Monday of the 16th Week in Ordinary Time [II]

Monday of the Sixteenth Week in Ordinary Time [II]
Micah 6:1-4,6-8  +  Matthew 12:38-42
July 23, 2018

“…there is something greater than Solomon here.”

If one were to choose a saying of Our Lord from elsewhere in the Gospel to summarize today’s Gospel passage, one might choose:  “Every one to whom much is given, of him will much be required” [Luke 12:48].  A more mundane way to express Jesus’ disapproval of the request for a sign would be to say that the scribes and Pharisees don’t know what they’re asking for.  It’s dangerous to ask for a sign, because with the sign comes the responsibility to follow that sign.  Signs command us to stop, or yield, or put a limit on our speed.

At the end of today’s passage, Jesus contrasts the scribes and Pharisees with “the men of Nineveh” and “the queen of the south”.  This isn’t meant to flatter the scribes and Pharisees.  The men of Nineveh and the queen of the south were not upstanding characters.  Nonetheless, the men of Nineveh were given the sign of “the preaching of Jonah”, and they responded to the sign of the prophet by repenting.  The queen of the south was given the sign of the “wisdom of Solomon”, and she responded by coming from “the ends of the earth to hear” him.

Jesus’ bottom line puts the scribes and Pharisees in their place.  As bad as the men of Nineveh and the queen of the south were, they repented when given signs by Jonah and Solomon.  Since the scribes and Pharisees will be given a far greater sign, by one who is far greater than Jonah and Solomon (not only a prophet and king, but the divine priest as well), they will be judged by a far higher standard.  Should they not repent (as up to this point in the Gospel account they had not), the conclusion is that their culpability would be far greater.

The 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time [B]

The Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time [B]
Jer 23:1-6  +  Eph 2:13-18  +  Mk 6:30-34
July 22, 2018

Woe to the shepherds who mislead and scatter the flock of my pasture, says the Lord.

Discord is part and parcel of life in this fallen world.  The great British author G. K. Chesterton once said that Original Sin is the simplest of all Christian dogmas to prove:  all you have to do is pick up the newspaper (or in our day, click on a news app).  By contrast, we Christians are called into unity and to foster unity.

Jesus told us simply to love God, and to love our neighbor.  We can consider these two great commands in terms of being called into unity, and being called to foster unity.  To love God is to be united with God, and to love one’s neighbor ultimately means that all the members of the human race would foster unity with each other, forming a single family of God’s children.

Yet if today this seems beyond us, we ought to recall that the first generations of Christians struggled with these two commands of love.  Today’s Second Reading offers a case in point.  St. Paul is preaching against the division between Jews and Gentiles in the city of Ephesus.  Throughout his entire letter to the Ephesians, St. Paul preaches about unity, and about where this unity must come from.  Paul points to Christ, because Christ “is our peace, He who made both one and broke down the dividing wall of enmity, through His Flesh… [so] that He might create in Himself one new person in place of the two, thus establishing peace”.

Lasting peace, and all its fruits, can only come from unity through Christ.  This is true in every aspect of life, but perhaps nowhere more so than in the vocation of Holy Matrimony.  Christ Himself instructs us—when He’s questioned about what’s wrong with divorce—that “He who made them from the beginning made them male and female, and… ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one’” [Mt 19:4-5, quoting Gn 1:27; 2:24].

This call to unity can be broken not only by divorce, though.  Much more common in our Western culture is a sin that is praised by some—strangely enough—as an act of responsibility and even prudence:  that is, the sin of artificial contraception.

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Fifty years ago this Wednesday, a watershed event took place amidst a generational deluge of change.  On July 25, 1968, Blessed Pope Paul VI promulgated the encyclical letter Humanae Vitae.  The Pope’s teaching was not new.  In fact, his teaching was not his, in the sense that he was not its author.  Humanae Vitae’s teaching is consistent with the prior 1900 years of Church teaching upon the encyclical’s chief topics.  In other words, the teaching of this encyclical is the teaching of Jesus Christ.  In giving this teaching to His Bride, the Church, Jesus has given of Himself, to reveal to His bride how to share in His own self-sacrificial love.

Humanae Vitae focuses upon three chief topics:  human nature, the nature of marriage, and specifically the morality of artificial means of contraception.  Those three are the chief lenses through which one must read, ponder, and pray over the encyclical.  In considering the encyclical’s teaching about any one of these three, the other two have to be kept in mind.  It’s much easier to dismiss the prophetic teaching of Humanae Vitae if you claim that it’s “only” about the morality of artificial contraception.

Why has Humanae Vitae seemed so controversial since Blessed Paul VI promulgated it?  A first reason is that so many Christian denominations had since 1930 changed their teachings to suggest that using artificial contraception could sometimes be morally acceptable.  By the 1960’s, then, the Catholic Church seemed behind the times.  In the first months of 1968 there was a widespread expectation that with Humanae Vitae, the Catholic Church would finally get “with it”.

Blessed Paul VI determined, however, that it’s better for the Church to be with Christ than to be “with it”, which in any given generation is nothing but a shifting tide of public opinion.  To be with Christ is to share in His self-sacrificial love.

The Church’s teachings in this field, enriched so greatly over the past decades by St. John Paul the Great, show that planning a family according to natural means bestows not only moral and spiritual benefits upon wife, husband, and their shared married life.  Planning a family according to natural means also has medical benefits, while artificial means of contraception are showing, more and more over time, how much physical harm can come from choosing what is artificial.

More and more people realize that they deserve better.  Many are realizing that that “something better” comes from God Himself, in the order of nature by which He designed man and woman.

As secular culture continues to fragment, and as more broken homes lead to more broken lives and to more crime, poverty, drug abuse and homelessness, the leaders of the Church are calling us back to the basics.  The Church needs to go back to the heart of things to recover a way of life that has been mocked and abused in our secular culture for too long:  a life of modesty, purity, and chastity.

Many in our culture are only waking up now to the hard truth about the consequences of believing that it’s beneficial for a couple to separate the act of marital love from the openness of that act to conception.  Many in our culture are only realizing now what happens when, for decades, a culture claims that this act has no intrinsic connection to child-bearing.  Many are only realizing now that a culture that claims that marriage doesn’t have to be open to the bearing of children is a culture that believes itself free to redefine marriage.

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The secular culture is never going to be convinced of the truth of what the Church teaches unless the Church’s members embrace—by living out—the Church’s beliefs about Marriage and family life.  The leaders of our Church see that.  These same leaders also see the warnings in today’s First Reading from the prophetic Book of Jeremiah.  The prophet Jeremiah’s warning is to worldly “shepherds who mislead and scatter the flock of” the Lord’s pasture.  The prophet cries out in the name of the Lord, saying to those unfaithful shepherds:  “You have scattered my sheep and driven them away. … but I will take care to punish your evil deeds.  I myself will gather the remnant of my flock from all the lands… and bring them back to their meadow; there they shall increase and multiply.”  We in the modern Western world need to admit that this meadow is not the materialism promoted in the mass media.  This meadow is the “verdant pastures” and “restful waters” of the spiritual and moral teachings of Jesus Christ, handed down to us by Jesus’ Bride, the Church.

Yet the prophet Jeremiah also promises that the Lord’s flock will be given faithful shepherds.  The prophet cries out in the name of the Lord, declaring:  “I will appoint shepherds for them who will shepherd them so that they need no longer fear and tremble; and none shall be missing”Too many children are missing in our world today because we’ve accepted the secular culture’s claim that divorcing the act of physical union from an openness to conception bears no consequences.  But the consequences mount all around us.

The solution to a culture that canonizes barrenness, self-promotion, and immediate satisfaction of one’s every desire is the Way of our Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ.  As a Christian, you must never kid yourself into thinking that this Way is easy, broad and comfortable.  After all, your life is not about you:  as the Psalmist sings in the 23rd Psalm, “He guides me in right paths for His Name’s sake.”  About those “right paths” we need to remember what Jesus explained to us:  “the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few” [Mt 7:14].  Nonetheless, take comfort in the truth that if you follow the Good Shepherd on this narrow Way, you “shall dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.”

Humanae Vitae

Saturday of the 15th Week in Ordinary Time [II]

Saturday of the Fifteenth Week in Ordinary Time [II]
Micah 2:1-5  +  Matthew 12:14-21
July 21, 2018

“‘my beloved in whom I delight….’”

The latter half of today’s Gospel passage is a quotation from the Old Testament.  St. Matthew the Evangelist cites Isaiah 42:1-4, a passage which echoes God the Father’s declaration at the Baptism of Jesus [Matthew 3:17].

This quotation highlights a contrast between the Pharisees’ harsh opposition to Jesus and the delight God the Father takes in His servant and Son.  One of the causes of the Pharisees’ opposition is Jesus serving both the Gentiles and the Jews.  The first sentence of the quoted passage has God the Father speaking of Jesus (as the quote is applied by the evangelist) as His chosen servant.  However, the last sentence points to the relevance of Jesus’ service to the Gentiles.  It is the Father’s will that Jesus serve the Gentiles.

Of course, Jesus came not primarily to cure the sick, but to destroy the power of sin and death.  Part of the power of sin is the division between the Jews and Gentiles.  It is the power of the Spirit whom the Father “places upon” Jesus that can reconcile the races and nations of the earth.

Friday of the 15th Week in Ordinary Time [II]

Friday of the Fifteenth Week in Ordinary Time [II]
Isaiah 38:1-6,21-22,7-8  +  Matthew 12:1-8
July 20, 2018

“For the Son of Man is Lord of the sabbath.”

The “something greater than the temple” of which Jesus speaks today is, of course, Jesus Himself.  As the Old Testament priests served in the Temple, so the disciples of Jesus serve in His Presence.  It is in serving Him, and especially in offering priestly sacrifice through Him, that all Christian works find their meaning and are rightly ordered.

Here the virtue of prudence shows its place.  Prudence is sometimes called the “charioteer of the virtues”.  A modern analogy would be to see prudence as the steering wheel of a car.  Prudence is neither the engine (which could be correlated with divine charity) nor the gearshift (temperance) nor the GPS (hope).  Nonetheless, as simple as the role of the steering wheel is, the whole motorcraft depends essentially upon it.  Likewise with prudence.

The most basic level of moral decision-making is to shun evil and to do good.  Prudence is hardly needed at this level.  But the upper echelons of morality depend greatly on prudence, where the moral agent faces many good choices, and is tasked with choosing not merely the good but the best.  If we realize that Christ—that “something greater”—is always with us, then His Presence will guide our prudent choices.

Thursday of the 15th Week in Ordinary Time [II]

Thursday of the Fifteenth Week in Ordinary Time [II]
Isaiah 26:7-9,12,16-19  +  Matthew 11:28-30
July 19, 2018

“…my yoke is easy, and my burden light.”

It’s a common mistake to confuse duty and virtue.  We easily take on daily duties, but sometimes we carry them out without faith that God can act through our simple efforts.  We can carry them out without hope that what God can accomplish through our efforts is much more than we can imagine, or for that matter, need to know.  To carry only the yoke of duty—without gracing our good works with the virtues—is to limit our efforts to the scope of our own understanding.

The difference between a yoke of duty that either chafes over the course of the years, or fits smoothly and firmly, is the virtues.  The virtues with which God graces the yoke of duty—both natural virtues such as fortitude, temperance, prudence, and justice, and the divine virtues of faith, hope, and love—are great strengths for our Christian life.

Our Lord Jesus asks that we reflect on the question of whom we serve in our lives.  Performing duties only for duties’ sake leads to great weariness.  To carry out our obligations in order that another might have life and might be drawn closer to God:  this is where we find rest, even in the midst of the workday.  The yoke of the Cross is the virtue of love, the greatest virtue, by which we recognize the truth of Isaiah’s prophecy that it is the Lord who has accomplished all we have done.

Wednesday of the 15th Week in Ordinary Time [II]

Wednesday of the Fifteenth Week in Ordinary Time [II]
Isaiah 10:5-7,13-16  +  Matthew 11:25-27
July 18, 2018

“…no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son wishes to reveal him.”

The Gospel passage today speaks to the power of divine revelation.  Jesus speaks directly to His Father, something rare in the four Gospel accounts.  Along with this exclamation, Jesus says, “no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son wishes to reveal him.”

But that’s not the only reference to divine revelation.  In praising the Father, God the Son exclaims that the reason for His praise is that “although you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned you have revealed them to the childlike.”

God the Son rejoices because His Father has revealed hidden things to the “childlike”.  Here we have a complement to Jesus’ admonition that unless one becomes like a little child, he will not enter the Kingdom of Heaven.  This entrance must be connected to those hidden things that escape the vision of the wise and the learned.  The child has a capacity to see things as God wants them to be seen.  Reflect today on why that is.

Tuesday of the 15th Week in Ordinary Time [II]

Tuesday of the Fifteenth Week in Ordinary Time [II]
Isaiah 7:1-9  +  Matthew 11:20-24
July 17, 2018

“‘Will you be exalted to heaven?  You will go down to the nether world.’”

“Teddy Bear Jesus” remains one of the more persistent myths within lands that are culturally Catholic (as distinguished from those that are Catholic by personal conviction, sweat, and blood).  This mythic figure became flesh and dwelt among us to tell us how wonderful we are, and that we just need to have more self-esteem.  As popular as this myth is within so much of the modern Western world, it has no basis in the New Testament.  Today’s Gospel passage offers a helpful antidote.

In your hand missal, the two sentences that Jesus addresses to Capernaum may be printed in italics, drawing attention to the fact that they are a quotation from the Old Testament.  Specifically, Jesus here is quoting a very “un-teddy-bear-like” passage from the fourteenth chapter of the Prophet Isaiah.

What has prompted Jesus in today’s Gospel passage to thunder tides of woe against the cities of Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum?  Here is the more specific point for our reflection today:  failure to repent.

Jesus has been preaching repentance because it’s a prerequisite for accepting the good news of the Gospel.  No Christian should think that he doesn’t need to repent because he’s already been baptized, accepted the Gospel, and been saved.  The gift of salvation first given in the Sacrament of Baptism certainly can be lost.  But most importantly, we should remember that the motive for Jesus’ reproaches is the same as the motive for His carrying the Cross:  love for each of us.

Our Lady of Mount Carmel

Our Lady of Mount Carmel
Isaiah 1:10-17  +  Matthew 10:34—11:1
July 16, 2018

“Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”

There is a big difference between a bribe and a gift.  A bribe is something we give to another while demanding something in return.  A gift is an expression of love with no strings attached.  A gift-giver expects nothing in return, but merely gives the gift as a sign of love that already exists between the two.

This week the First Reading comes from the book of the prophet Isaiah.  A prophet at roughly the same time as Hosea, whose prophecies we heard last week, Isaiah preached to the people of Judah, the southern half of the Kingdom.  Isaiah was concerned with the sort of sacrifices that the people were offering to God.  They viewed God as someone with a lot of power whom they could bribe.

The people of Judah had been influenced in this regard by their pagan neighbors.  Jesus in the Gospel Reading, however, warns us that no one else should stand between ourselves and God.  This seems very self-evident, but can in fact demand a lot of us as Catholics.  Not even members of our family may be chosen above God.

This is a hard saying.  It would seem that Jesus expects us to pit ourselves against our family in order to choose Him.  But Jesus didn’t come to earth wanting to divide people, any more than He wanted to die on the cross for the sake of dying.  He knew, though, that there are some who refuse to choose God in their lives, and that these people can only find peace in their own hearts when they come to God.  Rather than look at Jesus’ words as pitting us against others, we realize that Jesus is telling us that if we want to draw others closer to God, we first of all have to firmly establish our own relationship with God.  Out of that relationship with God, we can work at drawing others closer to God again.


The 15th Sunday in Ordinary Time [B]

The Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time [B]
Am 7:12-15  +  Eph 1:3-14  +  Mk 6:7-13
July 15, 2018

Jesus summoned the Twelve and began to send them out two by two.

Jesus’ two-fold action of summoning and sending in today’s Gospel passage is based on the literal meaning of the word “apostle”, which means “one who is sent”.  But today’s summoning and sending in chapter 6 of St. Mark’s Gospel account is different from a second apostolic mission on which these men will be sent in the final chapter of Mark, where only eleven apostles remain.

The key distinction is what the Twelve here are sent to do.  This is a preparatory mission:  to preach repentance, drive out demons, and anoint and cure the sick.  Here the Twelve turn people around from the negative, to prepare them to receive the positive.  Their mission is akin to that of St. John the Baptist:  to prepare for someone greater yet to come.

In the final chapter of Mark, the apostles are sent to accomplish something radically different.  They are sent not just to the sick, and not just within the Holy Land, but “to the whole world”.  They are sent not to preach repentance, but to “proclaim the Gospel” [16:15].

For each of us, in the on-going conforming of our lives to Christ, we need to listen and be receptive to both of these missions:  turning away from sins, in order to live the Gospel.  However, since today’s Gospel passage focuses on the first mission, dwell on its meaning.  It’s highlighted in today’s First Reading from the Book of the Prophet Amos.

Each Christian must participate in this first mission from two perspectives.  Each is on the receiving end of this mission, as well as on the giving end.  In other words, each Christian has repentance preached to him, and each must preach repentance to others.  The latter is perhaps the more difficult.

It’s because of his or her baptism that each Christian shares in the three roles that Jesus exercised during His public ministry, and which He exercises now from Heaven.  These are the roles of priest, prophet, and king/shepherd.  The role of prophet is preparatory:  that is, each Christian shares in Jesus’ prophetic mission so as to prepare for Jesus’ priestly and kingly missions.

As a prophet, each Christian is called to speak out against things that are evil.  This is the role of the prophet.  This is what we hear Amos doing in the First Reading, even though he is not sure he wants to.  Yet in the First Reading we hear something else characteristic of our discipleship.  Not only do we often not want to speak the truth.  Often, others don’t want us to speak the truth.  Not only was the prophet Amos not accepted.  He was officially chased out of the country.

As he was being rejected, he made statements that we ourselves sometimes offer for not speaking up against evil.  He proclaimed that he had never received any formal training as a prophet.  He didn’t know for sure how to speak to others.  He didn’t know what exactly God might have to say to them.  Amos’ call is like that of the apostles to whom Jesus is speaking in today’s Gospel passage.  Neither these apostles nor Amos wished for or chose such an assignment.  They, as we, are simply placed on the path and told:  “Go, prophesy to my people”.