Session Materials

This section contains weekly sessions for each of the liturgical cycles and solemnities that displace Sunday Gospel readings. as well as thematic sessions.

Year A Session Materials

A Men’s Ministry is a fellowship of men in a parish designed to enrich their relationships with God and apply their faith to their daily lives. The men tried to capture the purpose, goals, and the spirit of the new Men’s Ministry in their Mission Statement:

Year A: Advent

Year A: First Sunday of Advent

Preparing for the Son of Man

Matthew 24:37-44

For as it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. In those days before the flood, they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day that Noah entered the ark. They did not know until the flood came and carried them all away. So will it be [also] at the coming of the Son of Man. Two men will be out in the field; one will be taken, and one will be left. Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken, and one will be left. Therefore, stay awake! For you do not know on which day your Lord will come. Be sure of this: if the master of the house had known the hour of night when the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and not let his house be broken into. So too, you also must be prepared, for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come.

Discussion Questions:

  1. When thinking about the end of your life or the end of history, do you look forward with joy or dread to the coming of the Son of Man? What does your reaction to this passage suggest about your image of and relationship with God?
  2. If you had the gift of knowing the day and hour your life would end, how would you use your remaining days differently in preparation? Explain
  3. Beyond celebrating the birth of Jesus, in what new ways can you prepare for and welcome the Lord into your daily life this Advent?
  4. What spiritual practices help your awareness of the spiritual dimension of people and things in the context of everyday life?

Biblical Context

Matthew 24:37-44
Sr. Mary McGlone CSJ

Today’s reading from Matthew skips over the line most scholars see as the first of this short selection: “But of that day and hour, no one knows, neither the angels of heaven nor the Son, but the Father alone.” (Matthew 24:36) As one commentary noted, the end of the world is a pretty big deal for God to keep secret from Jesus and the angels! That unknowing fits right in with the aphorisms we hear in this short reading. The only definitive thing Jesus says about “that day” is that the disciples should stay awake and be ready for it.

The examples Jesus used in this selection are even more confusing than typical parables. When he talked about Noah it was pretty clear that the people on the losing end of the deal were those who ate and drank and married instead of building an ark. But in the examples of the men working in the field or the women at the mill, it’s unclear whether to “be taken” is reward or punishment. The final example about the thief in the night is pretty clear — nobody wants to be robbed. We’re left wondering if and why Jesus might want us to think of him as a burglar…

Apparently the thrust of Jesus’ teaching is to say that there’s no point in speculating about the end. The only thing for sure is that it will come at an unexpected time and in an unexpected way. It seems that the gist of the message is “Live as if you were going to die tomorrow and as if you were going to live forever.” That’s the truth.

Christians are called to live in a strange equilibrium, loving life and every bit of God’s creation while holding it lightly because we know it is destined for transformation. Advent invites us to remember the long and the short of it. We look to Christ’s return in glory but don’t worry about the details. Instead we keep Isaiah’s vision in mind, allowing it to orient and lead us to participate in making the things of this earth all that they can be.

Spiritual Commentary

John Shea

There is a story entitled, “What is the World Like?”:

God and a man are walking down the road. The man asks God, “What is the world like?” God replies, “I cannot talk when I am thirsty. If you could get me a drink of cool water, we could discuss what the world is like. There is a village nearby. Go and get me a drink.

The man goes into the village and knocks at the door of the first house. A comely young woman opens the door. His jaw drops, but he manages to say, “I need a glass of cool water.”

“Of course,” she says, smiling, “but it is midday. Would you care to stay for some food? “I am hungry,” he says, looking over his shoulder. “And your offer of food is a great kindness.” He goes in and the door closes behind him.

Thirty years go by. The man who wanted to know what the world was like and the woman who offered him food have married and raised five children. He is a respected merchant and she is an honored member of the community. One day a terrible storm comes in off the ocean and threatens their life. The merchant cries out, “Help me, God.”

A voice from the midst of the storm says, “Where is my cup of cold water?”

Spiritual traditions always warn people about becoming lost in the world. (They also warn about being lost in God, but that’s another issue.) The demands of everyday life are merciless. There is always more to do and not enough time to do it. A friend of mine wants inscribed on her tomb the saying, “It’s always something.” At times this constant activity may be boring; at other times it may be exciting. But from the point of view of the story it breeds lack of attention to the demands of God.

What is the world like? The answer of the story is that it is a place of forgetfulness. Or, in the metaphor of Matthew’s text, it is a place where we fall asleep. We do not stay attentive to the spiritual dimension of life. Eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, working in the field, and grinding at the mill take all our time and, more importantly, take all our mind. When this happens, we find ourselves lacking passion, purpose, and pleasure. As one perplexed person put it, “How can I be so busy and yet so empty?”

This dominance of everyday activity is particularly true in the Christmas season. Already busy people become busier. They have to prepare for the season, which often means more shopping and more work. Unfortunately, this frantic preparation often puts people to sleep spiritually. People begin to long not for the birth of the Christmas Christ, but for the lazy, doldrums days of January. The rush of the season works against the message of the season. Almost everyone has experienced his or her spirits being depleted and even defeated. However, often the alarm does not go off.

We tolerate what T.S. Eliot called, “living and partly living.” We wrongly treat spirit as a luxury. If our bodies are hurting, we will pay attention to them and work hard to recover our physical health. If our financial security or social status is under attack, we will struggle and fight ceaselessly for our money and position. But we will allow our spirit to languish and even atrophy. This tendency to neglect spirit may be the underlying insight of Matthew into the people of Noah’s time. They valued everything but the Spirit that ultimately sustained them.

How are we to keep spiritually aware in the midst of everyday activity? How are we to keep awake while working in the field and grinding at the mill? This is not easy. We may have the desire, but we may lack the know-how. And to shout the command, “stay awake!” (v. 42; NAB) as St. Matthew’s Jesus does, may strengthen commitment, but it does not show a way forward. We need to complement desire with strategies.

Some friends of mine, long-time victims of the stress of everyday activities, suggest smuggling spiritual exercises into the world of work. A Jewish doctor says a Hebrew prayer of purification every time she washes her hands. She explains that the prayer is not meant to purify but to remind her that the person she is treating is more than their disease. In other words, she stays awake to the spiritual dimension of people while she attends to their bodily distress.

A man pauses before a Christmas tree in the building where he works. He brings to mind the connection between heaven and earth and ponders the theological truth that creation is grounded in God. He says that as long as he holds onto this truth, his day goes better. “I notice more. I see the deeper sides of people. And I’m more patient, and respectful.” The awareness of Spirit brings pleasure, passion, and purpose.

Spiritual exercises help us “stay awake through the night.” These exercises may be the rituals and prayers of a faith tradition we engage in with other people. But they may also be home grown practices. Personal “things” we have learned to cultivate in order to stay focused on the deeper dimension of life. These practices become the path to the Gospel value of constant, vigilant awareness. And constant, vigilant awareness is the precondition in order to know and respond to the “coming of the Son of Man” and the arrival of the “day of the Lord.”

Spiritual Commentaries and Teachings are excerpted from The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers by John Shea © 2004 by Order of Saint Benedict. Published by Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota. Used with permission.

Year A: Second Sunday of Advent

Repentance
Changing the Heart and Mind for new Action

Matthew 3: 1-12

In those days John the Baptist appeared, preaching in the desert of Judea and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” It was of him that the prophet Isaiah had spoken when he said: “A voice of one crying out in the desert,

‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.’”

John wore clothing made of camel’s hair and had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey. At that time Jerusalem, all Judea, and the whole region around the Jordan were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the Jordan River as they acknowledged their sins. When he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance. And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you, God can raise up children to Abraham from these stones. Even now the ax lies at the root of the trees. Therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.

I am baptizing you with water, for repentance, but the one who is coming after me is mightier than I. I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fan is in his hand. He will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

Discussion Questions: 

  1. Does Advent take on any new or deeper spiritual meaning for you each year, or is it becoming a tired tradition where you comply ritually but your heart is untouched? What would bring more life to the season of Advent? Explain what might be missing for you. A feeling of …?
  2. Baptism is a way of renewal, of dying to a previous life and emerging to a new life. As this year comes to a close and a new year begins, what do you hope to leave behind or “die to”? And, what “new life” do you hope to be emerging to? What forms of repentance/metanoia are you looking to make?
  3. In what ways might your heart be most open to God this Advent?

Repent and Metanoia: Often used together but slightly different.

 

Repent: a repenting or being penitent; feelings of sorrow, especially for wrongdoing; compunction; contrition; remorse. Turning from self back to God.

Metanoia: a transformative change of heart and mind especially: a spiritual conversion.

Both words imply an “about face” in replacing one set of behaviors for another. Hopefully the heart and our intentions catch up with our new actions. But, “feeling ready” is not necessary to make change happen!

Announcing the Coming Savior

Sr. Mary M. McGlone CSJ

John the Baptist takes center stage in the Second Week of Advent. Matthew portrays him as a prophet’s prophet. Although Luke presents him as son of Elizabeth and Zechariah, Matthew has him “appear” in the desert as if out of nowhere other than from God’s eternal plan. John is as unlike his ordinary contemporaries as Jesus will be like them. Between them they almost depict the contrast between belief in a fearsome, punishing image of God and the shepherd of lost sheep. John knows he is not the centerpiece of his day, but he also knows that he plays a vital role.

John’s mission was to gear the people up, to remind them of how all the promises of old assured them that the broken world they knew was neither the will of God nor was it definitive. Relying on his religious traditions, John interpreted his times and preached that God would soon intervene, but the people had to be ready if they were to be a part of what God was about to do in their midst.

John’s baptism was the sign of their preparation. It was a proclamation of each one’s desire for metanoia. John stirred up the hearts of his people, reminding them that the shallowness of their lives and the institutional injustice of their society was sin and therefore both unnecessary and vincible. John’s mission was to drive home the message that the way things were was not the only possibility, that God had something much better in mind.

John’s apocalyptic images were geared to explode every sluggish mindset. He wasn’t saying that there was no good in his society. There were fruit-bearing trees, and there was wheat as well as chaff, but it was time for a major shakeup. John wanted each person to judge her or his own life, sifting weed from grain and then go into the water to come out renewed and ready for what was to come.

This is a hard time of year to proclaim the prophetic message of metanoia. It’s a tougher sell than is typically intended with “Let’s put Christ back in Christmas” campaigns. That’s why we need John the Baptists to force us to ask “Is this all there is?” While the metanoia message may seem to be a downer in the holidays, it is truly the only way to get at the meaning of the season.

John the Baptizer will always seem to be a voice crying out in the wilderness; it’s the task of today’s prophets to remind others that too much of this world is a wilderness of our own creation, and that’s precisely why we can hope for a change.

Ultimately, because we believe in God, hope is the message of the day. Today’s loudest voice in the wilderness may well be Pope Francis who in “Laudato Si’, on Care for Our Common Home” invites us to pray:

Triune God, wondrous community of infinite love … Awaken our praise and thankfulness for every being that you have made. Give us the grace to feel profoundly joined to everything that is … God of love, show us our place in this world as channels of your love … O Lord, seize us with your power and light, help us to protect all life, to prepare for a better future, for the coming of your Kingdom of justice, peace, love and beauty. (#246)

Leading the Heart

Spiritual Commentary
John Shea

So, I will allure her; I will lead her into the desert and speak to her heart. (Hos 2:16; NAB)

I have translated this, “The desert will lead you to your heart where I shall speak.” The heart is the material pump of the body, the physical muscle that keeps blood flowing and the body alive. In biblical theology it becomes a metaphor for the spiritual center of the person. The ‘heart” is a space of consciousness where the person is both open to God and ready to act on that openness. It keeps spiritual life flowing and the spiritual person alive. To say, “the heart is hard,” is to imply the person is not in conscious contact with God and consequently does not act out of that awareness. There is no flow. To say, “the heart is on fire,” is to imply the person is in conscious contact with God and is acting out of that awareness. There is flow. It is the heart where the deepest contact with both God and the world is made.

But how do we get to the heart? How do we allow consciousness to rest in the spiritual center of our being?

The desert will lead us there. In particular, the person who lives in the desert will lead us there. But be warned. His tactics are rigorous. The heart is camouflaged by self-deceptions, and we are skilled in not looking at these most comforting delusions. But the voice crying in the wilderness is determined to make us look. There is something infinitely better than our present way of deception. But we will not be open to it until we acknowledge and let go of the avoiding strategies of the mind. Repentance is the path.

Repentance begins by entering the desert. The desert means “off on our own,” far from the madding crowd. Until we enter into solitude and do some inner work, we are always a one-sided creation of other people. We are living a life we have not investigated and claimed. It may be a safe life, a well-respected life, and a well-rewarded life, but it is not our life. We need to purify and simplify, to come back to what is essential, and to rethink where we have been and where we are going. We need to uncover the core desires that drive us and evaluate them.

A first step on the path to the heart is: “Who taught us to flee from the wrath that is to come?” Who taught us to act only as a reaction to the possibility of injury? Why do we only do things to protect ourselves? In fact, we may have come to the desert in this half-hearted position. We are not seeking authentic living, but only some external compliance that may keep us from harm. But heart action is not

reactive behavior to the dangers of life. Heart action is the overflow of inner fullness. But we will not reach the heart until we realize how blindly we are attached to the reactive ego.

The path to the heart continues with the injunction, “Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘There is something special about us that God loves and this exempts us from this painful process of honest appraisal.’” In other words, we deceive ourselves. We identify with some aspect of “who we are” that we think will spare us. Then we market that delusion to ourselves and to others. The hard word of the heart leader insists that what God loves is this painful process. For it is through this process of “disidentifying” with our “self-righteousness’ that we open to the heart. The open heart receives God’s life and conveys it into the world.

When we arrive at the heart, we will know the truth of loving both God and neighbor. Until we arrive there, we are deluded. We live in what Reb Menahem Nendle of Korzk, known as the Kotzker, called a world of phantoms—false perceptions we treat as real. The story is told of the Kotzker:

One day he and Reb Hirsh of Tomashov came to bridge where several women began throwing stones at them.

“Have no fear,” said the Kotzker. ‘They are not real women, nor are there stones real. They are mere phantoms.

Reb Hirsh was silent for a moment, then asked, “Might we not be phantoms too?

No,” came the Kotzker’s answer, “as long as we have at some time had the genuine urge to repent.” (Abraham Joshua Heschel, A Passion for Truth [New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1973])

The “genuine urge to repent” is an expression of our desire to be real, to be conscious of our ultimate grounding and live out of that grounding. Why did the people come to John and submit to his harsh words and tactics?

Why do we continue to journey to his desert? We sense the promise in repentance, the promise to move beyond half-heartedness and delusion, the promise to be real, the promise that will lead us to our heart.

 

 Spiritual Commentaries and Teachings are excerpted from The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers by John Shea © 2004 by Order of Saint Benedict. Published by Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota. Used with permission.

Year A: Third Sunday of Advent

Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?

Matthew 11: 2-11

When John heard in prison of the works of the Messiah, he sent his disciples to him with this question, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another? ”Jesus said to them in reply, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them. And blessed is the one who takes no offense at me.” (Jesus’ to John)


As they were going off, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John, “What did you go out to the desert to see? A reed swayed by the wind? Then what did you go out to see? Someone dressed in fine clothing? Those who wear fine clothing are in royal palaces. Then why did you go out? To see a prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written: “Behold, I am sending my messenger ahead of you; he will prepare your way before you.” Amen, I say to you, among those born of women there has been none greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.


Discussion Questions:

  1. Both John and his disciples were expecting a very different messiah from what they found in Jesus. They did not recognize him. Has your idea or expectations of who Jesus is changed over the years?
  2. Jesus probes the crowd about why they went into the desert, what were they looking for? Looking into the heart to see what drives us is not an easy task. (It is like being in the desert) When you examine your heart this Advent season, what are looking for?
  3. Do you think the idea of Christ as judge, is comforting or frightening for you? Explain.

Biblical Context

Dr Margaret Nutting Ralph PHD


We move now from the third chapter of Matthew, in which John the Baptist announced the coming of one greater than he, to the eleventh chapter, in which John sends his own disciples to ask Jesus whether or not he is “the one who is to come,” the expected messiah. For many of us this question comes as a surprise. Didn’t John recognize Jesus?

In Matthew’s Gospel John is arrested before the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. Immediately after Jesus’ temptation in the desert, and before his public ministry begins, Matthew tells us that, ‘When he [Jesus] heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee… (Matt 4:12). So John did not witness Jesus’ ministry; he simply heard about it while he was in prison.

The question that John’s disciples ask Jesus is, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” The fact that they had to ask this question reveals that the kind of messiah they expected was quite different from the kind of messiah that Jesus turned out to be. Jesus was not immediately recognizable to them.

Jesus does not answer the question directly. He does not say, “Yes, I am the one who is to come.” Rather, Jesus draws the disciples’ attention to his works: “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them.” When we read today’s Old Testament passage from Isaiah (Isa 35: l-6a) we will see that the signs Jesus names are the same signs that Isaiah names when he talks about the coming of the Lord:

Be strong, fear not! Here is your God, he comes with vindication; with divine recompense he comes to save you. Then will the eyes of the blind be opened, the ears of the deaf be cleared; then will the lame leap like a stag,

Scripture scholars suggest that John, like his contemporaries, did not immediately recognize Jesus as the expected messiah because he, too, expected a very different kind of messiah from what Jesus turned out to be. We saw in last week’s Gospel that John described the “one who is to come” in somewhat harsh terms. When John called the Pharisees and Sadducees “a brood of vipers,” he asked them, “Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?” (Matt 3:7). Then, in describing the ministry of the one who was to come John said, “His winnowing fan is in his hand. He will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (Matt 3:12). It seems that John was expecting a harsher and more judgmental messiah than Jesus turned out to be. Jesus knew that he was not what was expected; that is why Jesus says, “And blessed is the one who takes no offense at me.

Jesus then speaks to the crowd about John. John is truly a great man, not because he speaks persuasively on the fad of the day (“A reed swayed by the wind”), and not because he is a rich celebrity (“someone dressed in fine clothing”), but because he is a prophet. The Jews had not had recent prophets. The last book in the works of the prophets is Malachi, which dates to the time after the Babylonian exile, some 450 years before Christ. Jesus is quoting Malachi when he says,

Behold I am sending my messenger ahead of you; he will prepare your way before you. However, Malachi pictures God saying; Lo, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me.


By changing Malachi’s “me” to “you,” Jesus is reinterpreting the passage to refer to himself. Jesus is stating what John said in last week’s Gospel: John is a great prophet because he was sent to prepare the way for Jesus. The answer to John’s original question, “Are you the one who is to come?” is “Yes.” Jesus is the longed-for messiah, but he is a very different kind of messiah from what John and his contemporaries expected.


Joy is in the Ministry

Deacon Ross Beaudoin


During the first Holy Week after he was elected, Pope Francis raised a few eyebrows and opened many eyes. On that Holy Thursday he visited a prison for young people where he celebrated the annual washing of the feet. Not only did he wash the feet of Catholics, he included Muslims and women in the ritual. This was a big surprise for many Catholics, especially some clergy. For centuries, the Holy Thursday washing of the feet had been exclusively reserved to Catholic men.

During this past year, the Jubilee Year of Mercy, the Pope initiated a custom of going out of the Vatican one Friday a month to perform some “work of mercy.” In August the Holy Father went to a home for women recovering from prostitution, many of whom had been victims of trafficking. This, too, was an eye-opener for many people.

In the Gospel today, John the Baptist, in prison for following his conscience, sent a group of his disciples to talk to Jesus. Unsure of whether Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah, John’s message to Jesus was, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

Jesus responded using a clear reference to Isaiah 35:5-6: “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised and the poor have good news brought to them.”

If someone were to ask Pope Francis, “Are you the Holy Father who was chosen for the church?” could he not answer in words much like Jesus’? We see in Pope Francis the works of love and mercy that we saw in Jesus.

In two weeks we will sing, “Joy to the world.” The liturgy calls us to rejoice already today. “Gaudete,” rejoice! The coming of our Savior is at hand. Joy ought not be put off. Even as we work to prepare the way of the Lord we do it with light hearts, for we know that our Savior is coming to us soon.

In the first reading we hear this proclamation from Isaiah: “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad; the desert shall rejoice and blossom like the crocus.” Sometimes we experience our own lives as being barren as a wilderness and as parched as a desert. During those trying times it may be hard for us to be glad and rejoice when we are struggling.

The same is true for others. Sometimes people – perhaps even people very close to us – may be hurting or struggling, may feel like their lives are hopeless, barren and dry. How can they find a cause for joy and gladness?

For inspiration this Advent, we need only look to examples set by Jesus and by Pope Francis. Their actions have brought comfort and healing to countless people. Their love and mercy have brought hope and joy.

What if someone were to ask us the question put to Jesus: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” How would we answer?

Jesus ascended to the Father when he had completed his work on this earth. He left it to us to continue his work here. The hungry will be fed, the homeless will be sheltered, the lonely will be visited … and all will find a cause for great joy when each baptized person continues the ministry and compassion of Jesus.

And we will find our own joy, too, as Jesus ministers to us through others, even (or especially) the ones to whom we are ministering.

Selections from Breaking Open the Lectionary: Lectionary Readings in Their Biblical Context for RCIA, Faith Sharing Groups, and Lectors—Cycle A, by Margaret Nutting Ralph, Copyright © 2007 by Margaret Nutting Ralph. Paulist Press, Inc., New York/Mahwah, NJ. Reprinted by permission of Paulist Press, Inc. www.paulistpress.com.

Year A: Fourth Sunday of Advent

Jesus will be born of Mary, the betrothed of Joseph, a son of David

Matthew 1:18-24

Now this is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about. When his mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found with child through the Holy Spirit. Joseph her husband, since he was a righteous man, yet unwilling to expose her to shame, decided to divorce her quietly. Such was his intention when, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home. For it is through the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her. She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Behold, the virgin shall be with child and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means “God is with us.” When Joseph awoke, he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took his wife into his home.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Think of a time when you were facing serious difficulty. Were you able to trust in God’s presence in the situation, or did you feel that everything depended on you?
  2. Where have you been moved by Joseph’s kind of openness to God’s “unpredictable projects” in your life?
  3. Joseph foregoes his rights as an injured husband and chooses to apply the law sensitively…to do the merciful thing. Have you ever responded with mercy at the cost of your own reputation or when justice seemed at odds with mercy? Explain
  4. What is your personal learning or “take-away” from Joseph about faith?

Biblical Context

Matthew 1:18-24
Margaret Nutting Ralph PHD

Matthew’s Gospel the announcement of Jesus’ conception and saving role is not made to Mary, as it is in Luke’s story of the annunciation (see Luke 1:26-38), but to Joseph. Through his story of the annunciation Matthew is teaching his audience a post-resurrection understanding of Jesus’ identity.

Matthew teaches that Jesus is God’s son by telling us that Mary conceived Jesus, not with Joseph, but through the power of the Holy Spirit. First Matthew tells us, “When his mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found with child through the Holy Spirit.” Then, Matthew pictures the angel explaining this marvelous event to Joseph: “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home. For it is through the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her.” This story, like other stories surrounding Jesus’ birth, is primarily a Christological story, that is, it teaches the identity of Jesus as that identity was understood in the light of the resurrection.

Notice that Joseph is addressed as “son of David.” That Joseph is of the house of David is important because the Jews expected God to save the people from their political adversaries through someone in King David’s line. Even though Jesus is not biologically a descendant of Joseph, nevertheless, he is, through Joseph, a member of the house of David. Joseph is instructed to accept Jesus’ mother as his wife, to accept Jesus as his son, and to name Jesus. Thus Jesus becomes Joseph’s legal son and a member of the house of David. The name that Joseph is to give his son is Jesus,
“because he will save his people from their sins.” The name Jesus means God saves. The angel tells Joseph that Jesus will save the people not from foreign domination, but from “their sins.”

Matthew then uses a formula that often appears in his Gospel: “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet.” Matthew is writing to a primarily Jewish audience. By using this formula Matthew is teaching his audience that Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s covenant promises to them. The passage that Matthew quotes appears in our Old Testament reading from Isaiah, “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel” When read in the context of Matthew’s Gospel the virgin in question is Mary, the son is Jesus, and the name Emmanuel, which means “God is with us,” is claiming that Jesus is God. By using Isaiah’s words in this way Matthew is discovering a meaning in Isaiah’s words that was not understood either by Isaiah or by his contemporaries. Notice that Matthew attributes this added level of meaning to God rather than to the prophet: “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet. Only in the light of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection were Isaiah’s words understood to be referring to the virginal conception and the incarnation. Neither of these marvelous events was expected.

While the core teaching in today’s Gospel is Jesus’ identity as God’s own son, God incarnate, the Gospel also gives us a picture of Joseph. Matthew tells us that Joseph was “a righteous man.” On finding that his espoused was already with child Joseph was “unwilling to expose her to shame,” so he “decided to divorce her quietly.” In Joseph’s culture for a woman to have conceived a child before living with her husband was a crime deserving of death. Deuteronomy tells us that in such a case “They shall bring the girl to the entrance of her father’s house and there her townsmen shall stone her to death, because she committed a crime against Israel by her unchasteness in her father’s house. Thus shall you purge the evil from your midst” (Deut 22:21). Evidently Joseph, despite heartbreak, was a very kind person. He was also obedient: “When Joseph awoke, he did as the angel of the Lord had
commanded him and took his wife into his home.” The essence of the angelic communication is that a deeper divine plan is at work and Joseph is part of it. His role is to shelter Mary and name the child “Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” This naming is appropriate activity for Joseph, not only because he is of the house of David and therefore establishes Jesus as a son of David, but also because he is no stranger to the inner struggles of sin and forgiveness. His righteous intention with regard to Mary can be read as a creative attempt to bring love into the world of law, to extend forgiveness to what looked like sin. He should name the child Jesus for the very presence of the child is a catalyst for clarifying his own deeper instincts firming the path he was going to take, and encouraging him on the path that now lies before him.

As we prepare for the coming of Christ into our own hearts and homes we can use Joseph as our model: How can we become more and more loving in our relationships with one another?

Making a Home for Spirit

Spiritual Commentary
John Shea

Christian imagination has never been satisfied with the Gospels. The stories are often theologically succinct and, if meditated on, spiritually rich. As one teenager told me, “They leave out too much good stuff.” Of course, Christians have felt obliged to fill in the gaps. One storyline has Joseph and Jesus working in their Nazareth carpentry shop. As Joseph teaches the secrets of the hammer, the plane, and the saw to the boy who “grows in age, wisdom, and grace” (Luke2:52; trans, mine), he also confides in him his life “learnings.” As with all parents, Joseph talks too much. But the boy is an exceptional listener to the one speaking:

Remember, Jesus, whatever we’re making, along with it we’re always making a home for Spirit. Your mother thinks a home for Spirit is like an empty cup. But I favor a spacious room with a large window for sun—and a door that is hard to find.

The best way to begin is to clear a space, and the best way to clear a space is to stop the mind from judging. Whenever things seem simple and obvious and the mind is feasting on its certainty and outrage, go slow. There is more than you think, only it hasn’t appeared yet. Judgment stops the appearance of more. It cuts down people and situations to the little you know. It closes possibilities.

Also when you do not judge, you often avoid disgracing another. The law is our measure. It is a tool of judgment, but someone always wields it. Do not use it as a hammer to hit or a saw to cut. Our tools are to fashion a table, not to brutalize the wood. The law is a tool to fashion a people of love, but it can break people and lose its sense of purpose. It always fears life will get out of control. So it wants to make examples of people who break it. It feeds and grows strong on transgression. It smacks its lips over scandal. But scandal is not the same as real offense. Scandal can be the irruption of God’s love that our feeble minds have yet to understand. So find a way to honor the law and honor the person who, in our limited understanding, has broken it. This is not easy.

It requires making law work for love. Love is the sun; law its furthest and often weakest ray. If you hold onto love, you will see how the law can reflect it. If you lose love, law will not substitute for it. It will only be something you use to promote yourself and punish others. When you love the person through the law, you shape the law to the reality that is always more than you know. This gives life a chance to breathe and people a chance to change. And the deepest change will not be in other people, but in yourself. Love takes the beam out of your own eye. It does not focus on the splinters in the eyes of others.

Once something happened and I was tempted to judge and punish. But I held back and waited, and a deeper door opened—the door that is hard to find. I was led into a room of sun, a home for Spirit. Your mother and you were there—and a presence of light who talked to my fear. I sensed all distances had been traversed, all separations connected. It was a dream, but it was not sleep. The dream awakened me. It took the beam out of my eye. I saw that making a home for Spirit is an endless adventure— like you growing up, my son.

So see everything twice, Jesus. See it once with the physical eye and then see it again with the eye of the heart. At first glance, you often see an uneven and unusable piece of wood. You may be about to throw it away. But do not be fooled by surface appearances. Look deeper. On second glance, you may see a lovely arm of a chair hidden in its unaccustomed shape. When you see the loveliness, Jesus, embrace it. Take it into your home. Do not hesitate and do not ask questions. Argue with everything, Jesus, but be obedient to love.

The boy listened.

Selections from Breaking Open the Lectionary: Lectionary Readings in Their Biblical Context for RCIA, Faith Sharing Groups, and Lectors—Cycle A, by Margaret Nutting Ralph, Copyright © 2007 by Margaret Nutting Ralph. Paulist Press, Inc., New York/Mahwah, NJ. Reprinted by permission of Paulist Press, Inc. www.paulistpress.com.

Spiritual Commentaries and Teachings are excerpted from The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers by John Shea © 2004 by Order of Saint Benedict. Published by Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota. Used with permission.

Year A: The Christmas Season

Year A: Christmas at Dawn

The Nativity of the Lord

Luke 2:15-20

When the angels went away from them to heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go, then, to Bethlehem to see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went in haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the infant lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known the message that had been told them about this child. All who heard it were amazed by what had been told them by the shepherds. And Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart. Then the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, just as it had been told to them.

Discussion Questions

  1. What has the “Lord made known to you” this Advent Season? Any new awareness of Emmanuel – “God with us?”
  2. Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart. (I would add, not in her head) Is it hard for you to get out of your head and into your heart? How do you open yourself to this essential part of the spiritual life?
  3. As we close one year and begin another. What have you been reflecting on or pondering in your heart this Advent and Christmas season?

Christ Fulfills the Prophecies

Sr. Mary M. McGlone CSJ

The first part of this story, Luke 2:1-14, was the Gospel reading for Mass at Night. We hear of Caesar’s decree, the trip to Bethlehem, the birth and the announcement to the shepherds. In the liturgy for Mass at Dawn we hear about the shepherds’ response.

Luke must have thoroughly enjoyed weaving together his infancy narrative. Up to this point in the story angels had appeared to Zechariah and Mary to announce the births of John and Jesus. Now the angels have gone afield and found the least reputable, least educated members of the people of God to tell them that history has come to a moment of total transformation. And what’s the key to it all? The plain, ordinary fact that a baby has been born!

Perhaps Luke’s genius is this: only people as simple as the shepherds could believe that such immense meaning could come from something as simple as the birth of a child. The truth is those shepherds didn’t start out making any commitment, they simply decided to go and see. But that was enough. We don’t often emphasize the fact that it was not the message of an angel or the caroling choir that filled the night sky that convinced the shepherds. The miraculous manifestations simply whetted their curiosity. Something else persuaded them.

What might have moved them when they saw the child in the manger?

Luke wove this story as a careful prologue to his Gospel and a bookend to pair with his nearly final story about the disciples on the road to Emmaus. In both cases we have a journey: to Bethlehem or out of Jerusalem. In both stories angels make an announcement about Jesus: in the first, that he had been born, in the second that he was alive. In both Bethlehem and Emmaus Luke mentions an inn, the place where travelers lodge. In the first case there is no room for Mary and Joseph who are awaiting the birth of their child. Going to Emmaus the disciples make room, inviting the stranger to remain with them at the inn. In the nativity story the baby was found wrapped and lying in the place where animals fed. In the Emmaus story the disciples recognized the Risen Lord in the breaking of the bread. Finally, both the shepherds and the Emmaus-bound disciples went to others with the joyful news of what they
had seen and heard.

Luke’s technique of placing mirroring stories at the beginning and end of his gospel is more than simply artistry. Luke is telling us that everything, from the beginning to the end of his Gospel, is an adventure, a pilgrimage of encounter with Christ. He is showing us that discipleship comes only from that encounter. He is also using simple shepherds and unperceptive disciples as models for all the followers of Christ who will read his story through the ages.

The feast of Christmas is a celebration of a new beginning, of the inauguration of God’s presence on earth in the person of Jesus the Christ. Christmas is a reminder that God appears in our midst as unobtrusively as a diapered baby or a fellow traveler on the road. There have been grand announcements, prophetic oracles, the equivalent of heavenly light and music shows, but, as Elijah learned, God comes in the gentlest of ways (1 Kings 19:12). We can never control the ways or times when God will become manifest in our lives. We are invited to seek God in the word, in sacrament, in community and in creation. Each of these carries within the power of real presence.

In the end we’ll never know exactly what so impressed the shepherds when they bent over the manger. It may have been the fulfillment of the angel’s or the prophets’ promise of a child to be born. It may have been something they perceived in the presence of the child. Perhaps Mary and Joseph had such an aura of being lovers of God that they evangelized the shepherds by their simple contact with them. Whatever it was, the shepherds were open and humble enough to be changed by it.

As we find joy in this feast, let us return with those shepherds to Bethlehem. Taking some quiet moments, let us enter into the contemplative prayer of imagining the scene and asking each participant to share his or her gospel perspective with us. Then let us listen to one another proclaim what it is that we have seen and heard in the contemplation of the feast. By so doing we will join as fellow disciples with shepherds and travelers as we all journey toward enjoying the full and timeless presence of God.

All Flame

Michelle Francl-Donnay

A light is kindled in the darkness. A word is spoken. The cold air crackles, the stones stir underfoot, a fire hisses out its breath, coals creaking like wind-racked pines. A woman labors to give birth.

And so, God arrives among us, shivering in the cold, howling with hunger, begging with each breath to be fed and clothed and sheltered. A voice crying out, a glimmer with a Gospel demanding to be proclaimed.

Gloria, we exclaim, and hunt in vain for angels in the sky. But Isaiah hinted at the shape of the light we seek: share your food with the hungry, shelter the poor, clothe those in need, then your light will blaze forth like the dawn.

Three decades later, ablaze on a sun-bright hillside outsider. Jerusalem, is he remembering that night? “I was hungry and you fed me, a stranger and you made me welcome.” When? we asked, the wailing child and spent mother long forgotten. “Whenever you did this for the least among you.” And we saw his glory.

Can we stop hunting for the cherubim and seraphim long enough to listen to the unending and all-sustaining Word, crying out in need, or for the Light pleading for warmth, for food and shelter? If you wish, said one of the desert mystics, you could be all flame. If we wish, we could be Isaiah’s blazing down.

The Word came to dwell among us, that we might be a word spoken, a voice for those in need, a light to the nations. Children of God, all flame.

Michelle Francl-Donnay; is a wife and mother, a professor of chemistry, and an adjunct scholar at the Vatican Observatory.

Year A: The Holy Family

Matthew 2: 13-15, 19-23

When they had departed, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother, flee to Egypt, and stay there until I tell you. Herod is going to search for the child to destroy him.” Joseph rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed for Egypt. He stayed thereuntil the death of Herod, that what the Lord had said through the prophet might be fulfilled, “Out of Egypt I called my son.”

When Herod had died, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said,“Rise, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the child’s life are dead.” He rose, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go back there. And because he had been warned in a dream, he departed for the region of Galilee.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What do you know about your ancestors? Are there ways in which your life is a fulfillment of their hopes and dreams? Explain
  2. How does your belief that we are all beloved children of God affect the interactions in your own family?
  3. How is your family a life giving experience of holiness for you? In what ways? 
  4. How does today’s reflection expand or challenge your ideas of what family holiness is or encompasses?

Biblical Context

Matthew 2: 13-15, 19-23
Margaret Nutting Ralph, PHD

We will understand a great deal more of the significance of Matthew’s stories surrounding Jesus’ birth if we remember that Matthew’s audience is primarily Jewish. As Matthew teaches his post-resurrection insights concerning Jesus’ role the fulfillment of God’s promises to them and the embodiment of the history of the people. In Matthew’s Gospel, and only in Matthew’s Gospel, we read about the and identity he is helping his Jewish contemporaries understand that Jesus is slaughter of the babies that caused the angel to tell Joseph to take his family to Egypt. This story would remind a Jewish reader of Moses. There was also a slaughter of babies when Moses was born. That is why the infant Moses was put into the basket and placed on the riverbank, where the Pharaoh’s daughter found him (see Exod 1:15-2:10). By weaving this image from Moses’ birth around his story of Jesus’ birth Matthew is teaching that Jesus is the new Moses. This will be a theme throughout Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus will be presented as the new Moses who has authority from God to give a new law.

Matthew tells us that Joseph and his family stayed in Egypt until the death of Herod. A Jewish reader would be well aware that Joseph, Jesus’ father, was not the first Joseph to flee to Egypt and thereby save his family. Joseph the patriarch also fled to Egypt when his brothers plotted to kill him. Later, when there was a famine, Joseph’s family had to come to Egypt and ask Joseph for food. Joseph became God’s instrument of salvation for his family from famine and death (see Gen 37:1-47:52). Jesus will save not only his family, but the whole human race. Jesus will feed his people, not with bread, but with Eucharist. He will give them not just an extended life on earth, but eternal life.

When the danger is over an angel tells Joseph to return to the land of Israel. In telling this part of the story Matthew again uses the formula that we noted last Sunday: “… that what the Lord had said through the prophet might be fulfilled— ” Matthew says, “He stayed there until the death of Herod, that what the Lord had said through the prophet might be fulfilled, “Out of Egypt I called my son” The prophet whom Matthew is quoting is Hosea. In Hosea the words my son refer to the nation Israel. Hosea, in recalling the exodus experience and teaching his contemporaries about God’s faithful love, says:

When Israel was a child I loved him, out of Egypt I called my son. (Hos 11:1)

Once again Matthew is teaching that Jesus is the embodiment of the history of his people and the fulfillment of all of God’s promises to them.

Obedient to the angel’s guidance, Joseph takes his family to Nazareth. Matthew tells us that Jesus’ being raised in Nazareth also fulfills the words of the prophets: “He went and dwelt in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, I He shall be called a Nazorean.’” There is no single Old Testament source for this quotation. Scripture scholars suggest that Matthew is calling to his readers’ minds other great historical figures in the history of Israel: Samson, who was a “Nazirite,” who saved his people during the period of the judges (Judg 13:1-16:31), as well as David, the great king. Perhaps there is a word play on Isaiah 11:1 that says of David: “But a shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse, / and from his roots a bud [neser] shall blossom.

United to God

Reflection
Paige Byrne Shortal

Every year we watch our favorite Christmas movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life.” And at least once during the holidays, as the noise level increases, it’s pretty much guaranteed that my husband will proclaim, in his best George Bailey imitation: “You call this a happy family? Why do we have to have all these kids?”

Today is the Feast of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph. It’s one of those feasts that originated from the ground up. It was a popular devotion long before it was a part of the official church calendar. It wasn’t until 1921 that Pope Benedict XV, alarmed by the increasing threat to the family unit, declared this feast a church-wide observance. Even in the 1920s there was concern about the breakdown of the family as industrialization gradually replaced the life of the family farm and Mom-and-Pop store. Big families were less viable and younger members moved away from their childhood homes, leaving their elders behind. Fast-forward almost a century. Too many children are placed in the care of strangers while both parents work and distant grandparents grow old with empty arms and laps. Families are being redefined, which isn’t all bad, but challenging.

A 30-something friend of mine said he was trying to think of good reasons to have children. He thought he wanted to be a father, but it’s not like he needed kids to help work the farm. “Kids are expensive,” he pointed out. “And they take so much time.” (And, I thought, sometimes they break your heart.) Did I know of any logical rationale to support the idea of having children? Quoting church teaching on the sacrament of marriage was not going to satisfy this guy so I was forced to ponder the wisdom behind the teaching.

Here’s what I said: It is the nature of all love to be generative — to create or build or transform. Most married couples express that love by creating new life with whom they share their love. Some couples choose to adopt or foster children who need a temporary home. Others direct their passion to projects or a mission or creating a home open to others. However it is expressed, love cannot simply feed on itself. It must create. It must be shared. If we cannot understand that love is not so much a “feeling” but a “doing,” the family will be capsized by the first threatening storm that comes along.

If any family was ever threatened, it was the family of Jesus. In today’s Gospel we hear about them becoming refugees, forced to flee a cruel government and certain death. Think about it a moment. In a culture where the extended family was everything, these three people, united by God, their love and their common purpose, struck out on their own into a land of strangers and strange ways.

Think of our world today and how many people are forced to become refugees and displaced persons within their own countries due to war, threats of violence, poverty and natural disasters. Perhaps everyone who hears today’s Gospel should consider adopting the mission statement of the U.S. Bishops’ Committee on Migration: “Creating a world where immigrants, refugees, migrants, and people on the move are treated with dignity, respect, welcome and belonging.”

This is a worthy purpose in life, and we can each start by making our homes a haven of hospitality; our parishes a place where discrimination is not allowed; our pew a seat where the stranger feels welcome. It’s what Jesus would do.

Selections from Breaking Open the Lectionary: Lectionary Readings in Their Biblical Context for RCIA, Faith Sharing Groups, and Lectors—Cycle A, by Margaret Nutting Ralph, Copyright © 2006 by Margaret Nutting Ralph. Paulist Press, Inc., New York/Mahwah, NJ. Reprinted by permission of Paulist Press, Inc. www.paulistpress.com.

Year A: Solemnity of Mary, The Holy Mother of God

Luke 2: 16-21

The shepherds went in haste to Bethlehem and found Mary and Joseph, and the infant lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known the message that had been told them about this child. All who heard it were amazed by what had been told them by the shepherds. And Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart. Then the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, just as it had been told to them. When eight days were completed for his circumcision, he was named Jesus, the name given him by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why do you think Mary is considered a model disciple? What about her most appeals to you?
  2. When you reflect back on your journey in faith this year, what stands out for you as moments of God’s presence? How does reflecting on these experiences help you connect more to the present moment?
  3. At the beginning of this New Year, what new resolutions might you be considering for your spiritual life?
  4. In what specific ways is The Word we discuss each week, becoming the “Living Word” in your life?

Biblical Context

Luke 2: 16-21
Sr. Mary M. McGlone CSJ

With this reading we revisit the Gospel we heard on Christmas morning. In keeping with the feast of Mary the Mother of God, we look to what Luke says about her and what that reveals about us and our life. The key line is “Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart.”

Luke presents us with various responses to Jesus’ birth. The shepherds, having seen the child, become evangelists, revealing what they had seen to an unidentified public who were amazed. Those two responses, proclamation and amazement, anticipate what we will hear throughout the story of Jesus. Some see him and become so convinced that God is working through him that they begin to evangelize, spreading good news that they don’t fully understand. As a result of their proclamation, others respond with “amazement,” or we might say with great curiosity and interest. When the people are amazed, they acknowledge that something is happening, that it might even be something that comes from God, but there’s no commitment involved. They may take a good look but will be quite reluctant to make a public statement about it. As Darrell Bock explains it, “The report tickles the crowd’s ears but it may have missed their hearts” (Luke: Baker Books, 1994).

The last person about whom we hear is Mary, the mother of Jesus. When she was first visited by the angel she did not hesitate to give herself to God’s plan. Now that God’s Word has literally taken flesh through her, it is too much to comprehend. Like Thomas Aquinas who composed the hymn Tantum Ergo to prayerfully acknowledge that reason cannot grasp the ways of God, Mary understood that the mystery taking place was greater than she could explain, much less proclaim. All she could do was ponder as she immersed herself in the daily nurturing of God’s child. Whether or not Mary was the source for Luke’s narrative, Luke presents Mary as the contemplative in action. The word for keeping these things in her heart is syneterei, a multivalent term that implies that she tried to comprehend disparate events together, that she held interior conversations about it all, that she could treasure all that happened even if she couldn’t explain it. That was an emotional and intellectual response that was both faith-filled and humble. It demonstrated her acceptance of the prophetic teaching that God’s ways are not human ways. Mary strove to believe that God was in charge of it all; lack of comprehension would not keep her from her daily work.

Celebrating this feast renews our observance of Christmas. Celebrating the Mother we celebrate the Son. Celebrating the Son, we celebrate what he offers us: nothing less than the opportunity to share divine life. That’s the mystery that we, like Mary, must ponder deeply and proclaim with joy.

Making Mary’s Heart Our Own

Ted Wolgamot

January 1 has an almost carnival-like atmosphere to it. To celebrate it, we do all sorts of things: watch football games, drink champagne, toast new beginnings, wear crazy hats, set off fireworks, kiss and hug old friends, travel to visit extended families.

It’s the time of year when we roll out the old and bring in the new – even to the point of dusting off the treadmill in the corner that has become nothing more than a resting place for dusty potted plants. It’s the time for making new resolutions, new promises to ourselves.

But in the midst of all this excitement and hope comes a reminder: a baby lying in a manger – a baby whose birth, and life, so amazed not just a scraggly group of shepherds, but billions of people down through the ages who’ve been brought to their knees by the sheer, wondrous beauty of his birth.

That child, Jesus, causes us to call time out on the field, if you will, and spend a few moments in the midst of our various celebrations to make perhaps the most important resolution of all: the resolution to become reborn and renewed.

Luke’s Gospel asks us to do it this way: in the midst of all of our new year resolutions, remember Mary who treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.

“All these words” certainly changed Mary. Consider what she had to ponder: an angel telling her she would to bear God’s own son; a census causing her to travel to Bethlehem on a donkey’s back; a manger filled with straw intended only for animals; a group of shepherds who are “amazed.” She had to be asking herself: “What does all this mean?” “How will I cope?”

In her heart, Mary’s ultimate answer to these questions was singular: Trust. Trust in the God in whom she fully believed. Trust that the angel’s message was true: Rejoice, O highly favored one, the Lord is with you.

In the “Hail Mary” prayer, we use the words “full of grace” to describe Mary. But the Greek word used in Luke’s original writing actually means “favored to the greatest possible degree” – the strongest of all conceivable words to show how much God loved Mary and treasured her openness and her willingness to trust.

Abiding in such trust, Mary became the ultimate disciple, the epitome of what it meant to follow Jesus. She is the one who surrendered her ego, who quieted her fears, who made the decision to trust – even though she had little knowledge of what was going on. In her wildest dreams, this poor, humble woman could never have imagined how significant her “yes” would be in human history.

In the language of New Year’s celebrations, Mary made a resolution – the resolution to open her heart to the amazing, enlivening fullness of grace; theresolution to voice a wholehearted “yes.”

In today’s Gospel, Luke challenges us to do the same.

Luke asks us to make our hearts like Mary’s … to resolve to notice the angels that appear in our lives; to resolve to welcome the shepherds of today – the poorest of the poor; to resolve to open our hearts to new possibilities, new beginnings, new dreams.

On this first day of the New Year, let us resolve to make the heart of Mary our own. Let us promise ourselves that we will clean out a room in our hearts so there will always be space for God to be wrapped in the swaddling clothes of our love and our trust – a space within us in which the child Jesus can be re-born.

Year A: The Epiphany of the Lord

The Visit of the Magi

Matthew 2:1-12

When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the days of King Herod, behold, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star* at its rising and have come to do him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was greatly troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. Assembling all the chief priests and the scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it has been written through the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; since from you shall come a ruler, who is to shepherd my people Israel.’” Then Herod called the magi secretly and ascertained from them the time of the star’s appearance. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search diligently for the child. When you have found him, bring me word, that I too may go and do him homage.”

After their audience with the king they set out. And behold, the star that they had seen at its rising preceded them, until it came and stopped over the place where the child was. They were overjoyed at seeing the star, and on entering the house they saw the child with Mary his mother. They prostrated themselves and did him homage. Then they opened their treasures and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed for their country by another way.

Gentlemen, I wish you all a very happy New Year, and wanted to share this amusing Epiphany anecdote with you from John Shea:

When the Magi finally reached the manger to greet the newborn King, they each dismounted from their camels, knelt before the baby Jesus and presented their gifts. One by one they opened their treasures and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. The baby Jesus thanked the first King but said I don’t want the gold. The second King presented his gift and again the baby Jesus said that he did not want the frankincense. Finally, the third King offered his gift of myrrh and for the third time the baby Jesus refused saying he did not want any myrrh. The kings were confused and asked Jesus, what do you want? The baby Jesus looked at them and said; “I want the camel”

Shea explained the point of the story is that Jesus can’t have a relationship with gold, frankincense or myrrh, but he could have a relationship with the camel. Jesus offers us himself. It’s all about relationship.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Have you ever experienced something you would describe as a religious epiphany, a moment in which you suddenly see or understand something in a new or very clear way? Explain.
  2. In what ways has Jesus been “light” to you personally?
  3. As a Disciple of Jesus, what responsibility do you have to be a light to your family, to your workplace, in your relationships? How do you bring this spiritual concept into awareness first, then into action?

Biblical Context

Matthew 2:1-12
Sr. Mary McGlone CSJ

If you think that hearing another part of the Christmas story as late as January 8 is stretching it out too much, just imagine what those Magi felt as they trudged through the desert toward Jerusalem and then on to Bethlehem. Their trek probably lasted even longer than the commercial Christmas season. Matthew then took their story and fashioned it as a subtle summary of the entire Gospel message. All we have to do is decode it a little.

First, while Matthew explains that Jesus came from good Jewish stock, he makes it equally clear that God isn’t into racial purity. Besides Mary, there are four women mentioned in Jesus’ genealogy, each of them a foreigner; collaboration with God’s plan was not limited by the bloodlines of the chosen people. In fact, Joseph’s acceptance of the pregnant Mary and Herod’s use of Scripture to further his plan to harm the infant Jesus demonstrate that scrupulous adherence to law and belief in messianic prophecies don’t necessarily prove faithfulness to God. Now we see that in Matthew’s Gospel the first people to give homage to Jesus were probably Arabs, “pagans” who learned from nature rather than Scripture that God was up to something in their day.

These pilgrims fit the description of “God fearers.” They were people looking for more, who believed in signs indicating that God was involved in human history.

They were also ready to go a distance to see.

The Magi followed a star, a sign in their own tradition, but they didn’t limit themselves to their own religious background. Upon arriving to Jerusalem, they
sought counsel from the faith of the people of that place. When “they sought diligently,” Jewish wisdom together with their own tradition led them to the child. Matthew records no commentary about the family’s modest setting, but only says that they saw the child and prostrated themselves in homage. Then, adding practical content to their religious sentiment, they “opened their treasures” and gave him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. We might say they worshiped in word and deed.

We picture them as three because of the three gifts that are named. In reality, they
could have been two or ten or more; they could have been a retinue including women and children. But what’s important about them is what they have to tell us about seeking and finding, about worship that has integrity.

Without mentioning the Magi, St. Augustine reflected on how human nature was created with a thirst for the divine: “Our hearts are restless until they rest in thee.” The Magi were people gifted with what Augustine might have called the grace of holy restlessness. Apparently well-to-do enough to take a long journey and arrive with expensive gifts, they set off with enough interior freedom to be responsive to the Spirit who urged them to look for more than they already had and knew.

We use the story of the Magi’s seeking and finding as the frame for our feast of the Epiphany, the celebration of God’s self-revelation. The combination of this story and the meaning of the feast make a subtle theological statement intimating that only those who are willing to go a distance in their seeking will discover God’s self manifestation. We might look to E. E. Cummings for light on the mystery of the Epiphany journey. In his poem “Somewhere I have Never Travelled” he writes:

somewhere I have never travelled, gladly beyond
any experience, your eyes have their silence:
in your most frail gesture are things which enclose me,
or which I cannot touch because they are too near

That’s an ode to the beloved. At the same time, perhaps unintentionally, Cummings’ poetry suggests an insight into what it meant to gaze on the Christ
Child; it’s meditation on the dance between humans and the God who lures us to share divine life. When the Magi encountered the babe they had indeed traveled beyond any experience and found great power in frailty.

Today is a good day for poetry, the sort of reading that demands both quiet contemplation and the restlessness of spirit that opens us to what lies beyond anything we already understand. The journey of the Magi is a reminder that the pilgrimage toward God is long. As the Magi seeking a king found a poor child, our journey will surprise us as well. In telling of the Magi, strangers to the traditions of Israel, Matthew intended to shake us out of our ethnocentrism and facile assumptions about other people’s beliefs and our own as well.

The story of the star leading to Bethlehem’s child is one more rendition of God’s gentle yet unrelenting overtures to humanity. In the effort to draw us close, God will use anything from stars and prophecies to poetry or restlessness. If we are open to the grace of seeing, anything and everything can be an epiphany.

The Great Manifestation

Reflection
Richard GaMardetz

This liturgical feast has a rich and complicated history. It originated in the East where the feast celebrated the declaration of Jesus’ divine identity at his baptism (“You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased”). Some other ancient traditions associated Epiphany with the performance of Jesus’ first miracle at the wedding feast at Cana. In the Western Church the Feast of Epiphany celebrates the story we find in today’s Gospel, the wise men’s adoration of the infant Jesus. What all three of these biblical events share is a public “manifestation” (the Greek meaning of the word “epiphany”) and acknowledgement of Jesus’ true identity.

The feasts of the Nativity (Christmas) and Epiphany are bound together. Christmas invites our contemplation of the mystery of the Incarnation: God became human in Jesus of Nazareth. With the feast of Epiphany the camera view widens to take in a range of human responses to the Incarnation. Perhaps these epiphanies led the wise men, the witnesses to Jesus’ baptism, and the wedding guests at Cana to recognize that they need not escape the world to find God; God had come to them.

If Christmas celebrates the Incarnation, Epiphany calls forth the spiritual habits of recognition. Do we have the spiritual vision to identify the humble and unexpected epiphanies occurring daily in our own lives? Are we as driven as the wise men to seek out the presence of God in the embrace of our neighbors, in the face of an annoying coworker, in the panhandler on the street corner?

Richard Gaillardetz is the Joseph Professor of Catholic Systematic Theology at Boston College

Year A: Ordinary Time: Sundays 1-9

Year A: The Baptism of the Lord (First Sunday in Ordinary Time)

The Baptism of the Lord

Matthew 3: 13-17

Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan to be baptized by him. John tried to prevent him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and yet you are coming to me?” Jesus said to him in reply, “Allow it now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he allowed him. After Jesus was baptized, he came up from the water and behold, the heavens were opened [for him], and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove [and] coming upon him. And a voice came from the heavens, saying, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”

Discussion Questions:

  1. Jesus’ baptism began his public ministry. What are you called to by your baptism?
  2. In what ways have you awakened to or experienced the spiritual gifts of your baptism? What are these for you?
  3. When have you had an experience of the Holy Spirit coming upon you? How did you respond?
  4. What has your “son or child of God identity” awakened in you and how have you passed that on to others?

Biblical Context

Matthew 3: 13-17
Dr. Margaret Nutting Ralph PHD

On the Second Sunday of Advent we read Matthew’s account of John the Baptist preparing the way for the Lord (Matt 3:1-12). John made it clear that the one for whom he prepared was far greater than he “I am baptizing you with water, for repentance, but the one who is coming after me is mightier than I. I am not worthy to carry his sandals” (Matt 3:11). In Matthew’s Gospel this account of John’s ministry comes immediately before the story of Jesus’ baptism that we read today.

Today we read that “Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan to be baptized by him.” This raises a question in many of our minds. Why would Jesus need to be baptized by John? As Matthew tells the story of Jesus’ baptism it is evident that he expected his post-resurrection audience to ask this question. That Matthew is responding to this question becomes evident when we compare Matthew’s account to Mark’s.

Scripture scholars believe that both Matthew and Luke used Mark as a source when they were compiling their own Gospels. This means that one way to understand Matthew’s particular concerns is to compare his account to Mark’s. When Matthew diverges from his source does so for a reason. In Mark’s Gospel when John baptizes Jesus (see Mark 1:9-11), John does not raise the objection that he raises in Matthew’s account: “John tried to prevent him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and yet you are coming to me?’ ” By placing this question on John’s lips Matthew is responding to the question, was Jesus baptized?”

When explaining to John why he should be baptized Jesus says, “Allow it now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” To “fulfill all righteousness” is to do God’s will, to promote justice. Jesus modeled complete obedience to the will of his Father. He was showing sinners the way to righteousness. Matthew then tells us that after Jesus was baptized “the heavens were opened for him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming upon him.” Jesus is filled with the Spirit as he prepares to begin his public ministry. Then a voice from heaven says, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”

The words “This is my beloved Son” are an allusion to Psalm 2 is a messianic psalm, that is, it speaks of the messiah, the anointed one (the –word messiah means anointed’) whom God would send to save God’s people. The Israelites understood their kings to be God’s anointed. This psalm would have been sung over the centuries to honor the king.

In Psalm 2 God affirms that God has appointed Israel’s king:

“I myself have installed my king on Zion, my holy mountain.” (Ps 2:6)

Then the king speaks:

I will proclaim the decree of the Lord, who said to me, “You are my son; today
I am your father. Only ask it of me and I will make your inheritance the
nations and your possession the ends of the earth.” (Ps 2: 7-8)

Alluding to this psalm Matthew is once more teaching what he has already taught in his story of the annunciation to Joseph: Jesus is God’s son, begotten of God.


The words “with whom I am well pleased” are an allusion to the Book of Isaiah, and are part of our Old Testament Lectionary reading for this First Sunday in Ordinary Time. As we will soon see, alluding to this passage Matthew is foreshadowing Jesus’ passion and death and teaching that Jesus is God’s suffering servant whose passion and death redeemed all nations.

Awakening to Love

Spiritual Reflection
John Shea

There has always been a creative tension in the way Christians relate to Jesus Christ. On the one hand, Jesus is the unique Son of God, irreplaceable and beyond imitation. On the other hand, Christians participate in the identity of Jesus Christ, continuing his presence on earth and imitating his way of life. Therefore, Christians are “sons and daughters in the Son.” The descending dove and the speaking sky that combine to communicate love and mission to Jesus are passed along through Jesus to all his followers. The ultimate communication of the story of Jesus is for his followers to see and hear what he saw and heard as he came up out of the waters of the Jordan.


Jesus is the firstborn. As Paul says, God calls people “to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family” (Rom 8:29). In another image taken from the letter to the Hebrews, Jesus is a “pioneer” (Heb 12:2). He has blazed a trail for others to follow. In yet another image, Jesus can be called first awakened from sleep (cf. Eph 5:14 and Col 1:18) Jesus’ baptism has awakened him to his ultimate identity as the beloved one. Now his mission is to awaken others to their ultimate identity as beloved ones. One astute observer of Gospel stories suggested that Zacchaeus came to see and love in himself what Jesus saw and loved in him. By extension, it could be said that Peter came to see and love in himself what Jesus saw and loved in him, and Mary Magdalene came to see and love in herself what Jesus saw and loved in her. Jesus sees the “child of God” (see John 1:12 and 1 John 3:1) in people with such clarity and persistence that they begin to see it in themselves. But, in order for him to see the “child of God” in others, he must first know it in himself. In this sense, Jesus’ baptism by water and Spirit is the precondition for the baptism by water and Spirit of all Christians. The one who would awaken others to love must first himself be awakened.

Therefore, awakening to love is essentially an interpersonal chain. The awakened Jesus awakens others, and then those awaken still others. In this way, communities are built up, traditions developed, and the revelation of Jesus is passed from generation to generation.

This might be one of the meanings of the word “evangelization.” Evangelization happens when awakened people awaken others to their “child of God” identity.

However, this awakening to love is neither a quick nor romantic process. It is a long haul endeavor that demands rigorous self-examination, persistence, and not a little courage. First, it must be understood that coming into a “child of God” identity is not chasing an ideal. It is not trying to become something that at the moment people are not. People are beloved children of God. There is no need to make them children of God. The task is for them to realize this truth of their identity. Therefore, Jesus awakens people to what they already are. He facilitates awareness; he does not bring to them something that had been previously absent. This perception is captured in the saying, “Jesus stands by the river selling river water.”

Second, it must never be forgotten that people are more than just children of God. They are also children of Ralph and Anna, Marlene and Bob, Roxanne and Pete. They are bodies with inherited tendencies toward sickness and health, conditioned personalities built up out of experiences and internalizations, roles and responsibilities that go so deep they often practically define who they are. The “son and daughter of God” identity is not another identity, existing alongside or above this complex human make-up. The “child of God” identity exists within the flux and flow of the total reality of people. Therefore, awakening to the “child of God” identity initially means discerning it in the midst of other elements and noticing how it is expressed and repressed in the dynamics of body, mind, and social relationships. In other words, the “child of God” identity entails dealing with both finitude and sin.

Therefore, as some aspects of the Christian tradition have always maintained, the human person is a combination of essential communion and
existential alienation, an original blessing and a profound curse. The way through the alienation to the communion and through the curse to the blessing
is a difficult path. In the Gospels Jesus has walked this path and helps others walk it. He is not a blind guide leading the blind. He is a seeing guide leading the blurred. He is patiently persistent in his efforts to awaken people to love. All that he says and does— his exchanges with people, his stories, his teachings, his deeds of power, and his instructions to his disciples—are in the service of this awakening. They are the strategies of a spiritual teacher more than they are the pronouncements of a theologian.

For me, this emphasis on the way people come to their “child of God” identity is the ultimate reason why John must baptize Jesus. As the embodiment of divine love, Jesus must know the whole process of awakening. Realizing the “child of God” identity is not only welcoming the Spirit and hearing the voice. It also entails “dis-identifying” with all that is not love. This is what John’s desert and his cleansing baptism are all about. Jesus himself continues John’s baptism in his preaching and teaching about the forgiveness of sins. What he learned at the Jordan was: only if you ascend out of the waters of repentance can you see the dove descend and hear the voice speak.

In St. Matthew’s story the dove makes a direct descent, and the “beloved child of God” identity is instantly bestowed in the revelatory moment of the accompanying heavenly voice. But I like the three-stage foray of Noah’s dove. First, it goes out and can find no land. So it returns to the ark, its only refuge from the destructive waters. Our first attempts to understand and make our own a “child of God” identity are often unsuccessful, and we scurry back to safety. Next, the dove returns with an olive branch. We begin to see signs of a new possibility, but we are not there yet. Finally, we do not return for we have found a place to stand. Once again, as in the act of creation, God has created land out of the chaotic waters, and we have a place to stand against the destructive sea. The place we are standing is called, “the beloved child of God.”

Selections from Breaking Open the Lectionary: Lectionary Readings in Their Biblical Context for RCIA, Faith Sharing Groups, and Lectors—Cycle a, by Margaret Nutting Ralph, Copyright © 2006 by Margaret Nutting Ralph. Paulist Press, Inc., New York/Mahwah, NJ. Reprinted by permission of Paulist Press, Inc. www.paulistpress.com.

Year A: Second Sunday Ordinary Time

John the Baptist’s Testimony to Jesus

John 1:29-34

The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world. He is the one of whom I said, ‘A man is coming after me who ranks ahead of me because he existed before me.’ 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 the sky 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.”

Discussion Questions:

  1. John’s witness to Jesus Christ has become part of the communion Rite at Mass. What do the words Lamb of God you take away the sins of the world… mean for you when you say them?
  2. How do you feel about the role of evangelizing your faith to others? In what ways do you see yourself “pointing Christ out to others” as John did? Is it hard to move beyond your comfort zone with this?
  3. Where have you been challenged to use your gifts in response to God’s call? Has anyone pointed out special gifts they see in you, gifts that could be used as a witness and service to others?

Biblical Context

Sr. Mary McGlone CSJ
John 1:29-34

When we meet John the Baptist in this reading he has already proclaimed that he was not the Messiah but the one preparing the way. The fourth Gospel is careful to present Jesus as distinct from and never subservient to John, even to the point of avoiding the mention of a personal encounter between the two. John simply appears as the forerunner of the one to come. At the same time, the Baptist describes his own faith experience regarding Jesus: “I saw the Spirit come down like a dove …and remain upon him.” According to Scripture scholar Juan Matias (El Evangelio de Juan), John’s description of that descent is like that of a dove seeking its own nest: John saw the Spirit come home to rest in Jesus.

Because John recognized the Spirit’s presence in Jesus, he called Jesus the Lamb of God. That title, so familiar to us, occurs only here in the Christian Scripture. The unique feature of the Baptist’s phrase is that Jesus is the Lamb of God. As this Gospel describes it, John the Baptist’s relationship to Jesus was always, “He must increase, I must decrease,” and John’s proclamation that Jesus came from God acknowledged that clearly. John recognized that his vocation was different from Jesus’. While Jesus is the obvious subject of this selection, we might actually learn more about our vocation from John the Baptist. Outspoken and strong as he was, John knew and admitted his limitations. He said, “I did not know him,” and yet, he dedicated his life “that he might be made known to Israel.” That is a profound expression of humility. It presents John as a servant who knew what it meant to be an apostle. John was simply the one sent to open the way to more than he could imagine.

This week’s readings lead us into the season of Ordinary Time with a reflection on who we are called to be as Christians. They remind us that being a Christian is never a solo performance. We are called together, formed by the word of God to become a light to the nations. Like John the Baptist, we are called not for ourselves, but to be able to point out the Lamb of God to others. When we know and accept that vocation, we can call ourselves the church of God in our own hometown and in our world.

A Clear Call?

Lorraine Senci

When I graduated from high school in 1980, my godmother gave me a gift that was truly puzzling: Betty Crocker’s Cookbook. I had no interest in cooking, and it was difficult to imagine how such a quaint book could have any relevance in my life.


As an 18-year-old woman, I had not yet sensed a “call” or vocation, yet my godmother saw future possibilities that were not on my radar: a wife and a mother. Now the cookbook’s well-worn pages testify to where and when I was responding to an ever-evolving call. Some pages hold memories of the necessity of finding recipes to create frugal meals when money was tight. Other sections help recall the satisfaction of following step-by-step instructions for canning vegetables and baking bread “from scratch,” and sticky pages trigger warm memories of baking desserts for a mom’s bible study. That quaint, puzzling gift was a confident statement about my future calls, and a certain expectation that I would offer nourishment to others.

The Scriptures on the Second Sunday in Ordinary Time are a reminder of how frequently it is family, friends or mentors who will recognize our latent gifts and offer us a glimpse of where we will be called to serve. Our often-foggy vision gains a bit of clarity when others – through their confident words and actions – empower us to claim our gifts, to take on new responsibilities, and to accept that we, indeed, are being called by God.

In the Gospel, we hear John the Baptist boldly and confidently proclaim Jesus as the “Lamb of God” and the “Son of God.” These powerful titles lent the weight of authority and credibility to Jesus as he begins his public ministry. Not only did he establish Jesus’ solid credentials, John stated that Jesus “ranks ahead” of him. If Jesus ever struggled with discouragement in his calling because of the incessant attacks by religious leaders, or if the frustrations of not being understood by his closest friends and relatives wore him down at times, it must have been a source of strength to recall the words of the Baptist in this encounter, and the assurance that John saw the “Spirit descend and remain” on him.

As Jesus lived out his call as the “Lamb of God” and “Son of God,” he witnessed that God’s love, mercy and compassion knew no boundaries. While John the Baptist initially recognized that Jesus “might be made known to Israel,” the words of the prophet Isaiah in the first reading attest that God desires salvation for all peoples and nations. This passage underscoring the servant’s awareness that his call had a wider scope than originally anticipated may have been in Jesus’ mind and heart as he brought God’s tender love and compassionate care to the outcasts, the unclean and the Gentiles. Jesus responded to a “call within a call” – the phrase St. Teresa of Calcutta used to explain how her unique vocation unfolded – as a “light to the nations,” as
Isaiah foretold, his call extending far beyond Israel.

The Scriptures this Sunday hint that our calls from God are dynamic, and that they often come through the words of others, inviting, encouraging and challenging us to claim our gifts with confidence.

The readings this Sunday invite us to reflect: What figurative “cookbooks” are within our power to give to others, encouraging their calls to be a source of nourishment? Like John the Baptist, can we endorse and lift up the gifts of others, knowing that their light may eclipse our own?

Lorrain Senci is Pastoral Associate for Pastoral Care and Spirituality at St. Paul Catholic Parish of Highland IL


Year A: Third Sunday Ordinary Time

The Beginning of the Galilean Ministry

Matthew 4:12-23

When he heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and went to live in Capernaum by the sea, in the region of Zebulun and Naphtali, that what had been said through Isaiah the prophet might be fulfilled: “Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali, the way to the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles, the people who sit in darkness have seen a great light, on those dwelling in a land overshadowed by death light has arisen.”


From that time on, Jesus began to preach and say, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. ”As he was walking by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon who is called Peter, and his brother Andrew, casting a net into the sea; they were fishermen. He said to them, “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.” At once they left their nets and followed him. He walked along from there and saw two other brothers, James, the son of Zebedee, and his brother John. They were in a boat, with their father Zebedee, mending their nets. He called them, and immediately they left their boat and their father and followed him. He went around all of Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, and curing every disease and illness among the people.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What does the phrase the kingdom of heaven mean to you?
  2. A call to discipleship demands that we examine our life’s priorities. How have you reprioritized your life as a result of your professed faith and as a disciple of Christ?
  3. Beyond weekly worship, what actions of yours would tell others that you follow Jesus?
  4. What are you most attracted to in the human Jesus and how are you doing with cooperating with that attraction in word and deed?

Biblical Context

Matthew 4:12-23
Sr. Mary McGlone CSJ

Matthew situates the inauguration of Jesus’ mission in the temporal context of the “handing over” of John the Baptist and the geography of Galilee, fertile with images from the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. (Note: the same word the reading translated here as “arrested” is translated as “handed over” in the passion narrative.) There should be no doubt about what constituted the appropriate time for Jesus to begin his ministry: danger was in the air for people like him.

In terms of the geographical context, Jesus left his hometown of Nazareth for Capernaum, the place of the appearance of the great death-conquering light prophesied by Isaiah. That alerts the reader to the fact that Jesus was doing God’s will and that God was about to do something wonderful for Israel. The opening lines assure us that the story which follows is going to be about serious struggles.

As Matthew tells it, Jesus preached the same message as John the Baptist: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” That one phrase could sum up the entire Gospel message.

“Repent!” The Greek word metanoia implies a total turn-around: meta means beyond or after and noeo refers to perception or understanding or even the mind itself. In the world of psychology the term metanoia suggests a falling apart and reconstitution of the personality. Pope John Paul II explained that metanoia implies a Gospel-based revision of a person’s underlying motivations, and therefore a thorough change in attitude and action (Ecclesia in America #26). This is something far deeper than sorrow for sin and a firm purpose of amendment. In fact, the emotion it implies would be more like excitement, even passion. Metanoia will be associated with fervor that may or may not include asceticism but necessarily involves an intensity and depth that can be nurtured over the long haul.

Such a change of heart and mind does not spring from an intellectual insight or a dogmatic assertion. As Matthew points out with his stories, metanoia happens as the result of an encounter with Jesus and the message he embodied: “The kingdom of heaven is at hand!” That phrase was the core of Jesus’ living and eventually the accusation that led to his execution.

Matthew’s decision to refer to the kingdom “of heaven” rather than “of God,” is fortuitous in that it indicates that “kingdom” does not refer to a spatial reality. Rather than speaking of kingdom as a noun, we come closer to its meaning when we think of it as a verb form translatable as “the reigning of heaven,” or the “reigning of God.” That speaks of a quality of relationships rather than geography.

Jesus preached that the reigning of heaven was germinating in the midst of the people. Pope Francis explains that “Jesus lived in full harmony with creation, and others were amazed” (“Laudato Si’, on Care for Our Common Home” #98). Jesus’ preaching, born out in his works of healing, was as immensely attractive to some as it was threatening to others.

It is only that attraction that can explain the response of the fishermen. Jesus awakened something in them, something that caused metanoia, something that led them to say, “There’s nothing else that makes sense any longer if this is true.” So they followed him.

Following Fascination

Spiritual Commentary
John Shea

I have seen a mother lean down to correct a child and say words so perfect, say sentences of such loving discipline, that, if the truth of what is happening is to be known, God must be praised. I have seen a man face death in such a way that it had no sting and my fascination made me mute. I have listened to a woman forgive a system that had badly violated her and forgive the men and women in that system who were unwitting accomplices. She forgave them not because she was too weak to retaliate but because forgiveness was the only way life could be served, both in her and in those who had hurt her.

These are fascinating responses. In fact, every day people are leaning into life and either coaxing or muscling it toward redemption. In creative ways that are difficult to predict, they are making things better. If we catch them at it and find ourselves attracted, we may want to know more.

We follow fascination, especially fascination that has our “name” on it. When we see someone thinking, feeling, or acting in a way which, at the present moment, we are not capable of but which we wish we were capable of, that way of thinking, feeling, or acting has our “name” on it. We see it as a liberating next step for ourselves and we apprentice ourselves to it. It draws us into discipleship. A disciple is merely a fascinated person who desires to know and do what they see in another. Our lives are inescapably interpersonal. We are always noticing others, what they think, say, and do. Toward many we are either indifferent or envious. Toward others we gravitate and learn. Sometimes this is a secret apprenticeship. These people do not know we are secretly taking clues from how they go about things. In biblical terms, we are watching them lace and unlace their sandals.

If we reflect on our lives, we will most likely discover a pattern of serial discipleship.

We have watched our parents, friends, teachers, coworkers, bosses, spouses, siblings, and pass-through people “lace and unlace their sandals.” While we may never literally leave our nets, boats, and families, we take our attention from everyday preoccupations long enough to follow the adventure of human possibility.

In the Gospel, Jesus is portrayed as a fascinating person. He does not back away from Galilee where Herod Antipas has imprisoned John. Rather he goes about “all of Galilee” (Matt 4:23; NAB). He does not wait for people to come to him and ask to be his disciple. He assertively chooses them. This directness honors them, and they leave what they are doing to follow him. Jesus is a forthright energy, and this energy fascinates because it is the polar opposite of the universal human trait of timidity. We want to know more about where this man is coming from. We suspect it would remedy ennui and listlessness.

As Martin Luther asked, “What drives Christ?” Christ is only too willing to tell us, and so we continue to go back to his story to learn from him, to make our own the Spirit that drives him.

I heard about a woman who was the director of a drug rehabilitation center. One day a tall, strong man with a baseball bat entered the reception area. He was shouting obscenities and began banging the baton the desks of the secretaries and admitting personnel. They jumped back and tried to get as far away from him as possible. One ran into the back room and called the police.

The woman who directed the center came out and walked right up to the screaming man and wrapped his arms around his chest. In a heartfelt voice she
repeated over and over again, “Oh, you poor man! Oh, you poor man!” They stood together in that strange embrace for a while, and then the man began to sob. The woman led him to a chair. He slumped into it and waited for the police. He never let go of the baseball bat. I want to know how that woman laces and unlaces her shoes. I find her fascinating. And I suspect she knows what drives Christ.

Spiritual Commentaries and Teachings are excerpted from The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers by John Shea © 2004 by Order of Saint Benedict. Published by Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota. Used with permission.

Year A: Fourth Sunday Ordinary Time

The Sermon on the Mount

Matthew 5:1-12a

When he 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.

“Let the proud then long for the kingdoms of the earth; the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to the humble.” St. Augustine

Discussion Questions:

  1. Which of the Beatitudes do you find most challenging to embrace and act on? Explain why.
  2. How does being “poor in spirit,” affect your relationship with Christ and with others?
  3. If you were to live the Beatitudes how would you have to change your life? 4.Which of the beatitudes resonates with you as one of your spiritual gifts and how do you experience that grace in your life?

Biblical Context

Matthew 5:1-12a
Margaret Nutting Ralph PHD

In today’s Gospel Jesus is promulgating a new law, and, like Moses (see Exod 19- 20), Jesus is doing so from a mountaintop: “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…” Matthew places Jesus on the mountain for a theological, not a historical reason. He is again teaching that Jesus is the new Moses with authority from God to promulgate the new law. We can tell that this detail of placing Jesus on the mountain is a conscious choice of Matthew by comparing Matthew’s account to Luke’s. In Luke, when Jesus teaches the Beatitudes (the statements that are worded, “Blessed are…”) to his disciples and a large crowd, he is not on the mountain, but on
flat ground (Luke 6:17).

We will be able to see another particular emphasis in Matthew’s Gospel if we compare the ways in which Matthew and Luke word the Beatitudes. In Luke, Jesus is pictured as speaking directly to those who have been marginalized by society and are disenfranchised.

Blessed are you who are poor, for the kingdom of God is yours. Blessed are you who are now hungry, for you will be satisfied. (Luke 6:20b-21a)

In Matthew’s Gospel there is a subtle difference in the wording. Jesus says:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven… Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied.

Jesus is speaking not to, but about, those who are poor “in spirit, that is, those who may own material wealth, but do not cling to it. Jesus is speaking not to those who are hungry “now,” that is, those who lack food, but about those who “hunger and thirst for righteousness.” Matthew has broadened the group who is being called “blessed.”

Scripture scholars suggest that Matthew’s wording reflects the effect of the passage of time on the way the early church passed on Jesus’ preaching. Jesus may well have addressed the poor and hungry directly and called them “blessed,” a complete reversal of understanding for those who thought material wealth was a sign of God’s blessing and suffering a sign of God’s displeasure, a punishment for sin. Luke retained that wording and that message. Matthew, on the other hand, broadened the wording to include later disciples of Jesus who were not materially poor or hungry but who were sincerely trying to be faithful disciples of Jesus Christ. Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy… Blessed are the
peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.


In these Beatitudes Jesus calls “blessed” those who may be in a position of power: those who have an opportunity to be merciful to others, and those who can work for peace. Notice that the Beatitude does not say, “Blessed are the merciful, for God will show them mercy,” but “they will be shown mercy.” It is not just God, but all disciples of Jesus who are called to make the promise of the Beatitudes a reality. Those in Jesus’ audience are not just to receive comfort when they mourn and food when they are hungry; they are also to be the source of these blessings. They are to comfort those who mourn and feed the hungry themselves.


One final comment on the Beatitudes: Remember, we noted that the core of Jesus’ preaching is about the imminent in-breaking of the kingdom of God. Matthew’s Beatitudes reflect the “already but not yet” aspect of the kingdom by having Jesus sometimes use the present tense and sometimes use the future tense in describing the reward that the “blessed” will receive. When Jesus calls “blessed” those who are persecuted he first says, “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” and then says, “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven.” When Jesus calls the poor in spirit blessed he says, “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” In the other Beatitudes, the future tense is used: “for they will be comforted… they will see God “Once more we see that the coming of the kingdom is both a present and a future event. Jesus’ disciples, including us, can receive the gift of the kingdom and participate in its coming by living in conformity to the new law that Jesus promulgated when he preached the Beatitudes.

The Inarguable Assignment

Reflection
Brian Dolye

More and more as I shuffle through this vale of wonders I begin to see that humility is the final frontier. We spend so much of our early lives building persona and confidence and career and status that it takes a long while before we sense the wild genius of the Beatitudes—blessed are those who do not think they are cool, blessed are those who reject power, blessed are those who deflate their own arrogance and puncture their own pomposity, blessed are those who quietly try to confess their sins without calling attention to their over-confident piety, blessed are those who know they are dunder-heads but forge on cheerfully anyway. The thin Jewish Mystic, as usual, was pointing in the complete other direction than the arc of human history. Sprint away from being important, famous, powerful. The weak are strong, mercy is greater than justice, power is powerless. Believe in the unbelievable, isn’t that what He is saying? Isn’t it? Don’t try to make sense of it. Be attentive and humble and naked in spirit. Try for lean and clean though the world roars for glitter and gold. Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, support the sick and frightened and lonely, as the Christos says later in this very gospel: that is the inarguable assignment, the blunt mission statement, the clear map coordinates. That is what we are here for: to bring love like a searing weapon against the dark, and to do so without fanfare and applause, without a care for sneers. Do what you know to be right, though the world calls you a fool? Yes! thank you! Yes!


Brian Doyle is the editor of Portland Magazine at the University of Portland and the author of A Shimmer of Something.


Selections from Breaking Open the Lectionary: Lectionary Readings in Their Biblical Context for RCIA, Faith Sharing Groups, and Lectors—Cycle A, by Margaret Nutting Ralph, Copyright © 2007 by Margaret Nutting Ralph. Paulist Press, Inc., New York/Mahwah, NJ. Reprinted by permission of
Paulist Press, Inc. www.paulistpress.com.


Year A: Fifth Sunday Ordinary Time

The Similes of Salt and Light

Matthew 5:13-16

“You are the salt of the earth. But if salt loses its taste, with what can it be seasoned? It is no longer good for anything but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot. You are the light of the world. A city set on a mountain cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and then put it under a bushel basket; it is set on a lamp stand, where it gives light to all in the house. Just so, your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father.

Discussion Questions:

  1. “You are the salt of the earth”. In other words, you are something you may not realize, a gift that may not be developed, a potential that may not be realized. How are you feeding your ultimate passions and purpose?
  2. How is it possible to let your good works shine before others with out seeming to draw attention to yourself rather than to God?
  3. Where do you draw your energy or “zest” for life from, and how do you use it to express your faith?
  4. How do you go about recognizing invitations to be, “salt and light” for others? How do you feel that you are awake to the faith-opportunities around you?
  5. In what ways do you experiment with your faith? Where can you stretch a bit beyond your comfort zone to be more “salt and light”?

Biblical Context

Matthew 5:13-16
Sr. Mary McGlone CSJ

As we continue through the Sermon on the Mount, we must remember that although many see Jesus here as the new Moses, he is not acting as a law-giver, but rather a dispenser of wisdom. The Beatitudes were conundrums, counterintuitive sayings that make sense only when we reflect on them from practice. In addition, although the entire sermon is generally thought to be a collection of teachings rather than a homily delivered all at one time, Matthew framed it as a discourse and therefore wanted his readers to take it as such. With that in mind we need to remember that Jesus addressed the statements about salt and light to you, meaning those disciples to whom he had previously just stated “blessed are those who are persecuted.”

Jesus was a great one for playing with words, and he did so in the saying about salt. Salt, in addition to its attributes as a flavor enhancer and food preservative, was a common metaphor for wisdom. So, the word Jesus used for the idea of salt losing its flavor was one which could connote foolishness. That concept makes for a great addition to what Paul had to say about human wisdom and the power of God. Following up on the last phrase of the beatitudes, Jesus indicates that persecuted disciples who are blessed and possess the kingdom of heaven are the salty wise ones. But if they lose that saltiness, their wisdom truly becomes folly, not only for them, but in the sight of the world that laughs because they gave up on what they had begun.

The second pair of images, the light and shining city on the hilltop is even more powerful when understood in a biblical context. Light was a common symbol for God’s word: “Your word is a lamp to my feet, a light to my path” (Psalm 119:105); and even for God: “The Lord is my light and my salvation” (Psalm 27:1). The city on the hilltop was Jerusalem, the dwelling place of God (Micah 4:1-3). With these images Jesus teaches that the persecuted and blessed disciples are an extension of God’s very presence in the world, a presence that can never be hidden or snuffed out.

Becoming Salt

John Shea

When I heard that this pastor died, I said aloud to myself “The world is now a less interesting place.”

I did not say the world was less just or good or merciful. This would be a more edifying remark. But from my limited perspective this man was an endless experiment. He was a shot of zest, salting every bland situation.

The parish decided to put up a basketball court in the parking lot. Everyone agreed it would be a good thing and give the teenagers a place to play and congregate. The pastor suggested they put three basketballs in a net and tie the net around the base of the stand that supported the backboard and basket. This way if people were just wandering by and wanted to shoot a few baskets, a ball would be available.

The parish council said that was ill advised. The kids would steal the balls. They wouldn’t last a day.

The pastor said he had thought about that and had a solution. He was not going to buy three cheap basketballs. He was going to buy three expensive basketballs. When people saw that these were top-of-the-line balls, they wouldn’t take them.

Needless to say, the parish council didn’t buy this reasoning. But this was a Catholic parish and the pastor does what the pastor wants. Three expensive basketballs were placed in the net.

The first one disappeared in a week. The second one was gone in a month. But it was five months before the third one vanished. The parish council admitted the balls lasted longer than they thought. But still they gloated, men and women of the world teaching the idealistic pastor a thing or two.

The pastor brought three new expensive basketballs. He stated his principle clearly, “Good basketballs for good people.”

Something is lost when the spiritual identity of “salt” and “light” is translated into the activity of doing good works. We often harbor a pedestrian notion of goodness. Doing “good” is a wooden application of principle to unruly situations. We seldom think of it as entailing creative engagement with the wily world. Yet the people or salt are called upon to envision and execute experiments. When the experiments fail, it is not time to retreat to old ways but to try new experiments. “Good basketballs for good people.’

When we realize our identities as salt and light, we begin to have faith in the world as a corollary of faith in God. God’s energies are directed to the betterment of the world. So, God’s people are driven by the same purpose. The world for all its recalcitrance is in the process of becoming the good creation. We are the flavor and fire of this development. Think big. Think new. Think creative.

Teilhard de Chardin, mystic and scientist, was afraid people would lose their zest and passion for the development of the world. So he tried to uncover this zest and passion as the deep desire of their hearts. He wrote that the “only worthwhile joy is that of co-operating as one individual atom in the final establishment of a world.” When his friends said they did not feel this drive in them, he said to them, “You are not searching to the full depth of your heart and mind. And that, moreover, is why the cosmic sense and faith in the world is dormant in you.” Jesus’ words that we are the salt of the earth and the light of the world are meant to awaken our cosmic sense and our faith in the world. The awakened sense unfolds into experiments on every level, even with basketballs.

Spiritual Commentaries and Teachings are excerpted from The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers by John Shea © 2004 by Order of Saint Benedict. Published by Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota. Used with permission.


Year A: Sixth Sunday Ordinary Time

Teaching About the Law

Matthew 5: 17-37

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. Amen, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or the smallest part of a letter will pass from the law, until all things have taken place. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do so will be called least in the kingdom of heaven. But whoever obeys and teaches these commandments will be called greatest in the kingdom of heaven. I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter into the kingdom of heaven.

“You have heard that it was said to your ancestors, ‘You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment, and whoever says to his brother, ‘Raqa,’ will be answerable to the Sanhedrin, and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ will be liable to fiery Gehenna. Therefore, if you bring your gift to the altar, and there recall that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift there at the altar, go first and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift. Settle with your opponent quickly while on the way to court with him. Otherwise your opponent will hand you over to the judge, and the judge will hand you over to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Amen, I say to you, you will not be released until you have paid the last penny. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you, everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one of your members than to have your whole body thrown into Gehenna. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one of your members than to have your whole body go into Gehenna.

“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife must give her a bill of divorce.’ But I say to you, whoever divorces his wife (unless the marriage is unlawful) causes her to commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery. “Again you have heard that it was said to your ancestors, ‘Do not take a false oath, but make good to the Lord all that you vow.’ But I say to you, do not swear at all; not by heaven, for it is God’s throne; nor by the earth, for it is his footstool; nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. Do not swear by your head, for you cannot make a single hair white or black. Let your ‘Yes’ mean ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No’ mean ‘No.’ Anything more is from the evil one.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Where do you tend to focus on the letter of the law at the expense of the spirit of the law and its connection with justice, love and compassion?
  2. “Our relationship with others is a reflection of our relationship with God.” What relationships in your life most need reconciliation and what prevents you from initiating that healing gesture?
  3. How do you go about short-circuiting the attitudes or behaviors that cause you to sin or “offend yourself” and may need to be “cut off”?
  4. In this teaching Jesus’ fulfillment of the law requires not just external conformity to the law, but also a change of our internal attitude and a conversion of the heart. How do you know if your heart is converting, what tells you this is happening?

Biblical Context

 Matthew 5: 17-37
Sr. Mary McGlone CSJ

“Do not think I came to abolish the law but rather to fulfill it.”

Paul often talked about the end of the time of the law but Jesus presented a different perspective. We need to understand Jesus’ sense of the fulfillment of the law within the context of metanoia – the turnaround implied by faith in Christ. The disciple who has undergone a radical change of perspective will understand the law and morality in a new and different way. God’s law was never supposed to function like a set of rules demanding conformity; rather, God told the people that the law was near to them, it dwelt in their hearts and would give them life (Deuteronomy 30:12-18). Nevertheless, they did not always take it in. Jesus now offers to show the disciples how to live the law in such a way that it directs their motivation and their perception, their heart and their mind. It is only when the law is a living interior force that people can truly fulfill it. The person who conforms to a law that doesn’t spring from the heart is like a dancer who makes all the right moves without interiorizing the rhythm. It’s a performance, not a dance. A well-oiled robot could accomplish the same. The moves may be right but they’re not graceful.

Each of Jesus’ examples springs from the tradition and gives it new life. When he refers to anger against a brother his people will hear references to Cain and Abel, and to Joseph’s jealous brothers. They will understand immediately what kind of anger leads to murder, and they will recognize it when they are implicated in the same deadly process. The demand for reconciliation here is stringent — it isn’t just to forgive, but to reach out to someone who has something against you — even if you might not think it’s your fault! The call to avoid anger thus evolves into a call to cultivate both humility and love for the other over oneself.

On the topic of relations between the sexes, Jesus stood up for vulnerable women. First of all, he said that regarding a woman as an object of pleasure denigrates her personhood. At a time when adultery was considered a crime against the woman’s husband, Jesus described both the lascivious gaze and the adulterous act as an offense against the woman herself, pointing out her primary significance in the whole matter. The same holds with the question of divorce. Because only the man could decide on divorce, it often left the woman without any honorable means of support. If a man puts a woman in that position, says Jesus, he will incur the guilt for whatever happens as a result. No man is free simply to wash his hands of a situation that doesn’t please him.

Finally, in what may seem to us a much lesser matter, Jesus tells people to stop swearing oaths as if that made their statements more trustworthy. In some cases, legalists of the day had determined certain formulae which rendered oaths null, thereby making them and the word of the person pronouncing them a sham. Such an oath would have no object other than to deceive. But even in general, Jesus left no room for double talk among his disciples — too much would depend on their transparency and commitment.

Each of these pronouncements on the tradition clearly calls for deep commitment and interiority in the fulfillment of the law. They also halt the tendency to triangulation involved in thinking of hurting others as a transgression against heaven more than as mistreatment and disrespect of a brother or sister. When people think of the law primarily as what must be obeyed to stay in good graces with God they miss the entire point of God’s love. The commandments are the basis for creating the happiness and community for which God created humanity. Transgressing the law is an offense against God precisely because of the harm it does to the human community. Thinking otherwise makes it sound as if God has a delicate ego that must be treated with great care lest God unleash the full force of divine wrath in punishment. That’s an idea that disparages both God and humanity.

Jesus’ teachings about human relations described the interactions that characterize the kingdom of heaven. As in the earlier part of this discourse, these are wisdom sayings, not juridical pronouncements. They present a design for living with specific examples that can be applied to other situations as well. What underlies the whole is a profoundly reverential approach to relationships, to our dealings with those with whom we share community or family and those with whom we deal in day-to-day situations. The real subject of Jesus’ teaching here is about the heart we put into every human interaction.

Working on Yourself

John Shea

One of the oldest spiritual injunctions is, “Know yourself.” It is meant to push people down a path of self-discovery. Although this search may begin with social ambitions and intimate relationships, eventually it will turn inward. The ones who want to know themselves will set up a watching and listening post in the center of their being. They will begin the arduous task of observing the machinations of the mind and the flutterings of the heart.

Introspective interiority points to everything the Seer (you) sees. In particular, the Seer gradually accumulates knowledge about how the mind works in general and how his or her mind works in particular. When this knowledge is received nonjudgmentally and responded to with love, it becomes the malleable material of transformation. We come into reflective awareness of the deeper drivers of our moods, motivations, and behaviors. We are ripe for inner change that will manifest itself in new, outer behavior.

This powerful Gospel text from the Sermon on the Mount suggests we search the mind and come to self-knowledge around a few crucial issues. We should know how anger rises in us, comes to expression, and then subsides. We should watch lust and note how it grips us and rushes us along paths we may not choose. We should also come to understand how we want shortcuts to forgiveness, how we hesitate and sometimes completely stall when it comes to initiating reconciling conversations. Why are the drives to anger and lust so powerful and the drive to reconciliation so weak? Coming to this knowledge is the work we must do on ourselves if the Sermon on the Mount is to be heeded.

And, of course, the origins of false speech must be appreciated. Self-knowledge involves becoming truthful about lying. Why do we think the lie is so necessary? A lie that is known as a lie is truly a failure. Is it partially because there is no congruence between our consciousness and our thoughts and feelings? We say things that are untrue because we do not do what is true. Some say, “Silence is the mother of integrity.” Only when we are quiet can we touch the depth of our feelings and thoughts and bring them forward adequately. When this happens, we delight in wholeheartedness. We are integral; the inside and the outside are in communion. But this is a rare experience. We are not expert in the skills of silence, and so most of the time our speech is fragmented and inevitably incomplete. The more we know about ourselves, the more the blocks to higher righteousness become evident.

As I was writing this reflection, the phone rang. I picked it up and friend of mine asked me what I was doing. I said I was meditating on the Sermon on the Mount. “Oh,” he said, “that’s just a list of things you can’t do.

That may be forever true. But if we are to move toward its wisdom even a little, we must begin the difficult but loving work of self-knowledge.

Spiritual Commentaries and Teachings are excerpted from The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers by John Shea © 2004 by Order of Saint Benedict. Published by Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota. Used with permission.


Year A: Seventh Sunday Ordinary Time

Matthew 5, 38-48

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil. When someone strikes you on [your] right cheek, turn the other one to him as well. If anyone wants to go to law with you over your tunic, hand him your cloak as well. Should anyone press you into service for one mile, go with him for two miles. Give to the one who asks of you, and do not turn your back on one who wants to borrow. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’

But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have? Do not the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brothers only, what is unusual about that? Do not the pagans do the same? So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Have you ever taken to heart Jesus’ teaching that we are to love our enemies? If so, how have you tried to integrate this teaching into your personal relationships and actions with adversaries?
  2. How you growing in your understanding of love as a choice and action instead of only a feeling? What examples could you share?
  3. When have you been challenged to be a witness to God’s love in a situation where the other person is failing to love you?
  4. In this reading being “perfect” does not mean being “flawless”, but to become more “whole-complete, and perfect in your Love” How do you try to grow in holiness? What more could you do?

Biblical Context

Matthew 5: 38-48
Sr. Mary McGlone CSJ

Today’s Gospel brings us the sayings of Jesus that are probably most vulnerable to misinterpretation and disastrous results. How many times have abused people been told to turn the other cheek? How many times have ideas from this selection been used to stop protests against injustice? How has the fatalism of the “resistance is futile” attitude become a mortal danger not just to humanity, but to the earth itself?

To grapple with this section of the Sermon on the Mount we need to understand what Jesus taught about the relationships that characterize the kingdom of heaven. Preceding today’s reading, Jesus talked about in-house affairs, relationship with a brother, a husband or colleagues. Now he describes how the blessed participants in the kingdom of heaven can deal with their adversaries.

As before, Jesus introduced his teaching with “You have heard … ” and then quoted an ancient guideline designed to break cycles of increasing violence. “An eye for an eye” assured that whether the person offended was a king or peasant, no more could be exacted from the offender than the loss he had caused. That was strict justice. But, as Gandhi pointed out, while that might have stopped violence from snowballing, it also created a lot of blindness. Jesus wanted his followers to see things differently.

Jesus wanted his followers to circumvent the spirals of hostility in the world, thus he taught them how to respond in a way that decreases antagonism and increases humanity. The “lex talionis,” an eye for an eye, recognized objective equality in terms of damage. The alternative Jesus proposed personalized the interaction. In his examples the injured party who refuses to be treated as an inferior human being becomes the greater in terms of humanity, simultaneously inviting the other into a more human milieu. That sounds a bit like “The last shall be first,” and it also presages how Jesus would respond to his own arrest, saying that those who live by the sword will die by it.

Jesus showed the powerlessness of brutality by proving that life prevails: he rose from the dead and the cross became a symbol of life. But as Paul admits, his message seems foolish to the world.

Nevertheless, from the time of Moses on, God has called a people to be holy, which ultimately means to be caught up in and by love. Jesus’ message in today’s Gospel is that we were made for more than pettiness and futility, and that no power on earth can demean us to the point of erasing our humanity. Jesus’ teachings about human relations described the interactions that characterize the kingdom of heaven. As in the earlier part of this discourse, these are wisdom sayings, not juridical pronouncements. They present a design for living with specific examples that can be applied to other situations as well. What underlies the whole is a profoundly reverential approach to relationships, to our dealings with those with whom we share community or family and those with whom we deal in day to day situations. The real subject of Jesus’ teaching here is about the heart we put into every human interaction.

God Calls Us to Holiness

Reflection
Karen Seaborn

On June 17, 2015, nine members of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina were shot to death while participating in a Bible study in the basement of their church. The shooter, a 21 year-old self-proclaimed white supremacist, had wandered into the room that evening. Can you picture it? Nine black church-goers in the midst of prayer and study, look up to see a young white man in jeans and a sweatshirt. Did they politely ask him to leave? Did they threaten to call the police if he did not leave? No. They invited him to join them. For a time, he did just that, he participated in their Bible study. And just as they were ending their session, heads bowed in prayer, he pulled a gun out of his fanny pack and one by one he shot them. Can you imagine the anguish the families of those nine people experienced? I cannot. I cannot even begin to imagine what it must be like to lose a loved one so suddenly and so violently. And that is what makes the next part of this story so stunning. Only three days later, when invited to share a statement at the shooter’s bond hearing, several of the family members turned to the shooter and said “I forgive you”.

In today’s first reading, God instructs Moses to tell the Israelites to be holy as the Lord their God is holy, to bear no hatred in their hearts, to take no revenge, to cherish no grudge and to love their neighbor as themselves. And who is their neighbor? Jesus responds to this question in chapter 10 of Luke’s Gospel with the parable of the good Samaritan: your neighbor is the one who is not like you. In today’s Gospel as Jesus brings his Sermon on the Mount to a close, he seems to save the most challenging part for last: Love not only those who are like you or even those who are not like you. Go one step further. Love your enemy. In this way, you will be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Few of us will be called to love in such horrific circumstances as those who lost loved ones in Charleston that night. But all of us have people around us who are difficult to love. It might be that co-worker who loudly snaps her gum in the next cubicle, or perhaps the committee chair who never listens to our ideas. It might be the protesters blocking traffic, or a family member with whom we haven’t spoken in many months. The wisdom of the world might call us to be righteous in our particular situation, but as Paul tells us in the second reading, the wisdom of this world is foolishness in the eyes of God. God calls us to holiness.

The man who shot those nine people was certainly not a friend. He was indeed their enemy. Yet, even in the midst of unimaginable pain, their family members knew that this man was still their neighbor. From somewhere deep inside themselves they knew that they were called to love that neighbor, to love their enemy. Did their forgiveness mean they no longer hurt? No. I am quite sure the family members of those victims continued to ache deeply. Yet their decision to love and forgive not only stopped a potential cycle of violence and vengeance, it made it possible for good to follow. Only twenty-three days after the shooting, the Confederate flag — long believed to be a racist symbol — was removed from South Carolina’s statehouse.

These family members reflect the spirit of today’s readings. They show us how to be holy and perfect as the Lord our God is holy and perfect. It cannot have been easy for them. But they show us that with God’s grace, it can indeed be done.

Karen Seaborn is currently a Doctor of Ministry in Preaching student at Aquinas Institute of Theology, where she also earned her Master of Divinity degree. She is serving as pastoral associate for adult faith formation at her parish in Waterloo, Illinois. She is married with four children and four grandchildren

Year A: Eighth Sunday Ordinary Time

Don’t worry about tomorrow

Matthew 6: 24-34

“No one can serve two masters. He will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon. “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds in the sky; they do not sow or reap, they gather nothing into barns, yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are not you more important than they?

Can any of you by worrying add a single moment to your life-span? Why are you anxious about clothes? Learn from the way the wild flowers grow. They do not work or spin. But I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was clothed like one of them. If God so clothes the grass of the field, which grows today and is thrown into the oven tomorrow, will he not much more provide for you, O you of little faith? So do not worry and say, ‘What are we to eat?’ or ‘What are we to drink?’ or ‘What are we to wear?’ All these things the pagans seek. Your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom [of God] and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you besides. Do not worry about tomorrow; tomorrow will take care of itself. Sufficient for a day is its own evil.

Discussion Questions:

  1. To what degree does anxiety over security and survival needs interfere with your trust in God’s care? How do you balance self-sufficiency with dependence on God? Explain.
  2. How does thinking of yourself as a steward of God’s resources help you to be a better husband, a better parent and less possessive of material resources and relationships?
  3. What role do material possessions play in your life? Are you overly attached to “things” to a degree they sometimes come before God? How do you keep this in check?
  4. In what ways do you see yourself seeking the Kingdom of God and where are there areas for growth here?

Biblical Context

Matthew 6: 24-38
Sr. Mary McGlone CSJ

In today’s segment from the Sermon on the Mount Jesus teaches about the demands of discipleship. Later on, he will tell the disciples to go out without provisions (Matthew 10:9-10) and that giving up home and hearth for him will bring them a hundred-fold (Matthew 19:29). Here, during their early experiences with him it’s as if Jesus were giving them their freshman orientation, making it as clear as he can that discipleship is an all or nothing venture. Jesus actually uses the vocabulary of slavery to describe their relationship to God — although in this case, the individuals would choose freely which master they would serve.

As he developed this teaching, Jesus continued to use vivid language to describe discipleship. When he said that servants can be “devoted” to only one master, the Greek word Matthew quoted means to cling to something in such a way that the one holding on becomes like that which is held. That’s an idea we see repeated in the Parable of the Talents (Mt. 25:14-30) where the servants who acted like the master were rewarded while the one who feared him was rejected. The strength of this concept translates well into English with the word “devoted.” “Devoted” derives from words which mean to make a vow. A synonym for “devoted” is “consecrated.” The relationship Jesus expects between disciples and God is uncompromising. There’s no wiggle room.

The opposite of devotion to God is service of mammon. Mammon is not the devil or even money in particular, but rather possessions in a comprehensive sense. Jesus was pointing out how easy it is to become a slave of what we think we own — we need only note how a cell phone can take priority over everything from the family dinner table to the driver’s seat. Given the automatic and unfailing obedience we give to a ring tone, one would think that failing to answer involved a public display of immorality. It’s small comfort to realize that the tendency to allow our things to dominate us is anything but new in human history.

After speaking about the exclusivity of commitment involved in discipleship, Jesus goes on to explain what discipleship offers. We might look at this as part of the longest-lasting and most audacious advertising campaign ever broadcast. For nearly 2,000 years, humanity has heard Jesus say, “You’ve got nothing to worry about! Clothing? If the birds don’t worry, why should you? Food? In case you didn’t notice, the earth and its oceans were custom designed to produce and reproduce it for every creature that will ever live!” We might ask why it is so easy to believe something like “You’re in good hands with Allstate,” while we’re so reluctant to let Jesus’ assurances guide us. Perhaps it’s the psychology of a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush; like Isaiah’s dejected people, we’ll trust the limited warranty on our car brakes more than God’s promise of life.

We need to understand the injunction not to worry as an extension of Jesus’ teaching about discipleship. He actually claimed that it’s pagan to waste our time on concerns about food and drink. According to Jesus, life is all about seeking God’s kingdom and if we really do that, everything else will fall into place.

The truth is that in Jesus’ time as in our own, we have a limited attention span. Even the acts of seeing and hearing are discernments about what deserves our attention and what is only peripheral. Jesus is not suggesting that we don’t need to dress for work or pack a lunch, but rather that the way we do so will make all the difference. It’s like the distinction between the two 13th century laborers working next to each other in Chartres; when asked what they were doing one said he was laying bricks and the other that he was building a cathedral.

Pope Francis would have us understand that serving God and seeking the kingdom of heaven implies “a concern to bring the whole human family together to seek a sustainable … development” of our world (Laudato Si’, On Care for Our Common Home #13). Jesus oriented the freshmen disciples, the course Francis is teaching might be called “Discipleship 2017.”

The call of today’s Gospel is becoming devoted disciples who trust the God who loves us like a mother and promises that we’ve got everything we need as long as we are willing to share it.

What is your master?

Reflection
John Shea

Masters always make servants. What dominates our consciousness and dictates our actions is what we ultimately value and is that with which we identify ourselves, it masters us. We attend to it so completely that when other concerns seek our attention, we push them away. This is especially true when our ultimate options are either God or money. If we feverishly seek money as the foundation of our security, we will have no time for the type of security God provides. God will seem vague and illusive next to the soothing social value of cash. On the other hand, if we seek God, the anxious quest for physical security will not be as all- important at it once was. Although the text presents God and money asan either-or proposition, God and money can be integrated God and money can be integrated into the life of an individual, but only if God is the master.

Worrying


Those who know the revelation of Jesus know the transcendent source of love is aware of everything we need. Therefore, our inner life is freed from preoccupation with physical survival and open for another possibility. We can seek first the kingdom and its righteousness, a way of life grounded in God and in creative service to our brothers, sisters, and neighbors. If we dedicate ourselves in this way, what we need for physical survival will be available to us. But it will not be there as a result of frantic effort. It will be given as the support of kingdom activities, added on to the primary mission of transforming life.

So how should we grapple with this spiritual teaching about anxious survival and money versus birds and flowers and God? Although there have been and are many Christians who believe that if your primary concern is the kingdom and its righteousness, God will provide for your physical needs, I cannot wholeheartedly go there. If this is faith, then I fall in with the crowd that Jesus characterizes as “you of little faith” Physical needs are provided by human effort working in conjunction with the God-given basics of creation. But God does not miraculously supply food and shelter, even if we are completely kingdom driven. This was Satan’s temptation to Jesus in the desert, and he refused it (e.g., Matt 4:1-11). I think the teaching initiates a process of integration. It presents with two alternatives. Either (1) understand and inhabit your life as an anxious project for future physical survival or (2) understand and inhabit your life as a present gift sustained by God prior to any human activity to secure it. The teaching assumes the first state of anxiety consciousness is “where most people are at” and advocates for the second state of gift-consciousness. The rhetoric of the text is meant to help us attain, in a fleeting way, “gift-consciousness.”

If we have more and more experiences of gift-consciousness, we will learn to appreciate ourselves from this perspective. Then we will put this sensibility into dialogue with anxiety-consciousness. In an ideal picture of transformation, this conversation will gradually loosen the stranglehold of anxiety-consciousness. Eventually, our anxieties will be integrated into gift-consciousness, and there will be one master, God. The ones who serve this master will know how to use the powerful tool of money and how to deal with the mental spasms of Worry.

Spiritual Commentaries and Teachings are excerpted from The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers by John Shea © 2004 by Order of Saint Benedict. Published by Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota. Used with permission.

Year A: Ninth Sunday Ordinary Time

The True Disciple

Matthew 7: 21-27

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name? Did we not drive out demons in your name? Did we not do mighty deeds in your name? Then I will declare to them solemnly, ‘I never knew you. Depart from me, you evildoers.’

“Everyone who listens to these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and buffeted the house. But it did not collapse; it had been set solidly on rock. And everyone who listens to these words of mine but does not act on them will be like a fool who built his house on sand. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and buffeted the house. And it collapsed and was completely ruined.”

Discussion Questions:

  1. When you think of Jesus and judgment time, do you think of Jesus as your accuser, advocate or the judge? Explain.
  2. Do you think God’s judgment is the same as man’s idea of judgment? How does your answer limit or free you for compassion and mercy toward others?
  3. In what ways are you not only hearing Jesus’ words but acting on them? What are the actions you take?
  4. Do you think of salvation as something you have received as a gift or something you that you must earn?

Biblical Context

Mathew 7: 21-27
Margaret Nutting Ralph PHD

Today we read the conclusion to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Between last week’s reading and this week’s reading the Lectionary selections have skipped the first twenty verses of chapter 7, in which Jesus warns the disciples to refrain from judging others, gives them. Lesson on prayer, tells them that the gate that leads to life is narrow. And warns them against false prophets.

Today’s reading begins with a judgment scene Jesus says, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. Again, Jesus is preaching about the kingdom of heaven. The kingdom of heaven is present wherever the king’s will, that is, the heavenly Father’s will, reigns.

Jesus pictures his Father as the judge and himself as an advocate. Those being judged will turn to Jesus to plead their case: “Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name? ” Here Jesus is once more emphasizing that internal conversion is necessary. Not everyone who appears to be a religious leader and performs charismatic acts, apparently in Jesus’ name, is doing the will of the Father. As we know from Jesus’ earlier teaching, a disciple of Jesus must act with love and justice, not simply claim to act in Jesus’ name and appear to be powerful.

In response to the claims from these unconverted people Jesus will say, I never knew you. Depart from me, you evildoers.” Here Jesus is quoting Psalm 6, in which the psalmist, in great distress, begs God to listen to his prayer. God does listen and so the psalmist says to his enemies, “Away from me, all who do evil” (Ps 6:9). A person who merely claims to be a disciple of Jesus, but does his or her own will rather than the will of God, will not enter the kingdom of heaven.

Jesus concludes the Sermon on the Mount by using a theme common in wisdom literature: he offers the disciples two ways, the way of the wise and the way of the foolish. The wise person builds a house on rock. Nothing can knock it down. This person is like a disciple who not only listens to Jesus’ teachings, but acts on them. The foolish person builds a house on sand. When trouble comes, the house is destroyed. This person is like a person who has listened to Jesus, but then doesn’t act on what Jesus has taught. Once again, as Jesus concludes his Sermon on the Mount, he challenges his disciples to internal conversion, to acts rooted in love and justice. If the disciples choose the way of the wise they will enter the kingdom of heaven.

In a passage not included in the Lectionary? Matthew concludes this section of his Gospel by saying, “When Jesus finished these words, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes” (Matt 7:28-29). The scribes had an important role in Jewish society. They quoted the words of the law and the prophets and applied them to contemporary situations. They did not, like the prophets, ascribe their words the scribes, quoted the prophets. We have seen this in the Sermon on the Mount when Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said….” But then Jesus contrasts these statements with his own teaching, prefaced by, “But I say to you….” No wonder the crowds were astonished at the authority with which Jesus taught. Jesus taught not only with more authority than the scribes, but with more authority than the prophets as well.

Withstanding Storms

Spiritual Reflection
John Shea

How do you go about “storm proofing” yourself? How does one move from being a hearer of the Word to being a doer of the Word? St. Matthew predicts dire consequences if this does not happen.But the Epistle of James explores his process more substantively.

But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing. (Jas 1:22-25)

If you hear the word and do nothing else, you deceive yourself. The point of hearing is not hearing. The point of hearing is doing.

There are two aspects to doing the word. The first is to see yourself in the mirror and not forget what you see. The mirror is the teaching of Christ. At the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus called people blessed, light, and salt. The reason is that they are connected to God and meant to bring God’s love and reconciliation into the world. Blessedness, salt, and light are the real faces of the followers of Jesus.

But we have other names, names that are true but partial. We are named according to our body—tall, short, bald, hairy, ugly, beautiful, fat, skinny, etc. We are named according to our role—son, daughter, husband, wife, carpenter, tax collector, etc. We are named according to our gender and ethnic group—male, female, Jew, Greek, Ethiopian, etc. We are named according to our personality— shy, assertive, extrovert, introvert, etc. We have many names, and the names that designate our physical, social, and psychological characteristics are reinforced by our everyday activities. The transcendent face of blessedness, salt, and light that we saw in the mirror of Christ is easily forgotten. But doers of the Word remember it.

The second aspect is our ability to look into the perfect law of liberty. Our transcendent self cannot be coerced by circumstances. It is not reactive to whatever is happening, reducible to stimulus and response. It is capable of responding “out of kind.” It can do good when good is not done to it; it can love when it is hated; it can extend peace when it is under attack. This law of liberty is not easily engaged. So if it would be the defining way we are in the world, we must persevere. But if we do, blessedness flows. This blessedness—the actions of the transcendent self— withstands storms.

So doing the Word entails being grounded in divine love and acting out of that awareness. But how does that make us “stormproof”? Life is storm. We are buffeted from within by our endemic mortality that eventually wins. We are slashed from without by persecution and the violent attacks of violent men. How does the transcendent self looking into the perfect law of liberty withstand those blowing winds?

In “Tickets for a Prayer Wheel,” Annie Dillard writes:

I think that the dying
pray at the last
not “please”
but “thank you”
as a guest thanks his host at the door.
Falling from mountains
the people are crying
thank you,
thank you,
all down the air;
and the cold carriages
draw up for them on the rocks.
([Columbia: University of Missouri, 1974], 127)

We withstand because we cannot be reduced to the storm. We are capable of gratitude in the very act of dying. The transcendent self is al- ways more than its circumstances. And if we court it and integrate it into all our frailties, we are “doing the Word” that makes us known by Jesus. “I do not know you” (Matt 25:12) changes to “enter into the joy of your master” (Matt 25:21, 23) and “inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (Matt 25:34).

Huston Smith, a philosopher of the spiritual, talked about his daughter’s death in a way that suggests, “withstanding storms.” He acknowledged that during the eight and a half months of her sickness with cancer, he was tossed on the “emotional waves of ups and downs that are the human lot.” So withstanding storms does not mean suppressing emotions:

But I want to spell out how she and her immediate family rose to the showdown . . . Even when her condition had her at the breaking point, her farewells to us, her parents, in our last two visits were “I have no complaints” and “I am at peace.” Her last words to her husband and children were “I see the sea. I smell the sea. It is because it is so near.” She always loved the sea. I think it symbolized life for her.

Huston Smith commented further, “Her life had had its normal joys and defeats, but the spiritual work that she accomplished in those thirty weeks of dying was more than enough for a lifetime” (The Way Things Are: Conversations with Huston Smith on the Spiritual Life, ed. Phil Cousineau [Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003]). Storm- proofing means spiritual work has moved us from being hearers of the Word to being doers of the Word.

So the full truth is: we withstand storms by realizing our transcendent face and communicating love even while we sink.

Selections from Breaking Open the Lectionary: Lectionary Readings in Their Biblical Context for RCIA, Faith Sharing Groups, and Lectors—Cycle A, by Margaret Nutting Ralph, Copyright © 2007 by Margaret Nutting Ralph. Paulist Press, Inc., New York/Mahwah, NJ. Reprinted by permission of Paulist Press, Inc. www.paulistpress.com.

Spiritual Commentaries and Teachings are excerpted from The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers by John Shea © 2004 by Order of Saint Benedict. Published by Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota. Used with permission.

Year A: Lent

Year A: First Sunday of Lent

The Temptation of Jesus

Matthew 4: 1-11

Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. He fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was hungry. The tempter approached and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command that these stones become loaves of bread.” He said in reply, “It is written: ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God.’” Then the devil took him to the holy city and made him stand on the parapet of the temple, and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down. For it is written: ‘He will command his angels concerning you’ and ‘with their hands they will support you, lest you dash your foot against a stone.’” Jesus answered him, “Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.’” Then the devil took him up to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in their magnificence, and he said to him, “All these I shall give to you, if you will prostrate yourself and worship me.” At this, Jesus said to him, “Get away, Satan! It is written: ‘The Lord, your God, shall you worship and him alone shall you serve.’ Then the devil left him and, behold, angels came and ministered to him.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Do you experience temptation as an “external force” trying to lure you toward bad behaviors, or as an internal choice to serve for yourself rather than others and God?
  2. Satan tempted Jesus with the three “P’s, prestige, power and possessions. What temptations do you experience in your life and how do you try to overcome them?
  3. In what ways do you see yourself as being obedient or faithful to God? Explain

Biblical Context

Sr Mary M. McGlone CSJ
Matthew 4: 1-11

The account of Jesus’ temptations in the desert can be interpreted from multiple vantage points, all of which converge on his faithfulness as Son of God. In the light of Matthew’s penchant for including the traditions of the Hebrew Scriptures in his Gospel, we can read Jesus’ testing as the redemption of Israel’s desert unfaithfulness to her vocation as people of God. Or, recognizing that the only times Matthew depicts Jesus undergoing temptations like this are in these 40 days and in the garden of Gethsemane, we can understand that these temptations framed his entire ministry.

Using the temptations in the desert as his point of departure, the Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky offered a stinging critique of Christianity in his poem “The Grand Inquisitor.” In this classic, a representative of the Spanish Inquisition encounters Christ who has returned to earth and tells him why he was wrong to reject the devil’s offers in the desert. The inquisitor cynically explains that people will always follow the one who gives them bread, that Jesus could have cemented his popularity with the people by having angels rescue him from jumping off the temple and that if he had really loved humanity, he would have forced them to be good rather than allow them to wallow in mediocrity and fear of freedom, eventually risking eternal damnation.

Dostoyevsky understood that the question underneath the story of the temptations was how to be a faithful son or daughter of God, a question that was as real for Jesus as for each of his followers. Dostoyevsky knew the strength of the temptations to choose security over all else, to beg for miracles over faith or responsibility, and to use coercive power to structure a society supposedly good for everyone. He might have gained that last insight from Napoleon who reversed the French Revolution’s abolition of the church because he believed that religion with its promise of recompense in eternity was the way to keep peace in a society in which some enjoyed wealth while others starved.

All these interpretations recognize that Jesus’ temptation in the desert was the temptation to pervert his vocation, to avoid being the one “who emptied himself” and “humbled himself becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:7-8).

The key concept tying these three readings together is obedience. In this context, obedience is the attitude that initiates right relationships between God and human beings, or we might say obedience is the only way for human beings to relate to God as Father. The story of the Fall in Genesis explains the seeming inevitability of disobedience and the disorder that rebellion creates. When human beings enter into rivalry with God, rivalry and every manner of discord characterize the entire human milieu. Once that has happened, everyone is born into the chaos of a sinful world.

The story of Jesus in the desert presents the alternative. Only because Jesus chose the word of God over bread could he later ask his disciples to go out on mission unarmed and unprovisioned. When Jesus refused to jump off the parapet of the temple he refused to use miracles to prove God’s love for him and to prove himself to the public. By doing that he demonstrated the faith he asked his disciples to share with him. Finally, in refusing to worship the tempter and the military, economic and political control he offered, Jesus affirmed that love is the only power that can build a future. As Paul tells us, one man’s obedience opened the way of life to all.

Testing What is in Your Heart

By: Ted Wolgamot

Temptation. Even the word itself is alluring, glamorous, enticing. And that’s because, if there’s one thing you and I understand about life, it’s the reality of being tempted. Whether it’s our diets or our struggles with greed or vengeance, we’ve all experienced temptation.

This is possibly why the story of Jesus being tempted has always been compelling. At its core, it is essentially a battle story, a contest between the two monumental forces of good versus evil.

To properly understand what’s happening in this Gospel story, we have to step back and remember the account of the Israelites being saved by God from the horrors of slavery.

After escaping the slavery imposed by the Egyptians, Israel’s experience in the wilderness is expressed in terms of a test from God: “And you shall remember … the Lord your God had led you these forty years in the wilderness, that he might humble you, testing to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments, or not” [emphasis added].

The whole idea of being tested, of being led by God, of traveling through the “wilderness,” of the symbolic number forty, and even of fasting, all comes from this original account to see if God’s chosen people would be able to love in return thereby testing to know what was in their heart.

On a human level, the same is asked of Jesus. And notice what his test, what his temptations involve: they all have to do with the issue of power, and how it is used or abused.

God the Father is about to hand over to Jesus an enormous amount of power — the power to be God’s face in the world, the power to build a kingdom of love, peace and mercy.

Jesus, then, on a purely human level, must be tested to see if, unlike the ancient Israelites who flunked the test, he can remain utterly faithful to Abba, his father.

This test is essentially the very same one that we all have to pass if we are to assume a position of power in our own lives whether as a husband or wife, a parent, a leader of any kind.

The test given Jesus and to us is threefold:

  • Jesus is asked to deny who he truly is: the Son of God. Will we claim our identity as God’s very own, acknowledging our true identity as human beings who are made in the image of God?
  • Jesus is told he can be the source of great signs and wonders. Will we forsake our desire for fame and adulation, and instead live a life of humility focused on service?
  • Jesus is told he will be given all the power and glory of the world’s kingdoms. Will we be able to resist the power inherent in greed, lust, vengeance and all the glamour the world offers?

Temptations are powerfully seductive and alluring. In the example of Jesus, we are invited to resist them as did Jesus. On this First Sunday of Lent, our Gospel challenges us to do the same. Among the central themes of this season is the recognition that we all have to do battle against temptation — especially the temptation to misuse power.

To assist us in this conversion process, the church asks us to remember and to practice the message found in Deuteronomy: Go into your own wildernessfor forty days. Pray, fast, become contrite, increase our service to others – all of this testing to know what was in your heart, and to remind us once again: “The Lord, your God shall you worship and him alone shall you serve” (Dt 8:2).

Year A: Second Sunday of Lent

The Transfiguration of Jesus

Matthew 17: 1-9

After six days Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them; his face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light. And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, conversing with him. Then Peter said to Jesus in reply, “Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents* here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, behold, a bright cloud cast a shadow over them, then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” When the disciples heard this, they fell prostrate and were very much afraid. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Rise, and do not be afraid.” And when the disciples raised their eyes, they saw no one else but Jesus alone. As they were coming down from the mountain, Jesus charged them, “Do not tell the vision to anyone until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

Discussion Questions:

  1. In what ways do you listen to Jesus ? Can you give specific examples?
  2. Can you name a specific “Mountain Top” experience (i.e. a close moment, an encounter with God) in your life and the illumination or (grace) that may have come afterward? Did it change you, if so how?
  3. As he did with Peter, James and John, Jesus is always pointing us “down the mountain” out of the comfort zone and toward the realities of life and true discipleship. What “discipleship activities” are you pursuing in your life right now?
  4. What aspect of the Christian journey is most difficult for you?

Biblical Context

Matthew 17: 1-19
Sr. Mary M. McGlone CSJ

The Gospels situate the story of the Transfiguration just after the incident in which Jesus invited his disciples to tell him who they thought he was and his explanation that as God’s anointed one, he was going to suffer. Now, six days later, Jesus brings his three core disciples to a new experience of him, one that counterbalances any dread they might have had, given what he taught them about his fate.

Matthew and Mark specify that the Transfiguration happened six days after the above mentioned events. Among the possible explanations for underlining the time, one train of thought suggests that it may reflect on the seven days of creation so that this experience was a Sabbath encounter with God par-excellence. Other obvious allusions to the six days and other details of the story are Moses’ six-day experience on the mountain of God, the cloud of God’s glory which covered the mountain and how Moses’ face glowed from his encounter with God (Exodus 24 and 34). While many things can be inferred from all of that, at the very least we are aware that the evangelists wanted to be sure that their listeners could see Jesus’ transfiguration in the light of their salvation history. The Transfiguration recalled God’s previous visits. Moses and Elijah as Jesus’ companions placed him firmly in the line of the Hebrew Scriptures with two of the greatest prophets, two whose demise was mysterious, to say the least. (According to Deuteronomy 34:6, Moses was buried by unknown people in an unknown place and according to 2 Kings, 2:11, Elijah departed from earth in a fiery chariot.) In other places Matthew has said specifically this was to fulfill the prophecy, in this case, the details speak for themselves.

More than showing Jesus’ roots in Israel’s tradition, the Transfiguration was a new revelation of Jesus’ identity. The three men with whom Jesus chose to share this experience had been with him for some time. They had seen his deeds of power and had heard his preaching. They had walked with him and presumably tried to imitate him in his relationship with God and his way of being with others. They had allowed Peter to speak for them in naming him the Messiah, the Son of the living God, and they had heard Jesus’ corrective to Peter’s rejection of his coming suffering. Understood in the light of Jesus’ passion predictions, the Transfiguration was a revelation that divine glory didn’t mean what the disciples thought it did in terms of worldly success. Jesus was going to suffer shamefully. At the same time, suffering and death were not, as they thought, signs of failure and lack of divine blessing. The Transfiguration, an event described in Matthew, Mark and Luke, might well be understood as a demonstration of what John’s Gospel described as Jesus’ glory on the cross.

Obviously, the disciples didn’t comprehend their mountaintop experience. Peter offered to build shelters. But before he could make a move, God’s voice pierced the clouds saying everything they needed to know: “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” That was exactly the same message the heavenly voice had spoken at the time of Jesus’ baptism — then directly to him, now to the disciples, except for the three additional words: “Listen to him.”

The Big Picture

By: Pat Marrin

Lent focuses on the journey from baptism to glory. The baptized receive the promise of glory when they are incorporated into Christ, but that promise must developed, be lived and nourished by the Eucharist and come to maturity in the life of each disciple. We cannot pass from promise to glory without passing through the paradox of Jesus’ suffering and death.

Today’s Gospel account of the Transfiguration tells us how this was accomplished for Jesus, and how it will also take place for us.

As Jesus travels to Jerusalem his disciples are clueless about what will happen there. To their limited view, Jesus is surely on the cusp of victory. Glory is within their grasp. What they have not grasped yet is that to get to glory Jesus will have to suffer rejection and death.

He takes Peter, James and John up a mountain to pray. What they witness is like the end of the story appearing in the middle. The paradox of his apparent defeat and death is illuminated to reveal its hidden meaning. Moses and Elijah frame Jesus in glory to affirm that by his death he is fulfilling the law and the prophets. As God’s Son, he is leading the exodus from the slavery of sin to the freedom of new life. 

This profound theology lies at the heart of the Gospels. By his sacrificial death, Jesus saves us while we were still sinners and loves us when we were unlovable. In essence, by his life, death and resurrection Jesus reveals that the face of divine mercy is greater than any evil and more powerful than death itself. It cannot be otherwise, because God is love. No one, even the greatest sinner, can escape the fire of divine love, because it is the source of everything God has created and sustains in existence. Even if we turn away from God, God never ceases to love us and pursue us.

Peter, James and John will not grasp this mystery until they themselves need it. They will fail Jesus in his hour of need, denying and abandoning him when he is seized, tortured and executed. Their sin is the greatest sin of all, to turn away from an intimate friend to save themselves. In the abject misery of their guilt and grief, they will finally understand the depth of Jesus’ love for them. When the risen Christ restores them to his love, they will become apostles, able to tell others the good news they themselves have received in full measure.

We, too, must learn by experience the shocking secret of God’s unconditional love, a mystery so deep it defies our own limited understanding of mercy. Glory is the capacity to love not just our friends, but also our enemies.

Our limited standards of justice and love must be thrown open to encompass the limitless patience and compassion of God. The logic of the law cannot define God’s love for sinners. Therefore, our baptismal journey, to be complete, must break our hearts and expand our minds again and again until we are as generous as the heavenly Father Jesus revealed.

As we continue our Lenten journey, Jesus is eager to teach us. Even when we grasp the cost of discipleship and falter, he touches us and says, “Rise, and do not be afraid.” He is always with us, for we belong to him in baptism and we are on our way with him to the glory of his resurrection.

Year A: Third Sunday of Lent

A Spring of Eternal Life

John 4: 5-42

Jesus came to a town of Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of land that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there. Jesus, tired from his journey, sat down there at the well. It was about noon.

A woman of Samaria came to draw water. Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink. ”His disciples had gone into the town to buy food. The Samaritan woman said to him, “How can you, a Jew, ask me, a Samaritan woman, for a drink?” (For Jews use nothing in common with Samaritans.) Jesus answered and said to her, “If you knew the gift of God and who is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.” [The woman] said to him, “Sir, you do not even have a bucket and the well is deep; where then can you get this living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us this well and drank from it himself with his children and his flocks?” Jesus answered and said to her, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again; but whoever drinks the water I shall give will never thirst; the water I shall give will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may not be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.

Jesus said to her, “Go call your husband and come back.” The woman answered and said to him, “I do not have a husband.” Jesus answered her, “You are right in saying, ‘I do not have a husband.’ For you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true.” The woman said to him, “Sir, I can see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain; but you people say that the place to worship is in Jerusalem.” Jesus said to her, “Believe me, woman, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You people worship what you do not understand; we worship what we understand, because salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when true worshipers will worship the Father in Spirit and truth; and indeed the Father seeks such people to worship him. God is Spirit, and those who worship him must worship in Spirit and truth.” The woman said to him, “I know that the Messiah is coming, the one called the Anointed; when he comes, he will tell us everything.” Jesus said to her, “I am he,the one who is speaking with you.”

At that moment his disciples returned, and were amazed that he was talking with a woman, but still no one said, “What are you looking for?” or “Why are you talking with her?” The woman left her water jar and went into the town and said to the people, “Come see a man who told me everything I have done. Could he possibly be the Messiah?” They went out of the town and came to him. Meanwhile, the disciples urged him, “Rabbi, eat.” But he said to them, “I have food to eat of which you do not know.” So the disciples said to one another, “Could someone have brought him something to eat?” Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of the one who sent me and to finish his work. Do you not say, ‘In four months* the harvest will be here’? I tell you, look up and see the fields ripe for the harvest. The reaper is already receiving his payment and gathering crops for eternal life, so that the sower and reaper can rejoice together. For here the saying is verified that ‘One sows and another reaps. ’I sent you to reap what you have not worked for; others have done the work, and you are sharing the fruits of their work.”

Many of the Samaritans of that town began to believe in him because of the word of the woman who testified, “He told me everything I have done.” When the Samaritans came to him, they invited him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. Many more began to believe in him because of his word, and they said to the woman, “We no longer believe because of your word; for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the savior of the world.”

Discussion Questions:

  1. . Is there anyone in your community or in your life who is saying: “give me a drink” and how are you responding?
  2. In what areas of your life do you resist, or have you failed to receive the gifts that Christ longs to give you?
  3. This woman took what she heard from Jesus and immediately evangelized to her townspeople. Do you believe sharing your religious experiences with others is important aspect of our faith? When and how do you do you this?
  4. Where in your life do you try to satisfy your inner thirst for God with external things?

Biblical Context

John 4: 5-42
Margaret Nutting Ralph PHD

As we read John’s story of Jesus meeting a Samaritan woman, we see pattern that we will find throughout John’s Gospel. Jesus will have a conversation in which he uses metaphors to talk about spiritual things. Those to whom Jesus is speaking will misunderstand Jesus’ intent because they understand his words literally. The misunderstanding gives Jesus the opportunity to clarify his meaning. John uses this method because he is trying to teach his audience to think allegorically, to see levels of meaning. Through his Gospel John hopes to help his end-of-the-century contemporaries see that the risen Christ is in their midst.

Jesus comes to a Samaritan town. Jews considered Samaritans to be unclean because they were the descendants of the northern tribes. Who intermarried with their Assyrian conquerors after the fall of the northern kingdom. Jesus does something completely unexpected when he initiates a conversation with the Samaritan woman, not only because she is a Samaritan, but because she is a woman. John makes this clear as he tells us that the disciples “were amazed that he was talking with a woman.

Jesus says, “Give me a drink.” The woman is taken aback by the impropriety of the request. She says, “How can you, a Jew, ask me, a Samaritan woman, for a drink?”

Jesus then makes the statement that the woman misunderstands. He says, “If you knew the gift of God and who is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.

Jesus is, of course, speaking of spiritual things. The living water that Jesus has to give is baptism. The sacrament of baptism is one of the ways in which John’s audience can be with Christ, if only they can see that this is true. The woman, however, understands water to mean water. She points out to Jesus that he doesn’t have a bucket so he couldn’t possibly give her water, unless it were a miracle. Not even Jacob, the ancestor after whom the well is named, could do such a thing. Does Jesus think he is greater than Jacob?

The woman’s misunderstanding gives Jesus an opportunity to elaborate: “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again; but whoever drinks the water I shall give will never thirst; the water I shall give will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.

If John’s audience shared the woman’s original misunderstanding, there is no way they could continue to misunderstand. The water that leads to eternal life is baptism. However, the woman does not yet understand. She says, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may not be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.” To her, water still means water.

Jesus now changes the subject. He asks the woman to get her husband. When she responds that she does not have a husband, Jesus commends her for telling the truth. “You are right in saying, ‘I do not have a husband.’ For you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband.” With this statement we can surmise why the woman was at the well by herself in the heat of the day. Given her history, she must have been isolated from the company of the other women who also made daily trips to the well.

The woman does not try to defend herself. Rather, she has her first and partial insight as to the identity of the person with whom- she is speaking. She says, “Sir, I can see that you are a prophet.” She then brings up a matter of dispute between the Samaritans and the Jews: Should people worship “on this mountain,” that is, at a temple that had been built in Samaria for worship, or only at the temple in Jerusalem? Remember, by the time John is writing, the temple in Jerusalem no longer exists. It had been destroyed by the Romans. Jesus tells her that the time will come “when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem… But the hour is coming, and is now here, when true worshipers will worship the Father in Spirit and truth.” For John’s fellow Christians, worship is not tied to a geographic place. Rather, wherever people worship, the risen Christ is present.

The conversation then moves on to the identity of the messiah. Here the woman takes another step in recognizing Jesus’ identity. Jesus tells the woman that he is the expected messiah. “I am he, the one speaking with you.

It is at this point that the disciples return and are amazed to see Jesus talking with a woman. They have a conversation with Jesus that illustrates the same pattern of misunderstanding that we saw with Jesus and the woman. The disciples urge Jesus to eat something- Jesus says, “I have food to eat of which you do not know.” The disciples think food to eat means “food to eat.” So they say, “Could someone have brought him something to eat?” Their misunderstanding gives Jesus the opportunity to explain. He says, “My food is to do the will of the one who sent me and to finish his work.

In the meantime, the woman had been so excited by her conversation with Jesus that she had left her bucket at the well and told everyone she met about her experience. The woman is a true evangelizer. However, she doesn’t want people to rely on her word. She wants them to come and see for themselves. She says to her townspeople, “Come see a man who told me everything I have done. Could he possibly be the Christ?”

The Samaritans respond to her invitation to meet Jesus. After spending two days with Jesus, many of the Samaritans begin to believe. They then give witness to her: “We no longer believe because of your word; for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the savior of the world. ”

By walking together in faith the woman and her townspeople have moved from understanding that Jesus is a prophet to understanding that he may be the messiah to understanding that Jesus is truly “the savior of the world.” Their witness to one another has helped them accept the gift that Jesus wanted to give them all along.

The One who “is Living Water” provides divine life now

Reflection
John Shea

If you can trace the spiritual logic that connects the unfolding states of consciousness in the three sequences of this story, you will uncover their spiritual wisdom. Sometimes these “patterns of experience” can be easily grasped. When they are, their wisdom seems undeniable. In other words, the “pattern of experience” in the spiritual teaching matches the experience and patterns in our lives. At other times, the “pattern of experience” in the teaching is difficult to grasp and it challenges the “pattern of experience” in the life of the seeker. In other words, we only partially “get it” and cannot see how it is possible to put the wisdom into action.

The one who hears the voice of the bridegroom rejoices greatly. Here the pattern begins with the joy at hearing the voice of the bridegroom. In the story of the woman at the well, the first sequence is how the Samaritan woman moves from understanding Jesus as a Jew, to understanding him as a prophet, to understanding him as the Messiah, to receiving his revelation of himself as “I am.” She hears his voice when he says, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.” When she grasps this “I am,” she participates in this identity. She is filled with being and love, a being and love she has always been looking for. Her joy is great. She has heard the voice of the bridegroom. When she hears the voice of the bridegroom, she becomes the bride who rejoices greatly. This first joy becomes the impetus for mission. She goes forth attracting people to the voice she has heard. These people are symbolically her children. She is presenting them to her true husband, the one who has made her fruitful. This true husband will bless and embrace them, giving them the life that flows through him. She brings others to the one who bestows the gift of God, a gift she has already experienced. In doing this, she enters a second joy, a fullness of joy.

In the next sequence, the spiritual slowness of the disciples contrasts with the spiritual speed of the woman. “Going into town to buy food” is the knee jerk mechanism of those who are unaware of inner food and drink. The disciples are with the Living Water and the Bread Come Down from Heaven, but they have left him to seek food and drink elsewhere. Their imaginations have collapsed into the material level. They always have to “go and buy,” thinking the only resources are outside themselves. The disciples are spiritually dense, and this denseness is the backdrop for the porous receptivity of the woman. Instead of the questioning and give-and-take of real dialogue such as Jesus just had with the woman, the disciples marvel and keep silent. Marveling means they see something they do not understand. But instead of pursuing what they do not know until they know it, they simply do not say anything. This is not the way of spiritual development. If they had asked Jesus, “What do you want? “He would have replied, “I want a drink” If they had asked Jesus, “Why are you speaking with her?” he would have replied, “She is giving me a drink.” This is important knowledge about Jesus, but it is knowledge they will not get because they refuse to ask. The disciples continue their wrongheaded approach. They went to buy food and now they offer it to Jesus. He tells them he has food of which they do not know. This remark of Jesus puzzles them as much as his talking to a woman. But once again they do not ask him what he means. Instead, they talk to one another, sharing their ignorance, and asking the ironic question about someone bringing him food. Of course, the woman has brought him food. When she accepted the food (eternal life) Jesus offered, Jesus’ own hunger was fed.

In the final sequence, the woman’s testimony concerned how Jesus revealed her to herself. He told her she had an unslaked thirst for God and was a woman without a true husband to give her life. Then he gave her a drink and made her fruitful. He disclosed an essential human hunger and then he fed it. Her story of coming into life and love was powerful enough to bring others to believe in Jesus. However, “believing in him” seems to mean they are attracted to him and want to “see for themselves.” Her witness sowed the seed. The effect of the woman’s testimony is not only that the Samaritans come to Jesus. They also know what to ask him. They want him to remain with them. In other words, they want to commune with him, to enter into the structure of his selfhood, to share in his living relationship with God. Through the woman’s testimony they know what Jesus does, and they ask him to do that for them. When the request is correct, Jesus cannot refuse. He remained with them two days. I do not know what “two days” symbolizes. But obviously it is enough time for communing with God in Jesus to happen.

Jesus is the ultimate evangelizer and the fullness of life roaming the world. He is trying to find people to whom to give this life. When people receive life from him, he grows strong. He does not feel depleted but fulfilled. When spiritual life is given and received, it grows; and all, giver and receiver, are invigorated. Jesus begins the conversation by abruptly asking for a drink. But the paradox is: Jesus gets a drink when people allow him to give them a drink. The wise Sufi elder Rumi said: Not only the thirsty seek water, the water as well seeks the thirsty. What the Samaritans know through firsthand contact with Jesus builds upon, but goes beyond the woman’s individual testimony. In hearing for themselves, they have come to know that Jesus is the Savior of the world. What he did for the woman he did for them, and what he did for them he will do for everyone. He not only brings alienated individuals and ethnic groups back into communion with God. He offers divine life to the entire world.

Selections from Breaking Open the Lectionary: Lectionary Readings in Their Biblical Context for RCIA, Faith Sharing Groups, and Lectors—Cycle A, by Margaret Nutting Ralph, Copyright © 2007 by Margaret Nutting Ralph. Paulist Press, Inc., New York/Mahwah, NJ. Reprinted by permission of Paulist Press, Inc. www.paulistpress.com.

Spiritual Commentaries and Teachings are excerpted from The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers by John Shea © 2004 by Order of Saint Benedict. Published by Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota. Used with permission.


Year A: Fourth Sunday of Lent

The Man Born Blind

John 9: 1-41

As he passed by he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither he nor his parents sinned; it is so that the works of God might be made visible through him. We have to do the works of the one who sent me while it is day. Night is coming when no one can work. While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made clay with the saliva, and smeared the clay on his eyes, and said to him, “Go wash in the Pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). So he went and washed, and came back able to see.

His neighbors and those who had seen him earlier as a beggar said, “Isn’t this the one who used to sit and beg?” Some said, “It is,” but others said, “No, he just looks like him.” He said, “I am.” So they said to him, “[So] how were your eyes opened?” He replied, “The man called Jesus made clay and anointed my eyes and told me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ So I went there and washed and was able to see.” And they said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I don’t know.”

They brought the one who was once blind to the Pharisees. Now Jesus had made clay and opened his eyes on a Sabbath. So then the Pharisees also asked him how he was able to see. He said to them, “He put clay on my eyes, and I washed, and now I can see.” So some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, because he does not keep the sabbath.” [But] others said, “How can a sinful man do such signs?” And there was a division among them. So they said to the blind man again, “What do you have to say about him, since he opened your eyes?” He said, “He is a prophet.”

Now the Jews did not believe that he had been blind and gained his sight until they summoned the parents of the one who had gained his sight. They asked them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How does he now see?” His parents answered and said, “We know that this is our son and that he was born blind. We do not know how he sees now, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him, he is of age; he can speak for him self.” His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews, for the Jews had already agreed that if anyone acknowledged him as the Messiah, he would be expelled from the synagogue. For this reason his parents said, “He is of age; question him.”

So, a second time they called the man who had been blind and said to him, “Give God the praise! We know that this man is a sinner.” He replied, “If he is a sinner, I do not know. One thing I do know is that I was blind and now I see.” So, they said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” He answered them, “I told you already and you did not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you want to become his disciples, too?” They ridiculed him and said, “You are that man’s disciple; we are disciples of Moses! We know that God spoke to Moses, but we do not know where this one is from.” The man answered and said to them, “This is what is so amazing, that you do not know where he is from, yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but if one is devout and does his will, he listens to him. It is unheard of that anyone ever opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he would not be able to do anything.” They answered and said to him, “You were born totally in sin, and are you trying to teach us?” Then they threw him out.

When Jesus heard that they had thrown him out, he found him and said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” He answered and said, “Who is he, sir, that I may believe in him?” Jesus said to him, “You have seen him and the one speaking with you is he.” He said, “I do believe, Lord,” and he worshiped him. Then Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment, so that those who do not see might see, and those who do see might become blind.”

Some of the Pharisees who were with him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not also blind, are we?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would have no sin; but now you are saying, ‘We see,’ so your sin remains.

Some of the Pharisees who were with him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not also blind, are we?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would have no sin; but now you are saying, ‘We see,’ so your sin remains.

Discussion Questions:

  1. When have you felt hesitant to profess your beliefs because of the reaction you might receive from others? How do you work through this hesitation?
  2. Where in your faith life have you moved from blindness to sight, or experienced moving from belief in something, to knowing from experience?
  3. Have you ever had to discard some of what you were taught as a child in order to grow spiritually? Explain.
  4. Do the “rules” of your faith tradition ever blind you from responding to Spirit of God in your daily relationships with others? In what ways?

Biblical Context

John 9: 1-41
Sr. Mary M. McGlone CSJ

Although his contemporaries were probably little impressed with the unnamed blind beggar of this story, John presents him as the archetypical human being: “anthropos.” In typical Johannine fashion, he represents blind anthropos, a designation that implies a statement about humankind in general. John makes it clear that many of Jesus’ listeners considered themselves special, people with unique insight into God’s ways. It’s little wonder that Jesus chose the blind beggar to help him reveal the works of God, everyone else knew too much.

Just as God didn’t consult Eve and Adam about the potential benefits of creating them, Jesus approached the blind man with the earth-ointment of healing without asking him if he wanted to see. But once Jesus offered him the possibility of sight, mysterious as is must have sounded, the man did what Jesus told him to do and that led to transformation.

All might have been well if it hadn’t been for the onlookers. They represent a special brand of anthropos, people whose world goes out of whack when things go too well for others. Their cosmos had been settled and stable and they knew the necessary number of poor, blind and lame people around to assure them that they themselves were God’s blessed, whole-bodied favorites. But when the unchosen one was transformed everything went up for grabs. There’s a particular type of anthropos that need underdogs to prop up their identity: when there’s nobody under them, how can they feel important? Who could remain sure of being chosen when conditions could change with just a little mud and water? So they took the man-who-saw to the authorities, the Pharisee guardians of law and order.

After two interviews with the once-blind man the Pharisees lost their composure. The man-who-saw was incorrigible. He refused to appreciate their logic: that what had happened to him could not come from God because it was accomplished by someone who did not abide by the law. The man-who-saw had become identified with Jesus; he would have to be judged as the same kind of sinner as the healer.

Pope Francis has described the devil’s kingdoms as the places where “everything comes under the laws of competition … where the powerful feed upon the powerless” (Evangelii Gaudium, “The Joy of the Gospel,” #53). The Pharisees about whom John wrote had become stuck in a dogmatic prison of their own making. They may or may not have understood how self-serving it was, and they surely would have denied that they had undermined the word of God, but they had assumed the authority to close revelation. Discernment was no longer necessary because all the answers had been given.

As Jesus tried to tell them, blindness is no sin, but choosing blindness, refusing to believe in God’s ongoing self-revelation and activity in the world is unforgivable because those who do so close themselves off from God.

Today’s readings call us to the discernment that is based upon openness to the unruliness of God’s word. We must accept that we are all blind when it comes to seeing the range of God’s possibilities. As we learn to do that, we may just be surprised by a brand new vision.

Sweet the Sight

Reflection
Mary Stommes

I was blind, but now I see. Amazing. Amazing grace, though? Was this really an encounter with God?

Not everyone sees it that way. According to some who know a lot about the things of God, this certainly is not Gods doing. “This man, Jesus, is not from God, because he does not keep the Sabbath. We know that this man is a sinner” Think about it. A community of faith so faithful to the rules that even the Son of God is seen as an unwelcome sinner. Sigh. Another day in the life of the Son of God.

Another day, another miracle. Another controversy. In the heat of it, we might forget how this all began: “As Jesus passed by he saw a man blind from birth.” He saw not a sinner, not a child of sinners, but a beloved child of God, a disciple-in-the– making. Amazing Grace, how sweet his sight.

And sweeter his healing. Short and sweet, just a two-sentence miracle. Good of Jesus to make quick work of it, as often as the man will have to retell the story. But why does a story so short and sweet generate so many questions and so much division? Grace has its reasons. Thrust back into community, into the noisy bickering about the meaning of his restored sight, the man gradually sees his encounter with Jesus for what it is: “a work of God being made visible through him. The more he tells the story and wrestles with the questions, the more his spiritual insight develops. It’s the story within the story.

The man tells of his healing once and ends with, “I don’t know” He tells the story again and ends with, “He is a prophet?” By the time he tells it again, he is teaching the teachers: “This is what is so amazing, that you do not know where he is from, yet he opened my eyes.” As if to say, “If Jesus were not from God, I wouldn’t be standing eye-to-eye with you, telling you what I now know and see. Call that chutzpah or call it grace, it drives the teachers to fury. High time to reinforce the no-sinners-allowed rule. They throw him out.

No surprise that Jesus heard all about it. He hears as well as he sees. And no surprise that Jesus makes the effort to find him. There’s a question on his mind, a question he’s dying ask every disciple.

Do you believe? Do you believe I am the love of God made visible? Do you believe my love is at work in every human being? Yes, Lord, I do believe. As we believe, so we shall we live. For the love of God, live the amazing answer.

Year A: Fifth Sunday of Lent

The Spiritual Strength of Love

John 11: 1-45

Now a man was ill, Lazarus from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who had anointed the Lord with perfumed oil and dried his feet with her hair; it was her brother Lazarus who was ill. So the sisters sent word to him, saying, “Master, the one you love is ill.” When Jesus heard this he said, “This illness is not to end in death, but is for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So when he heard that he was ill, he remained for two days in the place where he was. Then after this he said to his disciples, “Let us go back to Judea.” The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just trying to stone you, and you want to go back there?” Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours in a day? If one walks during the day, he does not stumble, because he sees the light of this world. But if one walks at night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him.” He said this, and then told them, “Our friend Lazarus is asleep, but I am going to awaken him.” So the disciples said to him, “Master, if he is asleep, he will be saved.” But Jesus was talking about his death, while they thought that he meant ordinary sleep. So then Jesus said to them clearly, “Lazarus has died. And I am glad for you that I was not there, that you may believe. Let us go to him.” So Thomas, called Didymus, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go to die with him.”

When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, only about two miles away. And many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to comfort them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went to meet him; but Mary sat at home. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. [But] even now I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise.” Martha said to him, “I know he will rise, in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus told her, “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord. I have come to believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world.”

When she had said this, she went and called her sister Mary secretly, saying, “The teacher is here and is asking for you.” As soon as she heard this, she rose quickly and went to him. For Jesus had not yet come into the village but was still where Martha had met him. So when the Jews who were with her in the house comforting her saw Mary get up quickly and go out, they followed her, presuming that she was going to the tomb to weep there. When Mary came to where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus saw her weeping and the Jews who had come with her weeping, he became perturbed and deeply troubled, and said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Sir, come and see.” And Jesus wept. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him.” But some of them said, “Could not the one who opened the eyes of the blind man have done something so that this man would not have died?”

So Jesus, perturbed again, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone lay across it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the dead man’s sister, said to him, “Lord, by now there will be a stench; he has been dead for four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believe you will see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus raised his eyes and said, “Father, I thank you for hearing me. I know that you always hear me; but because of the crowd here I have said this, that they may believe that you sent me.” And when he had said this, he cried out in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, tied hand and foot with burial bands, and his face was wrapped in a cloth. So Jesus said to them, “Untie him and let him go.”

Now many of the Jews who had come to Mary and seen what he had done began to believe in him.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Have you ever walked with someone to his or her death? Did you feel Christ’s presence at this time or since? Explain how.
  2. Have you come to believe that Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of God who is coming into the world”? Why do you believe this? What experiences have you had that reinforce this belief?
  3. Does Jesus’ reaction and response to the death of Lazarus help you to realize the consolation of “love is stronger than death” that He will not let go of you either?

Biblical Context

John 11: 1-45
Sr. Mary M. McGlone CSJ

The raising of Lazarus is the last of Jesus’ signs in John’s Gospel and the last of the signs we will contemplate during Lent. Surprisingly, the actual miracle of raising the dead man takes up only seven of the 45 verses of this passage. Instead of spotlighting Jesus as the miracle worker, John invites us to situate ourselves with the disciples as they grapple with Jesus’ self-revelation in word and deed. We can both learn from and be comforted by their feeble understanding and growing commitment to Jesus.

We begin with the disciples who have escaped Jerusalem with Jesus because his enemies were ready to stone him. A few days after hearing of Lazarus’ illness, Jesus decided to go to Bethany, just when everyone assumed it was too late to do more than mourn. Evaluating the circumstances, Thomas speaks out as the master of practicality: “You want to go to Judea? Back there? Now? Do you recall your last visit?” Of course Jesus’ response took the question to an entirely different level of meaning.

First of all, indicating that his own time was limited, he explained to the disciples that they had to work while it was still possible. His “day” had 12 “hours” and they were not all used up. As far as the disciples were concerned, Jesus wanted them to understand that they could walk in his light and not fall apart. In fact, walking in his light meant that his light would be in them, independent of the rising and setting of the sun or even his physical presence. Then reprising a theme he had used in regard to the man born blind (John 9), Jesus reminded them that Lazarus’ death, something they perceived as the result of sin or an irreversible tragedy, was actually the setting for a revelation of God’s glory. He even said it was good that he hadn’t been there because they needed to understand that his work had to do with transforming the human condition, not simply curing disease. This served as a gentle introduction to help them understand his passion as glory.

Thomas replied by calling the disciples to what was probably the best they could offer at the moment: “Let us also go to die with him.” In this, Thomas, called Didymus, was acting as the identical twin to all who are called to grow in faith; he demonstrated that his loyalty went far beyond his comprehension. He didn’t understand that Jesus’ “hour” would bring glory or that Lazarus’ death would bring a deeper revelation of who Jesus was, but Thomas had enough love to be willing to stand with Jesus in spite of obvious danger. That was an expression of faith, not in a theological or even intellectual sense, but in a much more concrete way, saying in effect, “I have no idea where it is leading, but I trust you more than anyone or anything else, so I will remain with you.” This is a parallel to Peter’s proclamation: “Master, to whom shall we go? You alone have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68). So with fearful faith, they accompany Jesus to Bethany.

Martha’s conversation with Jesus takes the exploration of faith a few steps farther. First she recognizes him as a healer — although she reminds him that in that capacity he arrived too late to do much good. She follows her complaint with the ambiguous statement: “Whatever you ask of God, God will give you.” When Jesus replies “Your brother will rise again,” Martha hears the sort of cliché frequently offered to people who are grieving; it’s effectively a call to ignore real anguish and take a “spiritual view” that discounts the hole in the heart of the bereaved. But that’s hardly the intent of Jesus for whom this moment was so perturbing and troubling that he wept openly.

Far from being a platitude, Jesus’ assurance that Lazarus would rise was the prelude to an “I am” statement: Jesus’ declaration that he is the resurrection and the life. As with all of those statements, Jesus reveals who he is in order to explain what that means for others. He offers Martha a paradoxical proverb contrasting the ordinary and deep meanings of life and death. In the first half Jesus says that belief in him vitiates ordinary death and gives real life. In the second he adds that belief in him transforms ordinary life such that it is no longer subject to mortal limitation.

Jesus asks if Martha believes, and she responds that she believes he is the Christ. She doesn’t say she understands it, just that she believes. So, Jesus takes her one step farther, he takes her to face the grave. Raising Lazarus becomes the sign that in him, death has no power. Believing in Jesus, walking with him with more trust than understanding, is the journey of discipleship, the route of living in the light of Christ, the resurrection and the life.

Causing and Consoling Grief

Spiritual Reflection
John Shea

It was a full five years after my father’s death. I was driving across Alligator Alley in southern Florida, traveling from Naples on the west coast to Boca Raton on the east coast. I was going to my parents’ condominium. My mother was going to sell it the next day.

As I drove, I began to think of my father. Suddenly, I began to cry and I could not stop. I cried so effusively and unrelentingly that I had to stop at a rest station and change my shirt.

When I resumed driving, I thought it was over. Only it started again, and I was powerless in its grip. When I arrived at my mother’s condo, I had to change my shirt a second time.

I told my mother what happened. She simply said, “Oh, you’ll have days like that. Grief is a wild ride. People may map its faces, predict its stages, and schedule its duration. But those are people who, for the moment, are not in grief. They have the luxury of observation. But when the loss of a loved one inhabits your soul resistance is futile.

That is why I like this emotionally troubled, weeping Jesus being swept toward the tomb of the one he loves. It is his love that is causing him the grief, just as it is the love of Martha and Mary that is causing them their grief. If Jesus had not loved Lazarus and his sisters, he would have been unmoved but philosophically interested at best. We are all eager for love. But as a distraught young widow once said to me, “Someone should have told me that all marriages end either in divorce or death.” The truth of eternally grounded people trafficking in time is: the deeper the love, the deeper the grief.

This is a truth we seldom think about when we give our heart away. In the temporary, perishing world we all inhabit, the advent of love is the seed of grief. Gabriel Marcel said, “To love someone is to say, ‘Thou, thou shalt not die.’” Even if we do not say it aloud, even if we only whisper it in the cellar of the heart, love readies us for weeping. Our first kiss and our first tear are linked.

However, this same love that causes our grief can console us. But we must trust the love and follow it to its root. We must not see it as a futile rebellion against mortality but as a hint that there is more, more than meets the eye and more than conventional knowledge will admit. This love that makes us accompany the ill and even visit their graves after they die may be showing us something of God’s love. Our reluctance to let people go may touch upon the truth of Lazarus’ resuscitation. The love that troubles Jesus and makes him weep at the loss of Lazarus also makes him go after Lazarus and free him from the imprisonment of death. The love of God in Jesus will not let Lazarus go, and so death has to release him. The love that causes our grief is, at root, the love that consoles our grief.

Consolation ultimately comes from realizing love is stronger than death (cf. Song 8:6). This is not an easy realization to embrace. As Martha knew, the stench of death is strong. Sometimes our minds focus on the unyielding fact of physical death and we speculate about how some form of continued existence is possible. However, the story suggests another way to proceed.

Jesus is “the resurrection and the life,” and those who can enter into him can participate in eternal life now. In this relationship with Jesus we find that the love of God that sustains and raises people is an intimate presence at the center of our own identity. The more we contemplate this presence (Mary) and integrate it into our lives (Martha), the more we realize its gentleness is an enduring strength. Sustained by this presence, we can grieve greatly the physical loss of our friends and hope greatly for their continued life in God. Love generates both grief and consolation. As St. Paul said, “do not grieve as others do who have no hope” (1 Thess 4:13). I assume he meant we should grieve as those who have hope. It is the weeping Jesus who cries out in a loud voice ‘Lazarus, come out!’

Spiritual Commentaries and Teachings are excerpted from The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers by John Shea © 2004 by Order of Saint Benedict. Published by Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota. Used with permission.

Year A: Palm Sunday

The Entry to Jerusalem

Matthew 21:1-11

When they drew near Jerusalem and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village opposite you, and immediately you will find an ass tethered, and a colt with her. Untie them and bring them here to me. And if anyone should say anything to you, reply, “ The master has need of them. Then he will send them at once.” This happened so that what had been spoken through the prophet might be fulfilled: “Say to daughter Zion, ‘Behold, your king comes to you, meek and riding on an ass, and on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.” The disciples went and did as Jesus had ordered them.

They brought the ass and the colt and laid their cloaks over them, and he sat upon them. The very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and strewed them on the road. The crowds preceding him and those following kept crying out and saying: “Hosanna* to the Son of David; blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord; hosanna in the highest.”

And when he entered Jerusalem the whole city was shaken and asked, “Who is this?” And the crowds replied, “This is Jesus the prophet, from Nazareth in Galilee.”

Discussion Questions:

  1. As a gesture of solidarity with Jesus. In what ways could you “die to self”, or embody the humility of Jesus in these final days of Lent?
  2. When you look back on your life where have grown most from times of suffering? Do you see God’s presence there?
  3. How has this Lent been spiritually meaningful for you? Have you had any new awareness’ or any “cross of your own” to bear, that may have helped you walk with Jesus on his way to the cross?

Biblical Context

Sr. Mary M. McGlone CSJ

Today we listen to Matthew’s passion account from the entry into Jerusalem through Jesus’ death on the cross. We begin with the first of the two solemn liturgical processions of our week and the Gospel account of Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem.

There is a strange correlation between the entrance into Jerusalem and the preparations for the sharing of the Passover supper. In both cases, Jesus seems to know who in the area is ready to provide him with what he needs. The uncanny availability of just what was needed, a unique pair of circumstances in the Gospel accounts, underlines the sense of divine providence in all that is about to take place. As always, it is divine providence with human collaboration.

According to Matthew, the procession with Jesus was reminiscent of Solomon’s entry into Jerusalem to receive the crown of his father, David. Matthew refers specifically to two other passages: Zechariah 9:9 and Isaiah 62:11, both of which announce the triumphal arrival of the savior. More importantly, the people around join in the celebration, doing Jesus honor by spreading their cloaks and waving palms while they sang psalms and called out “Hosanna” or “Son of David! Save us!”

In the Liturgy of the Word, we hear the narrative at the heart of Christian faith, the shocking story of Jesus’ purposeful and fully conscious entry into the drama that would end with his crucifixion and resurrection. It begins with the account of Judas’ preparation for betrayal contrasted with Jesus’ preparation for the supper at which he would ritualize the total self-gift he was about to act out with his passion and death.

Western art has fixed interpretations of the Last Supper more definitively in the Christian imagination than thousands of theological tomes or even the Gospels themselves. A prime example of our stereotypically fixed, non-scripturally based understanding has to do with the participants at the supper. Matthew specifies that the “disciples” asked Jesus about the meal and prepared it. It is only when Jesus reclines that the “twelve” are mentioned, indicating that while they were at that table with him there remains the probability that other disciples were there as well — perhaps at the same table, perhaps at others. Obviously, considering that possibility, it would be clear that women could have been among them, most especially those women whom Matthew named as the only disciples present at the crucifixion, those who witnessed the burial and discovered the empty tomb on the third day.

It is worth being alert to how our images of Jesus’ last days have been conditioned by non-scriptural art, hymns and prayers because those depictions have a strong, often culturally biased and potentially destructive, influence on our spirituality. Today’s liturgy offers an effective antidote to that influence if only we take all of our readings seriously and remember that God’s servant suffers not to pay for sin, but because God’s love never fails in spite of human rejection. Jesus came to transform our image of God, revealing the merciful, unrelenting lover of humanity. Now is the time to allow that to happen.

Who is Our God?

Reflection
By: Dr. Ted Wolgamot

Many years ago, when I was in college, I had a classmate named Jim who distinguished himself as one of the most intellectually gifted persons I ever knew. After graduation, he went on to graduate school to study philosophy in Washington, D.C. I lost track of him until I heard the news of his unexpected and untimely death.

A mutual friend told me that, in cleaning out his room he kept finding notes written in Jim’s handwriting with the same two questions: “Who is God? What is it that he wants?”

These questions seem particularly appropriate as we begin Holy Week.

Passion (Palm) Sunday presents us with a very unusual version of a deity. In the words of St. Paul in our second reading, he’s a God who “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave” — the form of the lowest element of society.

Palm Sunday attempts to answer this question of who our God is by establishing from the beginning that the God of Jesus is like no other. He is unique in all human history.

Notice, for example, that as Jesus enters Jerusalem there are no trumpets blaring, no resplendent carriages proudly acclaiming royalty, no horses bedecked with finery of any kind — nothing that demonstrates power or majesty.

Then remember what Paul told us in today’s second reading: He is a God who emptied himself.

God sits on a donkey. This same God who marches into Jerusalem will encounter a “coronation” ceremony of whips and lashes. His royal “throne” will be a cross. His “glory” will be death.

Why does Jesus do this? Because that is the kind of God Jesus preaches and imitates.

The reason Jesus willingly embraces all of this is for one purpose: to demonstrate visibly that God is the one who identifies with and enters the experience of the people with whom he is madly in love.

Our God is sending a message through Jesus in this Palm Sunday celebration that he wants everyone to hear with utter clarity: “Nothing human is abhorrent to me.” All of life — even the most horrible kind of suffering, even death — is something so precious that God wants to be in solidarity with it. God wants to embrace it and transform it.

That’s who our God is.

So, what is it that this same God wants from us? Jesus wants us to die with him. Only the death he’s talking about is not the one when our earthly time is over. The death in which our God is interested is the death of our egos. He wants us to die to that part of us that wishes to enthrone our own selves, that part of us that dreams of being adored, worshiped, acclaimed, glorified.

God wants us to “die before we die,” as theologian Richard Rohr so aptly puts it in many of his writings.

So, again: Who is our God? What is it that he wants? These two questions that haunted my friend Jim are the same ones that have mystified modern-day and ancient philosophers alike. In the end, the lessons of Palm Sunday give us the answers to both questions.

Perhaps the apostle Paul sums it up as well as anyone could: “Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave.”

Our God wants us to embody the humble actions of Jesus: the God who “emptied himself” — the God who sat on a donkey.

Year A: The Easter Season

Year A: Easter Vigil

The Resurrection of Jesus

Matthew 28:1-10

After the Sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary came to see the tomb. And behold, there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven, approached, rolled back the stone, and sat upon it. His appearance was like lightning and his clothing was white as snow. The guards were shaken with fear of him and became like dead men. Then the angel said to the women in reply, “Do not be afraid! I know that you are seeking Jesus the crucified. He is not here, for he has been raised just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ Behold, I have told you.” Then they went away quickly from the tomb, fearful yet overjoyed, and ran to announce this to his disciples. And behold, Jesus met them on their way and greeted them. They approached, embraced his feet, and did him homage. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid. Go tell my brothers to go to Galilee, and there they will see me.”

Discussion Questions:

  1. What significance does Jesus’ death and resurrection have for you personally?
  2. How have you been a witness to Easter’s good news in the past and how will you be going forward? Is this growing year to year for you?
  3. Do you think of yourself as being made in God’s image? What is that image for you and what does this mean to you?
  4. We are dying and rising constantly. Are you seeing moments of resurrection in your own life? Where have you noticed transformation and new life coming out of suffering?

Biblical Context

Matthew 28:1-10
Dr. Margret Nutting Ralph PHD

No Gospel gives us a narrative account of Jesus’ rise from the dead. However, by telling us empty tomb stories and post resurrection appearance stories, every Gospel claims that the resurrection occurred. At the Easter Vigil, in celebration of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, we read Matthew’s empty tomb story.

In Matthew, as Mary Magdalene and the other Mary approach the tomb, there is, once again, an earthquake. Remember, Matthew also pictured an earthquake at Jesus’ death (see the commentary for Palm Sunday). As we said then, this is Matthew’s way of alerting the reader to the earth-shattering importance of what he is describing. Matthew told us that at Jesus’ death, “The earth quaked, rocks were split, tombs were opened, and the bodies of many saints who had fallen asleep were raised. And coming forth from their tombs after his resurrection, they entered the holy city and appeared to many” (Matt 27:51 b-53). The earthquake reminds us that Jesus’ death and resurrection have changed everything. Death is no longer death, not just for Jesus, but for other human beings as well.

In Matthew’s empty tomb story an angel appears to interpret the meaning of events for the women and to give them directions about what to do next. Remember that in Matthew’s infancy narratives an angel had these same functions. The angel interpreted the significance of Mary’s pregnancy to Joseph and told him what to do next.

The angel first rolls back the stone, not to let the risen Christ out, but to let the women see that the tomb is empty. The guards who had been posted by the tomb to assure that the body was not stolen “were shaken with fear of him and became like dead men.” The angel tells the women the significance of the empty tomb. “He [Jesus] is not here, for he has been raised just as he said.” Matthew has constantly pointed out that Jesus’ ministry has fulfilled the words of the prophets. Now Matthew has the angel state that Jesus’ resurrection has fulfilled Jesus’ own words. This “fulfillment” theme is Matthew’s way of teaching that the events that are taking place are a fulfillment or God’s promises and God’s will.

Next the angel tells the women what they are to do: “… go quickly and tell his disciples, “He has been raised from the dead, and he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him.” In the social context in which the Gospel was written it is very significant that the women are to be witnesses of the resurrection to the apostles because, in rabbinic law, the testimony of women did not bear weight. In Matthew’s Gospel the women are completely responsive: they “ran to announce this to his disciples.”

Before the women reach the disciples Jesus himself appears before them. In many post resurrection appearance stories the people to whom Jesus appears do not recognize him. This is not true here. The women “approached, embraced his feet, and did him homage.’ Jesus then, for the most part, repeats the instructions that the angel had given the women. He appoints them as witnesses of the resurrection to the apostles. “Go tell my brothers to go to Galilee, and there they will see me.”

Although at first glance Jesus seems merely to repeat the instructions, on closer reading we see that there is an additional piece of good news in the way Jesus words the instructions. The angel had told the women to tell the “disciples.” Jesus tells them to tell “my brothers.” The apostles, on hearing that Jesus has risen from the dead, would undoubtedly feel shame and remorse at the fact that they had deserted him. This message from Jesus assures them of forgiveness. The disciples are now not only disciples, but brothers.

In today’s empty tomb story Matthew teaches us that Jesus has overcome death, not just for himself but for us too, and that Jesus offers forgiveness to his brothers and sisters, even those who have deserted him in the past. On hearing this good news, we, like the women who were the first witnesses of the resurrection, are overjoyed. Our joy, too, should compel us to announce this good news to others.

I Am Here. I Am Life

Ted Wolgamot

In his best-selling book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Victor Frankl describes his experiences as a prisoner in Auschwitz during the Nazi occupation. Considered to be a classic, the book tells the painful story how Frankl’s fellow prisoners coped with the horrors of a concentration camp.

The question driving the entire book is: How are people able to maintain any sense of hope while surrounded by so much anguish and terror?

The answer Frankl gives is that people can come to a deeper appreciation of the spiritual dimension of life when all hope seems lost. The following story illustrates this realization.

Frankl was particularly affected by a woman who knew she was going to die very soon. And yet, remarkably, she was calm, even cheerful. Frankl asked this woman how she could maintain this spirit in the light of what she knew awaited her. He writes:

Pointing through the window of the hut, she said, “This tree here is the only friend I have in my loneliness … I often talk to this tree,” she said to me … I asked her if the tree replied. “Yes.” What did it say to her? She answered, “It said to me, ‘I am here–I am here–I am life, eternal life.’”

This woman’s approach to death was crucial to the major theme of Frankl’s book, namely, that even in the most dire of circumstances, even in our darkest and most troubling moments, we almost intuitively look for meaning, for something that gives us hope and promise. In a word, we look for Easter.

Recall the events of Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection: Peter had betrayed Jesus. Jesus was alone before Pontius Pilate. Soldiers whipped him and crowned him with thorns. The crowd cried out “Crucify him!” Jesus died alone on a cross. Afterwards, the flame of hope barely flickered. Jesus’ followers had gone into hiding in fear they would be next.

Then something miraculous happened. A woman, Mary of Magdala, crashed through the door where the disciples were hiding and spoke the most astonishing words ever: “I have seen the Lord!” Human history has never been the same.

Perhaps even more remarkable is that Mary did not initially recognize Jesus. Frantically she wondered where his body had been taken. With tremendous grief, her eyes filled with tears. She was crying so openly that two strangers, angels, appeared and one said to her: “Woman, why are you weeping?”

Who cannot identify with the overwhelming power of grief upon hearing that someone dear to us has died? But then Jesus asked the same question: “Woman, why are you weeping?” Notice that the first words spoken by the risen Jesus were about the meaning of human tears. Jesus then spoke one more word: “Mary.” It stopped her in her tracks. She recognized the sound of her name in that voice.

This was the turning point. This was the moment the Resurrection became fully evident. This was when human history was changed.

And this is also when Jesus’ command to “go to my brothers [and sisters]” broke through. And the disciples did just that. They told the story that has been passed on to us. It’s the same story that Mary of Magdala and the woman in Auschwitz had each discovered.

“I am here. There is life. Eternal life.” We call it Easter.

Selections from Breaking Open the Lectionary: Lectionary Readings in Their Biblical Context for RCIA, Faith Sharing Groups, and Lectors—Cycle A, by Margaret Nutting Ralph, Copyright © 2007 by Margaret Nutting Ralph. Paulist Press, Inc., New York/Mahwah, NJ. Reprinted by permission of Paulist Press, Inc. www.paulistpress.com.

Year A: Second Sunday of Easter

Appearance to the Disciples

John 20:19-31

On the evening of that first day of the week, when the doors were locked, where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in their midst and said to them, “Peace be with you.” When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. The disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.”

Thomas, called Didymus, one of the Twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples said to him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger into the nail marks and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.” Now a week later his disciples were again inside and Thomas was with them. Jesus came, although the doors were locked, and stood in their midst and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands, and bring your hand and put it into my side, and do not be unbelieving, but believe.” Thomas answered and said to him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you come to believe because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.” Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciples that are not written in this book. But these are written that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through this belief you may have life in his name.

Discussion Questions:

  1. In what ways do you experience the gift of peace of mind and heart? What could you do to be more receptive to this gift that the risen Christ wants you to have?
  2. Do you have trouble believing what you yourself have not personally experienced? Explain. How does this affect your beliefs about the promises made to us by Jesus?
  3. How are you being attentive to the apostle’s instructions, the communal life, the breaking of the bread and prayer?
  4. Where do you feel you most reflect the character of Christ in your life right now?

Biblical Context

John 20:19-3
Sr. Mary M. McGlone CSJ

When we read John’s accounts of the community and their experience of the risen Christ, we do well to remember that John wrote for a community that was already formed, a group of disciples who met regularly and were carrying on their mission. John tells the stories of the past to remind us of who we are and what we are called to do.

At the end of the first day of the new creation Jesus returned to his assembled disciples. They are depicted as a fearful group and Thomas’ absence tells us that while some had gathered together, the group as a whole was still scattered as Jesus had said they would be. John doesn’t tell us exactly where they were hiding out, but he does mention that the doors were securely locked. Jesus had promised that they would see him again and now he appears, returning to them and giving them the peace he promised.

As John presents the scene, the appearance of Christ, his gifts of peace and his Spirit, and the mission to forgive are all intimately bound together. We see God’s initiative, the divine outreach, and the commission he gives. The disciples’ experience begins with receiving Christ’s peace, a peace so dynamic that they are impelled to share it with others through the mission of forgiveness.

John has no interest in telling us what happened in the week between Christ’s two appearances. He simply indicates that the disciples had gathered again, and this time Thomas was there, symbolizing that the group was complete. The previously dispersed disciples had heard enough to come together and for John it is significant that it was on another first day, the day when the community traditionally celebrated the Lord’s Supper.

Although John neglects to tell us why the doors were still locked, Pope Francis said something in Evangelii Gaudium, “The Joy of The Gospel” that may shed light on it. Addressing the danger of closing off our minds and/or our communities, Francis said: “More than by fear of going astray, my hope is that we will be moved by the fear of remaining shut up within structures which give us a false sense of security, within rules which make us harsh judges, within habits which make us feel safe, while at our door people are starving and Jesus does not tire of saying to us: ‘Give them something to eat’ (Mk 6:37)” (#49).

People in our world are starving for food and for peace, needs that go together. Jesus appeared in the midst of his disciples to give them peace, a peace that would impel them to mission, a peace that would underpin a community of solidarity and mission. As Pope Francis pointed out, rigid structures, rules, habits and retribution can make us feel safe, but they do not bring Christ’s peace. We know Christ’s peace only when we get caught up in the dynamic of his ever-expanding forgiving love. That’s the journey we are called to deepen in the 50 days of Easter.

Mercy is a Verb

Mischa Geracoulis

Today’s readings are layered in revelation and instruction. They are lavish in praise and thanksgiving specifically for the gift of mercy that brings us to salvation. Each reading leads us to become less conscious of ourselves, and more conscious of God’s mercy, collectively and individually. The messages of God’s merciful redemption through Jesus, and Jesus’s subsequent instruction to serve, is as alive and relevant now as it was in the apostles’ day.

Upon receiving Christ’s peace, the apostles paid it forward by living and preaching a reign of God that was inclusive and compassionate. The Acts reading illustrates an inclusive fellowship marked by faith sharing through the breaking of bread. These communal meals brought relief from physical hunger as well as the fulfillment of spiritual hunger, too. Then, as is still so often the case today, people were yearning for love, acceptance and a God in whom they could fully believe.

The street ministry of a priest friend comes to mind. Combing tough, inner city streets, my friend knows no stranger, as he daily ministers to the transient, unhoused, hurting and discarded individuals who wander his turf. His work is a hand up, rather than a hand out where everyone is treated with equal dignity. Indeed, breaking the eucharistic bread, which he freely gives each week, has an equalizing effect. No longer separated by socioeconomic status or labels, all become one in Christ. My friend’s work is not for the faint-hearted. When I’ve asked him if he ever gets discouraged, he simply defers to Christ’s mercy.

Similarly, my friends serving within the Catholic Worker movement provide modest humanitarian aid to those traveling north across the U.S.-Mexico border. They regularly hand out lip balms, protein bars and bottled water to frightened and weary pilgrims. They have said “Yes” to God, “Yes” to Jesus’s commands of love and to discipleship. Believing that they have received God’s mercy and generosity by way of donated supplies, they pass it on with glad hearts. Likewise, other friends have taken it upon themselves to distribute blankets to their city’s unsheltered who sleep on sidewalks and park benches.

These friends remind me that we are to be the hands and feet of Jesus. We are meant to share the gifts bestowed upon us — and that is what these individuals do. For me, they exemplify that modern-day discipleship is perfectly feasible.

To live out the character of Christ is, among many things, to live in a state of thanksgiving for God’s redemptive mercy. Today’s psalm is clear in that respect. To walk this talk, however, is not accomplished by routine or hurried obligation, but with heartfelt sincerity and virtuous acts. I see this in my friends. They assume a personal responsibility to love and serve. Yet, as serious as their work is, they are among some of the most lighthearted individuals I know. They don’t view themselves as special or what they do as a hardship. Nor do they see the people whom they serve as beneath them in any way. Ablaze with God’s love and passion, they pass along the peace and love conferred to all through Christ.

Dictionaries describe mercy as a noun, something granted to another, something like compassion, or favor or blessing. The Bible describes mercy as a gift from God, one that is meant to be given to those who need it. Thus, it has utility and action. Establishing the abiding faithfulness of God, we are to circulate mercy, to pay it forward irrespective of deservedness.

Year A: Third Sunday of Easter

The Appearance on the Road to Emmaus

Luke 24:13-35

Now that very day two of them were going to a village seven miles* from Jerusalem called Emmaus, and they were conversing about all the things that had occurred. And it happened that while they were conversing and debating, Jesus himself drew near and walked with them, but their eyes were prevented from recognizing him. He asked them, “What are you discussing as you walk along?” They stopped, looking downcast. One of them, named Cleopas, said to him in reply, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know of the things that have taken place there in these days?” And he replied to them, “What sort of things?” They said to him, “The things that happened to Jesus the Nazarene, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people how our chief priests and rulers both handed him over to a sentence of death and crucified him. But we were hoping that he would be the one to redeem Israel; and besides all this, it is now the third day since this took place. Some women from our group, however, have astounded us: they were at the tomb early in the morning and did not find his body; they came back and reported that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who announced that he was alive. Then some of those with us went to the tomb and found things just as the women had described, but him they did not see.” And he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are! How slow of heart to believe all that the prophets spoke! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them what referred to him in all the scriptures. As they approached the village to which they were going, he gave the impression that he was going on farther. But they urged him, “Stay with us, for it is nearly evening and the day is almost over.” So he went in to stay with them. And it happened that, while he was with them at table, he took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and gave it to them. With that their eyes were opened and they recognized him, but he vanished from their sight. Then they said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning [within us] while he spoke to us on the way and opened the scriptures to us?” So they set out at once and returned to Jerusalem where they found gathered together the eleven and those with them who were saying, “The Lord has truly been raised and has appeared to Simon!” Then the two recounted what had taken place on the way and how he was made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

Discussion Questions:

  1. In what new ways are you recognizing God’s presence in your life?
  2. In what situations do your doubts and disappointments prevent you from seeing the risen Christ in your life?
  3. When have you had an “Emmaus type experience”, of recognizing Jesus’ spirit in another person, in the reading of the word or the breaking of bread? (Community, Scripture, Eucharist)
  4. How are you coming to see your spiritual life as more than a journey toward a destination but the journey itself? Explain what this means for you.

Biblical Context

Luke 24:13-35
Biagio Mazza

The journey to Emmaus by two disciples on the day of Christ’s resurrection is one of the most well-known and memorable stories of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances. Unique to Luke, this narrative was composed somewhere between 85- 90 C.E., for a community that had not seen or met Jesus but who desired to know where and how they could encounter the risen Christ in their lives. Luke’s community constructs this narrative to answer these significant questions that are still pertinent in our day.

Two disciples were leaving Jerusalem for Emmaus, discussing all that had occurred there. Though Jesus drew near and walked with them, they did not recognize him. Instead, they seemed to be so preoccupied with their own misunderstanding of what Jesus was about, that they failed to notice that it was truly Jesus traveling beside them.

As Jesus inquires about their discussion, they unveil their disappointment concerning Jesus of Nazareth whom they believed and hoped to be the messiah, the one to “redeem Israel.” Unfortunately, he was crucified, thus shattering all their hopes. Jesus responds by unpacking all the Scriptures concerning the suffering that the Christ had to undergo and thus enter into glory.

Arriving at Emmaus, most likely their home, Jesus accepts the invitation to stay with them for it is late. After a meal is prepared and served, Jesus takes bread, blesses it, breaks it and gives it to them. Through this act they finally recognize him. To their amazement, Jesus immediately vanishes. As they begin to realize the significance of the day’s events they recall how “our hearts were burning within us while he spoke … and opened the Scriptures to us.” Compelled to share this experience, they return to Jerusalem only to learn that the Lord had appeared to Simon. Astounded by the encounter, they announce to the disciples how they had come to recognize him in the breaking of the bread.

Through the Emmaus narrative Luke’s community proclaims that the risen Christ can only be recognized whenever one seeks nourishment from the Scriptures and the Eucharist. Without such nourishment and our willingness to share it with others, no matter the cost, we will never recognize the risen Lord who constantly draws near and always walks with us. The risen Christ and his path of life is found whenever we feed on God’s revealed word and break bread together. As often as we do this in memory of Jesus, we delve deeper into the Paschal Mystery and affirm it as our God-given path to life.

Were Not Our Hearts Burning?

By: Judy Esway

Have you ever had an experience so traumatic it challenged your world view and everything you’d ever believed in? That’s what happened to Cleopas and the other disciple whom we meet in today’s Gospel. We encounter them walking towards Emmaus and away from Jerusalem, away from the place of suffering and lost hopes. In their confusion, they tried to make sense of what happened there three days earlier. A stranger quietly joins them and asks, “What are you discussing as you walk along the road?”

They’re incredulous and think “Doesn’t everyone know what happened?” So, they tell him the awful story, how the one in whom they had placed all their hopes was crucified like a common criminal! They tell him about the women who’d gone to the tomb only to find it empty, and how they’d told the ridiculous story that angels had appeared to them and said Jesus was alive. “Then some of us went to the tomb and found things just as the women had described, but him they did not see.”

Seeing is believing. The disciples were not about to buy into this obvious hoax. They weren’t going to open their hearts and risk being hurt all over again. That’s when Jesus, the stranger they still don’t recognize, steps in. He explains all the Scriptures that point to him, and emphasizes that suffering is part of the plan. “Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and enter into his glory?”

Later they recognize him during the meal, but then he vanishes! “Were not our hearts burning within us while he spoke to us on the way and opened the Scriptures to us?” As they encountered the risen Christ, their despondence turned into elation.

They could hope again, believe again, trust and love again.

Encounters with the risen Christ still happen to ordinary people like us. Think about it. Have you ever struggled with an issue when all of a sudden you meet a stranger who teaches you something important or simply consoles you? Has Jesus ever turned up in your life, perhaps in a “distressing disguise,” as St. Teresa of Calcutta puts it?

I work as a chaplain in a busy Level 1 trauma center in Phoenix. One day, while walking through the lobby on my way to visit patients on my referral list, I noticed a young, very thin, African-American man who appeared to be homeless. He was dozing on a bench with his bag of belongings at his feet.

“Hello,” I said, startling him. I introduced myself and asked how he was doing. I soon learned that he was homeless, that he’d moved to Arizona from California because he’d fallen on hard times and wanted to make a new start. He pointed to the bandage on his lower leg. He’d just been treated for a dog bite in the emergency department, and now was trying to decide where to go and what to do next. I listened to his story and was amazed that he was so articulate, so wise and mature.

Soon my heart began to burn within me. I asked if I could pray with him, and he eagerly took my hand. My “Amen” did not end our exchange. He turned things upside down and began praying and ministering to me, calling me by name. He became my chaplain. I was a little shaken when I opened my eyes and met his unflinching loving gaze.

This was no stranger. Jesus can hide in anyone when he wants to teach, enlighten, explain, comfort, console, heal and love.

So when your heart begins to burn within you, pay attention, listen and give thanks.

Year A: Fourth Sunday of Easter

The Good Shepherd

John 10:1-10

“Amen, amen, I say to you, whoever does not enter a sheepfold through the gate but climbs over elsewhere is a thief and a robber. But whoever enters through the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens it for him, and the sheep hear his voice, as he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has driven out all his own, he walks ahead of them, and the sheep follow him, because they recognize his voice. But they will not follow a stranger; they will run away from him, because they do not recognize the voice of strangers.” Although Jesus used this figure of speech, they did not realize what he was trying to tell them.

So Jesus said again, “Amen, amen, I say to you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came [before me] are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters through me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. A thief comes only to steal and slaughter and destroy; I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly.

Discussion Questions:

  1. How do you understand Jesus’ words “Whoever enters through me will be saved”? What does it mean to enter “through Jesus” during this life?
  2. What is your understanding of the “abundance of life” Jesus is speaking of and how are you doing at participating in this reality? Are you experiencing life more abundantly? In what ways? Explain
  3. Who are the people in your life who have acted as a shepherd by pointing you toward the Gatekeeper-Jesus? Are there people in your life who may need shepherding from you?

Biblical Context

John 10:1-10
Dr Margaret Nutting Ralph PHD

John is writing his Gospel at the end of the century. In John’s community those Jews who believe in Jesus’ divinity are being expelled from the synagogue by those Jews who do not believe. This is a very serious problem for those expelled because they are no longer exempt from participating in emperor worship. If a Christian Jew, expelled the synagogue, refused to participate in emperor worship, that person was subject to persecution, even death.

It is important to keep this social setting in mind as we read today’s Gospel because otherwise we might misunderstand John’s animosity toward “the Jews.” Readers throughout the centuries who have failed to remember this context have sometimes used the Gospel to support anti-Semitism. When John pictures “the Jews” as Jesus’ adversaries and when John pictures Jesus saying harsh things about them, the phrase the Jews does not refer to all Jews, even all Jews of John’s time. Jesus, the apostles, the author of John’s Gospel, and much of John’s Christian audience were all Jews. We will discuss further exactly which Jews John is talking about after we look at the passage.

In the context of John’s Gospel, the story we read today comes immediately after the story of Jesus healing the man born blind. In that story John has reminded us about his contemporary Jews being expelled from the synagogue by saying: “[the blind man’s] parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews, for the Jews had already agreed that if anyone acknowledged him as the Messiah, he would be expelled from the synagogue” (John 9:22-23). Jews were not being expelled from the synagogue because of their belief in Jesus during Jesus’ public ministry, but when John was writing his Gospel. By making this statement John is conflating the times of the two stories. John is teaching that what Jesus says to the Jewish leaders in the story, the risen Christ is saying to the Jewish leaders of John’s own time.

After Jesus healed the man born blind, neither Jesus nor the man born blind were accepted by the Jewish leaders. These leaders called the man in to explain how he could now see, they refused to believe what he said, and then they threw him out (John 9). Jesus corrected the leaders for their treatment of this man. As we read today’s Gospel we are reading part of what Jesus says when he corrects them.

In today’s passage Jesus presents himself as both the good shepherd and the gate for the sheep. John is teaching his audience that Jesus is God and is the only way to the Father. Jesus says, “I am the gate. Whoever enters through me will be saved” This statement, like other “I AM” statements in John’s Gospel, is an allusion to the story of Moses and the burning bush when God reveals God’s name as “I AM.” Jesus is claiming his own union with the Father and stating that he is the only source of salvation. He is also accusing those Jewish leaders who do not recognize him as being “thieves and robbers.” Rather than caring for the flock, they are harming the flock.

The words that John has placed on Jesus’ lips are directed at the Jewish leaders of his own day who are “throwing out” their fellow Jews who believe in Jesus’ divinity. Instead of caring for the flock they are endangering the lives of the flock. Instead of recognizing Jesus’ role in their salvation they are rejecting him. Jesus did not come to “throw out” but to care for the sheep. Jesus came “so that they might have life and have it more abundantly.”

Stuff

Reflection
By Ted Wolgamot

The famous comedian George Carlin used to do a routine called “stuff” — referring to all the possessions we accumulate and cling to so dearly. Here are some things he said about “stuff”:

“The whole meaning of life is trying to find a place for our stuff. That’s what your house is — a place to put all your stuff. Your house is really just a pile of stuff with a cover on it. It’s a place to keep your stuff while you go out and get more stuff. You then have to buy a bigger house because you’ve run out of room for all your stuff, and you have to have more space for more stuff.”

He pointed out how addicted we can become to our possessions, leading to the simple yet profound question: “Do you own your stuff or does your stuff own you?”

In contrast to all this fascination with “stuff,” today’s Gospel of John ends with these striking, hope-filled words: “I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly.” But what does Jesus mean by the word “abundantly”? Is he referring to the acquisition of more stuff, more possessions, more things, more gadgets?

Quite the contrary. What Jesus is really talking about is our openness to receiving a gift, a grace. It is the grace we find when we believe that only God can fill the hole in our soul. And, it comes precisely when we abandon the incessant acquisition of more and more stuff.

Jesus is talking today about that down-deep emptiness in our lives — an emptiness that all the “stuff” in the world just doesn’t seem to fill up. He’s talking about our most fundamental need to feel that our lives are ultimately about something far richer and deeper than the stuff we so crave.

Ultimately, Jesus is talking about developing an “abundance mentality,” a way of thinking and acting that says: “There is enough for everyone, more than enough food, love … everything!” When we live with this mind-set, we begin to see the miracle of what we give away multiplying to the point of having plenty left over.

“Abundance mentality” is the opposite of a “scarcity mentality” that wants to hold back, refuse to share, and keep only for ourselves.

Almost one in six people in the United States live in poverty. Experts say that social service agencies, such as food banks and organizations that assist with housing, utilities and transportation costs, report an increasing need for assistance from people who made donations in the past but now come seeking aid for themselves!

Globally, the numbers are even more alarming: Nearly half of all children live in poverty and far too many die of easily preventable diseases. It’s estimated that 80 percent of all people on the planet live on less than ten dollars a day; even worse, many work in abysmal conditions for almost no pay. Abundance is a word most people throughout the world wouldn’t even understand or comprehend. Yet, we do — because material abundance is all around us.

The problem for many of us, is that too often we think it refers only to the garnering of more stuff. Jesus is trying to help us understand in today’s Gospel, and throughout his whole ministry, that true abundance comes not from what we possess, but from how deeply we love, how generously we share.

Jesus sends each of us an invitation: Spend less time acquiring more stuff and more time developing a mind-set of abundance, an abundance mentality.

“I came so that you might have life and have it more abundantly.”

Selections from Breaking Open the Lectionary: Lectionary Readings in Their Biblical Context for RCIA, Faith Sharing Groups, and Lectors—Cycle A, by Margaret Nutting Ralph, Copyright © 2007 by Margaret Nutting Ralph. Paulist Press, Inc., New York/Mahwah, NJ. Reprinted by permission of Paulist Press, Inc. www.paulistpress.com.

Year A: Fifth Sunday of Easter

I am the way the truth and the life

John 14: 1-12

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. You have faith in God; have faith also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If there were not, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back again and take you to myself, so that where I am you also may be. Where [I] am going you know the way.” Thomas said to him, “Master, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, then you will also know my Father. From now on you do know him and have seen him.” Philip said to him, “Master, show us the Father, and that will be enough for us.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you for so long a time and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’ Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I speak to you I do not speak on my own. The Father who dwells in me is doing his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, or else, believe because of the works themselves. Amen, amen, I say to you, whoever believes in me will do the works that I do, and will do greater ones than these, because I am going to the Father. And whatever you ask in my name, I will do, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask anything of me in my name, I will do it.

Discussion Questions:

  1. If you believe Jesus is the “the way and the truth and the life”, what are the qualities in Jesus that you most admire and try to imitate in your daily living?
  2. In your own lived faith experience, how have you come to know God the Father more deeply as a result of following Jesus? Explain
  3. Can you identify with Phillip’s doubt here in asking for more evidence of the Father from Jesus? Where do you experience the most doubt in your faith?
  4. Within your personal prayer life and experience, how do you interpret Jesus’ statement; “if you ask anything in my name, I will do it”?

Biblical Context

John 14: 1-12
Sr. Mary M. McGlone CSJ

Today’s Gospel brings us back to the table of the Last Supper. As John organized his Gospel, the Last Supper, from the washing of the feet to the final prayer (13:1-17:26) takes up five of the 21 chapters of the Gospel in which the only significant action was Jesus’ washing the feet of his disciples. All the rest is comprised of Jesus summarizing the essence of what he had taught about himself, his relationship to the Father and the life he offered the disciples.

As our selection opens, Jesus has told the disciples that he is going away, that Judas will betray him and Peter will deny him. Jesus’ next statement, our opening line, is “Do not let your heart be troubled.” This is perhaps the only place in the Gospel where Jesus tells the disciples not to imitate him. John has told us that Jesus had been “troubled” on various occasions: at the death of Lazarus (11:33), when he announced the coming of his hour (12:27), and when he spoke of being betrayed (13:21).

Because John has been so clear about Jesus being deeply troubled, he gives us the impression that Jesus is speaking from his own experience when he calls the disciples beyond their distress. When Jesus tells them not to be fearful he contrasts being troubled to having faith: they can be troubled or have faith, but not both. Fear springs from the assumption that you will be overpowered, trust is based on the confidence that God is with you even if you cannot imagine a good outcome. In calling for their trust, Jesus assures the disciples that they will never be alone. Yes, he is going away, but that doesn’t imply that he will be absent from them. That idea provides the lead-in to his talk about his Father’s house.

In the early part of the Gospel Jesus had berated the people who desecrated his “Father’s house” by making the temple a marketplace. He then declared that when they destroyed the temple, he would raise it up in three days, a statement John clarified by saying he was speaking of the temple of his body. Thus, in typical Johannine fashion, Jesus actually identified himself as the Father’s dwelling place, the person through whom the disciples would experience peace.

It will take a while for the disciples to understand what Jesus was telling them. From their day to our own the idea of “many dwelling places” has fired imaginations with many images. But if we hear this in the light of John’s patterns of thought we realize that Jesus was not talking about architecture but presence. Because he dwelt in the Father and the Father in him, his promise was that he was the way for his disciples to do the same. Their faith, their committed union with him would bring them into the same relationship with the Father that he himself enjoyed.

Calming Troubled Hearts

Reflection
John Shea

I think our hearts become troubled by death and loss because we believe in too small a God. We need an understanding of God that blows our mind.

I read that St. Anselm created the ontological argument for God to remedy the ennui of monks. Without going into detail, the ontological argument states God is that than which nothing greater can be thought. If you carry out this experiment in thinking, you will always be approaching God without ever arriving. It will only dawn on you in retrospect that it is the incomprehensibility of God that brings consolation. Despite what we may think, we are not calmed by knowing-for-sure.

Our hearts relax through a process of profound not-knowing that leads to trust.

Another way of saying this is: we dwell in essential mystery. Accidental mystery is something we do not presently know but will know someday. Essential mystery is the experience of “the more we know, the more mysterious it is.” Increased knowledge does not end essential mystery; increased knowledge increases mystery. Spiritual and theological traditions value this type of knowledgeable not-knowing because it safeguards both the transcendence of God and the human capacity to acknowledge the divine without fully comprehending it.

When our minds dwell in this rarified atmosphere of knowing and not-knowing, the smaller fears that normally terrorize us lose some of their power. It is not that they go away, but that we see through their menacing masks. Better said, they are taken up into larger truths that provide a meaning more in accord with love.

The more our minds entertain larger truths about God, the more we are personally and existentially in a relationship of trust. When I think that every event of creation has been taken up and stored everlastingly in what followers of the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead call the consequent nature of God, or when I ponder the combination of divine immanence that suffuses all creation and divine transcendence that stretches beyond it, or when I contemplate the eternal now that is present in passing time, I sense that to surrender to this reality is to let the wind carry me. I also intuitively know that there is no other way to calm the heart.

Some clarification from John Shea on his use of Accidental and Essential Mystery in the reflection;

Accidental Mystery is: a scientific appreciation or hypothesis about something, that once we know it or prove it, it is no longer a mystery.”

Essential Mystery refers to, for example, God’s love. This love has been revealed in Jesus, but the revelation is also a concealment because God’s love is always transcendent and so always more than our finite minds can comprehend or even appreciate. It is essential to God that God is always more than we can fully comprehend and so trust is always a player in our faith.”

Spiritual Commentaries and Teachings are excerpted from The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers by John Shea © 2004 by Order of Saint Benedict. Published by Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota. Used with permission.

Year A: Sixth Sunday of Easter

The Advocate

John 14: 15-21

Jesus said to his disciples: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate to be with you always, the Spirit of truth, which the world cannot accept, because it neither sees nor knows it. But you know it, because it remains with you, and will be in you. I will not leave you orphans; I will come to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me, because I live and you will live. On that day you will realize that I am in my Father and you are in me and I in you. Whoever has my commandments and observes them is the one who loves me. And whoever loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and reveal myself to him.”

Discussion Questions:

  1. When have you experienced being in sync with (keeping) the commandments as a consequence of your love for God rather than your effort to obey? How do these differ for you?
  2. Do you think of Jesus as remaining with you and dwelling within you? If so, how does this belief affect your prayer life?
  3. Do you pray specifically to the Holy Sprit? What do you consider the Holy Spirit’s role in your prayer?
  4. Share a time when you have tried to follow the guidance of the Advocate– (Holy Spirit) in your life? How do you go about discerning the Spirit’s movement and what tells you that movement is the Spirit, rather than yourself?
  5. When have you had an experience of Jesus revealing himself to you? Tell the story.

Biblical Context

John 14: 15-21
Sr. Mary M. McGlone CSJ

In today’s Gospel John returns us to our seat at the Last Supper. After calling on the disciples to trust him beyond all else, John has Jesus proclaim: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments and I will ask the Father and he will give you another Advocate.” That might make us think someone is impersonating Jesus at the table. It’s as if Jesus were saying, “If you behave yourselves I’ll ask God to send you help.” That is one way to interpret this Gospel fragment; it focuses our attention on the relative merits of our behavior with the hope that we can demonstrate enough virtue to pass muster. But that interpretation flounders when Jesus goes on to speak of a Spirit of truth that the world cannot perceive. With the idea of putting in great effort, pulling your own weight and earning everything you get is exactly the system of the world — so the world should understand it quite well. Jesus must be speaking of something else.

When we listen carefully, we hear that Jesus isn’t talking about obedience but about loving him. He’s talking about the transformation that happens when, as Jesuit Pedro Arrupe is to have said, we fall in love with God “in a quite absolute and final way.” Falling in love with another person changes our perspective, we see the world differently and understand everything in relation to the beloved. People who love one another often take on some of the characteristics of the other. Long-time married couples often even start to look like each another. Such love points toward what Jesus described here.

The love Jesus is talking about is devotion to the one who loved us first, whose love for us is immeasurable. This love is a commitment to the one who offers us a future of life beyond our imagining. The love Jesus is talking about orients absolutely everything else in our life. So when he says “If you love me you will keep my commandments,” we could easily rephrase that to say, “If you love me you will share my perspective and desire.”

John presents Jesus as saying this in the context of his farewell address to the disciples. Jesus knows, as do we the readers, that they are frail followers. If they haven’t been able to comprehend him already, they will need even more help when he is no longer physically with them. John had all of us in mind as he recorded the rest of this conversation. Jesus promised the disciples he would ask the Father to send them “another advocate,” the Spirit who would continue his role with them. Jesus described this Spirit as the Spirit of truth whom the world neither sees nor knows. The clear implication is that disciples do somehow see and know the Spirit.

To “see” implies a sense perception. Seeing is more than passive. “Seeing” involves taking in sensory data and organizing it, focusing on some things and ignoring others to give meaning to the light and shade and varied shapes within our range of vision. “Knowing” is non-material, it refers to the dimension of the mind and the spiritual. To know someone is not just to recognize a face or to be able to call her or him by name. Knowing involves relationship. To know others is to be connected with them. It implies that we understand the person from his or her own perspective. Knowing someone necessarily implies a degree of empathy, of feeling together. When Jesus states that disciples see and know the Spirit it’s simply one more way of drawing out the implications of their love for him. To the degree that they love him, they see as he sees and want his Spirit to animate them, to help them remain true to who he is calling them to be.

The role of the Spirit in the life of disciples is expressed quite beautifully in Eucharistic Prayer 4 which says: “That we might live no longer for ourselves but for him … he sent the Holy Spirit from you, Father, as the first fruits for those who believe, so that, bringing to perfection his work in the world, he might sanctify creation to the full.”

Loving Christ opens us to the Spirit who empowers us to bring Christ’s work to completion. Or as Jesus said so simply, “If you love me, you will keep my commands.”

Proclaim the Christ

Reflection
By Katy Beedle Rice

Over the past few decades, California pediatrician Dr. Harvey Karp has popularized the idea of the “fourth trimester.” Theorizing that human infants (due to their growing head circumferences) are necessarily born three months too soon, he proposes a method of parenting that simulates life in the womb by incorporating rocking movement, skin-on-skin contact, and rhythmic sounds that echo a mother’s heartbeat, as ways to ease newborns into their new existence post-birth.

Following the death and resurrection of Jesus, their friend and teacher, the disciples of the early church faced a transition just as shattering and transformational as the one from womb to world. Their understanding and experience of life had been fundamentally altered in their encounter with the risen Jesus. And, we could say, in the 40 days from resurrection to ascension, Jesus offers the disciples their own “fourth trimester” of sorts to become acclimated to this new way of interacting with him.

But just as their time with the earthly Jesus ended, so too will the time they share with him post-resurrection. And after the ascension once again they will transition to a new way of being in this world, a new way of being connected to Jesus, the True Vine, and listening for the voice of Jesus, the Good Shepherd.

In today’s Gospel Jesus prepares his friends for this time that will come. He assures them, “I will not leave you orphans.” This verse in John is the only time the term “orphan” is heard in all four Gospels. And it gives us a new image of Jesus, that of a parent. In this parenting, Jesus is joined by a new figure he introduces as the “Advocate … the Spirit of truth.”

The disciples are moving into a new time — one of great hope and also of great pain. Shortly after promising to send them the Advocate, Jesus tells the disciples why they will need one: “If they persecuted me, they will persecute you” (John 15:20).

Our first reading picks up after Stephen is stoned in Jerusalem — the first of the apostles to be martyred. As many disciples are scattered from Jerusalem, Philip finds himself in Samaria. Instead of seeking shelter and protection, we are told he “proclaimed the Christ to them” thereby sharing the joy of the good news at every opportunity.

The second reading is drawn from the First Letter of Peter, who, tradition suggests, wrote it shortly before his martyrdom in Rome. Peter urges the community to “always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope.” Indeed, that is the audacious message of these first followers of Jesus — continue to proclaim the Christ to all who will listen even as your very lives are demanded of you.

In our own lives as Christians we also face challenges, persecutions and transitions. Some may be as simple as bearing with a difficult co-worker or cranky child, but others (the death of a spouse, mental illness, addiction) may demand everything of us. In all that we encounter, we can hold on to Jesus’ promise, “I will not leave you orphans.” We know that we have an advocate who remains with us and an attentive parent who holds us close as we embrace a new reality. We now are the ones who must proclaim the Christ to a world desperately in need of mercy and love.

May we always be ready to give an explanation for our hope.


Year A: The Ascension of The Lord

The Ascension of The Lord

Matthew 28: 16-20

The eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had ordered them. When they saw him, they worshiped, but they doubted. Then Jesus approached and said to them, “All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.”

Discussion Questions:

  1. In your own words, what do you think we are celebrating; on the feast of the Ascension?
  2. Do you believe your baptism has commissioned you to do anything? What are you commissioned to do?
  3. How do you personally carry on the mission of Jesus Christ? Explain

Biblical Context

Matthew 28: 16-20
Margaret Nutting Ralph PHD

On the feast of the Ascension we read Matthew’s “great commissioning.” Throughout this liturgical year, as we have discussed Matthew’s Gospel, we have commented over and over on the fact that Matthew presents Jesus as the new Moses who has authority from God to give a new law. In today’s commissioning story we see the fulfillment of this theme.

In Matthew the apostles are to go to Galilee, rather than to Jerusalem, to meet the risen Lord: “The eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had ordered them.” Just as God revealed Godself to Moses on a mountain, so Jesus revealed himself to Peter, James, and John on a mountain at the transfiguration (see Matt 17:1). Just as Moses taught the first law from a mountain, so Jesus taught the fulfillment of that law from a mountain (see Matt 5:1). Moses’ authority was from God. Only if Jesus’ authority is also from God is it a fulfillment of covenant love for the Jews to embrace Christ. Therefore Matthew places this culminating scene on a mountain. Matthew is always emphasizing Jesus as the new Moses in order to help his Jewish audience integrate their tradition into the new understanding brought about by the events surrounding Jesus.

Notice that in Matthew’s commissioning Jesus specifically states, “All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” With this statement Jesus is alluding to the Book of Daniel. In Daniel one like a son of man approaches the throne of God and receives authority from God. Daniel saw:

One like a son of man coming, on the clouds of heaven;
When he reached the Ancient One and was presented before him, He received dominion, glory, and kingship; nations and peoples of every language serve him.
His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not be taken away?
His kingship shall not be destroyed. (Dan 7:13b—14)

Remember that Son of Man is the only messianic title that Jesus has consistently used in the Gospel to refer to himself. Jesus is now claiming that he is the Son of Man to whom God has given “dominion, glory, and kingship.

Since Jesus has been given all power, he can delegate his authority to his disciples. We can tell from the wording of the commissioning that Matthew is teaching his Jewish audience that Jesus and his disciples have the authority to change what had been taught through Moses and the law. Jesus says, “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit….” By the time Matthew is writing his Gospel (AD 85), baptism has replaced circumcision, and the concept of one God, still maintained, has been radically changed to a trinitarian concept of God. These changes have occurred with God’s authority given to Jesus and then to the disciples.

The apostles are not simply to be disciples but to make disciples: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations… teaching them to observe all that 1 have commanded you.” They are to teach what Jesus taught, not just what the law taught, and they are to teach all nations.

By the time Matthew is writing, the knowledge that covenant love is not limited to the Jews has been revealed through events. Matthew had previously pictured Jesus instructing his disciples to go only to the house of Israel (see Matt 10:6; 15:24). Later the Spirit led the pilgrim church to the realization that the privilege of being baptized into covenant love is for everyone, nor just for the Jews. By teaching them to baptize in “the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” Jesus is reminding his followers to remain open to the Spirit. As the disciples carry out their ministry in Jesus’ name, Jesus promises to be with them always.

Spiritual Commentary

Leaving and Staying
John Shea

In Franco Zeffirelli’s film “Jesus of Nazareth” a key player of the Sanhedrin enters the tomb of Jesus and finds it empty, he mumbles to himself, “Now it begins.” This closing scene of the Gospel of Matthew could carry the title, “Now it continues.” The crucifixion did not accomplish what the crucifiers hoped. It did not end the presence of Jesus and his mission. The angel in the tomb and then the risen Jesus himself tell the women to tell the disciples that Jesus was going ahead of them into Galilee (Matt 28:7,10). Galilee is the place of Jesus’ preaching and teaching, and the mountain “to which Jesus directed them” alludes to the Sermon on the Mount, the summary of his teaching, Therefore, the disciples will find Jesus neither in the tomb nor in heaven. They will find him continuing his evangelizing work.

The eleven (the Twelve minus Judas) take the women seriously enough to go to Galilee. But their experience of seeing Jesus is ambiguous. Some saw and worshiped; others saw and doubted. Therefore, the experience of seeing was not definitive proof Jesus had risen from the dead. Something must have been missing that would have compelled belief. We recognize people by sight when their present description matches the description we know. This “description match/7 which usually brings a degree of certainty, might not be part of the seeing experience. The two on the road to Emmaus are not able to make a description match (Luke 24:16); neither is Mary Magdalene in the Garden (John 20:14). Perhaps, a more subtle discernment of the presence of the risen Lord needs to be made. This discernment does not use the image of “seeing and believing”; it uses the more discipleship-oriented image of “hearing and obeying ”.

Jesus begins his speech to his disciples by citing his credentials. All authority on heaven and earth has been given to him. Therefore, when they hear his commands, they should obey* But these commanded actions are not arbitrary. Through them the disciples not only will join Jesus in his continuing action of bringing the kingdom, but also, they will come to a realized understanding of his risen presence among them. “Hearing and obeying” is a path beyond the doubt that accompanies “seeing and believing.”

As Jesus made disciples of them, the disciples are now to make disciples of others, especially the Gentiles. Jesus’ disciples have matured into masters. This “making disciples” commission has two aspects that are integrally connected. The first aspect is baptizing people in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This aspect attunes newcomers to the consciousness of the Trinity. They die to themselves as isolated individuals and rise themselves as suffused and supported by the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and therefore capable of living the life of community that God lives. The second aspect focuses on turning this trinitarian consciousness into action. The disciples are to teach these new disciples to listen to the teachings of Jesus in such a way that they change their behavior. If they carry out this commission, something will happen in their experience of “making disciples” that will alert them to the presence of the risen Lord among them. They will remember that he is with them always.

Selections from Breaking Open the Lectionary: Lectionary Readings in Their Biblical Context for RCIA, Faith Sharing Groups, and Lectors—Cycle A, by Margaret Nutting Ralph, Copyright © 2007 by Margaret Nutting Ralph. Paulist Press, Inc., New York/Mahwah, NJ. Reprinted by permission of Paulist Press, Inc. www.paulistpress.com.

Spiritual Commentaries and Teachings are excerpted from The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers by John Shea © 2004 by Order of Saint Benedict. Published by Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota. Used with permission.

Cycle A: Seventh Sunday of Easter

Father glorify your Son

John 17:1-11a

Jesus raised his eyes to heaven and said, “Father, the hour has come. Give glory to your son, so that your son may glorify you just as you gave him authority over all people, so that he may give eternal life to all you gave him. Now this is eternal life, that they should know you, the only true God, and the one whom you sent, Jesus Christ. I glorified you on earth by accomplishing the work that you gave me to do. Now glorify me, Father, with you, with the glory that I had with you before the world began.

“I revealed your name to those whom you gave me out of the world. They belonged to you, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything you gave me is from you, because the words you gave to me I have given to them, and they accepted them and truly understood that I came from you, and they have believed that you sent me. I pray for them. I do not pray for the world but for the ones you have given me, because they are yours, and everything of mine is yours and everything of yours is mine, and I have been glorified in them. And now I will no longer be in the world, but they are in the world, while I am coming to you. Holy Father, keep them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one just as we are.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What does the phrase “the glory of God” mean to you? Where have you seen the glory of God?
  2. How does Jesus’ prayer make you feel about the connection between the Father, Jesus and You?
  3. What do you see as the core mission of Jesus that you are carrying on in your life?
  4. There is a saying; “we must be in the world, but not of the world”. What does this mean for you in light of this passage from John?

Biblical Context

John 17:1-11a
Sr. Mary M. McGlone CSJ

The setting for today’s Gospel is still Jesus’ last meal with his disciples on the night before he dies. In today’s reading Jesus is not speaking to the disciples directly; rather he is praying to his Father. The disciples, and we, overhear the prayer. Many scripture scholars point out the similarities between Jesus’ discourse during his last meal with the disciples and what is known as a farewell discourse. A farewell discourse is a literary form in which a person of prominence says good-bye to his followers.

Once more John is insisting on Jesus’ divinity. Remember that the question of Jesus’ divinity is causing disruption in the lives of John’s audience. John insists that Jesus is God: Jesus and the Father are one. Remember that John’s Gospel begins by teaching that Jesus is the preexistent Word who became flesh and dwelt among us. Now, Jesus asks his Father, “glorify me, Father, with you, with the glory that I had with you before the world began.” Jesus refers to his own preexistence.

To pray that God will glorify Jesus is to pray that God will make Jesus’ divinity visible. The phrase God’s glory is used in the Old Testament to refer to any visible manifestation of God’s presence and protection. In time God’s glory began to refer to a manifestation of God’s saving power. Jesus gives glory to the Father because Jesus is the supreme manifestation of God’s love, faithfulness, and saving power. That is why, in John’s Gospel, Jesus’ glorification is his passion, death, and resurrection. It is through the passion, death, and resurrection that the Son reveals the glory of the Father, and the Father reveals the glory of the Son.

John continues to insist on the indispensable role that Jesus has been given in the salvation of the human race: Jesus prays, “Now this is eternal life, that they should know you, the only true God, and the one whom you sent, Jesus Christ.” John is speaking to those who are actively rejecting belief in Christ and who are expelling their fellow Jews who believe in Jesus’ divinity from the synagogue, thus endangering their lives. This passage would not be equally true in another context, for instance, in the context of those who have never had the opportunity to know Jesus.

As is true in all farewell discourses, the focus changes from the leader to those to whom the leader is passing on his mission. For Jesus’ disciples to continue his work faithfully they will have to believe in his divinity, that is, in his relationship with his Father, as well as in the content of his message: “… the words you gave to me I have given to them, and they accepted them and truly understood that I came from you, and they have believed that you sent me.” The disciples must hear and understand Jesus’ words in order to carry on his mission.

Jesus then says, “I do not pray for the world but for the ones you have given me” John uses the phrase the world in a variety of ways in his Gospel. For instance, John has earlier pictured Jesus saying, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son… (John 3:16) The passage in today’s Gospel should not be used to deny the goodness of God’s creation or of the flesh that Jesus himself became. The word world is used here to refer to all that opposes those who have accepted Jesus, to focus Jesus’ prayer specifically on those who have accepted him and who will carry on his mission. Jesus’ prayer is, at the narrative level, for the disciples who are at table with him. However, the prayer is also for John’s audience, and for all generations who have been entrusted with the message that the Father entrusted to Jesus, including us.

Welcome the Holy

Reflection
Jean Vanier

Jesus prays for those who will continue his mission to reveal the Father and the gift of the Holy Spirit, that they may be holy as he is holy. This holiness does not come as we stretch out towards God, but as we welcome the Holy One who comes to dwell in us. We human beings are a mixture of the presence of God and the absence of God, of light and darkness, truth and chaos, goodness and evil, openness and closedness.

No human being in himself or herself is holy or pure. We become holy only through the holiness of God. By ourselves we cannot bridge the gap that separates the finite from the Infinite. God reaches out to us and we become holy as we welcome God who comes to us. This implies that we gradually become emptied of the darkness and selfishness in us, and liberated from the walls around our hearts that separate us from God, from others and from our deepest self. This holiness is not something we can achieve; it is given. It is not reserved for a few strong-willed people, for austere seekers of God, for those who have an official role in the Church, or for those who preach and do advanced theological studies. It is not reserved for those who are well-known mystics or for those who do wonderful things for the poor.

Holiness is for all those who are poor enough to welcome Jesus. It is for people living ordinary lives and who feel lonely. It is for all those who are old, sick, hospitalized or out of work, who open their hearts in trust to Jesus and cry out for his healing love.

“Come, Lord Jesus, come!”

Jean Vanier, Drawn into the Mystery of Jesus. Jean Vanier is the founder of L’Arche, an international network of communities for people with intellectual disabilities.

Year A: Pentecost through Corpus Christi

Year A: Pentecost Sunday

Appearance to the Disciples

John 20, 19-23

On the evening of that first day of the week, when the doors were locked, where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in their midst and said to them, “Peace be with you.” When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. The disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again,“Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.”

Discussion Questions:

  1. The doors were locked, yet he was in their midst. Describe when you have had a spiritual realization of the presence of Jesus?
  2. Jesus says; “Peace I leave you; my peace I give to you” Not as the world gives do I give you.” What is your understanding or experience of the peace Jesus gives us versus the peace we receive from the world?
  3. Do you have a personal experience of the power of the Holy Spirit? What is it?
  4. Through the Holy Spirit, Jesus gives the disciples the power to forgive or retain the sins of others. In a concrete way, do you forgive the transgressions people have committed against you, or do you continue to hold it over them? How is the Holy Spirit part of this struggle for you?

Biblical Context

John 20: 19-23
Dr. Margret Nutting Ralph PHD

In John’s Gospel the Spirit is given to the church on Easter evening during Jesus’ first post-resurrection appearance to thee disciples. On “the first day of the week,” that is, Easter Sunday morning, Mary went to the tomb and discovered it empty. She told Peter and the beloved disciple, who also ran to the tomb and discovered only burial cloths. Next, Jesus appeared to Mary Magdalene instructed her to tell the disciples that Jesus is “going to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God” (John 20:17). Mary does as she is instructed. It is on that same evening that the scene we read in today’s Gospel occurs.

The disciples are locked in a room, living in fear. The first words Jesus speaks to them are, “Peace be with you.” Jesus has earlier given the disciples this same gift of peace. At his last meal with them before his death Jesus said, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give it to you. Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid. You heard me tell you, ‘I am going away and I will come back to you’” (John 14:27-28). Now, Jesus has comeback to them, just as he promised, and he offers them peace.

Next Jesus shows the disciples his hands and his side. This is to demonstrate that the person who was crucified and died is the person who is before them now. The hands, of course, would show nail marks. The side would show the wound inflicted on Jesus by the soldier after Jesus died. “But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs, but one soldier thrust his lance into his side, and immediately blood and water flowed out”(John 19:33-34).

John tells us that “the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.” This also is a fulfillment of a promise that Jesus made to the disciples at their last meal together. Jesus said to his disciples, “Are you discussing with one another what I said, ‘A little while and you will not see me, and again a little while and you will see me’? Amen, amen, I say to you, you will weep and mourn, while the world rejoices; you will grieve, but your grief will become joy” ‘ (John 16:19-20). Then Jesus once more gives them the gift of peace: “Peace be with you.”

Jesus then commissions the disciples to carry on his mission to the world. Jesus says, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” At Jesus’ last meal with the disciples he had earlier said what that mission is. Addressing his words to the Father, Jesus said that the Father has given his son “authority over all people, so that he may give eternal life to all you gave him. Now this is eternal life, that they should know you, the only true God, and the one whom you sent, Jesus Christ” (John 17:2).

How are the disciples to have the power to carry on Jesus’ mission to the world? This ministry can be carried out only through the power of the Holy Spirit. “And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’ “

This description of Jesus breathing on the disciples is one of John’s many allusions to the Book of Genesis. When God created the man in the garden, God “formed man out of the clay of the ground and blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and so man became a living being” (Gen 2:7). Genesis is a story of creating the material world. John’s Gospel is the story of God’s re-creation, of God’s establishing a new spiritual order through Jesus Christ.

In the new spiritual order people are offered not only eternal life but the forgiveness of their sins: “Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.” Scripture scholars suggest that with these words John is describing the effect of baptism, which is the forgiveness of sin. Those whose sins are retained are those who reject the gift of salvation that is offered them and are not initiated into the community. The disciples will have the power to carry on Jesus’ mission only in and through the Spirit.

A Church That Is Open

Pope Francis

In the light of [today’s] passage, I would like to reflect on three words linked to the working of the Holy Spirit: newness, harmony and mission.

Newness always makes us a bit fearful, because we feel more secure if we have everything under control, if we are the ones who build, program and plan our lives in accordance with our own ideas, our own comfort, our own preferences. This is also the case when it comes to God. Often, we follow him, we accept him, but only up to a certain point. It is hard to abandon ourselves to him with complete trust, allowing the Holy Spirit to be the soul and guide of our lives in our every decision. . . newness of the Holy Spirit? Do we have the courage to strike out along the new paths which God’s newness sets before us, or do we resist, barricaded in transient structures which have lost their capacity for openness to what is new?

The Holy Spirit would appear to create disorder in the Church since he brings the diversity of charisms and gifts; yet all this, by his working, is a great source of wealth, for the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of unity, but which leads everything back to harmony. Here too, when we are the ones who try to create diversity and close ourselves up in what makes us different and other, we bring division. When we are the ones who want to build unity in accordance with our human plans, we end up creating uniformity, standardization…So let us ask ourselves: Am I open to the harmony of the Holy Spirit, overcoming every form of exclusivity? Do I let myself be guided by him, living in the Church and with the Church?

The older theologians used to say that the soul is a kind of sailboat, the Holy Spirit is the wind which fills its sails and drives it forward, and the gusts of wind are the gifts of the Spirit. Lacking his impulse and his grace, we do not go forward. The Holy Spirit draws us into the mystery of the living God and saves us from the threat of a Church which is gnostic and self-referential, closed in on herself; he impels us to open the doors and go forth to proclaim and bear witness to the good news of the Gospel, to communicate the joy of faith, the encounter with Christ. The Holy Spirit is the soul of mission. . . . Let us ask ourselves: do we tend to stay closed in on ourselves, on our group, or do we let the Holy Spirit open us to mission? Today let us remember these three words: newness, harmony and mission.

Today’s liturgy is a great prayer which the Church, in union with Jesus, raises up to the Father, asking him to renew the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. May each of us, and every group and movement, in the harmony of the Church, cry out to the Father and implore this gift.

Year A: Solemnity of The Most Holy Trinity, Sunday after Pentecost

John 3, 16-18

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him will not be condemned, but whoever does not believe has already been condemned, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Do you believe it is God’s desire that everyone be saved? If so, how does this belief affect the way you treat others?
  2. Beyond making the sign of the cross, how much does the Trinity actually play an active role in your faith life? Explain in what ways?
  3. When you pray, do you pray to one person in the Trinity more than to another? If so, do you know why? What determines to whom you pray?
  4. If we are made in the image of God, then this means the image is “perfect relationship”. On one level this would mean that; how you “relate” to everything and everyone is a reflection of your relationship with God? How does this strike you?

Biblical Context

Mary McGlone

Rudolf Schnackenburg, the German theologian whom Pope Benedict XVI recognized as one of the most important exegetes of the latter 20th century, called John 3:16 a short summary of the entire Gospel. In Eucharistic Prayer 4, this one verse is embellished as it reiterates our belief that God has never abandoned us; that from age to age God reaches out to humanity; that God’s grace constantly leads us to seek salvation. We recall how time and again God has offered us covenants and sent prophets to remind us of both God’s love and our own potential. Finally, as that eucharistic prayer reminds us, in the fullness of time God sent us the beloved Son.

As we meditate on this reading for the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity we find ourselves looking over the whole of salvation history. The passage begins with God’s love for the world, reminding us of the myths which speak of the wonder of creation: how the great God Almighty tenderly fashioned the universe and created humanity capable of reflecting the divine image. From the beginning God loved this world with all its potential.

When we hear “the world” in John’s Gospel we remember as well that this world has been hostile to God’s love. No Gospel proclamation can ignore the reality of sin and division that has marked human history since the days of Cain and Abel. This, too, is the world that God has loved, the world that rejects God and contravenes every impulse to peace and unity.

It is to this world with all its good and evil, with all its goodness and potential and with all its destructive tendencies that God sent the Son. And while preachers have long been famous for highlighting the sin lurking in every hidden corner and calling for the fear of God in the face of the handing over of God’s son, this Gospel proclaims “God did not send the Son to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved.”

The last part of today’s reading takes us back to Deuteronomy 30 when Moses invited the people to choose the life God was offering them. John says that those who believe will be saved and those who do not have been condemned. As many other things in the Gospel of John, this can be mistakenly understood in a narrow, almost magical way or, alternatively, as an invitation to ongoing reflection on what we believe about God, God’s love and human life.

The Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity celebrates God revealed simply as “God For Us.” God gave Moses a limited vision but still so overwhelming that his face, his very soul, would never be the same. In Christ we have received the ultimate image of God’s unceasing, invincible and overwhelming love. Paul reminds us that to the extent that we believe in that revelation, God’s Spirit can work in and through us, thereby allowing the love of God to be ever more present in our world.

God’s Rule of Three

Reflection
By David Heimann

If you ever take a class on comedy, you’ll learn about a concept of which comedians regularly make use. It’s called the “rule of three.” An example of the rule is a comedian who pretends to be a waiter in a seafood restaurant and says, “I’d like to introduce you to today’s fresh fish specials. We are serving salmon, halibut and canned tuna.”

The principle behind the rule is simple. First, the comedian steers the audience by influencing the listener’s thoughts to flow as if they were on a set of established train tracks. The first two examples serve to “set up” the track, but then a third example intentionally derails the metaphorical train, and the resulting jolt comes as a surprise and (hopefully) is something at which we will chuckle. It is the thrill of “the expected meeting the unexpected” that brings such delight.

Today is the church’s celebration of the “rule of three” — the dogma of the Holy Trinity. It is so important within our faith tradition that the Trinity is our acclamation whenever we begin or end anything we do. From our baptism to our daily prayers to our final farewell at a funeral, we do these things “In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.”

Where in these relatively short readings do we see God named as “the Trinity?” In the first reading, we hear that God appears to Moses with all of the clarity of a cloud. In the Gospel John tells us how God loves the world with such enthusiasm that he sent the Son to redeem us. Paul comes a little nearer to revealing to us God’s trinitarian nature when he voices the greeting that regularly intones the beginning of Mass. Paul writes, “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.”

But why doesn’t God just come out and say “Hey? Believe in me! I’m the Trinity?” Why not use Moses, or the writers John or Paul to tell us, “Look, I’m really one God, but you’ll experience me in three different personas which will be like a Father at some points, a Son at others and then another concept all together which is like a ‘spirit’ but you should know that this ‘spirit’ will exceed any temporal dimension and will be with you forever. So just trust in any of these three phenomena because really, it’s just me and I’m just one.”

The mystery of the Trinity is vast, rich, deep and wondrous. Saints, poets and artists have exhausted countless efforts to explain and illustrate this mystery. Each attempt to describe this fundamental tenet within our faith both inches us closer to understanding the nature of God while at the same time pushes our understanding farther away. The Trinity is something to ponder more fully, in the same way we learn to deeply value a good movie, a good book or a good friendship. The more we explore it, the more we value it.

Just like a comedian’s finely tuned set-up to a joke, there are some things we know certainly about God. God is absolute and dependable. God is the expected constant. We can ground ourselves in God. And just like a comedian’s unforeseen wrinkle, God is also the unexpected, the surprising, and the ever-new. We can rest assured in knowing that God is one, but we should also be astounded by the unexpected twist in knowing that God’s oneness is three. This mystery is God’s delight and with a smile, we are invited to enter into his ever-unfolding revelation as we do everything in God’s “rule of three.”


Year A: The Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity, Body and Blood of Christ, Corpus Christi

John 6: 51-58

I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.”

The Jews quarreled among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us [his] flesh to eat?” Jesus said to them, “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him. Just as the living Father sent me and I have life because of the Father, so also the one who feeds on me will have life because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Unlike your ancestors who ate and still died, whoever eats this bread will live forever.”

Discussion Questions:

  1. Eating and drinking in the name of Christ implies being united with him in his self-giving, in his dying and his rising. In what specific ways are you growing or struggling in your; self-giving, dying and rising as a result of receiving Eucharist each week?
  2. When was the last time you felt “in communion” with others… outside of Mass? Explain what was happening.
  3. Do you think of all who are united to Christ as being one body of Christ? What ramifications does this have for you ecumenically?
  4. Body broken for you, blood poured out for you. The essence of God’s love for us expressed in the self-giving of Jesus is… serving the needs of others. How is your participation in the mass and this ministry feeding the service part of your faith life?

Biblical Context

John 6: 51-58
Sr. Mary M. McGlone CSJ

Today’s Gospel comes from the last part of John’s Eucharistic discourse in which Jesus explains that as the bread of life, he offers life to the world. Perhaps the most important thing we can do as we begin to study John 6 is to remember that it was written by the evangelist who is famous for leading disciples through faulty interpretations into the depths of Jesus’ message.

The first statement Jesus makes in this selection is rather straight forward: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven.” Within this passage, Jesus draws on his audience’s memory of the Exodus. Jesus tells them that just as God sent the mysterious manna, he himself is God’s ultimate and living gift, sent for the life of the world. In the next phrase, Jesus moves from the symbolism of the manna to saying that he is giving his flesh — his mortal, human self, all that he is — for the life of the world.

With the startling vocabulary about eating his flesh and drinking his blood, John is trying to move us from the physical to the spiritual plane. The crowds who quarreled among themselves asking “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” echoed Nicodemus who focused on the impossibility of re-entering his mother’s womb to be born again. They mirrored the Samaritan woman-apostle whose questions to Jesus were fixated on the physical-geographical plane while he tried to introduce her into the realm of the Spirit.

The people who heard Jesus speaking the words of today’s Gospel knew well that eating and praying together implied communion. They knew that the God of Abraham and Moses was God-with-them, the God who had been involved in the events of their past. The blessing they traditionally said as they broke the bread during a meal recalled and rejoiced in God’s presence in their ongoing history. The truly shocking thing Jesus did by calling himself the living bread had nothing to do with cannibalism. The scandal was the declaration that in his very humanity he embodied divine life being offered to them. Jesus claimed that communion with him was the way to the communion with God that he already enjoyed. What tripped them up was that he brought God too close.

By comparing the gift of himself to the desert manna, Jesus reiterated the most basic fact of his life: he had been sent by the Father for the life of the world. He also claimed that there was no comparison between the first manna and what he offered. Those who ate the desert manna survived for a time and then died. Those who find their sustenance in Christ the living bread will share his victory over death and the life he has from the Father.

Ultimately, the real scandal of Jesus’ claim to be the bread of life was his claim that God was revealed in his mortal flesh. A God who is majestic and unreachable is far easier to deal with than one who invites us to communion in the here and now. It doesn’t cost much to worship a god to whom we can offer placating sacrifices and then go on with our lives as normal. But God who initiates communion with us is going to claim everything we are as we come to abide in Christ and allow him to abide in us.

All We Need

Reflection
Marilyn Chandler McEntyre

My mother was careful about making the dollars stretch to the end of the month, but she also knew when to eat the manna. She knew that some things—most things— are to be used, enjoyed, and shared rather than stored.

Besides being a parable about relying on God’s provision, the story of manna in the wilderness is a story about how grace often comes in odd, unsettling, barely recognizable ways. The word “manna,” according to some scholars, means “What is it?” God didn’t send the Israelites braided challah or fresh salad greens. Their daily “bread” was a strange, flaky substance, something like hoarfrost that had to be gathered in the morning before it melted in the sun. They molded it into cakes that tasted a little like honey. . . . [Whatever] the biochemistry of manna, the Israelites found it unfamiliar, and had to learn to gather, prepare, and eat it.

When our notion of what we need is confined by habit and expectation, it takes time to recognize that we have what we need. We may not have the money to replace an appliance, but we may have a neighbor who can fix it. We may not have our closest friend nearby when sorrow strikes, but someone may surface from the margins of our lives with a big heart and a listening ear. Solutions may come from unexpected sources. The answer to many prayers, reinforced with every celebration of the Eucharist, is simply this reminder: “You have what you need.” Take it. Eat it. There will be more.

Marilyn Chandler McEntyre, adapted from What’s in a Phrase?
Marilyn Chandler McEntyre is a fellow of the Gaede Institute for the Liberal Arts at Westmont College, Santa Barbara, California, and she teaches at UC Berkeley.

Year A: Ordinary Time: Sundays 10-34

Year A: Tenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

The Call of Matthew

Matthew 9: 9-13

As Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the customs post. He said to him, “Follow me.” And he got up and followed him. While he was at table in his house, many tax collectors and sinners came and sat with Jesus and his disciples. The Pharisees saw this and said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” He heard this and said, “Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do. Go and learn the meaning of the words, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” I did not come to call the righteous but sinners.”

Discussion Questions:

  1. “Go and learn the meaning of the words, I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” In what ways does this statement of Jesus challenge you personally. Do you struggle with being merciful over being scrupulous?
  2. Do you feel superior to anyone? Why is it a spiritual “red flag” to feel superior to others?
  3. Have you ever been torn between obedience to the law or a teaching and to what you considered “the loving thing to do”? What were the circumstances? How did you resolve the situation?
  4. How has your brokenness been an opening for mercy toward others, or resulted in your growing closer to God? Explain.

Biblical Context

Matthew 9: 9-13
Margaret Nutting Ralph PHD

We move now to chapter 9 of Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus is in the Galilean area performing many acts of power. Immediately before today’s reading Jesus has not only healed a paralytic but has told the paralytic that his sins are forgiven (Matt 9:2b). The scribes have taken offense. They considered Jesus’ remark blasphemous because only God can forgive sins.

In today’s Gospel Jesus continues to trigger the disapproval and anger of some of the Jewish religious leaders. They do not think that Jesus should spend time with sinners. Of course, Jesus spends time with the leaders, but they do not realize that in doing that Jesus is spending time with sinners.

Our reading starts with a call story. Jesus passes by, sees Matthew, and says, “Follow me.” And Matthew “got up and followed him.” Our response to this story might well be, “Wasn’t it unwise of Matthew to respond so quickly without giving the matter more thought?” As we discussed on the Third Sunday in Ordinary Time, call stories picture the disciples responding instantly in order to emphasize the wholehearted response necessary for discipleship. The story is teaching that to become a disciple of Jesus Christ a person must make following Jesus his or her top priority.

Next we read that Jesus is at table with many tax collectors and sinners. In the call story we are not told that Matthew himself is a tax collector. That is stated in Matthew 10:3, when we are given the names of the twelve apostles.

“Tax collectors” and “sinners,” the two groups named, are groups who have been marginalized by society. Tax collectors were marginalized because they were suspected of disloyalty and extortion: disloyalty because they were Jews who were collecting taxes from their fellow Jews on behalf of the Roman occupiers; extortion because their own income came from whatever they charged in addition to the tax demanded by the Romans. Sinners, from the Pharisees’ point of view. Were people who were, for one reason or another, unclean: that is. These “sinners” were not as strict about obeying the laws regarding ritual purity as were the Pharisees.

On observing Jesus actually sharing a table with these traitors and with the ritually unclean the Pharisees ask Jesus’ disciples, does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” We can hear the self-righteous and judgmental attitude behind the question. Obviously, the Pharisees feel superior to these marginalized people.

Jesus hears their question, as well as the attitude behind it. In answer, Jesus first quotes a well-known proverb found in Greek writings: “Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do. This is simply common sense. As a spiritual physician Jesus would give his attention to those who need spiritual healing. Next Jesus quotes the Book of the prophet Hosea, in which God says, I desire mercy, not sacrifice” (Hos 6:6). With this statement Jesus is telling the Pharisees that their own spiritual perceptions are out of balance. They lack mercy toward their fellow sinners at the same time that they are scrupulous about obeying the law. This is not what God desires.

Jesus concludes with an ironic statement: “I did not come to call the righteous but sinners.” The word righteous is ironic. Jesus means self-righteous. Jesus came to call everyone, including the Pharisees. However, as long as the Pharisees think of themselves as righteous and only “those other people” as sinners they will not respond to the call.

As Matthew’s Gospel continues, we will see that Matthew emphasizes the growing animosity between Jesus and his critics. This is because Matthew is addressing the question, “If Jesus is the new Moses with authority from God to give a new law, why did the leaders of his own religious tradition want him silenced?” Matthew emphasizes that those religious leaders who wanted to silence Jesus were self-righteous legalists who refused to accept Jesus’ teaching. In today’s story Jesus is teaching that God loves and wants to save sinners.

Learning the Meaning of Mercy

Spiritual Commentary
John Shea

In an article on aging and life review, there was a story about an older man who stood in front of a full-length mirror and beat himself with both his fists, pummeling his face and torso. He did this steadily and unemotionally, without screaming or comment. The nursing staff could not get him to stop, and eventually they had to put him in restraints.

The explanation for this self-flagellating behavior was simple and terrifying. In the process of his life review, the man remembered and fixated on his many mistakes. In his eyes his choices and actions were always wrong, and he could find no forgiveness for what he had done. His judgment on himself was negative, and so he carried out his own punishment. C.S. Lewis once remarked, “The gates of hell are locked from the inside.” This man was in hell, and he had lost the key. He could not release himself from his own prison.

Although this man is an extreme example, many people have faced this same negative examination of conscience, especially in later life. When we look back at the decisions we made and the actions we performed, we are not satisfied. We do not accept our “one and only life.” Rather we feel that we have “blown it.” Add to this the fact that time is running out, and we begin to feel the quiet desperation of a life lived the wrong way.

Our attempts to modify this self-evaluation are unconvincing. We cannot justify what we have done. Although we may fabricate many excuses, none completely exonerates us. We realize the only righteousness we can manage will be bought at the price of self-deception. So, we give up justifying ourselves “before the eyes of others” (see Luke 16:15) and enter the category of “tax collectors and sinners.” What we do not know is that this recognition of failure has turned us into the people whom Jesus seeks out, the people ready to hear about the mercy of God.

We seriously entertain the mercy of God when we come to the place the First Letter of John articulates: “by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything” (1 John 3:19-20). When our hearts condemn us, we open to God who is greater than our hearts and who has more comprehensive knowledge. This more comprehensive knowledge is sometimes characterized as a steadfast love that sustains the person even though the thoughts and actions of the person are unacceptable. In our negative evaluation of ourselves, we have confused who we are with what we have done.

However, God’s mercy is clear sighted. It reestablishes the person anew in each moment. Although we will have to bear the negative consequences of our past actions, we are not defined by those actions or consequences. The mercy of God reminds us that we are not irredeemable sinners but temporarily lost sons and daughters. We can rest and be renewed in this greater knowledge of God, a mercy that softens our fierce and narrow condemnations.

As consoling as this “greater than our condemning hearts” thought may be, there is another version of the mercy of God. This version does not focus on our sinfulness: evil actions, their consequences, and the rehabilitation of the person. It focuses on our finitude, the choices we have made, and the paths we have taken. In the film classic, Babette’s Feast, Babette makes a magnificent meal for a small, aging religious community. Many of them are reviewing their life choices and wondering if they have chosen rightly.At the table is General Lowenhielm who has never married. The woman whom he loves is also at the table. He offers a toast that begins with a verse from Psalm 85,“Mercy and truth have met together. Righteousness and bliss shall kiss one another” (cf.v. 10: NRSV; v. 11 NAB). Then he continues,

Man in his weakness and shortsightedness believes he must make choices in this life. He trembles at the risk he takes. We do know fear. But no. Our choice is of no importance. There comes a time when our eyes are opened. And we come to realize that mercy is infinite. We need only await it with confidence and receive it with gratitude. Mercy imposes no conditions. And, lo! Everything we have chosen has been granted to us. And everything we rejected has also been granted. Yes, we get back even what we rejected. For mercy and truth have met together. Righteousness and bliss shall kiss one another.

Mercy is the realization that our lives are redeemed by ever higher appreciations, ever higher perspectives. Our task is to await mercy with confidence and receive it with gratitude.

Jesus suggests that the scribes and Pharisees go and learn the meaning of mercy. Mercy is not a single act, but the sea in which we swim. It gives hope to both our sinfulness and our finitude.

Selections from Breaking Open the Lectionary: Lectionary Readings in Their Biblical Context for RCIA, Faith Sharing Groups, and Lectors—Cycle A, by Margaret Nutting Ralph, Copyright © 2007 by Margaret Nutting Ralph. Paulist Press, Inc., New York/Mahwah, NJ. Reprinted by permission of Paulist Press, Inc. www.paulistpress.com.

Spiritual Commentaries and Teachings are excerpted from The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers by John Shea © 2004 by Order of Saint Benedict. Published by Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota. Used with permission.

Year A: Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time

The Compassion of Jesus

Matthew 9: 36-10:8

At the sight of the crowds, his heart was moved with pity for them because they were troubled and abandoned, like sheep without a shepherd.

Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, drive out demons. Without cost you have received; without cost you are to give.

Discussion Questions: 

  1. When was the last time your heart has been moved with pity for others and how did you respond? Is it difficult for you to move from the heart into action? Explain
  2. Do see yourself as one of the laborers who has been sent? In what part of your faith journey are you a “laborer in the harvest” of those who feel troubled and abandoned?
  3. As a baptized disciple, do you believe that you have been given the authority to heal others as Jesus did? How do you exercise your given “authority” in service to others…or what blocks you from being Christ to others?
  4. “Without cost you are to give” Is our personal need for results “the cost” we place on our giving?
  5. How does the reality that you cannot solve or permanently change the problem of suffering, prevent you from tending to it with your presence?

Biblical Context

Matthew 9: 36-10:8
Margaret Nutting Ralph PHD

Today’s Gospel begins, “At the sight of the crowds, Jesus’ heart was moved with pity for them because they were troubled and abandoned. Like sheep without a shepherd.” Matthew has just told us that Jesus raised the daughter of an official whom everyone believed to be dead (Matt 19:18-26), and healed a woman suffering from hemorrhages (Matt 9:20-22), two blind men (Matt 9:27-31), a mute demoniac (Matt 9:32-34), as well as many others in various towns and villages. There is no end to the people who need Jesus’ good news and healing touch.

On seeing the crowds Jesus tells his disciples, “The harvest is abundant, but the laborers are few; so ask the master of the harvest to send out laborers for his harvest.” The power to bring others to God is a God-given gift. That is why the disciples are told to pray for laborers for the harvest. However, the harvest does not belong to the laborers, but to the master of the harvest, to God. It is “his harvest.”

Jesus then summons “his twelve disciples” and gives them authority to do the very things that he himself is doing. They will have “authority over unclean spirits… and to cure every disease and every illness” (remember Matthew’s constant interest in authority). When we are told the names of the twelve Matthew calls them apostles: “The names of the twelve apostles are these…” This is the only place in Matthew’s Gospel where the twelve are called apostles. In the New Testament “the twelve” and “the apostles” are not synonymous terms. Notice that Peter is named as “first,” and we are told that he is “Simon called Peter.” Matthew is emphasizing Peter’s unique role, a role upon which he will greatly elaborate in chapter 16 (Matt 16:13-20).

When Jesus instructs the disciples he tells them, “Do not go into pagan territory or enter a Samaritan town. Go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” On the feast of the Ascension, when we read Matthew’s great commissioning, we noted that Jesus instructs the eleven disciples to “make disciples of all nations” (Matt 2.8:19). That instruction reflects the experience of’ the early church after the resurrection, when the Spirit led the church to understand that covenant love was now open to everyone, even Gentiles (see Acts 10). In todays scene Jesus is giving his disciples their immediate marching orders. They are to serve the lost sheep of Israel.

Jesus instructs the disciples to proclaim just what he himself is proclaiming: “The kingdom of heaven is at hand.” As part of this announcement of the imminent in-breaking of the kingdom the disciples are to ‘‘Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, and drive out demons,” just as Jesus himself is doing. These mighty acts will give authority to the truth of their words about the kingdom.

Though the disciples have authority? they are not to use their authority for personal gain. What they have they have received as a gift and so they must freely give. Authority is never to be used in any way but to give service.

Protesting the Way Things Are

Spiritual Commentary
John Shea

So much begins when the heart cries, “This shouldn’t be!”

“The way this education is being conducted shouldn’t be.”“The way this health care is being delivered shouldn’t be.” “The way this neighborhood lives in fear shouldn’t be.

“The way this city is run shouldn’t be.” “These banking policies shouldn’t be.” “These governmental rules shouldn’t be.” “These church procedures shouldn’t be.”

It took me a long time to value prophetic grievers, the people who felt the underlying pain of situations and gave it a voice. I always felt: “Enough already; let’s get on with it.” Prophetic grieving was the first step, and I was always leery it would be the last step. We would complain and do nothing.

What I valued was the analyst who could size up situations and the strategist who could lay out an action plan and implement it. For me this text begins to move when Jesus delegates and commissions his disciples, turning them into apostles, “ones sent.” I imagine intensive training in driving out unclean spirits and curing diseases. Then when the twelve are named, I am reminded of a classic scene in Howard Hawks’ film, Red River. When the cattle drive is about to begin, the camera focuses on each cowboy who screams out, “Yiha!” Then the drive begins. I see the naming of twelve as focusing on each individual agent, singling him out as a significant player. If they could, Simon called Peter, and his brother Andrew, James, the son of Zebedee, and his brother John, Philip and Bartholomew, Thomas and Matthew, the tax collector; James, the son of Alphaeus, and Thaddeus; Simon from Cana, and even Judas Iscariot would leap out of the pages and cry, “Yiha!”

I also appreciated Jesus the strategist. When he advised beginning with the house of Israel and steering clear of Gentiles and Samaritans, I understood him to be working his home turf first. Pilot it in Israel before taking it on the road. Also, concrete instructions about what to do are always important. Proclaim and cure, raise, heal, and drive. All that was needed was to put these commands into bullet points. We have here the beginnings of organizational structure and leadership development.

However, we are also a long way from that bursting heart that energized the training, sending, and action plans. But the truth is the heart has to accompany the analyst and the strategist. It is the movement of the heart that creates the desire for change. The analysis that follows, however expert, will always need to be redone. The strategy that is implemented, however effective, will always need to be complemented and evaluated.

Since all attempts to change the world are long-haul projects of success and failure, the heart that created the desire will also have to sustain the desire. As obstacles multiply and people betray and diseases win out over cures and driven-out demons return to stay, apostles will have to return to the heart with its primordial sigh, “This shouldn’t be!” It begins with a movement of Jesus’ heart when he sees the trouble and abandonment of the crowd. When this movement goes away, the analysis becomes sterile and the strategy unworkable.

The pressing problem may be what the pragmatist takes it to be: we can’t make things work. But the foundational problem may be what the prophet has always suspected. We have become numb. We have anesthetized ourselves to the pain of the world. Our heart no longer moves, and we no longer cry out.

Selections from Breaking Open the Lectionary: Lectionary Readings in Their Biblical Context for RCIA, Faith Sharing Groups, and Lectors—Cycle A, by Margaret Nutting Ralph, Copyright © 2007 by Margaret Nutting Ralph. Paulist Press, Inc., New York/Mahwah, NJ. Reprinted by permission of Paulist Press, Inc. www.paulistpress.com.

Spiritual Commentaries and Teachings are excerpted from The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers by John Shea © 2004 by Order of Saint Benedict. Published by Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota. Used with permission.

Year A: Twelfth Sunday Ordinary Time

Do not be afraid of those who kill the body.

Matthew 10: 26-33

Jesus said to the Twelve: “Fear no one. Nothing is concealed that will not be revealed, nor secret that will not be known. What I say to you in the darkness, speak in the light; what you hear whispered, proclaim on the housetops. And do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather, be afraid of the one who can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna. Are not two sparrows sold for a small coin? Yet not one of them falls to the ground without your Father’s knowledge. Even all the hairs of your head are counted. So, do not be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows. Everyone who acknowledges me before others I will acknowledge before my heavenly Father. But whoever denies me before others, I will deny before my heavenly Father.”

Discussion Questions:

  1. What role does fear play in your life and faith experience?
  2. When have you experienced a spiritual truth or a revelation of God’s presence and felt compelled to share it with others? Tell the story.
  3. When have you had to persevere in a time of suffering or persecution? How did you respond, did you experience God with you?
  4. Do you find it easier to worship Jesus than to follow him? In what ways does discipleship take a back seat to worship in your faith life?

Biblical Context

Mary McGlone

After our 50 days of Easter and two solemnities, today’s Gospel thrusts us into the middle of Jesus’ discourse about mission. The opening line is the most important: “Fear no one.” If this were the Gospel of John, the next step would probably be a discourse on the truth that makes us free. But, Matthew is concerned about more concrete matters.

One dimension of Jesus’ instructions in this passage is the reversal of the “messianic secret” (Matthew 16:20). Instead of warning his disciples to “tell no one,”

Jesus now says there is no such thing as restricted access to the good news. When Jesus told people not to tell anyone what they thought of him or asked them not to publicize the news about a sign he had worked, it was generally because they didn’t fully understand it. They would be likely to proclaim him as their style of messiah or a wonder-worker, not as the messenger of God that he had been sent to be.

When the apostles are sent to proclaim the nearness and coming of the Kingdom of Heaven, they have been commissioned to do the works that Jesus has done. The very fact that Jesus could and did freely share his power demonstrates what kind of a savior he was. He sought the reign of heaven, not the spotlight.

Jesus commissioned the apostles and told them how to travel light and become a part of the communities they were to visit. Then, he immediately warned them about the job: he was sending them out as lambs among the wolves; they would be labeled as minions of the devil. What an introduction to his injunction, “Fear no one.”

Clearly, the disciples’ lack of fear can’t be based on external evidence or on naiveté. Jesus sends them out fully aware of what they are facing. But, even more than that, he makes them fully aware of the content of their message. They are being sent to proclaim what they have heard and to do what they have seen. They are to share what has sparked their hopes and deepened their faith. By giving them his mission, Jesus pushes them into the necessary next step of discipleship. It’s one thing to stand by and admire what Jesus says and does, it’s quite another to say and do the same. But, the reality is that only by taking up the mission can they be disciples. Jesus is not a one-man show. Anybody who wants to watch from the sidelines will never be more than a spectator. Being part of the dynamic of the coming of the reign of heaven requires active participation.

There is a mystery to this dynamic. Jesus preached God’s unconditional love and invited everyone to receive it. The trick is that we can only receive that love by risking everything else, as he said, by losing our life to save it. Apostles will know the love of God and the coming of the kingdom only to the extent that they give themselves to it. In knowing the love of God they will be impelled to share it. When they are dismissed and persecuted, they will understand that as an experience of solidarity with God and of God with them. Like fledgling sparrows learning to fly, they will set off behind their master trusting that the Father of Jesus will care for them as he had for Jesus himself. They will not be afraid.

You are not Alone

Reflection
By Heather Neds

The Gospel we hear today is clear. The truth cannot be hidden from God; everything is revealed in his presence. When you check in with God, nothing is hidden. God knows our deepest secrets and knows our true intentions. God is ready to offer strength, support and even the words to heal our spirits. Acknowledge God and we will be delivered safely into his arms. This is what it means to be a disciple.

Early in Matthew’s account we hear Jesus say: “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” (Matthew 5:11-12a). Must we suffer hateful stares that stab like daggers? The judgmental whispers behind closed doors? Unkind words, false accusations and the like? Is this the price we pay to get to heaven?

Jesus is no stranger to people watching and waiting for him to misstep. Sitting in wait, ready to tear him down and put him to shame. During much of his public ministry, many of the Sadducees and Pharisees were plotting against him. They tried to twist his words and trap him into blasphemous speech.

The religious leaders created a plan to get rid of him. They arrested him and made up allegations of wrong doing. They ridiculed him for speaking what he believed was the truth. Then beat him until his body was broken and unrecognizable. But they didn’t get the best of Jesus, even as he stood silent, without protest. Those who plotted against Jesus believed they were saving the people from the heresy Jesus spoke. When they tore Jesus down, it inflated their egos. They felt they were right to “put him in his place.”

Though Jesus’ opponents attacked his body and mind, his spirit remained strong. They believed they had power over him. But Jesus didn’t let those who persecuted him have the last word. He knew he needed to persevere so justice could prevail. When Adam and Eve brought sin into the world, Jesus already knew he would come to earth in order to free us from sin. He knew he needed to die so the battle could be won. When he died on the cross, Jesus overcame evil once and for all.

How do you respond when you are given the cold shoulder, passed up for a promotion or even fired? Do you fight back? Throw stones? Where do you turn for help in the battle? How do you persevere? When put to the test, what do you do?

As a disciple, you need to follow Jesus’ example. He knew he was not alone — and neither are you. From the Garden of Gethsemane to his resurrection, God was there with Jesus. He was there in the words Jesus spoke to those who defended him when he was arrested. God was there comforting Jesus as the crown of thorns pierced his skull. Jesus was surrounded by angels, protecting him with each snap of the whip and each painful step he took carrying the cross. And after Jesus died, God let the darkness settle before the light was revealed in the resurrection.

Are you standing in the light? Shouting God’s praise from the rooftop? Do you acknowledge God when you are in the trenches and the whole world seems to be against you? Do you stand in truth with God be your constant help? Do your words and actions reflect your trust that God will not abandon you, that he is with you through it all? This is what it means to be a disciple.

Year A: Thirteenth Sunday Ordinary Time

Prioritizing Love

Matthew 10: 37-42

Jesus said to his apostles: “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up his cross and follow after me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. “Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me. Whoever receives a prophet because he is a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and whoever receives a righteous man because he is a righteous man will receive a righteous man’s reward. And whoever gives only a cup of cold water to one of these little ones to drink because the little one is a disciple—amen, I say to you, he will surely not lose his reward.”

Discussion Questions:

  1. When do you feel pulled between “time for God” and “time for family and other important relationships/responsibilities”? In what ways do you think Jesus would have you think of these as different? How do you think Jesus would have you think of these as the same?
  2. In what ways have you found loving another person a “dying to self “? In what ways have you found loving another person a discovery of self?
  3. Whom have you welcomed into your home or community in Christ’s name? What were the circumstances, what were the results?
  4. From the reflection: “Those who emulate Jesus know that the prophet’s reward is a transformation of self in the process of serving Christ’s little ones, which culminates in the ultimate transformation into God’s love for all eternity.” How does this truth change your understanding of God’s “reward” so often used in scripture?

Biblical Context

Margaret Nutting Ralph PHD

We continue to read Jesus’ instructions to his newly named apostles. A disciple must put his or her relationship with Jesus and the Father first; no other relationship, even one with our closest family members, can take priority over our relationship with Jesus.

On occasion people have misinterpreted Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel to mean that one can divest oneself of family responsibility in the name of discipleship. Jesus did not teach his followers to neglect their families. This very subject comes up a little later in Matthew’s Gospel. The Pharisees and scribes are accusing Jesus of breaking the “tradition of the elders” (Matt 15:2). Jesus asks them, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said. ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and ‘Whoever curses father or mother shall die.’ But you say, ‘Whoever says to father or mother. “Any support you might have had from me is dedicated to God, need not honor his father.” You have nullified the word of God for the sake of your tradition” (Matt 15:3-6).

Jesus is simply teaching that nothing can take precedence over fidelity to Jesus, not persecution, not succumbing to fear, and not family ties or family pressure. When one puts Jesus first, others will be loved too, in Jesus’ name.

Just as the disciples may not choose family over Jesus they may not choose self over Jesus. To deny oneself will involve suffering but will end, not in losing self, but in finding self: ” … and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” To find oneself one must be willing to take up the cross: “… and whoever does not take up his cross and follow after me is not worthy of me.

Jesus then goes on to describe the rewards that will belong to those who receive a person because that person is a disciple of Christ. As Matthew’s contemporaries (and we) hear Jesus’ description, they could well picture themselves as both receiving and offering such welcome. Again, Jesus expects hospitality to be extended to all, not just to those of distinction. Many might be more inclined to welcome a prophet or a righteous person who is greatly respected in the community than to welcome a poor or disenfranchised person. However, Jesus promises rewards to any who welcome the least little one simply by giving that person a cup of cold water. Such hospitality to disciples is tantamount to offering the same kindness to Jesus and even to God the Father: “Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me.”

The disciples must put Jesus first because their mission is identical to the mission that Jesus has received from the Father. In putting Jesus first the disciples will not love others, including family members, less. In fact, they will love them more.

A Prophet’s Reward

Reflection
Sr. Barbara Reid

When Jesus speaks of rewards for receiving a prophet or a righteous person, or for giving a cup of cold water to a disciple, he is not talking about what his followers get for the sacrifices they make. He is describing a kind of domino effect. Anyone who receives his disciples receives Jesus and receives the one who sent him. Both those who are sent on mission and those who receive them are drawn into the circle of divine love.

Those who receive a prophet likewise participate in the prophetic ministry and its rewards. The prophet’s reward is always twofold. Those who are being lifted up and empowered by the prophet’s denunciations of injustice cheer the prophet’s words and deeds. But those persons whose power, privilege, and status are threatened by the prophet’s articulation of God’s dream for righteousness will do all in their power to silence him or her. In some instances, as in the case of Jesus, and of the martyrs, this means that their physical life is taken. But, as Oscar Romero said the day before he died, “If they kill me, I will rise again in the Salvadoran people.” Part of the reward of the prophet is arriving at a selflessness in knowing that God’s word will be proclaimed by other prophets who will follow. Those who emulate Jesus know that the prophet’s reward is a transformation of self in the process of serving Christ’s little ones, which culminates in the ultimate transformation into God’s love for all eternity.

Sr. Barbara Reid, adapted from Abiding Word

Barbara Reid, OP, is professor of New Testament and vice president and academic dean at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. The author of numerous books, she is general editor of the new Wisdom Commentary series (Liturgical Press).

Year A: Fourteenth Sunday Ordinary Time

Matthew 11: 25-30

At that time Jesus said in reply, “I give praise to you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for although you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned you have revealed them to the childlike. Yes, Father, such has been your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son wishes to reveal him. “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.”

“The way to rest, is to yoke yourself to Jesus. This means to undertake Jesus’ disciplines and learn form him. The rest will be granted through serious discipleship.” – John Shea

Discussion Questions:

  1. Do you believe that God reveals God’s self to some and not to others? Explain.
  2. What is your understanding of “the rest” that Jesus is offering us?
  3. What opens, or gets in the way of your ability to rest in God?
  4. What aspect of life weighs you down, makes you lose heart or feel burdened?
  5. In what ways have you experienced “the yoke” of Jesus as an easing or sharing of your burdens?

Biblical Context

Sr. Mary McGone CSJ

As Matthew set up his Gospel, the selection we hear today is part of a general presentation of resistance to Jesus’ teaching. Immediately before our opening line, Jesus had reviled the cities that had seen his works but rejected his message. Then with his next breath he said, “I give praise to you, Father … you have revealed [these things] to little ones.” It seems as if his prayer of praise gives us a glimpse of Jesus’ own attitude adjustment, his discernment of how God’s ways were as surprising as rejection was distressing.

However, much Jesus would have wanted the authorities to accept him, that wasn’t happening. Instead, simple folk flocked to him. Jesus clearly believed that if he was preaching God’s word, God’s will must have been hidden in those responses. Jesus’ prayer, spoken out loud in the presence of his disciples, revealed how he saw God working – in, in spite of, or far beyond his own hopes and plans.

Thinking of Jesus’ prayer as revelatory of his relationship with God sheds light on his next statement. Scholars refer to Jesus’ declaration about the complete mutual sharing of power and knowledge between Jesus and the Father as a Johannine thunderbolt in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Nowhere else in the synoptic Gospels does Jesus make any claims like these. But, this may say something very different from John’s presentation of Jesus, something much more in tune with the lower Christology of the first three evangelists.

Jesus introduces his description of his intimacy with God saying, “Such has been your gracious will.” As he says that, he seems to be simultaneously discovering and accepting the will of God. Following that line of thought, when Jesus talks about knowing and being known by the Father, he’s not referring to a settled body of knowledge or something like a divine facial recognition program. He’s talking about the knowing that happens in relationship, the kind of knowing that is growing and ongoing.

Seen in this light, Jesus’ prayer in today’s Gospel presents an early and less painful illustration of the kind of discernment Jesus went through at Gethsemane when he asked to avoid the cup but accepted God’s will (Matthew 26:39, 42, 44). This prayer reveals Jesus as the obedient teacher. His search for God’s will as well as his acceptance of it surely taught the disciples more than any sermon he preached. Or, better said, Jesus allowed his disciples to see how his own process of prayer put flesh on every sermon he preached.

Taking into account the idea that Jesus was discovering the will of God and accepting it with joy, we can interpret the last verses of today’s Gospel in a new light as well. Jesus says: “Take my yoke … learn from me.” What is the yoke Jesus has just shown us? It is the yoke of learning from the Father, the yoke of unmet expectations countered by the discovery of grace in unexpected places.

Jesus says “I am meek and humble of heart.” In the Gospels, the word “meek” appears only here and in Matthew’s beatitudes. According to Daniel Harrington in The Gospel of Matthew, the meek are the anawim of the Hebrew Scriptures, that is the poor, the vulnerable, the marginalized, those who had no one on whom to rely other than their God. What the idea of being humble of heart adds to meekness is the element of choice. To be poor is an involuntary condition and everyone is poor in the face of God. Because the heart is the source of volition, being humble of heart indicates a choice to recognize and accept one’s innate poverty.

When Jesus invited his audience to take his yoke and learn from him, he was inviting them to learn from his prayer, from his discernment and from his rejoicing in God’s surprising will. What he implied without saying so explicitly was that to learn from him meant to learn how to discover, accept and do God’s will. Those who can give themselves to God, who can take on Jesus’ yoke and imitate his humility of heart need no longer worry about carrying out their own agenda or being a success or failure. They can rest in the assurance that God’s gracious will is being accomplished even when, or perhaps especially when, they do not see the results. That is, indeed, an easy yoke for which we need do no more than simply thank God.

Experiencing Rest

Reflection by
John Shea

I came home after a five-day road trip, giving twelve talks in three cities. As I took the elevator up to my apartment, I envisioned drink, food, television, and sleep. When the door closed behind me, I heard myself sigh. I put down my bags, took off my coat, and said aloud, “I’ll sit for a moment before I make dinner.” When you live alone, you learn to talk to yourself. It is the best conversation you can get.

I woke two hours later, stumbled into the bedroom, and sprawled on the bed. Eight hours later I took off the clothes I had slept in, showered, made some coffee, sat in a chair, and looked out the window. I had slept, but I still needed-more rest. I knew that if I sat there, which I did, I would revive sometime later in the afternoon.

We all know this scenario of exhaustion. We can work for only so long, even if we push ourselves and fight off sleep. Eventually the body needs rest, and it will have its way. We “fall” asleep. Sleeping is not so much a conscious act as coming to the end of waking consciousness. We have no choice but to be obedient to the body, to the physical rhythms of exertion and rest.

But there is also a weariness that afflicts the mind. This weariness— a labor and a burden—becomes too much for it. Although physical sleep may help the tired mind, its fatigue is not solely caused by the limited energies of the body. Some ways of thinking cut the mind off from its natural source in the soul, depriving it of spiritual energy. Ideas capture the mind, and they whip it night and day, making it work against its better instincts.

Many years ago a young woman came to see me. I had known her as a teenager. She was intelligent and vivacious and had been admitted to one of the top colleges in the country. When she walked in the door, I was shocked. She was unkempt and seemingly exhausted. She had dark semicircles under her eyes. I asked her immediately if she was sleeping enough. She avoided the question and began a long, rambling, and confusing story. I set her up with a psychologist who had her tested. With her permission he told me the results of the testing.

After he had shared the diagnosis, I asked him, “What about the obvious fatigue, the rings under her eyes?” After he had shared the diagnosis, I asked him.

He said, “Oh, as a theologian you should know the answer to that. I didn’t say anything. He continued, “God doesn’t sleep. ‘I don’t get it,” I said. ‘She has to control everything. She can’t trust enough to sleep. If she rests, everything might come tumbling down. Her body is exhausted because her mind is ever vigilant.

Responsible people know their decisions count. They carefully weigh what they do. In fact, controlling the future through planning is a large part of adult waking life. “Trusting things will come out all right” is an abdication of our duty to make things come out all right. This firm emphasis on human freedom and decision making may be true, but from a spiritual point of view it is a half-truth. Life, at the deepest level, is not only a conscious project but an unsolicited gift. If all we are aware of is the demand, it may take us over and turn us into control freaks. As the body flourishes in the rhythms of exertion and rest, so the mind also flourishes when it oscillates between exertion and rest.

Jesus suggests that the mind rests by disengaging from its wise and learned status and by embracing its child status. Its child status is to recognize its relationship to higher realities of which it is a part and on which it can rely. The mind can rest in the soul and the soul (the son or daughter) can rest in God (the Parent). Jesus knows how this happens, and he invites all those who feel labored and burdened with an excessive sense of responsibility and control to put on his easier yoke and pick up his lighter burden.

Spiritual rest is trusting in the life that has been given, realizing that ‘All that matters is to be at one with the living God / to be a creature in the house of the God of Life.” To be a creature is not only to bump into limits and be subjected to death. It also means receiving life at every instant from the Creator and, therefore, to have the “experience of being” as well as the “experience” of doing.

Spiritual Commentaries and Teachings are excerpted from The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers by John Shea © 2004 by Order of Saint Benedict. Published by Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota. Used with permission.


Year A: Fifteenth Sunday Ordinary Time

The Parable of the Sower

Matthew 13: 1-23

On that day, Jesus went out of the house and sat down by the sea. Such large crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat down, and the whole crowd stood along the shore. And he spoke to them at length in parables, saying: “A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky ground, where it had little soil. It sprang up at once because the soil was not deep, and when the sun rose it was scorched, and it withered for lack of roots. Some seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it. But some seed fell on rich soil, and produced fruit, a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold. Whoever has ears ought to hear.”

The disciples approached him and said, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” He said to them in reply, “Because knowledge of the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven has been granted to you, but to them it has not been granted. To anyone who has, more will be given and he will grow rich; from anyone who has not, even what he has will be taken away. This is why I speak to them in parables, because ‘they look but do not see and hear but do not listen or understand.” Isaiah’s prophecy is fulfilled in them, which says: ‘You shall indeed hear but not understand, you shall indeed look but never see. Gross is the heart of this people, they will hardly hear with their ears, they have closed their eyes, lest they see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their heart and be converted, and I heal them.’

“But blessed are your eyes, because they see, and your ears, because they hear. Amen, I say to you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it.

“Hear then the parable of the sower. The seed sown on the path is the one who hears the word of the kingdom without understanding it, and the evil one comes and steals away what was sown in his heart. The seed sown on rocky ground is the one who hears the word and receives it at once with joy. But he has no root and lasts only for a time. When some tribulation or persecution comes because of the word, he immediately falls away. The seed sown among thorns is the one who hears the word, but then worldly anxiety and the lure of riches choke the word and it bears no fruit. But the seed sown on rich soil is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold.”

Discussion Questions:

  1. When do you feel resistant to God’s word? What value do you think there is in examining your resistance?
  2. Describe a time when God’s word truly took root in your heart and bore fruit in your life? Tell the story
  3. When have you tried to be a witness to your faith to people who are resistant? What behaviors on your part do you think add to people’s resistance? What behaviors diminish people’s resistance?

Biblical Context

Sr. Mary McGlone CSJ

Matthew tells us that the parable discourse we are about to hear began on the same day that Jesus declared that everyone who does God’s will is mother, brother and sister to him. According to Matthew, after speaking like that to a group of “insiders,” Jesus went out of the house and sat by the sea where a great crowd gathered to hear him.

Although the parable of the sower, seed and soil is quite long, Matthew copies it almost without change from his source in Mark. (Luke condenses it a little and changes more vocabulary than Matthew.) Matthew does make one significant addition. In verses 14-16 he elaborates on the citation of Isaiah 6:9-10, explaining that knowledge of the kingdom of heaven is granted only to some. As Ben Witherington explains in The Gospel of Mark: “The parables give insight to the open-minded but come as a judgment on the obdurate…listening intently is the necessary prerequisite to understanding because no one has this knowledge already within them.”

Aside from the explanation that Jesus himself gives, this Gospel hints much more at what it takes to receive the word of God. The key to the whole story is that the good soil was receptive. We see what that means by looking to the disciples who admitted that Jesus had confused them. “Why do you speak to them in parables?” was a question that really meant “We don’t get it!” That was exactly the attitude they needed for Jesus to be able to break through to them, for the seed of his word to go deep into the interior space they opened with their questions.

Just as the planting and harvesting were ongoing activities, so too the word of God comes again and again, begging a hearing. When it comes to having ears to hear, this Gospel assures us that questions are more fruitful than answers.

You Are a Word

Reflection
Carolyn Wright

There are many ways to preach the word of God. The ordained have the privilege and responsibility to preach formally — the homily — during the communal celebration of the liturgy. But what is it to preach? To preach is to live by the Gospel mandates. To preach is to break open the word of God for and with those whom we encounter. Preaching may take place at a Scripture study or a religious education gathering. Perhaps preaching is encountered at a retreat or while sitting by someone on the back porch discussing the daily readings. Admittedly, this is a broad perspective of preaching and, at its heart, preaching is an act of evangelization.

By virtue of the teaching and formation ministry in which I am involved, I am embedded in the Dominican culture and tradition. Dominican men and women, by vocation, are preachers. Embedded in any culture or tradition for any length of time, a person begins to embody that which surrounds and enfolds him or her. Among qualities of the Dominican charism which find special resonance with me is that of sacra praedicatio — sacred preaching … a sacred word.

The tradition of the sacra praedicatio, put simply, is this: St. Dominic understood that the whole church preached the Gospel when the whole church lived the Gospel. He understood that the word spoken and lived in its fullest is the sacred preaching done by clerics and lay women and men alike. And, even now this is done by lay men and women, by religious and by the ordained.

We hear today in the first reading from the prophet Isaiah that just as rain and snow come down and do not return to the heavens until they water the earth so too the word of God comes forth from God’s mouth and does not return until it is accomplishes the will of God.

In Matthew, Jesus tells the disciples: “Blessed are your eyes, because they see, and your ears because they hear.” We have in this proclamation the acknowledgment of the Word spoken by God — Jesus himself. The Word uttered from God’s mouth lived, forgave, taught, hoped, suffered, died and rose; this Word completely — and for all time — accomplished the will of God. Do we see and hear? Are we blessed?

The word is paradoxically still accomplishing the will of God through the power of the Spirit in each of our lives. For me there is a resonance between this message and my life as sacra praedicatio. I am a word spoken into being by God. We are the words that have come forth from the mouth of God in this day and age. We are the words that will not return to God until we achieve the end for which God sent us.

What is the word of God that you need to speak by your life fully lived? Is it a word of kindness and compassion? Is it a word of redress and challenge? Is it a word of forgiveness and healing? Is it a word of guidance? Sustenance? Nurture? Liberation? Is it the word of love?

We are a word spoken by God. Who we become in this life gives voice to that word. For those who have eyes to see and those who have ears to hear … what word will they hear in their hearts because of our life well-lived in resonance with the Gospel message? How will we each be a sacra praedicatio in this world, in our workplace, in our neighborhood and in our families? How will we as words spoken by God, accomplish the will of God through the action of the Word in, with and through us so that we, too, might water a parched creation?


Year A: Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

The Parable of the Weeds Among the Wheat

Matthew 13: 24-43

Jesus proposed another parable to them. “The kingdom of heaven may be likened to a man who sowed good seed in his field. While everyone was asleep his enemy came and sowed weeds* all through the wheat, and then went off. When the crop grew and bore fruit, the weeds appeared as well. The slaves of the householder came to him and said, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where have the weeds come from?’ He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’ His slaves said to him, ‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?’ He replied, ‘No, if you pull up the weeds you might uproot the wheat along with them. Let them grow together until harvest then at harvest time I will say to the harvesters, “First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles for burning; but gather the wheat into my barn.”

He proposed another parable to them. “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that a person took and sowed in a field. It is the smallest of all the seeds, yet when full-grown it is the largest of plants. It becomes a large bush, and the ‘birds of the sky come and dwell in its branches.’ He spoke to them another parable. “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed with three measures of wheat flour until the whole batch was leavened.”

All these things Jesus spoke to the crowds in parables. He spoke to them only in parables, to fulfill what had been said through the prophet; “I will open my mouth in parables, I will announce what has lain hidden from the foundation [of the world].”

Then, dismissing the crowds, he went into the house. His disciples approached him and said, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds in the field.” He said in reply, “He who sows good seed is the Son of Man, the field is the world, the good seed the children of the kingdom. The weeds are the children of the evil one, and the enemy who sows them is the devil. The harvest is the end of the age, and the harvesters are angels. Just as weeds are collected and burned [up] with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all who cause others to sin and all evildoers. They will throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Whoever has ears ought to hear.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Where have you noticed “wheat and weeds” growing together in the Kingdom? How do you notice this in yourself and in your community?
  2. What seeds have others planted in you that have flourished in the Kingdom?
  3. In what specific ways have you been yeast for the Kingdom, in your family and community?
  4. How does the reality that you are both wheat and weeds, and can never perfect yourself on your own help deepen your relationship with God?

Biblical Context

Sr. Mary McGlone CSJ

Today’s part of the parable discourse follows directly on last week’s parable of the farmer’s 25 percent success rate in sowing seed. It appears that Jesus had great sympathy for beleaguered planters whose poor crop yields mirrored the disappointing results of his own efforts to sow God’s word.

We begin with a story in which a farmer had a wicked, wily enemy so committed to his nasty plan that he snuck into the field at night and sowed bad seed. One can imagine the aggravation of the servants when they saw what sprouted where they had worked. Woe to the weeds sullying their soil! But, the master didn’t see the situation the same way they did. The owner, aware that yanking up the weeds would endanger the newly sprouting plants, tells them to keep calm and let nature take its course.

But there seems to be more to the story than simply the protection of sprouts. Somewhere along the line, there is a question of judgment. Why were the servants so sure that the “weeds” should be eliminated? Did they have an excess of enthusiasm that led the owner to see them as a greater danger to the growing wheat than the weeds would be?

The owner might have been thinking that some crops enhance one another like corn, beans and squash, the “three sisters” of pre-Columbian America. To nonexperts, the beans growing up the corn stalk can look like parasites and the squash leaves that guard the soil’s moisture can be perceived as harmful sun blockers. This parable raises the question of what deserves to be called a weed. A way of stating the problem in contemporary language would be to ask when diversity is really lifethreatening and when it is just challenging to a particular vision of how things should be.

When Jesus went on to talk about the mustard seed, farmers would have been quick to get the joke. The mustard seed, proverbially small, did grow into a big bush, but not always one that was desired. The Mishna, a collection of Hebrew oral traditions, warned specifically against planting mustard because the bush was noxious and would take over everything around it. Jesus was not just talking about the prodigious growth of the kingdom of heaven, but also commenting that some people judged it to be more like a plague than a crop.

The image of the yeast has its own dose of humor. Jesus doesn’t tell us exactly how much yeast the woman in question has on hand, but it had to be a substantial amount because she mixed it with 30 to 50 pounds of flour — enough to make bread for a small village. Perhaps that was precisely the point Jesus was making: Some yeast plus a lot of flour and the effort of one hard-working woman make enough to nourish an entire community. The kingdom of heaven can flourish from the most natural processes because creation was designed for it.

Finally, the disciples ask Jesus for an explanation of the parable of the weeds. Again, as in the parable of the sower, he gives them a point-by-point explanation, giving the parable an apocalyptic meaning. On the most basic level the apocalyptic interpretation promises that evil will not win in the end. But, the way good will win does not necessarily reflect human judgment. The disciples are not called to police the kingdom. The Son of Man will send the angels to do the sifting when harvest time comes. The disciples need only sow seeds and mix yeast; with just that effort the kingdom promises to sprout like weeds.

We are a Wheat-Weed reality

Reflection
John Shea

The wife of a man who takes seriously the spiritual life and struggles to become spiritually mature remarked, “My husband went on a prolonged retreat and when he came back, he was loving, considerate, and compassionate. That is, until his mother came to visit.” The indication is he “lost” it. Whatever the combination of inner awareness and outer behavior is, the presence of this man’s mother was enough to seriously disturb that connection. The high of his retreat gave way to the low of old tapes that dragged him along unresolved childhood conflicts.

Of course, he is not alone.

People leave church on Sunday buoyed by the liturgy. They feel centered, and they are confident they can face the tests of the world with steady justice and compassion. The parking lot traffic is their first undoing. Leaning on the horn, they sing a hymn not in the worship book. We all move from moments of realization and centeredness into scattered and fractured behavior. We think we are in charge, able to bring love into the situations of our life. Then we get our buttons pushed. In the Gospel of John, Peter says to Jesus, “I will lay down my life for you” (John 13:37). This is the love that Jesus says is the greatest: ‘No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13). Peter can comprehend and feel that love and envision his fidelity to it.

However, Jesus does not have the same confidence in Peter that Peter has in himself: “Will you lay down your life for me? Very truly, I tell you, before the cock crows, you will have denied me three times” (John 13:38). Peter’s inflated sense of his fidelity will not weather the difficulties of the upcoming events. The man who realizes in his head that he will lay down his life for Jesus will not be able to pull it off.

But “the cock crowing” is more than the moment of betrayal. It symbolizes the advent of morning, the moment of illumination. Peter will be chastened, but he will also understand and return to the following of Jesus (see Luke 22:31-32). A part of what he will understand is that we can dream more than we can enact. We can have experiences of intense realizations when we love God and our neighbor, but we can lose those realizations and fail to let them influence our behavior.

In the symbols of the Gospel, wheat and weed grow together. In fact, they are so intertwined that they make an inseparable unit. Wheat grows on the earth when we successfully embody our deeper realizations of love. Weeds grow on the earth when we fail to embody those realizations. We are a wheat-weed reality.

Also, it takes time for a small seed to become a major tree and for leaven to raise the dough into bread. Time is the opportunity for repentance, the chance to change our minds and try again. We are repeat offenders, and so we become “repeat repenters.” This is not a situation that is remedied in this life. We may be confident that eventually the field will be all wheat and the dough will be bread and the tree will be the home of all. But that does not relieve us of the here-and-now struggle.

The struggle is the goal
the path is what we know
all the rest is heaven.

When we fail, we feel humiliated, brought back to the truth that we have not progressed as far as we thought. But these humiliations are their own forms of progress. We learn that the movement from realization to integration, from the inner feeling of love to embodying love, is a never-ending process. We must not become discouraged. There is another way to see it. In a moment of truth we can acknowledge how we have been lost, and we can make amends. Out of our errors and frailty come some of our most profound lessons. In a heartfelt conversation, in a quiet moment when we take stock—even on our deathbed— freedom awaits. The “freedom that awaits” is to simply return to the spiritual project, carrying luminous inner spaces into the darkness of the next moment in which we live.

Spiritual Commentaries and Teachings are excerpted from The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers by John Shea © 2004 by Order of Saint Benedict. Published by Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota. Used with permission.


Year A: Seventeenth Sunday Ordinary Time

More Parables

Matthew 13: 44-52

“The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure buried in a field, which a person finds and hides again, and out of joy goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant searching for fine pearls. When he finds a pearl of great price, he goes and sells all that he has and buys it. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net thrown into the sea, which collects fish of every kind. When it is full they haul it ashore and sit down to put what is good into buckets. What is bad they throw away. Thus it will be at the end of the age. The angels will go out and separate the wicked from the righteous and throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth. “Do you understand all these things?” They answered, “Yes.” And he replied, “Then every scribe who has been instructed in the kingdom of heaven is like the head of a household who brings from his storeroom both the new and the old.”

“People are expected to develop spiritually. This means greater understanding of Jesus’ teachings and greater integration of those teachings into creative ethical behavior. People are judged by their use of the gifts they’ve been given” – John Shea

Discussion Questions:

  1. When you think of this parable’s metaphor of “selling and buying”, what are some things you a have previously valued or pursued, that in light of new spiritual growth you are now letting go of? (e.g. possessions, attitudes, old beliefs and behaviors that no longer serve you or the kingdom)
  2. How do you use both the old and the new to grow in knowledge and faith? What are some examples?
  3. When in your life have you taken a chance or put yourself on the line because you discovered a glimpse of the kingdom…the “pearl of great price”? Tell the story, what was the pearl?
  4. In what ways do you see yourself embracing the spiritual journey as an ongoing process of finding, selling, buying and reinventing yourself in light of the ongoing revelation of God’s presence? Explain

Biblical Context

Matthew 13: 44-52
Margaret Nutting Ralph PHD

In today’s Gospel we read the conclusion of Jesus’ discourse on the kingdom of God, in which he teaches the crowds, and then the disciples, through parables. You may have noticed, as we have been reading Matthew’s Gospel, that Matthew the editor, has arranged his Gospel into narrative sections and then long speeches given by Jesus on a particular topic. This is our third Sunday reading about Jesus’ teachings on the kingdom of God. Scripture scholars suggest that Matthew arranged the inherited oral and written traditions for his Gospel into five main topics in order to reflect the Pentateuch, the five books of the law.

Today we read three more comparisons that Jesus uses to help his disciples understand what he means by “the kingdom of heaven” The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure buried in a field, like a merchant who finds a pearl of great price, and like a net thrown into the sea. The first two stories function as parables, so we will apply our method of parable interpretation to them. In both the story of the buried treasure and the story of the merchant who finds the precious pearl the disciples, to whom Jesus is speaking, are compared to the person who finds the treasure. In each case that person recognizes the value of his find and joyfully sells all he has in order to keep that which is most valuable. Jesus’ disciples must do the same.

The third comparison is quite different from the other two. “The kingdom is like a net thrown into the sea, which collects fish of every kind.” At first glance this parable seems to be addressing the fact that the coming of the kingdom is gradual, so that evil is not immediately abolished: the net catches fish of every kind, both good and bad. Later the good will be saved and the bad discarded. The parable is teaching the disciples to be patient with me process. Good will prevail in the end.

However, an allegorical interpretation of the parable also appears in the Gospel and is attributed to Jesus. As was true with the allegorical interpretation of the parable of the weeds and wheat, the subject changes from patience with the process of the coming of the kingdom to judgment. Apocalyptic imagery is used to teach that we are each accountable for our actions. The end for those who do good and those who do evil is not same. Jesus asks his disciples if they have understood all these things, and they say, “Yes.” This scene is typical of Matthew’s Gospel. Mark, on the other hand, emphasizes the disciples’ inability to under- stand. Jesus then tells the disciples that “every scribe who has been instructed in the kingdom of heaven is like the head of a household who brings from his storeroom both the new and the old.” Here Matthew describes what he himself has done in writing his Gospel. Over and over we have seen Matthew demonstrate that Jesus has fulfilled the words of the prophets by quoting Old Testament passages. For the last three Sundays we have seen Matthew attribute to Jesus allegorical sermons that grew up in the early church. Matthew uses both the old (the Old Testament) and the new (church sermons) to interpret and teach the significance of Jesus’ ministry to his Jewish contemporaries.

In doing this Matthew is fulfilling the role of a “scribe who has been instructed in the kingdom of heaven.” After the age of prophecy ended (soon after the Babylonian exile) the scribes took over the function of prophets. The Jews believed that God was in charge of history and that God’s hidden purposes would be revealed. Both in order to interpret events and to apply the law to new settings, the scribes scoured the law and the prophets to find words that, although reinterpreted, could help them explain God’s will and God’s ways to God’s people. The word was understood to be a living word that always remained pertinent. Matthew, the scribe, is himself taking from his storehouse both the old and the new to help his fellow Jews understand Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom.

Riddles, Questions, and the Long Reach

Reflection
Kathy Coffey

What is the pearl of great price, the treasure in the field, the fish worth keeping? We all know the right answer: God. To get at the real answer, we might ask ourselves, “What’s most important? What do I want so badly it aches?”

The parent might respond with the name of a child, the lover thinks of the beloved, the artist or craftsperson of the next project, the businessperson of a promotion, the naturalist of stream and meadow.

Here’s the catch: what if the right answer and the real answer are one and the same? Isn’t God big enough to encompass it all? If our loves and longings spring from the deepest, best self, then they are part and parcel of the God-spark, Christ within.

The God-planted joy in it all gives permanence. So, if the beloved dies, the children eventually leave home, the career derails, the meadow becomes a parking lot, or the project ends, something vital remains. Through the enduring happiness, memory, or sense of completion, God leaves a lasting mark.

Jesus’ genius is communicating these subtle, hard-to-define truths in symbols, not laws or abstractions. The symbol is elastic enough to hold polarities and concrete enough for the youngest to grasp, at least a bit. It sounds like a riddle: what do pearls, fields, and fish have in common? They all get us thinking, questioning, reaching for God whose hidden presence hovers tantalizingly close. Without God, we have nothing. Having God, we have everything. Maybe we’re never without.

Kathy Coffey

Kathy Coffey is an award-winning writer, mother of four, and speaker who gives workshops and retreats nationally and internationally. Her most recent book is “When the Saints Came Marching”

Selections from Breaking Open the Lectionary: Lectionary Readings in Their Biblical Context for RCIA, Faith Sharing Groups, and Lectors—Cycle A, by Margaret Nutting Ralph, Copyright © 2007 by Margaret Nutting Ralph. Paulist Press, Inc., New York/Mahwah, NJ. Reprinted by permission of Paulist Press, Inc. www.paulistpress.com.

Year A: Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

They all ate and were satisfied.

Matthew 14: 13-21

When Jesus heard of it, he withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself. The crowds heard of this and followed him on foot from their towns. When he disembarked and saw the vast crowd, his heart was moved with pity for them, and he cured their sick. When it was evening, the disciples approached him and said, “This is a deserted place and it is already late; dismiss the crowds so that they can go to the villages and buy food for themselves.” [Jesus] said to them, “There is no need for them to go away; give them some food yourselves.” But they said to him, “Five loaves and two fish are all we have here.” Then he said, “Bring them here to me,” and he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, and looking up to heaven, he said the blessing, broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, who in turn gave them to the crowds. They all ate and were satisfied, and they picked up the fragments left over, twelve wicker baskets full. Those who ate were about five thousand men, not counting women and children.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What do you think about Jesus empowering the disciples in this reading? Do you relate to this in your own experience of “bringing Jesus what you have to give” and trusting in the Spirit for rest?
  2. Who are the hungry in your community? For what do they hunger? Is Jesus asking you to “feed them yourselves”?
  3. Have you ever felt that Jesus asked you to do something, but you were unable to do it? What were the circumstances? What was the outcome?
  4. During these COVID times and our more limited access to the physical eucharist, how are you receiving the spiritual nourishment you need to respond to the needs of others? Explain

Biblical Context

Matthew 14: 13-21
Margaret Nutting Ralph

Between last Sunday’s Gospel and this Sunday’s Gospel two things have occurred: Jesus has returned to his hometown in Nazareth only to be rejected (see Matt 13:54- 58), and Herod has killed John the Baptist. Matthew is keeping his readers informed of the growing antagonism against Jesus as a way of foreshadowing Jesus’ coming crucifixion.

On hearing that John the Baptist has been killed Jesus goes out by himself in a boat to have some time alone. He needs it. However, the crowd needs Jesus. They follow Jesus so that when he returns to shore, they are waiting for him. Instead of putting his own needs first and heading back out in the boat Jesus responds to the crowd’s needs: His “heart was moved with pity for them, and he cured their sick.”

In contrast to Jesus, when the disciples see the crowd in need they feel helpless. Instead of trying to respond to the crowd’s needs the disciples suggest to Jesus that the people be sent away: “This, is a deserted place and it is already late; dismiss the crowds so that they can go to the villages and buy food for themselves.” Jesus does not want to send the crowd away. He tells the disciples to feed them: “…give them some food yourselves.” The disciples claim that this is impossible: “Five loaves and two fish are all we have here.”

The story that, follows is often called “the multiplication of the loaves.” This title centers our attention on a miracle. However, when Gospel authors want to center our attention on a miracle, which they often do, they use the form called miracle story. In a miracle story the author describes the problem that needs to be solved, gives a description of Jesus acting to solve the problem, and ends by telling us how those who witness Jesus’ act of power respond with awe. The story we read today lacks the form of a miracle story. The text describes Jesus’ actions, but it refrains from stating that Jesus multiplied the loaves. In addition, there is no description of a reaction from the crowd or from the apostles that draws our attention to an act of power by Jesus. Since this story does not have the form of a miracle story, we are invited to look for some other lesson that Matthew is teaching us by the way he tells the story.

Jesus has told the disciples to feed the crowd themselves, but they feel powerless to do it. Jesus takes the little food the disciples have, five loaves and two fishes, “… and looking up to heaven, he said the blessing, broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, who in turn gave them to the crowds.” Here Matthew is describing Jesus doing and saying just what he will do and say at the last supper: “While they were eating, Jesus took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and giving it to his disciples said, ‘Take and eat; this is my body ” (Matt 2.6:26)* that this bread, blessed and broken, is Christ’s own body and is spiritual nourishment for Jesus’ followers. Eating this bread gives Jesus’ disciples the nourishment, the strength they need to carry out their mission. That is why Matthew pictures Jesus giving the bread to the disciples to distribute rather than distributing it himself. Jesus had told the disciples to feed the crowd themselves. Now Jesus is making it possible for them to follow his instructions.

After all have eaten there are twelve full baskets left: over. Twelve is a symbolic number. It reminds us of the twelve tribes and the twelve Apostles, and represents the whole church. Matthew is not just telling us a story in which Jesus makes it possible for his disciples to feed the hungry. Matthew is teaching his contemporaries and us that through Christ’s eucharistic presence we receive the spiritual nourishment we need to respond to the needs of others. We, too, can and should feed the hungry.

Maximizing Assets

Spiritual Commentary
John Shea

As the faculty of an educational institution, we were working in accord with standard organizational wisdom. Through surveys and interviews, we had done a needs analysis of a prospective student population. We figured out what they wanted.

Then we designed a program to meet those needs. It was an impressive projection, meeting the requirements of accrediting agencies and embodying sound pedagogical principles.

Then a few of the designers paused and puzzled, “Who is going to run this program?” We had created a program that was needed, but we did not have the personnel to pull it off. We looked around the table at ourselves. That was all we had, and it was not enough.

Someone suggested we hire new faculty. We should “go and buy” some good people. But that would require money we didn’t have. The program, as they say, never came to fruition.

As I look back at that experience, I see that we began with needs and then discovered that we could not meet them. In fact, the more we explored the needs and what type of programming was required, the more helpless we began to feel.

This way of thinking that leads to inaction is analogous to how the disciples construe the situation in this Gospel episode. Beginning with need is beginning with what we lack. People have needs that cannot be met in the present situation with the present resources. So, they have to “go and buy” what they need from some outside resource before it is too late. When we work this way, we are conscious of what we do not have and what other people do have. In the Gospel story, the disciples think the crowds do not have food and the markets in the village do have food. The strategy is to get the crowds to the markets—before they close.

Jesus, the teacher of the kingdom of heaven, redirects the attention of the disciples to what they have. He tells them the crowds do not have to go away. They should feed the people. However, in their minds they do not have enough. They are locked into the enormity of need and paucity of resource. They have “five loaves and two fish.” But they characterize it as, “We have nothing here but . . . ” meaning it is not enough.

But for Jesus a crucial shift has gone on. They have moved from the preoccupation with lack to the awareness of assets. They now know what they have. They are no longer looking outside themselves for an answer. They have turned their gaze within. This is the first step in learning about spiritual resources. Going and buying may work in the physical world, but what works in the spiritual world is standing still and becoming aware. Knowing what you have is the first step of spiritual transformation.

Jesus asks that they bring him what they have. Then he performs the second step in the process of spiritual transformation. He gives thanks for what they have. This is an enormous step. They move from seeing it as too little and cursing it to seeing it as a gift and becoming grateful. The third step is to give away the gift to people (the disciples) who in turn give it away to others.

No one takes and holds; everyone receives and gives. The result is participation in divine abundance, an experience that is completely satisfying for it is the fulfillment of the created potential of people. This is a process of wholeness and completion, an experience that begins with the sacredness of seven and ends with the sacredness of twelve. This process will bring to satisfaction as many individual people as are present.

What is this story trying to tell us?

The way to proceed is to be leery of the mind’s tendency to focus on lack and to continuously think going and buying from others is the solution. We should know what we have, give thanks for it as God’s gift, and give it to others who in turn will give it to others. This process of self-knowledge, gratitude, and communal love produces not only satisfaction but abundance. But does it?

I don’t know.

The bean counter in me wants a physical miracle and not a spiritual lesson. I want God in Jesus to make abundant food whenever people are hungry. But there are problems with physically multiplying loaves and fishes. A man once told me he was no longer a Christian because if Jesus could produce food for hungry people and only did it once, he did not want anything to do with him. He should have done it many times and left the recipe for his followers.

But I wonder: when people of faith find themselves in the desert, as many today do, how should they proceed? I wonder what would have happened at the educational planning meeting if we had looked around the table and asked what we had rather than what we did not have. I wonder what would have happened if we became grateful to God for having what our practical minds construed as too little. And I wonder what would have happened if we ceased to look at prospective students as consumers of educational goods but as the first receivers of what they would learn to give away. I wonder what would have happened if we had let the spiritual “in” on our physical and social plans.

Year A: Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

The Walking on the Water

Matthew 14: 22-33

After he had fed the people, Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and precede him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. After doing so, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When it was evening, he was there alone. Meanwhile the boat, already a few miles offshore, was being tossed about by the waves, for the wind was against it. During the fourth watch of the night, he came toward them, walking on the sea. When the disciples saw him walking on the sea they were terrified. “It is a ghost,” they said, and they cried out in fear. At once Jesus spoke to them, “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.” Peter said to him in reply, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” Peter got out of the boat and began to walk on the water toward Jesus. But when he saw how [strong] the wind was he became frightened; and, beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Immediately Jesus stretched out his hand and caught him, and said to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” After they got into the boat, the wind died down. Those who were in the boat did him homage, saying, “Truly, you are the Son of God.”

Discussion Questions:

  1. One would think that our cumulative experiences of God’s presence in our lives would finally cast out fear. Where do you experience moments of doubt or fear even though you’ve known God’s presence before? Explain
  2. Can you think of a time when your faith in Jesus enabled you to do something you would otherwise have been afraid to do? Tell the story.
  3. In your experience, where is God’s presence most visible to you? (Outside of the Mass)
  4. How are you doing with recognizing and accepting explicit and subtle invitations to step out of your comfort zone in faith? Can you share an example?

Biblical Context

Matthew 14: 22-33
Sr. Mary McGlone CSJ

Doesn’t it seem a little harsh that Jesus would call Peter out as “you of little faith” when the other disciples did nothing more than hang on for dear life in their stormbattered boat? The interchange between Jesus and Peter is unique to Matthew and offers a meditation on Peter’s discipleship.

When Jesus first called Peter and his brother, he told them to follow him to become fishers of men. Now in this incident, there’s a carefully recorded dialogue. At the sound of inchoate cries from frightened fishermen, Jesus calls out, “Take courage! It is I, do not be afraid!” “Take courage” is the same thing Jesus said to the paralytic when he told him his sins were forgiven and to the woman who touched his cloak for healing (Matthew 9:2; 9-22). It really means “Rejoice.”

Why rejoice? Because Jesus says “It is I.” No student of Scripture can fail to recognize that phrase as an echo of the many “I am” statements we hear in John. (The Greek wording is exactly the same.) On one hand, Jesus is assuring them that he’s not a phantom. On another level, he is telling them that he, the Jesus they just left on shore, is the one who is there.

At an even deeper level, coming close to calling himself by the proper name of God, he declares that he is there for them.

Those layers of meaning give context to Peter’s reply, “If it is you, command me to come.” It doesn’t seem probable that Peter is saying “Prove this is no fantasy.” For that, he could have simply said, “Pinch me.” No, Peter was entering into a realm more mysterious than ghostly appearances. The simplest and most challenging interpretation is that Peter was saying, “Let me come to you and be like you.” If so, that was a moment of blinding faith. Peter understood momentarily, that discipleship means walking like the Master, no matter how impossible it seems.

What sank Peter was his doubt, although the translation “wavering” probably offers a more appropriate explanation. A rather visual definition of the Greek word for doubt, distazo, says that it means to stand in two ways. Peter got caught between noticing the strength of the wind and the power of Jesus’ invitation. The wind and waves took their toll, but only until he called out for help.

A wonderful thing about this incident is that it’s not a success story. It’s a salvation narrative. This story speaks of the courage necessary for discipleship. It’s okay to be frightened in a storm. It’s downright heroic to risk stepping out of the boat and into the raging waters. Most of all, when self-confidence has dangerously overstepped its limits, the ability to call for and receive help is the real sign of faith.

The soggy Peter who got back in the boat was both humbled and empowered. He had learned, not for the last time, the truth that God’s power is made perfect in weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9-10).

If we use today’s readings as a guide to discernment about our times, we may decide to choose Peter as our patron of audacious attempts. Today’s tempests include the lack or loss of faith in our families and society as well as the intolerable violence and injustice that plague our world. We can hide from them or heed the voice that whispers or shouts, “Take courage! Rejoice!” Elijah allowed himself to be drawn from hiding in the cave, and Peter leapt into the depths that only Jesus could help him navigate.

The world needs witnesses willing to risk trying to walk like the Master, people whose way of living entices others to faith, people who continue in the struggle to proclaim the validity of Gospel values in spite of countervailing winds. We surely won’t triumph with every attempt, but this is about salvation, not success.

The Light that Rocks the Boat

Reflection
By Doug Langner

Have you ever been to the movies during the day when, for hours, there is darkness all around you. Yet, once the movie is over and you’ve finally adjusted to the dark and the light emanating from the screen, you walk out of the theater only to be assaulted by blinding daylight. It is utterly confusing, your eyes hurt, you may want to close them or even return to the dark theater.

Today’s readings remind us that these mysteries are not meant solely to be enjoyed in the dark. Instead, the meaning behind those actions are to be brought out of the darkness and into the light so we might live more fully in the world around us.

The story of Elijah tells of the prophet’s struggle with strong winds and crushing rocks, all while trying to discern God’s still small voice. These challenging forces of nature serve as powerful metaphors for the confusion that happens in life. To really hear the voice of God, as did Elijah, one must be attuned to God and engage deeply with the suffering of others, especially the most vulnerable.

Today’s Gospel reveals a timid Peter inside a boat needing to be rescued by Jesus. In those times when we are unsure and most fragile, we all reflect a bit of Peter, reluctant to step out in the water of uncertainty, afraid to place full trust in God. Those are times when it is more comfortable to live our lives in the darkness, perhaps even within the confines of our churches. Many times, we are called to step out of our own comfort zone. In doing so, we are often led to unexpected moments of conversion.

The image of the boat which carried Peter brings to mind a modern-day gesture. With the wave of refugees coming in droves to Germany, Cardinal Rainer Woelki decided that he had to visit the beaches where people were risking their lives, encountering unpredictable seas — all with the hope they would find calmer shores and safer homes. On one of those beaches, he found a seven-meter long boat that had been used by some refugees. Deciding to bring it to the cathedral in Cologne, he celebrated the Eucharist on the front steps of that church using this boat as the altar. Though his intent was likely to offer a visual connection to the suffering refugees and the Jubilee Year of Mercy, certain segments of the political and religious world came down hard on his liturgical gesture. He was criticized for daring to bring a political issue literally into the church.

Often the walls of our churches are used as a barrier to shield ourselves from the very real atrocities around us. At other times, that shield disengages us from seeing or responding to the human dignity denied to many in our world. Consider the most foundational of faith issues, ones basic to the tenants of Christianity, such as welcoming the stranger or speaking out for those who have been marginalized. How can one reveal true discipleship when the temptation is often to stay in the dark or avoid the unknown waters of conflict?

The readings today are meant to shake us up, to generate a level of discomfort. We are always being drawn into uncharted territories, places where the still small voice can only be heard if we quiet and align our hearts to God. Like Jesus, we are all meant to work for the empowerment of the marginalized. As ministers to and with others, will we choose darkness or will we revel in the light that heals, transforms and casts out all fear?


Year A: Twentieth Sunday Ordinary Time

The Canaanite Woman’s Faith.

Matthew 15: 21-28

Then Jesus went from that place and withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. And behold, a Canaanite woman of that district came and called out, “Have pity on me, Lord, Son of David! My daughter is tormented by a demon.” But he did not say a word in answer to her. His disciples came and asked him, “Send her away, for she keeps calling out after us.” He said in reply, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But the woman came and did him homage, saying, “Lord, help me.” He said in reply, “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters.” Then Jesus said to her in reply, “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed from that hour.

Discussion Questions:

  1. When have you had an experience that caused you to revise what you believed God was asking of you? Explain what happened.
  2. “Great faith is the persistent creativity to bring about the good” What is it that helps or inhibits you in having “great faith”? Is your faith creative?
  3. What do you see Jesus teaching us about discipleship in this reading?
  4. Do you feel any, responsibility to welcome immigrants, outsiders or newcomers to your community? Explain.

Biblical Context

Matthew 15: 21-28
Margaret Nutting Ralph PHD

Our Lectionary readings now move forward to the middle of chapter 15. Once again, we have skipped over Jesus’ ongoing controversies with the Pharisees. After being criticized by the Pharisees because his disciples do not wash their hands before eating? Jesus teaches the crowd that it is what comes out of a person that defiles that person: “evil thoughts, murder, adultery, unchastity, theft, false witness blasphemy. These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile” (Matt 15:19). On hearing that the Pharisees have taken offense at his teaching, Jesus calls them “blind guides” (Matt 15:14a) and tells his disciples to leave them alone.

Now Jesus moves on to the region of Tyre and Sidon. A Canaanite woman, that is, a woman who is not Jewish, asks Jesus to heal her daughter. Matthew tells us that “Jesus did not say a word in answer to her.” The woman has presented Jesus with a dilemma. As we already know, Jesus has instructed his disciples not to “go into pagan territory or enter a Samaritan town. Go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt lQ:5b-6). If Jesus responds to this woman, he will be acting contrary to his own instructions.

The disciples, perhaps because of Jesus’ previous instructions, feel no responsibility to help the woman. They tell Jesus, “Send her away for she keeps calling out after us.” The disciples are acting just as they did when the crowd was hungry. They wanted to send the crowd away too. On that occasion Jesus told the disciples to feed the crowd, not to send them a way. Now Jesus seems to be torn between his two instructions.

Rather than sending the woman away Jesus is honest about his dilemma. Jesus says, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Jesus is repeating his understanding of his own mission, the mission that he shared with his disciples. But the woman persists. She does him homage, calls him “Lord,” and humbly asks for help- Jesus obviously does not want to reject the woman because he continues to engage her in conversation. Nor does he want to act contrary to his own idea of his mission. Using an expression of the time, Jesus explains to the woman that it would not be right to give to her what belongs to others: “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.

Something about Jesus’ tone must have invited the woman to persevere. She responds, “Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters.” This quick rejoinder rings true to Jesus. Many of the house of Israel do not have faith, in him. Yet here is a foreigner who does have faith in Jesus and who asks for a healing, not for herself, but for her daughter. Jesus grants the woman her request: “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.”

It seems that Jesus found the woman’s need and faith so strong that his encounter with her caused him to broaden his own idea of what he was called to do. This story foreshadows the commissioning of Jesus’ disciples to make disciples of all nations (Matt 28:19). It also emphasizes that the primary component in any healing is faith. We do not know that the daughter is even present, but her mother’s faith is so strong that “the woman’s daughter was healed from that hour.”

Doing What it Takes

Reflection
John Shea

I once did a workshop on theological reflection at Mill Hill outside London. At one point the group decided to work with this story from St. Matthew. The discussion was wide ranging. People shared many ideas about how to interpret this story and how to apply it to contemporary situations, especially to issues about women in the Church.

There was a quiet, older woman who did not participate very much. But she was very attentive and seemed avidly interested. Finally, after everyone else had their say, she quietly contributed, “It’s her daughter. She wants her daughter better, and she’ll do what it takes.”

It rang true.

The character of the Canaanite woman changes throughout the story. She is noisy and assertive, then pleading and compliant, then clever and confrontative. Her consistency does not lie in her attitudes and behaviors. She is unified by her mission. She has a demon-afflicted child, and if this Jewish Messiah can help, he is going to. Little things—such as ethnic diversity and hatred—will not stand in the way.

Jesus characterizes this woman as having great faith. We often think of faith as belief in God. “Great” faith is often construed as believing in God even in situations of suffering. In suffering situations there is the temptation to feel we have been abandoned by God. Great faith asserts God is present even when obvious signs of that presence are missing. Holy people always acknowledge and pray to God.

However, this is not the great faith of the Canaanite woman. Her faith is that she is a tiger. There is a situation that needs healing, and she is the single-minded servant of that possibility. If she has to twist the arm of a Jewish Messiah and remind him that although there may be many ethnic groups and religions there is only one God, then so be it.

I once saw a contemporary mother tell her son about her commitment to ridding him of the particular demon that had taken up residence in his attitudes. “I want you to know I am never going to stop. You think you can sulk and avoid me, and I will go away. I am never going away. I want you to know that. And you can never run far enough to get away from me. This stuff is going to change.” If you heard her voice, the tone and timbre, you would know that you had encountered an absolute, an unshakeable presence in a world of swaying reeds.

However, faith is not only a relentless commitment to the betterment of people and situations. It is also the creative ability to find a way to that betterment. The thing about creativity is that it does not have a preset agenda. It has an ultimate mission, but it does not have a canonized strategy. Creativity does not know what it is up against. It does know that there will be resistance, but it does not know the exact nature of that resistance. So, it is ready, alert, poised, marshaled for whatever it takes. Does it take argument? Then there will be argument. Does it take obeisance? Then there will be obeisance. Does it take confrontation? Then there will be confrontation. Of course, there are limits. The end does not justify the means. But the point is: the full range of human creativity is exercised in pursuit of healing.

When we understand great faith as the persistent creativity to bring about the good, the ranks of the saints swell with a different crowd of people. There is a research doctor with his eyeball glued to the microscope, a community organizer in the back of the hall urging voices not used to talking, a teacher finding a way into a closed mind, a banker figuring out how to get a loan to a woman on the edge of qualification, a salesperson dedicated to the customer, etc. In fact, great faith belongs to all of us when we remind each other of the deeper truth of who weare, and compassion flows from us into situations where it is deeply needed.

Selections from Breaking Open the Lectionary: Lectionary Readings in Their Biblical Context for RCIA, Faith Sharing Groups, and Lectors—Cycle A, by Margaret Nutting Ralph, Copyright © 2007 by Margaret Nutting Ralph. Paulist Press, Inc., New York/Mahwah, NJ. Reprinted by permission of Paulist Press, Inc. www.paulistpress.com.

Spiritual Commentaries and Teachings are excerpted from The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers by John Shea © 2004 by Order of Saint Benedict. Published by Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota. Used with permission.


Year A: Twenty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time

You are Peter, and to you I will give the keys of the kingdom of heaven

Matthew 16: 13-30

Jesus went into the region of Caesarea Philippi and he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter said in reply, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus said to him in reply, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father. And so, I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Then he strictly ordered his disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ.

Discussion Questions: 

  1. How would you personally answer Jesus if he asked you, “Who do you say that I am?” We all know the theological answer, but are you making new spiritual connections to the reality of who Jesus is for you? How does this happen for you? Explain
  2. What authority does church teaching have in your life? Why does church teaching have this authority?
  3. What authority do you have in other people’s lives? Do you use this authority as a way of letting others experience God’s love for them? Explain
  4. Do you see yourself and your life as a “rock” that Jesus can build his church on? In what ways do we (you) hold keys to the kingdom?

Biblical Context

Matthew 16: 13-30
Sr. Mary McGlone CSJ

Matthew picks up this account from Mark and embellishes it, whereas Luke, actually condenses the original. Although Luke drops the detail that it all happened in Caesarea Philippi, that seemed important to Matthew and Mark. They probably emphasized the location because it was known as the area of a temple to the shepherd-god Pan, and its name connected it with imperial power. Caesarea Philippi had a long history of development and had been named for successive emperors and kings. Even before there is any conversation, the setting itself hints at questions of rulers and kingdoms. There seems to be no other reason for mentioning the geography.

As the scene opens, Jesus takes the initiative and asks a loaded question: “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” Instead of simply saying “What do people think of me?” he used the cryptic designation “Son of Man.” That was the only title he tended to use for himself and he used it with three distinct shades of meaning: as a reference to himself, as the present Son of Man who ate and drank with others and could assume the authority to act as Lord of the Sabbath; as his self-designation as the one who would be betrayed and handed over; and as an apocalyptic reference to the Son of man known from the Hebrew Scriptures who would be revealed in glory. The term thus describes Jesus’ self-concept as the man who shared life with others, who would suffer immensely, and to whom God promised a glorious future. In a sense, asking the question by using “Son of Man” vocabulary gave the disciples a mysterious hint about what he thought of himself even as he asked to hear other perspectives.

It sounds as if all the disciples who were present got in on round one of the answer session. “Some say John the Baptist.” That had already been published as Herod’s frightened or superstitious explanation of Jesus’ mighty works and popularity (Matthew 14:2). Following that reference, the disciples went a bit further afield and mentioned that some people identified Jesus with their favorite prophets from of old. Surprisingly, they all seem to just take it in stride and make no comment about the fact that each attempt to describe Jesus identified him with someone who had already died. Could they not imagine that God might send a fresh prophet into their moment of history?

Having heard what the religious rumor mill was turning out, Jesus turned the spotlight on his friends. Peter took the role of spokesman and proclaimed, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

What we can assume is that even if Peter might not have had the most orthodox theological or dogmatic propositions in mind, his words connoted a commitment. Speaking for the group, he declared that they believed God was speaking through Jesus in quite an extraordinary way. In fact, they were betting their lives on it. For them, Jesus was the Christ, God’s anointed, the one who was speaking God’s will and word in that moment.

To the title “Christ,” Peter added “the Son of the living God.” That reiterated what the disciples had said on the boat after Jesus came to them and calmed the storm. Then, they said it gratefully in relation to his mastery of the forces of nature. Now, in a moment of tranquility when they were invited to make a deeper assessment of what they believed, they assented to Peter’s proclamation.

Just as Peter spoke for the group, Jesus’ reply to him was directed to them all. Jesus pointed out that what they believed about him was not the result of their intelligence or any incontrovertible evidence; it was the fruit of grace. That grace was what made Jesus confident that Peter and the group could be the living stones from which to construct a community that would become his church.

Getting it Right

Reflection
John Shea

With regard to the spiritual dimension of life, getting it right is not an ego accomplishment of which we can be proud. Nor does it mean “mission accomplished” and we can now move on to other things. Rather it means we have momentarily allowed the Spirit to have influence. But this is a beginning, not an ending. Getting it right initiates a process.

Peter’s confession that “gets it right” does not solve the riddle of Jesus’ identity. It opens him to the essential mystery that unites Jesus and himself, an essential mystery that now beckons him further. Therefore, another phrase for “getting it right” might be “in over your head. Or, put in another more enigmatic way, “getting it right” lays a firm foundation for a life of “getting it wrong.

The disciples in the Gospels are eloquent testimony to the rhythms of getting it right and getting it wrong. Jesus compliments them and criticizes them in equal measure. In this story he names Peter the rock upon which he will build his Church. In the next episode Peter will be called Satan and told to get back into Jesus’ following (Matt 16:21-23). ‘Getting it right,” having a spiritual insight, begins a process that requires ongoing correction and adjustment. We know the bedrock truth of what we have perceived, but we do not know the full scope of what we have said or all of its implications.

Spiritual teachers often make a distinction between realization and integration. Realization is “getting it right.” We grasp, for a moment, the necessity of Jesus’ death on the cross or the meaning of grace or our grounding in eternal life. A man who had a powerful religious experience exclaimed, “So that’s what it is!” When he was asked, “What?” he said, “God, that’s what God is!” He had always heard about God, but he had no idea what the word referred to. This religious experience filled the word with meaning. He realized the truth of a theological concept he had inherited.

He got it. But what will he do with it? How will he integrate the God realization into his life?

Strange to say, the sage advice is to ponder and not to rush. Jesus does not want Peter and the disciples talking to others about the Messiah because they will get it wrong. They do not know the full reach of their initial insight. They have inherited ideas about the Messiah and the Son of God. What they see in Jesus challenges those ideas. But it will take time before they are completely rejected or modified. They need to understand more fully before they act.

I think this is true for most of us. Spiritual insight seldom comes with a clear path of action attached. We need to ponder, to take more inner time to comprehend and see implications. Any rush to action might be premature. As a friend of mine is fond of saying, a year of bold action is usually followed by a year of apology. In spiritual teaching, action is ripe fruit that falls from the tree. We have to wait for the harvest. When we fully realize our initial spiritual insight, we will see paths of integration. When the appropriate actions flow, “getting it right” turns into “getting it complete.” The problem is we cannot envision the action ahead of time. We can give broad categories like compassion, love, justice, mercy, etc. But this does not disclose the concrete way these values will be enacted. But, if my experience is any indicator, when it happens, it will come as a surprise. Denise Levertov, the poet once described the fig tree that Jesus cursed (Matt 21:18-22) as telling the disciples that they were withholding “gifts unimaginable.” We know we are in the full reaches of “getting it right” when gifts unimaginable are flowing from us.

Spiritual Commentaries and Teachings are excerpted from The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers by John Shea © 2004 by Order of Saint Benedict. Published by Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota. Used with permission.


Year A: Twenty-Second Sunday Ordinary Time

Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself

Matthew 16: 21-27

Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly from the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed and on the third day be raised. Then Peter took Jesus aside and began to rebuke him, “God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you.” He turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.”

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? Or what can one give in exchange for his life? For the Son of Man will come with his angels in his Father’s glory, and then he will repay all according to his conduct.”

Discussion Questions:

  1. Do you consider how and when your “human ways” of thinking are not in line with God’s? How is it possible for us to be more in touch with an alternate way of thinking, more in touch with the divine?
  2. Is suffering in your life something you grudgingly endure or actually lean into, as a path toward transformation and resurrection? How do you take up your cross to follow Jesus? Explain
  3. Jesus tries to help us understand that following him, looks like loss but is really gain. When have you experienced a loss that led to discovering yourself in a deeper relationship with God?
  4. Have you ever personally or professionally stood against unjust power in support of Gospel values, ethically following Jesus? If so, what happened?

Biblical Context

Matthew 16: 21-27
Sr. Mary McGlone CSJ

Though we don’t hear the first four words as a part of the Gospel passage this Sunday, Matthew 16:21 begins “From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem” (emphasis added). Those first four words were important to Matthew because they signaled a turning point in his Gospel. Things were getting more intense, and Jesus was going to concentrate his teaching ministry on those closest to him, trying to lead them to understand him more profoundly, and thus, strengthen their faith in God. Today’s Gospel presents the first of Jesus’ three specific predictions about the suffering and death he was to undergo. While those three differ in the details, they all end with the promise that he will be raised “on the third day.”

Between the time in the desert when the tempter offered Jesus three ways to betray his vocation and this announcement of the passion, we have a few hints about how Jesus grew in understanding what his faithfulness would cost him. Earlier, he had warned his disciples that they would be persecuted (Matthew 10). He encouraged them to become as simple as doves and shrewd as serpents. Most of all, he taught them that the powers of evil might be able to kill the body, but that they have no power over the soul. In the language of the day that meant that the powers of this world can injure and even destroy the body (soma), the physical, ever-changing, perishable dimension of the human person. But the psyche or “soul,” the real self where conscience, decision and relationships reside, is beyond the power of evil.

Jesus told his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem, to the confrontation between the kingdom of his Father and kingdoms of this world. To avoid that confrontation would have amounted to a passive approval of the rule of the religious and civil authorities who were so threatened by him that they were determined to eliminate him. Refusal to face them down would have affirmed the superiority of their power. Jesus had to face them to be true to himself. He had to risk his body to save his soul.

Peter’s response to Jesus’ plan seemed to make very good sense: “God forbid!” Peter was operating on the level of safety rather than salvation. Unwittingly, he echoed the desert tempter whose every suggestion attempted to sway Jesus from being true to his vocation. Jesus replied with the harsh retort: “Get behind me!” Peter the “rock” was putting himself in Jesus’ path as a stumbling block, and Jesus will not fall for it.

There’s no collegiality here, no room for debate. Jesus has discerned the necessary path, and his disciples can only choose whether or not to follow him as he carries it through. Will they get behind him? Are they committed to follow him? If so, they will have to do it in his style, leaving behind their visions of a mythic messiah who would overpower the world on its own terms. If they were planning on a victory that reflected the values of their society, Jesus was offering something entirely different, something far more costly and far more rewarding.

The incident we witness here between Jesus and his disciples gives plot, characters and script to what John’s Gospel says so succinctly with the proclamation: “I am the way and the truth and the life” (John 14:6). The first issue in Matthew’s scene is truth, most specifically, Jesus being true to himself, to his Father and his vocation. Jesus presents and represents truth and all its depth in stark contrast to the mendacity and superficiality of his adversaries. Jesus invites his disciples to follow him in the way of truth which means to be willing to risk their own lives rather than lose their reason for living.

This is a turning point in Matthew’s Gospel. Immediately after Peter spoke for the disciples and acknowledged Jesus as Messiah, Jesus began to intensify his teaching about what was implied in following him. As always, his primary way of teaching was through his behavior. His words simply explained what he was doing.

We come to the liturgy to hear this Gospel, not as a scene from the past, but as a challenge to decide whether or not we are willing to follow Christ on the way to Jerusalem today and be ready for all that will demand of us.

Finding and Losing Life

Spiritual Commentary
John Shea

It is a sad but predictable fact that those who stand up get knocked down. Whistle blowers are a prime example. A cop reports that other cops are abusing suspects. He is shunned and punished in very clever—and often violent—ways. A woman reports accounting abuses in a large corporation, her boss thanks her and comments on her courage. Within a week she is downsized for no apparent reason. A priest reports another priest for sexual abuse. The bishop tells him it will be taken care of. Instead, he is taken care of and sent to a remote assignment. Criticism and cover-up go together, and part of the cover- up is to eliminate the criticism.

Jesus was a fierce critic. He pointed out the thoroughgoing hypocrisy of religious leadership. They were taken up with their own importance, loving the trappings of their position rather than its substance (see Matt 23:1-31): They loved money, elaborate robes, the first places at table, salutations in the marketplace, and being called teacher. Image was everything. They polished the outside of the cup and were concerned about weighing the mint and the herb. They kept people from the knowledge that would help them, laid burdens on them, and watched them falter. Jesus saw clearly the organizational abuse and, prophet them falter. Jesus saw clearly the organizational abuse and, prophet that he was, he blew the whistle.

Therefore, Jesus’ prediction of his suffering and death was not a supernatural vision of the future. It was rooted in the amply documented tendency of those in power to eliminate those who question it. Today also those who stand against organizations, governments, and institutions—and call into question their unethical practices—know that reprisal is their fate. The rhetoric may be that criticism is welcomed. But the reality is that anyone who questions the status quo will be treated harshly by those benefiting from the status quo. Often this comes down to being attacked with the very practices they are criticizing. If they are pointing to financial abuse, they will be stripped of work and money. If they are pointing to physical abuse, they will be beaten. When leadership does not know what to do, it does what it knows best. What it knows best is punishing dissent and covering up.

Why do people do it then? There are as many reasons as there are people and groups who have walked this lonely path of confrontation. Some say, “I just couldn’t let it go on” or “I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t do something” or “ This was once a great company [or church or organization or government) and it means something to me.” The reason given in the Gospel is that the deeper life of God depends on it. There is a deeper life of God in us, and this life is nurtured by expressing it in the face of the myriad situations we encounter. If this life is silenced, especially if it is silenced because we are afraid that its expression will mean we will lose our surface life, then this most valuable life is lost. The paradox is that by our silence we have gained some significant footing in the world, but we have lost our soul. As in the Esau and Jacob story (Gen 25:29-34), we have sold our birthright for a pot of stew. In Robert Bolt’s play, A Man for All Seasons (London: William Heinemann, 1960), Thomas More sees that the man who has perjured himself is wearing a chain of office for Wales. It is his reward for lying. Thomas More says to him, “Richard, it does not profit a man to lose his soul for the whole world, but for Wales?’

It is difficult to grasp how spiritually momentous not speaking out is. Ordinary consciousness thinks it is an ethical option. After all, it is not something we are doing. It is something we are not doing. At best, it is a sin of omission. Some may think it is important to confront what is happening. If it is “their thing,” fine. Others may have different business to conduct. In A Man for All Seasons, Thomas Moore also says, “Our natural path lies in escaping.” This is a piece of advice well worth heeding.

However, the Gospels are not that blasé. They think our soul is at stake. So they encourage freely shouldering the cross. “The Cross” is merely what happens to those who persist in righteousness in an unrighteous world. Every time “the Cross” happens, and it happens daily, a double revelation unfolds. Divine love in some finite human person shines forth and human resistance in some hardened persons is seen for what it is. “The Cross” is the symbol of the standoff between divine love and human recalcitrance.

This dangerous possibility of discipleship so terrifies us that we immediately plead for a reprieve. Jesus must take us aside as he took aside Peter. He must explain to us once again how this is necessary, how this is a “must.” Given who God is and who we are, it cannot be any other way. And it is only a seeming terror, for this is the path of finding the deeper life that sustains us. But Jesus the teacher must continue and slowly get us back into his following. He must tell us about the word we cannot hear, the word at the end that was lost because our hearts were pounding at suffering and death, the mysterious word: resurrection.

Spiritual Commentaries and Teachings are excerpted from The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers by John Shea © 2004 by Order of Saint Benedict. Published by Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota. Used with permission.


Year A: Twenty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time

If your brother listens to you, you have won him over.

Matthew 18: 15-20

Jesus said to his disciples: “If your brother sins [against you], go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have won over your brother. If he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, so that ‘every fact may be established on the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If he refuses to listen to them, tell the church.* If he refuses to listen even to the church, then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector. Amen, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again, [amen,] I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything for which they are to pray, it shall be granted to them by my heavenly Father. For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”

Discussion Questions:

  1. Have you ever had a “faith based” sit down over some offense and tried to reconcile the relationship. What happened? Were you able to reconcile or did it escalate?
  2. For you, does reconciliation have to mean someone is proven right in the situation? Or, are you able to reconcile with people when reaching agreement is impossible? What’s your experience here? 
  3. Do you view your freedom to forgive others as gift from God, or is it a necessary burden you carry as a Christian? Have you experienced transformation by forgiving another? Tell the story
  4. The last line of the passage seems to reveal God’s intense drive for relationship, for us to be together so God can be among us. Where you struggle with keeping “God’s restorative love and relationships whole” as the primary focus of your interactions with others?

Biblical Context

Matthew 18: 15-20
Sr. Mary McGlone CSJ

The Lectionary cycle skips over a good amount of Matthew’s Gospel between last week and today. When we approach today’s Gospel it helps to see it in its context.

The section beginning at Chapter 18 opens with disciples asking Jesus who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. They were certainly not expecting him to put a little child in the middle of their debate circle, making her or him the center of attention. Perhaps it was the child’s amazement at being singled out by the area’s most famous adult that made Jesus say that anyone who wants to understand the kingdom has to be ready to be just that surprised. From there, Jesus went on to warn the disciples never to lead one of the innocents into sin. He added that they should detach themselves completely from causes of sin — even if it required an amputation! (Matthew 18:8-9). Then, in a quick turn-around, he went on to say that, if one in the community started to drift, they should do everything possible to seek and bring him or her back, just like a shepherd would search for a lost lamb.

Having broached the topic of community, he talked about how to settle the problems that would inevitably arise among them. With this, Jesus touches back into the idea of prophecy, but he’s brought it directly home to the little group closest to him and to one another.

Jesus wasn’t simply presenting a problem-solving technique, although it is a good methodology even before we understand its theology. For step one, Jesus starts out by setting the stage like this: “If your brother sins against you. . .” The situation is clear, one person in the community feels injured and thinks that the other has done something wrong. A lot of people in that situation will start out by complaining, not to the person with whom they have a grievance, but with anybody they think will listen and agree with them.

The approach Jesus counsels feels much riskier because it requires honest dialogue and avoids amassing a team of supporters who will have been swayed by one side of the story. Following Jesus’ methodology, the more serious the grievance, the more the injured party will be acting like a good shepherd trying to bring back one who is deviating from promoting the common good.

Step Two: If an honest attempt to dialogue comes to an impasse, the person who has taken on the role of shepherd needs to engage companions to help in the process. Now, the two or three who go together must remember that their goal is to win over the other, to restore the community.

Step Three: If the efforts of a few are unsuccessful, the case needs to be brought to the community as a whole. Remembering the goal is crucial in this process. The aim is always to restore the offender to integrity in the community. Throughout the process, all the participants will be called upon to examine their own integrity and commitment to the common good. Thus, in Jesus’ methodology, seeking the lost becomes an intense exercise in deepening communal bonds.

Finally, Jesus says that if the community cannot bring someone back into union, they are to treat that one as “a Gentile or a tax collector.” Note that he didn’t say to treat the person as an adversary, but rather as one who has not yet received the message of the kingdom.

That understanding gives a context to Jesus’ final saying. Who are the two or three of whom he speaks? They are the ones who are seeking the common good. The risen Christ promises that they never need do that alone.

Bound to Forgive

Reflection
Sr. Verna Holyhead SGS

We all have the responsibility for the pastoral care that requires us to deal with one another’s sinfulness, especially when this threatens the cohesion of the community of disciples. The offering of forgiveness to a sister or brother is one of the painful ways that we take up our cross and follow Jesus, whether in Matthew’s first-century community or in today’s church. Jesus tells his disciples how this painful, but healing process of forgiveness is to be conducted. The authority of “binding and loosing” that was given to Peter to exercise in a particular way (Matt 16:19) is here extended to the whole church because it is not only the leaders who must accept responsibility for reconciliation within the community. The model that Jesus presents to the disciples is one of “gospel subsidiarity” not a pyramid model. Subsidiarity means that we do not do something at a higher level when it can be done at a lower, in contrast to starting at the top of the pyramid with the highest authority. So the first approach in reconciliation is to be between the offended and the offender. It is the former who is to seek out the latter, in courage and loving humility and with no intention of a judgmental confrontation, hard as this may be. For Matthew’s Jewish Christians, this would be no surprising advice if they remembered the Torah tradition about reproving someone with love and loving one’s neighbor as oneself (Lev 19:17-18).

Paul echoes the gospel concern for love and respect in the community when he writes that the only debt that we should owe one another is “the debt of mutual love” (Jerusalem Bible). We are all debtors to Christ because of the inexhaustible love of God that he has shown us by dying for us, even when we are sinners. How can we, therefore, withhold love from anyone else?

In a lighter and different genre, the temptation and folly of repaying evil with evil is spoken by another Jew in the closing scene of the musical Fiddler on the Roof. Dismayed at the prospect of their immediate banishment from their village, one of the villager’s shouts: “We should defend ourselves an ‘eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth!” The wise old Tevye replies with kindly and sad irony: “That’s very good. And the whole world will be blind and toothless.

Sr. Verna Holyhead SGS (Sisters of The Good Samaritan) 1933-2011, was a teacher of scripture and engaged in biblical and liturgical ministry, which found expression in writing books, retreat-giving and in the leadership of pilgrimages to Israel.


Year A: Twenty-Fourth Sunday Ordinary Time

I say to you, forgive not seven times, but seventy-seven times.

Matthew 18: 21-35

Peter approached Jesus and asked him, “Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus answered, “I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times. That is why the kingdom of heaven may be likened to a king who decided to settle accounts with his servants. When he began the accounting, a debtor was brought before him who owed him a huge amount. Since he had no way of paying it back, his master ordered him to be sold, along with his wife, his children, and all his property, in payment of the debt. At that, the servant fell down, did him homage, and said, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back in full.’ Moved with compassion the master of that servant let him go and forgave him the loan. When that servant had left, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a much smaller amount. He seized him and started to choke him, demanding, ‘Pay back what you owe.’ Falling to his knees, his fellow servant begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.’ But he refused. Instead, he had the fellow servant put in prison until he paid back the debt. Now when his fellow servants saw what had happened, they were deeply disturbed, and went to their master and reported the whole affair. His master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you your entire debt because you begged me to. Should you not have had pity on your fellow servant, as I had pity on you?’ Then in anger his master handed him over to the torturers until he should pay back the whole debt. So will my heavenly Father do to you, unless each of you forgives your brother from your heart.

Discussion Questions:

  1. As Christians we are supposed to freely give what we freely received. In what specific ways does God’s forgiveness of you, enable your forgiveness of others?
  2. “Generally, we live our lives based on one of two identities: either, “the forgiveness of God” or “one who has been wronged” Which of these do you identify with more, or where do you find yourself on this spectrum?
  3. In what concrete ways are you working at self-forgiveness? Do you believe this is an important part of forgiving others? Explain
  4. Is there anyone in your life right now that you are withholding forgiveness from? What prevents you from giving them what you hope to receive from God?

Biblical Context

Matthew 18: 21-35
Sr Mary McGlone CSJ

Today’s Gospel takes us into the humorous heart of Jesus the storyteller and teacher. The fact that the incident opens with a question from Peter gives us advance notice that we’re about to hear the most sincere and blundering of disciples open the door for Jesus to launch into another of his stories that stick.

Picking up from last week, Jesus is teaching his disciples about the community’s responsibility for seeking and reconciling the lost. Perhaps Peter was hoping to help his teacher with a set-up question: “How often must I forgive?” Then, to give Jesus ample room to congratulate him for his perception and generosity, he asks, “Seven times?” Seven wasn’t just a number he pulled out of his headdress. Seven was Peter’s way of demonstrating uncommon generosity. Offering to forgive seven times was like saying, “I’ll put up with anything if that’s what you suggest.” Jesus doubles down on him and replies, “Not just seven, my friend, but seventy-seven … forever and ever, Amen!” (That’s a free interpretation of Jesus’ exaggerated number of seventy-seven.)

Peter’s numbers game offered Jesus the take-off point for a story about how things get worked out in the kingdom of heaven. Jesus invites his hearers to imagine such a fantastic world of affluence that Bill Gates would feel like a country store clerk amid this crowd of characters. When it came to describing the sums of money involved, hyperbole was the name of the game. Our translation has turned the original 10,000 talents into “a huge amount.” Just to get a sense of what “huge” means, we start with the fact that a talent was the weight a soldier could carry on his back, something between 75 and 100 pounds. Jesus doesn’t specify if these talents were silver or gold, but people got the idea. Now how many talents were owed? The word translated as “huge” is 10,000, which wasn’t meant to be literal, it was simply the highest number calculable in those days. We would probably say “a gazillion.” Now, the audience was really getting the picture. If the debtor, “Mr. D,” had shown up ready to pay, he would have arrived accompanied by a parade of a gazillion servants, each weighed down by someone else’s wealth. (Whose wealth it really was is a question for the ethicists.)

It goes without saying that Mr. D had no way to pay it off. Even so, he made a show of asking for just a little more time. The master, endowed with a heart even bigger than his fortune, wrote off the loan. So far, the parable has set up a world in which the forgiveness of such an immense fortune makes it look as if anything is possible. It’s jubilee time! But, just as the audience pictured the relieved debtor dancing down the road to home, Jesus began narrating the second act of the drama.

Now those who had seen or heard what had happened to Mr. D are watching to see what he does next. How is he going to celebrate his good fortune? He hunted down one of his own debtors. This fellow owed him 100 denarii, the equivalent of 100 days wages — a pretty significant amount to somebody who didn’t have hordes of money hidden at home, but a full 600,000 times less than Mr. D had owed the master.

Happy face erased, Mr. D grabs the guy by the neck. As if he had been listening in while Mr. D performed before the master, the guy steals Mr. D’s lines, but his pitiful plea for compassion has no effect on its original author. Mr. D wants nothing more than his money. Proving that he has no idea of what mercy is, he sends the unfortunate fellow to prison.

In the end, Mr. D gets what’s coming to him, or perhaps better said, Mr. D ends up in the world he has created. He was offered an alternative, but he wouldn’t pay 100 denarii for a world of mercy.

Peter asked Jesus how many times community members were expected to forgive one another. Jesus told them a tall tale that asked them what kind of world they wanted to create and what it was worth to them. The person who counts the number of times they will pardon another is not forgiving but keeping score.

Bestowing the Future

Reflection
John Shea

As difficult as it is to forgive an offender, forgiving one’s self may be more strenuous. There can be so many mental blocks to overcome and we may hear condescending, negative voices from past pains.

A classic example is the adult-child placing an aging parent into a nursing home. If the parent dies alone, the adult-child might be riddled with guilt. Since the parent is now deceased, the adult-child cannot ask for forgiveness. Healing may require counseling. But, the journey to healing from shock, through depression, through anger, to love and eventual forgiveness surely can be glimpsed in Psalm 103, “The Lord is kind and merciful, slow to anger, and rich in compassion. He pardons all your iniquities, heals all your ills. He redeems your life from destruction, crowns you with kindness and compassion.”

Forgiving can be challenging. The ability to forgive and love is definitely arduous. But, being “crowned with kindness and compassion” makes forgiveness and love possible.

The dynamics of forgiveness are so particular to each situation and so woven into the psychology of the people involved that any generalization can be refuted by a specific instance. But still, the path the Matthean Jesus maps out is powerful and provocative. I believe it is supposed to convince Christians who think deeply about their life.

But does it?

The spiritual wisdom can be stated: “We all live by the forgiveness of God and if we do not forgive one another in turn, this divine forgiveness is withdrawn.”

Is it persuasive? How can we understand it as a reflection of common Christian experience? What inner work do we have to do to make this spiritual wisdom our own?

We must realize we are all living through the power of divine forgiveness. This perception is difficult because we do not clearly see our entrenched sinfulness. We are too mediocre to owe a huge amount. There are some people—murderers, rapists, etc.—who are in bondage to sin and cannot extricate themselves. But most of us see our indebtedness in more manageable amounts. “Have patience with me, and I will pay you” is not last-ditch desperation but a decent proposal.

Therefore, to realize how essential divine forgiveness is, we must realize our sinfulness. That is why Luther exhorted people to sin boldly. It is the forerunner to the realization of grace. However, this theological strategy of convicting people of sin in order to open them to divine forgiveness has been strongly criticized.

Another approach, and one that resonates with me, is to realize how sinful experiences claim us. The experiences of both being sinned against and sinning are seldom over and done with. They continue to extend their influence long after the actual offense has ended. The “huge amount” may be their power to dominate us and bring our future under their control. Negative experiences infiltrate our mind and heart and constrict our freedom. They become the bondage and prison the servants in the story experience, a bondage and a prison from which they cannot free themselves.

Therefore, the focus of forgiveness shifts. It is not primarily overlooking past sinfulness or, in the metaphor of the story, canceling past debt. Rather “forgiveness” is an intense giving of life and energy into the freedom of a person on the edge of newness. This giving must be intense because the weight of negative experiences of the past is great. In fact, this weight is so overwhelming it reduces us to pleading.

The pleading is an admission of our helplessness. It opens us, and we receive what we ask for. We are given time. However, the time is not to repay the past. It is to break the hold of our mistakes and find a new future. This type of time is not the “march of time,” the mindless tomorrows that inevitably come. This is the advent of the new, the arrival of possibility into an impossible situation. This is how God gives time, not endless minutes but endless opportunities.

It is here, in the freshness of a new life we did not create, that our consciousness must rest. We must not bolt out of our prison and go on with life exactly as before— without understanding or appreciation.

We must allow what has happened to form and influence us. If we do not deeply grasp both the bondage to our mistakes and the unmerited forgiveness, we will not persist in the freedom and the future we have been given.

The open future we walk into is not the result of anything we did. So, we cannot claim it. The usual way we differentiate ourselves from others is not operative. It is not our merit that has forced the forgive- ness, or even our potential for more service that has made forgiveness a reasonable choice. We might try to attribute the forgiveness to dumb luck. We got the king on a good day. But the depth of what we have experienced will finally penetrate. A future, free from the consequences of our mistakes, was bestowed upon us.

The implications of this graceful experience come into view when we meet our former self in another. We gradually realize our situation is the situation. Everyone is tied to their past failures until a future is bestowed upon them. These failures may be small, but they hamper freedom. They imprison people. Since we were given a way out, we know the way out. Only now we are on the other side. Our hope is to remember clearly the conditions of our liberation. If we forget them, we will return to bondage. This will happen long before we are reported to the king. It happens the moment we put our hands around the throat of our debtor. We are once again sold into the slavery of revenge, retaliation, and reprisal.

Spiritual Commentaries and Teachings are excerpted from The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers by John Shea © 2004 by Order of Saint Benedict. Published by Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota. Used with permission.


Year A: Twenty-Fifth Sunday Ordinary Time

Workers in the Vineyard

Mathew 20:1-16

“The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out at dawn to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with them for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. Going out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace, and he said to them, ‘You too go into my vineyard, and I will give you what is just.’ So, they went off. (And) he went out again around noon, and around three o’clock, and did likewise. Going out about five o’clock, he found others standing around, and said to them, ‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’ They answered, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You too go into my vineyard.’ When it was evening the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Summon the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and ending with the first.’ When those who had started about five o’clock came, each received the usual daily wage. So, when the first came, they thought that they would receive more, but each of them also got the usual wage. And on receiving it they grumbled against the land owner, saying, ‘These last ones worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us, who bore the day’s burden and the heat. He said to one of them in reply, ‘My friend, I am not cheating you. Did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what is yours and go. What if I wish to give this last one the same as you? (Or) am I not free to do as I wish with my own money? Are you envious because I am generous?’ Thus, the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

Discussion Questions:

  1. What is your initial reaction to this story? Has your reaction to this passage changed as you have grown spiritually? Explain
  2. What does this story say about how you (we) tend to judge things and the way justice and judgment actually work in the Kingdom of Heaven? (The Kingdom of Heaven being a reality you can experience in this life… not the same thing as Heaven)
  3. If you could somehow extract yourself from identifying with who’s right or wrong, first or last, what’s fair or unfair, or that you deserve anything at all, how might that change the way you work in the “vineyard of life”, what might you be doing differently?
  4. When you think of your relationship with God do you thinking in terms of your earning God’s favor, or do you think in terms of God taking the initiative and loving you first? What about your early upbringing resulted in your thinking as you do?

Biblical Context

Mathew 20:1-16
Sr. Mary McGlone CSJ

Did it ever occur to you that the vineyard owner in this parable could have saved a lot of hard feelings had he simply paid the longest-working laborers first? After 12 hours of toil, they probably wouldn’t have hung around to see what the others were going to get paid. But then Jesus wouldn’t have had a maddening story. So, we should probably ask what he wanted to teach us.

This parable followed on Jesus’ encounter with the rich young man who wanted to gain eternal life but couldn’t bring himself to give away his wealth in order to do so. One wonders if that sad man ever figured out that the only way to the kingdom of heaven was to care at least as much about others as he did about himself (Matthew 19:16-30).

Right after the incident with that man, Jesus told this story about how things are in the kingdom of heaven and how God can be compared to a wealthy landowner. The setup leads us to two questions: “What kind of a landowner is God, and who would be happy to work in his vineyard?”

The landowner Jesus depicts is persistent. He himself goes out at dawn to find people who need the work he has to offer. He returns to the labor market four more times. It seems, as if, the primary focus of his day is on finding workers: he goes looking before and after breakfast, before and after lunch, and finally just before supper time. Finding his workers seemed to be more important than eating! By early afternoon, any observer would have been catching on to the fact that this master had a great deal more interest in employing the people than in the amount of work they could accomplish.

The owner who kept going out must have understood that, with each successive trip, he was apt to find less and less desirable workers. His dawn-hires were probably the men who appeared to be the strongest, the ones who got up extra early and could well have been hired by others, if not by him. As the day wore on, the workers still waiting were the consistently unchosen. Perhaps, they had been from market to market hoping to be found, but to no avail. Everything points to the fact that for this master, the workers mattered more than the work.

That leads to the second question. Who wants to be in this master’s employ? The early birds had no complaints at the moment of their hire. The situation was uninspiringly normal. They went to the labor market that day and got a job right away “for the usual daily wage.” Unlike the late-hires, they didn’t have to endure hours of worry speculating where they should go next, wondering whether or not they would get a job — if not today, perhaps tomorrow? Each time the owner returned to the market, the people he encountered were a little more anxious, and therefore, a little more grateful when he hired them. Those who had waited the longest were surely the most thrilled at finally being chosen. Conversely, as people stood in the pay line, with each group that received the same wage there was growing disillusionment and discontent at the back of the line.

The parable doesn’t canonize any of the workers, although it surely suggests that some ended up far more grateful to the owner and far more willing to work for him again. What’s the parable really about? Just what Isaiah said, “As high as the heavens are above the earth, so high are God’s ways above ours.” We all hope for justice. The question is from whose perspective do we understand it?

Reflection

Matthew 20: 1-16
John Shea

In some corporations comparing salaries is forbidden. Usually the reasons for this prohibition are not spelled out. But the company, always eager to help, gives workers a comeback in case a fellow worker might indiscreetly ask, “By the way, what do you make?” The loyal employee is to respond, “That’s for me, the boss, and the tax collector to know.”

Comparing salaries is considered volatile activity. Chances are it will lead to charges of unfairness, a sense of being discriminated against, a decline in employee morale, and, as the Gospel indicates, an epidemic of grumbling. Even if the employer comes clean and discloses the reason is good enough when we sense someone got away with something and we did not.

That is why this parable of the workers in the vineyard is arguably the most disliked parable of the Gospels. Its unfairness is so overwhelming it edges out that other egregious Gospel conundrum: a welcome and feast for the son who squandered the inheritance (Luke 15:11-32). Although the argument of the owner of the vineyard is beyond refutation “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?”), it makes no headway against our outrage. We instinctively feel a mistake has been made. There is a deep sense of unfairness when the last are paid the same as the first. And we, who are always quick to feel offended, identify with the weary, heat-beaten first laborers.

This feeling of unfairness springs from a well-constructed mental tape. Its basic message is: “If someone gets what I am getting but hasn’t put in as much work as I have, I am being cheated. Is there any other way to see this? Most of us have this tape running continually. This makes us, in the language of the parable, grumble-ready.

The truth of this tape seems obvious because it confirms our fundamental stance. We are the center of the universe, and we evaluate everything that happens from the point of view of our own comparative well-being. If it protects or promotes us, we praise it. If it makes us vulnerable or demotes us, we, not to put too fine of an edge on it, piss and moan. “You have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” Outrageous! But if the story knows our egocentricity, it also allows another possibility. It suggests seeing things from God’s point of view. But this is a real stretch. In fact, it is difficult to even entertain this possibility because our egocentric point of view is so entrenched. When we move outside of it, we are in such a strange world that we immediately reject it. But let’s venture out of our identification with the first-hired laborers and try to see it as the landowner (God, the Lord of the Vineyard) sees it.

From the Lord of the Vineyard’s point of view, what really matters is not what you get but that you work in the vineyard. The real problem is idleness in the marketplace. You do not know or comprehend that a larger reality permeates your physical, mental, and social life and calls you to join with it in harvesting a new human reality. Therefore, you stand around waiting. But this Lord of the Vineyard will have none of it. The owner visits the marketplace often and sends everyone off to the vineyard. The owner is shameless in the diversity of the ways the calls are sent to people. What is paramount is the work.

Once in the vineyard you are in the owner’s domain, and the rules change because of who the owner is and what the owner is about. The work itself is the reward. The joy is in the contribution, in the ecstasy of joining with the Lord of the Vineyard in the creation of the world. Remember, you are now in a consciousness called the kingdom of heaven and not in a consciousness that could be called “Comparative Status” or “Fear of Not Getting What You Deserve.” You do not need to worry and look out for yourself for the One for whom you work knows what you need and is only too willing to supply it (Matt 6:8, 32-33).

You begin to value the full heat of the day because, as Gerard Manly Hopkins intimated, you “burnish in use”. You no longer live in the envious world of comparison but in the abundant world of God’s goodness. In this world God’s goodness gives you a good eye. This eye connects your soul to the expansive world of Divine Spirit. The soul, in turn, works and flows like liquid light, each effort a response to grace, each effort releasing grace.

The Lord of the Vineyard has no choice. God has to give you all that God has. Which, of course, is one day’s wages.

Spiritual Commentaries and Teachings are excerpted from The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers by John Shea © 2004 by Order of Saint Benedict. Published by Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota. Used with permission.


Year A: Twenty-Sixth Sunday Ordinary Time

The Parable of the Two Sons

Matthew 21: 28-32

“What is your opinion? A man had two sons. He came to the first and said, ‘Son, go out and work in the vineyard today.’ He said in reply, ‘I will not,’ but afterwards he changed his mind and went. The man came to the other son and gave the same order. He said in reply, “Yes, sir,’ but did not go. Which of the two did his father’s will?” They answered, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Amen, I say to you, tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God before you. When John came to you in the way of righteousness, you did not believe him; but tax collectors and prostitutes did. Yet even when you saw that, you did not later change your minds and believe him.

Discussion Questions:

  1. As you reflect on your life, do you identify with either of the brothers in today’s parable? Explain
  2. When you contrast your intentions with your actions, in what ways do you see yourself saying “no” to God?
  3. How do you determine whether you are, or are not doing God’s will?
  4. Is it possible that your mind is so made up about things, that you miss the presence of divine activity and fail to do God’s will? What could be done about this?

Biblical Context

Sr. Mary McGlone CSJ

As we follow Matthew’s Gospel, the Lectionary skips over Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem and moves us directly into his final teachings. We are now in the final section of the Gospel, so we can imagine the teachings we will be hearing from now until the end of the year as taking place during Holy Week.

Jesus tells today’s parable immediately after a debate with the chief priests and elders. When they challenged his authority, Jesus asked them to make a public statement about their opinion of John the Baptist. When they refused to be trapped into telling the truth, Jesus refused to answer their questions about himself. He told this parable instead.

Jesus addressed the parable to the very folks who had avoided his question about John. This time they got caught in his trap; they listened to the parable and ended up with no decent escape from his final question. A parable of a man with two sons started them off in familiar territory — that plotline had begun with Adam and went through Abraham and Isaac and on through their own experience. It could have even resonated with the comparison of John and Jesus. But, Jesus took the idea and developed it in his own style, making the turning point the punch that would expose the real situation of his audience.

If we interpret the parable in its cultural context it is more complex than it appears at first glance.

Culturally, the first son was a rude rebel. In a society where saving face was highly valued, the son who said “I will not,” wounded his father’s dignity and shattered his family’s reputation. He effectively put himself outside the family circle. In contrast, the second son honored the father, even to the point of addressing him as “lord.” Any observer would have seen that son as exceeding the ideal of filial respect.

Then comes the twist. The deferential son had only a veneer of respect for his father. He might keep things pleasant in the house, but the family business would fall apart under his do-nothing lifestyle. The insolent son actually demonstrated more family commitment than his hypocritical brother. Far from perfect, he was the one who repented. (The word translated as “changed his mind” is translated as repent in other passages and comes from the same root as metanoia.)

With this parable, Jesus pointed out the distinction between what might be called orthodoxy and orthopraxis, between saying the right thing and doing the right thing. His implication was that saying the right thing, following the rubrics, can become nothing more than a façade, leaving a people who look good but accomplish nothing for God. In contrast, doing the right thing will lead to understanding what is right and being able to say it as well.

What is your opinion?

Reflection
By Ted Wolgamot

In today’s Gospel, Jesus states the very question posed in this article’s title. Amazingly enough, he seems to want feedback! Jesus wants to know, not just what the leaders of the temple thought back then, but what you and I think right now.

So, what is your opinion? What do you think of this story that he proceeds to tell about the two sons who are sent out to work in a vineyard?

Here’s my opinion: You and I are both of these sons. At times we’re people who say all the right things, follow all the right rules, profess a belief in all the most important ideas about God and church, and present ourselves as upstanding citizens for all to see. At other times, we change our minds and find ourselves slipping into behaviors that imply a denial of all that we profess to believe. In other words, we’re the “Yes, sir” people who then “did not go” in today’s Gospel.

Sometimes. At other times, we’re the people who resist what we know to be the right thing to do. We’re the “I will not” person of today’s Gospel who “afterwards changed his mind and went.”

So, we’re a mix. Sometimes we say one thing and do another. Other times, we refuse to do the right thing, but then repent and seek forgiveness.

Here’s another opinion of mine: Where you and I stumble the most is precisely in the area that Jesus keeps emphasizing over and over — our attitudes and behaviors toward the very people Jesus claims will be first in the kingdom of God — the people the Jewish leaders at that time considered unclean; the people they believed should be avoided at all costs, ignored, dismissed from the temple, and viewed as impure.

Two millennia later from the time in which this Gospel was written, these very same people are the ones we still tend to designate to be “impure”: the homeless, the mentally ill, the imprisoned, the immigrants.

And yet, these are precisely the ones Jesus embraced; the ones he allowed to wash his feet with their tears and dry them with their hair; the ones he told us would be first in the kingdom of God.

How can this be? Why would Jesus choose them?

Most of us, after all, would have the opinion that we’re the hard-working ones; we’re the ones who have demonstrated will power and obedience and strength of character — and all those other qualities that make for good citizens and loyal churchgoers.

Perhaps the opinion of St. Paul in the beautiful and poignant reading from Philippians we hear today will suggest a response to this statement: “Have in you the same attitude that is in Christ Jesus … who … emptied himself taking the form of a slave.”

All the people listed in the Gospel by Jesus as being first are those who are powerless, “emptied” people. They are people who have been brought to their knees by terrible hardship even to the point of being forced to “take the form of a slave.”

But, here’s the surprise: What little they do have in their lives is the very thing Jesus is most looking for — room for God. They now have the space for the Spirit to become operative so that true transformation can take place.

This was the opinion of Jesus: The people most pre-disposed to radical change in their lives were those who had nothing to lose, people who were not just hungry, but starving for liberation and transformation.

So, in the end, my opinion is still the same as that of Paul: “Have in you the same attitude that is also in Christ Jesus … who … emptied himself taking the form of a slave.”

What is your opinion?


Year A: Twenty-Seventh Sunday Ordinary Time

The Parable of The Tenants

Matthew 21:33-43

Jesus said to the people: “Hear another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a hedge around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a tower. Then he leased it to tenants and went on a journey. When vintage time drew near, he sent his servants to the tenants to obtain his produce. But the tenants seized the servants and one they beat, another they killed, and a third they stoned. Again, he sent other servants, more numerous than the first ones, but they treated them in the same way. Finally, he sent his son to them, thinking, ‘They will respect my son.’ But when the tenants saw the son, they said to one another, ‘This is the heir. Come, let us kill him and acquire his inheritance.’ They seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. What will the owner of the vineyard do to those tenants when he comes?” They answered him, “He will put those wretched men to a wretched death and lease his vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the proper times.” Jesus said to them, “Did you never read in the scriptures: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; by the Lord has this been done, and it is wonderful in our eyes’? Therefore, I say to you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that will produce its fruit.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Using the vineyard metaphor, where do you feel you are being a good steward of the vineyard in your life, where are you experiencing new invitations for producing good fruit?
  2. How much does scarcity and fear of “not having enough” play a role in living the faith you profess? Explain
  3. Relating to the “God of all people” means including all people? Where do you struggle most with including others as people of the same God?
  4. The call to conversion is not a one-time event but an ongoing process. Where do you feel the Spirit may be calling you to deeper conversion in your life right now?

Biblical Context

Matthew 21:33-43
Margaret Nutting Ralph PHD

Today’s parable follows immediately after the parable of the two sons that we read last week. Jesus continues to call to conversion both the elders, who interpreted the law, and the chief priests, who, as heads of priestly families, offered sacrifice in the temple and instructed the people. These religious leaders have questioned Jesus’ authority for acting as he does. Jesus has told them that prostitutes and tax collectors, stereotypical “sinners” in the eyes of the chief priests and elders, are entering the kingdom ahead of them.

In today’s Gospel we see the same pattern that we saw in last Sunday’s reading: Jesus tells a parable, invites his listeners to pass judgment on the characters, and then applies the lesson of the story directly to his resistant audience. A landowner sends his servants to gather the fruits of his vineyard. Instead of treating the servants with respect, the tenants abuse them. When the landowner sends his own son, they murder him.

After telling this gruesome story Jesus asks the chief priests and elders, “What will the owner of the vineyard do to those tenants when he comes?” They answer, “He will put those wretched men to a wretched death and lease his vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the proper times.” In passing judgment on the characters in the story the chief priests and elders have unwittingly passed judgment on themselves. These religious leaders are like the tenants. They have responsibility to care for God’s people. Instead of welcoming Jesus, whom God has sent, they are rejecting him, even planning to kill him. Jesus tells them, “the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that will produce its fruit.”

When we hear this story after Jesus’ passion, death, and resurrection, as Matthew’s primarily Jewish audience was hearing it, the meaning is even more evident. A vineyard, in Old Testament imagery, is a symbol for the house of Israel, as we will see in today’s reading from Isaiah. The tenant farmers are those whom God has entrusted to watch over the vineyard, the religious leaders of each generation. The servants who were sent to reap the harvest but who were abused by the tenant farmers are the prophets who called the people to fidelity. The son of the vineyard owner who is killed for his inheritance is Jesus.

By including this parable in his Gospel, Matthew is confronting the Jewish leaders of his own day who have refused to accept Jesus. The “people” to whom the kingdom will be given refers to the Christian community, made up of both Jews and Gentiles. It is ironic that the tenants, the religious leaders, kill the son of the vineyard owner in order to “acquire his inheritance.” The “son” whom they kill, Jesus, came to share the inheritance with them.

In the story, because the tenants abuse the servants and kill the son of the vineyard owner, they deserve a “wretched death.” Notice that Jesus tells the chief priests and elders this story, not to condemn them, but to call them to conversion. Jesus’ enemies are still being invited to the kingdom. However, in order to accept Jesus’ invitation, they must first repent.

Wanting it All

Reflection
John Shea

Excluding is a well-documented human habit. On every level of our being we push things away. It seems the right thing to do. It is a purifying process. If we have thoughts that disturb us, we do our best not to think them. If there are people who are undesirable, we make sure they are not welcomed into our homes, schools, clubs, and churches. We clear a space where we think we can breathe pure air.

Rigorous reasoning accompanies our hard work of exclusion. These reasons are impeccable, acceptable to our friends. In fact, they are acceptable to all clearthinking people because they are based on unalterable facts. They reflect “the way the world is.” The inner and outer processes of excluding and reasoning make us feel safer, saner, more in charge, and more ourselves.

Zealous exclusions provide us with a well-defined identity. We not only know our boundaries, we guard them. We count ourselves among the elite, the chosen, the elect. Every time we see the mob, we recoil into our superior status. We know who we are by knowing who we are not.

But there are those who say exclusions can get out of hand. When they become a way of life, they narrow us down. We “circle the wagons,” but we may circle them too tightly. In our desire not to be infringed upon, we may be pushing away the very thing, person, situation, feeling, thought, and experience we need. A friend of mine is fond of saying, “We avoid with a passion the very thing that will save us.

Jesus’ name means “he will save his people from their sins” (Matt 1:21). In classical theology sin is considered to be a process of separation from God and from other people. In doing this, they also separate themselves from their own souls. This exclusionary process results in a false and isolated sense of themselves. Sin-defined people are, as St. Augustine and Martin Luther pointed out, “incurvatus a se,” wrapped up in themselves.

Therefore, to save people from their sins is to bring them out of separation into communion, to connect them with God, neighbor, and self. This is the offer of Jesus to the religious leadership of his day. His liberating consciousness and inclusive behavior are what they need. Jesus is asking them to relate to the God of all people by including all people. He is asking them to join the party, but they cannot tolerate so motley a collection of characters. They choose to remain in their isolation. They are better at shunning than welcoming. But why?

Although philosophy, psychology, and sociology have explored exclusionary processes at great length, the story of the murderous tenants suggests a simple reason. They only share this simple reason among themselves, telling it to each other in order to take energy from it. This is the reason beneath the reasons, the dark desire lurking behind the rational explanations: “come, let us kill him and get his inheritance”.

They want the inheritance. They want it all. They want it all for themselves. They do not want to be accountable to God or other people. Their isolation has turned them greedy. They grab for everything they can get. For them, “including” only means there will not be enough for me—enough righteousness, enough money, enough prestige, enough land, enough everything. They live in a world of scarcity, and they are making sure that “they get theirs.” When more are included, they instinctively feel that they will have less. They exclude because they want it all.

Wanting it all is a crazy desire, born of isolation and fear. Its social face is acquisition and greed. Its psychological face is accusation and defensiveness. Its theological face is the preaching of a God I own rather than a God who owns me. But the real God has gone elsewhere.

We do not own the vineyard; we work in it. When we want it all, we inherit nothing.

Selections from Breaking Open the Lectionary: Lectionary Readings in Their Biblical Context for RCIA, Faith Sharing Groups, and Lectors—Cycle A, by Margaret Nutting Ralph, Copyright © 2007 by Margaret Nutting Ralph. Paulist Press, Inc., New York/Mahwah, NJ. Reprinted by permission of Paulist Press, Inc. www.paulistpress.com.

Spiritual Commentaries and Teachings are excerpted from The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers by John Shea © 2004 by Order of Saint Benedict. Published by Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota. Used with permission.


Year A: Twenty-Eighth Sunday Ordinary Time

The Parable of the Wedding Feast

Matthew 22:1-14

Jesus again in reply spoke to them in parables, saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be likened to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son. He dispatched his servants to summon the invited guests to the feast, but they refused to come. A second time he sent other servants, saying, ‘Tell those invited: “Behold, I have prepared my banquet, my calves and fattened cattle are killed, and everything is ready; come to the feast.”’ Some ignored the invitation and went away, one to his farm, another to his business. The rest laid hold of his servants, mistreated them, and killed them. The king was enraged and sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. Then he said to his servants, ‘The feast is ready, but those who were invited were not worthy to come. Go out, therefore, into the main roads and invite to the feast whomever you find.’ The servants went out into the streets and gathered all they found, bad and good alike, and the hall was filled with guests. But when the king came in to meet the guests he saw a man there not dressed in a wedding garment. He said to him, ‘My friend, how is it that you came in here without a wedding garment?’ But he was reduced to silence. When the king said to his attendants, ‘Bind his hands and feet, and cast him into the darkness outside, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.’ Many are invited, but few are chosen.”

Discussion Questions:

  1. Do you believe that everyone is invited to the kingdom? What do you think constitutes a refusal of the invitation? Explain.
  2. In what ways do you “show up”… to observe your faith, (the wedding) but not participate in it (the banquet)? Are there invitations you might be missing?
  3. The Kingdom of Heaven is a state of consciousness and action. What new conscious action has your faith–practice been leading you toward recently? (acts of justice, service, compassion or mercy)
  4. How can we grow in our ability and desire to recognize and respond to the invitations that are all around us?

Biblical Context

Matthew 22:1-14
Margaret Nutting Ralph PHD

Jesus continues to call the chief priests and elders to conversion by telling them a story in which guests who are invited to a wedding feast refuse to come. The king sends his servants out a second time to invite guests to the feast. Some ignore the invitation, but others “laid hold of his servants, mistreated them, and killed them.” In response the king “destroyed those murderers and burned their city.” Once more the king sends out his servants to gather “all they found, bad and good alike.” When the king comes to greet his guests, he notices one who is not dressed properly. He says, “My friend, how is it that you came in here without a wedding garment?” The guest doesn’t say a word. He is completely unresponsive. That guest is thrown out “where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.”

The chief priests and elders are compared to the invited guests who not only neglected to come to the banquet when all was ready but abused and even killed the one sent to extend the invitation. Jesus is once again warning these religious leaders that in rejecting him they are also rejecting an invitation to the kingdom of God.

By the time Matthew includes this parable in his Gospel (AD 85) Jesus has been killed, Jerusalem has been destroyed by the Romans (AD 70), and Gentiles have been invited into the kingdom. All of these events have helped shape the parable in its present form. Matthew is most probably referring to the destruction of Jerusalem when he says that the king was enraged and burned the city. The invitation to the banquet is now open to everyone, including Gentiles: “… invite to the feast whomever you find.”

Many people, when reading the parable of the wedding feast, make an unconscious mistake in interpretation that can lead to serious error. Instead of interpreting the story as a parable, as we have done, they interpret the story as an allegory and assume that the king stands for God. They then have the image of a God who kills and destroys, who throws people out where there is “wailing and grinding of teeth,” rather than a God who saves. The basis of this mistake is a misunderstanding of literary form. Many parables, if interpreted as allegories, lead to similar mistakes. This parable is teaching the chief priests and elders that they must respond to Jesus and his invitation if they want to enter the kingdom. It is not addressing the question, “What is God like?”

As Jesus concludes his parable, he emphasizes the necessity of a proper response to the invitation to the kingdom by describing the king’s interaction with the guest who is not dressed properly. The king doesn’t throw him out immediately. Rather, he calls him “friend,’ and asks why he is not properly dressed. The guest does not respond in any way: “But he was reduced to silence.” The failure to dress properly functions as a symbol for the failure to respond properly. The fact that everyone is invited does not mean that everyone will enter the kingdom of God. The chief priests and elders are invited, but they will not enter the kingdom. A proper response is necessary, and they will not respond. Instead, as we will read next week, they will continue to plot how to trap Jesus.

Marrying The Son

Reflection
John Shea

‘Marrying the son” is a symbol for the Christian adventure of spiritual development. The Church carries the mystery of Jesus Christ. When one enters the Church through baptism, one enters into the mystery of Jesus Christ. But to enter into the mystery is not the same as marrying it, as being in full communion with it.

In the baptismal rite for children, the parents of the child are asked if they understand “the responsibility of training him (her) in the practice of the faith … to keep God’s commandments as Christ taught us, by loving God and our neighbor”; the godparents are questioned about their readiness “to help the parents … in their duty” Thus entry into the Church implies growing into the teachings of Christ. The often timid “yes” of godparents is an indication that this growth process might not be central to their experience. After the ceremony they might be at a loss about what their “yes” entails. As important as baptism is, even adult baptism, it is only a first step.

This same emphasis on spiritual development can be approached from the idea of inherited faith. Within Christian religious traditions faith is presented as the gift of someone else. It comes from past generations, going all the way back to the apostles and Christ. It is given to each new generation in codified forms: Scripture, creeds, liturgies, dogmas, spiritual practices, etc. But, if the maxim “faith seeks understandis correct, the gift comes wrapped, and it must be opened by each ” new Christian.” This act of reception—seeking understanding—entails mindfulness, a struggle to understand and live what this faith is all about. Faith may belong to the community and the tradition, but it is always appropriated or ignored by individuals. Matthew points this out with his usual blunt options of destruction and salvation.

Hearing may be a beginning, but just hearing is a fatal end. Hearing must be followed by understanding, and understanding must lead to action. As Jesus states in John’s Gospel: “If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them” (John 13:17)

Where does this leave us? What does this mean for people who call themselves Christian? Is the Church a two-tier system: those who take the teaching seriously and struggle with it and those who hear the words and glaze over? And if so, can these two types of Christians be institutionalized so clergy and religious are the serious ones and laity the mere hearers? Or does the division cut across all the organizational groups? There are clergy, religious, and laity who take it seriously and clergy, religious, and laity who do not let it into their conventional minds and their predictable behaviors. Church analysis has often separated sheep and goats, the serious and the lax, the seekers and the sitters, the good and the fallen away, the cognoscendi (the well informed) and the ignorant, etc.

However, I believe that the imperative of Christian revelation to “marry the son” should not lead to a division of people but to a respect for timing. People go deeper into their inherited faith at different times. Some are attracted in their youth, some in the middle years, still others in old age. Some come looking for succor after failure; some come in gratitude after success. Many come after death has knocked on their door and taken someone who ate at their table.

It is too facile to say that eventually all will put on the wedding garment. But it is too cynical to say that some certainly will not. We are all Christians, but the timetables of our lives are quite distinct and individual. If home is a place that when you have to go there they have to take you in, the Christian community is a place that when you are ready for more you are always welcomed.

For me, the open invitation in the story is more crucial pastorally than the wedding garment. I am sure Matthew, great lover of dual out-comes that he is, would not agree. All are invited, good and bad alike. But good and bad are not final states; they are temporary designations. Once inside, you might come to learn that the Son finds you desirable. Even though you did not come with a wedding garment, the groom has one for you. He has chosen it with great love.

A story that began as a judgment against the leadership of Israel ends as a cautionary tale to Christians. Just belonging to the Church is not enough. Hearing the call is a first step, but it is not the final condition. Each Christian is chosen as a bride for Christ, chosen to have intercourse with the revelation of God and be filled by God’s grace. That means going beyond silent attendance. Hearing the call is easy; marrying the son is difficult.

Selections from Breaking Open the Lectionary: Lectionary Readings in Their Biblical Context for RCIA, Faith Sharing Groups, and Lectors—Cycle A, by Margaret Nutting Ralph, Copyright © 2007 by Margaret Nutting Ralph. Paulist Press, Inc., New York/Mahwah, NJ. Reprinted by permission of Paulist Press, Inc. www.paulistpress.com

Spiritual Commentaries and Teachings are excerpted from The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers by John Shea © 2004 by Order of Saint Benedict. Published by Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota. Used with permission.


Year A: Twenty-Ninth Sunday Ordinary Time

Paying Taxes to the Emperor

Matthew 22: 15-21

Then the Pharisees went off and plotted how they might entrap him in speech.They sent their disciples to him, with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are a truthful man and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. And you are not concerned with anyone’s opinion, for you do not regard a person’s status. Tell us, then, what is your opinion: Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?” Knowing their malice, Jesus said, “Why are you testing me, you hypocrites? Show me the coin that pays the census tax.” Then they handed him the Roman coin. He said to them, “Whose image is this and whose inscription? They replied, “Caesar’s.” At that he said to them, “Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” When they heard this they were amazed, and leaving him they went away.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What could belong to us that does not already belong to God?
  2. In what ways have you given to God what belongs to God? In what ways have you failed to give to God what belongs to God?
  3. Who are the “Caesars” that we attach ourselves to and do we sometimes give to them what we should give to God?
  4. Where do you struggle most in balancing priorities of who/what has a rightful claim on your time and devotion?

Biblical Context

Sr. Mary McGlone CSJ

In the past few weeks, we’ve heard Jesus narrate parables that called friends and enemies to conversion. That’s another way of saying that he told parables that angered his opposition. Today’s Gospel opens with the explanation that Jesus’ enemies were forging new alliances in their campaign to undo him. This is the first time we hear about the Herodians — a group that doesn’t need any more description than their name indicates; they aligned themselves with the brutal ruler, Herod Antipas. The disciples of the Pharisees and the Herodians, a very odd coalition, plan a verbal trap for Jesus.

The oil of insincerity oozes through the scene as they open their ambush with praise for Jesus as a truthful teacher who doesn’t pander to anyone. (This is not the only time that Jesus is in the awkward position of having hypocrites or demons praise him for who he really is.) The loquacious speakers finally get to their point and ask about the legitimacy of collaborating with the Romans by paying taxes. Lest anyone wonder what Jesus really thought about his questioners and their creative dilemma, he immediately addresses them as hypocrites, and makes it clear to everyone listening that their intent is only to test him. They have no interest in looking for an answer and no personal investment in the question.

Disingenuous as they may be, their question is legitimate. If Jesus tells people to refuse to pay taxes, he’s siding with rebels and perhaps calling down more wrath than the case warrants. On the other hand, paying taxes could be read as a sign of accepting and thereby legitimizing the rule of the pagan Romans. This is probably the first description of a church/state conflict in Christian history.

When Jesus asks to see a coin, the first thing we notice is that his questioners have Roman money, thereby collaborating with the system at least to the extent that they carry something that bears the sort of graven image forbidden by strict Jews. The injunction against images was a stringent application of the commandment in Exodus: “You shall not make for yourself an idol or a likeness of anything in the heavens above or on the earth below or in the waters beneath the earth” (20:4). While the application of that commandment forbad any sort of depiction of human beings or creatures, its intent was to forbid idolatry, the worship of or consecration to any person, creature or thing other than God.

When Jesus asked whose image was on the coin, the group’s ability to produce one pointed out that they carried Roman money that featured an image of Caesar, the inscription on which called Caesar Augustus a divinity. Jesus didn’t comment on the coin’s idolatrous implications but neutralized the dichotomy, rising above it with a typically enigmatic response.

While our translation says “repay” to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, others say “give” or “render.” Whichever translation one uses, the answer is a riddle. The first part is fairly simple: With some prayer and discernment, we can determine what belongs to Caesar. There may be some debate about government’s legitimate rights, but at some point, there will be a limit to what the government can demand of citizens. We can be genuinely dedicated to the nation and the common good without falling into the idolatry of blind obedience. But when it comes to giving to God what belongs to God, what falls outside of that category?

Balancing God and Caesar

Reflection
By Sr. Mary McGlone

The money of the United States bears the official national motto: “In God We Trust.” It’s a curious and sometimes contentious part of our history. Apparently, the motto first appeared on coins during the Civil War, a not so subtle assertion that God was on the side of the Union. During the height of the Cold War, when the atheistic Soviet Union was our most frightening enemy, Congress passed laws making the phrase the official motto of the United States and ordering that it should be printed on all U.S. paper currency.

When the motto and its exhibition have been challenged in court, the decisions have ruled that it does not favor the establishment of religion and therefore is not unconstitutional. A 2004 Court of Appeals ruling said that references to God on money or in the Pledge of Allegiance “have lost through rote repetition any significant religious content.” On the other extreme, President Teddy Roosevelt called references to God on coins sacrilegious. God and country, church and state, the debate has confounded Christians since the time of Jesus.

In today’s Gospel, we see the start of a strange alliance between Pharisees and Herodians, groups whose only commonality seemed to be their opposition to Jesus. In one sense, they might be taken as the representatives of strict religion and the folks who could drop all scruples and self-servingly support the local dynasty. When this odd combo of church and state factions questioned Jesus about the legitimacy of paying taxes, they thought they had come up with the perfect dilemma. If Jesus said, “pay,” he implicitly acknowledged the legitimacy of the Roman occupation, pagan rule over God’s people. On the other hand, those people remembered that less than 30 years before this happened, a man called Judas the Galilean had been executed for starting a revolution based on refusing to pay taxes. His sons met the same fate in the year 47 CE. Tax resistance was dangerous in those days.

Jesus was never one to be bested in political theater. Just when they thought they had him on the hook, he reeled them in. It was time for show and tell. He asked for a coin. Whose picture was on it? The coin they carried displayed not only an image of Tiberius Caesar but also a written declaration that he was the son of the divine Augustus. The other side of the coin had the words pontifex maximus declaring that Caesar was the most-high priest. The very sight of such a coin would rankle strongly religious or nationalistic Jews. For the Gospel writers, the memory of the coin was the height of irony.

Then Jesus responded to their interrogation. When they admitted that the coin bore an image of Caesar, he handed them a riddle: “Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.”

Jesus’ response would satisfy no purist. The righteous religious would see him as promoting capitulation to the pagans. The Herodians, the “if you can’t lick ‘em, join ‘em” crowd, would realize they had just been given a very tenuous pass. The underlying question is what could belong to Caesar that does not already belong to God? Jesus left it to each age to discern how to interpret that for their own times.

The Gospel gives us Jesus’ response to groups that were out to trap him. What about folks who are sincere in wondering when supporting Caesar stops being legitimate? When must we be conscientious objectors? There are a few details in the story that offer clues to the riddle. First of all, any practicing Jew who heard Jesus say something about what belongs to God would have heard echoes of prayers like Psalm 24 which begins, “The earth is the Lord’s and all it holds, the world and those who dwell in it.”

The second hint comes through the part of the story that Jesus didn’t emphasize. The coin the questioners were carrying was blasphemous to religious Jews. It symbolized all the institutions that tend to divinize themselves as the ultimate in importance or authority. The inscription on the coin could be compared to the statement, “My country, right or wrong,” or any other declaration of absolute allegiance to anything on the Earth. That inscription and attitude cross the line giving to Caesar what belongs to God. Seen in that light, an answer to the riddle begins to appear. Caesar, the common good, society, can all make legitimate claims on us. We are responsible to create societies which serve the good of all. That’s what we owe to Caesar.

If the God in whom we trust is the God of Jesus, what we owe to God is a blank check.


Year A: Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time

The Greatest Commandment

Matthew 22: 34-40

When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them [a scholar of the law] tested him by asking, “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest? He said to him, “you shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.”

Discussion Questions:

  1. Were you at one stage of your life a legalist? Have you outgrown being a legalist? What do you think a faithful Christian’s attitude should be toward civil law? Toward church law? Explain.
  2. Are you open to new ideas and new insights, or do you initially resist them? What about your upbringing accounts for your response?
  3. Do you think God has a “preferential option for the poor”? Do you think Christians are required to have a “preferential option for the poor”? Explain.
  4. In what specific ways do you “love yourself well”? How does this deepen your love of God and neighbor?

Biblical Context

Mary McGlone

This passage from Matthew is set in the midst of various controversies that Jesus encounters with both Sadducees and Pharisees. One of the Pharisees, “a scholar of the law,” tested Jesus by first ironically addressing him as teacher and then asking, “Which commandment in the law is the greatest?” While set in the context of a test, it is obvious from other writings that this was a concern among the Jewish community of Jesus’ day. The possibility of not being able to follow through completely on all of the 613 Torah commandments led the community to prioritize some over others. Choosing certain commandments over others led to controversy among scholars of the law. Jesus responds not so much by choosing one commandment over the others, but rather by explicating the underlying principles that govern the carrying out of all commandments.

Jesus combines two commandments from the Torah, stating that the second is like the first. The first, from Deuteronomy, is an integral part of the Shema (6:4-9), the daily prayer and primary confession of the Jewish community. It calls for love of God with one’s whole being — heart, soul and mind. Jesus calls this the first and greatest commandment. Then he adds a second, saying it is like the first. Quoting Leviticus 19:18, Jesus states, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love of neighbor in Leviticus is explicated in a very practical, real and just manner. Key to love of neighbor is right relationship, the Jewish understanding of justice. Others in Jesus’ day had also linked these two commandments. Jesus not only approves of this linkage but affirms that these linked commandments are at the core of all his teachings.

For Matthew’s Jesus love of God and neighbor as self are the interpretive key to what the “kingdom of heaven” is like. The final sentence of today’s passage clearly expounds what is essential in living in fidelity to God’s will and purpose: “The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.” The law and the prophets are synonyms for all of God’s revealed word. Jesus is saying that these two commandments are the lens, criteria and basis for carrying out all the other commandments.

Matthew’s Jesus also expands Jewish understanding of the neighbor. In Leviticus 19 neighbor is understood to be only a fellow Israelite. However, in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew, Jesus clearly states that God desires us to love enemies and to pray for those who persecute you (5:43-44). In other words, the care and concern for the neighbor is thoroughly inclusive and expansive. It includes the entire human family: the loved one and the enemy. It demands not just general concern for the other but very specific demands of attunement to the needs of the other and the obligations to meet those needs. These two passages specify the obligation to feed, clothe, visit and care for the other no matter the circumstances.

These commandments are the core of our living in fidelity to God and to one another, especially our fellow Christians. Jesus’ directives form the core of Christian living and unite in a very profound manner all those who have committed themselves to Christian discipleship. As we commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, let us strive for that unity Jesus prayed for his disciples in John 17, “that they may all be one.”

How Do I Love Me?

Reflection
By Carolyn A. Wright

How do I love me? Let me count the ways. That’s right, you heard me: “How do I love me.”

Our world is fraught with fear, isolation, injustice and violence. What might be at root? Certainly, unbridled ego and arrogance, unrestrained anger and resentment, untethered pain and desperation play crucial roles in the escalation of the destruction of civility, acceptance and promise.

In the Gospel, we hear again the greatest of commandments: “Love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. … Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Love your neighbor as yourself. How do you love you? How do I love me? What is at root? I wonder.

Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians provides assurance that their faith is solid, real, dynamic and gives witness to the resurrected Son of God. In faith, they received the word with joy from the Holy Spirit. In doing so, the word sounds forth from their lips in every place. It is interesting to note that the verb Paul uses is exēcheō. According to Earl J. Richard, author of the biblical commentary for First and Second Thessalonians (Sacra Pagina Series), this verb occurs only here in this Scripture. Richard also points out this usage of the verb exēcheō, “seek[s] no further specificity than that of a sound emanating in all directions from a source.” Paul affirms the witness of the Thessalonians — lives lived in joy serving God. Can we say the same? Does the word sound forth, emanate in all directions from our lips? Am I — are you — truly a person of faith serving God? Do I receive and do I embody this gift? How do I love me; perhaps by receiving God’s gift of faith?

The Exodus reading provides assurance to the people of Israel that God is their hope. If those outside of the community are oppressed or harmed, God hears their cry. If the marginalized of the community — the widow, orphan, the poorest and most vulnerable — are wronged, God hears their cry. God responds to everyone with an allencompassing compassion which lifts and heals, which is our hope. Thus, Exodus affirms the witness of a God of compassion, a God who is our hope. Do we truly hope in God alone? Do I receive and do I embody this gift? How do I love me; perhaps by receiving God’s gift of hope?

Finally, the Gospel provides assurance to the Matthean community that God is their love. They are given the commands: Love the Lord, your God. Love your neighbor as yourself. But, what is the source of that love? It is the love of God which sounds forth to our hearts and mind. It is a love which transforms our selfish and self-centered ways of being and moves us to love anew our God, others and ourselves. Thus, the Gospel affirms the witness of a God of love. Do we truly love? Do I receive and embody this gift? How do I love me; perhaps by receiving God’s gift of love?

I wonder. If I accept and embody the gifts of faith, hope and love — God’s free offering to all humanity — might I begin to truly understand what it means to love me? Might I accept God’s virtue of love to quell my unbridled ego and arrogance? Receive God’s virtue of faith to temper my unrestrained anger and resentment?

Assent to God’s virtue of hope to heal my pain and desperation and in turn, make a turn in my daily living to civility, acceptance and promise.

I wonder, what is at root? If we accept and embody the gifts of faith, hope and love, might we turn together toward the One who offers us the true root of our being — the one True Vine?


Year A: Thirty-First Sunday Ordinary Time

They preach but they do not practice.

Matthew 23: 1-12

Jesus spoke to the crowds and to his disciples, saying, “The scribes and the Pharisees have taken their seat on the chair of Moses. Therefore, do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you, but do not follow their example. For they preach but they do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens hard to carry and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they will not lift a finger to move them. All their works are performed to be seen. They widen their phylacteries and lengthen their tassels. They love places of honor at banquets, seats of honor in synagogues, greetings in marketplaces, and the salutation ‘Rabbi.’ As for you, do not be called ‘Rabbi.’ You have but one teacher, and you are all brothers. Call no one on earth your father; you have but one Father in heaven. Do not be called ‘Master’; you have but one master, the Christ. The greatest among you must be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled; but whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”

Discussion Questions:

  1. As a faithful disciple of Jesus, what do think you should do when you see church authority being abused? What about as a faithful citizen when seeing civil authority abused?
  2. How have you personally reacted to the abuse of legitimate authority? Were you able to react in a way that neither dismisses legitimate authority nor allows legitimate authority to mislead you? Explain
  3. In Gospels Jesus is critical of the mind set of; “polishing the outside of the cup”, of loving ceremony and show but neglecting the hard work of inner change” Where do you struggle most with inner change?

Biblical Context

Matthew 23: 1-12
Sr Mary McGlone CSJ

When Jesus talked about morality, he didn’t mince words. One word that could summarize his teaching on the moral life might be “integrity.” As we search the Gospels, we have to look hard to find Jesus talking much about sexuality. When he met sinners of any ilk, he offered them forgiveness and told them to change their ways. He rarely quoted the law except to comment on its deeper meaning. (See the Sermon on the Mount) But what really seemed to get to Jesus going was hypocrisy, especially on the part of people with power or position. We might say that he critiqued them unmercifully, except that his prophetic critique was another expression of the mercy that called them to conversion. As is to be expected, the authorities he lambasted were the ones who became his bitterest enemies. Nobody likes to be unmasked as a phony.

We need to interpret the selection we hear today from Matthew in the light of its circumstances. At this point in the story we’re hearing about a growing life and death conflict. Jesus had silenced his opposition — at least in public. They resorted to plotting in private, a decision that exposed them as the fearful bullies they were.

The problem that set Jesus off on this tirade was that the scribes and Pharisees were saying the right things for the wrong purpose. They had legitimate authority, but they used it destructively. They wielded the letter of the law like a hatchet that severed the simple people’s hope for righteousness and cut their sense of being close to a loving God. In Jesus’ eyes, that took away all the legitimacy of their leadership. It didn’t destroy the teaching they quoted, only their authority to represent it.

It’s easy to imagine that Jesus’ tirade had been building up for a long time. He had watched as the self-proclaimed orthodox orated, caring far more about their precision and eloquence than about the needs of those whom they addressed. He had seen them parade in their oh-so-obvious religious garb, focusing public attention on their fine facade, while their hearts were hidden — perhaps even from themselves. They might have spoken God’s word accurately, but they perverted it in their attitudes and actions.

Jesus expressed his own theology clearly. “Call no one on earth your Father, you have but one Father in heaven.” And what was God, his Father, like? As the representative, the revelation of God’s greatness, Jesus taught “the greatest among you must be your servant.” Jesus did not call himself God, but he taught that greatness expresses itself in humble service, a lifestyle he modeled.

When he preached and even more when he interacted with people, Jesus presented a model of God like that found in Isaiah 49 where God is described as even more loving than a nursing mother. In verse 16, God says: “See, on the palms of my hands I have engraved you.” That engraving was the mark of slaves whose master’s name was tattooed or scarred onto their hands.

That shows how far God goes in dedication to humanity. The God Jesus reveals is great enough to be able to give everything. Anyone who wants to be God-like must start with integrity and humble service.

The Rightful use of Power

Reflection
By Ted Wolgamot

“I believe the root of all evil is the abuse of power.” This statement by writer Patricia Cornwell is strongly reflected in today’s Gospel.

Power, and how it is abused, is a primary scriptural story line found in nearly every biblical account from the garden of Eden to the Egyptian pharaohs and the Israelite kings, continuing with the infamous Pontius Pilate, and ending only with the sweeping condemnation found in the Book of Revelation.

The stories of power, and its misuse, are legion and reach into every dimension of life including the workplace, politics, church, marriage, relationships and even parenting.

In today’s Gospel, the misuse of power is central to Jesus’ teaching where he speaks forcefully about the good use of power as compared to its opposite.

Good power, Jesus passionately argues, embraces a selfless, benevolent dimension. It involves the sharing of burdens, not the imposition of millstones around the necks of others.

Admittedly, this argument of Jesus requires a substantial upgrade in human consciousness. The opposite is reveling in our vanity and greed, seeking vengeance and domination, desperately advancing ourselves to suppress others.

Notice, for example, the contrast that Jesus emphasizes between the bad use of power and the good: “Do whatever the scribes and Pharisees teach you … but do not do what they do.” Why? “For they preach but they do not practice. … All their works are performed to be seen.”

In contrast to this misuse of power, Jesus offers an opposing truth: “The greatest among you must be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled; but whoever humbles himself will be exalted.

This teaching represents the heart of the ethics that must belong to the new faith community that Jesus is founding — as it must be in our faith community now some 2,000 years old. Regarding the rightful use of power, four major themes are implied in Jesus’ teaching:

Walk the walk. Don’t just talk the talk. Central to this teaching is the connection that must exist between word and deed. We are what we do, not what we say.
Your use of power is always directed to love towards others. The law of love involves not preaching or teaching, so much as doing. Action is what makes the difference.
Piety is an internal affair of the heart. It is not about impressing people or looking for ways to be honored and glorified.
We are all called to a life of holiness, not only those in leadership positions. It is not just the “job” of priests, ministers, religious leaders to be holy. The call from Jesus to live a new kind of life extends to everyone.

The good use of power involves developing a new kind of language, a new set of words: The greatest will be servants and those who exalt themselves will be humbled. This is the kind of language that Jesus promotes in today’s Gospel — the language that protects children, the poor, the hungry, the dismissed, the irrelevant, the “less-thans.” It’s the kind of language that moves us as a people from violence to nonviolence, from imperial power to relational power, from domination to transformation.

The ultimate result of this kind of language will then become a primary way of living lives of kindness. And, as Mark Twain reminds us: “Kindness is the language which the deaf can hear and the blind can see.”

Optional reflection: use both, either, or the second one as a closing prayer.

Practice, Practice, Practice

Were I to leave this earth today, and were you to ask me for a final word about what our Ideal is, I would have to say, certain that it would be understood in its deepest sense: “Be a family.”

Are some among you suffering from spiritual or moral trials? Be understanding to them, as a mother would, and even more. Enlighten them through your words and through your example. Do not allow them to lack the warmth of a family, but rather increase it.

Are any among you in physical pain? May they be our preferred brothers and sisters. Suffer with them. Try to understand their pain completely. Share with them the fruits of your apostolic activities so that they know that, more than anyone else, they have contributed to them.

Are any among you approaching their final moments of life? Imagine you are in their place, and do for them what you would want done for yourself, until their very last breath.

Are any of you rejoicing because of a success, or for any other reason? Rejoice with them, that their consolation may not fade and their hearts not close, so that their joy may belong to everyone.

Are some moving to another place? Do not let them leave without filling their hearts with a single inheritance: the sense of a family, so that they may take it with them wherever they go.

Never place any kind of activity, whether spiritual or apostolic, before the spirit of being a family with the brothers or sisters with whom you are living.

Chiara Lubich, Essential Writings
Chiara Lubich (1920–2008), an internationally known religious leader and writer, was the founder of the Focolare, a movement that includes people of all ages, races, and vocations who promote unity, reconciliation, and the spirit of love.


Year A: Thirty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time

Behold, the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!

Matthew 25 1-13

Jesus told his disciples this parable: “The kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish and five were wise. The foolish ones, when taking their lamps, brought no oil with them, but the wise brought flasks of oil with their lamps. Since the bridegroom was long delayed, they all became drowsy and fell asleep. At midnight, there was a cry, ‘Behold, the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!’ Then all those virgins got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish ones said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise ones replied, ‘No, for there may not be enough for us and you. Go instead to the merchants and buy some for yourselves.’ While they went off to buy it, the bridegroom came and those who were ready went into the wedding feast with him. Then the door was locked. Afterwards the other virgins came and said, ‘Lord, Lord, open the door for us!’ But he said in reply, ‘Amen, I say to you, I do not know you.’ Therefore, stay awake, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”

Discussion Questions:

  1. How does this parable apply to your life specifically? Have you experienced being spiritually prepared or unprepared when Christ has come into your life? When has this happened for you? Explain
  2. If you were living your life to be “always ready” for the coming of the Lord, what new things would you be doing that you are not doing now?
  3. Why do you think the bridegroom does not recognize the foolish Virgins? Do you think there’s a relationship here between our ability to recognize Christ and the Christ recognizing us?
  4. One aspect of this passage is about waking up to the inner consciousness and outer action of Jesus. In what new ways might this be happening in you?

Biblical Context

Sr. Mary McGlone CSJ

Whereas our first reading praised Wisdom and those who seek her, Jesus tells a tale contrasting the foolish and the wise — obviously inviting us to consider who is who, then and now. Here the group is evenly divided with five wise and five foolish virgins – that’s a better scorecard than we got in Matthew 22:14 where we heard that many were called but only a few chosen.

Jesus told this story, but except for the obscure detail about the wise virgins having extra oil on hand, he didn’t really explain what makes one wise or foolish. To understand that, we need to go back to what he said in Matthew 7:24-26: “Everyone who listens to these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock … And everyone who listens … but does not act on them will be like a fool who built his house on sand.”

The difference between foolishness and wisdom is that the wise hear the word and put it into practice. That was not a new revelation; Jesus was drawing on his tradition when he said it. Proverbs 13:9 tells us: “The light of the just gives joy, but the lamp of the wicked goes out.” The idea is that the wicked or foolish create nothing worthwhile in their lives. As all creation is moving toward union with God, they have played no part in the drama of advancing toward that end. The little light they had simply fades away.

When we interpret this parable in the context of other parts of Matthew’s Gospel, we get the idea that the wise virgins’ oil of preparedness came from rocksolid habits of putting Jesus’ words into practice.

In his 2017 homily for the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul, Pope Francis could have been commenting on this parable when he said: “Let us ask ourselves if we are parlor Christians, who love to chat about how things are going in the Church and the world, or apostles on the go, who confess Jesus with their lives because they hold him in their hearts.”

The parables that come toward the end of Matthew’s Gospel are all calling us to look at our heart. The parable of the wise and foolish virgins asks us about our commitment for the long haul. Are we like the five who went to the house with just enough oil to check out what was happening? They were there for the entertainment, like people who knew about the bride and groom but who didn’t have a significant attachment to them or the celebration. In contrast, the wise young women had been saving up for this occasion. They went early and planned to stay late. The wise ones had been practicing for this party. Nothing could dampen their enthusiasm. If the groom was late, that didn’t matter; they knew he would come.

In both their waking and their dreaming, they were ready.

Lighting Your Own Lamp

Reflection
John Shea

When they asked Gandhi what his message was, he said, “My life is my message”.

St. Francis of Assisi is reputed to have said, “Preach the Gospel. Use words if necessary.”

The last words of the Buddha to his followers were, “Be a light unto yourself.”

Martin Luther cautioned, “You are going to die alone. You had better believe alone.”

Angelus Silesius asked, “What good if Gabriel hails the Virgin and does not hail me?’

In the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus says, “Whoever drinks from my mouth will become like me; I myself shall become that person, and the hidden things will be revealed to him” (GT 108).

There is a brief but hard-hitting story:

A man knocks on a door. The voice from inside says, “Who is it?” The man says, “It is your countryman.” The voice behind the door says, “There is no one here.”

The man wanders for a year, returns to the door, and knocks a second time. The voice from inside says, “Who is it?” The man says, “It is your brother.” The voice behind the door says, “There is no one here.”

The man wanders for a year, returns to the door, and knocks a third time. The voice from inside says, “Who is it?” The man says, “It is you.” The door opens.

How does Christ know us? He knows us when he looks into our face and sees himself.

There is a delicate balance in the following of Jesus. On the one hand, Jesus is the Lord and Master and remains so. Although his disciples may do greater things than he has, as the Gospel of John (14:12) predicts, they will do them in communion with his Spirit. No one will take the place of Jesus, and at the end of time it will be he who judges the living and the dead. The revelation of God in Jesus Christ is the fullness in which everything else will either fit or be cast aside. Quite simply, as the Book of Revelation says, Jesus is the “the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end” (22:13).

Yet worshiping Jesus from afar with extravagant praise and petition is inappropriate. You cannot ride on his coattails. You must receive Christ into your self as a person would receive bread, put it into the mouth, and swallow it. Then Christ will be within you, building you up from the inside. Or you must receive Christ so thoroughly that he will awaken you to your identity as a child of God. Then as a child of God you would be on God’s mission and the divine pleasure would flow through you. This integration of Christ into your life means transformation. When it is occurring, you will understand Paul’s cry: “it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2:20).

This balance is difficult to maintain. We simultaneously say, “There is only one Lord and Master” and “You are another Christ.” But the parable of the ten virgins is very clear about where a prevalent danger lies. We know everything about him except the one thing necessary (see Luke 10:42): we are called to be him. But if we take into ourselves his truth so that it becomes our truth, then the door opens.

Spiritual Commentaries and Teachings are excerpted from The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers by John Shea © 2004 by Order of Saint Benedict. Published by Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota. Used with permission.


Year A: Thirty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time

Parable of the Talents

Matthew 25: 14-30

Jesus told his disciples this parable: “A man going on a journey called in his servants and entrusted his possessions to them. To one he gave five talents; to another, two; to a third, one—to each according to his ability. Then he went away. Immediately the one who received five talents went and traded with them and made another five. Likewise, the one who received two made another two. But the man who received one went off and dug a hole in the ground and buried his master’s money.

“After a long time, the master of those servants came back and settled accounts with them. The one who had received five talents came forward bringing the additional five. He said, ‘Master, you gave me five talents. See, I have made five more.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, my good and faithful servant. Since you were faithful in small matters, I will give you great responsibilities. Come, share your master’s joy.’ Then the one who had received two talents also came forward and said, ‘Master, you gave me two talents. See, I have made two more.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, my good and faithful servant. Since you were faithful in small matters, I will give you great responsibilities. Come, share your master’s joy.’ Then the one who had received the one talent came forward and said, ‘Master, I knew you were a demanding person, harvesting where you did not plant and gathering where you did not scatter; so out of fear I went off and buried your talent in the ground. Here it is back.’ His master said to him in reply, ‘You wicked, lazy servant! So, you knew that I harvest where I did not plant and gather where I did not scatter? Should you not then have put my money in the bank so that I could have got it back with interest on my return? Now then! Take the talent from him and give it to the one with ten. For to everyone who has, more will be given and he will grow rich; but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. And throw this useless servant into the darkness outside, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.”

Discussion Questions:

  1. What are some “talents” or things of great value that God has entrusted you with in your life?
  2. What role does “fear” play in your image of God and the use of your freedom to choose separation from or union with God?
  3. As you reflect on your life, in what areas have you shared or multiplied the spiritual gifts you’ve received from God?
  4. There’s an old saying that goes “the God you pray to, is the God you become”. Or as the Buddha put it “what you focus on becomes your reality.” Do you pray to a harsh judge, or a forgiving father?

Biblical Context

Matthew 25: 14-30
Sr. Mary McGlone CSJ

All three readings this week ask us what we are doing with the time of our life. The worthy woman is a model of God’s faithful ones who go about doing good in every circumstance. Paul addresses a community anxious for predictions and tells them not to worry about the end but rather about the way they were living day to day. If they live as children of the light, they have nothing to worry about. With that preparation, we come to Jesus’ parable of the talents. Here we have the question of what we do with the time and circumstances of our lives, but also very directly the question of why we do what we do and what it has to do with God.

The situation Jesus sets up is imaginable in spite of its fantastic dimensions. The people listening to Jesus could envision a wealthy businessman who had a plethora of servants. Some servants would typically be left in charge of the household, etc. Some others would be well prepared and able to carry on the master’s work. The latter were the specially chosen ones, the ones who had a knack for the master’s business.

When the master was going somewhere, he gave his servants charge of everything. In this case, he handed over a good portion of his fortune to the specialists in his business so that they could continue his work. Nobody should feel too sorry for the servant who received the least — what he got was in the realm of a million dollars. What he did was not unimaginable under the circumstances. Where there were no banks one could keep money safe by hiding it; a secret burial place was very secure. The factor which made all the difference was that he didn’t like his master enough to care about what he did for him.

The trouble was that the servant didn’t do what the master wanted. The master himself could have buried the money or even put it in the bank! It was as if the master had given this servant seeds to use while he was gone and the servant put them carefully in a cupboard, saying that he was keeping them safe from floods, droughts or a plague of locusts.

The master handed his fortune over to his servants so that they could keep his business going. Those who did so not only increased the master’s fortune, but they became more like him as they did his work, as they carried forth his mission. When the master returned, he didn’t look at the amounts and rejoice more for a return of five talents than for the return of two. To both of those servants he said, “Come, share your master’s joy,” which was another way of saying, “Come to my feast!”

The whole truth came out when the servant who had received a mere $1,000,000 reported in. Before he ever spoke of what he did, he told the master what he thought of him: “You are demanding, you harvest what you did not plant, you go for everything you can get. So, I decided to have nothing to do with your projects. Look, I return to you exactly what you gave me, nothing more nothing less.” In effect that servant was saying, “I want nothing to do with your endeavors.” While the story says that the master ordered that he be thrown out, that was no more than the logical conclusion of a process the servant himself had set in motion. He had already chosen to exclude himself from the master’s business. If he wouldn’t take part in the master’s plan, it was impossible for him to share the master’s joy.

Today’s readings remind us that everything we have is a gift from God given so that we may know God’s joy. Each of us must then decide what to make of the time of our lives.

Fearing God

Spiritual Commentary
John Shea

The Gospel of Matthew is filled with dire consequences. If people do not respond to Jesus and his teachings correctly, they are in for a considerable mount of trouble. They can be tied hand and foot and cast outside into exterior darkness where they weep and gnash their teeth. They can be handed over to torturers until their entire debt is paid, a debt they will never be able to pay. Finally, they can fry in eternal fire.

Certainly, these images fuel our fantasies of hell. All people know physical pain and, from the pain we know, we can imagine what the pain must be like in chronic situations, chronic to the extreme of eternal. Also, all people know social rejection and, from the exclusion we know, we can imagine the loneliness of being completely ostracized. Flannery O’Connor once said she created grotesque caricatures to catch the attention of the blind and deaf. She might have learned from Matthew. A lake of everlasting fire definitely makes you sit up and take notice.

Of course, these catastrophes happen to people in the stories. But for those reading the stories they are meant as salutary warnings. If self-interest motivates you at all, you should avoid the behaviors that lead to these terrible punishments. Although this is the manifest objective of the story, I suspect it has the latent function of paralyzing people with fear.

Instead of being galvanized to imitate the first two servants, we find ourselves quaking and wondering if we have dug the hole deep enough to bury the single talent we have. The startling end of the narrative exacerbates the one-talent timidity that lurks in every person. When the image of God as a demanding master “who gathers but did not scatter and reaps but did not sow” is taken seriously, it plays into too much psychological and social “hardness.” We know this type of master: the boss or banker from hell.

There are many ways to approach the psychological and spiritual state of fearing God. Some say that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 9- 10); fear of the Lord is the ‘”beginning of wisdom” but not the end. Fearing God gets God on the radar screen. Once there—and we explore the transcendent more and more—we realize that the “Almighty” is a Father and the terror of divine immensity and power gives way to the deeper revelation of love.

Others point out the contradictions in the Gospels between gentleness and violence. Matthew uses Isaiah to describe Jesus as one who ‘will not break a bruised reed or quench a smoldering wick” (Matt 12:20; cf. Isa 42:3). If a candle was almost out, Jesus would not snuff it. If a reed was so badly damaged it was almost separated, Jesus would not deliver the final blow and break it. Jesus never contributed to death, even when death was imminent. He always gave life. Is this the same Son of God who told stories of divine violent retributions? If we have to choose between the punishing God who, like it or not, generates fear and the gentle God who encourages love, roll the dice and choose love. Still others see the images of punishment and destruction as writ-large pictures of human freedom. They are not the result of literal actions of a separate Divine Being. They are imaginative portraits of the blessings and burdens of human freedom. If people respond to the divine invitation, all goes well, even better than expected. If people do not respond, all goes badly, even worse than expected. The slogan is: ‘Avoid God as creator: meet God as judge.”

But these pictures of punishments should not be seen as fulminating threats from a personal Divine Being. Rather the pictures of loss are simple predictions. As the Bible stresses repeatedly in anthropomorphic images, God is faithful to God’s self. There is a nature to spiritual reality. It works according to certain patterns, sequences, and operations.

What we really fear, however, may not be the demands and harshness of inevitable spiritual dynamics. What we may really fear is the edge of our own freedom.

Spiritual Commentaries and Teachings are excerpted from The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers by John Shea © 2004 by Order of Saint Benedict. Published by Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota. Used with permission.

Year A: Thirty-Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time

The Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ the King

Matthew 25: 31-46

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit upon his glorious throne, and all the nations will be assembled before him. And he will separate them one from another, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33He will place the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. Then the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.

For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him and say, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?’ And the king will say to them in reply, ‘Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.’

Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, a stranger and you gave me no welcome, naked and you gave me no clothing, ill and in prison, and you did not care for me.’ Then they will answer and say, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or ill or in prison, and not minister to your needs?’ He will answer them, ‘Amen, I say to you, what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me.’ And these will go off to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

Discussion Questions:

  1. Do you believe the way you treat others is the way you treat Christ? How does this affect your actions?
  2. In this passage Matthew’s criteria of judgment is our ability to recognize the Lord in the dire circumstances of others, the hungry, the sick, the imprisoned and the stranger. How does this make you feel?
  3. Do you struggle with the human (quid-pro-quo) tendency to only give to those who give back, lend to those who can repay and do good to those who do good to you? Explain
  4. The Christian ideal is for our ethics and our spirituality to form a unified whole. In what ways are you experiencing or not experiencing this in caring for the least of your brothers?

Biblical Context

Matthew 25: 31-46
Sr. Mary McGlone CSJ

The description of the last judgment begins with the triumphant Son of Man coming in glory. It’s a scene filled with references to apocalyptic images from the Hebrew Scriptures and first-century politics. This is the glorious Christ, surrounded by angelic agents of resurrection and judgment.

The parable is the crown of Jesus’ reversal stories; contemporary scholars suggest that it does not say what most people generally think it does. When the triumphant Son of Man identifies with the lowliest of his brethren, we have learned to think of them as the poor of the world. But based on how Matthew has used the terms for the lowly and brethren, most commentators suggest that they are not the poor in general; they are the Christian missionaries, the new family of Jesus, who go out representing him. This does not disparage service of the poor it simply says that Jesus was not referring to the generic poor of the world in this parable. He was talking about his missionary disciples, the lowly ones who evangelized in his name.

A second dimension of the parable that we often fail to note is that the historical Jesus spoke of the glorious Son of Man just before he entered into his own passion, the time when he would appear in public at his weakest and most rejected. Except when we read the Gospel of John, the images of Christ in glory and Jesus who suffered in weakness and rejection seem to be polar opposites. But the parable actually weaves them together, indicating that the Son of Man will appear before humanity in hunger and thirst, imprisoned, naked and weak. He appears this way both in his historical passion and death and through those brothers and sisters who carried on his mission. Therefore, the judgment of the nations rests on whether they accept and love a God who does not mirror the powers of the world but comes among them as a suffering servant.

Pope Pius XI established this feast in 1925 as an antidote to secularism and the church’s loss of power and prestige in Europe. At a time when the Vatican had very little tolerance for democracies and freedom of religion, Pius wrote the encyclical Quas Primas which established the feast. Pius explained his hope that the fruits of the feast would give royal honors to our Lord and that “Men will doubtless be reminded that the Church [was] founded by Christ as a perfect society” (QP 31). There is evangelical irony and a sign of the work of the Spirit in the fact that the readings for the feast of Christ the King of the Universe all depict Jesus in his weakness, yet the feast itself was established in protest to the church’s loss of power and prestige.

Today, our celebration of Christ our King invites us to consider what we believe about where we and the universe are ultimately headed. Do we consider the difference the resurrection makes?

Loving the Powerless

Reflection
By Pat Marrin

The Solemnity of Christ the King concludes the liturgical year with the assertion that, despite the ominous end-of-time imagery featured in the preceding weeks, God is the ultimate power in the universe.

But what does God’s power look like? If Jesus represents God’s kingship, then divine power is both mysterious and paradoxical. Earthly power is the capacity to force others by threat or violence to do what you want. Kings are the image of power, dominating their subjects and their adversaries.

The title of “king” applied to Jesus is ironic in that, throughout his earthly life, he never claimed political or physical power other than the power of words. He was a preacher, teacher, storyteller. He sought out powerless people, often the victims of power — the poor, sick and social outcasts. In his confrontation with the power structures of his own time, he did not resist, but surrendered himself to violent abuse and an unjust death. The evangelists depict his death as a kind of parody of kingship. Jesus is cloaked in purple, crowned with thorns, enthroned on a cross between two thieves, mocked as the “King of the Jews.” His crucifixion is a sign of contradiction that turns upside down any notion of power and control.

It is a fact of history that the emerging institutional church found two of Jesus’ radical witnesses — pacifism and voluntary poverty — too difficult to sustain in practical terms. By the third century, the official church was on its way to becoming one of the wealthiest and most dominant powers in the West.

Spiritualizing Jesus as a king is one way to distinguish his power from earthly power. But we should not miss the witness of his life as radically poor and powerless as his way of revealing that God shares these characteristics. As absolute Love, God does not force the divine will. God does not threaten transgressors to get them to obey. God does not withhold forgiveness to shame sinners. God does not prevent us from making mistakes or hold our failures over us when we seek to repent.

The power Jesus practiced was self-emptying love and unlimited mercy. He mirrored perfectly his Abba in this, for God is the source of unconditional love, a never-ending offering of divine life to sinners. This is God’s very nature, and God has no other name than Mercy.

What does this love and mercy look like in Jesus’ disciples in today’s world? Today’s readings offers two views. First, in Ezekiel, God is presented as a compassionate shepherd. Jesus found this image a perfect description of God. Shepherds were, in fact, the lowliest of peasants, hired to wander with the flocks in search of pasture. Jesus’ parable of the good shepherd is less about power than vulnerability and extravagant love. His shepherd leaves the whole flock to find a single lost sheep. His shepherd will offer his life for the sheep. What sensible person would do either?

In Matthew, Jesus tells us where to find him. The Lord of the Universe has disappeared among the hungry, thirsty, naked, lost, sick, imprisoned, alien and persecuted of this world. Our King is hiding in the least of our brothers and sisters. The one power he exhibits is to move our hearts to compassion. His very poverty invites us to exercise the power we share with God as his image and likeness — the power to love. This is the essence of our royal priesthood, the power to sacrifice ourselves for others. This is how we honor and imitate our King.

Year B Session Materials

A Men’s Ministry is a fellowship of men in a parish designed to enrich their relationships with God and apply their faith to their daily lives. The men tried to capture the purpose, goals, and the spirit of the new Men’s Ministry in their Mission Statement:

Year B: Advent


Year B: First Sunday of Advent

“Be watchful! You do not know when
The Lord of the house is coming”

Mark 13: 33-37

Be watchful! Be alert! You do not know when the time will come. It is like a man traveling abroad. He leaves home and places his servants in charge, each with his work, and orders the gatekeeper to be on the watch. Watch, therefore; you do not know when the lord of the house is coming, whether in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or in the morning. May he not come suddenly and find you sleeping. What I say to you, I say to all: ‘Watch!’”

 

Discussion Questions:

 

  1. Living some two millennia after these words were spoken, what is the significance of watchfulness for you at this time of your life and during this Advent? What are you watching for?
  2. This gospel passage can have an anxious or ominous, “end time” tone to it that is uncharacteristic of our usual anticipation of Advent. In this present culture what do you personally need to be alert to… as a way of preparing for the Lord?
  3. Our Advent season is not just to remember one coming and to hope for another. How do you recognize and celebrate the many ways Christ is coming to us in every moment of our lives? What are some of these for you?
  4. Advent brings the hope of a renewed devotion to discipleship and a responsible stewardship of the gifts we’ve been given. We each have our own work. How could you develop a deeper interior awareness this Advent? What would being more awake, more alert and more watchful look like for you? What actions would result?

Biblical Context

Mark 13:33-37

Patricia Datchuck Sánchez

An ancient psalmist once praised God for the fact that wisdom could be found spilling forth from the mouths of babes (Ps 8:3). When a child delights an adult with a gem of innocent insight, the psalmist’s words are often repeated in affirmation of the fact. Most would agree that there are also other lessons to be learned from these little ones.

While their motivation may not necessarily be the purest, many children undergo a remarkable attitude adjustment in the weeks before Christmas. Traditional songs remind children that Santa Claus is coming to town, that he’s making a list and checking it twice. . . that he knows who’s naughty or nice. Eager to please and eager to be pleased when Christmas finally arrives, children do chores without complaint and make such efforts at goodness that their behavior during the rest of the year dims by comparison. On the eve of the long-awaited day, many little eyes and ears strain to remain alert so as to be able to catch a glimpse when the great jolly one appears. Perhaps this yearly Christmas phenomenon which brings out the best in our children also holds an insight from which adults may benefit.

Mark, today, advises his readers to remain watchful and alert, and, like good servants, to be about the task of doing the best that can be expected of them while awaiting the coming of Christ. These admonitions and others like them are repeated each Advent to awaken in believers a sense of the imminence of Jesus’ coming and to foster an attitude of quiet, childlike eagerness with which to prepare a welcome.

Significantly, each of the servants in Mark’s illustrative parable (vv.34-36) had been given a specific task by the master. In his writings, Paul preferred to speak in terms of the unique gifts and charisms which each believer had received (1 Corinthians 12). Luke and Matthew told similar parables regarding the talents entrusted to each servant by their master (Matthew 25:14-30; Luke 19:12-27). While children spend December in anticipation of receiving gifts, the spirituality of Advent challenges believers to acknowledge and develop the gifts (tasks, talents) each has already been given and to devote these toward the realization of the coming reign of God in Christ.

Although some interpreters of scripture press the text into a literalness not intended by its various authors, the phrase, “you do not know when the appointed time will come” (vs 33) seems to be an exception to the fundamentalist rule. As Arthur J. Dewey (Proclamation, Fortress Press, Minneapolis: 1996) has noted, with the approach of the third Christian millennium, “much ink will be spilt and hard disks filled to capacity over speculation concerning the end times. . . Such simplistic interpretations actually miss the deeper possibilities of this material. This passage calls for a special alertness that permeates one’s entire life.”

Jesus, himself had professed to be ignorant of the specifics of the end time (see Mark 13:32). Neither would his disciples (or anyone else) be privy to that information (vs. 33). But rather than be frenzied by anxiety or lulled into a torpor, Jesus called for constancy, conscientiousness and a sharp eye. In further comment on this gospel, Arthur J. Dewey (op. cit.) advises, “Life is in movement, the game’s afoot! We are not victims to the givens of our culture; instead, we are responsible servants of the future.”

What Advent Should Be

Reflection

Fr. Ron Rolheiser

Our Advent season opens with the words: Be watchful! This is sometimes translated as: Stay awake! What does it mean to be watchful, to stay awake?

Well, we can be asleep too many things even while we are awake, not least during this Advent season. For better or for worse, our society has evolved to the point where, for all practical purposes, we celebrate Christmas during the days we are supposed to be preparing for it. Our Christmas tree and lights go up after Thanksgiving, and Advent has become the season in which we enjoy most of our Christmas celebrations. Admittedly, it’s hard to break out of this, to be countercultural, and to have Advent be what it should be: a season to get in touch with our deepest yearnings. Like Mary, we wait patiently, preparing a womb within which Christ can be born.

So, how can we be watchful and stay awake? By staying awake to what’s ultimately important. By staying awake to the truth that God is with us even when most everything in our lives and in the world seems to belie that. By staying awake to the only things that will really matter when we say farewell to this world and our loved ones: love for each other, faith in God, and a heart grateful enough to let go and forgive all the angers, bitterness, and frustrations we had in our lives. Advent invites us to be watchful and awake to what ultimately matters in life.

And we can do that even inside our premature Christmas parties.

Fr. Ronald Rolheiser

Ronald Rolheiser, OMI, is president of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, Texas. His books are popular throughout the English-speaking world, and his weekly column is carried by more than seventy newspapers worldwide.


Year B: Second Sunday of Advent

The Preaching of John the Baptist

Mark 1: 1-8

The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ [the Son of God].  As it is written in Isaiah the prophet: “Behold, I am sending my messenger ahead of you; he will prepare your way. A voice of one crying out in the desert: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.’” John [the] Baptist appeared in the desert proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. People of the whole Judean countryside and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the Jordan River as they acknowledged their sins. John was clothed in camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist. He fed on locusts and wild honey. And this is what he proclaimed: “One mightier than I, is coming after me. I am not worthy to stoop and loosen the thongs of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

Discussion Questions:

  1. Mark was alerting his readers that he was reading the signs of the times in the light of their religious tradition. How have you interpreted the events of this past year “the signs of our times” in light of our religious tradition? What are you being invited to?
  2. If God is active in history through the ministry of Jesus, and through baptism with us in the Spirit, how is the Spirit becoming active in you as a believer? What are those actions?
  3. Sin is understood as any thought, deed, or disposition that breaks the flow of life between God and the self, as well as between the self and other people. What is it that blocks your readiness to receive God’s life or revelation? How can your frustrations and dissatisfaction be a pathway for new repentance this Advent?
  4. During this past year we have found ourselves living in times of estrangement on many fronts. What does it mean to you, to be converted to Christ and to live according to God’s heart during our time?  How do you go about it?

Biblical Context

Margret Nutting Ralph

Mark 1: 1-8

Today we read the very beginning of the Gospel according to Mark “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ the Son of God.” From this opening sentence it is evident that Mark is not writing from the point of view of someone describing events as they occur, as someone who is keeping a diary would describe them. Rather, Mark already knows the end of the story. He has a post resurrection point of view. We know this because Mark refers to Jesus as “the Son of God.” This is a post resurrection insight.

Mark does not teach that Jesus is the Son of God by telling us the story of Jesus’ conception, as do Matthew and Luke. Mark has no infancy narrative. Rather, Mark begins with John the Baptist and his announcement that “one mightier than I is coming after me.” When we read Mark’s Gospel it is very helpful to remember Mark’s point of view. We will understand a great deal more of the Gospel if we keep in mind that Mark and the reading audience know who Jesus is: the Son of God. The other characters in the story, including Jesus’ apostles, do not comprehend Jesus’ true identity until after the resurrection.

Mark next says, “As it is written in Isaiah the prophet.” Mark is following a tradition of some four hundred years when he turns to the words of the prophets to explain the significance of recent events. During the time when the Israelites had a king and a kingdom, they also had prophets (1020 BC-450 BC). The prophets’ role was to call everyone, including the king, to fidelity to their covenant relationship with God. When the nation ceased to exist, so did the prophets. From that time on, when the people wanted to hear God’s voice they would turn to the words of the law and the words of the prophets and apply these words to their present situation. In doing this they were reinterpreting the words.

Although Mark says he is turning to Isaiah, “As it is written in Isaiah the prophet…” the words that follow are a compilation of Exodus 23:20, Malachi 3:1, and Isaiah 40:3. In Exodus a messenger of the Lord, an angel, is sent to lead the people out of the desert. In Malachi a messenger who will precede the coming of the Lord and who will call the people to repentance is promised. In Isaiah, as we will see when we discuss today’s Lectionary reading from Isaiah, the hoped-for return of the exiles from Babylon is jubilantly described. Mark combines these texts to describe John the Baptist’s role scribed. Mark combines these texts to describe John the Baptist’s role in relation to Jesus:

Behold, I am sending my messenger ahead of you;

he will prepare your way.

A voice of one crying out in the desert:

“Prepare the way of the Lord,

make straight his paths.”                                        

As John calls people to repentance, he is “clothed in camel’s hair. With a leather belt around his waist.” This is an allusion to Elijah, who is described as “wearing a hairy garment… with a leather girdle about his loins” (2 Kgs 1:8), and who was expected to return, “before the day of the Lord comes (Mal 3:23).

In all four Gospels John the Baptist gives a powerful witness to Jesus. Here John says, “One mightier than I, is coming after me. I am not worthy to stoop and loosen the thongs of his sandals.” This makes it clear that any disciple of John should become a disciple of Jesus, for John’s baptism of repentance is a baptism with water. Jesus baptism will be a baptism with the Holy Spirit.

Christ Loved and Awaited

Reflection

St. Oscar Romero

Christ is now in history.

Christ is in the womb of the people.

Christ is now bringing about the new heavens and the new earth.

Christ became a man of his people and of his time:

He lived as a Jew,

he worked as a laborer of Nazareth,

and since then, he continues to become incarnate in everyone.

If many have distanced themselves from the church,

it is precisely because the church has somewhat

estranged itself from humanity.

But a church that can feel as its own all that is human

and wants to incarnate the pain, the hope,

the affliction of all who suffer and feel joy,

such a church will be Christ loved and awaited,

Christ present.

And that depends on us.

The Christian knows that Christ has been working

in humanity for twenty centuries

and that the person that is converted to Christ

is the new human being that society needs

to organize a world according to God’s heart.

Advent should admonish us to discover

in each brother or sister that we greet,

in each friend whose hand we shake,

in each beggar who asks for bread,

in each worker who wants to use the right to join a union,

in each peasant who looks for work in the coffee groves, the face of Christ.

Then it would not be possible to rob them,

to cheat them, to deny them their rights.

They are Christ,

and whatever is done to them

Christ will take as done to himself.

This is what Advent is:

Christ living among us.

St. Oscar Romero, adapted from The Violence of Love

Oscar Romero (1917–1980) became archbishop of San Salvador in 1977. A prophetic voice of the poor, he was martyred at the altar while saying Mass. Romero was canonized in 2018.


Year B: Third Sunday of Advent

Looking for One You Do Not Know

John 1:6-8, 19-28

A man named John was sent from God. He came for testimony, to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He was not the light but came to testify to the light.

John the Baptist’s Testimony to Himself.

And this is the testimony of John. When the Jews from Jerusalem sent priests and Levites [to him] to ask him, “Who are you?” he admitted and did not deny it, but admitted, “I am not the Messiah.” So, they asked him, “What are you then? Are you Elijah?” And he said, “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” He answered, “No.” So they said to him, “Who are you, so we can give an answer to those who sent us? What do you have to say for yourself?” He said: “I am ‘the voice of one crying out in the desert, “Make straight the way of the Lord,” as Isaiah the prophet said.” Some Pharisees were also sent. They asked him, “Why then do you baptize if you are not the Messiah or Elijah or the Prophet? John answered them, “I baptize with water; but there is one among you whom you do not recognize, the one who is coming after me, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to untie. “This happened in Bethany across the Jordan, where John was baptizing.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Looking back on your faith experience, who are some of the people in your life who have “Made straight the way of the Lord” for you? How have they done this? 
  2. Do you think about “Preparing the way of the Lord” for others as part of your Discipleship journey in Advent? How could you do that? 
  3. Many have called 2020 a year of Biblical proportions. How have the health related, social and political events of this past year made you more spiritually aware? What is that awareness about and how are you responding?  
  4. The Baptist proclaimed, “I am not the Christ, but a voice crying in the desert.” Today, acknowledging how we have created our own deserts, how are you discerning the ways God has acted in your midst, transforming you through the varied experiences of these days?

Biblical Context:

John 1:6-8, 19-28

Margret Nutting Ralph, PHD

Today we read the account of John the Baptist preparing the way for the Lord in the Gospel according to John. To understand all that John’s Gospel is teaching we need to know something about the social setting for the Gospel as well as the Old Testament passages to which John alludes.

The Gospel according to John is the latest of our four canonical Gospels, dating to the end of the first century AD. By this time the church was having to rethink its expectation that the second coming would occur during the lifetime of Jesus’ contemporaries because that time had now passed. John’s audience wants to know, “Where is the risen Christ? Wasn’t he supposed to have returned by now?

If we keep the Gospel author’s conversation with his end-of-the century audience in mind as we read the Gospel, we will find that many of John’s words take on a second level of meaning: they have one meaning in the interaction of the people in the story (John the Baptist and those questioning him), and another meaning in the conversation between the author and his audience. A good example of this is John the Baptist’s words to the Pharisees who are questioning him. He says, “… but there is one among you whom you do not recognize” These words are directed as much at John’s audience, looking for the risen Christ, as they are to the Pharisees who are questioning John the Baptist. John teaches his audience that the risen Christ, for whom they are looking, is in their midst.  

As you read the Gospel according to John you will notice that John seems to speak harshly of the Jews. The reason for this is that by the end of the century those Jews who believed in the divinity of Jesus Christ were being expelled from the synagogues by those who did not. This left those who were expelled vulnerable to persecution by the Romans. John is angry at those Jews who do not believe in Jesus’ divinity and who are exposing their fellow Jews to danger.

The questions that the priests and Levites ask John the Baptist are all based on Jewish expectations. They ask whether he is the anointed one (“Christ” means “an anointed one”), a person who would save them when they needed to be freed from a political enemy.  

They ask, “Are you Elijah?” This alludes to an expectation based on Malachi 3:23:

Lo, I will send you Elijah, the prophet.

Before the day of the Lord comes.

They ask, “Are you the Prophet?” This alludes to an expectation based on Deuteronomy 18:15 (cf. 18): “A prophet like me will the Lord, your God, raise up for you from among your own kinsmen; to him you shall listen.

As John the Baptist describes himself, saying.

“I am the voice of one crying out in the desert, make straight the way of the Lord.”

He is quoting Isaiah 40‘.3 (see last week’s Old Testament reading). In Isaiah, the Lord whose way is being prepared is Yahweh. When the author of the Gospel pictures John the Baptist using the word Lord to refer to Jesus, the author is claiming the divinity of Jesus, the very claim that some of his fellow Jews reject.

John the Baptist goes on to say that he is not worthy to untie the sandal strap of the one who is coming. John the Baptist was a great man who had many disciples. The Gospels make it clear, through John the Baptist’s witness, that any disciple of his, should be a disciple of Jesus Christ.

Reflection

Sr. Mary M. McGlone CSJ

John the Baptists vocation was to disquiet people, to convince them that they had accommodated themselves too well to the social and political conditions surrounding them. They had capitulated enough to fly under Caesar’s radar. They had accepted leaders who replaced faith with obedience and valued religious decorum over care for people in need.

According to the Gospels, John’s goading convinced many that their situation was urgent and that hope was worth the risk of change. Baptism signaled this group’s willingness to leave old ways behind so they could be ready for the “mighty one” whom God was sending, the one who would not just wash them from sin, but fill them with the fire of the Holy Spirit.

Obviously, the people most eager to accept John’s message were the people most disadvantaged by the status quo.

John was one of history’s odd characters, a man willing to give up the security and convenience of a priestly family for the life of a prophet in the wilderness. John’s lifestyle was designed to critique and expose the shallowness of his society. John wanted his people to long for more, because only in the longing would they be moved to go where they could find it.

John took on the vocation to help his people realize that they had traded covenant hope for life in a spiritual desert. He preached to jostle their memories, to shake them up and nudge them toward something greater.

John didn’t claim to be the answer or even to know it. He was simply convinced that the lifestyle of his people was not worthy of the people of God. He called them to dream so big that they would forsake their small comforts to bet on God.

John spoke to his era; Whether they appear dressed in camel’s hair, a bishop’s costume, scrubs, or a COVID-19 mask and Black Lives Matter T-shirt, God is still sending prophets. Their vocation is to cry out about our wilderness, to awaken us into holy disquiet and a dream of the kindness and truth, justice and peace that surpasses “the good life.”

Our vocation starts with listening to them.

[St. Joseph Sr. Mary M. McGlone serves on the congregational leadership team of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet.]

Selections from Breaking Open the Lectionary: Lectionary Readings in Their Biblical Context for RCIA, Faith Sharing Groups, and Lectors—Cycle B, by Margaret Nutting Ralph, Copyright © 2005 by Margaret Nutting Ralph. Paulist Press, Inc., New York/Mahwah, NJ. Reprinted by permission of Paulist Press, Inc.


Year B: Fourth Sunday of Advent

Announcement of the Birth of Jesus

Luke 1:26-38

In the sixth month, 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, favored one! 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.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Mary was being asked to make a leap of faith in response to God’s invitation. Have you had a sense of God inviting you to trust in him more freely, to make a leap of faith over any specific situation, or in general? What tells you its God inviting you?
  2. Have ever had an experience of saying; “yes” to God without calculating the cost first? You simply responded to the prompting of the Holy Spirit? Explain
  3. Advent is about each of us anticipating new birth. Jesus’ arrival is an ongoing spiritual reality, not simply a one time historical event. What new intentions and actions might you be giving birth to at this time in your life?
  4. What particular characteristics do you most admire about Mary? Do you try to emulate these in your own life?

Biblical Context

Luke 1: 26-28
Margaret Nutting Ralph PHD

Only in Luke’s Gospel do we read the story of the annunciation to Mary. As we noted, Mark’s Gospel has no infancy stories, and in Matthew’s Gospel the annunciation is to Joseph. Only Luke brings Mary on stage and presents her as our model of true discipleship. Mary’s response to God’s call is one of total trust, total self-giving: “Behold, response to God’s call is one of total trust, total self-giving: “behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.”

Although we treasure this story for the picture it gives us of Mary, the primary purpose of the story is to teach something about Jesus. Scripture scholars believe that the stories surrounding Jesus’ birth are Christological stories that developed later in the oral tradition than did stories about Jesus’ passion, death, and resurrection or about his mighty acts of power. The birth and infancy stories are responding to the question, “Who is Jesus?” They teach the post-resurrection understanding that Jesus is God’s own son and the fulfillment of all of God’s promises to the chosen people.

In addition to being divine, Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s promises to the chosen people. As Luke begins his story he tells us that Joseph is “of the house of David.” Then, even before Mary says a word, the angel tells her that “the Lord God will give him [her son] 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.

To understand this passage we need to know what the Jews understood God to have promised David and his posterity. We read the famous passage from 2 Samuel that contains this promise in today’s Old Testament reading. For now, let us say that David and his descendants understood God’s promise of a kingdom to be a geopolitical kingdom. Luke is writing about AD 85. Jesus has been crucified. The Romans are still ruling in the holy land. So the angel’s words to Mary represent a complete reinterpretation of the meaning of the word kingdom. The kingdom that Jesus has established is not a geopolitical kingdom but a spiritual kingdom. Luke is teaching that all of God’s promises to the chosen people have been fulfilled in Jesus Christ, but fulfilled in a very different way than they were expecting.

Reflection
By Ted Wolgamot

It’s that special time again — that time of wonder and joy and miracles. Christmas is coming. It’s nearly here. We know that because there’s seasonal music everywhere, and family celebrations being planned, and holiday parties that demand our attendance, and gifts that must be wrapped.

But we also know it because of another big hint — every media outlet is issuing its top ten of the year songs, movies, TV shows, books, pet names and so on. That listing started me wondering about what would be included if you and I identified our top ten Gospel quotations. If we did, which ones would make it on to your list?

I know that right at the very top of mine would be this marvelous, breathtaking statement: “May it be done to me according to your word,” the words spoken by Mary to the angel Gabriel in today’s Gospel. These words opened the door to the possibility of you and me entering into an entirely new kind of relationship with God. These very words changed history.

One of the things I treasure most about this story of Mary and the angel is that before Mary is presented with God’s astounding request, Mary is first told: “Do not be afraid.”Imagine. Why wouldn’t she be afraid, even terrified?

In the Philadelphia Museum of Art, there is an unusual painting by Henry Tanner of this classic Annunciation scene. In it, Mary is not depicted as a totally serene girl kneeling in prayer with a glowing halo above her head as we usually find. Rather, Mary is shown sitting on her disheveled bed with unkempt hair, eyes frozen as if in awe or even terror. The look on her face is that of someone both stunned and utterly confused. And why wouldn’t she be?

God is asking the unimaginable of this young, uneducated, thoroughly unprepared girl. She is being visited by an angel — and she is being asked to do what?

Of course, she was afraid, speechless, astonished, dazed. After all, Mary was being asked to make a decision: Act out of fear or act out of faith; respond with terror or respond with trust.

In a way, we’re all asked by life’s demands to make similar decisions — just not ones so unique and exceptional. All the major sins that you and I commit in life are ultimately grounded in fear. Fear is the number one “hostage-taker” for all of us — the fear that I won’t get enough love, enough affection, enough attention, enough power, enough money, enough of anything we hold dear.

Mary’s response is really all about a reversal, a re-write: The “No” of Adam and Eve becomes a “Yes.” The world is offered a new model, a new blueprint, a new design upon which human lives can be based.

Mary chose trust. She chose to allow the angel’s words — as daunting as they were! — to soothe her anxieties, to calm her immediate fright, to enable her to reach out in confidence.

That’s why Mary is our Mother in faith. That’s why she is her Son’s ultimate disciple. Mary chose trust over fear, belief over doubt, freedom over being held hostage.

And the result was the birthing of Jesus, God’s beloved Son. We are now challenged by Mary’s example to do the same in each of our lives: trust, believe, hope, love.

That’s why I would put these words at the very top of my ten Scripture quotes: “May it be done to me according to your word.”

Selections from Breaking Open the Lectionary: Lectionary Readings in Their Biblical Context for RCIA, Faith Sharing Groups, and Lectors—Cycle B, by Margaret Nutting Ralph, Copyright © 2005 by Margaret Nutting Ralph. Paulist Press, Inc., New York/Mahwah, NJ. Reprinted by permission of Paulist Press, Inc.

Year B: The Christmas Season


Year B: Christmas Day – Mass at Dawn

The Nativity of the Lord

Luke 2:15-20

When the angels went away from them to heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go, then, to Bethlehem to see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went in haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the infant lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known the message that had been told them about this child. All who heard it were amazed by what had been told them by the shepherds. And Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart. Then the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, just as it had been told to them.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What has the “Lord made known to you” this Advent Season? Any new awareness of Emmanuel – “God with us?”
  2. Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart. (I would add, not in her head) Is it hard for you to get out of your head and into your heart? How do you work on this essential part of the spiritual life? Explain
  3. As we close one year and begin another. What have you been reflecting on or pondering in your heart this Advent and Christmas season?

Christ Fulfills the Prophecies

Mary M. McGlone CSJ

The first part of this story, Luke 2:1-14, was the Gospel reading for Mass at Night. We hear of Caesar’s decree, the trip to Bethlehem, the birth and the announcement to the shepherds. In the liturgy for Mass at Dawn we hear about the shepherds’ response.

Luke must have thoroughly enjoyed weaving together his infancy narrative. Up to this point in the story angels had appeared to Zechariah and Mary to announce the births of John and Jesus. Now the angels have gone afield and found the least reputable, least educated members of the people of God to tell them that history has come to a moment of total transformation. And what’s the key to it all? The plain, ordinary fact that a baby has been born!

Perhaps Luke’s genius is this: only people as simple as the shepherds could believe that such immense meaning could come from something as simple as the birth of a child. The truth is those shepherds didn’t start out making any commitment, they simply decided to go and see. But that was enough. We don’t often emphasize the fact that it was not the message of an angel or the caroling choir that filled the night sky that convinced the shepherds. The miraculous manifestations simply whetted their curiosity. Something else persuaded them.

What might have moved them when they saw the child in the manger?

Luke wove this story as a careful prologue to his Gospel and a bookend to pair with his nearly final story about the disciples on the road to Emmaus. In both cases we have a journey: to Bethlehem or out of Jerusalem. In both stories angels make an announcement about Jesus: in the first, that he had been born, in the second that he was alive. In both Bethlehem and Emmaus Luke mentions an inn, the place where travelers lodge. In the first case there is no room for Mary and Joseph who are awaiting the birth of their child. Going to Emmaus the disciples make room, inviting the stranger to remain with them at the inn. In the nativity story the baby was found wrapped and lying in the place where animals fed. In the Emmaus story the disciples recognized the Risen Lord in the breaking of the bread. Finally, both the shepherds and the Emmaus-bound disciples went to others with the joyful news of what they had seen and heard.

Luke’s technique of placing mirroring stories at the beginning and end of his gospel is more than simply artistry. Luke is telling us that everything, from the beginning to the end of his Gospel, is an adventure, a pilgrimage of encounter with Christ. He is showing us that discipleship comes only from that encounter. He is also using simple shepherds and unperceptive disciples as models for all the followers of Christ who will read his story through the ages.

The feast of Christmas is a celebration of a new beginning, of the inauguration of God’s presence on earth in the person of Jesus the Christ. Christmas is a reminder that God appears in our midst as unobtrusively as a diapered baby or a fellow traveler on the road. There have been grand announcements, prophetic oracles, the equivalent of heavenly light and music shows, but, as Elijah learned, God comes in the gentlest of ways (1 Kings 19:12). We can never control the ways or times when God will become manifest in our lives. We are invited to seek God in the word, in sacrament, in community and in creation. Each of these carries within the power of real presence.

In the end we’ll never know exactly what so impressed the shepherds when they bent over the manger. It may have been the fulfillment of the angel’s or the prophets’ promise of a child to be born. It may have been something they perceived in the presence of the child. Perhaps Mary and Joseph had such an aura of being lovers of God that they evangelized the shepherds by their simple contact with them. Whatever it was, the shepherds were open and humble enough to be changed by it.

As we find joy in this feast, let us return with those shepherds to Bethlehem. Taking some quiet moments, let us enter into the contemplative prayer of imagining the scene and asking each participant to share his or her gospel perspective with us. Then let us listen to one another proclaim what it is that we have seen and heard in the contemplation of the feast. By so doing we will join as fellow disciples with shepherds and travelers as we all journey toward enjoying the full and timeless presence of God.

All Flame

Michelle Francl-Donnay

A light is kindled in the darkness. A word is spoken. The cold air crackles, the stones stir underfoot, a fire hisses out its breath, coals creaking like wind-racked pines. A woman labors to give birth.

And so, God arrives among us, shivering in the cold, howling with hunger, begging with each breath to be fed and clothed and sheltered. A voice crying out, a glimmer with a Gospel demanding to be proclaimed.

Gloria, we exclaim, and hunt in vain for angels in the sky. But Isaiah hinted at the shape of the light we seek: share your food with the hungry, shelter the poor, clothe those in need, then your light will blaze forth like the dawn.

Three decades later, ablaze on a sun-bright hillside outsider. Jerusalem, is he remembering that night? “I was hungry and you fed me, a stranger and you made me welcome.” When? we asked, the wailing child and spent mother long forgotten. “Whenever you did this for the least among you.” And we saw his glory.

Can we stop hunting for the cherubim and seraphim long enough to listen to the unending and all-sustaining Word, crying out in need, or for the Light pleading for warmth, for food and shelter? If you wish, said one of the desert mystics, you could be all flame. If we wish, we could be Isaiah’s blazing down.

The Word came to dwell among us, that we might be a word spoken, a voice for those in need, a light to the nations. Children of God, all flame.

Michelle Francl-Donnay; is a wife and mother, a professor of chemistry, and an adjunct scholar at the Vatican Observatory.


Year B: Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph

The Presentation in The Temple

Luke 2:22-40

When the days were completed for their purification according to the law of Moses, they took him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord, just as it is written in the law of the Lord, every male that opens the womb shall be consecrated to the Lord, and to offer the sacrifice of a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons, in accordance with the dictate in the law of the Lord.

Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon. This man was righteous and devout, awaiting the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he should not see death before he had seen the Christ of the Lord. He came in the Spirit into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus to perform the custom of the law in regard to him, he took him into his arms and blessed God, saying:  “Now, Master, you may let your servant go in peace, according to your word, for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you prepared in sight of all the peoples,  a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and glory for your people Israel.”

The child’s father and mother were amazed at what was said about him; and Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, “Behold, this child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted—and you yourself a sword will pierce—so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.” There was also a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was advanced in years, having lived seven years with her husband after her marriage, and then as a widow until she was eighty-four. She never left the temple, but worshiped night and day with fasting and prayer. And coming forward at that very time, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were awaiting the redemption of Jerusalem.

When they had fulfilled all the prescriptions of the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.

Discussion Questions: 

 

 

  1. As we approach what could be another winter of social isolation, what new spiritual longings and wisdom are you aware of given your experience last year? Explain
  2. How has your idea of holy(wholeness) and family evolved as a result of this past year? Are there any new insights you have about acceptance, gratitude or frustrations and response?
  3. Making this passage our own, Jesus is presented to us each day. In what ways do you recognize Jesus being “presented to you” in the context of your life at this time?
  4. How has the pandemic brought new blessings to your experience of family and church this year?

Biblical Context

Luke 2:22-40

Margaret Nutting Ralph

To understand Luke’s story of Jesus’ presentation in the temple we must know a little about infancy narratives. Infancy narratives are a distinct literary form. They are written, not to respond to the question, “How can we tell the story of this person’s birth exactly as it happened?” but to respond to the question, “How can we tell the story of this person’s birth so that people will understand just how great he became?”

At the core of an infancy narrative are historical events: Jesus was born in a definable location and in a definable time in history. Jesus’ parents were Mary and Joseph. They were Jewish and were faithful to Jewish practices. However, the story is not told just to recount these facts. The story is told in hindsight to teach what was understood about the person after that person had become great. The infancy narratives about Jesus are post-resurrection stories that teach what was understood about Jesus after the resurrection, after the post-resurrection appearances, and after the coming of the Spirit.

An understanding of the infancy-narrative literary form resolves some misunderstandings that people might have when reading the story. For instance, someone might ask, “Why? given the fact of the annunciation, were Mary and Joseph ‘amazed at what was said about him’?” This question would be difficult to answer if we thought we were reading simply a historical account. However, we are reading stories that grew up in oral tradition, independent of each other, stories that the Gospel editor arranged in their present order.

What post-resurrection understandings is Luke teaching by including this story in his narrative? First, Luke is teaching that Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s promises to Israel. Luke describes Simeon “righteous and devout, awaiting the consolation of Israel?” and says that he “should not see death before he had seen the Christ of the Lord.” These details are references to God’s covenant relationship with the Israelites. Part of God’s covenant promise was that God would protect the chosen people. As a result of God’s promise to love and protect them, the Israelites, through the centuries, expected God to send an anointed one, a Christ (Christ and messiah both mean “an anointed one”) to save them from their political enemies. Luke pictures Simeon announcing that God has been faithful to God’s promises, and that Jesus is the fulfillment of those promises. Even though Jesus is a different kind of messiah from the one the people were expecting.

Another post-resurrection understanding that Luke is teaching is that the salvation that Jesus has accomplished is for all nations. Simeon says,

“…for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you prepared in sight of all the peoples. a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and glory for your people Israel. ”

This insight is very important for Luke because his audience is primarily Gentiles. As you may remember from reading the Acts of the Apostles, the understanding that Jesus’ salvation is for all nations is a post-resurrection understanding (see Acts 10).

Luke also explores a mystery that the early church, as well as every generation since, has pondered: the mystery of suffering, is the cross central to Christianity? Simeon tells Mary and Joseph, “Behold, this child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted—and you yourself a sword will pierce….” In Luke’s Gospel Mary is the preeminent disciple, the one who says, “May it be done to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). Now that Disciple is being told that suffering will be part of her discipleship. As those in Luke’s audience read this account they, like we, realize that the same mystery is present in their own lives.

Longing

Reflection

Fr. Michael K. Marsh

 

They met in the temple, Mary and Joseph, Anna, Simeon, Jesus. How did they get there? What brought them to that place of meeting? What brings us to the temple, the place where God resides?

Mary and Joseph came in obedience to the law, to present Jesus to the Lord and offer a sacrifice according to what was written in the law. Behind the legalities, however, was longing.

Anna never left the temple but worshipped there with fasting and prayer night and day. This is not, however, about a rule of life or asceticism. It is about longing.

Simeon was guided by the Spirit. He was righteous, devout, and looking for the consolation of Israel. But it was more than piety that took him to the temple. It was longing.

Jesus is brought to the temple, not as a passive baby but as the embodiment of his Father’s longing for humanity.

The Feast of the Presentation, sometimes called the Feast of Meeting, is, at its core, a feast of longing. This feast reveals the longing between humanity and divinity. Our deepest longings are to know and be known. That can only ever really happen in relationship to God. This is not about gathering information or learning about God. This kind of knowing is of the heart not the intellect. It is about the union that sets us free, the oneness that allows us to depart in peace, and the relationship that is salvation. For this to happen we must live with and offer the fragility, vulnerability, and joy of an open and longing heart. That heart is the temple of meeting, the place where today we find Mary and Joseph, Anna, Simeon, and Jesus.

Longing is not an absence or emptiness waiting to be filled. Longing is a presence and fullness waiting to be expressed, manifested. Two persons do not long for each other because they are apart. They long for each other because they are in love.

We are sometimes too quick to quench the longing, to satisfy the desire. That never takes us to the temple. It keeps life superficial and us moving from one “fix” to another. Longing, however, if trusted and followed always takes us to the temple, the place of meeting, and we discover that we already hold the baby.

Selections from Breaking Open the Lectionary: Lectionary Readings in Their Biblical Context for RCIA, Faith Sharing Groups, and Lectors—Cycle B, by Margaret Nutting Ralph, Copyright © 2005 by Margaret Nutting Ralph. Paulist Press, Inc., New York/Mahwah, NJ. Reprinted by permission of Paulist Press, Inc. www.paulistpress.com.


Year B: Solemnity of Mary, Holy Mother of God

Solemnity of Mary, The Holy Mother of God

Luke 2: 16-21

 The shepherds went in haste to Bethlehem and found Mary and Joseph, and the infant lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known the message that had been told them about this child. All who heard it were amazed by what had been told them by the shepherds. And Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart. Then the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, just as it had been told to them. When eight days were completed for his circumcision, he was named Jesus, the name given him by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.

Discussion Questions: 

  1. Why do you think Mary is considered a model disciple? What about her most appeals to you?
  2. When you reflect back on your journey in faith this year, what stands out for you as moments of God’s presence? How does reflecting on these experiences help you connect more to the present moment?
  3. At the beginning of this New Year, what new resolutions might you be considering for your spiritual life? (Attend a retreat ?)
  4. In what specific ways is The Word we discuss each week, becoming the “Living Word” in your life? 

Biblical Context

Luke 2: 16-21
Mary M. McGlone CSJ

 With this reading we revisit the Gospel we heard on Christmas morning. In keeping with the feast of Mary the Mother of God, we look to what Luke says about her and what that reveals about us and our life. The key line is “Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart.”

Luke presents us with various responses to Jesus’ birth. The shepherds, having seen the child, become evangelists, revealing what they had seen to an unidentified public who were amazed. Those two responses, proclamation and amazement, anticipate what we will hear throughout the story of Jesus. Some see him and become so convinced that God is working through him that they begin to evangelize, spreading good news that they don’t fully understand. As a result of their proclamation, others respond with “amazement,” or we might say with great curiosity and interest. When the people are amazed, they acknowledge that something is happening, that it might even be something that comes from God, but there’s no commitment involved. They may take a good look but will be quite reluctant to make a public statement about it. As Darrell Bock explains it, “The report tickles the crowd’s ears but it may have missed their hearts” (Luke: Baker Books, 1994).

The last person about whom we hear is Mary, the mother of Jesus. When she was first visited by the angel she did not hesitate to give herself to God’s plan. Now that God’s Word has literally taken flesh through her, it is too much to comprehend. Like Thomas Aquinas who composed the hymn Tantum Ergo to prayerfully acknowledge that reason cannot grasp the ways of God, Mary understood that the mystery taking place was greater than she could explain, much less proclaim. All she could do was ponder as she immersed herself in the daily nurturing of God’s child.

Whether or not Mary was the source for Luke’s narrative, Luke presents Mary as the contemplative in action. The word for keeping these things in her heart is syneterei, a multivalent term that implies that she tried to comprehend disparate events together, that she held interior conversations about it all, that she could treasure all that happened even if she couldn’t explain it. That was an emotional and intellectual response that was both faith-filled and humble. It demonstrated her acceptance of the prophetic teaching that God’s ways are not human ways. Mary strove to believe that God was in charge of it all; lack of comprehension would not keep her from her daily work.

Celebrating this feast renews our observance of Christmas. Celebrating the Mother we celebrate the Son. Celebrating the Son, we celebrate what he offers us: nothing less than the opportunity to share divine life. That’s the mystery that we, like Mary, must ponder deeply and proclaim with joy.

 Making Mary’s Heart Our Own

Ted Wolgamot

January 1 has an almost carnival-like atmosphere to it. To celebrate it, we do all sorts of things: watch football games, drink champagne, toast new beginnings, wear crazy hats, set off fireworks, kiss and hug old friends, travel to visit extended families.

It’s the time of year when we roll out the old and bring in the new – even to the point of dusting off the treadmill in the corner that has become nothing more than a resting place for dusty potted plants. It’s the time for making new resolutions, new promises to ourselves.

But in the midst of all this excitement and hope comes a reminder: a baby lying in a manger – a baby whose birth, and life, so amazed not just a scraggly group of shepherds, but billions of people down through the ages who’ve been brought to their knees by the sheer, wondrous beauty of his birth.

That child, Jesus, causes us to call time out on the field, if you will, and spend a few moments in the midst of our various celebrations to make perhaps the most important resolution of all: the resolution to become reborn and renewed.

Luke’s Gospel asks us to do it this way: in the midst of all of our new year resolutions, remember Mary who treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.

“All these words” certainly changed Mary. Consider what she had to ponder: an angel telling her she would to bear God’s own son; a census causing her to travel to Bethlehem on a donkey’s back; a manger filled with straw intended only for animals; a group of shepherds who are “amazed.” She had to be asking herself: “What does all this mean?” “How will I cope?”

In her heart, Mary’s ultimate answer to these questions was singular: Trust. Trust in the God in whom she fully believed. Trust that the angel’s message was true: Rejoice, O highly favored one, the Lord is with you.

In the “Hail Mary” prayer, we use the words “full of grace” to describe Mary. But the Greek word used in Luke’s original writing actually means “favored to the greatest possible degree” – the strongest of all conceivable words to show how much God loved Mary and treasured her openness and her willingness to trust.

Abiding in such trust, Mary became the ultimate disciple, the epitome of what it meant to follow Jesus. She is the one who surrendered her ego, who quieted her fears, who made the decision to trust – even though she had little knowledge of what was going on. In her wildest dreams, this poor, humble woman could never have imagined how significant her “yes” would be in human history.

In the language of New Year’s celebrations, Mary made a resolution – the resolution to open her heart to the amazing, enlivening fullness of grace; the resolution to voice a wholehearted “yes.”

In today’s Gospel, Luke challenges us to do the same.

Luke asks us to make our hearts like Mary’s … to resolve to notice the angels that appear in our lives; to resolve to welcome the shepherds of today – the poorest of the poor; to resolve to open our hearts to new possibilities, new beginnings, new dreams.

On this first day of the New Year, let us resolve to make the heart of Mary our own. Let us promise ourselves that we will clean out a room in our hearts so there will always be space for God to be wrapped in the swaddling clothes of our love and our trust – a space within us in which the child Jesus can be re-born.

Year B: Epiphany of The Lord

The Visit of the Magi

Matthew 2:1-12

When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the days of King Herod, behold, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star* at its rising and have come to do him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was greatly troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. Assembling all the chief priests and the scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it has been written through the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; since from you shall come a ruler, who is to shepherd my people Israel.’” Then Herod called the magi secretly and ascertained from them the time of the star’s appearance. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search diligently for the child. When you have found him, bring me word, that I too may go and do him homage.”

After their audience with the king, they set out. And behold, the star that they had seen at its rising preceded them, until it came and stopped over the place where the child was. They were overjoyed at seeing the star, and on entering the house they saw the child with Mary his mother. They prostrated themselves and did him homage. Then they opened their treasures and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed for their country by another way.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Have you ever experienced something you would describe as a religious epiphany, a moment in which you suddenly see or understand something in a new or very clear way? Explain.
  2. The wise men were on a journey of searching to find the light, to see the truth, to see love and goodness. In what ways might you challenge yourself to be more “spiritually wise” in this coming year? Can you describe what would this look like?
  3. Epiphany is about God revealing God’s self to us in Jesus.  In what ways are you a light revealing Jesus- “God with us” to others?  Is being Christ’s light in the world a conscious part of your experience?  (reflect on Fruits of the Spirit…)
  4. Where are you discovering God incarnate in unlikely places and unlikely people?

Biblical Context

Matthew 2:1-12
Margaret Nutting Ralph

Today’s Gospel is the wonderful story of the magi coming to pay homage to the Christ child. We have probably all acted out this story either as children in costume or by assembling a crib set. It is very likely that in all of our enactments the magi arrived at the manger. Combination of images that does not appear in the Gospels. The magi appear only in Matthew; the manger only in Luke.

The fact that Mathew and Luke both tell stories, of Jesus’ birth, but that their stories differ in details, is evidence that both Matthew and Luke were using the infancy-narrative literary form. (We discussed infancy narratives briefly in the Gospel commentary on the feast of the Holy Family.) Infancy narratives teach not what was known about child at the time of the child’s birth but what was known after the person became great.

In order to teach his post-resurrection message about Jesus, Matthew winds Old Testament images around his account of New Testament events. Alluding to Old Testament passages in this way was a teaching technique of the time called midrash. We will better understand Matthew’s teaching if we are familiar with the Old Testament passages to which he refers.

When the magi arrive at Herod’s palace they say? “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage.” This is an allusion to Numbers 24:15-17a.

The utterance of Balaam, son of Beor,

the utterance of the man whose eye is true,

The utterance of one who hears what God says

and knows what the Most High knows,

Of one who sees what the Almighty sees.

enraptured and with eyes unveiled.

I see him, though not now;

I behold him, though not near:

A star shall advance from Jacob,

and a staff shall rise from Israel….

In the Book of Numbers these words appear on Balaam’s lips. This scene takes place while the Israelites are camped on the plains of Moab across the Jordan from Jericho. They have not yet crossed the Jordan to claim the promised land. The king of Moab, Balak, is afraid that the Israelites will conquer his people. He asks Balaam to curse the Israelites so that they will no longer be a threat. Balaam explains that he cannot say anything that God would not have him say. When Balaam speaks, he blesses the Israelites rather than curses them.

When Balaam says, “A star shall advance from Jacob, / and a staff shall rise from Israel,” he is speaking of King David, who did later conquer the holy land. The setting of this scene precedes David, but the person telling the story lived after David. The story in Numbers is teaching that David’s reign was ordained by God. Matthew uses Balaam’s words to teach not about David, but about Jesus.

In Matthew’s story, when Herod assembles the chief priests and scribes to ask where the Christ was to be born they say,

“In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it has been written through the prophet:

And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah,

are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;

since from you shall come a ruler,

who is to shepherd my people Israel.”

This passage, largely based on Micah 5:1, is also a reference to King David. Micah was a prophet to the southern kingdom in the eighth century B.C. Micah is reminding the people that King David, who was the greatest king they ever had, was from Bethlehem. Bethlehem is the source of the Davidic dynasty to whom God has promised fidelity. Micah is offering the people hope that future kings will also come from the Davidic line and will be faithful to God.

Still a third Old Testament passage that Matthew uses in his story appears as our Old Testament reading: Isaiah 60: 1-6

Spiritual

Reflection
Fr. Michael Marsh

“Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.”

Every one of us comes here today bearing gifts. That is one of the truth’s about the Epiphany. It is true not only on this day but every day. Many of us, however, have never been told this. If we have been told, we frequently don’t believe it. Sometimes we even deny it. “It might be true for someone else,” we tell ourselves, “but not for me.”

Too often we separate ourselves from the beauty, power, and grace of the Epiphany and settle for a flash of insight. We work to “get it,” waiting and hoping that one day the light will come on. We have been convinced that the “aha” moment is our epiphany. That, however, is a diminishment and impoverishment of the Epiphany. It is not the gospel story we just heard, and it is not the Epiphany we celebrate today.

The Epiphany we celebrate today is not about “getting it.” It is about what we have already been given. The Epiphany is the manifestation, the revealing, the showing and making known that divine life and presence fill all humanity and creation. It is most fully and profoundly revealed in the person of Jesus Christ. It is not, however, limited to him. He is the archetype of who we can become and the way of our becoming.

The manifestation of God in and through Christ is the aperture through which we see the truth about our lives. Whether we know it, understand it, or believe it divinity, God’s life, is the treasure and gift we each carry. Every one of us is a magi. We are carriers of the treasure. We have been entrusted with divine gifts. We are, as a friend of mine likes to say, “epiphanal beings.” That is true for you, me, and every other person, even Herod.

The Epiphany is not limited to a specific time, place, or a particular people. It is for all people, in all places, at all times. There is no one who does not carry this treasure. The difference is not that some carry the treasure and others do not. The difference is between those who know and trust themselves to be carriers of the treasure and those who are blind to and ignorant of the treasure within them.

That is what distinguishes the wise men from Herod. The Herods of this world, those who do not know the treasure they carry, the treasure they are, remain closed and isolated. They will always live in fear, demand answers, seek absolutes, make judgments, establish a cult of personality, wield individual power, and relate through violence. The wise man or woman, the one who knows himself or herself to be a bearer of gifts, however, is willing to open his or her treasure chest and offer those gifts. They hold nothing in reserve, offering all that they are and all that they have.

Every day we have the opportunity to bring and offer our gifts to the world and in so doing we pay homage to the child. We reveal and make the child known to the world. Our gold, frankincense, and myrrh are offered in a thousand different ways.

Every time we offer our gratitude and prayers of thanksgiving we are pointing to the presence and work of God in our lives. Whenever we spend time feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, or caring for those in need we are revealing God’s compassion and concern for his people. Whenever we freely and without need of recognition give our money to care for and help another we are demonstrating God’s generosity. Our presence at the bedside of one who is sick or dying reveals God with us, Emmanuel. Whenever we offer forgiveness rather than retribution and mercy rather than condemnation we demonstrate God’s grace. The moments we spend in silence, solitude, and stillness manifest the mystery of God. The intimacy we share with another is a reflection of God’s self-giving love. Every time we offer our treasure we are mirroring God’s offering of his treasure.

The only reason we can ever offer our treasure is because God first offered his. It happened that night when God opened the treasure chest of his house to reveal the child with his mother Mary. In response, the magi opened their treasure chests and offered gifts.

God has never ceased opening the treasure chest of his life and offering gifts. Each one of us continues to carry the treasure of God’s life. That is the truth and good news of Epiphany. Every gift we offer from that treasure reveals God’s life and presence. The Epiphany of God calls forth our own epiphany. Epiphany meets epiphany, treasure meets treasure, and God’s life and presence fill this world and our lives. It’s not just something we do, it’s who we are. Our lives become epiphanies, manifestations, of Christ to the world.

Year B: Ordinary Time: Sundays 1-9


Year B: The Baptism of the Lord (First Sunday in Ordinary Time)

The Baptism of the Lord

Mark 1:7-11

And this is what John the Baptist proclaimed: “One mightier than I is coming after me. I am not worthy to stoop and loosen the thongs of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” It happened in those days that Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized in the Jordan by John. On coming up out of the water he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit, like a dove, descending upon him.  And a voice came from the heavens, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” 

Discussion Questions:

  1. Jesus’ baptism joins his identity as a beloved son with his mission.  As a beloved son, what new attitudes or actions could you develop toward renewing your baptismal identity and Christian mission in 2021?
  2. How have the events of this past year challenged you to grow and change in your understanding of what God wants? Explain how.
  3. From the beginning, Jesus fulfilled man’s hopes in very unexpected ways.  How are your hopes fulfilled but in different ways than you expected?
  4. There is something clean and hopeful about the beginning of each new year, especially this year. How does the rich symbolism of Jesus’ baptism give you hope? For what are you hopeful?

Biblical Context

Mark 1: 7-11
Margaret Nutting Ralph PHD

Once again, we will understand our Gospel reading in a much fuller sense if we are acquainted with the technique known as midrash, the Gospel writers’ use of Old Testament allusions to teach the significance of New Testament events. As Mark tells the story of John the Baptist announcing Jesus and of Jesus’ baptism, Mark uses Old Testament allusions to teach Jesus’ divinity and to foreshadow Jesus’ suffering.

Of all of the four Gospels, Mark has the lowest Christology; that is to say, Mark most emphasizes Jesus’ humanity. However, from the very first sentence     Mark’s Gospel puts forward the post-resurrection understanding that Jesus is divine by beginning, “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ the Son of God” (Mark 1:1). (If your Bible translation has the words “the Son of God” in parentheses, that is to acknowledge that the words do not appear in all manuscripts upon which our translations are based.) This teaching that Jesus is God’s son in a unique way also appears in our reading today as the voice that comes from heaven after Jesus’ baptism says, “You are my beloved Son…” (v. 11). Mark is alluding to Psalm 2, a royal psalm that, over time, was understood to express Israel’s hope for a messiah.

Psalm 2 says:

I will proclaim the decree of the Lord: The Lord said to me, “You are my son;   this day I have begotten you. Ask of me and I will give you the nations for an inheritance and the ends of the earth for your possession. (Ps 2:7-8)

Psalm 2 originates from the time in Israel’s history when Israel was nation     with a king. The presence of the king was understood to be an expression of  God’s fidelity to God’s covenant promise to protect. The psalmist considers     rebellion against the king as rebellion against God because the king is God’s     anointed one.

The kings of the earth rise up, and the princes conspire together against the Lord and against his anointed. (Ps2:2)

Remember that the words messiah and Christ both mean “the anointed one.” When the Book of Psalms was collected after the Babylonian exile (587 BC-537 BC) for use in the rebuilt temple, this psalm was still used even though the people no longer had their own king. The psalm became an expression of messianic hope. By alluding to this psalm as he describes Jesus’ baptism, Mark is teaching that Jesus is the fulfillment of that messianic hope even though Jesus did not become a king of a nation on earth.

It is hard for us to realize just how unexpected the events surrounding Jesus were. The people were expecting a messiah who would defeat the Romans and reestablish Israel as a nation, not a messiah who would be killed by his political enemies in the most ignominious way possible. Could Jesus really be the messiah, given the fact that he died on a cross? Mark’s good news is that Jesus is a messiah, a suffering messiah who rose from the dead and offers eternal life to Mark’s audience, which is suffering persecution. So as Mark begins his story, he also foreshadows Jesus’ future suffering by alluding to the passage in Isaiah that is our Old Testament reading today.

The Baptism of The Lord

Reflection
Fr. Michael K. Marsh

A priest-friend of mine tells this story about a family he knows. It seems a young boy had been at home all day with his mother. He had been a terror all day long. With each incident the mother responded, “You just wait until your dad gets home.” Evening came and the dad got home from work. The mother began telling him about their son’s behavior. The dad looked at his son and before he could say anything the boy cried out, “You can’t touch me. I’ve been baptized!”

I wish it was that easy, that clear, that simple. I wish I could say to the sorrows and losses of my life, “You can’t touch me. I’ve been baptized!” I wish I could say to the struggles and difficulties of my life, “You can’t touch me. I’ve been baptized!” I wish I could say to the changes and chances of life, “You can’t touch me. I’ve been baptized!” But that is not how baptism seems to work.

Despite my baptism I have, like every one of you, suffered sorrows and losses of life, encountered difficulties and struggles, had to face the changes and chances of life I would rather have avoided. And despite his baptism that little boy in the story still went to time-out. And yet he speaks a deep truth. He is absolutely right; he is untouchable. At some level he knows that his existence, identity, and value are not limited to time and space; to the things he has done or left undone. He knows himself to be more than his biological existence. He knows himself as beloved. He knows the gift of baptism.

Baptism does not eliminate our difficulties, fix our problems, take away the pain, or change the circumstances of our lives. Instead, it changes us and offers a way through those difficulties, sorrows, problems, and circumstances and ultimately, a way through death. Baptism transcends our biological existence and offers us a vision of life as it might be. Baptism offers us a new way of being – one that is neither limited by nor suffers from our “createdness.” Through baptism we no longer live according to the biological laws of nature but by relationship with God, who through the Prophet Isaiah says, “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine” (Isaiah 43:1).

That means when we pass through the waters of sorrow and difficulty God is with us. The rivers that can drown will not overwhelm us. That means when we walk through the fire of loss and ruination we are not burned. The flames that can destroy will not consume us. For he is the Lord our God, the Holy one of Israel, our Savior. (Isaiah 43:1-7)

To know this, to trust this, to experience this is the gift of baptism and baptism always takes place at the border of life as it is and life as it might be. That border is the river Jordan. Geographically, symbolically, and theologically the Jordan River is the border on which baptism happens. It is the border between the wilderness and the promised land; the border between life as survival and a life that is thriving; the border between sin and forgiveness; the border between the tomb and the womb; the border between death and life. We all stand on that border at multiple points in our lives. Some of you stand there now. Some of you experience that border as a place of loss, fear, pain. For others it is a place of joy, hope, and healing. In reality it is both at the same time.

The only reason we can stand at the border of baptism is because Jesus stood there first. We stand on the very same border on which his baptism took place.

Jesus’ baptism is for our sake and salvation. His baptism makes ours possible. The water of baptism does not sanctify Jesus. Instead, he sanctifies the water for our baptism. The water that once drowned is now sanctified water that gives life.

Ritually we are baptized only once. Yet throughout our life we return to the waters of baptism. Daily we return to the baptismal waters through living our baptismal vows.

Sometimes our own body provides the waters of baptism, tears. St. Ephrem the Syrian spoke of our eyes as two baptismal fonts. Tears are the body’s own baptismal waters that cleanse, heal, and renew life. Other times the circumstances of life, things done and left undone by us and others, the ups and downs of living, push us back to the waters of baptism. We return in order to again be immersed into the open heavens, to be bathed by God’s breath, the Holy Spirit, and to let the name “beloved” wash over us.

There is truth is what that little boy said, “You can’t touch me. I’ve been baptized!” Do you believe that? Can you say it and claim it for yourself? Can you live it?

Selections from Breaking Open the Lectionary: Lectionary Readings in Their Biblical Context for RCIA, Faith Sharing Groups, and Lectors—Cycle B, by Margaret Nutting Ralph, Copyright © 2005 by Margaret Nutting Ralph. Paulist Press, Inc., New York/Mahwah, NJ. Reprinted by permission of Paulist Press, Inc.

Year B: Second Sunday in Ordinary Time

They saw where he was staying, and they stayed with him

John 1: 35-42

The next day John was there again with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he said, “Behold, the Lamb of God.” The two disciples heard what he said and followed Jesus. Jesus turned and saw them following him and said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come, and you will see.” So, they went and saw where he was staying, and they stayed with him that day. It was about four in the afternoon. Andrew, the brother of Simon Peter, was one of the two who heard John and followed Jesus. He first found his own brother Simon and told him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed) then he brought him to Jesus. Jesus looked at him and said, “You are Simon the son of John; you will be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter)

Discussion Questions: 

  1. Jesus asked the disciples “what are you looking for?” How do you respond to this question? Can you explain what you are looking for?
  2. When the disciples ask Jesus where he is staying, he does not tell them, but instead invites them into a relationship. How have you been invited and come to know /experience Jesus on a personal relationship level? What does that look like in your life?
  3. What do you think God desires from you?
  4. Being called, recognizing, following, and proclaiming to others, are all dimensions of discipleship. How are these taking shape or being enacted in your vocation as a disciple?
  5. How have the events of this past year and what lies ahead challenging your discipleship journey?

 Biblical Context

John 1:35-42
Mary M. McGlone CSJ

Lamb of God has sacrificial overtones. It suggests that Jesus is the sacrifice God This reading, like that from 1 Samuel, leads easily if not inevitably into a reflection on vocation. John the Evangelist narrates the fulfillment of John the Baptist’s vocation, gives some explanations of Jesus’ vocation and presents two examples of the vocation of discipleship. 

John the Baptist’s entire vocation was to point to Jesus, the one who was to come after him. We first heard about that in the prologue to the Gospel; now the Baptist fulfills his vocation by directing his disciples to Jesus, the Lamb of God. Earlier, John had spoken of the one to come after him whose sandal he was not worthy to untie. In this scene, John makes good on his rhetoric by sending his own disciples to follow the one he pointed out. By doing that, he acts like the perfect prophet and disciple. Recognizing and imitating the Master, John empties himself for the sake of leading others to God.

The Baptist called Jesus “the Lamb of God.” He is the only person in the Gospels to give Jesus that title, and we repeat it in every celebration of the Eucharist. What does it mean? The title must have been commonly understood among the early Christians because the Evangelist does nothing to explain it. The title Lamb of God has sacrificial overtones. It suggests that Jesus is the sacrifice God offers on behalf of humanity. It also calls to mind the sacrifice God provided when the angel prevented Abraham from slaughtering his son. The first time the Baptist used the title, he added, “who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29), quite possibly a reference to the Servant Song of Isaiah 53. Although the Gospel of John never again uses that precise word for a lamb, John may have used it to refer to Jesus as the Passover Lamb of the New Covenant.

This Gospel uses three terms to describe Jesus: Lamb of God, Rabbi and Messiah. All three titles speak somehow of Jesus’ vocation. Throughout the Gospel, Jesus will act as a teacher or rabbi. The concept of what it means to be the Messiah will go through a process of clarification through the entire Gospel as the disciples come to understand what the title means according to Jesus’ own understanding and way of life. Together the three titles offer three different and complementary perspectives on Jesus’ vocation.

Finally, this reading presents two examples of how people enter into a life of discipleship. First, we see the disciples John sent to follow Jesus. Of them Jesus asks, “What do you seek?” Implying that they wanted to spend time with him, they asked where he lived, to which Jesus simply replied, “Come and see.” Whatever they saw in that one night was enough to convince Andrew to go tell his brother they had discovered the Messiah.

One thing we learn from this reading is that when someone encounters Jesus, the inevitable response is to tell others about it. Discipleship is thus understood as a willingness to seek, to be called forth and to be sent. Underneath it all is an attitude that seeks more than one already knows about the meaning of life. It implies an ongoing willingness to learn and to tell others what you have found. As we will see in all the Gospels, both learning and proclaiming who Jesus is will be the essential and ongoing dimensions of the life of discipleship.

Spiritual Reflection

John Shea

 I was teaching a course on Christology. Halfway through the semester, a student approached me after class. “Can I ask you a question,” he said.

“I’m a teacher and you’re a student, ask away.” “Do you have a personal relationship to Jesus?”

I looked at him. This was not a witch-hunt. He was genuinely interested. I was being offered an opportunity to testify. And the offer was specifically Christian. He was not asking about the activity of God in my life or my spiritual journey or how I understood a specific belief. He wanted to know about my relationship to Jesus.

I was silent. Finally, I said to him, “I don’t want to respond predict- ably or flippantly. I’d like to think about it and get back to you.”

In the past I had responded both ways—predictably and flippantly. In the Catholic world in which I grew up, the question was not about a personal relationship with Jesus but the more intellectual, “What think ye of the Christ?” I knew the Chalcedonian answer, and I spat it out with more conviction than understanding, “one divine person in two natures.” But I knew the student wanted more than this predict- able, Catholic, orthodox testimony. He wasn’t looking for my commit- ment to the Church’s conciliar degrees.

I had also offered flippant testimony. Years ago, I was lying on the North Avenue beach in Chicago in the late afternoon. The sun was beating down on me when all of a sudden, a shadow blocked the light. For a moment I thought it was a passing cloud, but then I opened my eyes and there were two young people standing over me.

They were well washed and groomed. He had on a white shirt and tie, and she wore a blouse and a skirt. They were carrying their shoes, and they each had a Bible in hand.

They looked down at me and asked, “Do you know the Lord Jesus as your personal savior?”

I looked up and answered without missing a beat, “Unfortunately, yes.”

I have always had a hard time with the Jesus of the Gospels. I do not completely understand much of what Jesus says and does. Needless to say, what I do understand I have great trouble living out. Yet there is this attraction. I keep returning—studying, praying, and trying to find through Jesus a passion and direction for my life. Combined with this, I projected onto the two questioners at the beach that sunny faith that feels it completely owns grace and insists everyone share its syrup.  So, I put together “unfortunately” and “yes.” It was an attempt to be both honest to myself and disconcerting to them. It was not my best moment.

Now there was another chance to “bear witness to Jesus.” As I pondered the student’s question, I ran into the trickiness of testimony.

I had to distinguish where I was personally with Jesus from the plethora of images and ideas in the Christian tradition. Testimony was neither about adequacy to the Scriptures and tradition nor about what other people have said Jesus has meant for them. Testimony is searingly individual. There can be no hiding in the rhetoric or faith of others.

Nor is a one-word answer appropriate. To the pointed question, “Do you have a personal relationship with Jesus,” it is not enough to say “Yes” or “No.” And certainly it is high evasion to utter an offended, “Of course.” The point is not to state “where you are at” but to unfold the path, to tell the story of how you got to where you are at. When John the Baptist testifies, he tells of “not knowing” Jesus and how he came to recognize him. Of course, this is done in succinct, symbolic code, but it is still bearing witness to a process. Testimony should not rush to the conclusion. It should articulate the adventure.

Therefore, a presupposition for testimony is the ability to be congruent with inner perceptions and feelings and to be able to retrieve how they have changed and developed. This scrutiny has to be undertaken with uncompromising honesty. Sidestepping difficulties or shrugging off nagging doubts as part of the “struggle of faith” short circuits the full current of testimony. The first step of bearing witness is honest self-examination.

In my experience, honest self-examination leads to complexity. Recently, I came across a story about three people who arrived at the door of a spiritual teacher. He asked them all the same question: “Did you come to me because of others or because of yourself?” The first answered that he had been sent by others. He was dismissed. The second answered that he came on his accord. He also was dismissed. The third stammered that he had heard of him from others and yet he also thought he came on his own—partially out of curiosity, partially out of frustration, partially because he was addicted to searching, and probably out of a host of other motives of which he was not aware. The spiritual teacher said, “You’ll do.” The multilayered mind was accepted.

We do not know all the reasons that drive us. And certainly, I do not know all the reasons I am drawn to Jesus and struggle to follow him. I am complex and this complexity cannot be reduced to single-pointed clarity. One benefit of complexity is: if taken seriously, it inevitably brings humility. In relation to Jesus, there develops a “not knowing” that honors the mystery of attraction. I like to fantasize that part of John the Baptist’s “not knowing” of Jesus was the sheer complexity of the reasons he was attracted to him.

So, in my own mind, hallmarks of testimony began to develop— honest self-examination, sufficient complexity, and true humility. But what about the other side of testimony? Testimony is supposed to attract others to Jesus. Would my testimony, although true to myself, be too weak and vacillating and convoluted? Honest complexity to me might be muddle to someone else. Would my witness turn people away from Christ rather than draw them close? Would I turn into a negative witness? After hearing me, would they look elsewhere?

Slowly, I came to see this worry should not occupy too much thought and time. The more I thought about “reception” the more it hooked my ego and turned my testimony toward performance. I was rehearsing what I was going to say, editing for audience effect. I was compromising the struggle to be faithful to what I was thinking and feeling. So, I stopped thinking about how to package my relationship to Jesus. (This is a difficult discipline for a teacher and writer.) It would have to be enough to speak the only truth I knew.

About a week after the student asked me the question, I asked him to walk me back to my office after class. I told him the type of scrutiny his question had triggered in me, and then I launched into my relationship with Jesus. To my surprise, I found myself saying that the Gospel stories about Jesus continue to connect my spirit to the Spirit. Jesus effectively baptizes me with the Spirit. Although I was in line with John the Baptist, I did not know if I wanted to say this is the only way to encounter the Spirit of God. But one thing for sure, it had been my way.

I looked at the student. He had gotten more than he had bargained for. He seemed embarrassed. Was he more attracted to Jesus? Or was he in the same place he was before I testified? Or was he repelled? I couldn’t tell, and he didn’t say. Ah, the continuing trickiness of testimony.

Year B: Third Sunday in Ordinary Time

Repent and believe in the Gospel

Mark 1:14-20

After John had been arrested, Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the gospel of God: “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.” As he passed by the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting their nets into the sea; they were fishermen. Jesus said to them, “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Then they abandoned their nets and followed him. He walked along a little farther and saw James, the son of Zebedee, and his brother John. They too were in a boat mending their nets. Then he called them. So, they left their father Zebedee in the boat along with the hired men and followed him.

Discussion Questions:

  1. How have you repented or “changed your mind” this past year? Explain
  2. How do you hear “the call” of Jesus in your life at this stage? How are you responding to, or resisting that call?
  3. Within the circumstances of your life, what do you need to “abandon” or let go of in order to follow Jesus and His mission more faithfully?
  4. There’s a saying; information is not transformation. Can you describe a transformation that has taken place in you because of your faith journey? Tell the story.
  5. At its core our church is still missionary and evangelical in nature. Have you learned to be a fisher of men? In what ways do you do this, or where do you struggle with this aspect of discipleship? Explain

Biblical Context

Mark 1: 14-20
Margaret Nutting Ralph

We return this Sunday to the first chapter of Mark’s Gospel, which we were reading on the feast of the Baptism of the Lord (the First Sunday in Ordinary Time).

John, who announced Jesus’ presence and baptized him, has been arrested. John is now off-stage in Mark’s Gospel. He does not appear in person again, although we hear the reason for his arrest and the circumstances of his death in. Mark 6:17-29

Jesus begins his public ministry with the words, “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe, in the gospel.” Notice that Jesus is preaching about the imminent inbreaking of the kingdom of God. He is saying that the people’s hope that God would reveal God’s power and establish God’s rule is being fulfilled now. The people must repent and believe that this good news is true

All three Synoptic Gospels (Mark’s, Matthew’s, and Luke’s Gospels are called the Synoptic Gospels because of their great similarities) picture Jesus beginning his public ministry by announcing the kingdom of God (see Matt 4:17; Luke 4:16-20). Preaching about the kingdom, not about his own identity, was the core of Jesus’ message. However, after Jesus’ post resurrection appearances the church began to realize that Jesus was and is divine. By the time Mark’s Gospel was taking its present form (about AD 65), the core message had become the person of Jesus Christ and what Jesus Christ accomplished for all of us. This change in focus helped form the oral traditions that: were among Mark’s sources. The stories were told not simply to recreate events but to teach what was later understood in the light of the resurrection.  

We can see how stories were formed to teach particular truths by looking at the two call stories in today’s Gospel. On first reading this passage people often ask such questions as: “Wasn’t it unwise of Andrew and Peter to follow someone they didn’t even know?” “Wasn’t it wrong of James and John to abandon their father in the boat?” and the stories themselves are identical. However, we can see that this is a misunderstanding simply by comparing today’s Gospel account of how Andrew and Peter became disciples of Jesus.

Both of today’s call stories were formed by the early church to teach the wholehearted response that is necessary to become a disciple of Jesus Christ. Nothing on earth, not family ties, and not earning living, is more important than discipleship, than being in right relationship with Jesus Christ.

Notice, too, that Jesus’ call to his disciples is not simply for the purpose of their being in relationship with Jesus. Jesus’ first words to them are, “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men. The good news, the revelation that those who respond to Jesus’ call learn, they are to pass on to others. They are called both to be disciples and to make disciples. We too have been called to be disciples and to evangelize, to call others to discipleship.

Reflection

Fr. Michael K. Marsh

Simon and Andrew were casting a net into the sea for they were fishermen. Day after day it was the same thing; the same sea, the same net, the same boat. Day after day it was wind, water, fish, sore muscles, tired bodies. They probably grew up watching their dad and granddad fishing, watching their future life, watching how they too would spend their time.

Cast the net, pull it in. Cast the net, pull it in. If you are not casting the net, then you sit in the boat mending the net. That’s what James and John were doing. Casting and mending. Casting and mending. You know about those days, right?

We may not fish for a living but we know about casting and mending nets. Days that all seem the same. One looks like another. Life is routine, lived on autopilot. Nothing changes. We don’t expect much to happen. This is our life. We cast the nets. We mend the nets. Casting and mending to make a living, to feed our family, to pay the bills. Casting and mending to gain security and get to retirement. Casting and mending to hold our family together, to make our marriage work, to grow up our children. Casting and mending to gain the things we want; a house, a car, books, clothes, a vacation. Casting and mending to earn a reputation, gain approval, establish status. Casting and mending our way through another day of loneliness, sadness, or illness.

Casting and mending are realities of life. They are also the circumstances in which Jesus comes to us, the context in which we hear the call to new life, and the place where we are changed and the ordinary becomes the extraordinary.

These would be disciples, Simon and Andrew, James and John, are not looking for Jesus. They are too busy with the nets. It is another day of casting and mending. They may not have even noticed Jesus but he not only sees them he speaks to them. Jesus has a way of showing up in the ordinary places of life and interrupting the daily routines of casting and mending nets. That’s what he did to the lives of Simon and Andrew, James and John. That’s what he does to your life and my life.

“Follow me” is Jesus’ invitation to a new life. If these four fishermen accept the invitation, their lives will forever be different. They will be different. They will no longer catch just fish. They will fish for people.

When Jesus says, “I will make you fish for people,” he is describing the transformation of their lives, not simply a job catching new members or followers. He could just as easily have said to the carpenters, “Follow me, and you will build the kingdom of heaven.” To the farmers, “Follow me, and you will grow God’s people. To the doctors, “Follow me, and you will heal the brokenness of the world.” To the teachers, “Follow me, and you will open minds and hearts to the presence of God.” To the parents, “Follow me, and you will nurture new life.”

Whatever your life is, however you spend your time, there is in that life Jesus’ call to “Follow me.” “Follow me” is the call to participate with God in God’s own saving work. It’s the work of change and growth. That work is always about moving to a larger vision, orienting our life in a new direction, and experiencing that our little story of life is connected to and a part of a much larger story of life, God’s life.

As Jesus walked by the Sea of Galilee he saw Simon, Andrew, James, and John. Jesus called them. Mark records no discussions, no questions, no good byes. They simply “left… and followed him.”

I’m afraid that if Mark were writing about me – when he gets to the part when Jesus says, “Follow me” – Mark would write, “and immediately the questions followed.” “Where are we going? What will we do? How long will we be gone? What do I need to take? Where will we stay?”

But this conversation doesn’t take place in today’s gospel. Jesus does not offer a map, an itinerary, or a destination, only an invitation. This is not the type of journey you can prepare for. This is the inner journey, a journey into the deepest part of our being, the place where God resides. It’s not about planning and organizing, making lists, or packing supplies. It’s not that easy. If anything this journey is about leaving things behind. Listen to what Mark says:

 

“Immediately they left their nets and followed him.”
“They left their father Zebedee in the boat…, and followed him.”

The invitation, “follow me,” is also the invitation to leave behind; to leave behind our nets, our boats, and even our fathers.

That’s the hard part for most of us. We’re pretty good at accumulating and clinging but not so good at letting go. More often than not our spiritual growth involves some kind of letting go. We never get anywhere new as long as we’re unwilling to leave where we are. We accept Jesus’ invitation to follow, not by packing up, but by letting go.

“Follow me” is both the invitation to and the promise of new life. So what are the nets that entangle us? What are the little boats that contain our life? Who are the fathers from whom we seek identity, value, or approval? What do we need to let go of and leave behind so that we might follow him?

Please don’t think this is simply about changing careers, disowning our family, or moving to a new town. It is about the freedom to be fully human and in so being discover God’s divinity within us. We let go so that our life may be reoriented, so that we can now travel in new direction, so that we may be open to receive the life of God anew. When we let go, everything is transformed – including our nets, boats, and fathers. That’s why Jesus could tell them they would still be fishermen. But now they would fish for people. They wouldn’t become something they weren’t already, but they would be changed. They would become transformed fishermen. They would more authentically be who they already were.

Ultimately, it’s about letting go of our own little life so that we can receive God’s life. This letting go happens in the context of our everyday activities; work, school, families, paying the bills, running errands, fixing dinner, relationships, and trying to do the right thing. It happens in the casting and mending of our nets. These are the times and places Jesus shows up and calls into a new way of being and our world changes. It happened for Simon, Andrew, James, and John. It can happen for you and me.

Selections from Breaking Open the Lectionary: Lectionary Readings in Their Biblical Context for RCIA, Faith Sharing Groups, and Lectors—Cycle B, by Margaret Nutting Ralph, Copyright © 2005 by Margaret Nutting Ralph. Paulist Press, Inc., New York/Mahwah, NJ. Reprinted by permission of Paulist Press, Inc. www.paulistpress.com.


Year B: Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Teaching with Authority

Mark 1: 21-28

Then they came to Capernaum, and on the Sabbath he entered the synagogue and taught. The people were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority and not as the scribes. In their synagogue was a man with an unclean spirit; he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!” Jesus rebuked him and said, “Quiet! Come out of him!” The unclean spirit convulsed him and with a loud cry came out of him. All were amazed and asked one another, “What is this? A new teaching with authority.” He commands even the unclean spirits and they obey him.” His fame spread everywhere throughout the whole region of Galilee.

 Discussion Questions: 

  1.   Do you believe that Jesus’ way is the true authority of your life? In what specific ways do you respond to Jesus’ teaching authority?
  2.   The unclean spirit represents whatever forces dominate people inside and make them less free for God. How have you experienced this domination within yourself? How do you recognize and respond to it?
  3. Jesus is a liberator, the Holy One who overcomes what is contrary to God. Do you believe He can do this in your life when you pray ‘Deliver us from evil’?  Do you have an example of being delivered?
  4. In the Gospels Jesus crosses many well-established faith boundaries, in this passage the boundary of clean and unclean. When have you crossed a closely held personal or religious boundary in service of someone else?

 Biblical Context

Sr. Mary M. McGlone CSJ
Mark 1:21-28

When we read the Gospel of Mark with fresh eyes, we see how Mark is not only fast-paced but tries to communicate the excitement and amazement people felt as they encountered Jesus. This infers that Jesus himself exhibited great excitement about the message he was communicating. The selection we hear today focuses on the question of just who Jesus of Nazareth is, or as the unclean spirit asked, “What have you to do with us?”

First of all, Jesus was a reverent Jew who went to the synagogue in Capernaum where he had taken up residence. Capernaum was a rather prosperous city of around 10,000 people. Situated on a trade route, it was also blessedly distant from Herod’s administrative capital of Tiberius. 

The two ideas that Mark emphasizes in this passage are that Jesus was a teacher and that he exercised authority. If we ask what it was that Jesus taught, Mark comes up quite short on prose. Until now and for some time to come we will hear only 19 words of Jesus’ teaching: “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15). The rest of what Jesus says between the beginning of the Gospel and Chapter 2, Verse 19 is dialogue with disciples, demons and people in need of healing. 

That paucity of verbal content makes it all the more striking that the people would be so impressed with Jesus’ teaching. Mark tells us that the people saw Jesus’ authority in distinct contrast to that of the scribes. The scribes were key religious authorities. They were biblical exegetes and could make binding interpretations of the law. Many of them were Pharisees and they had earned their stripes through formal study and teaching. Jesus had none of that pedigree. 

According to Mark, Jesus’ authority came from the simple fact that his word was borne out in deed. That’s what we see in the expulsion of the unclean spirit. He preached about the kingdom of God and his word made it appear. His word was like the divine word of Genesis, creating the very reality of which he spoke. 

As Mark weaves his Gospel message, he shows that the people who saw Jesus were amazed and questioning one another. They saw his authority but didn’t know what to make of it. At the same time, the unclean spirit, a representative of the demonic world, knew right away what Jesus was all about. The question “Have you come to destroy us?” suggests what the next phrase makes explicit: The demons recognized that Jesus had been sent by God and their power was impotent against him. It would take the disciples a little longer to answer the question of what Jesus meant for them. 

 “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” Mark puts this question before every reader of the Gospel. He invites us to journey with him through the rest of the story to learn just what it means that Jesus’ word and deed brought the time of fulfillment. 

 Recognizing the Stranger Within

Reflection
Fr. Michael K. Marsh

There’s a man with an unclean spirit “in their synagogue.” He’s not unique among them or us. He’s representative and he speaks not just for himself but also for and as one of them. What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us” (emphasis added)? The people in the synagogue do not tell him to be quiet, to sit down, or to get out. They seem pretty happy to let him speak for them because he is one of them and they are him.

He’s become so familiar and accepted in their lives and community and so much a part of who they are that they neither react to nor are they affected by him. He’s not the unusual or strange thing about that day. Who is? Who is the unusual and strange one that day? Jesus. Jesus is the one that astounds them and seems so different from what they’ve seen or heard before.

They are so lost to themselves that the good news of Jesus becomes strange and unusual. “What is this?” they ask, “A new teaching – with authority!” I wonder if that happens to us too. I wonder if sometimes we become so lost to ourselves, so self-alienated, so self-estranged, that the good news sounds strange and a bit crazy to us.

“You want me to love my enemies? I can’t do that. Don’t you know what they’ve done?” “I should forgive how many times, Jesus? Isn’t seven more than enough? Didn’t you hear what she said, what he did? They never change.” “Those who live by the sword will die by the sword? Jesus, don’t you understand that might makes right and peace is gained by superior firepower?” “I’ve never killed anyone but now you’re telling me I shouldn’t even get angry?” “And it’s not enough that I’ve not had an affair? I shouldn’t even look and enjoy some thoughts?” “The kingdom is within? No, that’s not how it works here. What about my accounts, my successes and reputation, proving myself, and all those things I’ve worked so hard to get?” 

It seems the more we look at our life and world the stranger the good news sounds. And I’ve come to realize that’s more a statement about having an unclean spirit than it is about the gospel of Christ. It’s a symptom of our self-alienation.

The great tragedy of this alienation, this self-estrangement, is that

  • We tend to let the most familiar and craziest voices among us speak for us.
  • We’re no longer surprised when the demonic shows ups. I am talking about the attitudes that deny human dignity, the powers that destroy life, the self-interest and greed that refuse to see a common and interdependent life. We may not like it but we’re not too surprised at what’s on the news. Are we really that surprised when there is another terrorist bombing, another mass shooting, another scandal?
  • We let those outer voices, whether it’s CNN, Fox, a parent, our spouse, a friend, a priest, have greater influence in our lives than that deep inner voice of truth and we lose just a bit more of ourselves.
  • We forget that what is true, good, and beautiful are neither objects outside of us nor goals to be achieved, but realities within us to be recognized.

In those times of self-alienation we need someone, a different voice, to call us back to ourselves. We need a new recognition of the ways in which our life has become fragmented. That’s what Jesus is doing in the synagogue in Capernaum today. He is calling them back to themselves. The first thing they want to know is what Jesus has to do with them. He’s the stranger. “Have you come to destroy us?” And I think the answer is yes. He comes to destroy everything that is not truly us. He comes to destroy the false voices in our lives. He comes to destroy the powers that diminish and deny the fullness of life and human dignity. He comes to destroy our false identities. Notice, however, that he does not exclude or reject the man with the unclean spirit. He clarifies for him that the unclean spirit is not his truest spirit. It is not a spirit of life. Jesus calls this man back to himself. 

And it is in that moment of self-recognition that the man with the unclean spirit also recognizes Jesus. “I know who you are,” he says, “the Holy One of God.” That’s something for us to hang on to. Even in the midst of our self-estrangement there is still something within us that knows and can recognize the Holy One. No matter how lost we are to ourselves the ability to recognize the Holy One remains. The reason we can is because the Holy One has never left us. The Holy One is within us. The Holy One is us. 

Maybe the recognition of who Jesus calls us back to be is what saves our life. Maybe that’s the antidote to the ways in which we have become alienated from ourselves. It means recognizing the truth and the untruth about our lives, the beauty of our life as well as the disfigurements, the places that are whole and the places that are broken. We’ve all got them. 

As much as we may want to deny or run from those things, the recognition of those things is also the place of healing and wholeness, a place from which new life born, a place that gives rise to new hope. It’s a place in which we can catch a glimpse of our truest and best self

That means recognition has to become for us an intentional spiritual practice. We must look critically at our lives, reflect deeply on who have become and the shape of our life, wrestle with difficult questions, and search within. It also means that we have to let go of the idea that the one with an unclean spirit is someone apart from and outside our lives. 

As easy and tempting as it is to ignore or cover up our self-alienation, it’s even easier and more tempting to project it onto and blame someone else. President Trump is the man with the unclean spirit. He’s to blame. The biased media are the ones with the unclean spirit. It’s their fault. Or maybe it’s my boss, my spouse, the troublemaker in life. Or maybe the ones with the unclean spirit are the immigrants, the proponents of the wall, the police, the Black Live Matter, Islam…. The list could go on and on. 

To go down that road is to live more deeply into my own self-exile. And I’ve known since I was five years old I do not like that place. That’s not how I want to live or who I want to be. I don’t think you like it or want it for your life any more than I do. I want something more, something different, for my life and I think you do too. 

What’s the recognition for us? In what ways are we lost to ourselves? What’s broken? How are we an alien to our own life or a stranger in our own skin? 

However, we might answer those questions, whatever our self-alienation might be, Jesus enters the synagogue of our life and calls us back to ourselves. He will not run from or avoid our self-alienation and the many ways we’ve become estranged from ourselves. He stands with us in the midst of it, inviting us into recognition. He clarifies the truth about who we are. And he does it over and over. It might take years of recognition, but the promise of Christ holds true. One day we will look at ourselves and say, “I know you. You’re the holy one of God.”


Year B: Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time

The Cure of Simon’s Mother-in-Law.

Mark 1: 29-39

On leaving the synagogue he entered the house of Simon and Andrew with James and John. Simon’s mother-in-law lay sick with a fever. They immediately told him about her. He approached, grasped her hand, and helped her up. Then the fever left her, and she waited on them. When it was evening, after sunset, they brought to him all who were ill or possessed by demons. The whole town was gathered at the door. He cured many who were sick with various diseases, and he drove out many demons, not permitting them to speak because they knew him.  Rising very early before dawn, he left and went off to a deserted place, where he prayed. Simon and those who were with him pursued him and on finding him said, “Everyone is looking for you. He told them, “Let us go on to the nearby villages that I may preach there also. For this purpose have I come.” So, he went into their synagogues, preaching and driving out demons throughout the whole of Galilee.

Discussion Questions:

  1. When you pray for the sick, is your focus on God’s presence and healing to take place or for a miracle cure? How are these different?
  2. “The whole town was gathered at the door.” In your life what represents the noise of the crowd, how does this distract you from spiritual priorities?   
  3. These days, what are some of the demons we face in life and how do they possess us? What have you experienced regarding yourself, or seen in others? 
  4. From Shea’s reflection: Have you ever experienced suffering that has generated a “healing response” within you or regarding someone else? Explain. 
  5. What would need to shift in how you relate to God, to more openly receive and give God’s healing presence? 

Biblical Context

Mark 1: 29-39
Mary M. McGlone CSJ

Mark opens Jesus’ public ministry with a flurry of activity that all happens in Capernaum. After the synagogue incident we heard last week, we now hear that Jesus went out of the synagogue, the place of teaching, and immediately entered the home Peter shared with others. They let him know immediately that Simon’s mother-in-law was ill. Mark tells the rest of the story in very tangible detail: Jesus drew near her, took her hand and raised her. The details of this very short miracle account make a point of Jesus’ attentive personal involvement with this woman. It is very little surprise, then, that the next phrase is “she served them.”

As Mark introduces us to Jesus, he presents him as the victor over demons and a healer. It is striking that the first person Jesus healed was a woman — quite likely a widow and one whose social standing came through her daughter’s husband. In other words, she was one of the lowly. And what do we know of this lowly woman? Only that upon being healed, she “waited on them.” The word for “waited on” comes from the Greek diakoneo which we immediately recognize as the root for deacon. It is not a common word in Mark’s Gospel, in fact, it is used only twice more. After this verse, Mark 10 shows Jesus reprimanding the disciples who were seeking the first places at his right and left sides. He told them that he had not come to be served, but to serve. The only other people whom Mark presents as servers are the women who remained with Jesus when he went to the cross (15:41). Mark presents this woman, the first person healed by Jesus, as the first to understand his message and the implications of following him.

With this story, Mark has established Jesus’ reputation as an exorcist and healer. The sun has set on his first day in public ministry. In the second part of our reading, people begin to flock to Jesus at night. If his first exorcism and healing were symbol of what he offered, the “whole town” who came in the night represented the world in need. This is only the first of the crowds who would press on him, seeking healing, and there is no indication that they understood the message of his presence in the way that Peter’s mother-in-law did. He healed many and drove out demons, but Mark does not say that the healed people became his disciples and the demons seem more able to understand the implications of what he does than do the crowds.

That leads to the third part of today’s selection. Before dawn, Jesus escaped to a deserted place where he prayed. This is the first of three times that Mark will depict Jesus at prayer. The second comes after the sharing of the loaves among the crowd in Mark 6; the third is in the Garden of Gethsemane. Mark gives us the idea that Jesus’ prayer at the beginning of his ministry was a key to discerning what he was to do. He was an overnight sensation, and Peter and the disciples seemed to be ready to be his managers. But rather than defer to public expectations, rather than be caught up in fame, Jesus chose to extend his reach.

By way of explanation for his decision to go to other villages, Jesus says, “For this purpose I have come.” The word Jesus used that is translated as come is more like “come out” or “come forth.” This is a little like Luke’s depiction of Jesus in the synagogue at Nazareth (4:16-30) when Jesus proclaimed his mission in the words of the prophet Isaiah. Here, Jesus indicates that he knows his purpose, he has come forth for more than popularity in a small place. As Peter’s mother-in-law foreshadowed, his mission is to serve.

Curing, Healing and Serving

Reflection
John Shea

Contemporary spiritual teaching often maps a different path of curing, healing, and service than is portrayed in this episode from St. Mark’s Gospel. But a similar challenge emerges in both renditions.

Ram Dass, an American spiritual teacher in the Hindu tradition who suffered a debilitating stroke in 1997, makes this distinction between healing and curing. “While cures aim at returning our bodies to what they were in the past, healing uses what is present to move us more deeply to Soul Awareness, and in some cases, physical “improvement.” “Although I have not been cured of the effects of my stroke, I have certainly undergone profound healings of mind and heart” Therefore, healing can happen without cure.

In fact, it is in the sickness that the healing begins. Michael Lerner, who works with people diagnosed with cancer, offered this description of what he would do if faced with a cancer diagnosis. “I would pay a great deal of attention to the inner healing process that I hoped a cancer diagnosis would trigger in me. I would give careful thought to the meaning of my life, what I had to let go of and what I wanted to keep” (Dass, 74).

Healing is initiated in the sickness. It does not wait for cure to arrive. In fact, in some illness literature patients report a greater sense of being alive and in communion with others when they were sick. When they were cured, they returned to normal life, a life often characterized by numbness and rote obligation. Cure actually threatened healing. This was the case with a man by the name of Fred. He was diagnosed with terminal cancer. After an initial period of distress, “something amazing happened. I simply stopped doing everything that wasn’t essential, that didn’t matter.” His terminally ill life became vital and peaceful. But the doctors changed their mind. He was not terminally p ill. He had a rare but curable disease. “When I heard this over the telephone I cried like a baby—because I was afraid my life would go back to the way it used to be”.

This is the same challenge the Gospel presents, only in a quite different context. Jesus’ cures and exorcisms are signs of the kingdom of God. They both complement and embody Jesus’ more explicit teachings. People are supposed to interpret these signs as God’s loving response to human need. This interpretation, in turn, is meant to change peoples minds and initiate new ways of being with one another. The proper response to cures and exorcisms, like the proper response to proclamation and teaching, is repentance, a change of mind and behavior. Just remaining dazzled by the miraculous activity is insufficient.

Although the consciousness of Simon’s mother-in-law is not presented in the text, the indication is that both cure and healing occurred. Fever lays her low. Jesus takes her hand (v. 31). His touch becomes a transfusion, his life flowing into hers. In loving the person at the hidden center of the sickness, he lifts her up. The fever leaves and service begins. God’s service to her becomes her service to others.

The cure provides physical relief, but it is also accompanied by profound healing. Healing reconnects us to the deepest center of ourselves and through that center to God and neighbor. The flow of life and love through the intimate communion of God, self, and neighbor results in the dignity of service. As the whole Gospel will attest, service is not menial work. It is the hallmark of the new humanity that Jesus came to establish (see John 13:1-17). “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve” (Mark 10:45).

The contemporary path suggests that suffering is an invitation to may not result in a cure. If cure happens, the struggle is to persevere in the healing that was begun in sickness. The Gospel path begins with the cures and exorcisms, restorations to physical and mental health. But these cures must affect the minds and hearts of those cured and those witnessing the cures. They are meant to be catalysts of personal transformation, relating people in a new way to the love of God and the wellbeing of their neighbor (see Mark 12:29-31).

Spiritual Commentaries and Teachings are excerpted from The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers by John Shea © 2004 by Order of Saint Benedict. Published by Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota. Used with permission.


Year B: Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time

The Cleansing of a Leper

Mark 1: 40-45

 A leper came to him [and kneeling down] begged him and said, “If you wish, you can make me clean.” Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand, touched him, and said to him, “I do will it. Be made clean.” The leprosy left him immediately, and he was made clean. Then, warning him sternly, he dismissed him at once Then he said to him, “See that you tell no one anything, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses prescribed; that will be proof for them.” The man went away and began to publicize the whole matter. He spread the report abroad so that it was impossible for Jesus to enter a town openly. He remained outside in deserted places, and people kept coming to him from everywhere.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Jesus is always driven by compassion. How do you experience God’s compassion towards you?
  2. In what ways are you present to, or avoiding the suffering of others?
  3. After performing a miracle, Jesus is often heard saying; “See that you tell no one anything” Why do you think he does this?
  4. How has life in the Coronavirus era challenged your attitudes and behaviors about unity and separation?
  5. Do you think that laws help you grow in holiness? Why or Why not?

Biblical Context

Mark 1: 40-45
Margaret Nutting Ralph

When we read the story of Jesus healing a leper without knowing anything about the social context within which this event took place, we miss a good deal of what we are being taught. Certainly, it is apparent that Jesus has once more exhibited his healing power. But the story tells us much more about Jesus’ ministry than that.

As we will see when we discuss today’s Old Testament reading from the Book of Leviticus, a leper was supposed to stay away from other people and warn others of his presence by crying out, “Unclean, Unclean!” The leper in today’s Gospel is simply not obeying the law: “A leper came to Jesus and kneeling down begged him and said, ‘If you wish, you can make me clean.” Jesus had every right to be furious with the man for endangering Jesus’ health. The man could have kept his distance and still asked Jesus to heal him. He didn’t need to come so close.

Having set this alarming scene, Mark then describes Jesus’ reaction: “Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand, touched him, and said to him, ‘I do will it. Be made clean.” He touched him!  Although Jesus often touches people when he heals them, he doesn’t always. He doesn’t have to. To touch this man was an extraordinary act of kindness. At this point Jesus did not say one word about the man disobeying the law. He touched him and healed him.

Notice as we discuss this story, we are looking carefully at the way Mark chooses to describe an event. How do we know that there is an event underlying Mark’s account? How do we know that Mark didn’t make the story up out of whole cloth in order to teach a lesson?

This question leads directly to a discussion of literary form. The story of the healing of the leper is in the form of a miracle story. When we are reading a miracle story, we will read that a problem is brought to Jesus’ attention (i.e., a man has leprosy), that Jesus is explicitly described as doing something in response to the problem. That Jesus’ actions solve the problem, and that the crowd reacts to this mighty act. All of those elements are present here. When an author uses this form the author is claiming that what we now call a miracle has occurred. Mark would have called it an act of power. As we Continue to read Mark’s Gospel we will find stories that don’t fit this form. When that happens, we will once again ask, “What is the author teaching by telling the story in this way?”

After Jesus heals the man, he does direct him to obey the law in order to be received back into the community.  However, in addition, Jesus says, “See that you tell no one anything….” When discussing last Sunday’s Gospel, we mentioned this pattern in Mark of Jesus telling people not to speak. Last week it was during an exorcism. This week it is during a healing. Why did Jesus say this? The man obviously couldn’t keep the healing secret for any length of time because he would soon be reentering society.

Perhaps Mark is giving us a hint when he describes the effect of the man’s telling everyone: “He spread the report abroad so that it was impossible for Jesus to enter a town openly. He remained outside in deserted places, and people kept coming to him from everywhere. As we saw in last Sunday’s reading, Jesus did not want the crowd to center in just on the healing. Once more Jesus withdraws from the crowd, but that does not discourage the people from seeking him out just the same.

 Cultivating Compassion

Reflection
John Shea

We all have bodies, yet at any given moment some bodies are healthy and some are ill. We all have minds, yet some minds are first in the class and the corporation, and some minds are forever catching up or permanently left behind. We all have relationships and social position, yet some relationships are loving and some are indifferent, some social positions are important and some are menial. We are all souls, yet some souls are conscious of their communion with the Divine Source and living in peaceful action, and other souls are unconscious of their connection to the Divine Source and struggling painfully with life. We are both separate and the same, isolated and connected to one another.

This realization of sameness and connection is the first step to cultivating compassion. When the pope gets off an airplane in any country, he kisses the earth. He does this in every land for all the earth is sacred. There is a “sameness” to the different terrains of every country. Although many may think the earth of their country is sacred in a way the earth of other countries is not, this gesture tries to awaken another perception. When the Dalai Lama arrives in a country, he announces to all who are there, “Everyone wants happiness and doesn’t want suffering.” This is true of all, so all are bound together.

Both the pope’s gesture and the Dalai Lama’s sentence could be turned into profound spiritual practices. Although one may seem to be politically inspired and the other to be a throwaway line of a banal philosophy, they are both strenuous efforts to reverse separatist thinking. If you kiss with mindfulness the floor of every house you enter and say internally to every person you meet, “Everyone wants happiness and doesn’t want suffering,” you will be on a path of realizing your neighbor is yourself.

This consciousness of sameness and connection is often a gradual process. In the Middle Ages, Christians were encouraged to meditate on the mystical rose. The meditation began at the top of the rose where the tips of the petals do not touch. At this point they would realize the truth of separateness. Then their eyes would glide down the rose and rest on the overlapping sections of the petals. This sight would encourage consciousness to realize similarities and commonalities among what appeared as separate. When the eyes reached the base of the rose, all the petals came from the same stem. This was the deepest realization of the one source of all things and, therefore, a fundamental communion among all things.

However, getting to the base of the rose is not an easy trip. We are used to identifying with our competitive edges, with the physical, psychological, and social benefits that separate us from others. I am in better health, have a higher I.Q., and have more money than you. But, alas, I am in poorer health, have a lower I.Q-, and have less money than someone else. Within this way of thinking we alternate between being better or worse off; we swing back and forth between pitying those who have less and envying those who have more. In the presence of suffering this mental framework generates inner fear that makes us recoil. The leper is someone worse off who could bring us down to his condition. Avoidance is the strategy and, of course, prayers are made to the protective God to keep us from this fate.

When the consciousness of sameness and connection replaces the consciousness of separation, compassion arises. Compassion is a felt perception of sharing a common world that drives us toward action. We do not recoil, we reach out. Jesus’ compassion is the engine of his in the response, which I’ve seen translated as, “Of course, I want to.” Therefore, to cultivate compassion you can kiss the floor of all houses, interiorly size up each person met with “this person desires to be happy and doesn’t want to suffer,” and spend a longer time with the roses in gardens and flower shops.

Selections from Breaking Open the Lectionary: Lectionary Readings in Their Biblical Context for RCIA, Faith Sharing Groups, and Lectors—Cycle B, by Margaret Nutting Ralph, Copyright © 2005 by Margaret Nutting Ralph. Paulist Press, Inc., New York/Mahwah, NJ. Reprinted by permission of Paulist Press, Inc. www.paulistpress.com.

Spiritual Commentaries and Teachings are excerpted from The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers by John Shea © 2004 by Order of Saint Benedict. Published by Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota. Used with permission.


Year B: Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time

Comforted by Others

Four Friends who cared
Mark 2, 1-12

When Jesus returned to Capernaum after some days, it became known that he was at home. Many gathered together so that there was no longer room for them, not even around the door, and he preached the word to them. They came bringing to him a paralytic carried by four men. Unable to get near Jesus because of the crowd, they opened up the roof above him. After they had broken through, they let down the mat on which the paralytic was lying. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Child, your sins are forgiven.” Now some of the scribes were sitting there asking themselves, “Why does this man speak that way? He is blaspheming. Who but God alone can forgive sins?” Jesus immediately knew in his mind what they were thinking to themselves, so he said, “Why are you thinking such things in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise, pick up your mat and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority to forgive sins on earth”– he said to the paralytic, “I say to you, rise, pick up your mat, and go home.” He rose, picked up his mat at once, and went away in the sight of everyone. They were all astounded and glorified God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this.”

Discussion Questions:

  1. In this passage friends break down barriers to get the paralyzed man to Jesus. Who in your life has brought you to the Lord? Did they have an easy job of it?
  2. Do you believe that Jesus forgives your sins? How do you deal with sin and forgiveness in your life?
  3. Is there any paralysis in your life that needs to be healed?

Biblical Context

Mark 2, 1-12
Margaret Nutting Ralph PHD

Jesus has returned to Capernaum after spending some days in deserted places. On his return he is once again besieged by the crowd. Jesus does his best to “preach the word” to the people because preaching is his top priority. This is why he has come (see Mark 1:29). However, some of the people are more interested in Jesus’ ability to heal than in what Jesus is preaching. Some men, intent on getting a healing for a paralytic, lower the man through the roof so that he will be in Jesus’ presence.

As the story of the healing of the paralytic unfolds we can see that the story has a postresurrection point of view. Remember, Jesus performed mighty acts of power to demonstrate the truth of his message that “the kingdom of God is at hand” (see Mark 1:15). However, the early church told miracle stories to respond to the question, “Who is Jesus?” After the resurrection, in the light of the postresurrection appearances, Jesus’ disciples understood that Jesus is divine. The miracle stories were formed to teach this postresurrection understanding.

Mark addresses the question of Jesus’ identity by combining a miracle story with a story about Jesus having a controversy with the scribes. When the paralytic is lowered into Jesus’ presence, instead of giving him a physical healing Jesus gives him a spiritual healing: ‘Child, your sins are forgiven.” Mark tells us that the scribes immediately react to Jesus’ words: “Why does this man speak that way? He is blaspheming. Who but God alone can forgive sins?” These words are not spoken aloud to Jesus, but “Jesus immediately knew in his mind what they were thinking to themselves.” By telling the story this way, Mark has established a fact with which his audience would agree: Only God has the authority to forgive sin. He has also raised a question: Who is Jesus that he immediately knows what the scribes are thinking?

Jesus responds to the scribes with Socratic irony, that is, he responds by asking a question that appears to be off the topic. Jesus’ motive is not to obtain information but to cause his questioners to think. Jesus asks, “Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise, pick up your mat and walk’?” This question seems to be off the topic because the scribes are not questioning what Jesus can say. We can all say many things, true or untrue. The question is: Do Jesus’ words have any effect? If Jesus says to the paralytic, “Your sins are forgiven,” does that mean that his sins are actually forgiven? Now the question of Jesus’ identity obviously becomes central to the story. Jesus says, “But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority to forgive sins on earth”—he said to the paralytic, “I say to you, rise, pick up your mat, and go home.” Notice that Mark pictures Jesus referring to himself as “the Son of Man.” This will be a pattern in Mark’s Gospel that we will discuss further as it unfolds. For now, we will note that “Son of Man” is a messianic title and is the only messianic title that Jesus is pictured as using in reference to himself. It is an allusion to the Book of Daniel (see Dan 7:13-14), in which one like a son of man approaches God on God’s throne and is given authority over nations.

When Jesus tells the man to rise and go home, the man does just that. “He rose, picked up his mat at once, and went away in the sight of everyone.” The story ends with the traditional ending for a miracle story, astonishment on the part of the crowd. However, the reader is also well aware that the story speaks to Jesus’ identity as much as it does to his power. If Jesus’ words of physical healing are effective, then his words of spiritual healing must also be effective and must mean that Jesus is divine.

Carrying Our Mats

Reflection
John Shea

The man crept into the back of the church. Early Sunday mass 8:00 a.m., last row, aisle seat. Barely in, quickly out if need be.

It was his habit since the divorce. He was afraid not to go to Mass— and he was afraid to go to Mass. So he snuck in and out. It was not that he was well known in this parish. When people looked at him, they would not be thinking, “Poor Don, what a messy divorce!” But he was thinking it. It was how he saw himself. In his head he was guilty, a major failure at matrimony—and at a young age! It was hard to handle. No matter how much they talked about forgiveness, there was very little room for matrimonial failure in the Catholic Church. The last row, aisle seat was a perfect place. It was where he belonged.

An old priest was saying Mass. He was soft spoken, but if you paid attention, he made you think. He preached that people could rise out of their sins, that the child of God is never completely paralyzed. “If you hear this truth,” he almost whispered, “you can walk.”

As usual, Don did not go to communion.

After communion a woman soloist sang a haunting rendition of Amazing Grace. Every “wretch that was saved” was moved.

Except one. Suddenly the old priest was on his feet and walking toward the congregation.

“I hate that song. I am not a wretch. You are not a wretch. The Gospel is right. You are a child of God. Perhaps momentarily paralyzed, but called to rise.”

Then the old priest began moving down the center aisle. “This is my recessional song,” he shouted.

He began to point to people in pew after pew. “You are a child of God. You are a child of God. And you.”

“Oh no!” thought Don, as the priest approached with his jabbing finger. “Oh no!”

“And you are a child of God” said the old priest in voice that was now quiet, not from exhaustion, but from the intuition the truth he was saying had nothing to do with loudness.

Last man, last row, aisle seat: “You are a child of God.”

Don tried but he could not stop the tears. After a while he even stopped trying. Everyone walked by him. Finally, he stood up, walked out, and went back home.

We tie knots to our failures so tight we can barely breathe. We know we have to untie those knots, but we do not know how. Sometimes we untie them slowly, patient as a sailor, knowing the sea waits once we loose the rope.

Other times it is a swift blow that frees us. An unlikely Jesus comes out of nowhere and wields the words of freedom. An old priest finds us hiding with our guilt in the last row and breaks through our self-hatred. We are “unparalyzed” and on our feet, striding out of the place we crept into, knowing that forgiveness and walking are the same thing.

 

Selections from Breaking Open the Lectionary: Lectionary Readings in Their Biblical Context for RCIA, Faith Sharing Groups, and Lectors—Cycle B, by Margaret Nutting Ralph, Copyright © 2005 by Margaret Nutting Ralph. Paulist Press, Inc., New York/Mahwah, NJ. Reprinted by permission of Paulist Press, Inc.

Spiritual Commentaries and Teachings are excerpted from The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers by John Shea © 2004 by Order of Saint Benedict. Published by Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota. Used with permission.


Year B: Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time

The Question About Fasting

Mark 2: 18-22

The disciples of John and of the Pharisees were accustomed to fast. People came to him and objected, “Why do the disciples of John and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” Jesus answered them, “Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them they cannot fast. But the days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast on that day. No one sews a piece of unshrunken cloth on an old cloak. If he does, its fullness pulls away, the new from the old, and the tear gets worse. Likewise, no one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and both the wine and the skins are ruined. Rather, new wine is poured into fresh wineskins.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What role does fasting play in your spiritual life?
  2. Eating and fasting represent physical fullness and emptiness. How do your physical habits connect to your spiritual experiences of being full or empty?
  3. Fasting from eating is not regular practice for most of us. In what other ways could you fast in order to create emptiness, or a space for God to enter?
  4. Are there any elements of your faith practice that have become flat because of repetition? How do we revitalize things?

Biblical Context

Mark 2: 18-22
Margaret Nutting Ralph PHD

In last Sunday’s reading Jesus was involved in a controversy with the scribes over his authority to forgive sin. This Sunday we read of Jesus being involved in another controversy over the question of fasting. Between these two controversies, in a passage not included in the Lectionary, Mark tells us about still another controversy: some scribes who were Pharisees criticize Jesus for eating with sinners and tax collectors (see Mark 2:16-17). Mark is obviously presenting Jesus as a person who challenges the religious presumptions of his contemporaries. Mark describes the situation just this way when he says “The disciples of John and of the Pharisees were accustomed to fast. People came to him and objected, ‘Why do the disciples of John and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?’

The Jewish law required fasting one day a year, on the Day of Atonement. However, many people fasted as an integral part of their prayer life. A person might fast as a sign of mourning or as part of their preparation to receive a revelation. Mark does not tell us that Jesus fasted during the forty days when he withdrew to prepare for his public ministry, but both Matthew and Luke say that Jesus fasted (see Matt 4:2; Luke 4:2).

In response to the people’s question Jesus says, “Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them they cannot fast.” One can only wonder what the Pharisees understood Jesus to be saying, because Mark does not describe their response. However, the reader of Mark’s Gospel realizes that Mark has once again changed the subject to a discussion of Jesus’ identity. (Remember, Mark did this when he told the story of the healing of the paralytic.) When Jesus says, “Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them?” he is comparing his disciples to the wedding guests and himself to the bridegroom. What does Jesus mean by this comparison?

As we will see when we discuss today’s Old Testament reading, it was not at all unusual for the Israelites to picture God as Israel’s husband. A wedding feast was a symbol for the people’s relationship with God. You may be familiar with this image from other New Testament passages, such as the parable of the wedding feast in Matthew (see Matt 22:1-14) and the story of the wedding at Cana in John (John 2:1-12). In addition, as we have already noted, people were accustomed to fast in order to prepare themselves for a response from God to their petitions or a revelation from God concerning what God would have them do. When Jesus refers to himself as the “bridegroom,” he is suggesting that God’s coming is somehow present in him. Now is not the time for fasting, because the bridegroom is with them.

Jesus goes on to say, “But the days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast on that day.” The people who are listening to Jesus must have understood that Jesus’ disciples would fast when he was gone because they would be in mourning. For Mark’s reading audience, this passage foreshadows the crucifixion.

Mark pictures Jesus as knowing that the people are not able to understand the full meaning of his words. Jesus realizes that their categories of thought, formed by what they have been accustomed to do, are too restricted to grasp his meaning. Jesus refers to this very fact with the two images that follow: the unshrunken cloth used to patch an old cloak and the new wine poured into old wineskins. In each case, something old (the people’s ways of thinking) is unable to accommodate something new (Jesus’ preaching and his identity). Just as old material will rip if patched with unshrunken cloth (the new cloth will shrink and so rip the old cloth), or old wineskins will rip if filled with new wine (the wine expands as it ferments), so will the people’s categories of thought have to be burst open to be able to hold the good news of Jesus Christ, Son of God.

Eating with the Bridegroom

Reflection
John Shea

Fasting enhances the experience of eating. Philip Zaleski tells about a time he contracted a mysterious illness that made everything he put in his mouth taste like liquid fire. For over three weeks he had barely eaten; and when the mysterious illness suddenly abated, he had eaten nothing for two days. He decided to celebrate his return to eating with a blood orange. “The taste of the blood orange flooded my mouth, and with it came a wave of gratefulness for all that had helped to produce this food and deliver it into my hands. Sun, soil, and rain; planters, harvesters, and retailers; apiculture and horticulture; evolution, whose slow-motion magic wand had trans- formed an inedible Jurassic fruit into the ambrosia of the gods; God, fount of all fruitfulness—I gave thanks to one and all” (P. Zaleski and Paul Kaufman, Gifts of the Spirit: Living the Wisdom of the Great Religious Traditions [San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1997] 43–44). His fast was not intentional. Nevertheless, as a result of fasting, eating had become a spiritual experience of gratitude. What was it like to eat with Jesus?

Scholars tell us that table fellowship was a hallmark of his ministry. But few venture beyond this bland remark to speculate on what went on inside people as they received cup and bread from his hands, and from the hands of one another. How did the mind process the tastes and the slow move from hunger to satisfaction, from emptiness to fullness? Was it possible that eating with Jesus was an experience that changed the consciousness of those eating? Did people become aware, as Philip Zaleski did, of the interconnectedness of all things and feel unfeigned gratitude fill their entire being with such completeness that the food, no matter what it was and how much there was, was a feast? Did they realize they were all sustained by the same Source and thus brothers and sisters to one another? Did this realization bring into minds their countless violations against one another at the same time as their deeper sense of unity allowed them to forgive these violations from their hearts, freely and gratuitously?

No matter what they ate, was it always one loaf they shared? Was this—or something like this—what it was like to eat with the bridegroom? We eat three times a day. And, as a friend says, “more when we’re lucky.” It can become a mindless act, stoking the furnace. Even worse, stoking the furnace in front of the television. Anything we do often can become repetitious, monotonous, routine. The symbolic potential of eating and drinking lost.

The way to recover this symbolic potential is to fast. Not eating out of habit wakes us up to the change of consciousness eating and drinking can effect in us. As Christians we fast in the memory of feast. The fast jolts us out of mindlessly responding to biological needs and encourages us to trace our hungers and thirsts into love of God and love of neighbor. We are united to God and in communion with one another. When we remember to eat and drink like this, the fasting has found its true meaning. The bridegroom has returned.

Selections from Breaking Open the Lectionary: Lectionary Readings in Their Biblical Context for RCIA, Faith Sharing Groups, and Lectors—Cycle B, by Margaret Nutting Ralph, Copyright © 2005 by Margaret Nutting Ralph. Paulist Press, Inc., New York/Mahwah, NJ. Reprinted by permission of Paulist Press, Inc.

Spiritual Commentaries and Teachings are excerpted from The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers by John Shea © 2004 by Order of Saint Benedict. Published by Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota. Used with permission.


Year B: Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time

The Disciples and the Sabbath

Mark 2: 23- 3:6

As he was passing through a field of grain on the sabbath, his disciples began to make a path while picking the heads of grain. At this the Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the sabbath? He said to them, “Have you never read what David did* when he was in need and he and his companions were hungry? How he went into the house of God when Abiathar was high priest and ate the bread of offering that only the priests could lawfully eat, and shared it with his companions? Then he said to them, “The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath. That is why the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.”

Discussion Questions:

  1. Do you tend to be a legalist when it comes to religious matters? Do you know what about your background causes you to answer as you do? What is it?
  2. Does scripture have authority in your life? Why? Has the answer to this question changed over the years?
  3. Has your idea of honoring the Sabbath evolved in any ways? Explain

Biblical Context

Mark 2: 23-3:6
Margaret Nutting Ralph PHD

Mark’s series of controversy stories continues in today’s Gospel with two new episodes, both involving the proper observance of the Sabbath.

In the first story Jesus is criticized because his disciples are picking grain on the Sabbath. The Pharisees say, “Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the sabbath?” Instead of correcting his disciples Jesus defends them. However, his defense once more raises the question of Jesus’ identity.

Jesus starts his defense by turning to a source of authority that both he and the Pharisees accept: scripture. Jesus refers to a story in 1 Samuel 21:1-7, in which David and his companions, who were hungry, were given bread to eat that would normally be eaten only by the priests. In 1 Samuel the story is not about Sabbath observance but about the fact that responding to a person’s needs may be more important than obeying a rule. 

However, after using scripture as a source of agreed-upon authority, Jesus says something that could only have infuriated his critics “Then he said to them, ‘The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath. That is why the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.’” Here Jesus once again refers to himself as “Son of Man.” This is a reference to the Book of Daniel (see Dan 7:13-14) in which one like a son of man approaches God on God’s throne and is given authority over nations. By using such a title in reference to himself Jesus is claiming that he has the authority in his own person to interpret the law in an entirely different way than do the Pharisees. Jesus is p law and to their authority to impose their interpretation on others.

Jesus once more enters the synagogue and encounters a man withi i a withered hand. The Pharisees are watching Jesus, waiting to find fault. In their eyes, if Jesus heals this man on the Sabbath he will be doing something wrong. They would allow a person to aid another on the Sabbath if that person’s life were at stake, but this man with the withered hand was in no danger. He could just as well be helped on some other day.

The way this story is constructed reminds us of the story of the healing of the paralytic that we read two weeks ago (see Mark 2:1- 2). Jesus challenges the narrow thinking of his critics by asking them 6 to do evil, to save life rather than to destroy it?” Jesus has posed the question in such a way that his critics are trapped. Of course do not want to claim that it is unlawful to do good on the Sabbath. However, according to their interpretation of the law, it is unlawful to heal this man on the Sabbath. Mark tells us their reaction to Jesus’ question: “But they remained silent.”

Jesus is angered by their “hardness of heart.” For Jesus, love of God and neighbor is the fulfillment of the law (see Mark 12:28- 34). The Pharisees pictured in today’s Gospel (as distinct from all Pharisees) have become legalists. They interpret the law in such a way that it loses its underlying purpose, to live in faithful covenant love with God and neighbor. Jesus continues to challenge their false interpretation by healing the man’s hand. The fact that Jesus is able to heal the man adds authority to Jesus’ interpretation n of the law. It is no wonder that the Pharisees want Jesus silenced. Jesus is a threat to everything they believe as well as to their authority. Mark tells us, “The Pharisees went out and immediately took counsel with the Herodians [supporters of Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee] against him to put him to death.

Critiquing Traditions

Reflection
John Shay

Chritian faith is carried by a historical community, and so it is thicketed with traditions. To name just some of the variety, there are liturgical, moral, doctrinal, asetical, and ecclesiological traditions. Some go all the way back to Gospel times, ad some stem from the intervening centuries. Some have fallen by the wayside; some have been modified more than once; some claim to have weathered the years in tact. When people contact a historical faith, what they initially meet is a baffling array of traditions.

Traditions are always under scrutiny. The contemporary scene boasts tradition “undertakers,” “miracle workers,” and “birthers.” Tradition undertakers are quick to bury the traditions that no longer seem relevant. They point out how a particular tradition comes from another time, place, and culture. It no longer makes any sense.It is time to bury it. Bury it with honor, but bury it.

Tradition miracle workers take the opposite point of view. Every tradition, no matter how peripheral—and no matter how little used— is capable of being revived and honored. These people continually talk of something “coming back.” Resurrecting the dead excites them.

Tradition birthers are busy creating something new. The new cultural moment with its new understandings and behaviors has to be incorporated into the tradition. This means experimenting with new forms, forms that fit contemporary consciousness.

I deliberately did not give any examples of Christian traditions that should be buried, resurrected, or created. This is where the fight be- gins. What one person thinks should be buried, another thinks should be resurrected, and a third thinks something new should be created. These arguments about how to treat and complement traditional forms can be fierce, and the criteria for sustaining, changing, and creating them are hotly debated. Words like “Neanderthal,” “traitor,” and “panderer” are never far from the minds of those involved, and often they are upfront in the discussion.

In the Gospel, Jesus is a fierce critic of the inherited traditions. He takes on purity-dietary laws (7:1-23), temple traditions (11:15-17), divorce traditions (10:1-12), etc. Although his critiques vary from tradition to tradition, his overall complaint is that they reflect and strengthen a hardened heart. A hardened heart has walled itself off from God and neighbor. The walls it has built are the traditions, and their builders rigorously walk the parapets to make sure God and neighbor do not breach them.

Jesus’ criteria for evaluating the Sabbath traditions might be paraphrased this way: Do they serve life? To the legal and organizational mind, this is maddeningly vague. How is one to make this judgment? How is one to give evidence for it? But to the mystical mind, this criterion is essential. The heart of a faith tradition is its spiritual perception ofthe flow of life between God, self, and the world. This spiritual awareness transcends forms, and it is expressed and communicated through forms. These forms are always partial and historically conditioned. Therefore, they have to be continually evaluated and adjusted. Are they bringing people to the spiritual awareness at the living heart of the tradition? Or are they contributing to the hardening of the heart?

Who can answer this question?

The one who lives out of the God of life and so can discern what makes for life and what makes for death. “The Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath” (2:28).

Selections from Breaking Open the Lectionary: Lectionary Readings in Their Biblical Context for RCIA, Faith Sharing Groups, and Lectors—Cycle B, by Margaret Nutting Ralph, Copyright © 2005 by Margaret Nutting Ralph. Paulist Press, Inc., New York/Mahwah, NJ. Reprinted by permission of Paulist Press, Inc.

Spiritual Commentaries and Teachings are excerpted from The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers by John Shea © 2004 by Order of Saint Benedict. Published by Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota. Used with permission.

Year B: Lent


Year B: First Sunday of Lent

The Temptation of Jesus

Mark 1: 12-15

At once the Spirit drove him out into the desert, and he remained in the desert for forty days, tempted by Satan. He was among wild beasts, and the angels ministered to him. After John had been arrested, Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the gospel of God: “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.”

Discussion Questions: 

  1. In the desert, Jesus is tempted to turn away from his “beloved son identity”, by accepting the “false-life” symbolized in Satan’s empty promises. How do you identify and battle the “false life” (temptations) that most threaten your relationship with God?
  2. How might the temptations the human Jesus endured make him more relatable to you in your own faith journey? 
  3. Repentance is an ongoing process not a one-time event. As you move into Lent, how will you go about recognizing and making lasting change in the attitudes and behaviors that block your relationship with God?
  4. What gets in the way of your believing in, and embracing the Good News?  
  5. Are there spiritually grounded men in your life with whom you can discuss the various temptations and suffering you face in life? Do you turn to them? If not, how could you develop this?

Biblical Context

Mark 1: 12-15
Margaret Nutting Ralph

Today’s Gospel reading begins with Mark’s account of Jesus’ temptation in the desert. Unlike Matthew’s (Matt 4:1-11) or Luke’s (Luke 4:1-12) accounts, both of which detail the specific temptations that Jesus experienced, Mark tells us only that the “Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert, and he remained in the desert for forty days, tempted by Satan. He was among wild beasts, and the angels ministered to him.”

Many Christians find it hard to believe that Jesus ever experienced temptation because their concept of Jesus emphasizes his divinity so much that temptation for Jesus seems impossible. The Gospel that emphasizes Jesus’ divinity, John’s Gospel, has no account of Jesus’ temptation in the desert. However, Mark emphasizes Jesus’ humanity, and he pictures Jesus overcoming temptation before he his public ministry.

The reason Mark emphasizes Jesus’ humanity is that his audience needs to see the human side of Jesus. Mark’s audience is suffering persecution. Those in his audience literally are having to choose between being unfaithful to their belief in Jesus Christ or being eaten by a lion in the Colosseum. They are asking, “Why should I die for my beliefs?” In answer to this question, Mark holds Jesus up as a model of a person who faced death rather than choose infidelity to his Father’s will. However, Jesus’ fidelity did not end in his death, but in his resurrection and eternal life. Mark is encouraging his audience to be faithful as Jesus was. Fidelity was not easy for Jesus. Like Mark’s audience, Jesus was truly tempted and Jesus truly suffered. Nevertheless, through his fidelity Jesus conquered death. Mark is encouraging his audience to do the same. is encouraging his audience to do the same.

Mark tells us that Jesus was tempted for forty, days. The number forty- forty days or forty years—is a symbolic number used to describe times of preparation. The Israelites wandered forty years in the desert before they entered the holy land. Moses spent forty days and forty nights on the mountain when he received the Ten Commandments (see Exod 34:28)- Elijah walked for forty days and forty nights before God’s presence at Mount Horeb (see 1 Kgs 19:8). Jesus overcomes his forty days of temptation and is ready to begin his public ministry.

The first words that Jesus speaks in Mark once his public ministry begins are: “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.” When Jesus says, “This is the time of fulfillment,” he is obviously referring to an expectation that was held by his fellow Jews. What was their expectation?

For many years the prophets had comforted the people by reminding them that “the day of the Lord” would come. The day of the Lord was the day when God would make his power felt and save God’s chosen people from those who were threatening or persecuting them. Isaiah tells the Israelites that the day of the Lord will come when their political enemies, the Babylonians, will be made powerless.

To hear that the day of the Lord would come when sinners would be punished was good news if you thought of your enemies as the sinners. However, the prophet Amos reminded the people that if they were sinners the day of the Lord would be the day when they, not their enemy, would be held accountable.

Woe to those who yearn for the day of the Lord!

What will this day of the Lord mean for you? Darkness and not light! (Amos 5:18)

 

When Jesus announces “the time of fulfillment,” he is telling the people that the expected day of God’s definitive intervention is at hand: the “kingdom of God is at hand.” However, like Amos, Jesus calls the people to repentance. In order for the coming of the kingdom to be good news (the word gospel means “good news”), the people must “repent and believe in the gospel.” Jesus’ public ministry is initiating God’s definitive action in human history. This is very good news for those who repent and live in right relationship with God and others.

Repenting and Believing in the Good News

Reflection
John Shea

 Question: Why is it so difficult to repent and believe the Gospel, that we are loved by God, and are called to embody that love in the time and space of earthly life?

Answer: Because we harbor so many other beliefs that do not fit into this Good News.

Beatrice Bruteau names some of these beliefs: “Health and beauty, money and power are necessary for happiness.” “I am identified by my body, personality, and possessions.” “My welfare is more important than yours.” “No one willingly gives up power.” ‘The world is here for us to exploit.” “No one can be trusted.” “There have to be winners and losers.” “They hurt me, so I must get even.” “I can’t feel good about myself unless I’m better than somebody.” “Some people are supposed to dominate other people.” “If everyone were good, life would be boring. (“Following Jesus into Faith,” The Journal of Christian Healing 10 [Fall 1988] 24).

Of course, we are not always aware we hold these beliefs or other beliefs that block us from embracing the good news. We often discover our own beliefs by tracing our actions back to their source. We shrug at injustice because “some people ‘get the shaft’ and some don’t.” We read about a tragedy befalling someone, and we respond, “Thank God, it’s not me.” We cheat a customer because if we don’t have a certain amount of money, we won’t be happy. Our instinctive and repetitive responses reveal our hidden beliefs.

Repentance entails finding and letting go of beliefs that compete with or contradict the Good News. Two observations are helpful for this “letting go” to occur. First, notice where the competing or contracting beliefs come from. Some of them come from the mindless internalization of cultural assumptions. Others come because we have universalized one of our negative experiences. Instead of allowing it to be a partial and painful piece of life, we have made it into a norm that must be obeyed.

Second, realize that we are holding the belief. The belief has not been imposed on us. It may appear to be a universal truth that we must heed. But the real truth is that we are holding it, nurturing it, sustaining it in existence by our attention and obedience. We enshrine it by allowing it to dictate our moods, decisions, and actions. Deeply realizing the origins of competing beliefs and our role in their continued power allows us to open the grasping hands of our mind. Once we cease to hold onto these beliefs, they lose their power and eventually drop away.

In spiritual teaching, it is always appropriate to ask the question a second time:

 Question: Why is it so difficult to repent and believe the Gospel—that we are loved by God, and are called to embody that love in the time and space of earthly life?

 Answer: Because the Gospel is about spiritual reality and how we come to believe in spiritual reality is an involved, lifelong process.

The Good News /Gospel originates with Jesus. He is the one who is conscious of divine love and human solidarity. Although his ministry and mission entails passing on this consciousness to all who follow him, initially there is a need to have faith in Jesus without having his consciousness of divine love and pleasure. The Christian community and tradition initiates all its members into this faith and supports it with strong argumentation and multiple practices. But eventually this “faith seeks understanding,” as St. Anselm would say. It wants to move away from “complete” dependency on Jesus and become personally affirmed and deeply understood by each believer. This is a process of growing in faith, and gradually putting on “the mind of Christ” (1 Cor 2:16) so that our consciousness is more and more congruous with the consciousness of Christ.

There are many renditions of how this growth process takes place, but there is a passage from the Sermon on the Mount that is particularly practical: Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matt 6:19-21). We can value ourselves in many ways, lay up treasure in many places. We can value our beauty, our brains, our achievements, our ability to make friends, our wit, our charms, or any number of attributes. All this may be the natural activity of our social natures, but it is treasure on earth. It is passing material, subject to the corrosions and thievery of time.

The text says we should “store up… treasures in Heaven, value ourselves in a way that time cannot destroy. This means identifying ourselves more and more as beloved sons and daughters of God sent into the world to bring love onto the earth. If we do this consistently, our sense of ourselves will change. Our faith in Jesus will gradually change to a faith with Jesus. We will see for ourselves what once we could only see by trusting in Jesus. According to the text, what we treasure and where our heart is will come together. Our sense of being loved by God will enter our heart, the center our being, the source of our thinking and acting. The Good News will be central to our identity, and we may be surprised to find our decisions and behaviors flow from this treasure in our hearts (see Matt 12:34). We are doing what Jesus proclaimed, believing in the Good News.

Repenting and believing in the good news is not a project for the beginning of Lent, or even a project for the whole of Lent. It is the adventure that permeates all of life. We never finish letting go of false and embodying the transcendent love at the center of our being.

 

Selections from Breaking Open the Lectionary: Lectionary Readings in Their Biblical Context for RCIA, Faith Sharing Groups, and Lectors—Cycle B, by Margaret Nutting Ralph, Copyright © 2005 by Margaret Nutting Ralph. Paulist Press, Inc., New York/Mahwah, NJ. Reprinted by permission of Paulist Press, Inc. www.paulistpress.com.

Spiritual Commentaries and Teachings are excerpted from The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers by John Shea © 2004 by Order of Saint Benedict. Published by Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota. Used with permission.


Year B: Second Sunday of Lent

The Transfiguration of Jesus

Mark 9: 2-10

 After six days Jesus took Peter, James, and John and led them up a high mountain apart by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no fuller on earth could bleach them. Then Elijah appeared to them along with Moses, and they were conversing with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus in reply, “Rabbi, it is good that we are here! Let us make three tents: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He hardly knew what to say, they were so terrified. Then a cloud came, casting a shadow over them; then from the cloud came a voice, “This is my beloved Son. Listen to him.” Suddenly, looking around, they no longer saw anyone but Jesus alone with them. As they were coming down from the mountain, he charged them not to relate what they had seen to anyone, except when the Son of Man had risen from the dead. So, they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what rising from the dead meant. 

Discussion Questions:

                                                                                                       

  1. Reflect on your past and share an experience where God broke through and you experienced a deeper seeing, or life “beyond the circumstance.” How did this lead to new action (transfigured/transformed moment) in you? Tell the story.
  2. God’s voice breaks through and commands us, “Listen to Him”. Listening is a spiritual practice. How are you present, open and receptive to what Jesus is saying? What is he saying to you?
  3. As he did with Peter, James and John, Jesus is always pointing us “down the mountain” toward the realities of life and true discipleship. How do you balance the comfort of worshipping Jesus for His sacrifices, with the difficult challenge of following in his footsteps? Explain.
  4. Lent is a time for bringing what is hidden in us to light. What are the places of contradiction, struggle and conflict in you right now? Could they be areas for repentance?

Biblical Context

Sr. Mary M. McGlone CSJ
Mark 9:2-10

Just before Jesus took his three closest disciples up the mountain, he was speaking of the time when the Son of Man would come in glory, what many refer to as the Parousia. Then, six days later, just the amount of time it took God to create the world, Jesus went up the mountain with the three disciples.

In the context of this Sunday’s readings, we can’t help but hear of the climb up the mountain in connection with Abraham’s journey to “a height” God would show him as the place where his test would come to its climax. Like Abraham and Isaac, Jesus and the three were alone on the mountain where Jesus’ identity would be revealed to them in a new way.

The images in the story of the Transfiguration refer to the history of Israel. Elijah went to a mountain, presumably expecting to meet God in overwhelming majesty only to discover that God’s self-revelation came unpretentiously in the gentle breeze. Elijah appears in the Transfiguration representing the whole prophetic tradition of Israel, including God’s surprising appearance.

Moses went to the mountain to meet God and to receive the commandments and the story of the Transfiguration abounds with images from Exodus. Jesus’ dazzling clothing recalls how Moses’ face glowed after meeting with God. The cloud is a reminder of that symbol of God’s presence that led the people through their trek in the desert. Moses’ presence with Jesus and Elijah obviously fills out the summary of Israel’s faith: the law and the prophets. This scene on the mountain is narrated carefully to illustrate how it was the climax of salvation history: All that God had done through Moses and the prophets was coming to its fulfillment in Jesus.

As the disciples watch between terror and amazement, they hear a voice come from the cloud which confirms what a similar voice had proclaimed to Jesus at his baptism. This time the disciples hear the voice say, “This is my beloved Son,” and the added command, “Listen to him.”

The first half of that communication tells the disciples who Jesus is in relation to everything they know from their religious tradition. God had sent prophets, God had given the Law, and now, as Jesus would say in so many parables, God had sent his Son. The second half of the communication is the one command God gives disciples: Listen to him.

Just as the mountain where Abraham took Isaac was the place where his faith was tested and made real, Jesus is revealed on the mountain as God’s last word to humanity. Jesus is the one who brings the new covenant, God’s offer of life to the world. All God asks is that, like Abraham, we put our lives in God’s hands by saying,

“Here I am.”

 Moments of Transfiguration

Reflection
Fr. Michael K. Marsh

There are times in our lives when we look around and wonder, “Is this all there is?” Sometimes it’s just a passing question, other times it’s for a season. We look at our life, our circumstances, and we want more. There is a restlessness, a searching, and longing for something else. Some call it a mid-life crisis. It can make us do crazy things – this searching and seeking. We get a new job, a new car, a new relationship. Maybe we take up a new hobby, go on a trip, or work extra hours. But not much changes.

It is not about the circumstances of life. It’s about us. The restlessness, the desire for something more, generally means that we have been living life at the shallow end of the pool. Life and relationships have become superficial. We have been skimming across the surface. In some ways life at the surface is easier, more efficient, encouraged and rewarded by much of the world today.  It fails, however, to see and experience that the world is already transfigured and creation is filled with the divine light.

Life on the surface keeps us judging the circumstances. We look at our circumstances as a picture. If it is pretty, pleasing, and shows us what we want to see then God is good, and life is as it should be. When we don’t see what we want then we often look for a new picture. The restless searching, the longing for more, the desire for meaning are not, however, usually answered by changed circumstances. The answer is found in depth, intimacy, and the vulnerability of the interior journey.

We do not need to see new things. We need to see the same old things with new eyes. We do not need to hear a different voice. We need to hear the same old voice with different ears. We do not need to escape the circumstances of our life. We need to be more fully present to those circumstances. When this happens, life is no longer lived at the surface. These are the transfigured moments, moments when the picture of our life has becomes a window into a new world and we come face to face with the glory of God.

Most of us, I think, seek God in the circumstances of life. We want God to show up, be present, and do something. This is the God who does. This is the God described in Mark’s gospel up to the point of today’s reading. We might think about this as the first part of the spiritual journey. It is the journey of discovering God in the circumstances. This is what the disciples have been doing.

They have seen Jesus cast out our demons, heal Peter’s mother-in-law and cure the sick of Capernaum. He’s cleansed the leper and made a withered hand new and strong. Paralytics now walk, the blind see, and thousands are fed. This is the God about whom people talk, the God that gets “likes” and “shares” on Facebook.

At some point we must, however, begin to discover the God who is beyond the circumstances. This is the God who is. This is the second part of the spiritual journey. Jesus is leading Peter, James and John, up the mountain to discover the God who is beyond circumstances. Here their pictures of life’s circumstances will become windows by which they move into the depths of God’s life, God’s light, and God’s love.

There on the mountain they saw Jesus “transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them.” The cloud overshadowed them and the Father’s voice spoke of his beloved son. Peter wants to build dwelling places. He wants to frame Jesus, Elijah, and Moses. “It is good for us to be here,” he says. He wants to preserve it. He wants to take a picture.

Pictures, however, are static. On the Mount of Transfiguration our pictures of life’s circumstances become windows through which we step into a new world, a new way of seeing, a new way of hearing, and new way of being. That’s what happened for Peter, James, and John. Jesus did not suddenly light up and become something he was not. No, their eyes were healed and opened so they could see Jesus as he had always been. The voice in the cloud was not new. Their ears were opened and they heard the voice that has never ceased speaking from the beginning. The transfiguration is as much about them as it is Jesus. Whenever our picture of life’s circumstances becomes a window into new life we stand in a transfigured moment. Circumstances haven’t changed. We have changed and that seems to change everything.

Those transfigured moments are all around. Every one of us could tell a story about stepping back from the picture of our life, seeing with new eyes, listening with different ears, and discovering a window that opened into another world and another way of being.

Maybe it was the day you revealed to another person the secret you had carried for years. In telling the secret the picture of your life as one of guilt and shame became an open window through which you stepped. The darkness gave way to light, the chains fell off, and forgiveness overcame sin. I will never forget the day we buried our older son. We came home from the cemetery and I was lying on the bed. I could not see him, but he was present – a little boy being given a piggyback ride. I could not touch him, but I felt the warmth of his life, his weight on my back, and his right knee gouging my ribs as he bounced up and down. The picture of death and loss had become a window through I stepped into the mystery of life, hope, and resurrection. Think about the day you held your child for the very first time. Yes, it was a picture of a newborn, but it was also a window through which you stepped and were forever changed. You experienced a new vocation as a parent. You became a part of the mystery of creation. The Lord’s glory surely shone as much in your hands that day as it did on the mount of transfiguration 2000 years ago.

I remember speaking with a woman who was dying. Together we talked, laughed, cried, and sat in silence. She said she had had some “experiences.” She had visions and heard voices. “Is that real? Is it normal?” “Yes, absolutely.” The picture of her life as one of cancer, pain, and suffering had become an open window through which she stepped. She began to understand that in the midst of her cancer she was already being healed. “There is so much more going on than we usually see or know,” she said. The tears and fear are real but just as real is the voice that says to her, “Oh my daughter, my beloved, you are already ok.” Those windows are everywhere if we have eyes to see and ears to hear.

We often want to go back to those transfigured moments. We are tempted to build dwellings places for those moments. Booths, dwelling places, will only keep us in the past. To the extent we cling to the past we close ourselves to the future God offers.    So, Jesus, Peter, James, and John came back down the mountain. They could not stay there but neither did they leave the mountain. They took it with them. It is what would carry them through the passion and crucifixion to the resurrection.

Transfigured moments change us, sustain us, prepare us, encourage us, and guide us into the future regardless of the circumstances we face. They show us who we are. We are the transfigured people of God. Open your eyes and see a transfigured world. Open your ears and hear the transfiguring voice. Open your heart and become a transfigured life.

Every picture of life is an open window that says, “No, this is not all there is.”

 

Fr. Michael K. Marsh
Interrupting the Silence


Icon of The Transfiguration, by Alexander Ainetdinov

 

The word “transfiguration,” translated from the Greek, μεταμορφοϖ, has both an exterior and an interior meaning. It suggests a change that is visible to others as well as an inward change of a fundamental character or condition. Both meanings are important to our understanding of theosis. You cannot have one without the other. Our exterior life manifests our interior condition and our interior condition orients and guides our exterior behavior. As one moves further along the journey toward theosis the interior change and growth should be manifest and visible to others by how we live, behave, and relate. If it is not one has to wonder whether growth and movement in the direction of theosis has really taken place.


Year B: Third Sunday of Lent

The Cleansing of the Temple

John 2: 13-25

 Since the Passover of the Jews was near, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. He found in the temple area those who sold oxen, sheep, and doves, as well as the money changers seated there. He made a whip out of cords and drove them all out of the temple area, with the sheep and oxen, and spilled the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables, and to those who sold doves he said, “Take these out of here, and stop making my Father’s house a marketplace.” His disciples recalled the words of scripture, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” At this the Jews answered and said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” Jesus answered and said to them. “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and you will raise it up in three days?” But he was speaking about the temple of his body. Therefore, when he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this, and they came to believe the scripture and the word Jesus had spoken. While he was in Jerusalem for the feast of Passover, many began to believe in his name when they saw the signs he was doing. But Jesus would not trust himself to them because he knew them all and did not need anyone to testify about human nature. He himself understood it well.

 Discussion Questions:

  1. What role do sacrifices have in your image of what God wants? Do you think God’s love is dependent on you making sacrifices? (reference Matt: 9-13
  2.  What is the spiritual downside of a bargaining or deal-making mentality in your worship and prayer relationship with God?
  3.  Do you primarily associate the Temple and worship as being in the “Church–building”, or are you also accessing the sacred in other ways?  Explain
  4. What stressors in your life can turn your focus with others into a “marketplace” of transactions rather than a “temple” of relationships?
  5. How has the COVID pandemic interrupted “business as usual” behaviors, or “overturned tables” in your life this past year? What new awareness has emerged as a result?

Biblical Context 

John 2:13-25
Mary M. McGlone CSJ

According to Scripture scholar Andreas Kostenberger, today’s Gospel probably took place April 7 in the year 30 C.E. It is from the Gospel of John that we get the common idea that Jesus’ public ministry lasted three years because during his public life Jesus celebrated the Passover three times. Beginning with this Passover, the next was the Passover connected with the miraculous sharing of bread (John 6) and finally the Passover of his passion. That chronology does not jive with the Synoptics who put this incident at the end of the Gospel rather than at the beginning, but the evangelists chose to frame the details of their accounts to relate theological truths rather than precise dates and data.

We might look at this event as John’s alternative to Luke’s depiction of how Jesus announced his mission in the synagogue of Galilee. In Luke, Jesus went to the place of communal prayer and explained his mission in the words of the prophet Isaiah. In today’s Gospel scene, Jesus goes to his people’s religious capital and acts like a prophet proclaiming God’s disgust at how a place of prayer had become a market and worship had been degraded into a center of commerce.

John used precise vocabulary to explain this as a multidimensional story. When he said that Jesus went to the temple area, he used the word Hieron (A consecrated place, especially a temple) for the Temple.

That refers to any holy place, a generic place of worship, Jewish or pagan. The first way Jesus himself described the area was to call it “my Father’s house.” In that, he used a word that carries the emotional sense of a home, not simply a building. Jesus approached the Temple as such a place of love and belonging that making it into a business struck him as blasphemous.

The disciples who saw him go into action interpreted his response as a reflection of what the prophet Zachariah (14:21) had promised: That in the day of the Lord everything, even including ordinary cooking pots and horse bells, would be holy and that “no longer will there be merchants in the house of the Lord.” On the other end of the spectrum, the representatives of the Temple who watched Jesus’ outburst called for him to justify his action with a sign that authorized him to act in God’s name.

Jesus responded by saying “destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.” Whether they wanted to admit it or not, he was playing with them. The word he used for “temple” was naos, a word better translated as “sanctuary.” That word described the holy of holies, the dwelling place of God. Underneath their interchange lies the question of where God chooses to dwell.

John wrote his Gospel for Christians, for people who understood the language he was using. Throughout the Gospel, John was telling a tale on two levels of understanding. The onlookers saw Jesus flaunt the temple authorities and they heard a dialogue about buildings and construction. The insiders saw Jesus’ condemnation of the profanation of sacred space and heard a dialogue in which Jesus proclaimed that God was present in him and that resurrection would be the divine response to any attempt to destroy him.

John’s depiction of Jesus’ mission in this incident is a preparation for all that is to come. Jesus as Word made flesh will later teach that true worship does not depend on the Temple. But for the moment, John is content to foretell the rest of the story with the simple explanation of Jesus’ mission by reminding the readers that his zeal for God’s house would bring about his enemies’ futile attempt to do away with him.

 Interrupting Business as Usual

Reflection
Fr. Michael K. Marsh

But he was speaking about the temple of his body” (John 2:21). The religious people that day did not get that. They didn’t understand that he was talking about the temple of his body because they were about business as usual. It was business as usual that day Jesus showed up at the temple. Animals were being bought and sold. Coins were being changed. All the usual people had their usual places and usual roles.

This is one of those stories that we need to set aside a couple of things, things that don’t belong, things that distract, before we can really understand what is happening. We need to set aside what we have often been told or thought this story is about so we can hear it again, maybe for the first time.

I don’t think this story is simply about Jesus getting angry. Jesus got angry. I get angry. It’s ok to get angry. That misses the point. There’s more to this story than that. And I don’t think it’s about the animals or the moneychangers being in the temple. Jesus surely had to have known they were there. He grew up as a faithful Jew going to the temple. He didn’t show up this day and say, “Wow! There are animals and moneychangers here. I didn’t know this. This is wrong.” The animals and moneychangers had always been there. That’s how the system worked. It was business as usual for them to be there.

I think Jesus went to the temple that day for one purpose; to throw out and overturn business as usual. There are times when we need the tables of our life overturned, and the animals thrown out. It’s just so easy to fall into the trap of business as usual.

Have you ever pushed the auto-pilot button and life became mechanical? You go through the motions. You show up but you’re not really there. That’s business as usual. How about this? Have you ever smiled that, I’m-good-and-everything-is-fine smile but behind the smile there was an emptiness, you felt hollow, and your heart was breaking? That’s carrying on with business as usual. Or maybe you wake up in the morning and you are as exhausted as you were when you went to bed the night before. Business as usual. Have you ever felt like you were just not yourself? Nothing seemed right? Boredom overcame creativity. There was no enthusiasm, wonder, or imagination. It was just business as usual. Sometimes we look at life and the world and it all seems in vain. We’re busy but not really getting anywhere. There’s no depth or meaning, only business as usual. Business as usual can happen anywhere: in friendships, marriages, parenting, work, church.

The things I just described are not, however, the problem. They are the symptom in the same way that the animals and moneychangers in the temple are not the problem. They are the symptoms of something deeper going on. The problem is not so much in the temple as it is in the human heart.

That deeper issue is, I think, what gives rise to business as usual. Sometimes it’s about our fear. We’re fearful about what is happening in our life or the uncertainty of the future and we want some type of security and predictability so we can keep on doing the same old things. Business as usual is predictable and steady but it creates only the illusion of security. Sometimes business as usual is a symptom of our grief and sorrow. Something has been lost. We can’t get back the life we want so we cling to business as usual because it’s familiar and we want some stability. Other times we are so busy and worn out making a living that life turns into one task after another, one appointment after another, a never ending to do list, and it’s business as usual. Maybe we’ve taken people, relationship, and things for granted. Maybe we’ve lost our sense of gratitude, wonder, or mystery.

I do not say any of that as a criticism or judgment of you, me, or anyone else. I’m just naming what often happens to us. What has business as usual looked like in your life? In what ways is it business as usual for you today?

There are thousands of reasons and ways in which we fall into business as usual. There’s one thing, however, that I keep coming back to. Forgetfulness. Business as usual is born of forgetfulness. We forget that we really are the temple of God’s presence. We forget that all of creation is the residence of God. We forget that in whatever direction we might turn, there is the face of God gazing upon us. And as soon as we forget those things about ourselves, each other, or the world, life becomes business as usual.

I think that’s what happened in the temple. They didn’t see themselves or one another as the true temple of God. It was all about the human built temple, the animals, and the coins. They had forgotten that God was more interested in them than in their festivals and that God wanted them more than their offerings.

When we forget that we are the temple of God life can easily become a series of transactions. Relationships and intimacy are lost. Priorities get rearranged. Making a living replaces living a life. Life becomes a marketplace rather than a place for meeting the holy in ourselves and one another. And it’s business as usual.

That’s what Jesus is overturning and driving out of the temple. In the gospel according to St. John this happens at the very beginning of Jesus ministry. The Word became flesh (John 1:14), water became wine (John 2:9), and now the temple is becoming human. And it does not stop here. Throughout the rest of the gospel Jesus will be interrupting business as usual.

Remember the Samaritan women at the well (John 4:4-26)? She’s had five husbands and she’s living with a man who is not her husband. Despite what we have done to her, that’s not a statement about her. It’s another manifestation of business as usual. Her first husband died, divorced her, or ran off. Who knows? What we do know is that it was improper and dangerous to be women without a man. Business as usual meant she had to belong to a man. So there was a second man, and a third, and a fourth, and a fifth, and a sixth. Jesus meets this woman at the well and interrupts business as usual. It’s not about the man or men in her life. It’s about her. Jesus recognizes her as the temple of God.  It’s neither on this Samaritan mountain nor in Jerusalem. She is now the well of living water.

How about the man that spent thirty-eight years on a mat? (John 5:1-9.) He was paralyzed and always trying to get into that pool of water that would heal him, but someone always got there first. The same ground, the same mat, the same paralyzed legs, the same failed effort. It was thirty-eight years of business and usual. Then Jesus comes and says, “Stand up, take your mat and walk.” And the man did. He rose up to a new life and business as usual had again been interrupted.

And then there’s Lazarus, he’s been dead three days already (John 11:1-44) Martha knows the stench of death is present. Jesus tells her it will no longer be business as usual. “Take away the stone,” he says. Death will not have the final word. “Lazarus, come out.”

And let’s not forget the five thousand people that show up empty and hungry (John 6:1-13). Philip is sure there’s not enough. There’s no way to feed them. Empty and hungry people are business as usual. But Jesus has other plans. Two fish and five loaves are more than enough. Everyone was satisfied and twelve baskets were filled with leftovers. It was not business as usual for the empty and hungry.

Over and over again Jesus is interrupting, disrupting, overturning, and throwing out business as usual. Business as usual is destructive of our lives and relationships. It destroys our ability see and participate in the holy that is already present in and among us.

The Word became flesh so that the temple might become human. Jesus continues to overturn and throw out business as usual because the truth is there are still Samaritan women waiting at the well in our world today. There are still lame people grounded by business as usual. Empty and hungry people are still a reality in our world and there are dead people waiting to be made alive.

Maybe for you today this isn’t about other people. Maybe you are the woman at the well. Maybe you know what it’s like to be grounded and paralyzed. Maybe you are empty and hungry today. Maybe you need to be called to life. Maybe business as usual needs to be interrupted in your life.

Regardless of who we are, what we’ve done or left undone, or how we see or judge our life, we are the temple of God and there is one who stands in the temple of our life interrupting business as usual. So, tell me this. What does the temple of your life need today? What tables in your life need to be overturned? What animals need to be driven out?

I am not asking about what needs to happen so that you can become holy or become the temple, but so you can see that you already are the temple and claim what is already yours. Jesus does not make us into something we were not. He calls us back to who we’ve always been.  He was speaking of the temple of our body.

Fr. Michael K. Marsh
Interrupting the Silence


Year B: Fourth Sunday of Lent

Nicodemus

John 3:14-21

(Jesus said to Nicodemus) And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him will not be condemned, but whoever does not believe has already been condemned, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.  And this is the verdict, that the light came into the world, but people preferred darkness to light, because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come toward the light, so that his works might not be exposed. But whoever lives the truth comes to the light, so that his works may be clearly seen as done in God.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What ramifications does your belief in eternal life have in the way you live?
  2. Does your human understanding of judgement interfere with believing God does not seek condemnation, that God’s judgment is love and life?
  3. Is it a relief or a burden to you that we have free will and make a personal choice to refuse God’s love (perish) or to be in union with it (eternal life)? Explain.
  4. How do you go about first recognizing, then changing attitudes and behaviors you hold that are not aligned with the faith you profess?
  5. St. Paul said, “I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Romans 7:15). How do you relate to this in your own experience of sometimes preferring darkness to light?

Biblical Context

Margaret Nutting Ralph
John 3:14-21

 Today’s Lectionary reading is part of the conversation that Jesus has with Nicodemus after Jesus’ first sign at the wedding of Cana. In order to understand today’s reading it will be helpful to know what has preceded it. As the conversation begins, Jesus is teaching Nicodemus the same thing that John was teaching his audience through the story about Cana. That is, John has Jesus explain the allegorical level of meaning of the sign performed at Cana.

Nicodemus is a Pharisee who comes to Jesus at night. This means that Nicodemus has not yet seen the light that is Christ. Nicodemus says, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one can do these signs that you are doing unless God is with him” (John 3:2). Jesus says to Nicodemus, “Amen, amen, I say to you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above” (John 3:3). Nicodemus understands Jesus’ words literally, and so he asks, “How can a person once grown old be born again? Surly he cannot reenter his mother’s womb and be born again, can he?” (John 3:4). Because Nicodemus understands Jesus’ words literally, Jesus has to explain their metaphorical significance. Jesus is not talking about physical birth, but spiritual birth. So Jesus says. “Amen, amen, I say to you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit” (John 3:5). This is the allegorical level of meaning being taught by the story of the wedding at Cana (John 2:1-11): A wedding stands for the people’s relationship with God. Empty ablution jars, representing the law, the old way of being in relationship with God, are filled with water that becomes wine, the symbols of what we today call the sacraments of initiation, namely, baptism and Eucharist. Jesus has initiated a new spiritual order, one in which we are reborn in water and the Spirit.

Today’s Lectionary reading is part of this same conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus. Nicodemus continues not to understand, and Jesus continues to try to explain “heavenly things” (John 3:12) to him.

Jesus says, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” This is a reference to a story that appears in Numbers 21:7-9. The Israelites had been bitten by snakes in the desert, and some of them had died. “Then the people came to Moses and said, ‘We have sinned in complaining against the Lord and you. Pray the Lord to take the serpents from us.’ So, Moses prayed for the people, and the Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a saraph (“Old Test: fiery serpent God)” and mount it on a pole, and if anyone who has been bitten looks at it, he will recover.’ Moses accordingly made a bronze serpent and mounted it on a pole, and whenever anyone who had been bitten by a serpent recovered” (Num 21:7-9).

The words “So must the Son of Man be lifted up” have a double meaning. They refer both to Jesus being lifted up on the cross and 6 a type, or foreshadowing, of Jesus being lifted up, because just as the Israelites who looked at the serpent were spared from physical death, so are those who look to Jesus and believe in him spared from spiritual death.

As Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus continues, Jesus explains that the Son of Man has come to save the whole human race from sin. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal If life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.

Although it is God’s will that everyone be saved, not everyone is willing to accept the gift of salvation. “Whoever believes in him will not be condemned, but whoever does not believe has already been condemned, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” John often has words of condemnation for those who do not believe in Jesus, who prefer darkness to light. One reason for this is that by the time’ John is writing, some Jews who do not believe in Jesus are expelling those Jews who do believe in Jesus from the synagogue. This means that the expelled Jews are no longer exempt from emperor worship and so are subject to severe persecution, even martyrdom. All through John’s Gospel we will be able to hear his (John’s) deep anger at his fellow Jews who do not believe that Jesus is divine.

 Preferring Darkness

Reflection
John Shea

Preferring darkness, self-condemnation, is both easier and more mysterious than we think. When we first hear that God does not condemn, there may be a sigh of relief. On the social level, we are used to being judged by other people. We are continually being put on the scales of someone else’s mind and found wanting. Our boss, ours spouse and our neighbors have mastered the look and language of “Sorry, Charlie (Some readers may recall the “Charlie the Tuna” commercials.) Since negative appraisals are the air we breathe, we may have projected this chronically evaluative mindset onto God. When we hear that God is a love who has abandoned judgment in favor of salvation, we may find a “Yes!” coming forth from the center of our being. We feel off the hook. Actually, we are on the hook in a whole new way.

At first, we think that no one would be stupid enough to walk away. If it is all love and no condemnation, what is the problem? The problem is that we individually are not all love, and the world in which we live is not all love. The presence of all love makes this painfully clear. We might have glimpsed our persistent lack of love in the twilight zone between light and darkness. But we have kept it there, pushing it back toward darkness but never beckoning it toward light. Now this strategy is threatened. The light has arrived. And it instantly engenders in us an inner panic. Something we have hidden for so long might come screaming out into the open. There will be individual and social consequences. We cannot face exposure. We seek the shelter of night.

There is a story in St. John’s Gospel (8:1-11) that captures the painful exposure of the light and the sulking preference for darkness. The Pharisees have brought a woman caught in adultery to Jesus. They seek to trap him by pitting him against Moses. The Pharisees claim that Moses taught them to stone such women. What does Jesus have to say?

Jesus bends down and writes with his finger on the ground. When they keep on questioning him, he stands up and says, “Let anyone who is without sin be the first to cast a stone”. Then he bends down and writes on the ground a second time. These symbolic actions and words are the light coming into the alienated world. Suddenly evil doing is exposed, and darkness is seen.

Jesus writing twice is reminiscent of YHWH writing twice. God wrote the Ten Commandments with the divine finger just as Jesus writes on the ground with his finger. Moses took the tablets down from the mountain into the camp of Israelites. He found the people worshiping a golden calf, and he threw and broke the stone tablets. When he returned to the mountain, God said to him, “Cut two tablets of stone like the former ones, and I will write on the tablets the words that were on the former tablets, which you broke”. God always writes twice. Merciful compassion is the nature of God.

The impact of this symbolism is not lost on the Pharisees. They have claimed that their desire to stone the woman is motivated by what Moses taught. But Jesus, the true interpreter of the Mosaic law, shows that the Ten Commandments are essentially about mercy because after Moses’ angry outburst that led to his stoning the people, God wrote the commandments again. This strips the Pharisees of their cover. If it is not Moses and God who have authorized their violent behavior, where has it come from? Could it be that it comes from the dark spaces of their hearts that the Light of the World has now made visible?

The Pharisees have lost their identity as righteous enforcers of God’s unforgiving law. In its place is full insight into their repressed darkness. This is what Jesus offers them as a new identity. They are sinners like everyone else. They can live the compassionate life of forgiven sinners who do not have the luxury of casting stones. But they have been casting stones a long time, and the older they are the more they are attached to that identity. So “they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders”. The invitation of the light is no match for the comfort of the darkness. And they go away “one by one” Each one lives for a moment on the edge of freedom—but only for a moment. The light has exposed their acceptable way of doing things as darkness. So now continuing doing things the usual way has become a preference for darkness, and this preference for darkness has become the free choice of self-condemnation.

This is why preferring darkness, self-condemnation, is both easier and more mysterious than we think. We did not always know it as darkness. It was just business as usual. We went about life making decisions and pursuing our wellbeing in an unthinking way. Only with the arrival of the light did the racist, sexist, classist, character of our thoughts and deeds become evident. However, by this time, we were attached to our thinking and behaving. It was easier to create a cover story than to engage in painful self-examination. Other people seem eager to buy this cover story and become accomplices in our deceit. They will willingly not look at what we will not look at, if we return the favor and not look at what they will not look at. The light is unwelcome, shining on too much. More accurately said, it puts everything in a new light, a harsh light. Quite simply, the darkness is preferable.

 

Selections from Breaking Open the Lectionary: Lectionary Readings in Their Biblical Context for RCIA, Faith Sharing Groups, and Lectors—Cycle B, by Margaret Nutting Ralph, Copyright © 2005 by Margaret Nutting Ralph. Paulist Press, Inc., New York/Mahwah, NJ. Reprinted by permission of Paulist Press, Inc.

Spiritual Commentaries and Teachings are excerpted from The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers by John Shea © 2004 by Order of Saint Benedict. Published by Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota. Used with permission.


Year B: Fifth Sunday of Lent

The Coming of Jesus’ Hour

John 12: 20-33

Now there were some Greeks among those who had come up to worship at the feast. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and asked him, “Sir, we would like to see Jesus.” Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Amen, amen, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat but if it dies, it produces much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will preserve it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there also will my servant be. The Father will honor whoever serves me. “I am troubled now. Yet what should I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But it was for this purpose that I came to this hour. Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it and will glorify it again.” The crowd there heard it and said it was thunder; but others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” Jesus answered and said, “This voice did not come for my sake but for yours. Now is the time of judgment on this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to myself.” He said this indicating the kind of death he would die.

 Discussion Questions:

 

  1. When has letting go, or “dying to self” bore fruit or helped you to grow in faith?  Tell the story.
  2. What personal experiences or patterns of loss (death) have led to renewal (resurrection) in your life?
  3. Learning to recognize suffering and loss in our lives as “small deaths” can help us prepare for our eventual and final surrender. How do you react and relate to this?
  4. The Greeks asked to see Jesus. Where in your life do you see Jesus?
  5. The spiritual life is mostly about letting go. What in your life do you most need to let go of today?

Biblical Context

John 12: 20-33
Margaret Nutting Ralph

Today’s passage begins by telling us, “Some Greeks who had come to worship at the Passover Feast came to Philip… and asked him, ‘Sir, we would like to see Jesus.’ ” As is common in John, a Jewish feast is the backdrop for the action. However, it is unusual that “some Greeks” want to see Jesus. This detail foreshadows a statement that Jesus will make about his ministry later in today’s reading: “I will draw everyone to myself,” not only his fellow Jews. Notice that the desire that the Greeks express is the very desire that John’s audience has when they want to see Jesus.

Jesus explains the purpose of his suffering twice in today’s passage. First he uses the analogy of a grain of wheat. “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit.” Jesus, too, will die and be buried in the ground, but his death is in no way a defeat. Rather, through his death Jesus will produce much fruit.

When Philip and Andrew tell Jesus about the Greeks’ request, Jesus says, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” In John’s Gospel the crucifixion is not presented as a defeat, even a temporary defeat. The crucifixion and resurrection are viewed together as Jesus being “lifted up,” and through Jesus’ being lifted up, his glory, his divinity, is revealed.

Later, after the voice from heaven affirms Jesus in his mission, Jesus again explains the purpose of his coming death. Jesus’ death and resurrection will result in “the ruler of this world,” that is, Satan, being driven out. In addition, Jesus says, “And when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to myself.” In other words, Jesus’ death will have a saving effect on the whole human race, even Jesus’ death will have a saving effect on the whole human race, even the Greeks, the Gentiles.

In his conversation with his disciples Jesus makes it clear that he is not the only one who must embrace suffering. Jesus tells Philip and Andrew, “Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will preserve it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there also will my servant be. The Father will honor whoever serves me.” Remember, in last week’s commentary we mentioned that some of John’s audience is subject to persecution because they have been expelled from the synagogue and are no longer excused from emperor worship. They may be tempted to deny their belief in Jesus’ divinity in order to protect themselves from persecution, or even martyrdom. However, in these words John makes it clear that those who serve Jesus must follow Jesus. John is encouraging them to choose eternal life over an extended life on earth.

Instead of praying that the cup of suffering may pass from him, Jesus prays, “Father, glorify your name.” A voice from heaven responds, “I have glorified it and  will glorify it again.” Jesus knows that his crucifixion and resurrection will glorify the Father’s name because he is doing the will of his Father. Through the mighty signs which he has already performed (“I have glorified it”), and through his being “lifted up from the earth” (“and will glorify it again”), Jesus will glorify the Father’s name by revealing the Father’s saving love for the human race.

Reflection

Fr. Michael K. Marsh

They say there are three things that cannot be talked about. You know them, right? Religion, sex, and politics. I think they are wrong. We do talk about those things. We just do it really badly. There is, however, something we do not talk about. Death. Yes, we acknowledge death when it happens but for the most part we do not talk about death with any real depth or substance, and certainly no enthusiasm. We don’t deal with it. We deny it. We ignore it. We avoid it. No one wants to die.

We don’t really acknowledge, talk about, and deal with death. The death of our loved ones is too real, too painful. Our own death is too scary. The relationships and parts of our lives that have died are too difficult. So, for the most part, we just avoid the topic of death. Besides it’s a downer in a culture that mostly wants to be happy, feel good, and avoid difficult realities.

I suspect the Greeks in today’s gospel did not go expecting to talk or hear about death. They just want to see Jesus. And who can blame them? Jesus has a pretty good track record up to this point. He has cleansed the temple, turned water into wine, healed a little boy, fed 5000, given sight to the blind, and raised Lazarus from the dead. I don’t know why they wanted to see Jesus but I know the desire. I want to see Jesus. I’ll bet you do too. Seeing Jesus makes it all real. After all, seeing, they say, is believing. We all have our reasons for wanting to see Jesus.

If you want to know your reasons for wanting to see Jesus look at what you pray for. It is often a to do list for God. I remember, as a little boy, praying that I would get to go fishing and I would catch the big fish. Later it was for good grades in school. Then it was to pass the bar exam, win the case, be made a partner in the firm. When my life and marriage were in shambles I prayed that God would fix it all. When our son died I just wanted God to make it stop hurting.

You probably know those kind of prayers. We want to see Jesus on our terms. We don’t want to face the pain of loss and death in whatever form it comes. Sometimes we want something from Jesus more than we want Jesus himself. There is a real danger that we will become consumers of God’s life rather than participants in God’s life. We pick and choose what we like and want but we skip over and leave behind what we do not like, want, or understand. Christianity, however, is neither a buffet nor a spectator sport. Christianity means participating in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. That is what Jesus sets before the Greeks who want to see him.

 

Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and  where I am, there will my servant be also.

 If we want to see Jesus then we must look death in the face. To the extent we refuse to acknowledge the reality of death, to the degree we avoid and deny death, we refuse to see Jesus. Really looking at, acknowledging, and facing death is some of the most difficult work we ever do. It is, as Jesus describes, soul troubling. It shakes us to the core.

There is a temptation to want to skip over death and get to resurrection. So it is no coincidence that this week and last week the Church points us towards Holy Week and reminds us that death is the gateway to new life. Death comes first. Death is not always, however, physical. Sometimes it is spiritual or emotional. We die a thousand deaths every day. There are the deaths of relationships, marriages, hopes, dreams, careers, health, beliefs. Regardless of what it looks like, this is not the end. Resurrection is always hidden within death. There can be, however, no resurrection without a death.

To the extent we avoid death we avoid life. The degree to which we are afraid to die is the degree to which we are afraid to fully live. Every time we avoid and turn away from death, we proclaim it stronger than God, more real than life, and the ultimate victor.

The unspoken fear and avoidance of death underlies all our “what if” questions.” What if I fail, lose, fall down? What if I get hurt? What if I don’t get what I want? What if I lose that one I most need and love? Every “what if” question separates and isolates us from life, God, one another, and ourselves. It keeps us from bearing fruit. We are just a single grain of wheat. We might survive but we aren’t really alive.

Jesus did not ask to be saved from death. He is unwilling to settle for survival when the fullness of God’s life is before him. He knows that in God’s world strength is found in weakness, victory looks like defeat, and life is born of death. This is what allowed him to ride triumphantly into Jerusalem, a city that will condemn and kill him. That is what allows us to ride triumphantly through life. Triumph doesn’t mean that we get our way or that we avoid death. It means death is a gateway not a prison and the beginning not the end.

Regardless of who or what in our life has died, God in Christ has already cleared the way forward. We have a path to follow. That path is the death of Jesus. Jesus’ death, however, is of no benefit to us if we are not willing to submit to death, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Ultimat