The Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time [B]

The Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time [B]
Ezekiel 2:2-5  +  2 Corinthians 12:7-10  +  Mark 6:1-6
July 4, 2021

Hard of face and obstinate of heart are they to whom I am sending you.

Jesus’ rejection in today’s Gospel Reading was not a one-time occurrence.  Saint John the Evangelist states this same unfortunate truth, but in a different way.  About Jesus, St. John writes:  “He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, yet the world knew Him not.  He came to His own home, and His own people received Him not” [ John 1:10-11].

Throughout the three years of Jesus’ public ministry, He was frequently rejected as a prophet.  Each of those rejections foreshadows the ultimate rejection of Jesus on Mount Calvary:  the rejection of Jesus as the Messiah, the one who came to save us from our sins.

After Jesus is rejected “in His native place and among His own kin”, the evangelist concludes with these observations:  “He was not able to perform any mighty deed there, apart from curing a few sick people by laying His hands on them.  He was amazed at their lack of faith.”

There are some people who use these last two sentences to deny that Jesus is God.  They argue that if Jesus were truly God, He would have been able to perform miracles in today’s Gospel passage.  Or to put it another way:  if the crowd’s lack of faith is greater than Jesus’ power to work miracles, then Jesus cannot possibly be the omnipotent God of the Bible.

We need to reflect upon this tension between the crowd’s lack of faith and Jesus’ lack of miracles.  We need to reflect upon this tension not just for the sake of understanding this particular Scripture passage, but also for the sake of our own spiritual lives.  Many Christians struggle because in the course of their earthly lives, they don’t see God responding to their most dire needs.  Some of these Christians give up their search for an answer.  Either they give up on God and leave the Church, or they give up on themselves, leading to despair or even death.

We know by instinct that the crowd’s lack of faith is not greater than Jesus’ power to work miracles.  But God chooses not to work miracles where there is a lack of faith.  We might say that God the Father made a “gentleman’s agreement” with Himself when He decided to send His Son to earth to become human.  He made a rule that He committed Himself always to abide by:  that is, never to over-ride human free will.

In the face of what can seem like God’s silence or lack of care about the many shades of darkness within life on earth, there are three plain facts that each of us needs to accept.

First, each of us needs to trust more deeply in God’s Providential will.  To say that God’s divine will is providential means that while God never directly causes evil, He does permit it.  He allows the world we live in to be as dark as it is because that darkness is the price to be paid for human free will.  It might be simpler if God were to remove that freedom and make all things right in the world.  But without that freedom, no one would have the chance to become like God and enter Heaven.

Second, each of us needs to grow in faith in God’s love for oneself personally.  Each of us needs to have the faith that the crowds in today’s Gospel passage lacked.  Each of us needs to believe that God sends His love to us in humble forms, especially in humble opportunities to love Him.  Nevertheless, as much as He chooses to love you, He also chooses not to force you to love Him.

Third, God demands that your faith be purified.  This is not the same as growing in faith.  Growing in faith is what you do by choosing to believe.  But this third plain fact is what God does.  God wants actively to purify your faith:  to sift it so as to remove the chaff.  Part of this sifting is helping us separate our wants from our needs.  Another part removes consolations in prayer so that our faith grows deeper.  This sifting calls us to adore God more than we petition Him, and to love Him for Who He truly is, instead of who we want Him to be.

Thursday of the Thirteenth Week in Ordinary Time [I]

Thursday of the Thirteenth Week in Ordinary Time [I]
Genesis 22:1-19  +  Matthew 9:1-8 
July 1, 2021

   “… but where is the sheep for the burnt offering?”   

Today’s First Reading is one of the more famous and more moving passages of the Old Testament.  The Church Fathers comment upon this passage at length and to great depth.  Consider just one idea from among the many that this passage holds.

Reflect on the notion of liberty.  What does it mean to be free?  Usually in our western culture we think of freedom in external terms:  that is, as being “free from” persons or forces outside us.  Adolescence and early adulthood are largely—for good or ill—defined in terms of gaining freedom from one’s parents, and this is natural enough:  child have to leave the nest at some point.  Sometimes, unfortunately, children often exercise their liberty by also “freeing” themselves from the moral and religious norms according to which they were reared.  Unfortunately, many older adults live their lives in a state of perpetual adolescence, never maturing to full adulthood because they cling to a falsely absolutized form of freedom:  one which is a “freedom from” all other persons and all norms.

A deeper form of freedom can be termed the “freedom to”.  This form of freedom is internal:  an inner ability or capacity to achieve some goal that requires inner strength.  This freedom is, to use another word, potential.  We want our children to be free:  that is, able to tap into all the potential that our human nature, and our Faith, offers us.  Often a person knows that this strength is within oneself, but the strength is inaccessible because of inner conflicts, including moral vices.  These conflicts prevent one from tapping into one’s inner strength, and being “free to” do what one is capable of.

Each of us can make a nightly examination of conscience in light of both forms of freedom.  Use the patriarch Abraham as your guide.  On the one hand, are you in any way pursuing “freedom from” God, which can only lead to alienation?  Then, meditate on your inner need to pursue the “freedom to” of the spiritual life:  the “freedom to” give yourself—sacrifice yourself—for the good of others, and the glory of God.

Wednesday of the Thirteenth Week in Ordinary Time

Wednesday of the Thirteenth Week in Ordinary Time
Matthew 8:28-34

“… when they saw him they begged him to leave their district.”

Demonic possession is an extremely serious matter.  While some in our day dismiss it, suggesting that reported cases of possession are in fact only psychological disorders, the Church takes today’s Gospel passage at its word.

One striking point in this narrative is the reaction of people to the swineherds’ report:  “they begged him to leave their district.”  Why do the people react this way?  One might expect the people to express gratitude to Jesus, and invite Him to stay as their protector.

Perhaps the people were in shock, never before imagining that demons might dwell among them.  However, demonic possession in the Holy Land was not uncommon in Jesus’ day.  Perhaps the reaction of the people reflects what today is described by the acronym “NIMBY”:  “Not In My Back Yard”.  When terrible violence erupts in a metropolis, many people on hearing the news shake their heads, say a prayer for those affected, and then turn the channel to SportsCenter.

But if such violence erupts in their own hamlet, they express disbelief at how such violence could happen “here”.  Sin, violence and death are here, there and everywhere.  While each of us needs to practice prudence to deter them, we should have no illusions of escaping them.  In the midst of such illusions, Christ has no place.

OT 13-3

Saints Peter and Paul, Apostles

Saints Peter and Paul, Apostles
Readings for the Vigil:
Acts 3:1-10  +  Galatians 1:11-20  +  John 21:15-19
Readings for the Day:
Acts 12:1-11  +  2 Timothy 4:6-8,17-18  +  Matthew 16:13-19
June 29, 2020

“I will give you the keys to the Kingdom of heaven.”

Peter, whom Jesus in today’s Gospel passage entrusts with the care of His Church, was very different than Paul.  Peter’s personality was rough and impatient.  He was poor and uneducated.  Now if Jesus had thought as worldly people do, He never would have chosen Peter as the first pope.  Instead, he would have chosen someone like Paul, refined and educated.

Regardless of their differences, Peter and Paul came to the same end:  martyrdom for the Holy Name of Jesus.  In the year 67, Saint Peter was crucified upside-down in the circus of Nero, and buried nearby in an out-of-the-way cemetery on a hill called the Vatican.  Saint Paul, after being held a prisoner in Rome for many years, was beheaded just outside the walls of the city.

As with their Lord, these two men came to what seemed to be shameful deaths.  Unfortunately, unlike their Lord, there was no report of Peter or Paul rising from the dead.  They were simply failures.  That’s surely how they were sized up by many around them, both in the Roman Empire and perhaps even among some members of the Church.  What kind of foundation had they laid for the Church?

Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither was the Roman Church, the church that spread from that city throughout the world.  Twenty centuries later, the Church certainly is universal, with more than one billion members across the globe.  But are we really any holier than those first members of the Church?  Are we willing to put our lives or even our names on the line for Christ?

Our spiritual lives are never a “done deal.”  They are always under construction.  The Mass we share in is a continual source of strength for us, as each week we struggle to be faithful disciples of Jesus.  Each day is a building block of faith, in which, by our daily sacrifices, we build up others as well as our own spiritual lives.

St. Irenaeus, Bishop & Martyr

St. Irenaeus, Bishop & Martyr
Genesis 18:16-33  +  Matthew 8:18-22
June 28, 2021

… He gave orders to cross to the other shore.

Several times during His public ministry, Jesus acts in a way that might be called “anti-social”.  This would be a mistaken perception, of course, but we still might wonder why Jesus acts as He does in these cases.

In today’s brief Gospel passage, when “Jesus saw a crowd around him, He gave orders to cross to the other shore.”  This prefaces the interaction between Jesus and two disciples.  We might be tempted to wonder whether this scene took place on a Monday morning.  The scribe sounds like an idealistic young person, while Jesus seems to splash cold water on his enthusiasm.  The other disciple expresses concern for a deceased loved one, a concern which Jesus seems to dismiss.

Have you ever felt that your enthusiasm for God has gone unmet?  To your desire for a deep spiritual life, have you perceived a sort of shrug on God’s part, if not a rebuke?  If so, you are in good company.  The story is told that Saint Teresa of Avila, suffering persecution because of her reform of the Carmelite order, complained to God about the hostility and gossip she faced.  Jesus told her, “Teresa, that’s how I treat my friends.”  She responded, “No wonder you have so few.”

It’s not a good idea to banter with God as Teresa did without possessing her degree of holiness.  Still, we might be tempted to agree with her.  More importantly, however, we need to agree with the Lord.

We can speculate that there are two reasons for the distance that Jesus creates between Himself and others during His public ministry.  One is that “distance makes the heart grow fonder”.  The other is more practical:  Jesus doesn’t want to give others more than they can chew.  In other words, we often aren’t ready for what God has to give us.  Even during Holy Week, after three years with Jesus, all but one of His apostles fled from the Cross.  When we agree with the Lord that His Will—even His Cross—is what’s best for us, the distance between ourselves and God will diminish.

Saturday of the Twelfth Week in Ordinary Time

Saturday of the Twelfth Week in Ordinary Time
Matthew 8:5-17

Lord, I am not worthy to have you enter under my roof; only say the word and my servant will be healed.”

Many blessings have come from the new English translation of the Roman Missal that the Church began to use in 2011.  One such blessing that comes from greater fidelity to the Latin original is the transparency with which Scripture quotations appear.

For example, in the old translation of the Missal, shortly before Holy Communion those assembled would say, “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed.”  Now they say, “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.”  Which of these is a more accurate translation of the words of the centurion in today’s Gospel passage:  “Lord, I am not worthy to have you enter under my roof; only say the word and my servant will be healed”?

The fidelity to the words of today’s Gospel passage highlight the centurion’s point:  authority.  The centurion understands the authority that Jesus bears because the centurion himself bears authority, and because he bears it, he is willing to submit to a higher authority.  The centurion’s humility in the face of Jesus prepares for his faith, and in this he is a model for each of us to follow.

Friday of the Twelfth Week in Ordinary Time

Friday of the Twelfth Week in Ordinary Time
Matthew 8:1-4

“When Jesus came down from the mountain, great crowds followed him.”

After Jesus’ great Sermon on the Mount, today’s Gospel passage might seem meager.  What is the focus of this brief passage?  Is it the healing itself?  Jesus’ divine power?  The leper’s faith before the miracle occurs, or Jesus’ instructions following the miracle?

The focus of the entire Gospel, of course, is the Person of Jesus Himself.  However, in this particular setting fairly early in Matthew’s account of the Gospel (the first miracle Matthew records, although at the end of Chapter 4 we hear in summary manner about Jesus healing multitudes), one detail that stands out is Jesus’ command to the healed leper:  “See that you tell no one”.  If we believe that Jesus ought to be the center of our Faith, and if Jesus Himself had preached not long before (Matthew 5:14-16) the simile of the “Light of the World” which is not to be hidden, how are we to understand such a command?

While Jesus is the center of the Gospel, He came into this world to bring about man’s salvation.  Relate His command to the healed leper to His overall mission.  He did not want worldly fame at this point, because fame would have hindered the growth of His mission, as people would inevitably have misunderstood who Jesus was.  A lesson for us as His disciples is always to be willing to grow in the virtue of faith, loving Jesus for who He is rather than what He does for us.

The Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time [B]

The Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time [B]
Wisdom 1:13-15;2:23-24  +  2 Corinthians 8:7,9,13-15  +  Mark 5:21-43
June 27, 2021

For God formed man to be imperishable; the image of His own nature He made him.

Both the little girl who was healed in this Sunday’s Gospel Reading, as well as her loved ones, likely had a question on their minds after Jesus worked the miracle:  “Who is this man?”

This is the question that our lives revolve around if Christ is at the center of our lives.  “Who is this man?”  Every Gospel passage during the Sundays of Ordinary Time looks at this Jesus from a different perspective.  It’s like turning a diamond in your hand as you hold it up to the light and gaze upon one facet after another.  Each is beautiful.  Each is brilliant.  Each shines.  Each Gospel passage shows us one more reason to give thanks for being able to know and love this divine person named Jesus.

But St. Paul in today’s Second Reading insists that this Jesus is not to be known and loved as if He were on a pedestal that we small, tiny human beings cannot reach.  Jesus is not to be worshipped from afar.  If that were what God wanted, this Second Person of the Trinity—God the Son—would have remained always in Heaven, far above us poor sinners.

We do worship Jesus Christ because He is the only-begotten Son of God, Light from Light, True God from True God.  But we worship Him also as our personal Redeemer, who for us men and our salvation came down from Heaven so that we could worship God up close.  “Who is this man?”  He is true man, but also True God.  He reigns eternally as God in Heaven, but He also enters into human misery, suffering, and death through His human nature.  That tension between Jesus’ divine nature and His human nature is what makes this such a mysterious question:  “Who is Jesus?”

This is what St. Paul is trying to get across to us, proclaiming:  “… you know the gracious act of our Lord Jesus Christ:  that though He was rich, for your sake He became poor, so that by His poverty you might become rich.”  Saint Paul is not talking about material wealth, of course.  He’s talking about spiritual wealth:  in other words, the grace that is a share in divine life.

But Jesus offers us the wealth of divine life only through the Cross:  through His poverty, by abandoning His life completely to the Will of God the Father.  However, although this selflessness reveals a beautiful picture of Jesus, at this point we as Catholics have an important step to take.

Jesus is not just someone for us to admire.  We are asked to share directly in the sacred mysteries of His life.  We are not just to imitate Jesus, as we imitate our childhood heroes.  There’s no way that any of us can imitate Jesus’ selflessness through our own efforts alone.  We can only be as selfless as Jesus if we truly and directly share His life:  if we live our lives in His life, by means of His abiding within us.

How does Jesus abide within the faithful disciple?  Today’s First Reading reminds us that “God formed man to be imperishable; the image of His own nature He made him.”  God designed man—male and female He designed them—to live forever (“imperishably”) in His image.

Yet what exactly is this divine image in which man is created, and through which he abides in God and God in him?  One answer given by Doctors of the Church is that the creation of man in the divine Image involves three aspects:  two faculties and one end.

Man’s intellect and will reflect the divine image.  By these two faculties, man can transcend his animal instincts and drives, and his environment.  Man can transcend his very self, opening his life to both human others and the “Other” who is God.  Yet men like Hitler and Nietzsche show that great intellect and great will power can end in murder, suicide and insanity.  The faculties of intellect and will must be oriented towards love, and must be oriented by love.  After all, the Beloved Disciple writes in his first New Testament letter, “God is love” [1 John 4:8 and 4:16].  This orientation takes shape through self-sacrifice:  the poverty that God the Son embraced out of love for each of us atop Calvary on Good Friday.

The Nativity of St. John the Baptist

The Nativity of St. John the Baptist
Vigil Readings:
Jeremiah 1:4-10  +  1 Peter 1:8-12  +  Luke 1:5-17
Readings of the Day:
Isaiah 49:1-6  +  Acts 13:22-26  +  Luke 1:57-66,80
June 24, 2021

For surely the hand of the Lord was with him.

The Nativity of St. John the Baptist is so important a feast that there are two full sets of Scripture readings for Holy Mass.  One set is proclaimed at Vigil Masses on the evening before the feast day, unless June 24th is a Monday, in which case the Vigil is impeded by the celebration of Sunday Mass.  The second set of Scripture readings is proclaimed on the feast day itself.  Yet regardless of whether you attend Mass on the evening before or the day of June 24th, the Gospel passage that you hear will be taken from the first chapter of St. Luke’s account of the Gospel.

The Vigil’s Gospel passage comes from the beginning of Luke 1.  The Gospel passage for the feast day itself comes from the end of the chapter.  These two passages bookend the story of St. John’s birth.  As with the Gospel narratives of Jesus’ birth, the child to be born is the focus, but not the central actor.  In the Gospel passages for today’s feast, the central actor is John’s father, Zechariah.  St. Luke the Evangelist here contrasts Zechariah with the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Zechariah was an elderly husband, yet without children.  Mary was a young betrothed virgin.  Saint Gabriel appears to each of them separately, and tells each not to be afraid.  The archangel announces to each that a son is to be born.  Yet their responses differ profoundly.

The man persists in unbelief, while the woman believes.  Mary’s final word in response to St. Gabriel’s announcement is “Fiat”“Let it be done unto me according to your word” [Luke 1:38].  In response to Zechariah’s unbelief, St. Gabriel declares in a verse not long after the end of the Gospel passage for the Vigil Mass:  “behold, you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things come to pass” [Lk 1:20].  That “day” is narrated in the Gospel passage for Sunday.

Saint Augustine in Sunday’s Office of Readings explains that “the silence of Zechariah is nothing but the age of prophecy lying hidden, obscured, as it were, and concealed before the preaching of Christ.”  Later in the same sermon, St. Augustine expounds the distinction between Jesus and His cousin:  “The voice is John, but the Lord ‘in the beginning was the Word.’  John was a voice that lasted only for a time; Christ, the Word in the beginning, is eternal.”

But if the voice must decrease, so that the Word may increase, what can be said of Zechariah?  He is not even a voice, but silence:  the silence in which the Voice is conceived, and a silence which you as a sinner must enter.

The silence illustrated by Zechariah is born of unbelief.  Every sinner is called into this silence.  Most of our fallen world is a modern Babel.  We are unfaithful to God’s Word, because we cannot hear it for the cacophony of the modern world.  We are among those of whom the Beloved Disciple writes in the prologue to his Gospel account:  “the Word came to His own, and His own people received Him not” [John 1:11].

Because it’s always so in this valley of tears, God calls fallen man into silence so that there we might recognize our sins, and hear and heed God’s Word.  The silence of Zechariah is what St. John of the Cross writes about:  “What we need most in order to make [spiritual] progress is to be silent before this great God, with our appetites and our tongue.”

This silence is a means to man’s true end.  This is the end for which God created man “in the beginning”:  to share in the divine life of the Trinity in a holy and eternal silence.  About this final silence, the end of all we are and do as disciples of the Word made Flesh, St. John of the Cross also speaks:  “the Father spoke one Word, which was His Son, and this Word He speaks always in eternal silence, and in silence must it be heard by the soul.”

St. John the Baptist was born so that the Old Testament might die.  Yet such a death was meant all along in God’s Providence to be fulfilled by a new life, like the grain of wheat that dies in order to bear much fruit.  St. John the Baptist was born to preach the message of repentance:  the need to accept ourselves as sinner, and the need to accept Jesus as the Lamb of God who takes away our sins and those of the whole world.