simple: be prepared. Just as the wise virgins who had taken the time to buy enough oil to last them through the night were rewarded by getting to join in the marriage feast, so all of us who are wise enough to be a light shining in a dark place will be rewarded with being able to join God’s feast and become one with him.

So I’d have to say the takeaway here is to expect the unexpected when it comes to God’s wisdom. If we want to find ourselves truly wise, we have to be willing to have our world turned upside down, to abandon our own desires and ways of thinking and embrace all that the Cross means for us.

Saint Augustine, Bishop and Doctor of the Church

You’ve probably heard the saying that youth is wasted on the young.  I think Saint Augustine might painfully agree with that sentiment.  He was a man who thought he had everything figured out at a young age. He was prideful, caught up in the world’s pleasures and focused solely on what could be learned from his own reasoning.  He had no room for the religion of his mother, Saint Monica, whose memorial we observed yesterday. But through her tireless prayers, Augustine began to come to know the God she worshipped, and began to respond to grace.  He was finally baptized at 33 years of age, became a priest at 36, and a bishop at 41.  Grace can work fast in a person’s life.

Saint Augustine’s Confessions are among the best works on the spiritual life.  In that work, he reflects, among other things, on his conversion, and how he felt called to repentance, but did not want to give up the world’s pleasures just yet.  But throughout the work, he praises God for God’s work in his life.  One of the best-known sections speaks of how the beauty of God was near, yet seemed beyond him:

Late have I loved you, Beauty so ancient and so new, late have I loved you!
Lo, you were within,
but I outside, seeking there for you,
and upon the shapely things you have made
I rushed headlong – I, misshapen.
You were with me, but I was not with you.
They held me back far from you,
those things which would have no being,
were they not in you.
You called, shouted, broke through my deafness;
you flared, blazed, banished my blindness;
you lavished your fragrance, I gasped; and now I pant for you;
I tasted you, and now I hunger and thirst;
you touched me, and I burned for your peace.

Saint Augustine was always grateful for the grace he saw at work in the world, and especially in his own life.  If anyone was a witness to how God’s embrace can take hold of a person and change their lives, it was Saint Augustine.  So today, may we all be mindful and grateful for those gifts in our lives.  May we take a moment today and look back on how things are different in our lives and give thanks for the beauty that is so ancient, and so new.

The Twenty-First Sunday of Ordinary Time – Bread of Life Discourse V: So What?

Today’s readings

“So what?”  That’s perhaps the most important question of the spiritual life.  Maybe it’s even the most important question of life, period.  Because after we have all taken time to absorb the information around us, after we have learned all that we have been taught, we have to decide what, if anything, that information and teaching mean for us as human beings.  What is the impact of this information on our lives? What difference does it make to have come to know this?  How will this experience change my life?  So what?

I mention that because I think today’s Liturgy of the Word gives us a “So what?” moment today.  As you know, these past several weeks, we have been reflecting on the “Bread of Life Discourse” as presented in chapter six of the Gospel of John. It all began five weeks ago with Saint John’s telling of the feeding of the multitudes: how thousands of people were fed with just five loaves of bread and two fish.  It was a great miracle of abundance: indeed, the leftovers were even more food than they started with: twelve baskets intended to feed those who couldn’t make it to the banquet, those who hungered throughout the whole world.

Ever since that, in these last three weeks, Jesus has been unpacking the meaning of that miracle for the crowd.  They wanted more food, but he wanted to feed them in much more important ways, in ways that touched the deepest hungers of their lives, in ways that could lead them to the eternal banquet of the Lord where no one would ever hunger or thirst again.  He made a bold claim: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.” (John 6:58) And now, the crowds grapple with that information.

Some of them are offended by the notion that he, the carpenter’s son, the one they have known and whose family they have seen, could ever be anything eternal. How on earth could this common man, this one who is one of them, be the Son of God, the Bread of Life, the answer to all their eternal questions?  Others are disgusted that the answer to these eternal questions involved eating his flesh and drinking his blood.  How horrible that he would even suggest such a cannibalistic approach to eternal life! And in today’s passage, we see the impact of all that: some of them leave and return to their former way of life. Those who walked away weren’t just hangers-on or spectators – they were among his disciples.  And then Jesus asks the Twelve – the Apostles – the question of all questions: “Do you also want to leave?”  He might as well have said to them: “So what?”

And, as usual, it’s Saint Peter who expresses the faith of these twelve men: “Master, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life.”  For them, at least, the “So what?” moment had led them to recognize something deeper in this miracle of feeding and in the words of this uncommon common man, and that something was the possibility of an eternity, which would never be possible without Jesus.  Of course, they couldn’t have known the full meaning of that statement of faith, or the cost of it, but they would certainly see it all unfold in the death and resurrection of Christ, which would solidify their faith: well, for all but one of them.

For me, the prayer of Saint Peter: “Master to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life” has played a particularly important role.  It’s come up more than once in my journey of faith. I remember in my young adulthood, before I went to seminary, having a crisis in my own faith.  Even though I was always going to Mass, for a time I had also been attending Willow Creek – the big megachurch up in Barrington – with my friends.  The music was nice and the sermons sounded good.  But along the way my pastor, Father Mike O’Keefe of blessed memory, called me in and had a “come to Jesus” with me.  It was irritating at the time, but now I couldn’t be more grateful.  I remember he told me, “Patrick, I know you would never be able to go to the chapel and stand in front of the Tabernacle and say that Jesus wasn’t there.”  I took a while to think about that, and one night when I went to Willow Creek they were having their monthly communion.  They passed around bread and grape juice and I realized that Father Mike was right: Jesus was in the Tabernacle, not there at Willow Creek, and that I would never be able to live without the Sacraments of the Church.  In retrospect, that moment was pivotal in my vocational call. Father Mike’s fatherly pastoring of me and gentle rebuke helped me to see that I couldn’t leave the Catholic Church: “Master to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life.”

A few years later, when I was in seminary, that prayer became important again.  I started seminary in fall of 2001, and in the spring of that year, the clergy sexual abuse scandals broke open.  Half of my class left seminary that year, and by the end of my time at Mundelein the 23 of us who started together dwindled to just eight of us who graduated.  Plenty of times in those five years, I wondered if I should leave too.  Why would I want to get involved in the priesthood at this moment in our Church’s history – this painful moment?  As I prayed about it over and over, I kept getting the same answer, over and over: “Master to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life.”

In my last parish, I followed a beloved pastor who was very ill and had passed away a few months before I was asked to go there.  The people there, because of his illness, had coalesced in a way that they carried the burden of the parish duties and really were able to exist without an active pastor. So when I went there, it was more than difficult.  They hadn’t come to know me or my love for them yet – indeed, I hadn’t come to know my love for them yet.  And so I asked the Lord if I could leave my vocation.  His answer, obviously, wasn’t “yes.”  And the prayer that kept coming back to me was: “Master to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life.”

In these last days, with the resurgence of the scandals in Pennsylvania and elsewhere, I’ve found myself praying those words again.  It’s hard to be a priest right now; it’s hard to be Catholic.  If you’ve found yourself wanting to throw in the towel and leave it all behind, I dare say you’re not alone.  If you’re angry and hurt and disappointed and frustrated, then you and I have some common feelings.  But I have to believe in the power and presence of Christ our God in the Eucharist. That in these five weeks, the blessing of the Real Presence: Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity is what keeps me coming back, helps me get out of bed each morning.  In fact, that gift makes me want to be a better priest, a better Catholic, every single day.  Because only Jesus’ Eucharistic presence in the Church has the key to my eternal life. Where else on earth would I ever want to go?

Saint Bartholomew, Apostle [Feast]

Today’s readings

What tradition tells us about St. Bartholomew is that he is often identified with Nathanael in the Gospel.  That explains why Nathanael is prominent in the Gospel reading for today.  Nathanael – or Bartholomew, take your pick – is singled out of the crowd by Jesus.  Nathanael is surprised at what Jesus says about him: “Here is a true child of Israel.  There is no duplicity in him.”  We should recall that Jesus considered it his primary mission to seek out the lost children of Israel, so seeing Nathanael as a “true child of Israel” with “no duplicity in him” means that Jesus considered Nathanael a role model for his people.  He was one whose faith reached beyond mere observance of the Law or the Torah, and extended into the realm of living the Gospel.

That’s where we are all led, of course.  When it comes down to it, there is nothing more important than living the Gospel, and every one of us is called to do it.  If our spiritual life is not our primary concern, then we have no eternity; nothing to look forward to.  But the good news is that our Lord has given us hope of eternal life, and we hear of that by the intercession and example and preaching of the Apostles and especially Saint Bartholomew today.

Thursday of the Twentieth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

This morning’s Gospel parable is admittedly a bit of a head scratcher.  It almost seems to portray our God in a rather unfavorable light, comparing him to a capricious king who destroys whole cities after being snubbed by some invited guests, and then tosses out a visitor who seems to have come to the banquet poorly dressed.  But obviously, that surface-level reading of the parable is inadequate, and so we have an invitation to read perhaps a bit deeper.

Put very plainly, the banquet is the Eucharist, given for all.  The wedding is the marriage of God with his people, which makes us one with him and opens up the possibility of eternity for those who accept it.  Those guests who refused to come were the leaders of the Jewish people, who should have been looking for the feast and should have welcomed it with eager longing.  But instead they mistreated and murdered the servant-messengers, who were the prophets who announced God’s reign and helped forge the covenant.

Those then who were pulled in off the streets to share in the banquet are everyone else who hears the Word of God and responds to it.  The guest thrown out for improper attire are those who accept the invitation of Christ with their lips, but remain clothed in the filthy garments of worldly desire and ambition instead of giving themselves to the marriage completely.

So, if it’s not already obvious, we are among those pulled in off the streets.  We have heard the Word of God and know his desire to be one with us.  The question is, what kind of garments have we been wearing?  Are we clothed in that white garment of pure desire for God that is given us in Holy Baptism, or have we cast that beautiful vesture aside for the filth of the world? If it’s been the latter, filthy garment we have been wearing, today’s message is that it is time to wash them white in the Blood of the Lamb, the one who came to give his life that we might be wedded to him for all eternity.

Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, Abbot and Doctor of the Church

Today’s readings

Learning to follow the path of perfection is the most important goal of the spiritual life. How do we get our relationship with God right so that we can live with him forever in heaven? That was certainly the goal of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, whose feast we celebrate today.

In the year 1111, at the age of 20, Bernard left his home to join the monastic community of Citeaux. His five brothers, two uncles and around 30 of his friends followed him into the monastery. Within four years a that monastic community, which had been dying, had recovered enough vitality to establish a new house in the nearby valley of Wormwoods, with Bernard as abbot. The zealous young man was quite demanding, particularly on himself. A minor health problem, though, taught him to be more patient and understanding. The valley was soon renamed Clairvaux, the valley of light.

Bernard’s strong support of the Roman See was well known; in fact it was Bernard who intervened in a full-blown schism and settled it in favor of the Roman pontiff against the antipope. The Holy See then prevailed on Bernard to preach the Second Crusade throughout Europe. His eloquence was so overwhelming that a great army was assembled and the success of the crusade seemed assured. The ideals of the men and their leaders, however, were not as pure as those of Abbot Bernard, and the project ended as a complete military and moral disaster. Bernard felt responsible in some way for the degenerative effects of the crusade. This heavy burden possibly hastened his death, which came on August 20, 1153.

In our Gospel reading today, Jesus answer’s the rich young man’s question about what is necessary to attain eternal life.  The answer, basically, is that if eternal life is our goal, we have to let go of everything that holds us back from that.  Saint Bernard preached that spiritual principle and gave his life to it.  One day, we hope that our striving for perfection will lead us to eternal life, the goal of all our lives.

The Twentieth Sunday of Ordinary Time – Bread of Life Discourse IV: Choosing the Table of the Lord

Today’s readings

Today we have set before us two tables.  One is the incredibly rich banquet of wisdom, and the other…  let’s call it the fast food of foolishness, I guess.  What we need to ask ourselves today is, at which table have we been eating, and is that where we want to find our nourishment?

We see in today’s first reading the personification of wisdom.  Wisdom is seen as a female character who has made preparations for a luxurious meal.  Meat has been prepared, and that was a luxury in biblical times.  Wine has been mixed, probably with spices to improve its flavor and make it a bit more potent.  But the invitation has gone out not to the rich and powerful, but the simple and those who lack understanding.  These are the ones who are called to the banquet of wisdom to partake of this incredible meal.  They will feast on the rich meat of understanding and be carried away by the potency of the wine of enlightenment.  But coming to that table requires turning away from foolishness, and it is only by doing so and eating at this table that one can live.

The second reading, too, speaks of this choice, but with a tone of warning: be sure to live not as foolish persons but as wise – watch carefully, St. Paul warns, how you live.  He acknowledges that the days in which the Ephesians were living were evil ones, something to which, I think, every generation can relate – no generation ever fails to experience evil in some way at some time.  Certainly we have seen that in the past few weeks with the return of clergy sexual abuse scandals, a sadness and humiliation for all who strive to follow the Gospel in the Catholic Church.  And so, to combat evil, they – and we – are warned to aspire to right conduct.  Certainly, we are unable to fix all the evil in the world on our own, but we can control what goes on in us.  We need to eradicate every source of evil in every aspect of our lives so that evil won’t have a feedbed on which to thrive.

Saint Paul calls us to try to understand the will of God, the project of all our lives.  Don’t live in drunkenness, he warns, whether caused by wine or just by immersing oneself into the foolishness of the world around you.  Instead, we are called to be people of prayer, following God’s will, singing God’s praise, “giving thanks always and for everything.”  The word thanks here is, in Greek, eucharisteo, of course, meaning we are to live as Eucharistic people, aware of God’s blessings, and thankful for the grace we have received.

All of this serves as a fitting prelude to the choice Jesus’ audience is facing in today’s Gospel.  They have been mesmerized by the feeding of the multitudes that we heard about a few weeks ago, as we began our little immersion in the “Bread of Life Discourse” which is the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel.  And they have been hanging in there as Jesus has unpacked the meaning of that event in the time that has followed.  But now, they have to come to terms with all of it.  Many are repulsed, understandably, I think, at the notion of eating the flesh and drinking the blood of another person.  And so now they have to decide if this is something they can live with.  Next week, in the Gospel, we will see how that shakes out.  But ironically, as we now know, this is something they – and we – cannot live without.

As we come to worship today, we have been dining at one of the other of the tables ourselves.  Have we been dining at the table of foolishness?  Have we tried living by mere human wisdom; put our security and trust in material things; relied on temporary and superficial appearances and even put off feeding our spirits to another time?  Have we surfed the web to find wisdom, and gotten bogged down in the nonsense that lurks there?  Have we glued ourselves to television and hung on the words of politicians or other experts whose expertise is questionable at best, or been lost in the banal world of reality TV?  Those of us who are well educated may have thought book learning would give us answers to life’s imponderables.  Perhaps the results have left us still hungry; like trying to fill our stomachs eating lettuce soup.  We may feel some initial satisfaction, but it soon passes and all we can think of is where we can find food.  We have been dining at the wrong table.

And so wisdom calls out to us simple ones to pull up a chair to the right banquet.  Feasting on the richness of wisdom leads us inevitably to the banquet of the Lord.  Will we be repulsed at the idea of eating the flesh and blood of our Lord, or will we set aside the so-called wisdom of the world and embrace the real wisdom of God, which is so far beyond our understanding?  Jesus says to us today that we can become part of God, indeed that is the whole point.  We were created to become part of God’s life, to be caught up in him, and to be part of him.  But the problem is, our dining on the fast food of foolishness, the so-called “wisdom” of this world, has left us sinful and sorrowful, with an emptiness that cannot be filled up in that way.

And so God did the only thing he could do.  If we could not be part of him because of our foolishness, he decided to become part of us.  He sent his son Jesus into our world to walk among us, to live our life, to walk on the earth as we do.  Jesus ultimately gave himself for us, offering his body and blood for our salvation, giving us this great nourishment so that he could become part of us in a similar way to the way all food becomes part of us.  As we dine at the table of the Lord, our God who wanted us to become part of him becomes part of us, and so we are caught up again into his life as we were always supposed to have been.

Jesus fed several thousand people with five loaves and two fish a few weeks ago.  But that was nothing.  It was a mere drop in the bucket compared to what he wants to do now.  Now he wants to give himself so that we can be one with him:

For my flesh is true food,
and my blood is true drink.
Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood
remains in me and I in him.

People who content themselves in eating the food of this world – even if it’s manna from heaven – will still die.  But those – and only those – who eat the bread that is Jesus will live forever.  That’s what Jesus tells us today.  Because it is only by Jesus becoming part of us that we can become part of God, which is the fulfillment of our destiny as creatures of our God.  This is a hard teaching, and we may struggle with it in the same way the crowds struggled with it when Jesus said it.  But this is Truth; this is the wisdom of God; this is the way we get filled up so that we never hunger again.

And so which table will we choose now?  Please God let us follow the Psalmist’s advice: Taste and see the goodness of the Lord!

Saturday of the Nineteenth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

“Return and live!”

This is very good advice from the prophet Ezekiel.  He was preaching to a nation that was steeped in sin, and whose sinfulness was passed on from previous generations.  But unlike the punishments of old, where God punished those who sinned for many generations, Ezekiel proclaimed that God was going to do something new.  He was going to punish only those who did wrong, and bless those who did right.  If the son sinned, it was not the father’s fault, and if the mother sinned, it was not the daughter who would pay the price.

We might call that “personal responsibility,” a notion that doesn’t get as much adherence these days as it ought to.  Now if the son sins, the parents sue the person who punished the son for it.  Nothing is anyone’s fault; no one has to step up and take responsibility for what they’ve done.  Or at least it sure seems that way.

Ezekiel would take us all to task for that philosophy.  Our God is Truth, and we should live that truth every day of our lives.  So if we’ve wandered from that, Ezekiel has the remedy today: “Return and live!”