Thursday of the Seventeenth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

The Israelites wandering in the desert would seem to have had the spiritual life easy. How could they possibly miss God’s presence? There was a cloud to lead them to the Lord by day, and fire by night. But just like the stuff that ended up in the net in today’s Gospel, some people got it and some people didn’t.

The same is true for us. How hard can it be for us to see the Lord’s presence in our own lives?  Even now, some people get it and some people don’t.  And more than that, even the faithful among us sometimes get it and sometimes don’t.  I often think it would be good to have something as hard to miss as a column of cloud or fire to keep me on the straight and narrow.  Well, in a way – a much better way, actually –  we do: we have the Church, the Sacraments, and the Word of God, prayer that beckons us by day and by night. But even that doesn’t always light the way for us.  There are so many distractions.

The issue is urgent.  The Kingdom of heaven, Jesus tells us today, will be like the fishmongers sorting out the fish from the seaborne refuse.  We don’t want to get thrown out with all that vile stuff.  So, may God lead us all to be among those who get it, those who follow the way marked out for us. After all, we have something way better than clouds by day and fire by night, don’t we?

Saint Alphonsus Liguori, Bishop and Doctor of the Church

Today’s readings

In today’s first reading, Moses sets about putting up a meeting tent as a place for the Lord to be among his people.  The Lord never abandoned his people; he was present in a column of cloud during the day, and of fire at night.  The presence of God helps us to focus on living a life that keeps us in communion with him.  In today’s Gospel, Jesus points us to God’s presence at the end of time, when he would come in judgment of the nations, separating the good from the bad.

Today is the he feast of St. Alphonsus Liguori, the patron saint of moral theology.  At the age of just sixteen, Alphonsus Liguori received degrees in both canon and civil law by acclamation.  He later gave up the practice of law to concentrate on pastoral ministry, particularly giving parish missions and hearing confessions.  He was noted for his writings on moral theology, particularly against the rigorism of the Jansenists.  The Jansenists were a movement that developed after the Protestant reformation and the Council of Trent and emphasized original sin, human depravity, the necessity of divine grace, and predestination.  Alphonsus’s moral theology was much more accessible to the average person.

In 1732, Alphonsus formed the congregation of the Redemptorists, who had as their special charism the preaching of parish missions.  They lived a common life dedicated to imitating Christ and reaching out to the poor and unlearned.  Although they went through their own struggles as a congregation, they were reunited after Alphonsus’s death and are of course active today.

Alphonsus wanted to be sure the people came to know how to live a life that would lead them to God.  Today’s readings give us that same call.  Whether we are here in our modern-day meeting tent, or out and about in our daily life, it’s important that we continually seek the Lord’s presence.  Then we know that we’ll be in the right place at the end of the age.

Saint Ignatius of Loyola, Priest

Today's readings

Saint Ignatius was all set to accomplish great things in the military when his leg was badly injured by a canon ball. As he was convalescing, he asked for romantic novels to read. But nothing like that was available, so he had to settle for books on the life of Christ and the lives of the saints. Reading them, he noticed that those books made him feel differently than the romance novels he was used to. He noted that the pleasure those books provided was fleeting, but that the joy he felt in reading the spiritual books stayed with him, and so he pursued the Christian life and began a process of conversion.

During this time of conversion, he began to write things down, and these writings served for a later work, his greatest work, the Spiritual Exercises. These Exercises became the basis for the Society of Jesus, which he formed with six others to live a life of poverty and chastity and apostolic work for the pope. This was accepted by Pope Paul III and Ignatius was elected its first general. Ignatius’s motto was Ad majorem Dei gloria: All for the glory of God. His Spiritual Exercises have become a spiritual classic and have provided the basis rule for other religious orders over time.

Ignatius’s major contribution to the spiritual life is probably his principles of discernment, which help people of faith to know God’s will in their lives. In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus speaks of the Kingdom of God as compared to a mustard seed, or a measure of yeast. You probably remember those readings, because we had them two Sundays ago. We are called to discern the presence of the Kingdom of God from among the ordinary stuff of our lives. May God grant us, through the intercession of Saint Ignatius, the discernment to do just that.

Saint James, Apostle

Today’s readings

“Can you drink the chalice of which I am going to drink?”

What does that even mean for us?  We know what Jesus’ chalice was like: it led him through sorrow, and abandonment, and ultimately to the cross.  If we have ever been in a situation in which we have felt intense grief, or felt abandoned, or had to stand by and watch the death of one that we loved, well then, we know a little bit of what that chalice is going to taste like.

Being a disciple is messy business.  It means that it’s not all the glory, pomp and circumstance.  It means that our faith sometimes has to move from the mountaintop experiences down into the valleys of despair.  It means that there are times when we will be in situations that are frustrating, infuriating, debilitating, grievous and horrible.  We will have to drink a very bitter chalice indeed.  And Jesus wasn’t just talking to John and James when he said “My chalice you will indeed drink.”  That’s the cup reserved for all of us who would be his disciples.

Very clearly those words of Saint Paul ring true for us:
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.

What is unspoken here but clearly implied is the grace.  Those who abandon their lives to take up the cross, wherever that leads them, will always have at their disposal the grace to live a life that is joyful in the face of affliction, confident in the midst of uncertainty, whole in the midst of destruction.  There is nothing that the world or its evils can throw at us that cannot be ultimately overcome by the grace of God.  We will still have to live through sadness at times, but that sadness can never and must never overtake the joy we have in Christ.

Like Saint James and his brother John, we are all called to drink from the chalice that 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. Saint James learned how to do that and still thrive in his mission. May we all be that same kind of sacrament for the world.

The Sixteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

This week in my bulletin column, I have a reflection on the introductory rites of Mass.  But maybe in the homily, we can take a step back from that and think about what we’re supposed to do before Mass.  And what we do before Mass, and I mean before we even come to church, is live our life.  Because, as challenging as it is to worship when we’re here in church, it’s still way easier than worshipping out there in the world, isn’t it?

We may intend to work hard, and pray reflectively, but life sometimes – well, more than sometimes: often – throws us a curve ball and all our pious plans go out the window.  You know what I mean, right?  People at work don’t do what they’re supposed to.  Others in our family get into rough situations and test our patience.  Our commute is exacerbated by the pouring rain.  And it can go even deeper: news about a loved one’s illness, news about our own illness, and on and on.  And then we can slip up and fall into sin, that sin we have been praying hard to overcome and doing everything we can to avoid.  Our pious plans can turn into a very rough week indeed.  In among the blessings – and we have to admit, there are blessings – life can derail us and bring us to a frustrating place.

The good news is that our Liturgy of the Word speaks to that today, I think.  The wisdom writer in the first reading praises God who has the care of all, and who permits repentance for sins.  The Psalmist extols God who is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in kindness and fidelity.  Saint Paul tells the Romans, and us, that the Holy Spirit comes to our aid in our weakness, helping us to pray the right way, even praying in our stead when we cannot.  We need all that consolation when our week doesn’t go the way we hoped.

And we have the Gospel, which continues the theme of planting seeds that we heard last week.  Here we hear of the wisdom of God who allows the weeds to grow among the wheat and is wise enough to sort it all out at the harvest time.  This Gospel talks all about the Kingdom of God and what it will be like.  It will be like a tiny mustard seed that grows up to become a huge shrub.  It will be like a measure of yeast mixed with flour to become a loaf of bread.

Here are a couple of things I want us to take from this Gospel.  First, the Kingdom of God is now.  Jesus made it real, showing us that the kingdom is present in ordinary ways: a mustard seed, a measure of yeast.  He wants us to see that we don’t have to wait for a far-off distant Kingdom, but instead to live in the Kingdom now, where he is our King.

Second, the mustard seed, the yeast – that’s us.  We are the ones to make the Kingdom happen.  Jesus needs us to go out and proclaim the message, to witness to the presence of the Kingdom, to make people want to be part of it.  Our prayer, our love, our joy, all of that make it possible for people to come to know Christ.  The Kingdom of God is our true home; the rest of the world is just a travelling place.  When we live in the Kingdom here and now, we will be ready for the great coming of the Kingdom in heaven, where all will be made right and we will live forever with our God.

If we’ve had a less than stellar week, we need that good news, we need that Kingdom.   We need to know that God is patient, and forgiving, and allows us to come to maturity before there’s judgment.  We need to know there is mercy and forgiveness, and a Spirit that prays with us and for us in our weakness.  And we need to hear Jesus call us to be leaven in the world, even though we’re not perfect.  He needs us to work on changing sadness to hope, directing all eyes to the One who is our true King.

Saint Mary Magdalene

Today's readings

Today’s feast of St. Mary Magdalene is a good opportunity to set the record straight.  Mary Magdalene was not the woman caught in adultery, nor was she the unnamed “sinful woman” who anointed the feet of Jesus in Luke’s Gospel.  That said, she is the woman from whom Jesus expelled seven demons, also in Luke’s Gospel.  But the idea that she was possessed by demons does not necessarily make her sinful, as many theologians and Scripture scholars have pointed out.

So in fact, aside from the Blessed Virgin Mary, St. Mary Magdalene is perhaps the most honored woman in the New Testament.  She was one of the women who was supporting Jesus and his disciples financially out of her means, and most notably, in today’s Gospel, is the first to have seen the Lord after the Resurrection.  Think about that.  Of all the people to whom Jesus appeared immediately following his resurrection, he chose this particular woman, not one of the men, to spread the message to the rest of them.  For this reason, she is often called the “Apostle to the Apostles.”

So for the last twenty centuries or so, poor Mary Magdalene was a victim of mistaken identity.  What we need to see today is that we owe a great deal to her faith because it was she who was first to proclaim the Good News that Jesus had risen from the dead.

Monday of the Fifteenth Week of Ordinary Time 

Today’s readings

It’s a frightening thing, I think, to hear Jesus say in today’s Gospel reading, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace upon the earth. I have come to bring not peace but the sword.” And it’s frightening not because of some actual sword that might harm us, but instead because of the havoc a statement like that could cause in our spiritual lives. There’s an old trite saying that says Jesus didn’t come just to comfort the afflicted, but also to afflict the comfortable. It may be trite, but there is truth in there.

The spiritual life is one of precarious balance. Things can be going along alright, much like the relationship the Jews had with the Egyptian government while Joseph was alive. But then something can change in our lives: in the words of our first reading today, a new king, who knows nothing of Joseph, can take over. In the context of that first reading, the new king taking over didn’t know Joseph and thus have all the good feelings toward the Jews that Joseph inspired. In the context of our spiritual lives, the new king is whatever new distraction may come our way and, knowing nothing of Joseph, that is, knowing nothing of the harmony that is part of our lives when we walk the path of righteousness, that distraction takes over and tears us away from our God.

In that light, the first reading today is a discussion of the seductive power of sin. Just as the new king wanted to stop the increase of the Jews, so sin wants to stop our increase in the spiritual life. Just as the Egyptians oppressed the Jews with hard labor, so sin oppresses us by affecting our work, our relationships, and our life of faith. But just as the more the Jews were oppressed, the more they multiplied, so the more that we are oppressed by sin, the more we can multiply grace by turning back to God.

Sin is a dreadful power in our world. Sin knows nothing of Joseph, knows nothing of the life of grace and its joy. But we don’t have to let it oppress us. We can let Jesus bring the sword to afflict the comfort of our sin and help us to multiply and increase in the life of grace and faith. As our Psalmist says this morning, “Our help is in the name of the Lord who made heaven and earth.”