St. Patrick and the Transfiguration

2nd Sunday of Lent, March 17, 2019

Genesis 15: 5-12, 17-18; Psalm 27 1-14; Philippians 3: 17-4:1; Luke 9: 28-36

Our Gospel today is one of those passages that you need a key to open. By that, I mean that it is written in symbols, a kind of Biblical code. Let’s go thru it, piece by piece.

“They went up the mountain to pray” –In the Old Testament, if God is in the sky (the “heavens”), then the higher you go up, the closer you are to God. In the scriptures, people often receive revelations from God on mountains.   Moses was given the Ten Commandments on a mountain; Elijah talked with God on a mountain.

“Jesus face changed and his clothing became dazzling white” – Jesus is portrayed in Luke as the New Moses. Remember that Moses’ face glowed after he came down the mountain with the tablets.  Now Jesus is radiant.  But, Moses just reflected God’s glory/light.  But Jesus actually radiates light; not reflecting God but he himself was the source of the light, just as God is. Also, remember that people with nothing but candles for light treasured light beyond our imagination.

“Moses and Elijah…appear.”- Moses represents the Law, while Elijah was a prophet who brought God’s words to the people- together they brought what was know about God.  They “spoke of the exodus Jesus would accomplish in Jerusalem.”- It is important to know that the transfiguration occurred immediately after Jesus’ 1st prediction of his death and rising to the apostles.   Moses and Elijah discuss it as a planned event. It is an “exodus” in the sense that Jesus leads us, just as Moses led the Israelites from “slavery and bondage” to “newness of freedom”. Only we experience slavery as things like addictions and materialism.

“Peter, James & John had been overcome by sleep.” – I have a granddaughter who, when she was little, would fall sleep whenever curtain girl and her mother would visit. The girl was loud and rough and having her visit totally overwhelmed my shy, gentle granddaughter.  The apostles were overwhelmed, understandably unable to make sense of the scene in front of them.  Is it a dream? A hallucination?  Had they lost their minds?mountai  What is happening; what’s it mean?

“Peter suggests making tents and staying here” – but he misses the point; he’s so like…us. Later, after the resurrection, he will grasp the meaning of this experience and understand who Jesus is and what he has done.  Also, later Peter will have the Words that Jesus spoke and find that the Word is the same as the Jesus’ presence in a body or in a cloud. He will always have Jesus with him.

“A cloud came and cast a shadow” – another reference to Moses. A cloud covered tabernacle tent of the Israelites and filled it, and it was the presence of God.

“This is my chosen Son, listen to him.” – God is telling the apostles to listen to what? To the prediction of the crucifixion and resurrection. Now it has been spoken by Jesus & witnessed by Moses, Elijah, and God. The apostles have seen the Godly radiance of Jesus, and entered the cloud that was God.  Hearing, sight and touch have declared the truth of Jesus to them.   Their silence will end when they receive the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, and they will spend the rest of their lives teaching and testifying about Jesus to the ends of the earth.  Luke writes this to teach us what the apostles learned, and wants our reaction to be the same as theirs.

This passage is read during Lent to remind us of some things. While we don’t need to climb a mountain to pray, we do need space and time set aside for prayer.  Prayer is often when God reveals things to us.  We need to pray every bit as much as to sleep or to eat.  God gives us to revelations as we read scripture or hear things as we listen to religious programs, movies or lectures. We can touch rosary beads or a pocket cross, or other religious articles.  But Jesus is always with us, and learning to see or hear or touch him is necessary. We must take the time to open ourselves to him.

I would like to hold up for you today St. Patrick, for today is his memorial. We have a short spiritual autobiography he wrote, the Confessio.  From this we have some facts, while many of the popular traditions about the snakes and the shamrocks may be legend.

St. Patrick was kidnapped as a slave by Irish raiders in Britain when he was 16, and held as a slave for 6 long, hard years.  He chose to rely on his faith to get him through that.  By a dream, he was shown the way to escape, nearly starving to death before getting back to his family.

He then studied under St. Germanus, who consecrated him later as a Bishop. Again he had a dream, and was literally called to return to Ireland.  For a long time, he struggled with that call.  He felt he was not up to the task, not worthy and certainly scared.  But once he went, he was very successful teaching the faith, baptizing and confirming the native Picts of Ireland as well as the Anglo-Saxons.

Which is not to say that he was safe all the time. He wrote that he lived in constant danger of martyrdom.  Daily he expected to be violently killed or enslaved by the non-Christian Irish.  He had to endure charges by British Clergy who claimed he wanted to be a Bishop only to inflate his pride.  In fact, his writings prove him to be a most humble-minded man, continuously giving thanks to God for sending him to the same people who had enslaved him as a boy.

His Latin was poor, and it took much effort to translate his book and to align what he wrote with known history. But his writing shows a man of truth and simplicity of the rarest quality.  He bared his soul in an unusually frank and honest way.  Even D.A. Binchy, a scholar who is one of Patrick’s most severe critics, wrote, “The moral and spiritual greatness of the man shines through every stumbling sentence.”

So we come full circle to a Saint who also “shines” with the glory of God. He, like the apostles, after a period of fear and reluctance, took the Word of God to people, exposing themselves to harm and violence. They all cultivated their deep relationship with God and clung to their faith as a way to sustain their lives, and changed the history of the world as a result.  When they might have slept safely at home, they awoke and followed God’s call.

We tell the stories of transfiguration and of Saints not only to learn how to follow Jesus, but to question our own lives. Are our lives a time of sleep to avoid the truth and trials we are meant to face?  Do we miss the meaning of what we see?  Do we focus on our troubles or do we focus on God when we are troubled?  Do we really listen to God?  Do we love our enemies? God “frees” us in the most unusual ways to do things we would have never considered otherwise.  Peter had one thing right – “It is good that we are here.”  Where you are supposed to be?

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Lent is Like…

8th Sunday Ordinary Time, year C , March 3, 2019

Sirach 27:4-7; Psalm: 92:2-3, 13-16;1 Corinthians 15:54-58; Luke 6:39-45

Lent is about to begin.  I was reading our Scriptures for today, and two thoughts came to mind. First, I was struck at how well all the readings move us into the mood of Lent.  They start us thinking about our speech, our thought patterns, how we worship God, and the impact that the resurrection has on our lives.  Secondly, I was struck all over again by how skilled and effective Jesus is as a teacher.  As I read the three short parables he gives in our Gospel, I think about how Jesus gave us concrete images which made what he was saying so very understandable, and how what he says becomes easy to apply to everyday life.  In Matthew 13, Jesus says, “The Kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed… or the kingdom of heaven is like a net” and so forth.

So, today, I ask, “How should I explain Lent to you?” Following Jesus’ example, what can I liken it to, that you would better know what it is?

Lent is like a woman who wants to stay healthy. Does she eat rich chocolates all Lent long?  No, instead, after Valentine’s Day, she sets aside chocolates, ice cream, and pastries, and sets her eyes on salads and lean meats.  She labors over a stationary bike, she glistens as she holds Warrior 3 pose in yoga class for ten full minutes; she uses her towel as she struggles with the elliptical machine.  After a while, her breathing is deeper, her blood sugar is lower, her heart and muscles stronger.  Lent is like this, a time when we labor and struggle to build our spiritual strength.  We purposely make time for this change of habits, for inwardly, we knew all the time, that it would benefit us in ways we didn’t even know about yet.

Again, Lent is like the farmer who wants a good crop. Does he sit idly in the pub all winter, watching the football games with the guys or take naps on the couch?  No, there is work to be done.  He must mend the fences so that the animals can’t become lost.  He must clean and sharpen the plows, overhaul the engines on the tractors and machinery, to prevent breakdowns.  He places his order for seeds.  He prunes the fruit trees before the sap begins to rise, so that the fruit will be large and healthy.  Likewise, we need to turn off the TV so we have Bible study time and time for prayer and meditation.  We must sharpen our understanding of the symbols of the wine and the wheat.   We must mend our fences with those we have hurt or offended, we must sow the seeds of good deeds, and trim back our lives from the dead branches of self-centeredness and disregard for the needy and overhaul some of the details of our lives.  Then our crops of charity and faithfulness will be large.

Again, Lent is like a widow who lives alone. Her children have scattered to the West Coast and to Atlanta with important jobs where vacation time is scarce.  Her husband recently died from cancer, and her friends are moving south.  Does she sit silently in her home and mourn her losses during Lent?  No, she looks to it for strength, for comfort and solace.  She calls her friends to encourage them in their troubles and illnesses.  She has taken over writing the Prayers of the Faithful for church, because writing them gives her an opportunity to make those prayers real in her life all week.  She reads the Sunday scriptures every day to enable herself to pray about them and seek out the subtle thoughts.  She now can better apply the lessons of Lent to her life and her attitudes toward her family, her neighbors, and her world.  Likewise, Lent is a time for us to go face-to-face with losses, with broken dreams and shattered expectations.  Lent is a time to re-build relationships with Christian friends we have neglected, and to open our hearts to new friends with whom we can find mutual support.  Perhaps you will make a visit to a shut-in or give time to a charity.  Or maybe find new ways to become active in our church and be part of all the work that goes on from the closing blessing of one Mass to the opening greeting of the next Mass. We can discover the rich blessings of preparing our self for every Mass by reading the scriptures ahead of time and finding lessons in them that are new and seemed designed just for our ears.

Lent is not a season that must be endured, again. Lent is more like boot camp, a point of beginning.  It is a time of intensity that is unequaled in the Church Year.  In some ways, we have to set aside our knowledge of Easter morning, of the resurrection, to really feel the fear of those apostles who recognized that Jesus was in true danger.  We must enter into working hard to face the agony and fear of Jesus as he faced a level of torture we hope to never experience. But some day we will be sick or injured or alone or disappointed in people we thought would be there for us, and will need Lent to prepare us.

We will be unjustly accused of wrong doing at some time, perhaps shamed and ridiculed. Jesus is our model to follow.  We will need to understand the depth and complexity of the washing of the apostles’ feet, as good leaders must be prepared to humble themselves for those they serve.  Can we grow during this time and be fed, on all levels, by the wine and wheat of the Eucharist?  Will be drawn into the mystical meanings of our liturgy and find more there than we ever imagined?

There is no way to celebrate the resurrection; there is no way to grasp the essential message of Easter, without the very strenuous and troubling work of Lent. It’s tough stuff.  Lent is a journey into the ugly side of life, into the darkness of human cruelty, and into the pain of disappointment and despair.  But at the same time, it is a journey into faith, into the answers and responses of Jesus to all that ugliness.  It’s a real-life experience, not preparing us for beauty, or farming, or aging, necessarily, but certainly preparing us again, in a new way, for the grace and mercy of God, and for the certainty of God’s faithfulness to us.  So let us work and cry and suffer together.  Let us do Lent in full this year.  Together we can find meaning; we can find strength and peace we never knew existed.  We will pack away the joyful Alleluias and the Glorias, and find the rock of faith that comes when we answer the call to life beyond rote and ritual.

Homily by Deacon Al

Homily and Scripture Readings for Baptism of the Lord, Jan 13, 2019

Reading 1  IS 42:1-4, 6-7
Thus says the LORD:
Here is my servant whom I uphold,
my chosen one with whom I am pleased,
upon whom I have put my spirit;
he shall bring forth justice to the nations,
not crying out, not shouting,
not making his voice heard in the street.
a bruised reed he shall not break,
and a smoldering wick he shall not quench,
until he establishes justice on the earth;
the coastlands will wait for his teaching.

I, the LORD, have called you for the victory of justice,
I have grasped you by the hand;
I formed you, and set you
as a covenant of the people,
a light for the nations,
to open the eyes of the blind,
to bring out prisoners from confinement,
and from the dungeon, those who live in darkness.

Responsorial Psalm PS 29:1-2, 3-4, 3, 9-10.

  1. The Lord will bless his people with peace.
    Give to the LORD, you sons of God,
    give to the LORD glory and praise,
    Give to the LORD the glory due his name;
    adore the LORD in holy attire.
  2. The Lord will bless his people with peace.
    The voice of the LORD is over the waters,
    the LORD, over vast waters.
    The voice of the LORD is mighty;
    the voice of the LORD is majestic.
  3. The Lord will bless his people with peace.
    The God of glory thunders,
    and in his temple all say, “Glory!”
    The LORD is enthroned above the flood;
    the LORD is enthroned as king forever.
    R. The Lord will bless his people with peace.

Reading 2 – ACTS 10:34-38

Peter proceeded to speak to those gathered
in the house of Cornelius, saying:
“In truth, I see that God shows no partiality.
Rather, in every nation whoever fears him and acts uprightly
is acceptable to him.
You know the word that he sent to the Israelites
as he proclaimed peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all,
what has happened all over Judea,
beginning in Galilee after the baptism
that John preached,
how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth
with the Holy Spirit and power.
He went about doing good
and healing all those oppressed by the devil,
for God was with him.”

 

Alleluia CF. MK 9:7

  1. Alleluia, alleluia.
    The heavens were opened and the voice of the Father thundered:
    This is my beloved Son, listen to him.
    R. Alleluia, alleluia.

 

Gospel LK 3:15-16, 21-22

The people were filled with expectation,
and all were asking in their hearts
whether John might be the Christ.
John answered them all, saying,
“I am baptizing you with water,
but one mightier than I is coming.
I am not worthy to loosen the thongs of his sandals.
He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”

After all the people had been baptized
and Jesus also had been baptized and was praying,
heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended upon him
in bodily form like a dove.
And a voice came from heaven,
“You are my beloved Son;
with you I am well pleased.”

My Homily

If the definition of “Epiphany” is the manifestation of the Divine, this morning’s reading is the 3rd of many extraordinary Epiphanies in the four Gospels.

The first is in St. Luke, when God comes to Bethlehem of Judea, manifesting Himself as a vulnerable infant among the poorest of the poor, namely the shepherds. He comes as a Shepherd just like them but as a Shepherd of women and men – not of sheep and goats; He also comes as their Savior who will head an army of angels in the fight for justice and peace on earth. The Scripture tells how the shepherds were engulfed by a Heavenly Host of Angels – but the actual word in Greek is στρατός (stratios) – which means “an army.” They were encircled by an army of angels.  The infant Jesus comes as a Davidic warrior who is head of this army that will do battle for good. He also manifests Himself as Food for the world, literally laid in a trough where animals eat. He comes so that he can relieve the suffering of all humankind and satisfy our hunger for God.

Then in Matthew God is manifested as King and worshiped as such by the Magi who bring him royal gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. On that day He joins them not only as King, but as the Wisest of Wise Men – because he embodies the divine Wisdom and kingly power of the Almighty.

Today God manifests Himself yet again – this time as THE Prophet – the One to whom all the prophets of Israel pointed – including this last among the long, long line of Old Testament prophets, John the Baptist. John came to prepare the way of the Lord through a Baptism of repentance, but now the Lord is actually here – and HE will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. He also comes as Son of a Father who declares His pleasure in Him by opening the heavens and having His Holy Spirit descend on him.

Following today’s Gospel many more “epiphanies” follow. God manifest Himself as Master of the Elements starting in St. John’s account of His first miracle at the marriage of Canaan where he turns water into the finest wine. Then He manifests Himself as Teacher in His parables and in the Sermon on the Mount; then as Priest and Victim on the cross; then as Redeemer and Conqueror of sin and death at His Resurrection; and in the final epiphany – he manifests Himself as Eternal Ruler and Judge at his Ascension.

Our God is in a constant and eternal process of Epiphany – of manifesting Himself to the World and to each of us.

The question for us this morning is, are we vigilant enough? Perceptive enough? Wise enough?  …to see God when He comes?

John the Baptist knew when God came into his life. Remember a few weeks ago, when Mary came to visit her cousin Elizabeth, the baby John leapt in his mother’s womb at the sound of Mary’s voice and the approach of His Savior.

And here today Luke tells us that John points to his cousin as One mightier than he…one of whom John is “…not worthy to loosen the thongs of his sandals.”

John’s baptism was one of repentance …and he knew Jesus had no need of repentance…but Jesus embraces Baptism as a model for us. Or, as the gospel teaches, the one who had no sin to repent of, takes his place among those who had sin to repent of…just as the one who was sinless takes on the sins of all on the Cross to make reparation to the Father. Jesus starting now at his Baptism, becomes the walking example for us all of how to live in total obedience to God.

In John the Evangelist’s account of this same story, the Baptist is heard to say, “Behold the Lamb of God” …and later, “He must increase, and I must decrease.” The word “Baptism” itself comes from the Greek βαπτίζω (baptiso)  meaning to “submerge and resurface” or better yet to “take a plunge” into something. The Baptist is saying we must take the plunge into God. To allow God to take over …to increase in us.

This is the perfect response for when we meet God – and it mirrors what we did at our own Baptism. At our Baptism, we were “submerged” in water to cleanse us so that we could plunge into Grace. We were arrayed in a new white garment to symbolize our re-emergence into new life as a child of God infused with the Holy Spirit.  And every time we say in the Lord’s Prayer “Thy will be done…” we are aligning ourselves with the Baptist and saying, “increase in me oh God. Let my will decrease and your will increase.”

Today Luke manifests Jesus to us as The Christ, as God and as Savior – but we also witness an announcement – an Annunciation.  Luke after all is master of “Annunciations.” Today we hear the 4th such annunciation in his Gospel.

Several weeks ago, we heard the first Annunciation when Gabriel announced to Zechariah that his elderly and barren wife Sarah was to have a son…Then we heard Gabriel’s BIG Annunciation to Mary that she was to conceive and bear a Son who would grow up to rule His people Israel. The Messiah was coming!

Then to Joseph when an angel announced to him that he should not be afraid to take Mary as his wife for she was bearing the Son of the Most High.  And now “. . . A voice came from heaven, ‘You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.’”

In Matthew’s account of Jesus’ Baptism, the heavenly voice says, “This is my beloved Son,” making it an annunciation to others. But in Mark, and here today in Luke, the Annunciation is: “YOU are my beloved Son …with YOU I am well pleased.” In the baptism story of both Mark and Luke, it is that Jesus who discovers WHO HE IS. This is an Annunciation to Jesus Himself.

Today’s first reading hints at how Jesus will please His Father. He will be a different kind of prophet. The first reading is from a part of the Book of Isaiah known as the Song of the Suffering Servant of Yahweh. Isaiah is reflecting on the implications of responding to Yahweh’s call. He never doubts God has called him to ministry; but he’s to be a prophet like no prophet before him, certainly not a “fire and brimstone” preacher – “Not crying out, not shouting . . . a bruised reed he shall not break, and a smoldering wick he shall not quench . . ..” Isaiah quickly learns he’s unique, with almost no role models on which to fall back.

Jesus is also to be unique – a prophet and teacher like none who had come before him. Jesus is also no “fire and brimstone” preacher, not a foreteller of “doom and gloom” as John the Baptist was. Instead, Jesus will show us by his life how we are to serve God. That is why at his baptism, the gentlest of birds – a dove – descends on him – to mark his commission as our Savior. Jesus is a Savior who will ask us to “Take My yoke upon you, and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart; and you shall find rest for your souls.”

By His baptism Jesus identified with the people, the sinful people He came to save. And by His baptism Jesus submitted to the will of the Father, beginning His service as the Suffering Servant who would die for the sins of the world.   And God the Father approved it …and sent God the Spirit to empower it …and John witnessed it.

God desires each of us to make a commitment to do His will and doing that will means sacrificial service–to God, and to others. That is what the Christian life is all about. It is connected with Christian baptism, because the ritual of baptism was a tremendous sign of commitment to the Christian way. The Christian life is not natural; it is supernatural. Many of us are still realizing what that means. We know that it will not be a natural or easy way of life…and we will need the empowerment of the Holy Spirit–far more than Jesus did.

Let us ask God today, that through prayer and study and by participating in the sacraments – especially the Eucharist – that we will find the courage to take the plunge into God that our Baptism called us to do.

May God bless you…

Where is God’s “House”?

The Holy Family, 12-30-18

1 Samuel 1:20-22, 24-28, Ps 84:2-3, 5-6, 9-10, 1 John 3:1-2, 21-24, Luke 2:41-52

Our readings start with 1st Samuel, and the story of the prophet Samuel as a child. His mother had not been able to have a child, so she had gone to the Temple and prayed, telling God she would bring the child back to the Temple for a lifetime of service there. The Hebrew phrases it more like she had borrowed the child, and them returned him to God. In our terms, Samuel became an “adopted” child of God, a child who grew up in God’s “house”. It sets the stage for the Gospel nicely in terms of the importance of the Temple as a place representing God’s “Home” and presence among us, and the way we connect deeply with God for a lifetime.

Many people have translated today’s Psalm into modern English. Leslie Brandt starts it: “O God, the center of your will is truly the place of fulfillment. I long incessantly for the peace and security of walking with you. You are the only purpose and meaning for my life. Those who discover and follow you are forever blessed.”

Nan Merrill finishes the Psalm this way: “Blessed are they who put their strength in you, who choose to share the joy and sorrows of the world. They do not give way to fear or doubt; their lives are quickened by Divine Light and Power; they dwell within the peace of the Most High, They go from strength to strength and live with integrity.”

I know of no one who can live this way solely because of their own intellect or self-determination. Life is too complex to live without love, too full of stumbling blocks to be without God’s strength, too short to be without hope and faith.

Our second reading from 1st letter of St. John also used to prepare us for the Gospel. John writes that we are “children of God”. It does not mention the Temple. The Temple was probably destroyed by the Romans before this was written, but it was definitively written after Pentecost. John writes somewhat differently about what it is to live in God’s “house”.

He says: God’s commandment is that “(1) we should believe in… his Son, Jesus Christ, and (2) love one another as he commanded us.” So John concludes that “Those who keep (God’s) commandments remain in God, and the way we know that God remains in us, is from the (Holy) Spirit God gave us.” So, God’s dwelling is no longer understood as a building where we go to be with God. Instead, God is within us – which is a huge step when you think about it. But it makes sense, since we were created “in God’s image”, and God proclaimed us “good”, as Fr. Peter talked about last week.

If we are the dwelling place of God – “God’s House” – what is an appropriate and sensible way to run our lives? When God’s dwelling was a building, it was easy to understand there were certain ways to act and behave in God’s house. Ever since God had Moses create a Tent which housed the Ark of the Covenant, great care was taken to use the best of building materials, precious metals, and furniture and lamp stands of certain shapes. Desecrating the Temple was to show contempt or be irreverent. Being abusive, profane, sacrilegious, or disrespectful in the Temple was something that only mortal enemies did after every-able bodied person had given their lives to prevent it.

But my question was this: If God dwells in us, if we are God’s house, what are our responsibilities? John’s answer is straightforward: “to believe” and “to love.” We can trust God; there is no nanosecond of time when God does not love us; God never turns away from us. God is never out of town, or asleep or glued to a screen. Too many people have treated God like “Santa, Baby”- a demanding relationship where we stop believing in God if the blue convertible, the ring, the condo and the checks weren’t delivered by Christmas.

For the Gospel, we must return to the 3-level way of reading. Level 1 is the story line – most of us have heard this story before. Level 2 is the deeper meaning and symbolism. Level 3 is how to make use of it in our lives.

Finding deeper meaning may include asking: How did Mary and Joseph look for Jesus? They looked first among friends and family.  They looked to those who they knew well, they trusted, and who shared their faith and values.  That’s why we have God parents, and faith communities – because we need to be surrounded by people of faith.  But Jesus was not there.

They returned to the Temple, which they saw as the House of God, the center of faith and truth, where they went to be devout and faithful people of God, and observe the time-honored customs of worship.  They diligently conducted an intense search for a child they loved, and who was precious to them.  They would not leave until they found him, the child Jesus was all they thought about. They looked for their son in every corner of the Temple, not just in the open courts.  They even went to the special places where the teachers, the wise ones and the scholars met, those who devoted their lives to the study and practice of their faith, and they found him there, to their astonishment.

How do we use the passage we read to find Jesus in our own lives? In the first paragraph of Luke’s Gospel, he writes that he has closely studied the life of Jesus “from the beginning…from eyewitnesses and ministers of the word…so that (we) may know the truth…”  The Bible, then, is a good place to start the search for Jesus.

The community of faith often searches for Jesus together, sharing what their experiences have taught them. But that is not enough. Our search must be diligent and intense, including regular daily prayer and study time, which may mean re-working your daily schedule. We choose to be obedient to God and grow in wisdom.  Becoming an active participant in the worship of the faith community is important. This is the pattern of faithful Christian living that brings us to fullness of life. Continuing the search persistently is absolutely necessary.  It must continue until our last day.

So these readings are not just story lines from long ago, not just poems about a God that lives in a place far away. Rather, they point us toward a way of life – the Christian Life, a life of community of belief, and a pattern of love.  They are about the way we are to live going forward from the manger where the child was born, the God who created everything we know, who came to earth to live with us and live as one of us, and live within us.

The Greatest Travelogue Ever!!

1st Sunday of Advent

Dec. 4, 2018, Beginning of liturical year C

This year I thought we would take a little different approach to Advent. From the 1st Sunday of Advent, today, thru the Christmas season, we will highlight each week specific characters or events in the Christmas story.  The goals are to make parts of the story come to life a little more, to better see the intent of the Gospel writers, and discover deeper meaning.

This week we start with the trip that Mary and Joseph took from Nazareth to Bethlehem.  We start with a reminder that the Roman Empire occupied the Holy Lands at that time.  A call for a census could not be ignored.  This story begins in a time and place of bondage, of fear, and oppression.  It was a time that religion demanded that people make blood offerings to appease God.

Let us follow the journey of Mary and Joseph to see what it tells us. We start in the hill country of Nazareth, about ¾ the way up a map of Biblical Palestine.  They have two choices to get to Bethlehem.  The is to travel east and cross the Jordan River, then follow the heavily traveled caravan road south, cross back at Jericho, and climb the steep grade to Jerusalem, and go south to Bethlehem.  This was the longer of the 2 routes, and the busiest.  The 2nd route is an ancient road called the “Way of the Patriarchs”.  It is less traveled, shorter (20+miles), but you must pass through Samaria. It is about 95 miles, ten days on foot; for us, a drive of 2 ¼ hours.

You remember the prejudice against the Samaritans. They were considered “unclean” and even “dangerous”.  But you also remember the parable of the “Good Samaritan” and the Samaritan Woman at the Well, in Sychar.  It is interesting to consider that Jesus used a Samaritan to teach the command to love our neighbors; he may have first learned that love from Mary and Joseph.

But much of what is called the “West Bank” today was Samaria in the day of Jesus; the Palestinians there now are the “Samaritans” of our day.  Many tours have stopped going there because of the “danger.” We don’t know for fact that Mary and Joseph took this 2nd road, but Rev. Adam Hamilton, pastor and author of “The Journey”, and noted archaeologist Avner Goren agree that this road makes sense.

As Mary and Joseph traveled south out of Nazareth, they traveled around beautiful Mount Tabor, mentioned in the Psalms, an ancient site of worship, and said to be the site of the Transfiguration of Jesus.  Then they moved into the plain of the Jezreel Valley, which is now the most fertile farmland in Israel.  There were hundreds of olives trees there then, and trees still remain that are believed to be from that time.  Our anointing rites are based in the use of sacred oils, olive oils.

The Jezreel Valley was the site many ancient battles, including the battle between King Saul and the Philistines (think David and Goliath) , where evil Queen Jezebel killed a man to get his vineyards, Gideon defeated the Midianites, and prophesized to be the site of the final battle in the end times (Armageddon/ in Megiddo).

So Mary and Joseph have begun a trip of Biblical history covering a period of some 16 centuries. Abraham came from the north, from Haran, thru Shechem, Beth El, and down to Hebron.  The tombs of Abraham and Sarah are in Beer-sheva.  Jacob, their grandson, was given land in Samaria, and Jacob’s well is the Well in Sychar, where the “Woman” met Jesus. No doubt Mary and Joseph made camp near that well.   Jacob’s son Joseph was buried near Shechem also.  As they moved south, they went through Shiloh, where Joshua set up the tent of the Ark of the Covenant after entering the Promised Land.  This is where Samuel, Elijah and Elisha were prophets.

The Assyrian and Babylonian armies entered Israel on this road – and left on it taking the people as exiles and all the gold and silver from the Temple.  It is also how the exiles re-entered their homeland some 40 years later, to rebuild their nation.  It is amazing to think that God walked with those exiles as they returned, and now, almost 550 years later, Mary carries a child who is called the Prince of Peace over this same route.  It feels like a point of closure to thousands of years of history.

Luke begins his Gospel this way: “Inasmuch as many have… set in order a narrative of those things which have been fulfilled among us… it seemed good to me also, having had a perfect understanding of all things from the very first, to write to you an orderly account,… that you might know the certainty of those things…” (Luke 1:1;3-4)  

There certainly are those who dismiss Luke’s account of Mary and Joseph’s journey as a fictional story. But we have historical sources concerning the Governor Quirinius, like the Roman historian, Tacitus (Annals 3.48) and the Jewish/Roman historian, Flavius Josephus (Antiquities of the Jews 18.1-2). New Testament historian Jack Finegan says, “Many actual census returns have been found, and they use the very same word (ἀπογράφω) which Luke 2:2 uses for the “enrollment.” (From web site: Cross examined. Org.) So, on the factual level, it is entirely possible it did happen.

But all of the Gospels should be read on three levels – the simple reading of the event itself, the meaning intended by the author, and the application to our lives. The simple meaning (the storyline): In extraordinary love, how God came to earth as a fragile and vulnerable baby, in humility, meager circumstances, and with all the normal inconveniences of life.

What about the intent of Luke’s story?  Luke is certainly placing Jesus in the spotlight of salvation history. Jesus is the Messiah, the Promised One, and his entry into the world is straight down the main aisle of the Cathedral of what is the “Holy Land”, as if he is on the last, most awaited and most important float in the parade of all parades. All the main characters of the ancient faith line the side of the road, waiting for hundreds of years just to have a glimpse of him, to be able to say, “I was there that day.” Luke has taken the story from the very beginning, so that you might know, even before you read about the teaching, the miracles, the rising from the dead, that Jesus was the Son of God.

And there is where we come in. Have you ever sat down and read Luke? I mean all of it, the 24 chapters.   It would take you 3 weeks if you read a little each day. It is one of the most documented, literary, and polished Gospels. You have just about (coincidentally) that much time before Christmas. Stop! Picture the scenes! Think about the message! You will find the Holy Spirit there, waiting for you, waiting to stir your heart. Warning: it will make 1 hour on Sunday too little for you. It will make you want more. It will take your “comfortable ignorance” as one Catholic put it, and turn it into thirst and hunger. When that happens, I will tell you about the sequel to Luke’s story.

Choices and Decisions

21st Sunday Ordinary time 8-26-18;

Joshua 24:1-2a, 15-17, 18b; Ps 34:2-3, 16-21 Ephesians 5:2a, 25-32; John 6:60-69

We need to take the readings in order today because they work nicely together to make a particular point about choices that we face.  For a Bible scholar, Joshua 24 is highly important in the history of Israelite traditions. It preserves remnants of an ancient liturgy for the renewal of the covenant.  Joshua led the tribes of Israel into the Promised Land after the death of Moses.  He wanted to have the people united by worshiping a single God.  Joshua calls all the people and leaders together, and he puts before them the question of who that God will be.  Will it be one of the idol-Gods that the neighboring tribes worship?  Joshua makes clear that he and his family will worship the Lord.  And the people also vow to worship the Lord, for the Lord was the one who freed them from slavery.  They have seen the great miracles the Lord did to protect them and feed them. The Lord was their God and they were the Lord’s people.

The reading from Ephesians is also about a choice. Because of cultural misunderstandings, and a very questionable translation of very complex Greek grammar, this passage has been inappropriately used to twist the love of Christ for the Church into an invalid excuse to claim that St. Paul is demanding that wives be “subordinate” to their husbands.  As the passage was read today is closer to the real meaning.  It starts by saying that Christ chose to come to earth because he was deeply in love with us, a love which far exceeds anything else we experience in this life.  You know, of course, that the word “Church” as used here is not a religious institution created by humans.  Rather, it means all of the people who believe in the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ, and who strive to follow Christ’s life of love.  Through Christ’s gift of love, we are presented to God in splendor, without spot or wrinkle, holy and without blemish.  We are to model that relationship in our love of each other, particularly our spouse, but we are to commit to love within a marriage with that level of depth and intensity.  Paul is not talking about convenience or hormones, but choice.  Once again, the covenant agreement that the Israelites made with the Lord is the same image as marriage vows between spouses.

Now we are ready to look at a choice to be made between Jesus and the people he is teaching. A reminder – anyone could or can be a disciple of Jesus.  The disciples of Jesus were and are a very large group of people who want to live the life he teaches.  The Twelve Apostles are a small group who were selected by Jesus to be with him through his entire ministry on earth.

It’s best to go thru this Gospel reading closely to see what is happening. When we left off last week, Jesus had just said, “The one who feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him…” Not surprisingly, many of the disciples respond, “This saying is harsh; this sort of talk is hard to take.”   The sense of the Greek is that what Jesus said was somewhere between fantasy and offensive. They hear him say it, but they cannot accept it.   Jesus says, “Does it shock you/ scandalize you, or does it shake your faith?”

Have you ever found yourself in that position, where something shook your faith? I knew an Independent Catholic priest whose young adult son died of cancer. His father was so shocked that he walked out of his church and never returned. He felt certain that prayers would save his son, that he would be healed. He was so overcome by his loss that he walked away from his faith. The idea of disciples walking away from Jesus because of something harsh or scandalizing is not just an event in the Bible; it is something that happens now, too.

So then Jesus proposes a question. “What if you were to see him ascending to heaven?” Of course, John’s Gospel was written after the ascension of Jesus, so this question makes perfect sense to the readers. Back in verse 42, the crowd had already protested when Jesus had said he had come from heaven (“don’t we know his father and his mother?”) But this crowd couldn’t imagine such a thing.   He continues, “It is the Spirit that gives life, the flesh is useless.” Flesh is like flowers that wither and fade, worth no more than to be thrown in the fire.

You are probably thinking, but – Jesus had just said in verse 52 that …”my flesh is true food…the one who feeds on my flesh …remains in me and I in him.” Perhaps you also noticed in the first two readings in our series from John, Jesus talked the “crowd”. For the last two weeks, Jesus has been talking to “the Jews” and now Jesus is talking to his “disciples.” We simply do not know how or when or why or who made these changes. Some people find the seeming inconsistencies in Scripture difficult, or scandalizing. One theory is that later editors of the Scriptures have made changes or added teachings to make the reading reflect the changes that happened as the understanding of theologians became clearer and more unified among the churches. As archeology and scholarship advances, we come to different conclusions about the early church. Our knowledge of the way words were used and our understanding of the culture of Jesus’ day have grown. We have the guidelines of the Bible and Tradition to help us get through these changes with our faith intact and even enriched. And the Holy Spirit is there to translate the words of Jesus to us in a true and helpful way. We have been given the Spirit that we might have a fuller life, more abundant truth, and the Spirit’s intercession with God. As Jesus said, “The words I have spoken to you are both Spirit and life…”

At the time John wrote this Gospel, there were heresies that taught that Jesus was not divine, but only a prophet or wise man. That is why Jesus is described here as all-knowing, having divine knowledge of who will believe in Jesus’ teachings, as illustrated by the comment that “Jesus knew from the beginning who would not believe in him.” In no way does this suggest that people lack the full capacity of free choice and or that they cannot change.

Again, a note about culture: in the Mediterranean world, allegiance between each apostle of a group and its leader was strong. The leader recruited each apostle personally and individually. So Peter answers Jesus’ question about the apostles leaving. Peter’s response translated into Mediterranean cultural values is: we have made a commitment to you, no matter what (“we have believed”). I think John is hoping that we will recognize Peter as the leader of the apostles after Jesus’ ascension, and that we will be strengthened in difficult times by his response. Peter gives 3 reasons not to leave the faith in the face of crisis. One, there is no alternative to the One true God. Two, Jesus has given us the words of eternal life. His teaching not only has wisdom, but Jesus has opened the way to eternity. Lastly, Peter has been convinced by what he has seen and heard; that Jesus is the long-awaited “Holy One”.

Even, or maybe especially, when life is hard, the way seems dark, and we struggle, we must continue in the faith, stay in the Word of God, and cling to the Holy Spirit. That is the decision Peter made, along with the other apostles, and the choice that John is urging us to make, too.

Culture and Changes

19th Sunday Ordinary time, August 12, 2018

Texts:  Kings 19:4-8; Ps 34:2-9; Ephesians 4:30-5:2; John 6:41-51

We continue to read from the Gospel of John, chapter 6.  Two weeks ago, we read the miracle of the loaves and fishes, where Jesus fed a crowd of 5,000 or more people with 5 barley loaves and 2 fish.  Everyone ate as much as they wanted, and still there were leftovers.   We also learned that John’s Gospel was primarily written for people who had already accepted Christianity, and John’s goal is to deepen their faith and their understanding of Jesus.

Last week we found Jesus trying to enlarge the crowd’s understanding of “bread” and “work”; he told them to not work for food which perishes, but for food that leads them to eternal life. They ask Jesus for manna, the heavenly bread that God gave the Israelites after they escaped Egypt.  Jesus responded that God gives the true bread from heaven, and they ask for that bread.  Jesus then says, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.” He talks of becoming close to God, of gaining wisdom and understanding.

We pick up there today, and we begin to notice some changes in the way the story is told. First, we start off with “The Jews” murmured about Jesus because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.”  In our first two readings, the crowd is referred to as “the people” or just “they”.  Suddenly they are referred to as “the Jews”.  That label, in John’s Gospel, indicates unbelievers, especially those hostile to Jesus in Jerusalem. The crowd came looking for free food, and they are disappointed that no magic bread has appeared.  They are critical because Jesus said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” Oddly enough, John did not record Jesus saying that exact statement in the previous verses.

There are two pieces of Mediterranean culture you need to know to understand this scene. First, “Honor” was very important, and honor required that a person stay in their family’s social status, maintain it, and never consider “getting ahead.” Unlike our culture, any attempt then to raise your social status or behave differently from your birth status was shameful because it was seen as divisive and disruptive to the community. Second, the way that people were pressured to follow the rules of society was to be sharply criticized and shamed. So the crowd immediately and bluntly reminds Jesus of who his parents are (not from heaven) and what their social status is, in attempt to belittle him and “keep him in his place”. Jesus tells them to stop complaining.

John used the exact same word for their “murmurs” (or complaints) as is used for the complaints of the Israelites in Exodus (the people who received the manna from God). Those people were portrayed as shallow people who had just been divinely rescued from hard labor and slavery and were not only ungrateful but outrageously rude to and demanding of God. The crowd who, a few verses ago, had difficulty grasping the symbolism of bread now sounds like Rabbis arguing about scripture. Now they use the formal “How can he say” format that was traditional when debating a meaning of the scriptures.

The crowd is behaving just as the label “The Jews” would indicate, with hostility. So Jesus offers the crowd an alternative to hostility. He says, “No one can come to me unless the Father…draws him…” Draw means to “bring near”. In this case, it means to bring someone near to Scripture, and open to them the knowledge of God. For John, when we listen and learn from God, we become close with/ near to Jesus. Jesus quotes a verse from Isaiah 54:13, that in the New Jerusalem, in the last days, “(the people) shall be taught (directly) by God”, a very personal relationship indeed.

It seems that someone different wrote this part of our reading, maybe a later editor added something or changed it. Biblical studies can be complicated by such events. We don’t have the originals of any of the Gospels, only copies that have been made by scribes whose tedious jobs were to copy them by hand, and the copies do not always agree. We do not know for sure who the original writers were, and who may have changed or added information, and Bible experts do not always agree even to what the author meant.

This is a good place to look at our other readings. In 1st Kings, we see the angel of God bring bread to Elijah, who was in deep despair and exhausted. It was a way to heal and restore Elijah to health and wholeness; it shows great care and gentleness. Likewise, the 2nd reading urges us to be kind, compassionate, and forgiving. Bitterness, anger, shouting, abusive language, and intent to harm or injure others has no place in our lives and grieves the Holy Spirit. We are to imitate God, living in love as Christ loved us. The Psalm urges us to “taste and see” how good God is. All 3 readings speak of God’s love and goodness.

So today we had new and different language (“The Jews” instead of ‘the crowd);  we have the mood of the crowd change, as they belittle Jesus. Last week, I said, “The miracle of the multiplication of the loaves opened the door for people to have an insight into who Jesus was and how he will “feed” our souls for eternity. Now, we have a new image for the bread, a more traditional Eucharistic image of the bread as the body of Christ. Now Jesus says, “I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, they will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.” This is the introduction of another way of viewing bread, one that speaks strongly of the Eucharist rather than just manna/bread and learning wisdom and coming to understand God. And that is where we will pick up next week!  Join me then!