Thursday of the Twelfth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Some people say all you need to do is make a one-time decision to accept Jesus as your personal Savior and you’re saved.   If salvation were something magical that came about as the result of just saying a simple prayer, once and for all, then why wouldn’t everyone pursue a relationship with Christ?  The fact is, salvation is hard work.  It was purchased at an incredible price by Jesus on the cross.  And for us to make it relevant in our lives, we have work to do too.  Not the kind of work that earns salvation, because salvation is not earned, but the kind of work that appropriates it into our lives.

People who are saved behave in a specific way.  They are people who take the Gospel seriously and live it every day.  They are people of integrity that stand up for what’s right in every situation, no matter what it personally costs.  They are people of justice who will not tolerate the sexist or racist joke, let alone tolerate a lack of concern for the poor and the oppressed.  They are people of deep prayer, whose lives are wrapped up in the Eucharist and the sacraments, people who confront their own sinfulness by examination of conscience and sacramental Penance.  They are people who live lightly in this world, not getting caught up in its excess and distraction, knowing they are citizens of a heaven where such things have no permanence.  Saved people live in a way that is often hard, but always joyful.

Not everyone who claims Jesus as a personal Savior, not everyone who cries out “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven.  That’s what Jesus tells us today.  We have to build our spiritual houses on the solid rock of Jesus Christ, living as he lived, following his commandments, and clinging to him in prayer and sacrament as if our very life depended on it.  Because it does.  It does.

Thursday of the Third Week of Easter

Today’s readings

Being in the right place at the right time isn’t usually a coincidence.  Far more often than we realize, I think it’s the work of the Holy Spirit.  Certainly that has to be the case in today’s first reading.  How else would we explain an angel directing Philip to be on a road at the very same time as the Ethiopian eunuch passed by, reading a passage from the prophet Isaiah that referred to Jesus?  Seizing the moment, Philip proclaims Jesus to him in a way that was powerful enough and moving enough that, on seeing some water as they continued on the journey, the eunuch begged to be baptized.  Then, as the Spirit whisks Philip off to Azotus, the eunuch continues on his way, rejoicing in his new life.

The same is true for those who were fortunate enough to hear Jesus proclaim the Bread of Life discourse that we’ve been reading in our Gospel readings these past days.  Having been fed by a few loaves and fishes when they were physically hungry, they now come to find Jesus who longs to fill them up not just physically but also, and more importantly, spiritually.  Their hunger put them in the right place at the right time.

Maybe what’s important for us to get today is that we are always in the right place at the right time, spiritually speaking.  Wherever we find ourselves is the place that we are directed by the Holy Spirit to find God.  Wherever we find ourselves is the place that we are directed by the Holy Spirit to proclaim God.  And so we may be called upon to find God in the midst of peace, or chaos, or any situation.  We never know how God may feed us in those situations.  And we may indeed be called upon to proclaim God in those same peaceful, or chaotic, situations.  Because we never know when there will be someone like an Ethiopian eunuch there, aching to be filled with Christ’s presence and called to a new life.

It is no coincidence that we are where we are, when we are.  The Spirit always calls on us to find our God and proclaim him as Lord of every moment and every situation.

Tuesday of the First Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

It is always interesting to me how clearly the unclean spirits know who Jesus is.  For them, Christ our God inspires fear and rebellion.  But even these unclean spirits, hearing his voice, begrudgingly obey.  Jesus teaches with authority, as the people standing by admit of him.  This is a teaching that cannot be ignored.  Each person may hear it and respond differently, but they do respond.  Many hear his voice and follow.  Others turn away.

In these early days of Ordinary Time, we essentially have the continuation of the Epiphany event.  We continue to see Christ manifest in our midst, and continue to decide what to make of him.  Today we see him as one who teaches with authority and who has authority over even the unclean spirits within us.  Today he speaks to our sinfulness, to our brokenness, to our addictions, to our fallenness, to our procrastinations, to whatever debilitates us and saddens us and says “Quiet! Come out!”

This Epiphany of Christ as dispossessor of demons is an epiphany that does more than just heal us.  It is an epiphany that calls us out of darkness, one that insists we come out of our hiding and step into the light, so that the light of God’s love can shine in us and through us.

Monday of the First Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

It seems like just yesterday that John the Baptist was baptizing Jesus in the Jordan River.  Oh wait, it was just yesterday!  But today’s reading fast forwards a bit and takes us to a time after John has been arrested.  John isn’t dead yet, not yet out of the picture, but clearly he is decreasing, as he says in another place, so that Jesus can increase.

And Jesus is certainly increasing.  His ministry is kicking into full swing, and he begins by preaching that the kingdom is at hand – a theme that will continue his whole life long.  And he begins to call his followers.  Simon and Andrew, James and John, two sets of brothers, two groups of fishermen, give up their nets and their boats and their fathers and turn instead to casting nets to catch men and women for God’s kingdom.

You know, even though today is the first day of Ordinary Time, we continue some aspects of Christmas and the Epiphany right up until February second, the feast of the Presentation of the Lord.  So today’s Gospel fits right in with that.  Today’s Gospel gives us a little more light to see what Jesus is up to.  He calls us all to repentance and to accept the Gospel and the Kingdom of God.  He says to us just as he said to Simon, Andrew, James and John: “Come follow me.”  The year ahead can be an exciting spiritual journey for us.  Who knows what Jesus will do in us to further the kingdom of God?  We just have to answer that wonderful invitation – “Come follow me and I will make you fishers of men.”

The Solemnity of Mary, the Holy Mother of God

The Church gives us this wonderful feast of Mary, the Holy Mother of God, on this, the octave day of Christmas.  In a very real way, the Church still celebrates this day as Christmas day – that’s one of the wonderful things about being Catholic.  We don’t have to cast off Christmas with the wrapping paper; we don’t toss the trees out on the curb on December the 26th; we get to celebrate for many days.  But to celebrate the eighth day of Christmas as the feast of Mary, the Holy Mother of God is a wonderful and appropriate thing to do.  We all know that Mary’s faith made possible our own lives of faith and even more wonderfully made possible the salvation of the whole world and everyone ever to live in it.  She was the one, chosen by God, to see the Gospel come to life before her very eyes.  She held our God in her faithful and loving hands, treasuring each moment in her heart.

So Mary’s faith is a model for us.  We often do not know where God is leading us, but in faith we are called to say “yes” to his plan for us anyway.  How willing are we to do that?  We are often called upon to take a leap of faith, make a fiat, and cooperate with God’s work in our lives and in the world.  Just like Mary, we have no way of knowing where that might lead us; just like Mary, that might lead to heartache and sorrow; but just like Mary, it may lead to redemption beyond belief, beyond anything we can imagine.

And so, yes, Mary is the Mother of God.  And let me tell you, this was a doctrine that came at great price.  People fought over whether a human woman could ever be the mother of God.  How would that even be possible?  But the alternative, really, would be to insinuate that Jesus was not God, because we clearly know that Mary was his mother.  So to say that Mary was not the Mother of God is to say in a very real and theologically dangerous way that Jesus was not God, and we know that’s just wrong.  Jesus was fully human but also fully divine, his human and divine natures intertwined in his person without any separation or division or elevation of one nature at the expense of another.  And so, as theologians teach us, Mary is the Mother of God the Word according to his human nature.  She didn’t give birth to his divine nature; that was begotten by God.  She is not the mother of the First or Third Persons of God; she is the mother of the Second Person, God the Word.  Sister Sarah made us memorize all this in seminary, and every once in a while, when I’m feeling particularly theologically courageous, I reflect on this doctrine and marvel at its beauty.

So, Mary is the Mother of God, but Mary is also the Mother of the Church, leading its members to her son Jesus and to faith in God.  She is mother of priests, caring for us in a special way and interceding for the faithful work of our calling.  She is the mother of mothers, interceding for them and showing them how to nurture faith in their children.  She is the mother of the faithful, showing us how to cooperate fully with God’s plan.  She is mother of Scripture scholars and those who just love the Scriptures, having seen the Word unfold before her and treasuring it in her heart.  She is the mother of disciples, having been the first of the disciples and the most dedicated of them all.  She is the Mother of God, and our mother, and we cannot sing our Christmas carols without singing her praises too.  We honor her faith and example today, and we ask for her intercession for our lives, for our families, for our Church and our world.

Pray for us, o holy Mother of God, that we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.

Thursday of the Twenty-Ninth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Today’s Responsorial Psalm, Psalm 1, has always been one of my very favorite psalms.  One interpretation of this Psalm is to look at it as a blueprint for blessedness. In Biblical terms, of course, blessedness equals happiness.  So the person who doesn’t follow the counsel of the wicked or walk with sinners but instead meditates on the law of the LORD is happy, or blessed.  This person is productive and vibrant, and all of his activities are prosperous.  This person is contrasted to the wicked person who is anything but enduring.  These are unhappy people who are driven away by the first storm who comes along.

On the other hand, the Church has also looked at the blessed one in this psalm as referring to Christ himself.  None of us is able to steer clear of evil all the time, nor meditate on God’s law day and night.  But Jesus is the One who is like us in all things but sin and who is the fulfilled promise of God’s law.  Jesus definitely is like the tree planted near running water, which takes root strongly and shades us from the burning heat of evil under his never-fading leaves.  Jesus is the one who can prosper any work that we do, if we just ask him to do so.  If we want to know the person who really embodies the spirit of Psalm 1; then all we have to do is look to our Savior.

But that doesn’t absolve us of our responsibility to become holy enough to take up the spirit of this Psalm within ourselves.  We certainly don’t want to be the chaff which is driven away by the wind.  Joining ourselves to our Savior, meditating on him day and night, as best we can, we can be refreshed by those running waters and become the sturdy trees that shelter the Church in good times and in bad.  Blessed indeed are all of us who hope in the Lord.

Saturday of the Twenty-sixth Week of Ordinary Time

During the summer before my final year of seminary, I worked as a hospital chaplain.  It ended up being a pretty rough summer for me and the other men and women in the student chaplain group: we had a record number of deaths and tragic accidents to deal with, and it was, as you might expect, getting us pretty down.  Then for morning prayer one day, one of my fellow students brought in today’s Gospel, and we reflected especially on the end part of the reading:

“Blessed are the eyes that see what you see.
For I say to you,
many prophets and kings desired to see what you see,
but did not see it,
and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it.”

The more we explored that reading, the more we became aware that, even in the midst of all of the very real tragedy we were experiencing, we were also experiencing some very real great blessing.  How true that is for all of us in life.  We tend to dwell on the negative things we are seeing, and no one would ever doubt that we all have to see some pretty rotten stuff in our lives, some people it seems more so than others.  But the problem comes when we let go of the blessing that comes too.  We people of faith have to be convinced that God is with us even in, perhaps especially in, our darkest moments, and gives us glimpses of the kingdom of God that perhaps others don’t get to see.  Blessed are our eyes when we get to see them!

The people in Moses’ day didn’t ever really get to see God.  They got to see Moses, who sort of acted as an intermediary for them with God.  No one else could see God and live.  But our eyes do get to see God.  We can see God in the Eucharist, we can see God in the person sitting next to us, we can see God in the graced moments of our day.  Maybe we just need to open our eyes to see God more often, but he is there, longing to bless our eyes with the vision of him.

The Twenty-fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time [Cycle B]

Today’s readings

One of my favorite things to do when I have spare time is to read a good mystery novel.  My mother passed her love for that genre on to me, and to my sisters.  I always used to love Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle, and I’ve read and re-read my favorites from them many times.  I also love to see mysteries played out in movies and on television, and some of my favorite shows are dramas along those lines.  The thing that I’ve learned about mysteries as a genre is that the best of them are the stories that keep you guessing; they aren’t solved all in the first six pages.

During these Ordinary Time Sundays of the year, the Church presents two main topics for our edification and our growth in faith.  One of those topics is instruction in discipleship; how do we live as disciples and what does it look like?  We’ve been hearing that throughout the summer.  The other topic is what we are seeing today: and that is instruction in who Jesus is.  And this is where the mystery begins to play out.  Just when the disciples (and, truthfully, we ourselves) think they have Jesus all figured out, it turns out they don’t really get it at all.  Jesus is like an onion in some ways, every new clue just peels away one layer, and there is always more there to be discovered.

In the first reading, the figure speaking is commonly referred to as “the Suffering Servant,” a figure that is later identified with Jesus.  Whoever the figure is, he or she has incredible faith.  One might expect that faith to be rewarded, but it’s not.  Instead, his back is beaten, his beard is plucked, and his face is buffeted and spat upon.  Yet, he continues to have faith, setting his face, knowing that he will not be put to shame.  Maybe you have met a person who has gone through incredible trials like unemployment, family strife, or serious illness, and has remained faithful.  If you know a person like that, perhaps you have sensed a bit of Jesus working in that person.

In the second reading, St. James tells us that our faith must be living, or it is not faith at all.  He has seen far too many people who will say nice things to people and claim to have faith, but refuse to help alleviate anyone’s real needs.  “Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well” are nice-sounding words, but are, of course, meaningless when spoken to people who have serious problems: no place to live and keep warm, and little if anything to eat.  James’s faith is one that sees the great mystery of Christ’s presence in those who are in need.  We have the same challenges today, of course.  There are many who are needy among us, and we disciples are called to a living faith that reaches out to those in need.  Perhaps you’ve had the opportunity to work at a soup kitchen or a shelter, or go on a mission trip.  If you’ve done that, maybe you have seen the face of Christ in those you’ve served.

The Gospel continues the theme of mystery by asking the question point-blank: “who do you say that I am?”  The people of Jesus’ time, the disciples included, were constantly trying to figure him out.  Peter seems to have figured out one of the clues: Jesus is the Messiah.  But he totally misses the boat on just what kind of Messiah Jesus is to be.  When Jesus talks about the necessity of his suffering and death, Peter just can’t wrap his mind around it.  Jesus’ response to Peter is that to really know who Jesus is, Peter needs to think like God, not like a human being.  The strangeness of this mystery is so great that it applies not just to Jesus, but also to anyone who would want to follow him.  Disciples like us must take up our cross: if we wish to save our lives, we must give them away.  This is a very great mystery indeed.

The real mystery to this mystery of who Jesus is, is that the more we find out about him, the more we find out about ourselves.  Because we too are called to be suffering servants: all of our good efforts won’t always be rewarded in this life.  Sometimes standing up for what is right will lead to scorn and abuse.  But we do it nonetheless, knowing that ultimately, we will never be put to shame.  And we too are called to have faith that is living, faith that reveals itself in the works we do.  We can’t claim to be people of faith if we don’t give of ourselves and extend ourselves in service.  Faith that never says yes to the call of Jesus is not faith at all.  Faith that is only evident one hour a week is not faith at all.  And finally, we are called, by the very words of our Savior, to take up our cross and follow him.  Following him will ultimately lead us to glory if we do it faithfully.  But following him will also lead us to the Cross.  Yesterday we celebrated that mystery in the feast of the Triumph of the Cross.  Yes, we will suffer in this life, yes we will die, but that death will release us to the glory of the resurrection, if we embrace it in faith.

The psalmist sums it all up for us today.  Yes, the suffering in our lives leads us to experience the cords of death that encompass us.  We often fall into distress and sorrow.  But when we embrace that suffering and call on the Lord, we will find ourselves freed of death and able to walk before the Lord in the land of the living.  We who have embraced and remembered and celebrated the mystery of Christ’s presence in our lives, in our Church and in our world, can approach suffering with great faith.  There’s a contemporary Christian song that says “sometimes he calms the storm, and other times he calms his child.”  God won’t always make our tears and pain go away.  But he does promise that we will never go through them alone.  We will probably never completely figure Christ out this side of the Kingdom.  The disciples didn’t and we won’t either.  But when we enter into the mystery, we can keep turning the pages and finding more and more clues.  When we enter the mystery, we can look forward to the great unveiling of the solution when we enter our heavenly reward.

The Fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time: Rite of Welcoming of Candidates for Full Communion

Today’s readings

There are a lot of experts out there.  And those experts will be happy to give you their opinion.  Really, there is no shortage of places these days from which you can get information.  Television, print media, and especially the internet – God knows what we did before the days of Google! – all of these will gladly disgorge information on just about any topic, and so the days of searching high and low for information are pretty much long gone.

But one has to wonder about the quality of the information that we get.  Just because it’s on the internet doesn’t make it true!  We know that.  And ask any teacher and they will probably tell you that they are sick of students quoting Wikipedia and their lot.  Even if a site isn’t intentionally giving poor information, there’s almost no way to verify what they’re telling you, unless they have provided proper sources or footnoted their claims.

And the same is certainly true for those who would give us opinions on religion.  I can hardly count the number of religious opinions I have been given that began with the words “In my opinion…” or “I think…” If you hear someone start a comment on religion or morality with those words, you have my permission to stop listening to them, because quite frankly, it’s very likely going to be a waste of your time.  When it comes to matters of faith and morals, one’s opinions don’t really matter; what is important is what is truth.

In today’s Gospel, the people are astonished at what Jesus was teaching them.  They couldn’t believe their ears.  And what is striking about that is that they are astonished because Jesus was obviously preaching with authority, “and not as the scribes.”  That’s a pretty sad condemnation of the scribes of the day, because the scribes were charged with copying the Scriptures and making sure the faith was taught to all people.  If they couldn’t be trusted to speak the truth, well then, who could?

What is astonishing for them is that they finally found the One they could trust: the One who spoke with authority.  Jesus didn’t give them some lame opinion or say “I think…” No, he gave them revealed truth, revealed in his words, and in his miracles, and ultimately in his sacrifice.  The religious leaders of his day might not like what he was saying to them, but they certainly could not refute the Truth he preached.

And that Truth wasn’t just for that one time and place.  That Truth is authoritative today.  Against the widespread opinion that one can be “spiritual but not religious” – whatever that means; against those who think that human life is expendable, or that it can be manufactured for research, or that it can be regulated by government mandate; against those who think that matters of conscience and freedom of religion don’t matter when they become inconvenient; against those who think that any religion is just as good as another, or that religion should never tell people what is right and wrong – against all these lies, Jesus’ Truth stands eternal.

Today, our Candidates for Full Communion with the Church have joined us and we have welcomed them.  We are one in Baptism, because our Creed proclaims one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.  But they wish to draw nearer to Christ and to be one with us in the Eucharist, to be Confirmed in our faith.  They will receive these sacraments soon, and today we pledge to journey with them.  Together, we embrace the Truth our Christ reveals and we proclaim the truths that make us one Body, one Spirit in Christ.

Our Psalmist today reminds us that if today we hear God’s voice, we should not ever harden our hearts.  As we continue our worship today, may we renew our commitment to seek the voice of God in every moment, embracing the Truth that is revealed to us.  And may we be a people who open our hearts to that truth, and eagerly live it and proclaim it by the way we live our lives.

The Thirty-second Sunday of Ordinary Time [C]

Today’s readings

Have you ever thought how depressing life would be if this is all there was? Do you know people who would say that they believe there is nothing else after this life?  I’m not sure how people like that can get out of bed in the morning, let alone keep on living day after day. Questions about life and death and last things and life after the last things are what’s going on in the Church’s mind and imagination in these last days of the Church year.

It’s little wonder these questions grab us in these waning days of the year. The trees are losing their foliage. The daylight hours are getting shorter. The air is a bit colder. We can sense there is a change approaching, and perhaps it isn’t one that we look forward to. Even with the festive atmosphere of the upcoming holidays, or perhaps even because of that, many of us feel depressed or blasé, and the festivity of the holiday season only serves to highlight it for us. Please God, let there be something more.

Fundamentally, we human beings need to make connections. We want life, we want light, we want peace, we want love. And because we want all these things, we know we are alive. We attempt, don’t we, to fill them up as best we can. We hope that our attempts are healthy, but sometimes we find ourselves stuck and attempt to fill our desires with things that are well, just shoddy. We anesthetize ourselves with drugs or alcohol. We enter into relationships that are unhealthy. We work ourselves to death. We distance ourselves from loved ones. We sin.  We often just try to fill up the something more that we desire with something less than that of which we are worthy.

And that’s exactly what the Sadducees were doing.. The Sadducees, we are told, were a group of religious authorities that taught there was no resurrection. So these Sadducees come to Jesus and seem to have an earnest question. They speak of a woman seven times widowed and wonder whose wife she will be in the resurrection of the dead. Except that their question wasn’t earnest at all. Clearly they were out to discredit Jesus, even embarrass him. So you think there will be a resurrection, they say, well then, what about this?

The Sadducees didn’t get it when it came to the resurrection, and they weren’t willing to open their minds to any kind of new possibility. If what Jesus said didn’t fit what they believed, then it absolutely must be wrong. They were filling their desires with the sin of pride instead of the possibility of eternal life. What a horrible, shoddy way to fill up their desires!

But swing that around and look at the seven brothers in the first reading. All they would have to do was eat a little pork and they could have lived. Yet they patently refused to do so. One by one, they are tortured and killed. Why would they have let themselves be treated that way? All they had to do was eat some pork, for heaven’s sake; surely God would forgive them, right? But listen to what the first brother says: “You are depriving us of this present life, but the King of the world will raise us up to live again forever. It is for his laws that we are dying.” These brothers and their mother realized that there was something greater, something more. They knew their desire could never be filled up with a little pork, or the shoddy life that would come about as a result of giving up their beliefs. What a stark contrast they are to the prideful Sadducees!

We may be tempted to settle for something less, but we know there is something so much better in store for us. There is something that will fill up our desires once and for all, and that something – or rather someone –  is Jesus Christ. It’s not going to be our pride, boasting of our elaborate wisdom or ability to take care of ourselves. It’s not going to be a little pork, or giving in to whatever temptation comes our way to take us off the path. It’s not going to be alcohol, or drugs, or unhealthy relationships or Dr. Phil or Oprah or anyone else. It’s only going to be Jesus, only Jesus who will fill up the desires that touch us to the core of who we are.

The Church in these waning days of the Church year would never deny that there is suffering in the world. But she will encourage us to open up our desires to be filled with our Savior who comes not to make our suffering go away, but instead to fill it up with his presence. There is something more, and we can expect to be filled up with it when we realize that the fit for the hole we have in our hearts is Jesus Christ.

Our God is not a God of the dead, but of the living. To him all are alive. So in these last days of the year, if we find ourselves desiring peace, desiring wholeness, desiring comfort, desiring love, desiring fulfillment, or desiring anything else, that’s okay. Because what we’re really desiring is Christ, and he is always there to fill us beyond our wildest imaginings.