The Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time [A]

The Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time [A]
I Kings 19:9,11-13  +  Romans 9:1-5  +  Matthew 14:22-33
August 9, 2020

After the fire there was a tiny whispering sound.

This Sunday’s First Reading is iconic in the Church’s spiritual tradition.  Its most obvious lesson appears in light of the fact that the All-Powerful Lord, Creator of the heavens and the earth, chooses to manifest Himself to Elijah through a tiny, whispering sound rather than by more dramatic means.  This lesson encourages us to be mindful of God’s presence amidst what is small, simple, and seemingly insignificant.

This scriptural lesson can be compared to two other passages of Scripture.  Making these comparisons will set the stage for Sunday’s Gospel Reading.  Consider first the Lord’s self-revelation to Moses centuries earlier on the same mountain where He later appeared to Elijah.  It was on this occasion that the Lord entrusted the Ten Commandments to Moses [Exodus 19].  The Lord did manifest Himself at that time through dramatic means:  thunder and lightning, fire and a heavy cloud of smoke, and the violent trembling of the whole mountain.  The radically different ways in which the Lord revealed Himself to Moses and Elijah offer complementary views of the Lord’s power in all things, great and small.

However, that contrast also draws our attention to the similarity of the responses of Moses and Elijah.  Elijah hid his face in his cloak and went and stood at the entrance of the cave on Mount Horeb.  He recognized the tiny, whispering sound for what it was, and so adhered to the divine warning:  “my face you cannot see, for no man sees me and lives” [Ex 33:20].  Elijah’s awe-filled reverence for the Lord echoes the reverence of Moses, who on the same mountain had been commanded by the Lord:  “Take care not to go up the mountain, or even to touch its base.  If anyone touches the mountain he must be put to death” [Ex 19:21].  Both Moses and Elijah show their reverence to the Lord Himself, not to the manner of His appearance.

Sunday’s Gospel Reading presents a sharper pair of contrasts.  After sending the disciples ahead across the water, Jesus went up on a mountain by Himself to pray.  We cannot know what this simple, serene contemplation with God the Father, in the Holy Spirit, was like for Jesus.  But it’s obvious that Jesus is not bound by any command similar to the one given to Moses.  Jesus ascends this mountain in order to gaze directly on His Father’s countenance, through His humanity, in the fullness of His divinity.

Stronger yet is the contrast made by Jesus’ outreach to Peter.  At 3:00 a.m., amidst darkness and strong winds, Jesus walks on the water towards His disciples.  He announces Himself to them, and emboldens them:  “Take courage … be not afraid!”  Yet Peter immediately expresses doubt and issues a challenge to Jesus.  When Jesus complies and commands Peter to walk to Him on the water, Peter is frightened by the wind and begins to sink.  Yet he does not end up sinking, for Jesus reaches out to him.  In this, Peter symbolizes each of us.

God the Father sent His Son into our world to reach out to each of us and to offer reconciliation for our sins.  On the occasion heard in Sunday’s Gospel Reading, this divine Son stretches out a human hand to save Peter from his doubts.  Not only does Jesus not forbid His disciples to approach, gaze upon and touch Him.  Jesus reaches out to and catches Peter.  The compassionate outreach of the God-man here stands in contrast, but not contradiction, to the reverential distance mandated by the Lord in the Old Testament.  Of course, these two are one and the same Lord.

It’s not as if God became more compassionate with the passing of millennia.  All the whys and wherefores of salvation history—including the prudence of divine Providence—may perplex us.  We shouldn’t underestimate the significance of the Old Testament’s lessons.  Each of us sinners needs to approach our Lord with awe-filled reverence.  However, this reverence ought to be matched by our trust in the Lord’s desire to save us.  This desire has been fulfilled through the Incarnation of God the Son.  Jesus stretches out both arms on the Cross to catch us and keep us from sinking within the misery of our sins and into the depths of eternal death.

OT 19-0A

The Transfiguration of the Lord [A]

The Transfiguration of the Lord [A]
Daniel 7:9-10,13-14  +  2 Peter 1:16-19  +  Matthew 17:1-9
August 6, 2020

“Do not tell the vision to anyone until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

August 6th is the date of the Transfiguration of the Lord on Mount Tabor.  In today’s account of the Transfiguration, we have a miniature of the entire Gospel, and a miniature of the manner in which God has always made His Divine Revelation known.  God, like any loving parent, wants us to share in His love, but at the same time He wants us to enter into that love as freely as possible.  In other words, God wants us to come to Him of our own accord, because the more freely we come to Him, the more we grow in His love.

But as a loving parent, God knows we are often weak and need His help.  God gave us an intellect by which we could of our own power reason that God exists, that He loves us, and that He wants us to imitate that love.  God also gave us a free will by which to imitate Him.  Our human intellect and will are often very weak, however, and so God constantly gives us signs of His presence, in order to remind us of Who God is and how much He loves us.

God did not have to inspire the human authors of Sacred Scripture, but He did so in order to give us a record of His love.  God did not have to choose twelve men to be his apostles, in order to share the Sacraments of His love.  But He did so to strengthen us in this earthly life of ours, because we face so many setbacks, failures, and disappointments.  God the Son was transfigured before the eyes of these three apostles not simply so that they could say, How good it is for us to be here.  The Transfiguration occurred so that the apostles would hear God the Father’s voice, who says, This is my beloved Son.  Listen to Him.  And coming down the mountain, Jesus says what?  He points their attention ahead to the Cross, to His death.

As we share in the Eucharist—the offering of Christ’s self-sacrifice on the Cross—God our loving Father nourishes us with the life of His Son.  Here is how Jesus’ Transfiguration on Mount Tabor bears further meaning:  through its foreshadowing of Jesus’ transformation of His death on the Cross into the power and glory of His Resurrection, and in the transformation of the giving of our lives into a means of opening our lives to God’s divine life.

Transfiguration - Titian

Wednesday of the Eighteenth Week in Ordinary Time [II]

Wednesday of the Eighteenth Week in Ordinary Time [II]
Jeremiah 31:1-7  +  Matthew 15:21-28
August 5, 2020

“Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters.”

We are not God’s children by right.  There is an infinite distance, naturally speaking, between us and God, between Heaven and Earth.  That is why the woman in the gospel represents each one of us:  she is a Gentile.  Up to Jesus’ day, God had promised salvation only to the Jews.  Gentiles were by definition outsiders.

Everything in our lives is a gift.  This is the opposite side of the coin:  on the one hand, we know that we do not deserve what we have in life.  So then, we are called to give thanks to God constantly, and all of our acts of thankfulness are rooted in faith.

Faith itself is the greatest gift we have in life.  Without faith, these acts of thanksgiving—culminating in the Holy Eucharist—make no sense.  The worst cynic or atheist would be justified in being rude and hard-edged about life, if God did not exist.  But we have to recognize that faith is a gift, which some people do not have during their earthly lives.

The faith that God wants from us is not passive; it’s active.  God does not want from us the sort of faith that just says, “God is going to take care of everything, so I can sit back and coast.”  This is not our Catholic understanding of faith.  Faith is something active on our part.  It demands constant prayer.  It demands the sort of dialogue, the sort of banter, that we hear between Jesus and the Gentile woman.  We might even say, God wants us to challenge Him in our prayer.  In this, we have no better example than Saint Teresa of Jesus.

OT 18-3

St. John Vianney, Priest

St. John Vianney, Priest
Jeremiah 30:1-2,12-15,18-22  +  Matthew 14:22-36 or Matthew 15:1-2,10-14
August 4, 2020

“If a blind man leads a blind man, both will fall into a pit.”

There are two options for this weekday’s Gospel Reading.  This reflection is based upon the latter option.

Jesus plainly criticizes the Pharisees in this Gospel Reading, calling a spade a spade.  Yet His words go beyond the first-century setting in which He lived.  His words offer us in the twenty-first century points for reflection regarding the need of fallen man for a Savior.

Throughout the history of the Church the Faith has been attacked in many different ways.  But every attack upon the Faith is, directly or indirectly, an attack upon the person of Jesus Christ.

One manner of attack upon Christ is the diminishment of what He accomplished for fallen man, and at the same time, an attack upon the uniqueness of His role in salvation history.  Fallen man cannot raise himself up by his own bootstraps, no matter how many good works he accomplishes and no matter how grand any of his accomplishments are.

Good works flow only through the power of God.  Salvation is only possible through the Self-sacrifice of Jesus Christ on Calvary.  Fallen man cannot save himself.  Only Jesus Christ can.  Our good works are the fruit of His Cross.

St. John Marie Vianney LARGE

Monday of the Eighteenth Week in Ordinary Time [II]

Monday of the Eighteenth Week in Ordinary Time [II]
Jeremiah 28:1-17  +  Matthew 14:22-36
August 3, 2020

Those who were in the boat did Him homage, saying, “Truly, you are the Son of God.”

The Church bears a rich treasury of interpretation of Sacred Scripture.  By that I don’t simply mean that the Church has accumulated many different, though equally insightful, interpretations of Scripture from the writings of her many members (although that’s true).  The Church’s treasury of Scripture interpretation is based upon a four-fold view of the Holy Bible.

The first view of the Bible looks at the literal meaning of a Scripture passage.  In the case of today’s Gospel passage, for example, the literal meaning of the passage is an historical event involving Jesus interacting with His disciples, and miraculously walking on water.  One could write a long and spiritually fruitful essay solely about the literal meaning of this passage.

However, the other three views of Scripture consider different “spiritual senses” of a given passage.  That doesn’t mean, of course, that the literal meaning doesn’t deal with spiritual matters.  But the three spiritual senses of Scripture relate the literal meaning to a broader meaning that the passage doesn’t directly touch upon.

For example, at the end of today’s Gospel passage, those who were in the boat did Jesus homage, saying, “Truly, you are the Son of God.”  Above and beyond the literal meaning of this event, one can “see” the boatful of disciples confessing the divinity of Jesus as symbolizing the Church Militant (that is, the Church on earth).  Around this basic symbol are several complementary symbols:  for example, the water on which the boat rests, and the weather surrounding the boat, as the turbulent world in which the Church Militant lives; and the confession of faith as a symbol of the Sacred Liturgy of the Church which receives Jesus into the Church’s “boat”.

It is easier to ponder the literal sense of Scripture than the three spiritual senses.  But with the guidance of the Holy Spirit and the examples of the Church’s saints, the three spiritual senses of Sacred Scripture invite us into rich theological waters.

OT 18-2

St. Alphonsus Liguori, Bishop and Doctor of the Church

St. Alphonsus Liguori, Bishop and Doctor of the Church
Jeremiah 26:11-16,24  +  Matthew 14:1-12
August 1, 2020

His head was brought in on a platter and given to the girl, who took it to her mother.

On August 29 the Church celebrates the Passion of St. John the Baptist, and on that memorial we hear the passion narrative according to Saint Mark.  Today’s Gospel Reading offers us this narrative according to St. Matthew the Evangelist.

Jesus does not appear in today’s Gospel passage.  His name is mentioned twice.  Focus on the latter instance, where His name is in fact the last word of the passage.  This is fitting.  In terms of the life and Passion of St. John the Baptist, Jesus is the last word.

John is often considered the last of the Old Testament prophets.  Like many prophets, he was killed because of his witness to God’s Word.  The uniqueness of John’s life and martyrdom lay in how they intertwined with those of the Word made Flesh.

You and I, as Christian disciples, have been baptized into the role of prophet.  It is part of our baptismal commitment to profess the truth of the Gospel no matter what the cost to us.  At times we profess this Truth through our actions; at other times, through our words.  How often do we count the cost first before deciding whether to profess the Truth?  It’s certainly necessary to exercise the virtue of prudence is proclaiming the Truth.  But we ought to ask St. John’s the Baptist’s intercession if we’re ever tempted by fear to refrain from professing the Truth.

St. Alphonsus Liguori

St. Ignatius of Loyola, Priest

St. Ignatius of Loyola, Priest
Jeremiah 26:1-9  +  Matthew 13:54-58
July 31, 2020

“A prophet is not without honor except in his native place ….”

The last sentence of today’s Gospel passage presents something of a conundrum.  No matter how we interpret the fact that Jesus “did not work many mighty deeds there because of their lack of faith”, we are challenged.

Some might interpret these words to mean that Jesus’ power to work miracles was constrained by the lack of faith of those in His hometown.  More sensible, however, is to see Jesus’ lack of miracles as a prudent choice on His part.  It doesn’t require faith on the part of people for God to work miracles.  It requires faith on the part of people for God’s miracles to bring about their primary goal.  God’s goal when He completely cures someone who had been diagnosed with terminal cancer is not to give that person immortal life on earth.  His goal is to bring the one cured and those around him to a greater practice of love for God and neighbor, so as to give them immortal life in Heaven.

We are challenged, then, to admit where we lack faith in our own lives.  We are challenged to allow the miracles that God works to bear fruit in our lives.  We are challenged not to live for ourselves, but for others, beginning with the Other who calls us to share in His life of love.

St. Ignatius of Loyola

The Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time [A]

The Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time [A]
Isaiah 55:1-3  +  Romans 8:35,37-39  +  Matthew 14:13-21
August 2, 2020

… he said the blessing, broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, who in turn gave them to the crowds.

What do you think is the meaning of Jesus feeding a crowd of more than five thousand people with only a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish?  Was Jesus simply showing his power to work a miracle:  demonstrating his power over material things?  Of course that was a part of it, but this miracle of feeding the five thousand has far more to tell us about Christ than just this.

Being compassionate, Jesus was certainly concerned with the physical well-being of the people who had come to hear Him preach.  Just how deep Christ’s compassion was is made obvious when we consider again something the first verse of this passage tells us:  Jesus is told about the hunger of the crowds right after he had heard of the death of John the Baptizer, and had withdrawn by boat to a deserted place by Himself.  If we were to take time to imagine this, we could very clearly see just how human Christ was, responding in grief and perhaps anger at the murder of His own cousin.  He withdrew from others to be by Himself.  Yet even at this point in His life, the needs of others pressed upon Him.  His response was that of God Himself:  He turned to help those in need.

We could look at this compassion of Jesus and see in it an example for ourselves.  As Christians, we are called to walk in the footsteps of Christ and imitate Him.  We are especially to imitate the sort of self-sacrifice that He shows in this passage, the sort of self-sacrifice that came to full expression in His death on the Cross.

But this passage is not so much about our need to imitate Christ.  We all have our limits.  Very likely, if we learned of the murder of a close relative, we’d be of little help to others.  None of us can expect to match the depth of Christ’s self-sacrifice.

But again, that’s not the chief point of this passage.  In this event in Christ’s life we don’t see an example for us in the response of Jesus as much as we do in the response of the crowds themselves.  The crowds seek out Jesus, because they know that they are in need.  But what kind of need do they really have?

Being compassionate, Jesus was certainly concerned with the physical well-being of the people who had come to hear Him preach.  But He knew the people in the crowds better than they knew themselves.  Christ had a much deeper concern for their spiritual well-being.  He had reminded them that their ancestors, whom God had fed in the desert by sending bread in the form of manna, had died.  His divine Father, Jesus told them, had sent Him to be their spiritual bread which would allow them to live for ever.  If they would eat this bread by accepting Him and following His commandments, they could enter into God’s eternal kingdom of love.

In today’s First Reading, Isaiah says in the name of the Lord, “Come to me heedfully, listen, that you may have life.”  This is the same message which Jesus conveyed to those people gathered near the Sea of Galilee.  He brought His meaning home to them in a concrete way by giving them physical bread to satisfy their bodily hunger.  But at the same time, he revealed that He was the spiritual bread which God had sent to bring them eternal life.  His miracle used what was physical in order to point towards what is spiritual.

The crowds naturally had a spiritual hunger.  Perhaps many of them were not even aware of this hunger inside their souls.  Unfortunately, many of us today as well aren’t even aware of the hunger in our souls.  Instead, we are distracted by many things such as our work, our leisure and our possessions.  We are worried about many things without giving heed to the one needful thing.  Jesus, then, calls us first to recognize the greatest hunger in our lives, and then to seek the One who alone can fill it.

OT 18-0A

Thursday of the Seventeenth Week in Ordinary Time [II]

Thursday of the Seventeenth Week in Ordinary Time [II]
Jeremiah 18:1-6  +  Matthew 13:47-53
July 30, 2020

Can I not do to you, house of Israel, as this potter has done?

In the Catholic press, much has been said recently about an idea called the “Benedict Option”.  The idea is that Christians would opt to imitate the example of Saint Benedict of Norcia in the face of the disorder within civil society.  Is the example of St. Benedict apropos to our day?  To what extent is Western culture vulnerable to collapse?

Regardless, only an ostrich would be unable to notice the red flags that the high priests of secular culture wave in the faces of everyone.  So ought Christians flee as much as possible from civil society, and form small communities of dedicated Christians?  Or ought Christians engage the secular culture as much as possible in the public square, even until the dying day of that culture?

Regardless of whether Christians choose the “Benedict Option”, or the “Dominican Option”, or the “Gregorian Option”, or any other option, today’s First Reading places before us a salient reminder.  If secular culture is subject to decay and collapse, so also is the spiritual life of a child of God, and of His entire People.  The image of the potter, and the Lord’s message regarding the potter’s work, is an Old Testament complement to Jesus’ exhortation to remove the plank from one’s own eye before attempting to remove the speck from another’s.  “Indeed, like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand”.

OT 17-4 YEAR 2