Monday, February 1, 2010

Monday of the Fourth Week in Ordinary Time

II Samuel 15:13-14.30.16:5-13; Mark 5:1-20)

When we think of power, perhaps we conjure images of a nuclear explosion in which a fistful of fissionable material produces a mountainous cloud of gases and dirt of temperatures rivaling the sun’s surface. We might, as well, picture Jesus driving out the demons in the gospel story today. A man, whom no chain could hold down because of the fury of demons that possess him, is tranquilized at the word of Jesus. Meanwhile, the demons show themselves to be so numerous and so forceful that they take hold of a herd of swine and fling them into the sea.

This gospel portrait shows Jesus as more than powerful. He is also, quite surprisingly after such a display of force, demurring and thoughtful. When the people out of fear ask Jesus to leave their area, he concedes to their wish. But when the dispossessed man wants to go with him, Jesus thinks it best that he stay behind to tell his family of the goodness of the Lord. No reason is given for the rejection, but we might speculate that the time is not ripe for non-Jews to join Jesus’ mission.

The story relates that Jesus is truly extraordinary – powerful yet restrained, on a mission yet reflective. Read at mass, it begs that we consider his presence to us this day. We can count on him to provide strength to take on challenges as well as good sense to think through what we are doing. His companionship ensures that we will respect all whom we meet and help those who stand in need.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Friday of the Third Week in Ordinary Time

(II Samuel 11:1-4a.5-10a.13-17; Mark 4:26-34)

The words, “I am pregnant,” can bring joy or misery depending on their context. When a young husband hears them, most likely his heart jumps with enthusiastic hope. But if they are spoken to a lecher like King David, they are wrought with misery and desperation. In order to hide his guilt, David has his paramour’s husband killed. Today, of course, it is easier to go after the defenseless child.

Behind the emotions lies the truth about sexual intercourse. As the Church never tires of teaching, intercourse contributes significantly to human welfare when performed between loving, married partners. Offspring ensure the evolving future of the earth and provide for fulfilling the mission of the Church. Offspring give parents reason for living righteously, to say nothing of the joy the subjects themselves realize for having been born. But carried out licentiously, intercourse disturbs the natural order scarring the perpetrators and jeopardizing the welfare of the progeny.

Surmounting the challenge posed by illicit sexual desires requires great fortitude. As we know from the tragedies of kings as majestic as David and of philosophers as wise as Aristotle, it is not readily achieved. But our remedy comes from the gospel. Planted deep within our souls, the word of God spreads to all parts of our being. It makes us a gracious as the mustard tree giving refuge to the birds. It strengthens us like wheat growing tall in the field to resist pestilent desires.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Memorial of St. Thomas Aquinas, doctor of the Church

(II Samuel 7:18-19.24-29; Mark 4:21-25)

It is said that when St. Thomas Aquinas finished his tract on the Eucharist in the Summa Theologiae, Christ appeared to him. The Lord reportedly said, “Thomas, you have written well of me. What would you like in return?” Aquinas answered, “Nothing but you, O Lord.”

Thomas’ desire to be united with Jesus shows an appreciation of the gospel passage today. The lamp that is to be placed on a lamp stand and the word that is to be heard are none other than Jesus himself. Thomas made knowing the Lord his quest in life. Encyclopedias will describe him as a theologian and philosopher. These labels are certainly valid, but they belie the fact that as an academic the only title that Thomas Aquinas ever carried was professor of Scripture. He knew God’s holy word thoroughly, commented on it (or him!) prodigiously, and lived it implicitly.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Wednesday of the Third Week in Ordinary Time

(II Samuel 7:4-17; Mark 4:1-20)

We should note the casualness of the sower in Jesus’ parable today. He scatters the seed indiscriminately -- in the soil, on the roadside, amid rocks, and among thorns. “Why is he being so wasteful?” we might ask and conclude, “A careful farmer would take better aim.” But Jesus wants to make a point with his story. The sower represents God who deals out blessings on both the bad and good. It is not only those who love God enjoy life, have liberty, feel sunrays, and taste honey. Every human person to some degree experiences these benefits and many others. What distinguishes the good from the bad is often the response given to God’s bounty.

After telling the parable, Jesus receives a group of people inquiring about its meaning. They include disciples, whom we may understand as members of the Church, and others. Effectively they are asking, “Why is God so good?” Those who do not come forward take life for granted. Jesus likens them to the seed eaten up by the birds before it has a chance to sprout.

But not all who make inquiry about the gift will realize its fullness. There must be a deeper response than inquiry; there must be willingness to sacrifice oneself. For some, giving of themselves is too much trouble. They are the seed that falls on rocky ground and never becomes rooted. Others lose sight of God by mistaking creation for the Creator and giving all their attention to material wonders. They are the seed that falls among thorns. Finally, some seed produces abundant fruit. They respond generously to the gift of creation by caring for it on behalf of others.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Memorial of Saints Timothy and Titus, bishops

(II Timothy 1:1-8; Mark 3:31-35)

Although a few people have independently chosen to follow Christ, most Christians today are born into families that regularly went to church. These men and women may question the authenticity of their belief because they did not personally choose to be baptized. Nevertheless, when pressed, most are likely to say that they are grateful to have been raised as Christians. They reason that without developing early the habits of fearing God and going to church, they probably would have lost the way to all the satisfaction being a Christian gives.

Families are so important for faith that we sometimes think that families are of the highest value to faith. But they are not. In one passage Jesus tells a would-be disciple that he cannot go back to take leave of his family. In today’s gospel Jesus claims as his true family not his blood relations but those who pursue a spiritual relationship with God, his Father.

So then how should we regard our families? Certainly most families are owed a debt of gratitude for having provided us the physical means to grow up. Where families have fallen short of God’s ways, however – perhaps by teaching us to hate certain kinds of people or by telling us that we are deficient if we do not measure up to an exterior standard -- we must have the integrity to say, “That’s not me.”

Monday, January 25, 2010

Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul

(Acts 22:3-16; Mark 16:15-18)

The other day it was reported that a young baseball player with ample potential was giving up the sport to study for the priesthood. The article marveled that a person would forfeit the opportunity to earn millions of dollars for what it termed as “a calling.” The young man says that baseball is “only a game” implying that his calling holds much deeper meaning.

In a way this baseball player’s story resembles Paul’s in the first reading today. Both are called to change their respective courses in life. From ferreting out Christians, Paul is mandated by Jesus to carry on his mission. It would be hard to overestimate the sacrifices that Paul will make as Jesus’ preacher. In one of his letters he lists the brushes with death that he has undergone. More than that, perhaps, are the discomforts and the rejection he endured daily to carry the gospel to far off lands.

We should ask “why?” What moves people to make such sacrifices. The motive seems to be more than ambition or an ideal that they want to see realized. Most probably it is a love relationship with the Lord who takes over not only the mind but the heart. The baseball player wants to shift his whole attention to Jesus so that he might know him completely and then offer him his whole self. Paul does just that, and Jesus returns the affection by making himself Paul’s consolation in every trial.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Friday of the Second Week in Ordinary Time

(I Samuel 24:3-21; Mark 3:13-19)

The bishops of the United States have designated today as a day of penance for violations to human dignity. Of course, they have in mind the infamous decision of the Supreme Court, made on this date in 1973, to effectively disallow all laws banning abortion. The bishops also permit the Scriptures from the Mass “for Peace and Justice” to be read, but today’s first reading provides a fitting context for appreciating the somberness of this memorial.

A jealous King Saul has been pursuing David with the intention of killing him. For a moment, however, David is given the upper hand. As Saul enters alone the cave where he is hiding, David could murder him and assume leadership over Israel. But loyalty to the king deters David from regicide. At the end of the day Saul comes to realize David’s innocence and blesses him for it. However, in short time Saul will once again pursue his deadly intention.

We may see the Supreme Court’s abortion decision as being like Saul’s pursuit of David. Its sweeping scope has meant the deaths of tens of millions of fetuses in the United States. Every once and a while, however, the nation recognizes its folly. Like Saul acknowledging David’s innocence in today’s reading, the people make the insight that a fetus is not extraneous tissue, which might be eliminated at will, but a real human being whose right-to-life is inalienable. Yet consumed by the desire to somehow upend the inequality women have suffered at the hands of men, the state keeps in place the comprehensive ban on laws protecting the fetus. In time, we hope, our society will come fully to its senses. It will admit that injustice may not be undone BY further injustice, ban abortions, and address the inequality of women in suitable ways.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Memorial of St. Afnes, virgin and martyr

(I Samuel 18:6-9.19:1-7; Mark 3:7-12)

Life’s tragedy lies not in becoming old but in not becoming wise. King Saul in the first reading should realize that the chorus of women praising David’s accomplishments is as fickle as weather on the prairie. If he were a wise man, he would not worry that the people favor David to himself but concentrate on how he, as king, might serve their needs.

Certainly Saul’s son Jonathan shows promise as heir-apparent. He wisely reconciles grudges for the good of all concerned. In shuttle diplomacy he goes from his father to his friend, showing the truth to the former and reassuring the latter. In the long run, however, Saul’s reasserted jealousy seals the family tragedy. Both he and Jonathan will die at the hands of their enemy while David, who might have saved the day, is isolated from the battle.

We should locate the virtue that Saul lacks and that which Jonathan exhibits in the Lord Jesus. Since he knows how pursuit of praise may interfere with life’s purposes, he commands the demons in the gospel not to make his identity known. Yet he never ceases to do good – curing diseases and reconciling with themselves people whom demons have self-alienated.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Wednesday of the Second Week in Ordinary Time

(I Samuel 17:32-33.37.40-51; Mark 3:1-6)

The biblical story of little David defeating the mighty Goliath is so well-known that we could call any contest between unevenly regarded opponents as a “David vs. Goliath rematch.” However, the biblical story conveys much more than underdog grit outperforming seasoned excellence.

Essential to David’s victory is God’s presence to him. As Goliath has a shield bearer going before him, David is preceded by the Lord represented, perhaps, by the shepherd’s staff in hand usually a pace ahead of the walker. God accomplishes David’s slaying of Goliath just as surely as He saves the Israelites from the clutches of Pharaoh during the Exodus.

We often see ourselves as small like David compared to the giant challenges of life. We may witness a thug beating up someone and wonder what to do. Or we may be facing a cancerous condition that leaves us shaking. At such times we do best to pray that God precede us in the struggle. In the Gospel according to John, Jesus prays similarly, not to be delivered from his final trial but that God may be glorified in him. Especially when the challenge appears unavoidable, we should ask the Father to assist us just as He brought Jesus through the crucible of the cross to the glory of the resurrection.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Tuesday of the Second Week in Ordinary Time

(I Samuel 13:1-16; Mark 2:23-28)

Of all Renaissance artists none besides, perhaps, Leonardo da Vinci characterizes the age better than Michelangelo. And of all Michelangelo’s works none illustrates the spirit of the Renaissance better than his statue of David. Tall, graceful, muscular yet elegantly reserved Michelangelo’s David glorifies humanity, not above God but as the epitome of God’s creation.

The perfect form Michelangelo carved out of stone God saw first. The first reading today gives the story. The Lord tells Samuel that He does not judge by appearances but looks into a person’s heart. For this reason He dismisses the eminently fair but still wanting older sons of Jesse and finds in the youthful David the perfect candidate for king. David, of course, will lead Israel to its height as a world power. He will conquer nations and bring prosperity to the people.

Many young men would say that they would die for David’s physique, at least as portrayed by Michelangelo. And perhaps many young women would like to date such a handsome specimen. But such fantasies miss the point of what the Scripture is expressing and, probably, the sculpture as well mean to convey. Again, it is not by outward appearances that God judges but by the inner working of one’s heart. Men and women both should aspire to have David’s youthful nobility that recognizes God as the source of his strength and service to others as its purpose.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Monday of the Second Week in Ordinary Time

(I Samuel 9:1-4.17-19.10:1; Mark 2:13-17)

In yesterday’s gospel Jesus changes the water into fine wine at Cana. The story suggests not only the power of Jesus but, even more so, his majesty. Thinking about it, we see him as the choice vintage that delights the whole world. Today’s gospel, written by a different evangelist, relates a similar idea. Jesus is the new wine which requires a whole new way of living on the part of his followers.

The people who approach Jesus asking why the disciples of John and the disciples of the Pharisees fast while his disciples feast, of course, miss the point. They see Jesus as a teacher of God’s law, not the law incarnate. They are ready to criticize his disciples, but, to make an analogy, how can one not leave a performance of “The Sound of Music” without humming “Edelweiss”? That’s what Jesus means when he tells the questioners that his disciples cannot accompany the joyous Jesus without celebrating.

But, then, should we followers ever fast? Some Gospel scholars believe that Jesus would not have us do so. They say that the second part of the passage in which Jesus speaks of fasting after he leaves his disciples is an addition to the original prohibition of fasting. Some might add that Jesus is always present in the Eucharist, in the Scriptures, in the poor, and in one another. This latter is true but not convincing. We should fast with Jesus during periods such as Lent. We also fast as a way to express our love for him as we might take pains to cook a meal for a friend. His sacramental presence, after all, is not completely satisfying. We long to see him face-to-face.

Friday,l January 15, 2010

Friday of the First Week in Ordinary Time

(I Samuel 8:4-7.10-22a; Mark 2:1-12)

The need for a king, as the elders of Israel express in the first reading today, may sound quaint to modern ears. After all, society has gone far beyond government by a single ruler. However, the longing for a monarch signifies a desire implanted deep in every human heart. A king represents security so that the people can both work and rest in peace. Kings theoretically will judge the people fairly because they are endowed with abundant wealth. Even more importantly, kings have armies to protect the people from marauders. All this, of course, says nothing of the inherent wisdom with which kings are supposedly blessed. We may not clamor for kings, but we do seek the social benefits that kings represent.

God tells Samuel in the reading that the people’s request for a king constitutes a rejection of Himself as their ruler. In pursuing social security, are we similarly denying God’s role as our provider? This is not a frivolous question as we see development of state welfare at the same time as the waning of belief in God. We can rephrase the issue for the sake of clarity. In government-mandated health insurance, government-subsidized education, and government-provided food stamps are we relying foremost on the state rather than on God’s Providence?

Just as God allows the Israelites to have a king, He can approve of our system of social welfare. Any rejection that He suffers will be the result of our pride not of our prudence. We become proud when we start thinking that we are independent of God, that we can thrive without Him, and that we do not have to heed His ways. Prudent people will always recognize that they are powerless over all contingencies and that God is ultimately in control of their destinies. Along with striving to provide social guarantees, people of faith will also pray to God for deliverance from evil.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Thursday of the First Week in Ordinary Time

(I Samuel 4:1-11; Mark 1:40-45)

After every human tragedy – earthquake, hurricane, defeat in war – humans ask themselves why it happened. Believing people will wonder why God permitted the evil to befall them. Is God being capricious, they wonder, or are they not responding properly to God’s initiatives? So the elders of the Israel in the first reading ask, “'Why has the Lord permitted us to be defeated today by the Philistines?’” Apparently assuming that the problem lies with God’s supposed inattentiveness, the elders summon the Ark of the Covenant to be brought from its sanctuary in Shiloh to the battlefront. Surely the Lord will wake up to the people’s need need, the elders must be surmising, if He is among our troops.

Of course, the tactic fails. God knows quite well what their situation is yet chooses not to support the Israelis. God has His reasons which will always be obscure to humankind. We might speculate in this case that God is changing the center of human authority from judges to a king as well as the center of cultic worship from Shiloh to Jerusalem. But God’s reasons are in the end unfathomable. If we could figure them all out, we would sit on an equal level with God. This is not to say that God capriciously caresses and despises humans at whim. No, God has definitively shown his favorable disposition toward us in Jesus Christ. What Jesus suffered to liberate humans from sin manifests God’s love for us. And Jesus’ resurrection from the dead is our surest promise of God’s will for our well-being.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Wednesday of the First Week in Ordinary Time

(I Samuel 3:1-10.19-20; Mark 1:29-39)

On Sunday Mark’s gospel read that “the heavens were opened” when Jesus was baptized. The evangelist seems to imply that such an occurrence does not often happen. In the first reading today we hear again that such revelation is extraordinary. It says that in an even more ancient time, when we might have expected that God regularly spoke to humans in extraordinary ways, “a revelation from the Lord was uncommon and (a) vision infrequent.”

The narrative regarding the birth and call of Samuel begins the story of God’s bringing to fruition His promise of making Israel a great nation. Samuel will eventually anoint both Saul and David kings of the tiny land. The former shows some hope but will prove himself lacking in trust. David is a fierce warrior and capable administrator, yet he also fails to exhibit the virtue requisite of a great people. He keeps a harem, commits adultery, and even murders a noble officer. The kingdom he establishes will not last two generations before it splits in two.

We might compare the origins of the kingdom of Israel as related in the Book of Samuel to those of the kingdom of God told by the evangelists. Of course, Jesus figures prominently in the latter. Even more descriptively than the Old Testament writers tell of Samuel’s birth, Matthew and Luke weave the story of Jesus’ beginnings. They show him as one so completely dominated by virtue that he is rightly called “son of God.” In today’s gospel Mark indicates the consistency of Jesus’ dedication to the kingdom of his Father. He tirelessly cures disease, casts out demons, and preaches good news to all people. In showing himself to be the fulfillment of God’s promise, Jesus provides for us a place in the new Israel through our relationship with him.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Tuesday of the First Week in Ordinary Time

(I Samuel 2:1.4-5.6-7.8abcd; Mark 1:21-28)

What might be said of the pastoral approach of Eli to Hannah? He sounds accusatory when he tells the distraught woman that she is making “a drunken show of herself.” But at least he addresses the issue of her odd behavior. In fact, he does not call her a drunkard but only lets her know what seems obvious to him. The episode warns us to avoid hasty conclusions, but it should also encourage us to speak to those in obvious need rather than make it seem that we do not notice or care.

Whatever the justice of Eli’s approach, his addressing Hannah’s difficulty has marvelous effects. She can pour out her soul to the holy man and receive his counsel. Even more significantly, the encounter raises her spirits from desperation to peace with herself and her family. Although the hand of God always plays a part in these things, we might see the greater receptiveness of Hannah to the love of her husband Elkanah facilitating the conception of their son Samuel.

Monday, January 11, 2020

Monday of the First Week in Ordinary Time

(I Samuel 1:1-8; Mark 1:14-20)

It is, of course, easy to criticize characters of the Bible according to contemporary mores. We could wave a finger at Elkanah in the first reading today for having two wives. Is not marriage an exclusive covenant between two people? Why can’t Elkanah, a seemingly pious man, be satisfied with one woman? Hannah, also, from today’s morality seems petulant. “Sure, it’s disappointing not to have children,” we might tell her, “but it is not the end of the world. Why not dedicate yourselves to some of the orphans that lived in your time.”

Such criticisms not only are made without an appreciation of biblical conditions; they also miss what the biblical author means to tell us. God is about to act in this couple’s life just as He gave the aged Sara a son bringing hope that the promise made to Abraham would be fulfilled. We should also hear in Elkanah’s gentle plea to Hannah an echo of God’s call to each of us when we feel ignored or disliked by others. God implores us in our consciences not to dwell on the rejection because we have Him, who is not just ten but ten thousand times better than anyone else (actually infinitely better). Laying our burdens in His hands by faithful prayer we will find our sorrow turning to joy.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Christmas Weekday

(I John 5:5-13; Luke 5:12-16)

There is a story about a young man who told his girlfriend that he would do anything for her. He said he would climb a mountain or swim a sea if she asked him. The young woman then requested that he accompany her to the library Friday night because she had to study. He responded that he would do it but that he was busy at that time.

Like the young woman, God does not expect us to do momentous things for Him. He only wants us to believe in His son Jesus Christ. Of course, it seems very difficult to believe when others belittle faith -- when, for example, a professor speaks of religion as myth and the whole class nods their heads or when life’s sorrows make us want to abandon faith rather than conform to the Church’s moral doctrine.

The reading from the First Letter of John gives us reasons for believing. The apostle tells us that the water of Baptism that we undergo to enter the Church, the Blood of the Eucharist that we receive at Mass, and the Spirit of truth which we perceive everyday in the love Christians show all testify to our belief that Jesus is our Lord and God. Perhaps these witnesses will not convince rationalists of our beliefs, but they carry us through the struggles we face in a secular world.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Christmas Weekday

(I John 4:19-5:4; Luke 5:12-16)

In a movie adaptation of Victor Hugo’s novel Les Miserables, Jean Valjean writes a letter to his wife from prison. He is a largely unlettered man so he only manages to say, “I love you,” over and over again. The first letter of John, from which we read today, may sound almost as simplistic. However, its meaning is as profound as its lesson is worth repeating.

The author of the letter knows from bitter experience how the world can corrupt a person. For this reason he underlines the need to keep God’s commandments. But, he says, this is not a difficult task because the essence of the commandments is love which brings its own delight. “Not necessarily true,” we might object from our own experience trying to please difficult persons. But John locates the object of love exercised on behalf of others to be God Himself. Realizing this, the sacrifices we make seem negligible in comparison to all the blessings that God has heaped upon us.

As defrocked Christmas trees dot empty lots, Christmas becomes a flickering memory. Our resolve to live each day with the love we felt on Christmas can grow similarly vague. These readings from the First Letter of John, then, become critical reminders that God has given us Christ so that we might continue caring for others.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Christmas Weekday

(I John 4:11-18; Mark 6:45-52)

With Christmas receding into memory as we keep our gifts and return to our routines, we may forget the depth of its meaning. Surely the feast is meant to do more than recall the birth of Jesus two thousand years ago. No, we rejoice so emphatically because Christmas reminds us of the Son of God’s presence to his people today.

The gospel today underscores this truth as it shows Jesus, who is capable of walking on water because he is God, rejoining his disciples. The boat being tossed about by the waves symbolizes the Church in a sinful world. The winds churning up troubles represent human passions sweeping over believers and non-believers alike threatening goodness and truth. Only Jesus’ presence among us will save us from these otherwise implacable forces. Pleasure, power, prestige, even deep pockets lose their sway when we are aware of his company. The celebration of Christmas assures us that Jesus remains close by. He provides the ballast necessary to keep us from being overturned by destructive forces.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Memorial of St. John Neumann, bishop

(I John 4:7-10; Mark 6:34-44)

On the dining room wall of the Dominican priory serving the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome is painted a curious mural. Where one expects an image of the Last Supper, there is a painting of Jesus feeding the immense crowd in the gospel today. The substitution indicates that this feeding also represents the beginning of the Eucharist.

Although the people enjoyed a satisfying meal, we should interpret this gospel passage as more than illustrating Jesus’ call to feed the hungry. He is also telling us that we have him to share with any and everyone as spiritual nourishment. As the Gospel of John states, Jesus is the bread of life on which the world might feed perpetually. His words resonate deep in our souls providing meaning to see us through every situation that arises. The sacrament of his body and blood engages us in stronger relations with God and neighbors to effect positive change in our communities.

The presentation of Jesus feeding the masses at the beginning of the year assures us that Jesus will directly provide for our spiritual needs in the future. This is not to say that he is indifferent to material needs. Indeed, it shows that Jesus, better than any social scientist, knows how people work wonders when their hearts and minds are lifted to the challenge.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Memorial of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, religious

(I John 3:22-4:6; Matthew 4:12-17.23-25)

The gospel passage says that Jesus “withdrew to Galilee.” We should not think, however, that Jesus is beating a retreat. Actually, he is charging to the battlefront. Herod Antipas has just arrested John the Baptist for criticizing his unlawful marriage. Jesus leaves the solitude of the Jordan desert to take up John’s banner in Galilee. His message is even the same as John’s, “Repent for the Kingdom of God is at hand!” Herod Antipas, the Baptist’s nemesis, can hardly ignore it.

Like Jesus we are sometimes called to show courage. A shouting match turns into a fist fight where someone is going to get hurt. We should intervene or, at least, call for help. More often we exhibit courage by facing difficult tasks with calmness and determination. St. Elizabeth Ann Seton exhibited such courage in her short life with many accomplishments. She mothered five children, then became a woman religious founding the Sisters of Charity, setting up the parochial school system in the United States, establishing orphanages, and writing spiritual reflections. Pope Paul VI canonized her as the first native-born American saint in 1975.