The Twenty-first Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

One of my jobs before I went to seminary was in the sales department of a computer supply company.  In that job, they taught us that one of the first good rules of sales was never to ask a question to which you didn’t already know the answer.  I think teachers get taught that principle as well.  I can’t help but think that Jesus’ question to the disciples in today’s Gospel falls under that heading.  Because Jesus certainly knew who he was.  But, as often happens in our interactions with Jesus, there’s something more going on.  And to figure out what that something more is, all you have to do is go back to the Gospels the last couple of weeks and see in them that Jesus is thirsting for people’s faith.  He was thirsting for faith from Peter when he called him to walk on the water.  He was quenched by the faith of the Canaanite woman last week as she persisted in her request that Jesus heal her daughter.  And now he thirsts for the disciples’ faith – and ours too – as he asks us the 64 thousand dollar question: “Who do you say that I am?”

He actually starts with kind of a soft-ball question. “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they recount all the obvious and probably much-discussed options of the time.  If there were bloggers and talk radio people and CNN in that first century, they too might have said “John the Baptist” or “Elijah” or “Jeremiah” or “one of the prophets.”  So this is an easy question for the disciples to answer.  But when he gets to the extra credit question, “But who do you say that I am?” there’s a lot more silence.  And, as often happens with the disciples, it’s the impetuous Peter who blurts out the right answer, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”  Very good, Peter, you have been paying attention.

But here’s the thing: that answer is going to require much of Saint Peter.  You see, his answer not just a liturgical formula or a scriptural title or even a profession of faith in the formal sense that Jesus is looking for here.  He is looking for something that goes quite a bit deeper, something that comes from the heart, something integrated into Peter’s life.  He is looking for faith not just spoken but faith lived, and that’s why Peter’s answer is so dangerous.  If he is really convinced that Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the living God” then that conviction has to show itself in the way Peter lives.  He can’t just believe that and keep it under his hat.  If Jesus really is the One who is coming into the world, the Promised One of all generations, the salvation of the world, then Peter has to proclaim it from the rooftops.  He has to be the rock on which Jesus will build his Church.  And some people are just not going to want to go there.

So I’m very sorry to tell you all this, but we have all gathered here on a very dangerous Sunday.  We too, you know, are being asked today, “But who do you say that I am?”  And Jesus isn’t asking us just to recite the Creed, the Profession of Faith.  That’s too easy; we do it all the time.  He doesn’t want to know what you learned at Bible Study or what you read on Facebook.  Those things are nice, but Jesus isn’t going for what’s in your head.  Jesus is calling all of us today to dig deep, to really say what it is that we believe about him by the way that we act and the things that we do and the life that we live.  It’s the dangerous question for us, too, because what we believe about Jesus has to show forth in action and not just word.  Our life has to be a testament to our faith in God.  And if we cannot answer that question out of our faith today, if we are not prepared to live the consequences of our belief, then we have a lot of thinking to do today.

Because if we really believe – really believe – that Jesus is who he says he is, then we cannot just sit on the news either.  Like Peter, we are going to have to proclaim it in word and deed.  In our homes, in our workplaces, in our schools, in our communities – we must be certain that everyone knows that we are Christians and that we are ready to live our faith.  That doesn’t mean that we need to interject a faith lesson into every conversation or badger people with the Gospel.  But it does mean that we have to live that Gospel.  In St. Francis’s words, “Proclaim the Gospel at all times.  If necessary, use words.”  People absolutely need to be able to tell by looking at our lives that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God.  If they can’t, then our faith is as tepid as the Pharisees’ and that’s certainly no cause for pride!

Every part of our Liturgy has consequences for us believers.  “The Body of Christ.”  When we hear that proclamation and respond with our “Amen,” we are saying “yes, that’s what I believe.”  And if we believe that, if we are then filled with the Body of Christ by receiving Holy Communion, then we have made a statement that has consequences.  If we truly become what we receive, then how does that change the way that we work, the way that we interact with others?  “Go in peace, glorifying the Lord with your life.”  “Thanks be to God.”  If we accept that command, then what?  What does it mean to glorify the Lord with our life?  Does it mean that we just do some kind of ministry here at Mass?  Absolutely not.  The first word in the command is “Go” and that means we have to love and serve the Lord in our daily lives, in our business negotiations, in our community meetings, in our interactions with peers or the way that we mentor those who work for us.

So if we really believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, then our lives just became a whole lot more complicated.  We may have to give up some of our habits and vices, we may have to make a concerted effort to be more aware of Christ in our daily lives, we may have to learn to treat other people as the Body of Christ.  We may have to do all this preaching in a hostile environment, because sometimes people don’t want to hear the Good News, or even be in the presence of it.  And this is dangerous, because if we really believe, then we have to preach anyway.  Peter did, and it eventually led him to the cross.  What will it require of us?

So I don’t know just how dangerous this will be for me or for you.  I’m not even sure how we will all answer the question right now.  But one thing is for sure, all of us sitting here today have the same one-question test that Peter and the disciples had.  Who do you say that the Son of Man is?

Christmas Weekday: The Most Holy Name of Jesus

Today’s readings

Not everyone has St. John the Baptist around to point out the Messiah to them.  Lots of us, I think, at one point or another, would have loved to have been in the sandals of those apostles when Jesus was passing by.  As much as we believe that Christ is present in every person, place and time, I’m sure lots of us would love to have St. John the Baptist point out when we’re missing Christ’s presence in some person or situation.  It’s harder when you don’t have the Forerunner showing you the way.

But not everyone even recognized Christ – or at least who he was – in that time and place either.  St. John tells us in our first reading that people don’t recognize that we are children of God because they didn’t recognize God in Christ in the first place.  So if we miss Jesus in some situation or person, well, our mistake is not unique to us.

During the Christmas season, we are celebrating the Incarnation: the presence of God among us.  Of course, this isn’t just about the presence of God among us two thousand years ago, but his real presence among us in every person, in every place and blessing, and especially in the Eucharist.  During this time, we might gaze on the manger and long to have been there gazing into the face of Christ.  We can gaze into the face of Christ today by taking time for Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament or time to reach out to someone in need.  During this time, we might imagine ourselves next to the Manger on that night long ago, and long to have been there, holding the Christ Child in our arms.  In a few minutes, we can come to the Altar and receive our Jesus and hold him in our hands in the Eucharist, receiving him body and blood, soul and divinity.  Jesus is just as incarnate, just as Emmanuel, God-with-us, now as he was back then.

We will be strengthened by the Word and the Eucharist today to go forward and see Christ all around us.  Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world!

Friday of the Second Week of Advent

Today’s readings

We Americans tend to believe that we ourselves have all the answers; and I don’t necessarily mean that all of us together have the answers, but rather that we individually have the answers.  We hold relative truth, even if we wouldn’t say that we do.  It’s cold comfort to see, in our gospel reading this morning, that we aren’t alone.  Jesus’ generation was much the same.  John the Baptist came across too strict, and Jesus came across like a drunkard and a partier.  But they both proclaimed the truth; Jesus, obviously more so than John.  But the crowds dismissed them both, because both required them to change their lives and their ways of thinking.  If John and Jesus were right, then they weren’t, and that was unsettling.  It’s unsettling for us too, but we have the benefit of centuries of Church teaching to help us.  Maybe it’s time we abandoned our weak answers and points of view and put on the attitude of Christ.

Friday of the Fifth Week of Easter

Today’s readings

Today’s scriptures speak to us about the essence of what it means to live a Christian life.  First, as we can see in the reading from the Acts of the Apostles, it means making a clean break with the ways that we have been tethered to the world.  For the newest members of the Church in that day, the rules and traditions had finally been settled.  Some of the Pharisaic members of the Church insisted the new members ought to be circumcised and comply with the many minutiae of the Jewish law.  But the Apostles remained firm that faith in Jesus was superior to the minutiae, and insisted only that the new Church members free themselves from any participation in idolatry and to keep their marriage covenants pure.  This freed them from the idolatrous tethers to the world, and would give them freedom in the Spirit.

The second essence of living a Christian life comes to us in today’s Gospel reading, and that of course is to love.  But Jesus isn’t asking for just any kind of love: nothing superficial, not mere infatuation, and certainly not lust.  Jesus insists that his disciples love one another in the exactly same way that he loves them.  And he showed them, and us, what he meant by that when he suffered and died on the cross.  The disciple is expected to love sacrificially, unconditionally, just as Jesus has loved him, or her.

So perhaps these readings can be for us a kind of examination of conscience.  In this Easter season, we need to be moving closer and closer in relationship with our Lord.  So we have to look closely at our lives for any ties to the world, and root them out, once and for all.  We have to look at our relationships, and see if the love that we show our brothers and sisters is sacrificial and unconditional, the same kind of love that we have received abundantly from our God.  We are reminded that we did not choose Christ, he chose us, and gave us gifts we never deserved.  Our thanksgiving for that great grace must be total devotion to him.

Tuesday of the Fourth Week of Easter

Today’s readings

“It was in Antioch that the disciples were first called Christians.”

You know, I think the name Christian is so common to us that we take it for granted.  For those first disciples, there had to be a mix of emotions that came with being called Christians for the first time.  They may have been a bit fearful, because we know what happened to Christ, and so going about doing works in his name and being seen as his followers could certainly be dangerous for them.  But they were probably also deeply honored to be called Christian.  Being seen as his followers and people who did what he did was exactly what they wanted to happen, and because of that, we are told that many more people were added to the flock.  So there had to be a little joy in that mix of emotions too.

So what about us, what does it do for us to be called Christian.  For some people, it probably seems like Christians are a dime a dozen, and most of them are not nearly as zealous as were those first Christians.  So being called Christian isn’t probably a complement or an accusation so much as it’s a way to categorize us, or even bracket us so that others can ignore our message.

But our objective has to be the same as those first disciples.  We have to want that many would be added to the Lord after they see what we do and hear what we say.  In order for that to happen, we have to walk the walk and talk the talk as they say.  We have to be people of integrity.  Our worship can’t end when we say “thanks be to God,” but instead must continue into our living, into our daily lives.  We have to be people who stand up for life, who live the Gospel, who reach out to the poor and the marginalized, who earnestly seek to bring souls to Christ.  I think the world is aching to see that kind of authenticity in us.  And we have to love them enough to bring them to our Savior.

When we are called “Christian,” it should stir up in our hearts a little fear and a little joy too.  The fear should be that we would in any way neglect the mission, and the joy should come when we realize that people see Christ in us.  The Psalmist today says “All you nations, praise the Lord.”  And that’s what we want to happen, to have people of every nation praise the Lord and call themselves Christian too.

Thursday of the Twelfth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

So today we learn that just because we call on the Lord, that doesn’t mean that the Lord is at our whim, someone we can summon in the same way as we press a button on the remote and the television comes to life. That’s what the whole nasty business with Abram and Sarai was about. Instead of trusting the Lord’s promises that God would make Abram the father of many nations, they took matters into their own hands and then were displeased at the result. That’s what happens when we forget to trust in God and instead trust in ourselves and in our own ability to do something clever.

The same is true for the scribes and Pharisees, and also for the wanna-be followers of Jesus. They might claim mighty deeds in Jesus’ name, but Jesus can see their hearts and knows that they are not really open to the fullness of the Gospel. Simply crying, “Lord, Lord” will not get them into the kingdom of heaven. If they’re not willing to set their house on the rock solid foundation of Christ, they will not stand, and they will fall apart with the first of the storms.

And so we disciples have to be careful about our relationship with Christ. It’s not something we can neglect and expect it to be deep and rich enough to lead us to eternal life. We have to be people of integrity, spiritual people who know who our Lord is and who are open to the fullness of his teaching. He teaches with authority, not as the scribes of old, nor as the so-called authorities of our time – like Oprah or Dr. Phil. If we want teaching with authority, all we have to do is open the Bible, and fall in love all over again with this Lord who gave himself for our sakes so that we can all be one with him in the kingdom that has no end.

The Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ

madonna_and_child-400You know, on paper, what we celebrate today is all clean and neat, and as the centuries have washed the story, it’s easy for us to swallow.  I think about Linus famously proclaiming the Christmas story in the well-loved Charlie Brown Christmas cartoon, and it all seems so harmless.  But we must never forget that the real Gift, the ultimate Gift, came to us in a not-so-neat package, in a way that was anything but clean and neat and easy-to-swallow.  The gift of our salvation came to us at a great cost, from the beginning to the end, and the real source of our rejoicing ought to be that God was willing to pay so dearly for our souls.

Many years ago now, I remember two of my friends bringing their newest child to a choir rehearsal.  Of course, we all just adored the little one, as friends do when they welcome a new child into the world.  But I’ll never forget when they introduced him to the priest at our parish.  He remarked about how cute the child was but said something along the lines of how difficult would be the world in which that child grew up, and he shuddered to think about all the hardships that the child would see and experience.  I remember thinking that was a rather pessimistic thing to say on such a wonderful occasion, but it stuck with me ever since.

Because I find myself thinking the same thing when I gaze on our manger scenes.  What kind of world would baby Jesus come to know?  What kind of sadness and grief and pain would he have to put up with?

The beginning of John’s Gospel tells us that “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God.  All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be.”  God wanted to save the world.  Because he made the world, he was particularly attached to it and to those who dwelt in the great garden he had created.  He created us in love and for love, so he greatly desired in his grand plan that we would all come back to him one day and live forever with him in the kingdom.  But he knew that, steeped in sin as our world can be, fallen and flawed, as we individually can be, that we would never think to turn to him on our own.  We were – and are – too caught up in things that are not God and that are not ultimately going to bring us happiness.  So he knew that the only thing that he could do was to enter our history once again.

And he could have done that in any way that he pleased – he’s God after all: all-powerful, all-knowing and present everywhere.  John’s Gospel, though, tells us a few verses later just exactly how God chose to enter our history: “And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.”  He chose not just to visit us, but instead to become one of us, taking upon himself all of our weaknesses, our pain, and our sorrows.  He was born a baby: the all-powerful One taking on the least powerful stage of our existence.  He was born to a poor family and announced to an unwed mother.  The one who created the riches of the world and who himself was clothed in the splendor of the Almighty turned aside from all of it so that he could become one with his people.  Had he chosen to come in any other form, he may have appealed to only some of us perhaps, but because he chose to take upon himself all that we must go through and then some, he is the way to salvation for all of us.

All of us who have messy lives sometimes can relate to the way Jesus came into our world.  We all want our lives to be orderly and easy and sensible.  But mostly, that doesn’t happen.  Life gets in the way.  And so to see Jesus come at a less-than-opportune moment, before Mary and Joseph were even officially wed, in the midst of a government census, born while his parents were travelling and could not find a place to stay – well, it’s just messy, isn’t it?  And it’s just like us.

The only way that the full brokenness of our human form could be redeemed was for Jesus to take on all of it when he came to save us.  That’s why his birth was so messy, why he had to be born in a manger with all the farm animals, that’s why he never had a place to lay his head in all his life.  What is amazing is that, as wretched as our earthly lives can be sometimes, God never considered himself above it all, never hesitated for a moment to take it on and fill it with grace.

And that’s the flip side of this whole interaction, you know.  God didn’t take on our form so that he could become less, he took on our form so that we could become more.  So, yes, God becomes one of us and takes on all of our infirmities and weaknesses.  But in doing that, we ourselves become more than we could ever be on our own.  Our lowliness is filled with grace, our sadness is filled with rejoicing.  That was always the plan God had for us.

So as we gaze upon and adore our Lord in the manger, maybe we can take some of the items in that beautiful snapshot and see what will come for him as he grows older.  We see the shepherds, lowly men despised often by society, the marginalized ones who are the first to receive the message.  We see the wise men, those who in the wisdom they have received from God, are ready to give everything to follow Christ.  We see the angels, the messengers who urge us to take a second look at an innocent child who might not otherwise attract our attention.  We see his father Joseph, who will teach him the law, as a good father would, and help him to grow in the ways of humanity, which he so completely assumed.  We see his mother, who nurtured him in childhood and followed him in adulthood, becoming the first of his disciples.  We see the wood of the manger, a foreshadowing of the wood of the Cross, which will be the means of our salvation.  And we see and adore Christ himself, the Way, the wonder-counselor, our father forever, and prince of peace.

When we look at that manger scene with eyes of faith, we become different, knowing that Jesus paid an incredible price to bring us back to him, not just on the Cross, but even at his birth.  The preface of the Eucharistic prayer which we will pray in a few moments makes this so clear: “In the wonder of the incarnation, your eternal Word has brought to the eyes of faith a new and radiant vision of your glory.  In him we see our God made visible and so are caught up in love of the God we cannot see.”

Human eyes can look at that manger and see with cynicism that he’s just like us, nothing special.  But eyes of faith look at the same event and see that he’s just like us in every way but sin, and that makes him incredibly special, worthy of adoration. Thanks be to God that the birth of Jesus wasn’t as neat and tidy as it looks sometimes on paper.  If his first coming into the world weren’t so messy, we might never know the joy of redemption and the true worth of our humanity.

So if our eyes of faith have helped us to see beyond an ordinary child and to recognize our Saving God, then this Christmas has to find us sharing that vision with others.  May Christmas find us open to the needs of others, willing to reconcile differences, looking for opportunities to be of service to others, eager to change our own little corner of the world for the better.  Human eyes see opportunities like that as nuisances or things for other people to do.  Eyes of faith see them as occasions of grace and blessing to both the receiver and the giver.  May this Christmas find us seeing all of our world with eyes of faith.

Speaking for myself and on behalf of our pastor, Fr. Ted, our deacons and all of our pastoral staff here at St. Raphael, I wish you a very blessed Christmas season.  We pray that you encounter Christ in every moment of the coming year, and that you and your families are filled with every grace and blessing.

Saturday of the Thirty-fourth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Our readings have been reminding us that the night is far spent and the day is drawing near.  We are called upon today to remain vigilant so that we do not miss the second coming of the Lord.  And it is well that we receive that warning today, on the cusp as we are of the new Church year.  This is the last day of the Church year and tomorrow, well even tonight, we will begin the year of grace 2009 with the season of Advent.  The day draws ever nearer for us.

As the day draws nearer, we will need less and less of the light that has been given to us in this world.  The first reading says, “Night will be no more, nor will they need light from lamp or sun, for the Lord God shall give them light, and they shall reign forever and ever.”  St. Augustine says of that great day: “When, therefore, our Lord Jesus Christ comes and, as the apostle Paul says, brings to light things hidden in darkness and makes plain the secrets of the heart, so that everyone may receive his commendation from God, then lamps will no longer be needed. When that day is at hand, the prophet will not be read to us, the book of the Apostle will not be opened, we shall not require the testimony of John, we shall have no need of the Gospel itself. Therefore all Scriptures will be taken away from us, those Scriptures which in the night of this world burned like lamps so that we might not remain in darkness.
When all these things are removed as no longer necessary for our illumination, and when the men of God by whom they were ministered to us shall themselves together with us behold the true and dear light without such aids, what shall we see? With what shall our minds be nourished? What will give joy to our gaze? Where will that gladness come from, which eye has not seen, and ear has not heard, which has not even been conceived by the heart of man?” (Tract. 35, 8-9)

And of course, the answer to that, is we shall get our light looking on the face of Christ himself.  As Advent approaches, we pray earnestly for that day: Come quickly Lord, and do not delay!