John’s Gospel gives us two accounts in which Jesus becomes present in the midst of a group of his disciples, appearances neither Mark nor Matthew even mention, and which Luke presents as a single incident. In reading the resurrection accounts we need to remember that the evangelists’ purpose was not to write newspaper reports but to lead the readers to reflect on their own faith in the risen Lord.
Today’s Gospel includes both of John’s accounts of Jesus’ appearance to the gathered disciples. All we know about the first group that Jesus breaks in on is that it included some but not all of the disciples and they were afraid enough to have locked themselves in, leaving the distinct impression that they were in hiding.
The risen Lord never appeared with flashy ostentation. Instead, he appeared to his beloved friends with a simplicity comparable to that of his birth in the stable. When he appeared on the inside of the locked doors, he showed the disciples his hands and feet, signs of all that had happened and also the definitive sign that evil and death had no power over him — not on the cross, not ever.
Jesus who had spoken at such length at the Last Supper makes only a few short statements when he appears among the disciples. The one word he repeats is “Peace.” When they hear that they surely recall his promise to give them peace unlike any in the world. After that greeting Jesus showed them the maimed hands and feet that identified him as exactly who he was: the crucified and risen one.
After speaking a second blessing of peace Jesus imparted on them the graced power to become who they were called to be. Breathing over them as the Creator had blown life into the first humans he incorporated them into his own relationship of being loved and commissioned to carry on the Father’s work. Jesus gave the disciples the one ministry that symbolized and included everything he had done and was handing on to them: “Forgive. You have the power. You have the necessary grace. Forgive.”
Thomas is Jesus’ key dialogue partner in the second appearance story which begins just like the first: with peace. Except for his need to touch the risen Jesus, we don’t know the details of Thomas’ struggle to believe. Did he find the testimony of the first witnesses unconvincing? Was it doubt that death could really be overcome? Perhaps he couldn’t believe that they could all really be forgiven for their betrayals. Whatever blocked him, it was symbolized in what Jesus’ had suffered; Thomas had to see for himself that one so wounded could be living and loving. So Jesus acted out exactly what he had told the disciples to do: demonstrating how to be forgiving and hold fast to one who could be lost, Jesus invited Thomas to touch him and to take his place in the believing community. Thomas needed no further evidence.
In this second week of Easter the early community and especially Thomas stand as witnesses to us. Their stories encourage us to allow Christ’s word of peace and reconciliation to touch us and move us into mission. They remind us that locked doors are ineffective against the appearance of grace and that Christ approaches closed minds with love and often even a touch of friendly humor.
Please pray for our brothers and sisters in Carcasse, Haiti. Our twinning parish of St. Joseph was in the direct path of Hurricane Matthew. Help if you can!
The Gospel for Easter Day is really the culmination of the rich scriptural narrative from the Vigil service. Salvation history comes full circle from the Garden of Eden, where sin brought death into the world, to the garden tomb of Jesus, the new Adam. Mary is the first tentative witness to the resurrection as she arrives at first light of dawn to discover the tomb is empty. She runs to find Peter and the Beloved Disciple, whose heart will be the first to see what has happened. They depart, leaving Mary in tearful bewilderment. Her baptism of tears will end in the Gospel proclamation that love is truly stronger than death. Jesus is alive, the source of life for us all.
Our own Easter faith must make the same journey to faith through love, which first knows only the grief of empty hope and loss. Death appears to triumph, but first light reveals that something mysterious has happened here. These burial cloths and the face-covering rolled up nearby tell a different story. Death could not contain Jesus; no winding shroud or heavy stone could keep him entombed. Liberation has occurred, a new and final Exodus that confirms for all of us that death is not the end. Our pioneer and older brother Jesus has made passage through death to eternal life and opened up the way for all of us who follow him.
How appropriate that we hear this proclamation at our communal Eucharist. Jesus is among us. His Real Presence is in the word, in the bread and wine, and in one another, our holy communion as the body of Christ. He is in the world through us and wherever his Spirit moves and inspires. We will hear further accounts of the appearance of the risen Jesus — to Mary and the other women, to the disciples on the road to Emmaus, to the apostles in the upper room and on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. We will be challenged to find him in the world, especially in the poor. The stranger on the road, welcomed to our table, will be revealed as Jesus. The wounded neighbor, crucified for the sins of the world, will be revealed as Jesus.
The liturgy gives us 50 days to find Jesus in the word, in the breaking of the bread and the sharing of the cup, in our prayers and in our going forth to serve the needy. We are formed and prepared for Pentecost by participating in the sacred rites and in the world. Everything reveals God and everywhere is holy ground, all our thoughts and words and actions illuminated by grace, overflowing with new life.
The Holy Week we began in sorrow ends in joy. The altar table of Jesus’ self -sacrificing love is strong enough to hold our sufferings and despair, our unanswered questions and anguished losses. In retelling the story, our minds are opened and our hearts burn within us. What we bring to God through Jesus is consecrated and transformed. The lives we place on the altar we take up again suffused with light and power.
Easter sets our lives in motion. The first disciples ran to and from the tomb. Two disciples ran all the way from Emmaus to Jerusalem to tell the others they had seen the Lord. The first faith community, broken by failure and sorrow, regrouped on Easter Sunday to begin their mission to the world. A new day has dawned. “This is the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad” (Psalm 118).
“Who is God? What is it that he wants?”
These questions seem particularly appropriate as we begin Holy Week.
Passion (Palm) Sunday presents us with a very unusual version of a deity. In the words of St. Paul in our second reading, he’s a God who “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave” — the form of the lowest element of society.
Palm Sunday attempts to answer this question of who our God is by establishing from the beginning that the God of Jesus is like no other. He is unique in all human history.
Notice, for example, that as Jesus enters Jerusalem there are no trumpets blaring, no resplendent carriages proudly acclaiming royalty, no horses bedecked with finery of any kind — nothing that demonstrates power or majesty.
Then remember what Paul told us in today’s second reading: He is a God who emptied himself.
God sits on a donkey. This same God who marches into Jerusalem will encounter a “coronation” ceremony of whips and lashes. His royal “throne” will be a cross. His “glory” will be death.
Why does Jesus do this? Because that is the kind of God Jesus preaches and imitates.
The reason Jesus willingly embraces all of this is for one purpose: to demonstrate visibly that God is the one who identifies with and enters the experience of the people with whom he is madly in love.
Our God is sending a message through Jesus in this Palm Sunday celebration that he wants everyone to hear with utter clarity: “Nothing human is abhorrent to me.” All of life — even the most horrible kind of suffering, even death — is something so precious that God wants to be in solidarity with it. God wants to embrace it and transform it.
That’s who our God is.
So, what is it that this same God wants from us? Jesus wants us to die with him. Only the death he’s talking about is not the one when our earthly time is over. The death in which our God is interested is the death of our egos. He wants us to die to that part of us that wishes to enthrone our own selves, that part of us that dreams of being adored, worshiped, acclaimed, glorified.
God wants us to “die before we die,” as theologian Richard Rohr so aptly puts it in many of his writings.
So, again: Who is our God? What is it that he wants? These two questions sometimes haunt us and are the same ones that have confused modern-day and ancient philosophers alike. In the end, the lessons of Palm Sunday give us the answers to both questions.
Perhaps the apostle Paul sums it up as well as anyone could: “Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave.”
Our God wants us to embody the humble actions of Jesus: the God who “emptied himself” — the God who sat on a donkey.
Nobody would be surprised to hear that the account of the Samaritan woman at the well is called a conversion story. Some will compare her to the woman caught in adultery or other famous women in Scripture. In reality there are many similarities among them all, but they don’t necessarily lead to traditional themes of repentance and penance.
If we start by looking at the Samaritan woman as an apostle in her hometown, we might ask about the message she took to her people. After all, she had engaged in quite a theological discussion with Jesus, going from questions about whether he had something better than Jacob’s well (tradition) to where people should really worship (liturgy) and ending with hearing Jesus identify himself as the Christ (theology). So, what was her message? “He told me everything I have done.” That is all that we hear from her. In discussion with Jesus she had said that the coming Messiah would “tell us everything,” but there was no hint that “everything” would be primarily personal information.
What we have in this story is a rather complex encounter in which Jesus first approaches this woman on the level of human need. He asks her for water. But oh, how the simplest things can be complicated! The Samaritans now owned Jacob’s well, a symbol of the common roots and tradition they shared with the Jews. But how could a Jew ask a Samari-tan for anything? The Jews had destroyed the Samaritans’ temple on Mount Gerizim, they disdained the Samaritans for being backwoods idolaters whose intermarriage with non-chosen people had contaminated the bloodlines.
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In short, they were antagonistic peoples inextricably related to one another at the deepest level of their religious history. Jesus was taking on all of that with his simple request for a drink.
As the exchange progressed there was great theological discussion about living water, Jacob’s importance, correct worship, prophets and the coming Messiah. But what really counted was that Jesus revealed himself to the woman and revealed her to herself. We don’t know the extent of their dialogue, we only know that she came to believe he had come from God and proclaimed, “He told me everything I have done.”
What’s interesting about this in the context of Lent is that we have a conversion story that doesn’t focus at all on sinfulness or even traditional repentance but rather on being known and accepted. When the conversation about husbands began, the woman said she had none, and Jesus replied that she had known at least five. But there is no follow-up on the topic. No talk about straightening out her life, no discussion about laws concerning divorce and remarriage, nor about whether she could commune with him in her current state.
She told her people, “He told me everything I have done.” One gets the sense that Jesus explained her to herself. The symbolism of five husbands speaks to a person seeking something on a human level. Her discussion about where to worship, about prophets and the coming Messiah showed that she was well versed in the tradition and had real theological questions and religious hopes. But the message she took home spoke of none of that. She had been accepted for everything she was, just as she was. That fulfilled a need that no affair of the flesh or the mind could ever satisfy.
This story is about thirst, about God seeking and finding beloved humanity. Whatever her social status, whether she was the town reject or a popular figure, the Samaritan became an apostle, an evangelizer. In Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”), Pope Francis writes, “Every Christian is a missionary to the extent that she or he has encountered the love of God in Christ Jesus.” That is exactly what happened to the Samaritan woman. Theology, liturgical correctness and the question of who has the better tradition are no more than distractions in the face of an encounter with Christ. Her interaction with Jesus filled her with the living water (the Spirit) that made her an apostle, one who enticed others into a similar encounter.
The church offers us this story in this third week of Lent and invites us to meditate on the woman and her transformation. It reminds us that our faith is based on a personal encounter with Christ, the one whose effect on us is like cascading water. Water filling us and bubbling over into joyful expressions of being so loved just as we are, that we are impelled to continue the relationship and share it. The conversion revealed here is about focusing on Jesus and God’s love, nothing more and nothing less.
After all is said and done, the reading does leave us with a blaringly unanswered question: Did she ever give Jesus that drink of water?
“Behold!” That’s a key word in today’s story of the Transfiguration. It means more than “Look!” or “OMG!” It’s more like “Take a very good look, and then look again, because there is more here than you can grasp.” Interestingly, that word wasn’t used for the description of the change in Jesus’ appearance, as if an intensely bright face and dazzling clothes were not so unusual for the itinerant preacher from Nazareth. Instead, the word was used for the arrival of Moses and Elijah, for the cloud that overshadowed them and the voice that spoke.
“Behold! Moses and Elijah appeared to them, conversing with him.” What an interesting description. The disciples receive a vision of the ancient prophets conversing with Jesus. It’s as if to tell the disciples, “Behold, this Jesus whom you know is rooted in the best, the deepest of your tradition.”
Moses and Elijah “were conversing with him,” making it seem as if they were consulting, as if he were the revelation they had been awaiting. Their presence is all the more mysterious because they are two whose fame includes the fact that nobody saw them die — and they were conversing with the one who would overcome death.
“Behold! A bright cloud cast a shadow over them.” The “bright cloud” might seem like a wonderful oxymoron, but it’s not such an unusual biblical image. In the Hebrew Scriptures, God’s glory frequently became visible as a cloud, and in Exodus 13 we hear that God led the people with a cloud by day and fire by night, symbolically confusing their certainty and lighting their darkness.
“Behold the bright cloud,” seems to be the ultimate invitation to risk stepping into mystery.
“Behold! From the cloud came a voice.” This final call heralded some clarity. From that moment on, the disciples were empowered to speak like prophets, with all the certainty of Jeremiah, they could say, “The word of God came to me and declared that Jesus is God’s beloved Son. We must listen to him.”
What the disciples beheld on the mountaintop was what psychologists of religion call a “peak experience.” It was a moment when they understood the truth of who Jesus was for them in a way that was deeper than words could express. No miracle, no preaching, no philosophical argument can produce the interior conviction that such an encounter brings. A bit like falling in love, it’s a life-changing experience that can’t be pinned down any more than Jesus, Moses and Elijah could be housed in tents on the hill. In the truest sense of the phrase, you had to be there.
Most people have at least a few mountaintop moments in their life, times when they know that God is near, that love is the ultimate value, that faith is worth the risk, and in fact, that faith is a promise that demands that we risk all.
Abraham had a mountaintop moment when God called him from his homeland to go off into a most improbable future, a future in which he and his elderly childless wife would become the parents of a people of God too numerous to count. Paul had such a moment when he was stopped short in his persecution of the body of Christ.
We know their stories because those moments changed their lives and although the intensity of the experience was fleeting, it changed them and they remembered it forever.
Behold! That’s the vital word. As Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote in her poem, Aurora Leigh,
Earth is crammed with heaven,
And every bush is aflame with God,
But only those who see take off their shoes,
The rest sit around and pluck blackberries.
We can only see what we are open to seeing. There’s more of God around us than we can take in, but we can also miss it all. Jesus took Peter, James and John up the mountain after they had been with him, after they had been enthralled with the force of his goodness and repelled by his prediction that he would suffer rejection and a shameful death. They loved him and that was enough to open them to more. They were ready to begin to behold who he was in the sight of God. All that was left was to learn to listen to him.
This second week of Lent invites us to behold the Christ of our tradition, to remember our peak moments of faith, and most of all, to listen to him.
On June 17, 2015, nine members of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina were shot to death while participating in a Bible study in the basement of their church. The shooter, a 21 year-old self-proclaimed white supremacist, had wandered into the room that evening. Can you picture it? Nine black church-goers in the midst of prayer and study, look up to see a young white man in jeans and a sweatshirt. Did they politely ask him to leave? Did they threaten to call the police if he did not leave? No. They invited him to join them. For a time, he did just that, he participated in their Bible study. And just as they were ending their session, heads bowed in prayer, he pulled a gun out of his fanny pack and one by one he shot them. Can you imagine the anguish the families of those nine people experienced? I cannot. I cannot even begin to imagine what it must be like to lose a loved one so suddenly and so violently. And that is what makes the next part of this story so stunning. Only three days later, when invited to share a statement at the shooter’s bond hearing, several of the family members turned to the shooter and said, “I forgive you”.
In today’s first reading, God instructs Moses to tell the Israelites to be holy as the Lord their God is holy, to bear no hatred in their hearts, to take no revenge, to cherish no grudge and to love their neighbor as themselves. And who is their neighbor? Jesus responds to this question in chapter 10 of Luke’s Gospel with the parable of the good Samaritan: your neighbor is the one who is not like you. In today’s Gospel as Jesus brings his Sermon on the Mount to a close, he seems to save the most challenging part for last: Love not only those who are like you or even those who are not like you. Go one step further. Love your enemy. In this way, you will be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Few of us will be called to love in such horrific circumstances as those who lost loved ones in Charleston that night. But all of us have people around us who are difficult to love. It might be that co-worker who loudly snaps her gum in the next cubicle, or perhaps the committee chair who never listens to our ideas. It might be the protesters blocking traffic, or a family member with whom we haven’t spoken in many months. The wisdom of the world might call us to be righteous in our particular situation, but as Paul tells us in the second reading, the wisdom of this world is foolishness in the eyes of God. God calls us to holiness.
The man who shot those nine people was certainly not a friend. He was indeed their enemy. Yet, even in the midst of unimaginable pain, their family members knew that this man was still their neighbor. From somewhere deep inside themselves they knew that they were called to love that neighbor, to love their enemy. Did their forgiveness mean they no longer hurt? No. I am quite sure the family members of those victims continued to ache deeply. Yet their decision to love and forgive not only stopped a potential cycle of violence and vengeance, it made it possible for good to follow.
These family members reflect the spirit of today’s readings. They show us how to be holy and perfect as the Lord our God is holy and perfect. It cannot have been easy for them. But they show us that with God’s grace, it can indeed be done.
In today’s first reading, Sirach speaks to the challenge of following the law: all we must do is choose to follow. Wouldn’t it be great if it were that simple? I am reminded of someone whose solution to any problem is to say, “all you have to do is” with no regard for the big picture. There is never an offer of a solution for the problem. Most of us know life is not that simple. There are difficulties that arise due to the very nature of our humanity. When I hear the comment “all you have to do is ... ” I respond with a blank stare, not out of disrespect, but because there is nothing I could say that would make a difference. Instead, I have already moved to a problem-solving mode. Often I wonder if that is how Jesus felt on occasion.
Jesus knew that there is more to following the law in one’s life. In the Gospel of Matthew, he recognizes that understanding the law needs to be developed more fully. His followers are restless and questioning. He wants them to have the wisdom to appreciate the law on a deeper level. Where does the desire to kill come from? Where does it start? It starts with lust, anger, name-calling, bullying, acting without love or mercy. Right relationship is derailed when there is no clear understanding of these things. Like a pebble dropped in a pond the concentric circles radiate from the center. Everything around the center (the law) is affected by the wave of each circle as it radiates outward. The law is not simple but instead is layered with life, humanity and the culture of the times. Choices are not made in a vacuum but instead are made in relationship.
Jesus came to fulfill the law — a law that must be perpetually deepened with growing wisdom of the time. The work of fulfilling the law is in unceasing evolution. How different that looks today in a culture that is driven by media and technology. The task of applying new wisdom gained over time in a culture that is becoming more and more diverse with new temptations, disguised as normal, requires resourcefulness. Nothing is static and must always be open to new interpretation and relevance.
Did Jesus really mean “pluck out your eye” or did he mean divert your eyes when you know your gaze is not respectful? Did he really mean “cut off your hand” or did he mean think about what that hand is capable of? Jesus asks that we not let the laws become stumbling blocks but instead be a foundation for growth. Don’t go to the altar without taking responsibility for your actions. Bring to fruition the steps that bring forth wholeness from brokenness.
The struggle with keeping the law should be taken seriously because it is the foundation of right relationship. Using that struggle helps to integrate morality and ethics into our daily lives and to build up the kingdom of God. Keeping the law is the work of mercy and love that heals. As the psalmist cries out: “Open my eyes, that I may consider the wonders of your law.” The law which manifests the basic values in an ever-changing world invites us to enter into the mystery. Consider the chaos without the continual fulfillment of the laws.
“Let there be light.” The first words God ever spoke.
To this day, every major religion speaks a language of light. Jewish people use the menorah to celebrate the Hanukah miracle of faith triumphing over evil. The Quakers have a famous expression: “I’ll hold you in the light,” instead of our common promise: “I’ll pray for you.”
Light illuminates. It warms. It destroys darkness. It lifts spirits.
The prophet Isaiah makes crystal clear that we are to become a people of light. As he challenges us so powerfully with his inspirational words found in today’s first reading, our actions of “clothing the naked” are to be so far-reaching, our deeds of “bestowing bread on the hungry” are to be so radical, our cries of anguish over the need for “sheltering the oppressed and the homeless” so loud, that they will break forth through the darkness of greed and the idolization of fame and power that engulf us like a shroud of gloom and despair.
Many people speak these days of our culture of depression and anxiety. In the midst of possessing so much, in the midst of untold comfort the likes of which most of the world could never imagine, somehow we are sad and afraid. So much so, we have come to embrace darkness — the darkness of bullying, of pornography, of drugs, of violence, of cynicism, of cruelty, of the horror of human trafficking, of abortion.
Jesus challenges us to embrace the ultimate antidote to all of this darkness. He calls us to create lives of generosity, gratitude and selflessness. He shines a beacon of hope in the midst of this negativity that surrounds us, and tells us instead:
“Your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father.”
In our second reading today, the apostle Paul reminds us in very graphic terms that “You were once darkness, but now you are the light in the Lord. Live as children of the light, for light produces every kind of goodness and righteousness and truth.”
Jesus goes on to challenge us even further. We are also to be salt — the “salt of the earth.” It’s difficult for us today to understand how critically essential salt was to the ancient world. The great early civilizations first developed near deserts close not only to water, but to salt resources. The ability that salt provided to preserve food was a requirement for people of that time.
But beyond this, salt gave flavor to food. And that’s what Jesus emphasizes. We are to become people who bring a whole new taste to the world we live in. We are to bring “the flavor of God” to all that we do and say. Light and salt are strongly connected. From Jesus’ point of view, the more we create a “God flavor” to life, we become light. We dispel the darkness we find around us.
That new taste, that new “God flavor” becomes contagious. It spreads. It multiplies.
When you were baptized, a candle was lit, and the priest prayed over you: “This light is entrusted to you to be kept burning brightly ... may you walk always as a child of the light.”
God has passed the light of the heavens on to you and to me. Let each of us hold our lives “in the light” and illumine the world we live in by flavoring it with the taste of God.
In Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount why would Jesus say: Blessed are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who thirst for justice? Is it because Jesus recognized that in some of the world’s cultures, the tendency is to place too high of a value on self-reliance? We sometimes, perhaps often, imagine that we can rely only on our own personal strength to face the challenges the world throws at us. Certainly, the U.S. culture seems to promote self-interest and self-reliance, i.e. “Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps.”
If we buy into this type of thinking, the tendency is to believe that we will only get as far as our own efforts will take us. We lose sight of the fact that we are beloved children of God and that God desires a personal relationship with us. We fail often enough and experience our own sinfulness, which may lead us to wonder how God could possibly love us, unworthy as we are. We might feel alone, filled with our own concerns and worries. We could end up only calling upon God when our efforts fail, when life teaches us that we are not in control of all that life presents to us.
A priest friend shared that when visiting with his spiritual director, he disclosed some of the struggles of his spiritual life. His director responded that a source of his struggles was his arrogance. The priest thought, “I’m not arrogant.” His director told him that the arrogance stemmed from his desire to not have to depend on God for help with his faults.
As my friend shared this conversation, I was struck by the awareness: “That’s me.” I desire to not have to depend on God’s help with my faults; instead, I prefer to overcome my inadequacies on my own. However, my memory bank can find multiple examples for each beatitude where I have failed. Blessed are the poor in spirit: How often am I filled with a sense of self-righteousness when I think I’ve been slighted or treated rudely, resulting in a less than Christ-like response? Blessed are the meek: How often has pride kept me from helping someone in need because I don’t want to get involved or I am in a hurry? Blessed are they who show mercy: How often am I incensed about the stories of injustice that are broadcast on a seemingly daily basis, and yet don’t take the time to do anything in response? With each example of failure on my part I can lose a sense of hope that I am loveable. It is in these times that humility will allow me to know that I need God’s love and forgiveness to be more Christ-like, to become more the person God has created me to be. Is this true for you, too?
In today’s first reading Zephaniah instructs us well: “Seek the Lord, all you humble of the earth, who observed his law; seek justice, seek humility ...” It is these faithful servants who Jesus calls blessed.
This is not to deny our giftedness. Each of us has been endowed with gifts to further God’s kingdom. We are to develop and use these gifts. When we are in right relationship with God we recognize that credit for these gifts is due to God. In the second reading Paul encourages us that when recognition comes our way we should boast in the Lord, not in ourselves. The Beatitudes remind us of the attitudes we ought to have.
When I fall short in living out the Beatitudes, I turn to the words of St. Anselm. May this prayer enliven your desire to be a disciple of Jesus: “Hope of my heart, strength of my soul, help of my weakness, by your powerful kindness complete what in my powerlessness I attempt … although I have not yet attained to love you as I ought, still let my desire for you be as great as my love ought to be.”
Today’s readings are filled with contrasts: rich and poor, darkness and light, division and unity, withdrawal and leadership. Speaking to us today, Isaiah offers the image of rich nations being humbled. He foretells the coming of a savior from the poor, lowly land of Galilee. The second reading revealed the division in the early church as the newly baptized searched for their identity, aligning themselves to the one who baptized them. Paul had to remind them that the fledgling church had only one leader, Jesus, the crucified and risen Christ. Paul boldly challenged the people of Corinth, and challenges us today, to be “perfectly united in mind and thought.” In our Gospel, we hear that Jesus (who was, indeed, perfectly united in mind and thought with God) withdrew after hearing of John’s imprisonment, moved to Capernaum, and from there began calling forth those who would be his disciples. Finally, Psalm 27 proclaims “The Lord is my light and my salvation. Whom shall I fear?” We can imagine David, and even Jesus, calling out to the Lord in their darkness and fear. Two millennia later, we continue to call upon God to lead us out of our darkness.
In our human experience, it is difficult to truly know the strength of the light unless we have experienced some form of physical, emotional or spiritual darkness. We can’t know the peace of unity without experiencing the pain of division. We can’t know the impact we can have on one person or on our world without seeing the emptiness caused by solitude and scarcity. Historically, division has had disastrous results. In the United States, divisive elections fractured a country that now struggles to unify. Following in the footsteps of Isaiah and Paul, luminaries such as Mahatma Gandhi, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and today, Pope Francis have shown us that we can live lives of peace and unity. Our challenge is to find methods to apply them in our country, in our communities, in our workplaces, in our homes, in our places of worship, and most importantly, within ourselves.
When we truly examine our hearts, where do we dwell? Do we dwell in the darkness that is ignorance and self-righteousness? Do we go through our days with an “us vs. them,” or “mine vs. yours” mentality? Do we withdraw and hoard our God-given gifts and treasures from those who truly need them? While we are dualistic by nature, God is not an either/or God. God is a both/and God.
In today’s readings, God meets and walks with us in the darkness, in the division and in the solitude, calling us to light, unity and action. In the busyness of our days, how often do we ignore God, who is constantly and lovingly calling us to this wholeness?
Throughout our lives, the tension between dark and light, division and unity, withdrawal and leadership is one way God draws us into a deeper relationship. As we go forth this week, let us look at our lives and contemplate how God is calling us from our own physical, mental or spiritual darkness into light, from our unthinking words and actions that divide to words of peace that have the power to heal and mend relationships. And let us to consider the gifts and talents we can share with others who are struggling.
How many of us can honestly say we are “perfectly united in mind and thought” with one another and with God? That is today’s challenge.
As a young man, I spent a lot of my time in and around the church. My grandparents helped build the local German church and took care of the nuns. My other grandmother walked to the Irish church for mass every day. I would wait with her on Fridays for my uncle, a priest, to come home for the day. Another uncle was a Christian Brother. From time to time we would travel to the schools he was involved in for shows he was involved in. So as I grew it seemed natural to gravitate to the church. I would not say I had a dramatic, “call” but it seemed to be the vocation I was led to.
The Scriptures on the Second Sunday in Ordinary Time are a reminder of how frequently it is family, friends or mentors who will recognize our latent gifts and offer us a glimpse of where we will be called to serve. Our often-foggy vision gains a bit of clarity when others – through their confident words and actions – empower us to claim our gifts, to take on new responsibilities, and to accept that we, indeed, are being called by God.
In the Gospel, we hear John the Baptist boldly and confidently proclaim Jesus as the “Lamb of God” and the “Son of God.” These powerful titles lent the weight of authority and credibility to Jesus as he begins his public ministry. Not only did he establish Jesus’ solid credentials, John stated that Jesus “ranks ahead” of him. If Jesus ever struggled with discouragement in his calling because of the incessant attacks by religious leaders, or if the frustrations of not being understood by his closest friends and relatives wore him down at times, it must have been a source of strength to recall the words of the Baptist in this encounter, and the assurance that John saw the “Spirit descend and remain” on him.
As Jesus lived out his call as the “Lamb of God” and “Son of God,” he witnessed that God’s love, mercy and compassion knows no boundaries. While John the Baptist initially recognized that Jesus “might be made known to Israel,” the words of the prophet Isaiah in the first reading attest that God desires salvation for all peoples and nations. This passage underscoring the servant’s awareness that his call had a wider scope than originally anticipated may have been in Jesus’ mind and heart as he brought God’s tender love and compassionate care to the outcasts, the unclean and the Gentiles. Jesus responded to a “call within a call” – the phrase St. Teresa of Calcutta used to explain how her unique vocation unfolded – as a “light to the nations,” as Isaiah foretold, his call extending far beyond Israel.
The Scriptures this Sunday hint that our calls from God are dynamic, and that they often come through the words of others, inviting, encouraging and challenging us to claim our gifts with confidence.
The readings this Sunday invite us to reflect: What directions are within our power to give to others, encouraging their calls to be a source of nourishment? Like John the Baptist, can we endorse and lift up the gifts of others, knowing that their light may eclipse our own?
“Magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem ...” The story is so familiar.
We so easily see the Epiphany story as a fairytale conclusion to the Christmas season. Magi from the east, a star, camels, special gifts for the newborn king. These are valuable reflections on the beginnings of the life of the Messiah and his different roles. However, these spectacular events may keep us from looking underneath to see the ordinary and sometimes conflicted lives that were the day- to-day reality of the Holy Family.
The magi from the east came from a distance and traveled as they willed. They needed no visas, entry cards or passports. But once they arrived in a territory or country, they were completely subject to the whims of the local ruler.
King Herod was the local ruler in Jerusalem. When the magi came onto his radar, it wasn’t their language, dress or entourage that got Herod’s attention. It was their quest. They had traveled to Jerusalem looking for a prophesied “king of the Jews.” From that point on, Herod dominated the story. His power and control were at stake. A rival king was a threat to Herod. Even if that king was a newborn.
Herod was determined to find this newborn king and do away with him. So, in telling the magi that they might find him in Bethlehem, Herod wanted a report back to help him locate and destroy the child.
The magi followed the re-emerged sign of the star and discovered the promised child. How astonished must Mary and Joseph have been to welcome these visitors from a far-off country. What delight they must have experienced as the visitors shared precious gifts with their child.
The magi were warned in a dream, and they departed by a different route to avoid giving King Herod information about the child. Not long after, a dream also informed Mary and Joseph that their child was no longer safe in Bethlehem. They must leave their homeland and strike out for a distant place. Jesus, Mary and Joseph became refugees in Egypt.
In recent years, the church has assigned this week between Epiphany and the Baptism of the Lord as a time to focus on the plight of people who are migrants and refugees. The magi were migrants in their travels seeking the messiah. The Holy Family became refugees in the land of Egypt.
From earliest times, people around the world have migrated from one place to another for countless reasons: to find food, to escape threats and violence, to seek employment, to flee repressive governments, and on and on. The case is the same today. In fact, at this point in history, migrants and refugees number in the hundreds of thousands due to armed conflicts, hunger and political and economic instability.
How many times every week do we hear the stories of women, men and children fleeing from Aleppo and other Syrian towns for their very lives? Families and individuals make long and dangerous journeys because they can no longer bear the devastating conditions of their homelands.
Beginning today, we dedicate a week to migrants and refugees, under the theme: “A Stranger and You Welcomed Me.” Let us reflect on how we, our forebears, and people we know have been or are migrants or refugees. May we find ways to ease the pain and burden of migrants and refugees — those in our midst or at a distance.
In the name of Christ, what mercy can we show to those struggling with the realities of being migrants or refugees?
Dear Parishioners & Friends,
The Lord bless and keep you!
The Lord let his face shine upon you, and be gracious to you!
The Lord look upon you kindly and give you peace!
What better way to begin the new year than with this blessing? The Virgin Mother herself probably heard it pronounced over her and her people. How might she have understood her own blessedness?
The summary phrase of the blessing is “The Lord give you peace.” Of course, Mary would have heard the word “shalom” for peace, a word almost exactly replicated by our Muslim brothers and sisters with their word “salaam.” “Shalom” expresses the depth of the concept of peace. The Hebrew shalom means more than peace; it means peace, justice and integrity in relationships. It implies safety and growth in wholeness as if the entire universe was woven together and functioning as God intended. The blessing of shalom prays that humanity and the entire universe may live the communion God created us to enjoy.
Today we celebrate the “Solemnity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of God.” That title would have surely overwhelmed the simple woman of Nazareth. But she didn’t have to concern herself with theology, dogma, titles and solemnities. Instead, she had a new baby, a confused but faithful husband and unexpected visitors coming to witness the scene where her family was trying to make do in spite of the inhospitable circumstances in which they found themselves.
What do we know of this young woman? First, we learned that God looked upon her kindly, or in Luke’s words, she had found favor with God. Then, we witnessed her humble self-description: “Here I am, the handmaid of the Lord.” In spite of the inconceivable dimensions of what she had been told, Mary’s response exhibited shalom. She trusted, gave birth to her child and simply cared for him.
When the shepherds appeared on the scene they knew far more than Mary could have expected. Delighted to discover her son in the manger, they started spreading the word as if they understood exactly what was going on. Like many of us, those shepherds were quick to make proclamations about what they thought God was up to in their midst. Like Jesus’ own disciples, these first witnesses may well have had the right vocabulary, but it’s highly unlikely that they fully comprehended what they had encountered. The shepherds talked, others were “amazed,” and we don’t hear a single word from Mary.
Luke tells us that “Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart.” Her name would be remembered in the scriptures of Christianity and Islam. Generations to come would call her blessed, and the Fathers of the Church would defend her title as “Mother of God.” But, from the day of Jesus’ birth until his death, the little we hear from her amounts to no more than one question, a subtle request on behalf of others and a reflection of her own discipleship: “Son, why have you done this to us?” “They have no wine,” and “Do whatever he tells you.”
When Luke tells us that Mary kept things in her heart, the word he uses indicates a long process of mulling, a life of discernment, trying to put together disparate pieces of a mystery. While the process didn’t lead to quick conclusions, it doesn’t mean she gave up on it. Luke’s statement about her ongoing reflection is one of the reasons some conclude that Mary herself gave Luke the Nativity story.
Whether or not the narrative originated with Mary, Luke portrays her as the contemplative in action. Mary had more to ponder than anyone else in this story. She had to question her experience and her response. She had to make sense of all that she had encountered while balancing it with the traditions of her people. She must have accepted living with more questions than answers and far more hope than certainties. In addition to all of that, she had to change the diapers and fix dinner.
Mary, Mother of the God who came in the flesh of a needy infant, learned to remain open to God’s shalom, to allow her faith to exceed her uncertainties and her hope to give her resolve beyond her power to imagine. She sought to do God’s will as she baked their daily bread. We look to the Mother of God to teach us how to live simply as contemplatives in action.
Dear Parishioners & Friends,
Christmas day has finally dawned. There’s been so much anticipation, so much hype, that it’s hard for one day to bear the weight of all the expectations. That’s pretty obvious as we look at gifts scattered around the living room and wrap-ping paper on its way out. Great expectations have a lot to do with this feast, but they are great expectations that go through significant revisions along the way.
We know that the expectation of a Messiah had a long, long history. The downtrodden people of God yearned for the savior God would send them. Their hopes were chronicled in their history and the writings of the prophets. Like our-selves, they turned to God’s word for hope and, like us, they brought their own images to their reading of the Scriptures. They read God’s word in the light of their own mindset and created their own images of the savior God would send. They who had been bowed down would be raised up and all the world would see that they were God’s own people.
Today’s readings tell us the story of God’s greatest response to human hopes. God sent a savior who was neither king nor warrior. One of the clearest signs that a message or happening is from God is that something extraordinarily good is happening and it’s not at all how we anticipated it would be. No matter how much we learn from the Scriptures, God surprises us by working from another script.
Because the shepherds loom so large in Luke’s story, it’s worth looking to them for a perspective on the Nativity. Shepherds were among the least esteemed people of their day. Their profession demanded little more than someone who could stay awake most of the time, stop strays, and effectively aim a slingshot at dangerous creatures. Tied to a career that offered no Sabbath breaks, they couldn’t observe the letter of the law and would hardly have been among those who could have read it. By reputation they were not overly committed to honesty and would have always appeared on the scene with a liberal dose of the fragrance of their flocks. All in all, they were about as different from the religious elites as anyone could be.
We can assume that the shepherds had no sophisticated presuppositions clouding their perspective. When it came to waiting for a savior they lacked a theological checklist by which to judge any contender. We are told that angels appeared to them, but the angels only whetted the shepherds’ curiosity. Not that a sky full of angels would have been their daily fare, but that’s not what convinced them. Following the angel’s instructions, they went to Bethlehem to see for themselves.
They went looking for “a savior,” the “Messiah and Lord.” In Bethlehem they stooped down to gaze upon a newborn wrapped up like every other infant, with the singular distinction that this one was lying in a manger – just like the angel said he would be.
Our shepherds were the absolute opposite of cynics. Having heard that God was coming to them as a child born in the poorest circumstances imaginable, they thought that it was worth seeing for themselves. We don’t know exactly what they believed. They never could have answered the questions necessary to receive confirmation, but they shamelessly told others what they had seen and heard. Uneducated and inarticulate as they must have been, they were the first evangelists.
The Gospel of Christmas invites us to reexamine our expectations. Where do we seek God? For thousands of years God has been in the habit of appearing among us in the most unobtrusive ways. Supernovas and skies full of music only to point us toward something much simpler, something we must be meek enough to learn about from the humble. We will have to stoop very low to perceive it.
“Mary: The Most Powerful Woman in the World” was the stunning headline in a recent publication. To the surprise of many, these were not the words of a Catholic newspaper, or a religious publication. Instead, this headline announced the lead article featured in the December, 2015 issue of National Geographic magazine!
The article is written by journalist, Maureen Orth, who spent three years traveling throughout the world trying to understand more fully why Mary, the mother of Jesus, is so crucially important to millions of people. Here are a few of Maureen’s words:
Mary is everywhere: Marigolds are named for her. Hail Mary passes save football games. The image in Mexico of Our Lady of Guadalupe is one of the most reproduced female likenesses ever. Mary draws millions each year to shrines such as Fatima, in Portugal, and Knock, in Ireland, sustaining religious tourism estimated to be worth billions of dollars a year and providing thousands of jobs. She inspired the creation of many great works of art and architecture (Michelangelo’s “Pieta,” Notre Dame Cathedral), as well as the spiritual confidante of billions of people, no matter how isolated or forgotten.
What was it about this young girl that attracted and enticed, not only Joseph in today’s Gospel story, but even God?
I’d like to suggest two possible answers, with the reservation that there are surely a number of others.
First, she wasn’t a preacher. She wasn’t an evangelist. She wasn’t an activist. Instead, Mary was a listener who embraced simplicity. She was one who paid attention, who reflected, who meditated. All those Advent qualities...
Present. Open. Available. Receptive. Quiet. That’s the kind of person Mary was. Perhaps it was that collection of gifts that most enticed God, and Joseph, and so many people down through the centuries.
But perhaps there is another appeal of Mary – her life experiences are being repeated continuously by millions of people even today. Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem for a census that is now being mirrored by countless numbers of people displaced from their ancestral homes. The family’s flight into Egypt to avoid the death threats of a tyrannical king, just as today millions of refugees are doing the same. Mary’s loss of her child by an unjust state execution paralleled today in the disappearance and murder of beloved children under dictatorial regimes – the Herods of today.
Women, in particular, may possibly find in Mary a sister for marginalized women in oppressive situations throughout the world – women who are without food or clean drinking water, without housing, without education or healthcare or employment, without security from rape, without human rights.
To all of them, Mary offers words of hope to the neediest – such as these words from her great prayer, the Magnificat: “... O my God ... You have shown strength with your arm ... You have put down the mighty from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly.”
When asked what Mary meant to him, Pope Francis answered with one word, “She is my mama.”
May our “mama,” the one who is “blessed ... among women,” assist each of us in birthing anew the Child that falls from heaven into our arms ... our hearts ... our souls.
During the first Holy Week after he was elected, Pope Francis raised a few eyebrows and opened many eyes. On that Holy Thursday he visited a prison for young people where he celebrated the annual washing of the feet. Not only did he wash the feet of Catholics, he included Muslims and women in the ritual. This was a big surprise for many Catholics, especially some clergy. For centuries, the Holy Thursday washing of the feet had been exclusively reserved to Catholic men.
During this past year, the Jubilee Year of Mercy, the Pope initiated a custom of going out of the Vatican one Friday a month to perform some “work of mercy.” In August the Holy Father went to a home for women recovering from prostitution, many of whom had been victims of trafficking. This, too, was an eye-opener for many people.
In the Gospel today, John the Baptist, in prison for following his conscience, sent a group of his disciples to talk to Jesus. Unsure of whether Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah, John’s message to Jesus was, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
Jesus responded using a clear reference to Isaiah 35:5-6: “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised and the poor have good news brought to them.”
If someone were to ask Pope Francis, “Are you the Holy Father who was chosen for the church?” could he not answer in words much like Jesus’? We see in Pope Francis the works of love and mercy that we saw in Jesus.
In two weeks we will sing, “Joy to the World.” The liturgy calls us to rejoice already today. “Gaudete,” rejoice! The coming of our Savior is at hand. Joy ought not be put off. Even as we work, to prepare the way of the Lord we do it with light hearts, for we know that our Savior is coming to us soon.
In the first reading we hear this proclamation from Isaiah: “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad; the desert shall rejoice and blossom like the crocus.” Sometimes we experience our own lives as being barren as a wilderness and as parched as a desert. During those trying times it may be hard for us to be glad and rejoice when we are struggling.
The same is true for others. Sometimes people – perhaps even people very close to us – may be hurting or struggling, may feel like their lives are hopeless, barren and dry. How can they find a cause for joy and gladness?
For inspiration this Advent, we need only look to examples set by Jesus and by Pope Francis. Their actions have brought comfort and healing to countless people. Their love and mercy have brought hope and joy.
What if someone were to ask us the question put to Jesus: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” How would we answer?
Jesus ascended to the Father when he had completed his work on this earth. He left it to us to continue his work here. The hungry will be fed, the homeless will be sheltered, the lonely will be visited ... and all will find a cause for great joy when each baptized person continues the ministry and compassion of Jesus.
And we will find our own joy, too, as Jesus ministers to us through others, even (or especially) the ones to whom we are ministering.
Just 21 days left until Christmas! PREPARE!
Look at your Advent Calendar. Can you spot John the Baptist with his 100% organic outfit and odd, non-vegetarian diet? Although he hardly fits the cute calendar images, he’s a key character of the Advent season. His warning that it’s time to change our behavior may sound a bit like “You’d better watch out, you’d better not pout…” but the reward he promises for conversion is not at all like a tinseled tree surrounded by toys and electronics.
John is indeed promising a reward, but it’s one that only the needy and the converted will really appreciate. Right in line with the prophets before him, John calls people to get ready to meet God on their path. God, he says, is preparing something so new that it can only be compared to a refinement by fire – and they’ll be baptized in it. That means there’s a lot in their lives that needs to be blown away by the winnowing wind of the Spirit.
John proclaims this message most directly to the overtly religious types who show up on his riverbank. Lest the crowds think that his is simply another religious show like the sacrifices that fattened the priests and their purses, John calls out the leaders with the demand that they produce something worthwhile and not count on their baptismal certificate or Abrahamic lineage to give them an “admit one free” pass on the work of salvation. John’s preaching echoes Isaiah, his predecessor in prophecy, and puts an extra sharp edge on the message. But even Isaiah’s beautiful promises demand more than we might note at first glance.
Today we hear Isaiah announce the coming savior, someone who will rise out of the ruins of a once great, now defeated, religious people. The one to come will be an ideal leader, someone whose profound love and reverence for God will be supplemented by gifts of insight and the ability to enforce justice. The proof of this leader’s absolute impartiality will be that the poor and afflicted are treated with genuine justice.
There are 21 days left until Christmas. In these pre-Christmas days, a time culturally devoted to enjoying the company of friends and thinking of what gifts to give to those we love, we are called to celebrate Advent as an integral part of the holiday season. That means that we think not only of our guest lists and menus but that we also dedicate time to consider those whom we can never invite because they are so far away – geographically, economically or psychologically. Consider the Syrian and Christian refugees, the devastated people of western Haiti. Once we have contemplated them and their plight, we can pray for them, aware – better said, forewarned – that God may work through our prayer in unexpected ways.
We might say that Advent invites us to consider God’s wish list with as much attention as we put into finding the right presents for others. Isaiah, Paul and John the Baptist all talk about God’s hopes. Isaiah says that God wants us to yearn for and accept the Spirit who offers the gifts of wisdom, understanding, counsel, strength and fear of the Lord. Those are the capacities needed to create the community Paul envisions, a community that attracts others to know and glorify God. The Baptizer then calls us to take all of those lofty ideals and make them as concrete as the fruits of the trees to which the world looks for nourishment.
We don’t have to live like John the Baptist to be an Advent people, but we do need to listen to his message. He’s telling us the time is always short for those in need. God is waiting on our roads, disguised in the people who have nothing left but hope. We’d better watch out!
Peace, Fr. Kevin
The elections are past — and candidates for 2020 have already begun raising their money. On behalf of the Incarnation, I want to connect religion and politics.
We American Christians live in possibly the freest country in the world. To savor that freedom we often overlook what we can do is wake up. We can follow the Advent instructions to wake up. We can wake up and see how long women and slaves couldn’t vote. We can look at this season in Burma or Iraq or China or even Britain. We get to vote. How can we be grateful for that chance? By waking up to it and not just on the Fourth of July, but also in the great season of the Incarnation.
Everybody loves the movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life.” It is a non-cynical exploration of the power of ordinary people to use their power to help each other. It is happiness in neighborliness. It is an incarnation of democracy in a film, the kind that very few throw away, even when the garage sale gets most of the other stuff they’ve watched for years.
Mary and Joseph may have found room in a manger but fewer and fewer people do. Contrary to the movie, the banks haven’t met their angel yet. What is a bank? It is a place where every time you toss them your money, they touch it and charge you for touching it. Or at least that is what they tried in the wonderful life movie. They did try and they did fail.
The biggest trouble I ever got in was preaching about taxation at Christmas. It was misunderstood as political, even though Mary and Joseph were on a voyage to be taxed.
I don’t think the Christmas story is “political.” Instead, the Incarnation imagines a different story about power and about the economy and about the small and about love. That is political plus, not just political. It surely doesn’t “hate” banks, but it does want to make sure small people don’t get hurt by them. It surely doesn’t “hate” taxation but surely wants us to know that nothing, including taxation, is outside of the power of the almighty.
Jesus came down to earth to unite flesh and spirit, time and eternity, body and soul, earth and heaven. Nothing can be outside the power of God, according to the God who came up with the Incarnation as a great divine intervention into human lives. That means a positive relationship with virtuous politics and democracy. We don’t leave them alone so much as engage them with spirit, as spirit and for spirit.
Surely the constitution was right when it talked about separating church and state. That separation is good because otherwise domination could occur. The separation does not mean that Christians have no relationship to the state, just that it is regulated. When we awake in gratitude for the franchise, we unite with the spirit of politics and the politics of the spirit. We go to be taxed with joy. We bank with justice in mind.
I love the neighbors in the movie. They loved each other. They didn’t just borrow a cup of sugar every now and then from each other. They realized that their finances were as connected as their sweets. When we wake up, we won’t walk around wondering who our neighbor is. We will know who our neighbor is. We will follow the incarnate Jesus who refused to have any enemies. We will stop using the word “they” so much. And we will set our alarm clock for early every day to savor the democracy we love.
In Jesus’ last moments on earth, Luke allowed two criminals to focus the question of the ultimate meaning of his life. The first agreed with the forces that had seemingly brought Jesus to this moment. “Are you not the Christ? If you are, then work the miracle! Dazzle and compel them to believe in you! — And, by the way, bring us along on the getaway.” With his final breath this man spoke for all who believe in the definitive power of domination and ultimate value of self-preservation.
The other criminal became the gospel’s final and perhaps most unanticipated model disciple. Like the humble tax collector of Jesus’ parable on prayer, his focus was on God and the blameless man who shared his fate. Unlike anyone else in the scene, he perceived God’s presence in the innocent victim by his side. This criminal alone grasped the mystery that the King of the Universe was powerful enough to lay down his life, trusting only in God. Understanding this he could turn to Jesus and pray, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He was perhaps the only person present at that moment who desired a place in Jesus’ kingdom, and thus he was a comfort to Jesus even as Jesus promised him salvation.
Today’s feast invites us to contemplate the crucifix as we hear the proclamation, “He is the image of the invisible God.” This image of Christ the King puts all our ideas about God on trial. This image of Christ the King demands a response from us. We either ask to be a part of his reign or we choose to try to save ourselves.
We see here the God who comes to save, no matter the cost. We see here the God who knows nothing of coercion except its impotence when confronted by love. Luke invites us to look at the Christ and call him our King. Aware of what it costs, we are invited to repeat our Easter proclamation, “This is the faith we are proud to profess.” As we meditate on what it means to call this Christ our King we understand the insight of the criminal who didn’t ask Jesus to work any more of a miracle than to love him beyond death. He understood that Jesus needed no saving. He realized that Jesus wasn’t seeking an escape because the cross revealed who he was as the Word made flesh, in solidarity with humanity and trusting the Father. This criminal, one of the most wretched of humankind, understood that God was by his side. He prayed, “Remember me.” And as Jesus replied, “This day…” he declared that man “fit to share the inheritance of the saints in light” (Colossians 1:12).
The Feast of Christ the King of the Universe is a triumphant celebration of God’s reconciling love, of divine solidarity with humanity, of God’s love for us at our neediest. The image of Christ the King on the cross proclaims God’s presence with us in our most wretched moments, offering us a love and salvation we could not deserve at our best. This is the feast of the indomitable power of love.
What better start to our week of Thanksgiving? Let the lowly hear and rejoice!
After a stint of several years in Africa, a European missionary went on a home visit and returned after a few weeks with a fine set of colorful posters that he used to illustrate his sermons. As he had hoped, the pictures proved to be a great success. Each Sunday after the liturgy, many in the congregation would linger around the posters and discuss what they had learned.
One day, near the end of the liturgical year, the missionary chose to preach on the end times and the consequences, both good and bad, that would coincide with Jesus’ return as judge and Savior of all. Before the celebration of word and bread, he set up the appropriate poster at the door of the church and then went to prepare for Mass. Before long, he heard whoops of delight and laughter, and he turned around to see his congregation dancing with joy before the poster. Surprised and a little indignant, he called for silence and asked how they could find humor in the prospect of final judgment. “Hell is no laughing matter!” he shouted. Then one of the revelers took his arm and led him to the poster, saying, “Don’t you see, Father? Look! All the people in hell are white!”
Initially, this little anecdote may bring a laugh. But beyond its humor, it points to an underlying notion that has been variously expressed through the ages. When human beings are faced with the fact of the great reckoning to end all reckonings, some of us tend to focus on what might be the outcome for others. The French philosopher John Paul Sartre famously wrote, L’enfer, c’est les autres (Hell is other people) — and some of us tend to think L’enfer, c’est pour les autres (Hell is for other people)! In his Inferno, the first part of The Divine Comedy, Italian poet Dante Alighieri exercised a similar prerogative in identifying which people would be relegated to which of the circles of hell.
Although the desire to assign places for others in the afterlife may prove tempting, the sacred texts and their authors summon our attention and our energies elsewhere. Do they call us to look within ourselves and find cause to worry about the end times? Do they invite us to forgo criticizing the speck in another’s eye while ignoring the beam in our own? Do they urge us against procrastination that keeps us from preparing to welcome Jesus? In some ways, the living word that guides us all through the liturgical year does indeed offer these suggestions. But more importantly, before any suggestion can be taken to heart or any question truthfully answered, the sacred authors direct believers, collectively and individually, to look at God.
Looking at God does not mean that one must seek out the beautiful vision or await a dramatic theophany. Rather, looking at God means taking a cue from our ancestors in the faith, who learned to discern the face of God by remembering all that God had done for them. God was their creator, protector, provider and guide. God was their liberator and champion, their mother, their father, their brother, their breath. God had been their loving, faithful and forgiving spouse. Looking at God created an ambience of truth in which they saw not only God but themselves and the fact that their sins had distorted the image of God they were to reflect. Looking at God also kept them from looking at one another with disdain. On the contrary, looking at God gave them a new prism through which to look at others with eyes of sympathy, appreciation and respect.
As we look at God’s face as it has been reflected in our own lives over the past year, we also will probably experience the painful truth that we are not all we should be. Nor have we done all that we could do to reflect to our belonging to God.
For that reason, the thought of the Lord’s second coming among us may fill us with dread and hopelessness. Nevertheless, we are to leave the judging of ourselves and others to God (Malachi). We are to set aside our fears and speculations; we are not to listen to naysayers or prophets of doom. Rather, we are to persevere in trusting God (Luke). We are also to busy ourselves with the ministry that Jesus has entrusted to us. Instead of minding the business of others (2 Thessalonians), we are to continue to look at God and struggle each day to give our-selves, our world and all others to God’s good keeping.
Peace, Fr. Kevin
PS: The annual finance report from 2015-2016 is included as a handout in this bulletin. Feel free to speak to any of the finance council members with questions. Gary Mann, Trish Dunn, Jeff Casella, Ken Mittlestadt or myself.