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.

Doubt: Faith’s Dependable (but not victorious) Companion

23rd Sunday of Ordinary Time (C)

Every week an abundantly rich reflection on the coming Sunday’s readings arrives in my inbox from the faculty of Catholic Theological Union (CTU).

As an alumnus of CTU I appreciate the opportunity to read the words of my professors with whom I spent many years studying and whose wisdom continues to pervade my theology. As I read, I hear their voices and recall their scholarly encouragement (and the readings, and papers, and lectures, of course). Just as often the reflection comes from a professor or faculty member with whom I never studied. This week was one of those times.

This writer’s words touched me so deeply I requested his permission to post it here for the readers of The Good Disciple. The author is Fr. Mark Francis, CSV, the president CTU. His writing hit home with me, I explained, because even while I am one who studies and writes about the meaning of discipleship, and who strives to embrace the body of Christ in all I do, I find the more deeply I wade into the waters of faith the louder my doubts become, clamoring for my attention. Clearly, crises of faith are to be expected, for why would doubts arise if our faith was not challenging us to rise above them?

Fr. Mark opens his reflection with remarks about Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who will be canonized today, and delves into what it means to remain despite “the impossibility of faith.” She and all of the saintly doubters who came before her should give us reason to reach higher, to continue to move beyond the messy feelings that our doubts stir in us.

By Fr. Mark Francis, CSV

This Sunday Mother Teresa will be canonized and very few doubt her holiness. But in light of this canonization I think it is important to note that for many years this saint experienced a real crisis of faith. In a collection of her letters Mother Teresa: Be My Light, compiled by her spiritual director, we read that after founding the Missionaries of Charity, she had doubts about the existence of God, about the soul and therefore the promises of Jesus – and heaven. This revelation has been received in a variety of ways. In an extensive article in Newsweek published by the late journalist and atheist Christopher Hitchens, he criticized her as being an over-promoted religious celebrity. He also contended that Mother Teresa’s doubts made complete sense because the Catholic faith is based on asking people to believe “impossible things.”

While I was never a great fan of Mr. Hitchens – who seems to have become somewhat of an over promoted anti-religious celebrity himself – (his book God is not Great was a scathing screed against any kind of religious faith), I think he may be on to something. The Catholic faith does ask us to believe impossible things – or at least things that are impossible from a certain point of view. The fact that Mother Teresa doubted God’s existence may rattle some people, but anyone who has a mature faith has experienced similar moments of doubt and despair – when God’s presence just seems absent. St. John of the Cross described it as the “dark night of the soul,” Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict, XVI, in his book Introduction to Christianity speaks of all of us being constantly inhabited by both faith and doubt. Flannery O’Connor, the great American Catholic writer, criticized glib ideas regarding what the faith is all about. She wrote, “most people believe that faith is a big electric blanket, when it is of course the cross. It is much harder to believe than not to believe.”

Our readings today seem to underscore the “impossibility” of faith. Jesus speaks about discipleship – following him. This involves three very hard, if not impossible, things to do: prefer Jesus to one’s family, carry your cross, and renounce your possessions. How unreasonable. How impossible. Once again the Gospel turns the world-common sense – on its head.  This is not normal behavior especially in the Middle East of Jesus’ day when one’s family was the only real support one had. To prefer Jesus to them (to hate family is the Semitism used) would leave you completely exposed and vulnerable – and you would be forced to depend not on them – but on God. The same is true of renouncing possessions…security and comfort all go out the window.

And then there is the case presented in our second reading. Paul’s letter to Philemon over the slave Onesimus also reveals this same “turn the world on its head” attitude. To appreciate what’s going here is that Onesimus is with Paul not because he is a runaway slave, but availing himself of a stipulation in Roman law called amicus magistri (friend of the master).  He has felt himself mistreated by Philemon, and has gone to Paul who is in prison in order to intercede for him. While with Paul, Onesimus becomes a Christian. And now Paul is asking Philemon to do the impossible – accept Onesimus back not as a slave, but as a brother in the Lord. How unrealistic, how impossible.

So, Mr. Hitchens appears to have been correct. We are called upon to believe and to act on the impossible things we believe. That God will somehow provide for us. That we are all equally loved and cherished by God as brothers and sisters in Christ. That a little nun, who after starting a work in the slums of Calcutta, and after struggling with faith all her life, is being canonized and that her work with the poor has grown to almost 5,000 sisters in 14 countries. How impossible all of this sounds. But that’s the point. Mother Teresa, despite her tests of faith, took up the cross and was faithful – and was able to accomplish the impossible.

We are called to do these same impossible things in our own way, in our own time, despite doubt and despite a lack of clarity: to take up our cross out of love…in order to bring the presence of Jesus into our world.

Mark Francis, CSV
President, CTU

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Published September 4, 2016. © 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.

Image: Mother Teresa at age 77, 1979 Nobel Peace Prize winner praying during dedication ceremonies at her 400th world wide mission to care for the poor.

Review: The Sacred Foodways of Film: Theological Servings in 11 Food Films

It was an absolute pleasure to read and review this book for the July 1-14, 2016 print edition of the National Catholic Reporter. After all, it’s about three of my favorite things, plus it’s authored by one of my favorite CTU professors, Antonio Sison, CPPS. It’s a trifecta of food, theology, and film that is sure to please your palate. Click the image below for the full review. Mangia!

foodways