It is good for us, while we are still in the early weeks of the season of Ordinary time (or, as I like to call it, the “season of real life”) to contemplate and reflect on the Beatitudes, which we hear today from the Gospel of St. Matthew, since of course they are the centerpiece of Jesus’ teaching for us and for all people of all time. If we read them with fresh eyes, listen to them, with fresh ears, and receive them with a newly opened mind and heart, we will indeed be better able to live these days of Ordinary Time in an extraordinarily good way. First, it is probably good for us to remember the context in which they were given and to whom they were spoken. The crowd to which Jesus spoke was made up precisely of those who were poor, who were suffering, who were mourning, who were persecuted, who were hungering and thirsting for justice, etc. and He told them that they were blessed for heaven would be theirs. Imagine what His words must have felt like to people who were seen and treated as the outcasts of society and realize that in hearing them we should feel the same way. However, He is not saying that we should strive to be financially poor, or to be in a state of mourning or that we should want to be persecuted. He is saying that if we are wealthy by worldly standards, if we are not hungering for Him, if it does not sadden us if our loved ones are not following Him, and if the world thinks well of us, than we face the ominous peril of being cursed to an eternity without Him because we perceive no need of Him. However, if we recognize our dependence on Him, and not for the things of the world, if we hunger for His justice and mercy, if we mourn for those who do not realize their dependence on the Lord or hunger for His kingdom, and if we stand up for the kingdom in the face of persecution than we are truly blessed. Why? Because if we live as people who are fully aware of our need for Him, of our true poverty, than the kingdom of heaven is indeed ours.
Those words from Isaiah haunt me till this very day. I remember when I first felt the call to the priesthood, I could not get the words of the hymn “Here I am, Lord” out of my mind. What I remember so clearly during that time was the sobering realization that I/we only have one shot at life. We only get one life. We need to make the very best of it- we need to get our vocation right. We need to serve God in every aspect of our lives. Some of you might be asking yourselves, as I often ask myself, “Am I good enough to serve God in the way that He wants me to serve Him?” All three readings this week answer that question. Isaiah was not good enough at first. Then an angel touched Isaiah’s mouth with the ember from the fire. He was made clean. In the second reading Paul reminds us that he started off by persecuting Christians. He was mean. He would round up men, women and children and bring them to the Jewish authorities in Jerusalem. He watched and approved as an innocent and meek Stephen was stoned to death by a mob. Paul was a spectator at the lynching, but he cheered on the mob and left excited to find the mob’s next victims. But despite all this Jesus transformed Paul into an apostle. “I am who I am,” St. Paul says, “through the Grace of God.” In the Gospel, Peter wants Jesus to leave him because he is so aware of his own sin. Jesus basically says, “No way. I have work for you, you will be catching men.” And Jesus says to you and to me, “Stop hiding behind your human failures. How dare you say that I cannot send you? I am God. I have work for you to do. I will cleanse you. I will send you.” I remember when I left home to go to the seminary, my pastor, the priest who inspired me said to me that the priesthood is the life. I do believe that over the years I have come to a deeper understanding of what he meant when he spoke those words but I have also learned something else: when it comes right down to it the only life worth living is the life into which the Lord sends us. Therefore, our response to Him should always be, “Here I am Lord, send me.
Although it is very hard for me to believe this, it has been over 25 years ago now, that I, while as a seminarian on break, can remember visiting with parishioners one Sunday after Mass at my home parish, Sacred Heart in Oxford, PA. As I was greeting many people whom I had not seen for a while, a young man of about 13 or 14 who I knew from the parish CYO came up to me to say “Hi” I said “Louie, It’s great to see you, how are you?” He said “OK” in a less than an enthusiastic manner to which I responded, “Are you sure; is there something wrong?” “No,” he said, “it’s just that I have to go to CCD class.” (CCD is what we in Oxford used to call religious education classes for children who did not attend Catholic School). “That’s not so bad is it?” I asked. “I guess not,” he said,” except for the fact that they keep on talking about the same old things, things I already know all about.” “Oh,” I said, “can you give me an example of something that they keep on talking about of which you already know?” He said “you know, Love.” Now, it is very true that I am not so sure that young Louie’s understanding of love would match that which is displayed in the words of St. Paul in our second reading which are as follows: “Love is patient, love is kind. It is not jealous, it is not pompous, it is not inflated, it is not rude, it does not seek its own interests, it is not quick-tempered, it does not brood over injury, it does not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails.” However, it did show me that there was something very valuable that he did understand; there was a connection that he had made. He may not have known all about Catholic Education, but he definitely had a sense that it always pointed to love. As we conclude Catholic Schools Week that is indeed a connection of which we need to be aware. All the wonderful learning that we experience in all of the different grade levels and all of the different subjects and activities is always about helping us to know, to understand, to experience and to share the love of God. That is what it is always about. We learn about the truths of God’s universe so that we can better receive and share His love. And this education does not stop. We never ever get to the point, even though Louie thought he had done so, where we can say that we know all about love. And that is what makes our lives so adventurous and exciting. So, my young friend Louie does have a lesson that remains valid and valuable to each and every one of us to the present day and throughout eternity: Catholic Education is indeed always meant to be all about love. That’s what Louie knew.
There are many lessons in the story of the Wedding Feast of Cana. Today I will mention a few of them. First Jesus needs to be invited into our lives just like He was invited to the wedding feast. He would not have gone if He were not invited. He will not come into our lives, our minds, our hearts, or souls if we don’t invite Him in. He simply does not force Himself upon us. So, do we want Him in our lives? Do we invite Him in? How so? If we want to be open to miracles in our lives, it would be best if we do our best to clearly let Him know that we want Him to be part of them. Second, we should be sensitive to the needs of others. Mary’s sensitivity to the needs of others is the reason why this miracle happened. If she was oblivious Jesus would never have been called upon. Our sensitivity to the needs of others creates the possibility for miracles to happen. Third, we need to bring our needs to Jesus. I bet there are a lot of needs that we have of which we aren’t aware, or that we simply haven’t brought them to Him. Jesus is especially open to prayers that place the needs of others ahead of ourselves and, yes, He is particularly moved when His mother intercedes for us. Fourth, it is indeed when we obey His commands that miracles happen. I actually wonder if it isn’t our obedience to Him that is in fact the greatest miracle of all. Remember, scripture, continually reminds us that the Lord looks for obedience much more than He looks for sacrifice. Fifth, we need to give Him something or do something that shows Him that we are cooperating with Him if we hope that He will provide a miracle for us. Remember the five loaves and two fish that the young boy brought to Jesus that fed over 5000 people? In this story, the people brought Him the six water jars that He transformed into approximately 900 bottles of wine! We must be active participants in the miracles we seek. We need to bring Him something, we need to act, we need to do something so that Jesus has “stuff” from us to perform the miracle. We can’t simply be a bystander, nor can we throw up our hands and say we don’t have anything to offer, we need to give Him what we have and show that we have a stake in what we are asking for. Jesus can do amazing things with just a little bit of faith but we have to show it to Him. Lastly the wedding feast of Cana reminds us that our whole faith journey is about a union, indeed a wedding, between God and us that begins with us inviting Him into our lives, being sensitive to the needs of others, bringing our needs to Him, doing whatever He tells us and ends with us actively demonstrating our faith in Him.
Every time I am about to celebrate Mass for the Feast of the Holy Family, I always very carefully scan the congregation. Why, you may ask? Well to make sure that none of my immediate family members are there in Church, of course! You see, almost twenty years ago now, as I came to the center of the sanctuary to preach the homily, this little two year old young lady came running up the aisle and stopped short about two pews away from me gleaming at me with a big smile on her face. Sure enough, it was my niece Katie and I quickly saw that my brother, his wife and family were there a little ways back; they had come up to pay me a surprise visit. Looking down at her, I said “Well hello there little Miss Katie, it certainly is wonderful to see you, your Mom, your Dad and your two brothers, Donny and baby David here today! But now I am in a bit of a tight spot; do you know why? Because since today is the Feast of the Holy Family, I was, and still am, going to spend the next few minutes talking about you and them. Family. You never know when they are going to turn up, do you? It’s no wonder that we celebrate the Feast of the Holy family just a few days after Christmas. It’s right around this time of course that so many of us had a chance to see them again and spend time with them again. And therefore it’s also right around now that so many of us are also thanking God for already doing so or begging Him to send them home. Yes this time of year reconnects us with our families, warts and all; the good, the great, the bad and the ugly. For me it reminds me of so many things, and perhaps most of all of how important forgiveness is in a family. Forgiveness that I must humbly seek. Forgiveness that I must readily give. And why is it so important? Because a major part of the Christmas message is that the Father chose to send His son into the world as part of a family. A specific family-Jesus’ family was not chosen randomly, but handpicked by the Father. The same is true with each and every one of us. God chose us to be part of His creation, but He didn’t just do so randomly. He handpicked our family, just like He handpicked Jesus, Mary and Joseph. Yes. As Jesus’ family is holy, so your family is Holy. Happy Feast everyone!
A baby does change everything, doesn’t it? I have seen it many times. Being the 2nd of nine children I remember some of my younger brothers and sisters coming home as newborns. The house, the home, the family was never the same after the arrival of the newest little one. Not ever. From the moment they came on the scene they became the center of attention and affection etc. I’ve seen it several times as with my brothers and sisters as they over the years have welcomed my 15 nieces and nephews into their homes. Indeed each of those new little ones immediately transformed their lives in the most dramatic fashion. All mothers and fathers and can testify and witness to the radical changes they experienced in their lives and their very character as a result of the appearance of that new little human being, who cannot do anything for him or herself. And that’s what we celebrate at Christmas- the coming of a new born baby. But this baby is different than all other babies that we’ve been talking about so far. When a baby breaks into the world of a family, real change is inevitable; it can’t help but happen. The baby demands it. But what’s different about the Baby Jesus is that He doesn’t demand it. He invites us to enter in. He invites us to let Him in-to our hearts, our lives, our minds, our souls. That’s what Advent was about, preparing our lives to make room for the coming of the Lord.
We have brought ourselves to Church to celebrate the birth of this new baby, and that is indeed a wonderful thing. The challenge for us is to take the baby with us and invite him into our lives as if He is our own, or actually as if we are His, because we are. I think that many parents will agree that once our children came into our lives we developed into people that we would have never imagined that we could have become. Just imagine for a moment the people we might become if we truly invite the Christ child into our lives as we did with our own flesh and blood. Allowing Christ in our lives, through His invitation, will transform us in ways we cannot imagine. Let’s take the baby home with us.
Merry Christmas to all of you!
Because of Mary’s eternal “yes” to God, all His love is poured out and made available to us. The great wonder of it all is that in Jesus Christ, who is at once both God and Mary’s son, each one of us can be another Mary. Each one of us is now a temple not only of God’s love but God’s very life living within us. Each one of us is a sacred space. In each one of us others can sense the presence of the Living God. Like Mary, the living presence of God the Son abides within us, not just for our own sakes, but so that we, like Mary, can give Him to the world around us. Each one of you, and I along with you, can make an infinitely significant response to God’s offer of love. When we are told that we are loved, and we respond with a “yes”, our lives are changed. Something is placed within our hearts that never goes away. This Christmas give God a most precious gift – some of your time. Give Him your undivided attention, a period of time in which you do nothing but open yourself up to His presence. Even if you think that nothing happens, something will happen. We are all so concerned about what we must do, particularly at a time when we’re so caught up in doing things. The best thing we can do is to do nothing – do nothing but simply be in God’s presence. Think of three good things about you, three really good things. Then thank God individually and specifically those three good things. They are God’s gifts of love to you. Wouldn’t it be a nice gift to give Him your gratitude? Wouldn’t that be a nice gift to give Him for this Christmas? There’s a hidden benefit for you in doing that. If you have an attitude of gratitude you cannot at the same time have a sour or negative disposition. Also you could ask God what He wants for you. Ask God to reveal what He wants to say to you, what He wants to show you or give you. That’s another wonderful, precious gift to give God. He so very much is longing for you simply give Him your undivided, loving attention. When you’re with a friend, what do you want? Isn’t it simply to be with your friend? We all know that being is more important than doing; that it’s who we are that’s more important to those who care for us than what we accomplish. Well, that’s true with God, as well. God has gone to great lengths, unreasonable lengths, to be our Friend. This Christmas, why not let Him?
No, I did not make a mistake, at least not with this title; it was not a victim of autocorrect. The Baptist certainly was and is one whose intent is to disturb us, to jar us out of our “comfortability” this time of year and all year. John rather abruptly reminds us that our Gospel is one with a social conscience. For him and for Jesus it is not merely a question of God and me but rather God, me, and others. This is especially so when the others are in need. John is indeed very explicit about the way he answers the three questions put to him in today’s Gospel passage. In answer to the question of his audience, he says: "If anyone has two overcoats, he must share with the man who has none, and the one with an extra loaf of bread must do the same." John the Disturber commands them and us to give out of our surplus to those who do not have. To the tax collectors he says that they must not take more than the fair share from anyone and he commands the soldiers against practicing, extortion, falsely accusing anyone and grumbling about their wages. John basically gives us the flip side of the same coin that St. Paul gives to the Philippians when he said, “Let your generosity be manifest to all.” Both of these men, spoke on behalf of our social consciousness and they are determined to not let us become complacent in the service of justice or extending a hand to those in need- and without judging why that is the case. John reminds us that the message of Advent is designed to give a bit of jolt to one's spiritual nervous system. It is true that Jesus cannot be born again, but we can be. And that really is what Advent is all about. It is actually a very demanding season in which John the Disturber helps us to see that we give birth to our best selves once again.
Last week, I was saying that in order to truly experience and live the season of Advent we must intentionally strive to cultivate an attitude of gratitude. We said that ingratitude is absolutely incompatible with happiness yet it remains a trap into which we are very susceptible to fall. We fall into it even though we know that cultivating an attitude of gratitude is a much better way to live. There are all kinds of reasons why we fall into this trap but perhaps one of them is that we are try to do too much too fast perhaps especially during this time of year. When we do this the trials and tribulations that are always seem to become more and more difficult to navigate and this makes it very difficult to focus on the goal that lies ahead-if we can even remember what that might be. The goal of this Advent/Christmas season needs to be positioning ourselves and our families etc. in the best way we can to receive all the blessings that God has for us during this wonderful season. If we are practicing gratitude we come to realize that just as God has continually blessed us in the past and in the present, He will only continue to do so in the future. We come to know that there are blessings behind every burden and this knowledge inspires and encourages us to go forward, to keep moving toward the blessings and to even thank God for them before we receive them. That is what faith is. Faith is gratitude in advance of the blessings that lay beyond the burdens. On this Second Sunday of Advent St. John the Baptist offers us the great hope that one day our path to the salvation which God offers will be made level and straight. We can help to straighten our own paths by thanking God in advance for the blessings to which they lead. In so doing, even the burdens begin to look a bit less burdensome we might even find ourselves focusing even more on the Lord than the blessings that He has for us. We come to understand more clearly what we are looking for. And what we are looking for we tend to see.
This year I am going to do something that I have thought about for a few years now but have not yet done. We all know that traditionally in the secular world the beginning of the Christmas season has been associated with Thanksgiving and the appearance of Santa Claus at the end of the Thanksgiving Day parade. Not to give in to the secular world, but I do think that the Thanksgiving spirit, leads wonderfully into the season of Advent. I think that to experience and even celebrate the season of Advent as it should be celebrated we must practice gratitude. So many times, and we know it is true; we live in a way that displays ingratitude even though ingratitude is absolutely incompatible with happiness. So why do we do it? My guess is that there are many reasons. Maybe we have unfair expectations of other people or of the world. Maybe we are too proud. Maybe we have a sense of entitlement or maybe we are so wounded that we can’t see any good possibilities around the corner. Or maybe we allow ourselves to fall into laziness and slothfulness. On the other hand there is no practice that is more effective in leading us to feeling better about ourselves than practicing gratitude. And we really do have a choice- we can go one way or the other. There was a study done in which two groups of people were given opposite tasks for period of 10 weeks. One group was asked to list everything for which they were grateful every day. The other group was asked to list everything that was bothersome or annoying to them. Guess what happened? In both groups, the lists became longer and longer as the weeks went on. Each group became either more and more aware of their blessings or more and more aware of things that made them unhappy. So, it really is true that we find what we are looking for. We need to look for our blessings and count them. Writing them down would not be a bad idea. And this Season of Advent is a perfect time to do just that. Through these coming weeks we will be given the opportunity to reflect on the blessings that God has given us through salvation history. By recognizing and counting our gifts and blessings our attention will be refocused from the gift to the Giver, who is, of course God Himself. GK Chesterton once said that the worst thing about being an atheist is that you have no one to thank. Our attitude of gratitude leads to a deeper relationship with the Lord and to a greater desire to give of ourselves in ways that we might never have imagined. It is very true that life is not always wonderful. But it is always true that cultivating an attitude of gratitude is a wonderful way to live. Happy Advent, everyone!
Well folks, I feel like I must continue with my message from last week for a couple of reasons, but especially because I feel like I left you hanging out there on a limb. Actually, I know I left you hanging and I did so purposely. You might remember that last week we heard of the story of the Rich Young Man- the man who came up to Jesus to ask Him what he had to do gain eternal life. We are told that in response to the man’s question, Jesus looked at Him, loved Him and said “There is one thing that you lack. Go sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor. Then come and follow Me.” At Jesus’ words the rich young man “went away sad for He had many possessions.” So what about us, we who also have many possessions? Of course it is true that probably the large majority of us would not describe ourselves as rich, and perhaps we are not by today’s standards, but I am not so sure where we are by Jesus’ standards. I do feel pretty confident, however, that Jesus would consider many of us to be rich who do not consider ourselves to be. So, is that it for us; is the “game over?” I think the Apostles must have feared so. “Then who can be saved?” they asked. Is there something else that we can do; is there another course that the rich young man could have taken, another course that we can take? I think there is, and I am calling it the “gamechanger.” There is something that we can do that will point us in the direction of Jesus and eternal life that will help us to become a better person a better follower of Jesus and a better disciple. First of all we need to be honest with ourselves and admit that for many of us our money and possessions do get between us and the Lord. They can become the scorecard, how we measure ourselves and others and we allow it to compete with God for our hearts. Changing this dynamic is the gamechanger. Money and wealth are indeed blessings from God, but that’s just it-they are from God. What we tend to do is emphasize the gift, and forget about the Giver. I am convinced that there is much about discipleship and life that we will not get right until we get this right. We begin to trust the gift more than the Giver. God is the giver and we need trust Him more than the gift. The only way to do that is to become true givers ourselves. That is how we build up our trust in Him rather than becoming slaves to the gift. Of course the biblical answer is tithing-giving away 10% of our income to God and to the poor. The problem with tithing is that it even that seems so unattainable for us, so like the rich young man we give up. But we don’t have to-and there is no reason for us to do so. We can begin by changing our philosophy around giving and tithing by practicing the “four P’s of giving.” First we make sure that our giving is planned, that it is intentional-we don’t just good to God and the poor randomly and haphazardly, we incorporate it into our budget. Second, we make giving to God and the poor a priority- we make sure that giving comes first not after everything else. Third, we make our giving a percentage of our income; we need to start somewhere, anywhere, even if we start at 1/2% or one percent or 2%- as long as it is more than what we are giving now. We don’t have to start out at 10% but we need to start somewhere and then promise that our giving will be progressive (our fourth) step until we get there. Moving in this direction can and will indeed change our lives. It will open our hearts to more authentic worship and will build our faith. It will serve as an investment toward eternal life-it will build up treasure in heaven and all the while it will help us to become the people God wants us to be. Jesus offers the rich young man and James and John the path to true greatness. I am convinced that this where we start. Remember, you make a living off of what you get. You build a life by virtue of what you give.
And so we come upon him in today’s Gospel, the Rich Young Man. And we find that the rich young man is us. He asks the question that we all ask: “What do I have to do to gain eternal life?” Don’t we all want to have that opportunity, to ask Jesus straight up and point blank what we have to do to get to Heaven, because of course, if we only had a clear straight answer, we would do whatever we had to do to assure ourselves a spot there. Or would we? Do we really want to know what it will take for us to get to Heaven? Did the rich young man really want to know? Did he really want Jesus to answer his question? Or would he have been happier if he did not get such a straight answer from Jesus? You see a part of me wonders that maybe he really did not want the answer. Maybe he wanted to stay in the realm of the intellectual exercise. Maybe deep down there was a fear that Jesus was going to say exactly what He eventually did say but at the same time could not believe that Jesus was going to ask him to sell all His possessions and give them to the poor. Yet, he needed to know. He had everything else that he wanted, what did he have to do to “attain” eternal life? So when he had the chance, he could not stand it any longer and asked the question. And Jesus looked at him, loved him and answered his question. But the rich young man went away sad for he had many possessions. Would he have been happier if he hadn’t asked, or if Jesus gave him an answer that would only prolong his line of questioning as he went away? But now he knows what he has to do-sell all his possessions and give them to the poor- but he cannot do that. So what about us? If we ask Jesus the question, Jesus would give us the same response. He would look at us, love us and tell us to sell our possessions. And we would probably walk away sad too. So what should we do? Only we can decide. But if we are not ready to follow Jesus’ answer, then we’d better be ready to live our lives knowing that it is only the love and mercy of God that will get us into heaven and that we cannot attain it for ourselves.
I do not mean to shock any one by writing this but speaking about marriage and divorce is not on any short list-or long list for that matter-of my favorite things to do. And I believe my sentiment is rather typical of other priests as well. But Jesus taught about marriage and divorce and what He teaches is the truth and His truth sets us free. So here we go. First of all we can be sure that if Jesus is teaching us about anything, it is aimed at our own good and our freedom. In the case of divorce, Jesus is looking out for the well-being of the women and mothers of His day. Did you notice that at the end of this Gospel St. Mark tells us that “people were bringing children to Him that He might touch them?” Who do you think those people were? Bet your bottom dollar they were the children’s mothers. Jesus, in His teaching against divorce was standing up for them. In His time a husband could cast aside His wife on a whim-for virtually no reason at all. Jesus was saying that this practice was wrong because the “two are to become one flesh.” The love that exists between a husband and wife is meant to mirror the love that exists between Christ and His Church. Marriage is not a relationship that is meant to be easily cast aside. You might say “Get real, Father, look around you. It’s just not working out that way.” It is true that some studies document that nearly half of all marriages will end up in divorce-but that doesn’t mean that it is supposed to be that way or that we or our children are better off because of it. Actually that is why we so much need to hear Christ’s teaching on this subject. Also we should know that if a couple goes to Church together every Sunday, there is less than a 2% chance that they will be divorced and that if they study scripture and pray together that chance drops to less than one in 500. God’s teaching works because His teaching is true. I will close with some words of advice from an unknown author for husbands and wives as they strive to live out the vows of their marriage to the fullest degree: "I will do more than belong, I will participate. I will do more than care, I will help. I will do more than believe, I will practice. I will do more than be fair, I will be kind. I will do more than be friendly, I will be a friend. I will do more than forgive, I will love."
They were not in the tent with the 70 who received the Spirit. Yet, they received the Spirit. “Stop them,” Joshua said. “Why?” asked Moses. “Would that all the people shared in the Spirit.” Some man was baptizing in the name of Jesus. He was not one of the Twelve. “Stop him,” the Twelve said. “Why?” asked Jesus. “He is doing good work.” We are graced to live in the age of the Spirit. This wonderful time began when The Father and the Son sent the Spirit upon the world. He is the Spirit of God; the action of God. The Second Vatican Council taught that all who are open to God, who are following their consciences are themselves, in fact, members of the Church, saved by Jesus Christ. Eldad and Medad were not in the tent. But they were empowered by the Spirit. Just as the Spirit empowers that husband who had been away from the Church for years, who mocked all things good and holy, but who, when he looked at his first born, said that he needed to change his life. He returned and returns daily. He continually asks forgiveness for the time he was away. Now, he is leading his children to God. The Spirit has given his life meaning and purpose. Like Augustine he grieves, “Late have I loved thee.” And like Augustine he has learned that God never stopped loving him. Eldad and Medad may not be in the tent, but the Spirit still empowers them. Just as the Spirit empowers that woman who had two babies by two different men, and an abortion due to another man, and now, through bitter tears and daily repentance, has chosen God. She works diligently caring for those who still tread the path of death she had been on. The Spirit is present in the Church. Jesus is present in the Blessed Sacrament. But the Spirit is also present where we, foolish human beings with our feeble attempts to limit God’s power, least expect to find Him. The Spirit was indeed working through Eldad and Medad, and the man baptizing in Jesus’ name. No one can harness the Spirit. He is God, the action of Love that has been unleashed upon the world through the Gift of the Father and the Sacrifice of the Son. We thank God today for the wonders of the Holy Spirit, in our lives, in St. Aloysius parish and in the world.
The more I think about it, what an amazing question. I mean, really, why on earth or in heaven for that matter, why would Jesus, the Lord, the Messiah ask the disciples who they say that He is? Does He not know who He is? Why does it matter who they say He is? Does their answer to the question change who He is? Does their answer change anything at all? And, by the way, who else ever asks us who we say they are? Don’t people pretty much always make their best effort to tell us who they are and not the other way around? It is interesting to me that this Gospel comes up right in the middle of a heated campaign season. I say this because political campaigns do exactly the opposite of what Jesus is doing today in this passage. Politicians all across the country are spending enormous amounts of money on their individual campaigns. But I do not suppose that any of them are asking us who we say they are? I don’t think so. Are they not instead spending huge sums money to try to tell us who they say they are (and who their opponent is) so they might win the election? With their campaigns they are doing exactly the opposite of what Jesus is doing in today’s Gospel. Jesus asks us who we say who He is because He knows that the way we answer that question will determine the kind of person we will become and ultimately go along way in determining whether or not salvation will be ours. Political candidates spend all kinds of money to try to tell us who they are so that they might achieve some kind of office. I’d say that there is a pretty much a dichotomy here, wouldn’t you? So, is there a lesson here-I think there is. As we decide who we are going to vote for, no matter what office it might be let’s make sure that we don’t vote for a political candidate based on who they say they are, but on who we, after a lot of research, prayer and reflection say they are.
We are loved. If there was any message that Jesus wanted His disciples, wanted us, to hear and understand, it is that we are loved. We are loved by God. We are loved by Jesus, the Eternal Image of the Father. Jesus healed the deaf man not just as a sign of the coming of the Messiah, as it certainly is, but as a sign of the love that God has for each of us. He heals us. The healing may be physical, or psychological, but it certainly is spiritual. He sees beneath what the world has proclaimed as success, as prosperity. For true prosperity is found in the account of the soul, not in a bank account. But Jesus’ healing of the deaf man was not to end there; none of His healings are an ending-they are a beginning. Jesus heals us not only as a sign of the Kingdom to come, not only as a demonstration of His love of for us, but also because of His great love for everyone. We are called to spread His love to others. Ultimately that is what justice is-the spreading of God’s love from ourselves to the rest of the world. If we do not spread God’s love we are practicing injustice. So St. James tells the early Christians and us that we need to treat each other for who they are not for what they have. We need to extend to others the dignity that is their God given right. It is how we extend the healing love of the Lord. God sees the goodness of every person. He sees His image and likeness in every person. He also sees how that image can be clouded, hidden behind a door of pain. And Jesus came and said, “Ephphatha, be opened!” He heals because He loves. He heals because He wants us to be the vehicles of His healing for others. As my mother would say His healing love for us is “not for nothin,’” we need to do something useful with it. If His love ends with us, then our story will have a very sad ending.
People of God, we are called to focus our energies on others, not on ourselves. This was the problem with the scribes and Pharisees in today’s gospel. They focused their energies on themselves as an expression of religion while they ignored the needs of those around them. As a result they became spiritually arrogant, hypocrites. The word hypocrite takes its origin from two Greek works, huper meaning beyond, and crisis meaning criticism. The scribes and Pharisees thought that they were so good that they were beyond criticism. Their focus was on themselves and their exact literal following of the Jewish laws. They did not have love in their hearts for others. They disdained the everyday people as worthless rabble. Their method of following God could not bear fruit because they were more concerned with themselves than with finding God in others. It is pretty easy for us to fall into that same hole. Sometimes we forget that conversion is a process, not a static event. The beauty of our Catholic faith is that it is profoundly realistic. It recognizes that we are human beings tempted to make bad as well as good choices and in continual need of having our course to the Lord refined and even restored. We believe that the Lord established the sacrament of penance, of forgiveness, because of our tendency to fall into sin. The problem with the Pharisees is that they gradually established and practiced their own religion-a religion that came from themselves and not from God; a religion that allowed them to give themselves positions of righteousness and to disdain any one who did not meet their standards of practice. They forgot what true religion is. And what is true religion? True religion is this: looking after widows and orphans in their distress and keeping ourselves free from the temptations of the world. People of God, let’s be sure that we faithfully practice our religion, but let’s first be sure that our religion is true.
It was one of those moments that I will never forget, although I admit I do not remember many of the particulars. It was of January of 1990, I and my third theology classmates were taking our comprehensive examinations. They were something we had to get through on the way to our greatly hoped for diaconate ordinations the following May. There was a written component and an oral component. For the oral exam we were allowed to choose an area of concentration. Not surprisingly most of the fellows chose their particular areas based on their interests and where they felt most comfortable and knowledgeable, or which professors who would be questioning for the particular fields. On that basis a number of the men refused to concentrate on the area of moral theology because the department chair, who would be the lead questioner, was very intimidating to us. But me? Well, I chose to go against the grain; I was young and brash and cocky. I told everyone that this professor did not scare me and that I was going the way of moral theology and that was that. However, when the moment finally came when it was time for the oral exams I found myself reevaluating my thought process. I had been sitting in the waiting area for two hours, my scheduled exam time had passed by an hour and a half, and three very distraught classmates had come out of the exam room, basically saying that their experiences had been “brutal.” Of course, at this point I was wondering why I ever put myself in this situation but there was nothing I could do. Finally the door opened, I went in sat down, and answered the first question. I guess I did OK because there was no follow up. Then came the second question, which I cannot remember at all, but I do remember that I swallowed hard and tried to form an adequate answer. I began by saying,” Because Jesus said…,” but I was immediately stopped by the intimidating professor who said, “Excellent! You are absolutely correct. So much of Catholic moral teaching comes down to the fact that it comes from the words of Jesus Himself. We do not need any more of an explanation that. Well done; have a wonderful afternoon.” I couldn’t believe what had just happened but I was in and out in less than 3 minutes! I guess they needed to make up lost time. So I was spared the “brutal” experience of a number of my peers for whatever reason-and I learned a valuable lesson, the same lesson that the disciples were trying to learn in the Gospel today. They were learning that Jesus Himself was the Bread of Life and if they ate of this bread they would never die. And the reason they were supposed to believe this was because “Jesus said ….” They did not need any further explanation and neither do we.
Once again, I am afraid I do not know the source of the following story but I was reminded of it by today’s First Reading: One day while walking down the street a highly successful person was tragically hit by a bus and she died. Her soul arrived up in heaven where she was met at the Gates of Heaven by St. Peter himself. “Welcome to Heaven. What we are going to do is let you have a day in hell and a day in Heaven and then you choose where you want to go.” And with that He put the executive in an elevator and it went down to hell. The doors opened and she found herself stepping out onto the putting green of a beautiful golf course. In the distance was the clubhouse and standing in front of her were all her friends—fellow executives that she had worked with and they were all dressed in evening gowns and cheering for her. They ran up and kissed her on both cheeks and they talked about old times. They played an excellent round of golf and at night went to the clubhouse where she enjoyed an excellent steak and lobster dinner. She met the Devil who was actually a really nice guy (kinda cute, as he always is) and she had a great time telling jokes and dancing. She was having such a good time that before she knew it, it was time to leave. Everybody shook her hand and waved goodbye as she got on the elevator. The elevator went way, way up back to Heaven and she spent the next 24 hours there. She lounged around on clouds playing the harp and singing. She had a great time and before she knew it her 24 hours were up and St. Peter came and got her. “So, now you must choose your eternity,” he said. The woman paused for a second then replied, “Well, I never thought I’d say this, I mean, Heaven has been really great and all, but I think I had a better time in hell.” When the doors of the elevator opened she found herself standing in a desolate wasteland covered in garbage and filth. She saw her friends were dressed in rags and were picking up the garbage and putting it in sacks. The Devil came up to her and put his arm around her. “I don’t understand,” stammered the woman, “yesterday I was here and there was a golf course and a clubhouse and we ate lobster and we danced and had a great time. Now all that’s here is a wasteland of garbage and all my friends look miserable.” The Devil looked at her and smiled. ‘Yesterday we were recruiting you, today...you’re staff.” Wisdom is listening to whatever Jesus says, whether or not we can understand it and staying away from the Devil, no matter how attractive the spread he puts on for us might be.
Jesus words to the Pharisees in today’s Gospel made me think of the following little reflection that I had come across some time ago. To the best of my knowledge the author is unknown. “I woke up early today, excited over all I get to do before the clock strikes midnight. I have responsibilities to fulfill today. My job is to choose what kind of day I am going to have. Today I can complain because the weather is rainy or I can be thankful that the grass is getting watered for free. Today I can feel sad that I don’t have more money or I can be glad that my finances encourage me to plan my purchases wisely and guide me away from waste. Today I can grumble about my health or I can rejoice that I am alive. Today I can lament over all that my parents didn’t give me when I was growing up or I can feel grateful that they allowed me to be born. Today I can cry because roses have thorns or I can celebrate that thorns have roses. Today I can mourn my lack of friends or I can excitedly embark upon a quest to discover new relationships. Today I can whine because I have to go to work or I can shout for joy because I have a job to do. I can complain because I have to go to school or eagerly open my mind and fill it with rich new pieces of knowledge. Today I can murmur dejectedly because I have to do housework or I can feel honored because the Lord has provided shelter for my mind, body and soul. Today stretches ahead of me, waiting to be shaped. And here I am, the sculptor who gets to do the shaping. What today will be like is up to me. I get to choose what kind of day I will have!” As I see it the bottom line is this: we will always have the opportunity to complain but we really never have anything to complain about. Why? Because every day of our lives we can receive the bread that Jesus gives us, the bread that gives us eternal life. As long as we continue to choose to complain, it has to mean that we just don’t get it.