What have we become?

4th Sunday of Ordinary Time (A)

Yesterday I read the following statement made by Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin of the Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey, against President Trump’s move to close our borders to immigrants, refugees, and all who seek a better life in the United States.

Statement of Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin, C.Ss.R., On Wednesday’s Executive Actions on Immigration

January 27, 2017

I understand the desire for every American to be assured of safe borders and freedom from terrorism.  The federal government should continue a prudent policy aimed at protecting citizens.

I also understand and heed the call of God, who through Moses told the people of Israel: “You shall not oppress an alien; you well know how it feels to be an alien, since you were once aliens yourselves in the land of Egypt” (Ex 23:9).  Jesus asks His disciples to go further, calling on us to recognize Him in the stranger: “Whatsoever you did to the least of my brothers, you did to me” (Mt. 25:40).

Wednesday’s Executive Actions do not show the United States to be an open and welcoming nation.  They are the opposite of what it means to be an American.

Closing borders and building walls are not rational acts.  Mass detentions and wholesale deportation benefit no one; such inhuman policies destroy families and communities.

In fact, threatening the so-called “sanctuary cities” with the withdrawal of federal funding for vital services such as healthcare, education and transportation will not reduce immigration.  It only will harm all good people in those communities.

I am the grandson of immigrants and was raised in a multicultural neighborhood in southwest Detroit.  Throughout my life as a priest and bishop in the United States, I have lived and worked in communities that were enriched by people of many nationalities, languages and faiths.  Those communities were strong, hard-working, law-abiding, and filled with affection for this nation and its people.

Here in Newark, we are in the final steps of preparing to welcome 51 refugees from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  This is only the latest group of people whom Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese has helped to resettle during the past 40 years.  This current group of refugees has waited years for this moment and already has been cleared by the federal government.

They have complied with all of the stringent requirements of a vetting process that is coordinated by the Department of Homeland Security.  Catholic Charities, assisted by parishes and parishioners of the Archdiocese, will help them establish homes, jobs and new lives so that they can contribute positively to life in northern New Jersey.  When this group is settled, we hope to welcome others.

This nation has a long and rich history of welcoming those who have sought refuge because of oppression or fear of death.  The Acadians, French, Irish, Germans, Italians, Poles, Hungarians, Jews and Vietnamese are just a few of the many groups over the past 260 years whom we have welcomed and helped to find a better, safer life for themselves and their children in America.

Even when such groups were met by irrational fear, prejudice and persecution, the signature benevolence of the United States of American eventually triumphed.

That confident kindness is what has made, and will continue to make, America great.

http://www.rcan.org/statement-cardinal-joseph-w-tobin-cssr-wednesday%E2%80%99s-executive-actions-immigration

Then I read the astonishing comments from self-identified Catholics against the Cardinal, against Pope Francis, and against anyone else who objects to the Trump administration’s inhumane agenda, which frankly is directed against people of color.

These so-called Catholics will stand in their pews this weekend professing their faith in the One who dwells within the stranger. They will hear the words of the prophet Zephaniah: “seek justice, seek humility; perhaps you may be sheltered on the day of the LORD’s anger”[Zeph 2:3]. They will sing the words of the psalmist, “The Lord keeps faith forever, secures justice for the oppressed, gives food to the hungry. The Lord sets captives free.” [Psalm 146]. They will listen to admonishment of St. Paul against Christians who boast of their righteousness [1 Cor 1:26-31], and hear Jesus’ words honoring the defenseless among us and insisting that we do the same, regardless of the consequences [Matthew 5:1-12]. They will give each other the kiss of peace, and then they will place the Eucharist in their acid mouths and return to their homes to cheer an agenda that is the antithesis of everything Jesus represents.

Some serious soul searching is called for. What have we become?

I also have to work hard to resist rising feelings of animosity against my fellow Christians who wouldn’t recognize Jesus if he knocked on their door and yet dare to use, for example, an image of the Sacred Heart or Blessed Mother or Michael the Archangel or St. Therese the Little Flower as their profile picture and proceed to spew politically motivated venom on good shepherds who speak the truth. Professed Christians who feel justified spitting on Jesus’ face with their vitriol. Jesus wept. So do I. So should you.

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain, and after he had sat down, his disciples came to him.
He began to teach them, saying:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are they who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the land.
Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the clean of heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you falsely because of me.
Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven.”

MT 5:1-12

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Readings for the 4th Sunday of Ordinary Time (A)

1st reading: ZEP 2:3; 3:12-13
Responsorial Psalm: PS 146:6-7, 8-9, 9-10
2nd Reading: 1 COR 1:26-31 
Gospel: MT 5:1-12A

Talkin’ bout a revolution

3rd Sunday of Ordinary Time (A)

What would it take for you to leave your nets, your boat, and your father as the disciples did?

He said to them, “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of people.” At once they left their nets and followed him. [MT 4:19-20]

He called them, and immediately they left their boat and their father and followed him. [MT 4:21-22]

(Long pause while we shift uneasily in our seats and decide whether or not to continue reading)

Few conversations cause more discomfort than those that begin with unsolicited advice about changing the direction of our lives. For one, it makes us feel defensive. It also threatens our sense of responsibility. It would be ridiculous, we protest, to forsake our stability (even if it is wobbly), and relinquish our control (even if that is an illusion).

Yes, for the majority of us, it would be irresponsible to quit our jobs, abandon our homes and ditch our families. But, rather than counting off the reasons why it would simply be unfathomable in the 21st century to do as the disciples did, let’s widen the aperture of our lens so we can see the bigger picture.

But just to be clear, most of us have a lot more freedom to roam than the people living in Jesus’ day. It is not unusual for our children to head off to college in another part of the country and settle in cities thousands of miles away from home and form tight bonds with “surrogate” families. In contrast, given the centrality of kinship in Jesus’ day,[1] leaving one’s family and seeking a new way of life or livelihood would have been deemed abnormal.[2] But the first disciples dropped everything to follow Jesus.

The immediate response of Andrew, Peter, James and John to Jesus’ invitation provides valuable insight to 21st-century disciples: Jesus did not work alone: then or now.

Don’t you know? They’re talkin’ bout a revolution

Matthew’s gospel tells us “all of Judea, and the whole region around the Jordan” went to John the Baptist to be baptized. [MT 3:5-6]. Clearly, a movement was afoot. No doubt King Herod and the religious authorities were less appreciative of the odd and prickly, anti-authoritarian preacher and despised him for calling them out for their sinful lifestyle and religious hypocrisy.

Some suggest that the gospel writer exaggerated John the Baptist’s popularity by saying ALL of Judea and THE WHOLE REGION of Jordan came for baptism. The point is that huge numbers of Jewish citizens experienced a conversion—a change of heart—which may not have jibed with that of Herod and the religious leaders. They wanted him gone.

So they did what institutions threatened by grassroots activists do, and continue to do today—they tried to shut him down. They arrested John the Baptist and eventually killed him. But they did not know it was too late to stop the revolution. That caravan had already left the stable, so to speak. John paved the way, and Jesus took the lead (or lede since it’s his story, after all).

So, here we have Jesus receiving the news that the authorities had arrested John the Baptist. Jesus lived in this culture; he knew why John was silenced. But Jesus fearlessly picked up where John left off, in Galilee, walking the radical path the Baptist prepared for him—preaching the same message in the same kingdom ruled by the same king who had just imprisoned John.

Anyone else would find a safer place to preach. Not Jesus. Matthew tells us Jesus even used John’s same words “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand” —except the future event to which John referred was now present in Jesus, the Autobasileia.[3]

Jesus was not the messenger, Jesus was the message.

Let’s take Jesus out of the blue sky, sunny day pasture with the rosy-cheeked children and the baby animals and get real.  Jesus’ public ministry was inaugurated under ominous circumstances in a Roman occupied territory in which political and religious leadership were inextricably entwined.

Sure, Jesus is Love. Jesus is also steely; he is brave. He does not back down in the face of opposition; he walks steadily towards it. He does not sit in his doorway drinking tea and waiting for followers; he seeks them out and prepares them to be leaders. Jesus is forthright and smart. He narrows in on corrupt practices and shows how to correct them. He liberates the oppressed and the alienated, restores the senses, embraces the outcasts, and repairs the damage human evil has wrought. Jesus speaks the Truth with words and actions that resonate in the hearts of those who are willing to follow him. He flips the tables; he turns the status quo upside down.

He’s hot Jesus. And he’s here to set the world on fire. [LK 12:49]

The truth cannot be silenced.

Make no mistake; the threat of suppression is an ongoing and present danger today, more so than in recent times. The thing about people who work for justice is that their hearts undergo a change; their capacity for love and generosity increases and with changed hearts come changed attitudes. The last thing authorities want is a rising populous of dissenters so they’ll try to shut it down either by distraction or by force. Think about it.

The disciples eventually realized that following Jesus, learning from him, and being commissioned to preach and heal also meant following him to the cross. At the end of Jesus’ earthly life some followers, literally fearing for their lives, went into hiding and abandoned him.

But not all. The job Jesus prepared his apostles for—to carry the gospel to the ends of the earth—was taken up by brave souls like St. Paul and others who brought about the early church’s extraordinary growth. This job is passed on to disciples like you and me.

We are not asked to give up our jobs, our homes, and our families to respond affirmatively to Jesus’ invitation, although we are obliged to detach ourselves from self-serving worldly loyalties and reattach ourselves to him.

“Come after me, and I will make you fishers of people.” Work for the unity of all peoples; seek the transformation of society, mirror the courage of Jesus’ and seek the confidence that inspired countless disciples throughout the centuries, and with each step draw closer to the kingdom of God, Jesus.

Readings for the 3rd Sunday of Ordinary Time (A)

1st reading: IS 8:23—9:3
Responsorial Psalm PS 27:1, 4, 13-14
2nd Reading 1 COR 1:10-13, 17
Gospel: MT 4:12-23

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[1] Bruce J. Malina, and Richard L. Rohrbaugh, Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels. Second Edition. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press 2003) 397-398.

[2] Malina, Rohrbaugh p414: “giving up one’s family or origin for the surrogate Jesus-group family (…) was a decision that could cost one dearly. It meant breaking ties not only with the family but also the entire social network of which one had been a part.”

[3] Autobasileia, literally auto=self, basileia=royal power. The Kingdom of God and the person of Jesus are one and the same.

Take the Long View

2nd Sunday of Ordinary Time (A)

Here we are again. Back to plain ole winter. Just over one week ago the Christmas season ended, and our families and friends, like the three kings, have departed for their distant lands. Like many of you, I reluctantly boxed up our decorations and my husband dragged our still-hanging-on-to-life Christmas tree out to the curb, both of us bemoaning the shortness of the season (but secretly happy to say good bye to the pine needles in our socks).

With our houses swept clean, it’s time to begin our progression through Ordinary Time, at least for the next eight Sundays, that is. Lent is right around the corner.

The Second Sunday of Ordinary Time always eases its way into a fresh and shiny new calendar year, but this year for many people agita, insecurity, and apprehension about the future have dulled that shiny newness.

At times like these the temptation is to circle the wagons, allow ourselves to complain for a while and hope for the best. Happily, most of us care too much about the future to consider sitting on our hands. I’m in that camp, or at least I strive to be. Despite my occasional “Chicken Little” tendencies, I fight hopelessness and stagnation by taking the long view and making plans.

Earlier this month I reflected on the need for restoration, specifically restorative practices. I was reminded of the work of the late Dr. Erik Erikson, the brilliant German-American psychologist of the past century, whose exploration of human psycho-social growth from infancy through death identified a motivation which he named Generativity.

Generativity resembles the concept of “paying it forward” popularized by the heartwarming movie, Pay it Forward [2000], which, through a series of events showed that the world is a much better place when we share, ad infinitum, our good fortune with others.

Still, paying it forward is just the tip of the iceberg. Generativity is more nuanced; its source is nothing less than primal and its energy emerges from an expectation of a future—a hope for humanity. It is the longest of the long views. Generativity explains why some adults will, for example, plant a fruit tree they may not live to harvest, but do so knowing future generations will be nourished by it. Our current situation and how we handle it is far greater than how it impacts us.

Taken another way, when “a concern for establishing and guiding the next generation” is contemplated Theologically, i.e. “where is God in all this?” we have to see that the compelling impulse behind generativity is love. Love of God, and love of neighbor, and love for God’s creation.

The writers of Sacred Scripture could not help but take the long view. They gave witness to the fruit of generativity; they grasped its divine source, they drank from its fountain and endeavored to illuminate the way so future generations would see God’s goodness as they did, and believe what they knew to be the truth.

The Prophet Isaiah, relaying the words God spoke to him, identified Israel as the Servant of God [IS 49:3, 5-6]. Israel’s return to their homeland after 70 years of exile was the evidence of God’s faithfulness to them. Yet, Isaiah made it clear that their survival alone was not the end of the story. “It is too little,” the prophet proclaimed. The future of all involved entailed carrying the message of God’s liberating power to the ends of the earth. In other words, Israel’s stunning transformation would be like a light to the nations: the entire world would see God’s greatness and be converted.

St. Paul understood this too. It was not enough that he had a personal experience of the risen Lord on the road to Damascus. He was compelled to take what he knew on the road and share it with the greatest number of people for the rest of his life. Paul’s “generativity” is evidenced by the colossal growth of the Christian church in his day. Today’s second reading gives us a clue to Paul’s mission [1 COR 1:1-3]. At first blush it looks to be a typically wordy Pauline salutation, but attend carefully to Paul’s words. Far more than a “Dear friend, how are you, I am fine” Paul’s salutation discloses his grasp of the divine origins of his apostleship and the enduring nature not only of his role, but that of the Corinthian church, sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy, from now on, and for all to witness. Pay it forward.

Even John the Baptist understood it was too little to proclaim the nearness of the Kingdom of God. He knew it was not enough to preach a message of repentance and then baptize countless individuals for the forgiveness of sin. When he recognized Jesus, he knew there was more.

“John the Baptist saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” [JN 1:29]

I wonder if the Baptist’s words comparing Jesus to a sacrificial animal sent a ripple of shock through the crowd. And, as if to explain how he arrived at this astonishing conclusion John continued, piecing his experiences together until everything he had done up to that point made sense:

“I did not know him, but the reason why I came baptizing with water was that he might be made known to Israel.” John testified further, saying, “I saw the Spirit come down like a dove from heaven and remain upon him. I did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘On whomever you see the Spirit come down and remain, he is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.’ Now I have seen and testified that he is the Son of God.” [JN 1:31-34].

I also wonder if John realized then that his role in preparing the way for Jesus was nearing its completion. Didn’t he later take a step back from his work, out of the first-century spotlight, saying, “He must increase, but I must decrease.”? [JN 3:30]

Be a light for the nations.

Who is expected to carry this light today? Look in the mirror. It is the Church—you and me—it is our prophetic role to be a light so that God’s goodness is visible to all, so that all may receive it and be transformed.

That’s generativity, that’s paying it forward. That’s how we keep moving forward, despite the darkness.

Happy New Year, light bearers.

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Readings for the Second Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A

First Reading IS 49:3, 5-6
Responsorial Psalm PS 40:2, 4, 7-8, 8-9, 10
Second Reading 1 COR 1:1-3
Gospel JN 1:29-34

“Let it be done unto me”

Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception (A)

On the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, we hear a story of profound faith—the Annunciation—which sets in motion the divine purpose of her birth, her Immaculate Conception.

As much as we want to soften the Christmas story and disguise it as a children’s pageant, it is important to reflect on the courage it took for this teen-aged peasant girl to give her fiat—to give up normalcy and risk her and her fiance’s and their families’ reputations, and agree to participate in the impossible event for which she was born.

She was free to choose. And she chose to say, “Let it be done unto me.”

So often it seems we have no control over the events of our lives, but in truth the historical world has never been driven by fate or by accident, but by the free-will of fully-conscious, spiritually attuned human beings whose faith in God’s faithfulness leads them to live in accord with God’s purposes [Eph 1:11], for which they were born and which they, with hearts opened to God’s reign of justice and peace, participate.

…Human beings who give of themselves freely and without fear in service of the greater good, who are good stewards of earthly matters, who marvel and ponder those things that cannot be explained, who are motivated by not by fear or self-preservation, but by trust, and who who accept they may never see the fruit of their life’s work

…Human beings like Mary, the mother of Jesus, whose Immaculate Conception and fiat to participate in God’s divine plan continues to send ripples of hope throughout the universe.

The angel Gabriel was sent from God to a town of Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, of the house of David, and the virgin’s name was Mary.

And coming to her, he said, “Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you.”

But she was greatly troubled at what was said and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.

Then the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father, and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his Kingdom there will be no end.”

But Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?”

And the angel said to her in reply, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God. And behold, Elizabeth, your relative, has also conceived a son in her old age, and this is the sixth month for her who was called barren; for nothing will be impossible for God.”

Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.”

Then the angel departed from her.

Video courtesy of Danielle Rose via YouTube. [Uploaded on Sep 24, 2014. Provided to YouTube by The Orchard Enterprises]

Today’s full readings can be accessed by clicking this link.

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Art: Women Singing Earth, by Mary Southard, CSJ

Come celebrate with us!

Feast of Christ the King (C)

Years ago, my husband and I received a printed invitation from a family we had recently met to “Come, celebrate Christ the King with us!” We barely knew this family and my initial reaction  was a sarcastic “Wow, I didn’t know Liza (not her real name) was such a church lady.”

To be honest, both my husband and I were a little nervous to accept the invitation which only included the date, time and address. We did not know what to expect: would this be a prayer service, a faith sharing group, would we know anyone, was there going to be spontaneous prayer and if so could leave early? We devised a plan to stay for an acceptable period of time and cut out if things got weird.

Turns out our concerns were unfounded. It was a big party with loads of food, crown shaped cakes and cookies, music, games and laughter. It felt like it was Christmas day. To be clear, the hosts made sure the reason for the party, the Solemnity of Christ the King, was front and center, but believe me when I tell you, it was a lot of fun.

We moved away before the following year’s fest, but I think about that family every year around this time and recall their sincerity, their hospitality, and how they seemed to take this feast so seriously, far more seriously than I ever had, at least.

But they were right to do so. The feast of Christ the King overturns all of our worldly ideas about “Kingship” and invites us to reject the dark and narrow focus dominating much of our social discourse. Instead we are urged to take the long view and “go rejoicing to the house of the Lord” [PS 122:1] and to receive, even in our brokenness, the divine inheritance which the whole of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection gained for all of creation.

Dear readers, take this to heart, for it is love; it is redemption; it is human-divine solidarity.  It is the foundation of our faith and it has not only sustained generations of believers through unspeakable trials, it has been the driver behind breathtaking examples of human compassion, forgiveness, justice, self-sacrifice, fairness, and freedom.

Furthermore, Sacred Scripture has an indisputably redemptive, life-giving, and transformative message for contemporary readers and our world. We would be foolish not to attune ourselves to it and respond as our religious forebears did, to God’s movement in our lives.

Carroll Stuhlmueler, C.P., says, “Every part of ourselves belongs to the Kingship of Christ, our politics, our theology, our humanity.”[1] Fortunately for us, each of the readings for this year’s feast of Christ the King provides particularly relevant wisdom in that exact order.

Beginning with the first reading, we hear about the appointment of David as the King of Israel [2 Sam 5:1-3]. “All the Tribes of Israel came to David.” They identified him as one of their own saying “here we are, your bone and your flesh” and recalled his recent leadership on behalf of the Israelites: “it was you who led the Israelites out and brought them back.” They, “All the Tribes of Israel” anointed him, unanimously.

The story of Israel—the whole of Hebrew Scripture contained in the Old Testament—is the story of human discernment and cooperation and trust in a God who promised to be faithful to them. This particular acuity to God’s faithfulness became the filter which revealed, and continues to reveal God’s direction in every aspect of life.

St. Paul’s profound understanding of Christ’s divinity and role in the redemption of humanity[2] is expressed in the second reading, which is taken from the letter to the Colossians. Notice the writer’s poetic use of the word fullness which he uses to describe “everything,” even that which is hidden in the folds of cosmic and earthly realms, visible and invisible, from time’s inception and into infinity, all of which is drawn together in the person of the beloved Son, who reconciles—a word that conjures images of balancing, smoothing, forgiving, returning, uniting—everything, the fullness of creation which was once separated with the Creator.

This is high Christology; it is mind-bending and almost too beautiful to contemplate. Our existence is infinitely greater than our mortal experience. Paul’s grasp of the immeasurable, universal message of Jesus’ life is light years ahead of the narrowly defined interpretation which many Christians want to accept.

The feast of Christ the King urges us to open our hearts and our minds and permit the whole of this theological truth to saturate us.

Finally, Luke’s gospel brings us back to earth and allows us to witness an intimate conversation between Jesus and one of the two condemned criminals who were crucified with him. [Luke 23:35-43]. The criminal, forever known as “the good thief,” recognized Jesus in a way no one else had.

His eyes were opened, and to my mind the words, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” recall the human connection heard in today’s first reading from 2 Samuel: “Here we are, your bone and your flesh.” Jesus’ response, even as he was dying inspired hope in what seemed a hopeless setting, “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” [Luke 23:43].

As we can see, the feast of Christ the King is more than the annual last hurrah before the first week of Advent. True, the feast concludes the liturgical year that officially begins each January with Jesus’ baptism and which follows one of the three synoptic gospel[3] accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry throughout “Ordinary Time,” but it is more.

With the exception of Christmas and Easter, many Christians tend to limit their participation in the celebration of Feast days to attending the liturgy, but the expression of deep faith and theological understanding shown by our friends who invited us to their annual “Christ the King” party tells me we might be missing out on something greater. I witness that “something” every week in the Orthodox Jewish neighborhood where my husband and I, the sole Catholics for several blocks, now live

I find the religious observance of my neighbors to be extraordinarily moving. Not only the Sabbath rituals, but every feast day (and there are many!) is observed with great reverence and respect, not to mention the quality family time, meal-sharing, kindness, and authentic joy that surrounds these observances. On more than one occasion I have tried to imagine what the Christian response to the words “Go in peace to love and serve the world” might be if Christian men and women practiced their faith with the same passion our Orthodox Jewish neighbors do.

Perhaps, as Stuhlmueller suggests “in our own human way of life, with its tragedies and political moves, with its mistakes and successes”[4] we can discern the path that the Kingship of Christ points us towards, and in doing so lead us to live in ways that give everyone reason to “Come, celebrate Christ the King with Us!”

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[1] Carroll Stuhlmueller, C.P., Biblical Meditations for Ordinary Time-Weeks 23-34, Paulist Press, New York/Mahwah, NJ 1984. p 401

[2] Vincent M. Smiles. “The Letter to the Colossians” in  New Collegeville Bible Commentary, New Testament, edited by Daniel Durkin. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press. 2009. 635-650, here 638.

[3] The three synoptic gospels are Matthew, Mark, and Luke

[4] Carroll Stuhlmueller, C.P., Biblical Meditations for Ordinary Time-Weeks 23-34, Paulist Press, New York/Mahwah, NJ 1984. p 401

God is Faithful

32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

Every Wednesday, without fail, a thought-provoking reflection on the coming Sunday’s readings arrives in my inbox from the faculty of Catholic Theological Union (CTU). In September I shared the wisdom of CTU president, Fr. Mark Francis, CSV on what it means to remain despite “the impossibility of faith.” It is my privilege once again to share another timely piece, written by Fr. Stephen Bevans, SVD for the 32nd Sunday of Ordinary Time whose words refresh and invigorate like the sweet and sonorous bell of mindfulness.  “What we know in faith is that God is the God of the living”.

By Fr. Stephen Bevans, SVD

Tucked into the middle of the second reading today is a phrase that might be the key to understanding what our readings today are pointing to: “the Lord is faithful.” This is the conviction that sustains the brothers in our rather grisly first reading from Second Maccabees. This is the conviction that prompts the psalmist to pray, “Keep me as the apple of your eye, hide me in the shelter of your wings.” This is the point that Jesus makes in the gospel. God “is not the God of the dead, but of the living.”

Through the years there has been a lot of speculation about what life after death and our resurrected bodies might be like. The Greeks, who basically didn’t like human bodies, saw death as an escape from what weighed us down in life. The medieval theologians sometimes thought that the resurrected body would be a return to the bodies we had at about the age of thirty. Resurrection would mean eternal youth. Homilies at funerals often try to console the deceased’s loved ones with images of parents, friends, and relatives happily receiving him or her on the other side. Indeed, several accounts of people who have had near death experiences talk about that experience in this same way — a grand reunion with friends and loved ones. Contemporary theologians sometimes speak of resurrected life as a new consciousness and unfettered unity with all peoples and all things. In this way, God is all in all.

The truth is, though, that we don’t really know. Our speculations about life beyond death may be just as primitive as the scene proposed to Jesus by the skeptical Sadducees. What we know in faith, however, is that God is faithful.  What we know in faith is that God is the God of the living, not of the dead. What we know in faith is that when we pass beyond this life, we pass into the arms of a loving God.

This is the kind of faith that gives people like the young men in our First Reading the courage to endure death rather than compromise on their principles. This is the kind of faith that offers us “everlasting encouragement and good hope,” so that we can live our lives in joy and contentment. This is the kind of faith that gave Oscar Romero the faith that, if he would be killed, he would rise in the Salvadoran people. This is the kind of faith that allowed a dying John XXIII to say simply: “My bags are packed and I’m ready to go.” This is the kind of faith that, in the words of poet Julia Esquivel, sees persecution as being “threatened with resurrection.”

November is the month when Catholics remember and pray for their loved ones who have “fallen asleep in the hope of the resurrection,” and for all who have died in God’s mercy, as Eucharistic Prayer II expresses it. Parishes offer books where parishioners can write the names of those for whom the community will pray. Latino/as have the beautiful custom of constructing “altarcitos” with pictures and mementos of relatives and friends who have died — a custom that is being increasingly adopted by other cultures as well. On November 1, Filipinos clean the graves of relatives, leave food offerings on the graves and have them blessed. We might visit the cemetery and bring flowers as signs of love and respect. We do not know what happens after death, but we do believe that God is faithful. We do believe that God is not the God of the dead but of the living, and that all who have been born are alive to God.

Our readings today give us a chance to renew that faith. God is faithful.

Stephen Bevans, SVD
Professor Emeritus

Readings:
First Reading: 2 Maccabees 7:1-2, 9-14
Responsorial Psalm: 17:1, 5-6, 8, 15
Second Reading:  2 Thessalonians 2:16-35
Gospel: Luke 20:27-38

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© Copyright 2016 Catholic Theological Union. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with the author’s permission.

“Catholic Theological Union is a Roman Catholic graduate school of theology and ministry serving both vowed religious and lay women and men. The mission of Catholic Theological Union is to prepare effective leaders for the Church, ready to witness to Christ’s good news of justice, love, and peace.” —Catholic Theological Union Mission Statement

My relationship with Catholic Theological Union continues to be a source of intellectual, theological and spiritual inspiration, and for that I am grateful. To learn more about degree programs offered at CTU, visit www.ctu.edu.

Today I Must Stay at Your House

31st Sunday of Ordinary Time (C)

Oh Zacchaeus! Who doesn’t love the story of the diminutive, status seeking, tree climbing tax collector [Luke 19:1-10], the greedy and sinful man whose curiosity about Jesus led to the cleansing of his name, his reconciliation with those he had cheated, and his restoration to the house of Abraham, and thereby to the household of God.

At its core, this is a story of salvation and communal reconciliation. In church-speak, salvation is preceded by conversion which follows a radical change of heart. In Zacchaeus’ case, his transformation began when he responded to Jesus’ command to “come down quickly” and found himself on the same ground as the people he had made a career of cheating.

The story of Zacchaeus is beloved because it is good news for all of us; at first blush it affirms that the sinner is not forever lost. But it also speaks to the joy of being identified by our name instead of by our sins. It invites us to enjoy the relief that comes from shedding social pretenses and in finding acceptance for who we are. It affirms our deepest desire, which is to belong, and to be home in community.

The meaning of the name Zacchaeus is “clean[1] but the occupation he chose was anything but. He was a tax collector, and not just any tax collector. Zacchaeus was the “chief, rich tax collector, the sinner supreme”[2] who likely enjoyed multiple streams of income working as a contracted government collections agent overseeing and amassing dishonest wealth from the equally fraudulent collections of those in his employ.

Still, Zaccheus wasn’t so far removed from the goings on in his town that he hadn’t heard about this man named Jesus who would soon be passing through. His curiosity was piqued and he determined to see for himself “who Jesus was” [Luke 19:3].

Bobbing and weaving in and out of the crowd that gathered along the roadside, the diminutive Zaccheus tried to catch a glimpse of Jesus, but the crowd was standing in his way. Being a clever man, Zacchaeus ran ahead of them and climbed up into a sycamore, a fruit-bearing tree. There, standing above everyone else where he was most comfortable, he had a clear view.

It’s a comedic, pathetic, and prophetic image: a man of power scrambling up a tree, peering between fig-laden branches to see what everyone else could plainly see. But then Jesus looked up and saw Zacchaeus there in his isolation, and he called him down—by name—plucked him like one of the ripe figs hanging from the sycamore’s branches.

“Zacchaeus, come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house.”

The crowd was appalled. They grumbled. Not only did Jesus call on Zacchaeus, he announced he “must” stay at his house. Of all the choices Jesus could have made, it was this guy, the most despised man and the greatest sinner in town who Jesus decided to stay with.

But the crowds were always appalled weren’t they? Aren’t we still? Christians have a notoriously hard time doing more than waxing poetic about Jesus’ habit of socializing, dining, and preferring the company of sinners.

Let’s be clear, Jesus always goes to the house of the sinner. Sinners may be lost, but at least their eyes are open. The same can’t be said about the righteous.

All Jesus said was, “Zacchaeus, come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house” and Zacchaeus’ eyes were opened.

And Jesus, by going to Zacchaeus, calling him by name, and remaining with him, recognized him for what he truly was—a child of God who got lost along the way.

Sigh. Aren’t we all?

Like Zacchaeus, you and I share a compelling need to be made “clean” and to be restored to right relationship with our families, friends, neighbors, the communities in which we live and work, and, with our Creator.

But true reconciliation requires humility and a willingness to meet one another on equal ground. We need to listen. In our homes, our churches, our communities, and in our country, and surely in the months to come we must devote ourselves to the difficult work of reconciliation, and be willing to see Jesus and hear him say, “__________, come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house.”

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[1] Robert J. Karris, O.F.M, The Gospel According to Luke, in The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, ed. Brown, Raymond Edward, Roland Edmund Murphy, and Joseph A. Fitzmyer (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1990) 675-721, here 711.

[2] John O’Hanlon, “The story of Zacchaeus and the Lukan ethic,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament, no. 12 (July 1981) 2-26, here 9.