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!

The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Vigil Mass)

Today’s readings

The tradition of the Assumption of Mary dates back to the very earliest days of the Church, all the way back to the days of the apostles.  The Council of Chalcedon in 451 tells us that, after Mary’s death, the apostles opened the tomb, finding it empty, and concluded that she had been taken bodily into heaven.  The tradition was spoken about by the various fathers of the Church, and in the eighth century, St. John Damascene wrote, “Although the body was duly buried, it did not remain in the state of death, neither was it dissolved by decay… You were transferred to your heavenly home, O Lady, Queen and Mother of God in truth.”   The current celebration of Mary’s Assumption has taken place since 1950, when Pope Pius XII proclaimed the dogma of the Assumption of Mary in his encyclical, Munificentissimus Deus, saying: “The Immaculate Mother of God, the ever-virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heaven.”

And so we have gathered here this evening to celebrate the life of Mary, Mother of God, the first of the disciples of Jesus her son.  What is important for us to see in this feast is that it proclaims with all the joy the Church can muster that what happened to Mary can and will happen for us who believe.  We too have the promise of eternal life in heaven, where death and sin and pain will no longer have power over us. Because Christ caught his Blessed Mother back up into his life in heaven, we know that we too can be caught up with his life in heaven.  On that great day, the sting of death will be completely obliterated, as St. Paul tells us today.

In the Gospel reading, Jesus seems to cast his mother to the side.  But what is important for us to see in this short little passage is that he is rather extending the blessing to all those who believe.  Saying, “Rather, blessed are those
who hear the word of God and observe it” includes his own mother since, obviously, she heard the Word of God – the voice of her own Son – and observed it to the point of accepting a life of hardship as she gave her Son to the world.  In fact, she leads us into blessing by being the first and best example of living the Word of God.

Mary’s life wasn’t always easy, but Mary’s life was redeemed.  That is good news for us who have difficult lives or find it hard to live our faith.  There are those among us too who have unplanned pregnancies.  There are those among us whose children go in directions that put them in danger.  There are those among us who have to watch a child die.  But because Mary suffered these sorrows too, and yet was exalted, we can hope for the day when that which she was given and which we have been promised will surely be ours.

Mary’s life was a prophecy for us.  Like Mary, we are called to a specific vocation to do God’s work in the world.  We are called to make sacrifices so that God’s work can be accomplished in us and through us.  We can be joyful because God is at work in us.  We are called to humility that lets God’s love for others shine through our lives.  We are called to lives of faith that translate into action on behalf of others, a faith that leads God’s people to salvation.  And one day, we hope to share in the glory that Mary has already received in the kingdom of God.

And so as we gather for this holy feast day, we should be encouraged to strengthen our devotion to Mary, the holy Mother of God, whose life was meant to foreshadow the life of the Church.  This feast celebrates the fourth glorious mystery of the Rosary, a devotion that I would encourage us all to pray each day.  Having recourse to the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary is a privilege for all Christians.  She is the one who can intercede for us in good times and in bad, who can be our model in living the life of faith, who can stand by us as we strive to give our own fiat, saying yes, to God’s call, who, having crushed the serpent’s head, can help deliver us from every evil. Praise God for the grace of such a powerful and glorious intercessor!

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

Monday of the Nineteenth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Things are starting to get real for those first followers of Jesus.  Jesus speaks to his disciples at the beginning of today’s Gospel reading about his impending demise.  He foretells that he will be handed over and killed.  And the disciples are overwhelmed with grief.  Certainly we can resonate with their grief.  They’ve been following him and living day-in and day-out with him for quite some time now, and just when they are really starting to appreciate his message and mission, he’s talking about the end of it all.

We don’t have to spiritualize things too much to grieve ourselves over Jesus’ death.  Because we know what brought about that painful, humiliating death: our many sins.  Both our personal sins and the sins of our society have caused the evil which made his death the necessary means of salvation.  And so, as we look up there on that cross, well, we might feel a bit of grief ourselves over such great suffering for so much evil.

But we can’t miss what the disciples seem to have missed.  Right after the foretells his handing over and death, and before Matthew comments on their overwhelming grief, Jesus says this: “and he will be raised on the third day.”  Now, granted, they had no idea what that meant, so probably it couldn’t have been much comfort for them.  But we do know what it means – it means everything!  Yes, the weight of our sins is ponderous, but they don’t define us.  Yes, the evil in our world is overwhelming, but it is not triumphant.  Yes, death is sorrowful, but it is not the end.  It wasn’t for Jesus, and it doesn’t have to be the end for us either, if we believe in him and follow him and live the Gospel.

Easter Sunday of the Resurrection of the Lord

Today’s readings

“Do not be amazed!” – I just love that line in the Gospel.  We have to get behind the sentiment of that statement today if we are to really understand what this day is all about.  We believe in a God who is very surprising.  All through the Bible, we can read stories of people trying to come to terms with God, and just when they thought they had him all figured out, he bursts in to their complacency and seems to say, “No, that’s not it, you just don’t get me at all, do you?”

That happens to us too, doesn’t it?  God surprises us all the time.  Most often, people think about the bad surprises: the death of a loved one, an illness, loss of a job.  But God didn’t make those surprises; he allows them in this imperfect world, but they are not his will for us.  What is his will for us is what truly surprises us: the grace to deal with a difficult situation with a strength we never knew we had, the help of a friend or loved one at just the right time, words spoken by a stranger or an acquaintance that help us to find the ability to journey on from where we are.  And in our surprise, God says, “Do not be amazed!”

To really get how surprising this day must have been for Jesus’ disciples, we have to recall the story to this point.  Jesus had been doing wonderful, amazing things: healing the sick, raising the dead, speaking words of challenge and hope.  The Jewish leaders of the time became more and more uncomfortable with his message, seeing it as blasphemy and a rejection of everything good and holy.  More and more, their anger raged up, and many times they attempted to arrest him.  Finally, the movement against him rises to a fever pitch.  Judas, who perhaps thought he would get rich off this wonder-worker Jesus, grows disillusioned to the point that he is willing to hand Jesus over to them.

Jesus’ hour had come: he was put through a farce of a trial, brutally beaten and contemptuously treated.  Finally he is nailed to a cross and suffers hours of agony and abandonment by most of his disciples before he gives us his spirit at last.  All seemed darker than dark.  Jesus is placed in a tomb that was not his own by people who had just been acquaintances.  His friends have fled in fear.  His mother and some women wept at the end of it all.  Things couldn’t have been worse or more hopeless.

But then came the morning!  Some of the women go to anoint his body for its burial, and just when they are wondering who is going to help them roll the stone away so they can get in to the tomb, they come upon the tomb, open and empty.  They were utterly amazed – they didn’t even know what had actually happened.  But as they stood there, mouths hanging open, thoughts reeling in their minds, the messenger appears: “Do not be amazed!” Jesus said he would rise, and rise he did, hammering home the point that hopeless situations are no obstacle to God’s power, that fear is no match for grace, that death and darkness are nothing compared to God’s great love.  Do not be amazed!

Even that is not where the wonder of it all stopped.  In their joy, the disciples eventually recollected themselves and were able to go out and tell people what had happened.  Christ, crucified, overcame death to rise to new life.  In the light of the resurrection, they came to understand what Jesus had always preached and they also received the grace of the Spirit so that they could preach it to others.  Their preaching shaped the Church, guiding it through the centuries to our own day.

Today we gather not just to remember an amazing event that happened two thousand years ago, but rather to experience the joy of that resurrection with those women at the tomb, with the disciples who heard about it from them, with all the people from every time and place, on earth and in heaven, all of us who have had the Gospel preached to us.  We are the Church: we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus as one.  Do not be amazed!

And the marvel continues: the death and resurrection of Christ has had an effect on this cold and dark and sinful world.  Through that wonderful saving grace, the finality of our death has been obliterated, the vicious cycle of our sins has been erased.  We have been freed from it all through the power of grace, freely given if we will freely accept it, lavished out on all of us prodigal ones who return to God with sorrow for our sins and hope for forgiveness.  We have truly been saved and delivered.  Do not be amazed!

We have also been given the great gift of eternal life.  In his death and resurrection, Jesus Christ has broken the prison-bars of death and risen triumphant from the underworld.  Because of that, our graves will never be our final resting place, pain and sorrow and death will be temporary, and we who believe and follow our risen Lord have hope of life that lasts forever.  Just as Christ’s own time on the cross and in the grave was brief, so our own pain, death, and burial will be as nothing compared to the ages of new life we have yet to receive.  We have hope in these days because Christ who is our hope has overcome the obstacles to our living.  Do not be amazed!

This morning, we gather to celebrate that our God makes amazing things happen.  Through the cross and resurrection we are saved and delivered so to live the salvation, life and resurrection that God always intended for us to have.  Sin and death have been defeated and no longer hold ultimate power over us.  God is not dead and we courageously proclaim that he is risen!  Do not be amazed!

Christ is risen!  He is risen indeed!  Alleluia!

The Fourth Sunday of Lent

Today’s readings

Traditionally, today is Laetare Sunday – laetare being Latin for “rejoice.” Sometimes this Sunday is celebrated by the wearing of rose-colored vestments, rather than the Lenten violet.  Laetare Sunday reminds us that even in the “heaviness” of Lent, there is reason for rejoicing.  And today’s readings do deal with some heavy topics, but clearly and always through the lens of rejoicing in God’s mercy.  So that’s how I would like to look at today’s Liturgy: what in the world gives us cause to rejoice today, here and now, in our own lives?

In a few weeks, the Mass of the Easter Vigil will begin by telling us all the reasons we should rejoice.  That Mass begins with the sung Easter Proclamation called the Exsultet, which tells the whole story of God’s mercy and sings God’s praises.  It is sung in the darkened church, proclaiming that, even in the darkness of our world, the light of God’s mercy still reigns and has power to overcome everything that keeps us from the true Light of the world.  It begins: Exult, let them exult, the hosts of heaven, exult, let Angel ministers of God exult, let the trumpet of salvation sound aloud our mighty King’s triumph!

That proclamation of the Exsultet almost seems out of place in our world today.  All we have to do is pick up a newspaper to be convinced of the darkness that pervades our lives.  Wars and terrorism claim the lives of innocent people and young soldiers alike.  Crime in its many forms takes its toll on our society.  Injustice and oppression still exist in our own nation and abroad.  The poor still hunger and thirst for the basic necessities of life.  And then we could look at the darkness that seems to reign in our own lives.  Sin that has not been confessed.  Bad habits that have not been broken.  Love and mercy that have been withheld.  All of these darken our own lives in ways that we don’t fully appreciate at the time, but later see with sad clarity.  Our world and our lives can be such dark places in these days.  But to that darkness, the Exsultet sings: Be glad, let earth be glad, as glory floods her, ablaze with light from her eternal King, let all corners of the earth be glad, knowing an end to gloom and darkness.

You see, this darkness is exactly the darkness in which the people of Israel found themselves in today’s first reading.  Notice what that reading says about the people – it’s not flattering at all!  It says “in those days, all the princes of Judah, the priests, and the people added infidelity to infidelity, practicing all the abominations of the nations and polluting the LORD’s temple which he had consecrated in Jerusalem.”  Note particularly the use of the word “all” in that first sentence: had just some of the people been unfaithful?  No: all of them had.  Did they practice just some of the abominations of the other nations?  No: they practiced all of them.  But God in his mercy sent them messengers and prophets to warn them away from their sinfulness.  Did they listen to them? No – and not only did they just not listen to them, but they ridiculed and derided those messengers of God, “despised his warnings and scoffed at his prophets.”  Certainly God would have been justified in letting his chosen people go to hell in a hand basket.  But he didn’t.  Though he punished them with exile for a time, he brought them back to their own land to worship their God once again.  When darkness seems to affect even the Church, the Exsultet calls out: Rejoice, let Mother Church also rejoice, arrayed with the lightning of his glory, let this holy building shake with joy, filled with the mighty voices of the peoples.

Back at Christmas time, we heard the beginning of the Gospel of John giving us reason for our exultation: even in the darkness of our world, the Light shines through.  John proclaims: “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”  Today’s Gospel reading is from John also, and shows us the source of that light: Jesus Christ who is lifted up just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert.  This line refers to a passage from the book of Numbers [Num. 21:8-9] in which the people were complaining about the way God was feeding them in the desert.  So he sent seraph serpents among them, and people were being bitten and falling ill and dying from their venom.  As a remedy, God told Moses to mount one of the serpents on a pole, and anyone who had been bitten would get better if they looked at the serpent lifted up on the pole.  John compares this to the remedy that we receive for our many sins when we look upon our Savior, lifted up on the pole of the Cross.  But even better, the lifting up of the Son of Man is the Resurrection: God the Father raising Jesus up from the dead, to destroy the power of sin and death in our world.  Either way you look at it, the joy is irresistible: the darkness of our sin and the finality of our death are destroyed when we look upon Jesus our Savior lifted up for us.  Of this, the Exsultet sings: This is the night, when Christ broke the prison-bars of death and rose victorious from the underworld.

Which brings us to the heart of today’s Gospel reading, maybe even to the heart of the whole Gospel.  That would be the line: “for God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.”  If you have seen any sporting event, in person or on television, you have seen the reference to that line: posters that read “John 3:16.”  And clearly, that is the heart of the Gospel for all of us: that God
so loved the world – not just the good part of the world, the pristine part, the beautiful part – but every part of the world.  He loves the parts of the world that are polluted, or embattled by crime, or rife with injustice and oppression, or debilitated by sickness and disease, or destroyed by war, or mourning death, or lamenting sin.  That is not to say that he loves the pollution, crime, injustice, or any of that.  But he loves the world – the whole world – despite all that darkness.  He loves the world for what he created it to be, he loves us as the people he made his own.  And to that world, that people he loves, he sends his only Son, his beloved, so that we might not perish in our darkness or disease or injustice or sin and death, but might have eternal life – the life he longs for each of us to share with him.  Any other message would be completely disappointing, and our God does not disappoint!  Our birth would have been no gain, had we not been redeemed.  O wonder of your humble care for us! O love, O charity beyond all telling, to ransom a slave you gave away your Son!

Lent is certainly a time for us to be mindful of the ways in which we have fallen short of God’s call.  Last week’s look at the ten commandments provided each of us, I think, with plenty of reflection on how we can better live God’s call.  But this week’s Gospel puts all of that in perspective for us: we don’t dwell on our sins and shortcomings just to remind ourselves how miserable we are; we reflect on our sins and shortcomings because we know that God can transform them.  We don’t strive to become better people in order to be worthy of God’s love for us; we strive to become better people because God loves us and that love calls us to a much better way of living.  Today’s Liturgy says to us that yes, we have sinned; yes, we have fallen short; yes, we have been hard-hearted; yes, we have failed to respond to God’s love; yes, in particular we have failed to show that love to others.  And yes, we are deserving of punishment for our sins.  But, our God, who is rich in mercy, forgets the punishment and remembers compassion for the people he created.  He sent his only Son to redeem us and bring us back from our darkness into everlasting light.  Our God even uses the darkness and transforms it to be a source of Resurrection for his people.  At that Easter Vigil a few short weeks from now, we will remember that The sanctifying power of this night dispels wickedness, washes faults away, restores innocence to the fallen, and joy to mourners, drives out hatred, fosters concord, and brings down the mighty.

On this Laetare Sunday, we remember that even in the darkness of our world as it is, we can remember the joy of the Light that is to come.  We reflect on God’s everlasting mercy, which is stronger than sin and death.  We respond to the compassion that God has shown for us, his chosen people.  We live that mercy and love in our own lives, sharing it with others.  Then as our own darkness is transformed to light, maybe our little corner of the world can know compassion amidst sorrow, comfort amidst mourning, mercy against intolerance, love against hatred, and the peace that passes all of our understanding in every place we walk.  May we carry the flame of God’s love into our world to brighten every darkness and bring joy to every sorrow.  May this flame be found still burning by the Morning Star: the one Morning Star who never sets, Christ your Son, who, coming back from death’s domain, has shed his peaceful light on humanity, and lives and reigns for ever and ever.  Amen.

Monday of the Fourth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

We could look at today’s Gospel reading as an interesting miracle story of Jesus casting a demon out of a long-possessed man. But I think we should dig a little deeper than that this morning. Because many of us, I think, have to tangle with the unclean spirits from the tombs that infest us from time to time. If you’ve been in that situation, you probably can relate to having chained that spirit down with mighty strong chains, only to have them smashed to pieces. Then that unclean spirit starts crying out once again and injuring us in the process.

For some, that demon is some kind of addiction. Or perhaps it’s a pattern of sin. Maybe it’s an unhealthy relationship. Whatever it is, there is nothing we can do to stop it all on our own. None of us is strong enough to subdue it. It is instructive that, when Jesus asks the demon what his name is, the demon responds in the plural: “we are Legion.” Indeed, legion are the demons that can torment us, legion are the past hurts and resentments, legion are the sins, legion are the broken relationships.

When we find ourselves in that state of affairs, we have to know that human power is useless to subdue our demons. We have to do the only thing that works, which is to beg Jesus to cast those demons out. I often tell people in Confession that it’s okay to pray for yourself and that God doesn’t expect us to subdue our demons on our own. Jesus is longing to cast out our legion demons, all we have to do is ask. The voice of the psalmist today expresses the prayer of our hearts: “Lord, rise up and save me.”

Easter Tuesday

Today’s Readings

Letting go of things is harder than we can sometimes even admit.  I think that’s what was going on with Mary Magdalene.  And we are just like her: we want to hold on to things and people as they are, because what is familiar is so very comfortable to us.  I think sometimes that’s true regardless of whether the familiar is positive or negative.  So many times we hold on to whatever we have and refuse to let them go because it’s as if we’re afraid we’ll be giving away some piece of ourselves.  So then what happens is that we hang on to images of ourselves or other people in our life that are outdated, and stifle any room for growth.  We hang on to resentments or past hurts and never give any chance for healing.  We hang on to unhealthy relationships and never give ourselves a chance to break the cycle of pain they bring.  We hang on to bad work situations and miss following our true calling.

What Mary needed to hear from Jesus in today’s Gospel was that she had to stop hanging on to things as they were, and to allow God’s promise to be fully revealed.  The time for mourning was over, it was now time to rejoice and begin spreading the word that the Gospel was coming to its fruition.  She had to begin that by going and spreading the word to the other disciples.

We too, have to stop grieving our past hurts and resentments and outdated notions of the world, ourselves and our relationships so that God’s promise can be fully revealed in us.  The message of Easter joy means that we must begin that by spreading the news that Jesus is doing something new in us and in our world, and make sure that everyone knows about it. We can do that by examining our lives every day and reflecting on what God is doing in us and how we are responding to it.  This is the kind of daily reflection that will help us to let go of what is unhelpful and grasp firmly to that which will lead us to Christ.

As we continue to live lives of conversion like this, we too can proclaim with Mary Magdalene on this Easter day, and every day, “We have seen the Lord!”

Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord

Today’s readings

And so it begins.  We who have been keeping Lent these forty days are coming to Lent’s fulfillment.  Over the course of this week, we will gather several times to mark the events that have won our salvation.  On Thursday, we will gather at 7pm to celebrate the Lord’s Supper: that night when he gave us the Eucharist and the priesthood so that he would be among us until the end of time.  On Friday, we will gather at 3pm to revisit the Lord’s Passion, to venerate the Cross which was the altar on which he sacrificed his life for ours.  And on Saturday, we will gather on the piazza at 8pm to recount the stories of our salvation and welcome the Resurrection, baptizing new believers into the faith, and rejoicing with all of the Church on that most holy night.  No Catholic should ever miss these incredible liturgies: they are in fact the reason we are a Church and they highlight our mission in the world.  If you struggle to find the meaning in life, these celebrations will help you on the way.

And we begin that on a seemingly triumphant note.  Jesus enters Jerusalem, the city of the center of the Jewish religion, the city he has been journeying toward throughout the gospel narrative, and he enters it to the adulation of throngs.  Cloaks are thrown down in the street, the people wave palms and chant “Hosanna.”  This is it, isn’t it?  It seems like Jesus’ message has finally been accepted, at least by the crowds who have long been yearning for a messiah to deliver them from foreign oppression.

Only that wasn’t the kind of salvation Jesus came to offer.  Instead, he preached forgiveness and mercy and real justice, and he healed people from the inside out.  He called people to repentance, to change their lives, to hear the gospel and to live it every day.  He denounced hypocrisy, and demanded that those who would call themselves religious reach out in love to the poor and those on the margins.  It wasn’t a message that was particularly welcome; it wasn’t the message they thought the messiah would bring.

And that’s what brings us to the one hundred and eighty degree turn we experience in today’s second gospel reading, the reading of our Lord’s Passion and death.  Enough of this, they say; the religious leaders must be right: he must be a demon, or at least a troublemaker.  Better that we put up with the likes of Barabbas.  As for this one, well, crucify him.

Who are we going to blame for this?  Whose fault is it that they crucified my Lord?  Is it the Jews, as many centuries of anti-Semitism would assert?  Was it the Romans, those foreign occupiers who sought only the advancement of their empire?  Was it the fickle crowds, content enough to marvel at Jesus when he fed the thousands, but abandoning him once his message was made clear?  Was it Peter, who couldn’t even keep his promise of standing by his friend for a few hours?  Was it the rest of the apostles, who scattered lest they be tacked up on a cross next to Jesus?  Was it Judas, who gave in to despair thinking he had it all wrong?  Was it the cowardly Herod and Pilate who were both manipulating the event in order to maintain their pathetic fiefdoms?  Who was it who put Jesus on that cross?

And the answer, as we well know, is that it’s none of those.  Because it’s my sins that led Jesus to the Way of the Cross.  It’s my sins that betrayed him; it’s my sins that have kept me from friendship with God.  And so he willingly gave his life that I might have life.  And you.

He gave himself for us.

The Twelfth Sunday of Ordinary Time: Suffering, Redemption and Glory

Today’s readings

The talk of mourning and death in today’s Liturgy of the Word reminds us of a couple of really important life principles. The first is that we will have to suffer and mourn in this life, because this life is riddled with sorrows. We saw that clearly in Orlando this past week, and the truth is we see it all the time on the streets of Chicago. The second life principle is that Jesus embraced suffering himself, and did not come to make it go away. And finally, suffering was something our Lord redeemed, changing it from a dead end to a path to glory. The Gospel today in particular addresses these principles.

The story begins with a lesson on who Jesus is. Our own self-identity is something many of us spend a lifetime trying to figure out. Our identity is important to us: it tells us how we fit into the social structure as well as what makes us unique from others. Until we really know who we are, we are very unlikely to accomplish anything of importance or even be comfortable in our own skin. And so when Jesus asks the disciples “Who do the crowds say that I am?” it is a question with which we all resonate on some level, at some time in our lives.

Now, I’m not suggesting Jesus was having an identity crisis, or even that his notion of who he is was developing. Clearly, his asking that question wasn’t so much for his own information or even to see where he was in the social structure of Israel, but he was nudging the disciples to come to an understanding about what was going on. Jesus knows who he is and why he is here, but it’s for us and for those first disciples to begin to see Jesus in deeper ways.

The answers the disciples give to that question are interesting. John the Baptist risen from the dead, Elijah returned from the whirlwind, or that one of the ancient prophets had arisen. Clearly he had no parallel on earth at the time; all their answers involved the return of someone from the dead or the beyond. The reason this is significant is because, at the time, the possibility of there being anything beyond death or any kind of resurrection was in great dispute. The Pharisees believed in a life after death, the Sadducees did not; that is the reason many of the Gospel stories show those two groups in opposition to each other.

But the real significant part of their answers lies in what is going on in the disciples’ minds as they answer Jesus. You can almost hear the excitement in their voices. They had been seeing Jesus healing diseases and casting out demons. Not only that, they had just returned from their own missionary journey in which Jesus gave them authority to do those same things. Clearly they were in the presence of a superstar, and his charisma was rubbing off on them. They were ready for the glory, and they will get it, but not in the way they’re expecting.

Now Jesus wants to dig a little deeper. “But who do you say that I am?” he asks them. Peter speaks for the disciples and gets the answer right the first time: “The Christ of God.” I think he answers that with deep reverence and awe, but unfortunately, he didn’t know the half of it.

Jesus affirms his correct answer, but then goes on to reveal what that means for him. Yes, he is the Christ of God, but the Christ isn’t what they had anticipated. This was not going to be simply some glory trip. The Christ would have to suffer, be rejected, be killed, and then … then be raised from the dead. And that whole being killed part is the sticking point, but it’s absolutely necessary, he can’t be raised from the dead if he isn’t killed; that’s not a step one can skip.

This all had to be pretty hard for them to digest. But it’s nothing compared to what Jesus reveals next. Those disciples who thought they were on the glory train could also expect to suffer:

If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself
and take up his cross daily and follow me.
For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it,
but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.

We don’t get to skip a step either. We too will be called to the cross. If we want eternal life, we have to be willing to give up this life. There is no resurrection without a cross; there is no Easter Sunday without a Good Friday. Not for Jesus and not for his disciples, not even for you and me.

We know that suffering is part of life. We have experienced illness, injury, pain, loss of a job, death of a loved one, physical or psychological abuse – the list is long. Just in the past week, our nation has suffered so much loss. So often all this suffering seems pointless. We might even be tempted to quarrel with God: if God is loving, why to innocent people have to suffer, why do we have to suffer? Why can’t it be the guy who cuts us off in traffic while he’s drinking coffee with one hand and talking on a cell phone in the other?

The truth is, the justice of suffering is beyond us. We don’t know why bad things happen to good people. Suffering can often seem so capricious, so random, so devoid of meaning. And it is, if we let it be. You see, sometimes we just get it wrong. We sometimes think that Jesus came to take away suffering and we get mad when that’s not what happens. But if Jesus came to take away suffering, he certainly wouldn’t have had to go through it himself. He didn’t come to take away suffering, but to give meaning to it, to redeem it – to come to glory through it.

We can see in the cross that the path to glory and the path to life leads through suffering to redemption. There’s no way around it. The cross Jesus took up will be ours to take up daily if we wish to follow Jesus to eternal life. He is the Way: if we want to get to heaven we have to follow his path. Our own identity as disciples and followers of Christ is bound up in the ugliness of suffering and the agony of the cross.

That flies in the face of our culture that wants us to take a pill for every pain and medicate every burden. Jesus says today that that kind of thinking is simply losing our lives trying to save them. The rest of life passes us by while we are self-medicated beyond our pain. But, if we lose our life for the sake of Jesus, if we take up our crosses and follow him, if we bear our burdens and our sorrows and our pain and our brokenness, if we join our sufferings to the suffering of Christ on the cross, then we too can experience what he did: the glory of eternal life. That was the only hope of those first disciples, and it is our only hope too, fellow disciples of the Lord.

Thursday of the Second Week of Advent

Today’s readings

One of the amazing truths to ponder in this season of Advent is the nature of and reason for the Incarnation. Why did God choose to save the world by entering into it as a creature? Why did he assume our fickle, broken flesh in the lowliest form: an infant born to a poor family?

There is a theological principle that says something like “whatever was not assumed was not redeemed.” Christ had to assume, that is, take on all of our weaknesses, so that he would be able to redeem all of our brokenness. What great comfort it is that our Advent leads to the Birth of a Savior so wonderful in glory that the whole universe could not contain him, but also so intimately one of us that he bore all our sorrows and grief. It is amazing that God’s plan to save the world took shape by assuming our own form, even to the point of dying our death.

That’s what I thought about as I reflected on today’s first reading. Israel was pretty low and lacking in power, in the grand scheme of things. Almost every nation on earth was more powerful than them. Yet they were decidedly not unnoticed by God – indeed they were actually favored. God’s plan for salvation takes place among the weakness in all of us. God notices that weakness, takes it on and redeems it in glory.

That’s the good news today for all of us who suffer in whatever way. God notices our suffering, in the person of Jesus he bore that same suffering, and in the glory of the Paschal Mystery, he redeemed it. God may not wave a magic wand and make all of our problems go away, but he will never leave us alone in them.

And it all started with the Incarnation. The birth of one tiny child to a poor family, in the tiniest region of the lowliest nation on earth. God can do amazing things when we are incredibly weak.