I love the words of the Psalmist today: “The Lord is gracious and merciful.”
These are words that are easy for us to pray when things are going well, but maybe not so much when we’re going through rough times. It seems like the psalmist is going through some very good times, but we have no way of knowing that. The only key to the great hymn of praise the psalmist is singing is that he is reflecting on the wonder of creation and the mighty deeds God does in the world. The psalmist sees wonders not just in his own place but everywhere. He says, “The LORD is good to all and compassionate toward all his works.” Every part of creation has been blessed by God’s goodness. Because of this, God is to be praised not just now, but “forever and ever” and by “generation after generation.”
This fits in very nicely with Hosea’s prophecy in our first reading today. Preaching to the Israelites in exile, he proclaims that God will change the relationship between Israel and the Lord. That new relationship would be a spousal relationship between God and his people, in which the spouses are partners in the ongoing work of creation. God will give Israel the ability to be faithful to God, and for His part, God will remember His faithfulness forever. God’s great mercy and compassion are seen with abundance in the Gospel reading. Jesus rewards the faithfulness of Jairus and the woman with the hemorrhage with miraculous healings. Key to all of these wonderful events, in all three readings, is that God who has created us is committed to re-creating us in His love and faithfulness.
So as we approach the Eucharist today and reflect on all the mighty and wonderful things God does in our midst, may we too sing the Psalmist’s song. May we all praise God’s name forever and ever, and proclaim his might to generation after generation.
Over the past two days, we have heard, once again, the wonderful story of the creation of the world. It’s not meant to be a science textbook or a timetable of events, of course, but instead delivers the message that all of creation was set in motion by our God, and that all of creation was created good, and created for good. That’s something we tend to forget, at times, and when we do, it causes things like pollution, environmental disasters, and so much more. We were given the earth to use and to care for, and we have to be diligent in caring for it.
Pope Francis has been outspoken in his teaching on caring for God’s creation, which has long been a pillar of Catholic social teaching, and is based on the very reading we’ve heard the last two days. He even called care for creation a work of mercy, expanding on the themes of his first encyclical, Laudato Si’. “We must not be indifferent or resigned to the loss of biodiversity and the destruction of ecosystems, often caused by our irresponsible and selfish behavior,” he said. “Because of us, thousands of species will no longer give glory to God by their very existence. … We have no such right.”
When we abuse creation, we also cause problems for other people, most often the poor. Francis has gone on to say, “When we mistreat nature, we also mistreat human beings. At the same time, each creature has its own intrinsic value that must be respected.”
But none of this is to say that creation isn’t for our use. In today’s first reading, God is very clear: “Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it. Have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and all the living things that move on the earth.” But our use of God’s creation must reflect the gift that it is for us: we must also be able to hand that gift on to forthcoming generations.
Just because we are unable to individually solve every environmental problem doesn’t mean that we aren’t important in the effort. Every little thing we can do to protect creation means something. As Pope Francis also said, “We should not think that our efforts – even our small gestures – don’t matter. Virtue, including ecological virtue, can be infectious.” And so every time we are in the presence of the beauty of creation, we should send up a prayer of thanks, along with the Psalmist today, who prayed: “When I behold your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars which you set in place—What is man that you should be mindful of him, or the son of man that you should care for him? O Lord, our God, how wonderful your name in all the earth!”
One of the most exciting lines in today’s Liturgy of the Word comes in the second reading: “The One who sat on the throne said, ‘Behold, I make all things new.’” The book of Revelation is all about the persecution of the early Christians, and it looks forward to the day when God would put all that persecution to an end. People were dying for the faith, being forced to give it up or be cast out of the synagogues. That left them open to the persecution of the Romans who demanded that they take up the worship of their pagan gods or face death. They were a people looking for newness, healing, and re-creation. So it is with great hope, then, that John reports what is heard in his vision: “Behold, I make all things new.”
There is a clamor for newness, I think, in every age and society. We are a people who could use some re-creation even today. Look at the way our own faith is received. The voices of death have such a foothold that they have many faithful Catholics believing that babies can be aborted in favor of personal choice. Sunday family worship takes a further back seat to soccer games, baseball, and other activities, as if worshipping God were just one possible choice for the many ways people could spend the Lord’s day. Rudeness and hurtful language are used in every forum, and we call it entitlement. Prayer is not welcome in almost any public location, for fear that someone might be offended by our religiosity. Concern for the poor and needy, and a longing for peace and justice are bracketed in favor of capital gain. And that is to say nothing of those Christians in the Middle East, especially Syria, who face danger and death for living their faith. We Christians today are persecuted just as surely as the early Christians, whether we pay for it with our lives or not. We Christians today are in need of hearing those great words: “Behold, I make all things new.”
The good news is that as an Easter people, we can already see the newness that is God’s re-creation of our world. We know the story of our salvation: This world was steeped in sin and we are a people who, though created and blessed by our God, time after time and age after age turned away from our God. Every generation turned away in ways more brazen than the last. We are the heirs of that fickle behavior and we can all attest that our sins have led us down those same paths time after time in our own lives. But God, who would be justified in letting us live in the hell we seemed to prefer, could not live without us. So he sent his only Son into our world. He was born as one of us and walked among us, living the same life as ours in all things but sin. He reached out to us and preached the new life of the Gospel. And in the end, he died our death, the death we so richly deserved for our sins. And not letting that death have the last word in our existence, he rose to a new life that lasts forever. He did all that motivated by the only thing that could ever explain away our fickle sinfulness, and that motivation is love.
I give you a new commandment: love one another.
As I have loved you, so you also should love one another.
This is how all will know that you are my disciples,
if you have love for one another.
The love that Jesus is talking about here is not some kind of emotional infatuation that fades as quickly as it grows. It is not a love that says “I will love you if…” Perhaps you have heard it yourself: “I will love you if you remain faithful to me.” “I will love you if you are successful in school.” “I will love you if you meet all my own selfish expectations.” “I will love you if you ignore my imperfections.” “I will love you if you become more perfect.” But the kind of love that says “I will love you if…” is not love at all. If God loved us if… we would be dead in our sins and there would be no reason to gather in this holy place day after day. If God loved us if… we would have nothing to look forward to in the life to come.
No, God does not love us if… God loves us period. As we know, God is love. God is love itself, love in all its perfection. Love cannot be experienced in a vacuum, so God created us to love him and for him to love us. We are the creation of God’s love and God cannot not love us! The kind of love Jesus is talking about in today’s Gospel can only be summed up by the cross and resurrection. Jesus takes our sinfulness and brokenness upon himself, and stretches out his arms to die the death we deserve for our unfaithfulness. It wasn’t nails that held him to that cross, it was love, and we are totally undeserving of it. Even greater then, is the gift of the Resurrection in which we see that, because of love, death and sin have lost their sting. They no longer have the last word in our existence, because our God who is love itself has recreated the world in love.
And with this great act of sacrifice that restores us to grace, Jesus also gives those who would be his disciples a commandment: Love one another. Which sounds like an easy enough thing to do. But the second line of that commandment gives us pause and reminds us that our love can’t just be a nice feeling. He says to us: “As I have loved you, so you also should love one another.” And we know how he has loved us, don’t we? Whenever we forget, all we have to do is look at the nearest crucifix. Our love must be sacrificial. Our love must be unconditional. Our love cannot be “I will love you if…” but instead, “I love you period.” Our love must be a love that re-creates the world in the image of God’s own love.
We live in a world that is broken and dark and evil at times. But our God has not abandoned us. Taking our death upon himself, he has risen triumphant over it. In spite of our unfaithfulness, he has re-created us all in his love. So now we disciples must continue his work of re-creation and love the world into a new existence.
“Behold, I make all things new.”
The scribes and the Pharisees had it all wrong, of course. Their idea of labor and the Sabbath was all corrupted with their own greed and desire for self-righteousness. And so, even though these readings are the ones the Church gives us for Monday of the Twenty-third week in Ordinary Time, they work pretty well for us on Labor Day too. The scribes and Pharisees were defending a very literalist view of the Sabbath. For them, no work could be done on the Sabbath: not buying and selling, not cooking or cleaning, not laboring or planting or reaping. But unfortunately, they tossed out the baby with the bathwater: they did not even permit themselves to perform works of mercy on the Sabbath, and that’s where Jesus had a problem with their piety.
Saint Paul tells the Colossians in our first reading that he labored constantly for their salvation. For Saint Paul, there wasn’t a Sabbath from preaching the Gospel and saving souls. So for Jesus and Saint Paul, Labor was a cooperation with God’s creative and salvific work in the world, and the Sabbath was a respite from the works of the world so as to be reconnected with and refreshed by God. That’s how it always was intended, and sadly, the scribes and Pharisees had messed it all up.
I was reading yesterday on DNAinfo that Labor Day has its roots in Chicago. In the year 1894, almost 4,000 Pullman Company workers striked after their wages were cut but rent for company housing remained the same. The strike led to railway issues throughout the country as workers refused to use Pullman cars on trains, damaged tracks and attacked workers who had replaced them at work. Eventually, more than 100,000 workers across the United States walked off their jobs. Federal courts and troops were used to stop the strike, and union leader Eugene Debs faced federal charges (though most were later dropped and he was sentenced to six months). Labor Day was designated a federal holiday shortly after the Pullman Strike ended in 1894 as a way to appease labor activists.
Labor Day has always been a time for us to get the idea of work and Sabbath correct in our own day. Work was not given to us by God as a punishment, but as a way to achieve the best that humanity could become, by partnering with God himself to build up the kingdom of God. When we get it wrong, work can be damaging to families: either through unemployment, or underemployment, or work that demeans the laborer, or work that takes the laborer away from his family. Work, properly understood, as taught by our Church, provides a living and dignity for the worker, and sustenance for the family. Pope Francis writes in his encyclical, Laudato Si’, “Work is a necessity, part of the meaning of life on this earth, a path to growth, human development and personal fulfillment” (no. 128).
In their Labor Day Statement this year, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops takes note of the toll that labor inequality and unemployment have on the family, as well as the woundedness of the human family caused by greed and indifference to the needs of the poor and those marginalized by society. They write that the path forward has to consist of individual and communal action, standing in solidarity with families in need. They write: “Our faith calling to love one another impels us to share that vision of charity and justice with others, and to go forth and encounter those at the margins. Through collective action and movements, we have to recommit ourselves to our brothers and sisters around the world in the human family, and build systems and structures that nurture family formation and stability in our own homes and neighborhoods. Sufficient decent work that honors dignity and families is a necessary component of the task before us, and it is the Catholic way.”
The Psalmist says today: “Only in God be at rest, my soul, for from him comes my hope.” Resting in God is our true Sabbath, and when we do that, we will be in solidarity with those in need, laboring for God in doing works of mercy and spreading the Gospel in our words and our deeds.
“Blessed are those who fear the Lord,” the Psalmist tells us today. And today as our example of those who fear the Lord, we have two women. And we begin with the creation of the first woman. God has created all the creatures of the earth: land, water and air, yet none of these are found to be a suitable partner for him. And so it takes a new creative act of God, putting the man to sleep – putting things on pause for a moment, as if to make things right. The only suitable partner for the man had to be someone who was made of his same flesh, and so one of his ribs is taken to form the basis of the woman. How significant it is that his partner is made from a bone right next to his heart! And only with this astounding new creation is all of creation complete. In the present, the work of creation goes on all the time, of course, largely because man and woman were created to participate in that creation together with their Creator.
The second woman we meet today is the Syrophoenician woman. She is a woman of great faith – persistent faith even! Not only does she want Jesus to drive the demon out of her daughter, but she is convinced that he is the only one that can make it happen. Her faith and her persistence give us a model for our spiritual lives. For us disciples, a strong faith in Christ means never questioning his ability to act for our good, and never letting anything – not even the technicalities of a perceived mission – get in the way of acting on that faith. We too are called to steadfast faith, and persistent prayer.
The Nuptial Blessing from the Rite of Marriage prays for the bride: “May she always follow the example of the holy women whose praises are sung in the scriptures.” There are many such wonderful examples, of course, and today’s are just two of them. They give all of us a shining example of what our faith should be like. May all of us – women and men! – follow their example.
Today’s readings speak to us about the wonderful, spiritual quality of goodness. We have the creation story, or at least the beginning of it, in which God is not only creating the world and everything in it, but also creating it in goodness. And I think that we can relate to that in some way, because we find created things good all the time. Think about a vacation or road trip you’ve taken and found some beautiful countryside. Maybe you’ve seen mountains, or the vast ocean, or hiked some incredible trails through rich forested countryside. When you’ve been there, looking at all that wonderful creation, perhaps stood there as the sun was setting or rising, maybe you’ve even said a prayer of thanks to God for creating such wonders and allowing you to see them. You too see that it is very good.
But there’s even more than that in it for us. When we behold such wonders, such things that are very good, we can also see in them the One who is Goodness itself. We see God in his creative genius, imparting some of his own Goodness into our world so that we might find goodness too. In the mountains, we see God’s strength and might; in the forests, his embrace; in the waters, his refreshing mercy. Our Good God has painted the world with his Goodness, so that we might desire the Good and come at last to Him.
Goodness is all around us, because God created the world to be good. Today, we can look around to see the good we might otherwise miss: good in people and good in creation – all of it bringing us back to our God who is Goodness itself. The psalmist leads us today in the prayer that we are moved to pray when we are in the presence of such Good:
How manifold are your works, O LORD!
In wisdom you have wrought them all—
the earth is full of your creatures;
Bless the LORD, O my soul! Alleluia.
Our worshipping in these last days of the Church year is often difficult, I think, because these readings are just hard to hear. The readings from Revelation this week have been confusing, to say the least, and maybe even a little frightening. And even if we could ignore the fright of the Revelation, well the Gospel is a bit more violent this morning than we’d like to experience at 7:00 in the morning, I think.
But there is a spiritual principle at work here. We are being called to mindfulness. If during this liturgical year we’ve been a little lax, or even have become complacent, these readings are calling us to wake up lest we miss what God is doing. God is bringing the whole of creation to its fulfillment, and we are called to be witnesses of it. We dare not be like those who missed the time of their visitation. We have been given the wonderful gift of Christ’s presence in our lives all year long, and we are asked to look back at where that wonderful gift has taken us.
And if we haven’t come as far as we should, then we are called to wake up and realize what’s slipping away from us. We must not be left out of the kingdom, all our hopes smashed to the ground, all because we didn’t recognize that our greatest hope was right in front of us all the time. We know the time is running short. The days are shorter, and night approaches more quickly than we’d like. The leaves have gone from the trees. The nip in the air has turned to cold and even frost; and we’ve even seen more than a few snowflakes. These are the physical manifestations of creation groaning to come to its fulfillment, at least for the meteorological year.
But if the encroaching winter leaves us empty and aching for warmth, then these final days of the Church year might find us also aching for the warmth of the kingdom, that kingdom we were created to live in all our days. Let us not be like Jerusalem; we dare not miss the time of our visitation!
One of the most frustrating things to hear from people is that the argument that we shouldn’t change something because, “we’ve always done it that way.” And I don’t think God likes that line of reasoning any better than we do. Because God is not done creating the world yet. His work of creation is ongoing; he continues to make all things new until that time when everyone and everything is indistinguishable from God himself. God longs to re-create the world in such a way that we are all caught up in the life of God and share his glory. Anything less needs to be re-created.
So if God is making new wine, we have no business putting it into old wineskins. We must take the new creation that he offers us and put it into the fresh wineskins of our hearts, renewed in Christ and refreshed by lively faith. The wineskins of our souls have to be constantly made new so that they can receive new glory from God.