Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Tuesday of the Fourth Week in Ordinary Time
(Hebrews 12:1-4; Mark 5:21-43)

It is said that John Paul II canonized more saints than any pope in history, and perhaps as many as all the popes combined! Who would imagine that he made all these saints because he enjoyed officiating at the canonization rite? Much more likely, he recognized so many saints because he wanted to give people all over the world models to follow. The Letter to the Hebrews today speaks of these models as “a cloud of witnesses”; that is, a body of people who testified to God’s love by their heroic love of God.

Everyone at all times is challenged to love God above all and to love neighbors as oneself. Certainly our age is no exception. We have more education than previous generations which should support virtuous living. But rather than thank God for blessings received, people today are more likely to question God’s existence. Likewise, all the inventions that we covet often serve us poorly by removing us, whether physically or emotionally, from the people we are given to love. We must look to that cloud of witnesses, which includes friends like the person who takes a number of childless seniors to their doctors. Their presence reminds us that loving is neither easy nor impossible. It is just what we do as part of God’s family.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Memorial of Saint John Bosco, priest

(Hebrews 11:32-40; Mark 5:1-20)

Wild boars create problems. Farmers say that they destroy crops. They also threaten people. And they are not as edible as their name suggests. In the gospel when the demons possessing the man in the territory of the Gerasenes ask Jesus to send them into a herd of swine, they no doubt have nothing but mischief in mind. But they are not in control of the situation. Jesus is, and plotting the demise of the demons, he dispatches them into the pigs as requested. Immediately the swine hurl themselves into the sea thus returning the evil spirits to the watery abyss from which they are thought to originate.

Once again Jesus demonstrates that he is the rock on whom we can count in trials. Here he reveals himself in charge of foreign territories as well as where we usually encounter him. He will save us wherever we are and from whatever fury breaks upon us. In Left to Tell Immaculée Ilibagiza tells the story of how Jesus protected her during the Rwandan genocide.

“But does appealing to Jesus always achieve the desired end?” we ask quite honestly and realistically. Christian wisdom suggests a somewhat unnerving answer. By faith we know him as the gracious Lord of the universe. His desires are always honored, but those desires may not be exactly ours. As we pray, “Deliver us from evil,” we must remember that we have already resigned ourselves to his discretion by having said, “Thy will be done.”

Friday, January 28, 2011

Memorial of Saint Thomas Aquinas, priest

(Hebrews 10:32-39; Mark 4:26-34)

Robert Frost writes in his poem “For Once, Then, Something”:

Once, when trying with chin against a well-curb,
I discerned, as I thought, beyond the picture,
Through the picture, a something white, uncertain,
Something more of the depths—and then I lost it.”

He might be describing Jesus’ use of parables in the gospel today. As insightful as Frost or even Shakespeare, Jesus mentions a peasant scattering seeds or a mustard seed to give us a glimpse of God’s Kingdom. However, when we attempt to dwell on the image asking questions like, “Is the Kingdom the land or the harvest?” we are likely to let go of the revelation just as Frost loses sight of the thing he sees at the bottom of the well.

Something similar may be said of St. Thomas Aquinas whom we celebrate today. The theologian gave us a view of God more complete than and almost as perceptive as anyone’s in history. In his Summa Theologiae Scripture and philosophy hung together for a moment dissolving doubt in awe. However, its fullness disappeared in time fractured by the incessant queries of modernity. Yet it remains worthwhile to attempt revisioning what Aquinas wrote that we might once again glimpse God in glorious splendor.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Thursday of the Third Week in Ordinary Time

(Hebrews 10:19-25; Mark 4:21-25)

Some commentators on the Letter to the Hebrews say that its clarion call to renewal stems from systematic persecution grinding down Christians toward the end of the first century. Others, however, see it more as a warning against apostasy in a time of disillusionment over Jesus’ promised return. Christians in most of the world today contend with the latter challenge. As we wait for Jesus to return, some in our congregations become especially anxious. Wonder if he will ever come, they stop attending mass and perhaps search for a religion with less doctrinal baggage.

Hebrews encourages the dubious both in the first century and today not to let go of Christ. It describes him both as accomplished as Einstein and as ordinary as any one of us. It assures us that he, and not Church preaching or music or even fellowship, makes our allegiance worthwhile. We come to “the assembly” or mass precisely because he is there in fullness. Further, we make every effort to love and do good works because the more we act like him, the more we will experience him.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Memorial of St. Timothy and St. Titus, bishops

(II Timothy 1:1-8; Mark 3:22-30)

The Memorial of Saints Timothy and Titus follows on the heel of the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul because the two men assisted Paul in his missionary efforts. Timothy accompanied Paul on part of his so-called second missionary journey and stayed with him in Corinth. Later Paul places Timothy’s name with his own as the authors of the Second Letter to the Corinthians. This same letter speaks of Titus as Paul’s emissary who brought a lost letter to the Corinthians after they evidently reacted to Paul’s scolding in First Corinthians. In Second Corinthians Paul calls Titus, “my partner and co-worker with you.”

A few facts about Timothy and Titus can be gleaned from the New Testament. Timothy was the son of a Greek father and Jewish mother. Paul permitted him to be circumcised because of his Jewish heritage. On the other hand, Paul insisted that Titus not be circumcised because he was of completely Gentile origins. More significant than their personal stories is what the references to the two men in the New Testament reveal about Paul. They indicate that he was hardly a one-person show. Indeed, it seems that in part his ability to collaborate made his evangelizing efforts successful. He also felt great affection for his associates and was magnanimous enough to mention them as contributors to his writing.

It may seem self-evident that ultimately there are no Christians without a church community, but some do speak and act as if they have both personal and private relationships with the Lord. Yet there is always need for other people to pray with, to support our faith, and to assist our apostolic efforts. This was true of the archetypal missionary, Paul of Tarsus, and it remains so today.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul, apostle

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

Did Paul actually undergo a conversion? The question may sound silly today when we are celebrating just that, but students of the Bible have asked it seriously. They note that there is no change in Paul’s personal behavior. He does not, for example, give up drinking or come to scorn his Jewish roots. Rather he remains avid about religion although he will admit that being Jewish cannot compare with knowing Jesus Christ.

Paul’s zeal makes him capable of accomplishing so much. He will not only fulfill Jesus’ mandate to proclaim the gospel to everyone but also encourage those whom he has evangelized with sound pastoral letters. He becomes the consummate activist with a life completely given to Christ and thus rightly terminating in martyrdom.

Such a model may scare us. “Do I want to give myself over so completely?” we may ask. But let us keep two considerations in mind. First, although Christ wants us to tell others about him, he does not call the vast majority of us to put our heads on the chopping block. Second, Christ calls each of us by name as sure as he calls, “Saul, Saul,” in the first reading today. In other words, he loves us and will care for us as we make little sacrifices for him.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Memorial of Saint Francis de Sales, bishop

(Hebrews 9:15.24-28; Mark 3:22-30)

In 1858 Abraham Lincoln used Jesus’ statement in today’s gospel to explain why the status quo regarding slavery in America was doomed. The country was being continually thrown into crisis because the South could not tolerate the loss of political power when territories wanted to join the Union as “free” states. Lincoln reasoned that the United States would have to become completely slave or completely free just as “a house divided against itself cannot stand.”

Lincoln’s application of Jesus’ statement reminds us not to compromise with evil. A group of associates incessantly making sexual innuendos, a habit of “borrowing” from the company to pay personal debts, a practice of lying about one’s whereabouts – any of these situations can lead us fully down the path to corruption. It is true, as St. Francis De Sales once wrote, that we need to be patient with ourselves. But patience is not allowing evil to take root in our hearts but to make constant effort, as a gardener weeding his flower patch, that vice has difficulty finding a place to germinate.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Memorial of Saint Agnes, virgin and martyr

(Hebrews 8:6-13; Mark 3:13-19)

It is not that typewriters are old that makes us want to ditch them, it is because they are obsolete. In almost every way computers outperform typewriters so that most of us don’t even have room for the latter in storage. The author of the Letter to the Hebrews finds God’s covenant with Israel similarly obsolete.

The Old Testament passage which today’s reading cites comes from the prophet Jeremiah. Living six hundred years before Christ, Jeremiah saw that the people were not prepared to keep the Covenantal Law. He foretold not only a new law but a new kind of law written on the heart so that those so inscribed could comply with it just as much as, for example, they love their children. We understand this New Law as coming to us with the Holy Spirit who prompts us to do what is right.

But how obsolete is the Old Covenant? To be sure, as liberal critics point out, we cannot hold to each of its ceremonial and judicial precepts. Yet the Ten Commandments still guide our relationships with God and neighbors. It would be tragic to dismiss these moral precepts as out of date. Rather we need to apply their wisdom to life today as a matter of the Spirit’s

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Thursday of the Second Week in Ordinary Time

(Hebrews 8:6-13; Mark 3:13-19)

Valerie Plame Wilson’s career as a CIA agent came to sudden end a few years ago when a newspaper columnist revealed her identity. Indeed, her life was put in jeopardy when it was reported that she was gathering information on Iraq’s nuclear weapons’ program. We can see Jesus in the gospel in a parallel way. He tries to conceal his full identity so that he might keep his mission on track.

Jesus hushes the unclean spirits who want to proclaim him as “Son of God” because the world does not understand who God is. People see God as one to be worshipped and to be paid lip service. Like those who sing in church on Sunday and take bribes on Monday, they do not understand that God’s way is to sacrifice Himself in love. This lesson hits home in Jesus’ death on the cross although it has never been appreciated by all.

Today many want to identify themselves with Jesus but refuse to follow his ways. They call themselves Catholics if asked and perhaps go to Mass on Christmas but are unwilling to make the sacrifices which the gospel demands. We hope that these people may find in our behavior the joy that emanates from sacrificial love and may expend more effort in following Jesus.

Wednesday, January 20, 2011

Wednesday of the First Week in Ordinary Time

(Hebrews 7:1-3.15-17; Mark 3:1-6)

The word tithe originally meant just tenth although today we think of it exclusively as a tenth of what one earns. Of course, pastors like to think of the tithe, ten percent of a family’s income, as the appropriate amount for its church donation. In the reading from Hebrews today we find a biblical antecedent for the directive.

It should be noted, first, that the passage does not pretend to counsel churchgoers about their offerings. Rather it tries to establish Jesus’ foundation as the eternal high priest in three ways. First, like the mysterious Melchizedek, his origins have no beginning or end. What is more, as the father of faith Abraham honors the priest Melchizedek with his tithe so Jesus through his death on the cross deserves our confidence. Finally, in the gospels Jesus is called “the Prince of Peace” and preaches nonviolence; likewise, the name Melchizedek means “King of Peace” and the person – a presumably rival king -- comes and goes amicably.

We can count on Jesus. He is as wise as the ages and will never do us harm. But there is much more reason to trust him. He has shown his love for us by dying on the cross. What happened afterwards proves that it was neither a foolish gesture nor an inconsequential sacrifice. In raising Jesus from the dead, the Father has indicated our destiny if we abide by him.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Tuesday of the Second Week in Ordinary Time

(Hebrews 6:10-20; Mark 2:23-28)

Today’s first reading is the source of the familiar Christian icon for the virtue of hope. The author of the Letter to the Hebrews is saying that hope steadies our belief in God’s promise as an anchor stays a boat. Without hope we would drift away with the currents of fashion or the breezes of comfort. Hope moves us to struggle if necessary to maintain our faith in God.

But what do we hope for? We use the word all the time and for the most frivolous of things. Some say they hope that their football team wins or that it snows tomorrow. Hebrews expresses hope for the “unshakeable kingdom,” which we know as eternal life. It is not a far off “never, never land” but as close to us as we are to ourselves. It is the joy of sharing with loved ones – both living and dead – a smile along with a piece of bread.

Hope has been called the youngest of three children addling between her sisters, faith and love. Often it seems that the elder children must pull along hope which wonders how God might reverse the arrow of time so that we might approach again our parents, friends, or teachers who have crossed death’s threshold. But at times hope is distinctly in the lead urging us to believe and to care so that we might enjoy renewed companionship with our loved ones.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Memorial of Saint Anthony, abbot

(Hebrews 5:1-10; Mark 2:18-22)

Writer-teacher Frank McCourt tells of a bus driver who was able to relate to an African-American high school student in a way that he never could. McCourt’s class was returning from a cultural activity when the student began talking with the bus driver who was also African-American. She asked the driver about his family. The driver said that he had children and was working hard to send them to school so they wouldn’t have to drive buses for a living. He said that Black people had to work hard in the United States if they were going to get by but in the end that was good because the struggle made them stronger. When the girl told him that she wanted to become a hairdresser, he chided her that she could do better, that she was smart and could go to college.

Although there is nothing wrong with being a bus driver or a hairdresser, the lesson which the bus driver gave resembles the wisdom of the Letter to the Hebrews. Jesus’ suffering allowed him not only to identify with the rest of humanity; it also purified him so that he might give himself completely to his Father. In these ways he also “was made stronger.” This truth may sound strange if we think of Jesus as one conscious of his divinity since the day he was born. But in numerous passages the New Testament relates that he suffered like the rest of humanity. Yet the suffering did not deplete him of virtue but multiplied it within him.

Today the United States honors one of its greatest heroes. Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke up for struggling minorities who were being deprived of opportunity to show their ability. He preached to the well-off of Christ’s love for the poor and also to the impatient of Christ’s way of nonviolence. He dreamed not so much of a color-blind America but of a society in which all peoploe would be respected for the “content of their character.”

Friday, January 14, 2011

Friday of the First Week in Ordinary Time

(Hebrews 4:1-5.11; Mark 2:1-12)

When Martin Luther King and companions called the bus strike in Montgomery, Alabama, many African-Americans walked to work. It was no mean sacrifice since the walkers often stood on their feet all day at their jobs. Yet they were willing to do it because they knew the bus strike was a step toward racial justice. One elderly lady who had participated in the strike expressed her satisfaction at day’s end. “My feet are tired,” she said, “but my soul’s at rest.” The author of the Letter to the Hebrews expresses such paradoxical rest as his hope for the people he addresses in the first reading today.

Rest is always more than inaction. True rest includes the satisfaction of knowing that one has done his or her very best. When a teacher returns home after of a full day of instructing, disciplining, and encouraging her students, she can rest. We bear with difficulties and seek ways to announce the good news of God’s love so that we might enter God’s eternal rest. Others may dismiss our efforts with faint praise, but we do not live to impress them, at least beyond the desire that they too might know the love of Jesus. No, we live in order to rest with our Lord.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Memorial of St. Hilary of Poitiers, bishop and doctor of the Church

(Hebrews 3:7-14; Mark 1:40-45)

In the Western world material comfort distracts many from following Christ. Pastors should urge their congregations to keep their eyes on him whose resurrection from the dead is their hope and promise. In the East the situation is more dire, and the pastoral challenge more daunting. Christians are persecuted regularly and, all too often, with little recourse to justice. In November Muslims massacred sixty Catholics who were worshipping in church, and last month a similar atrocity was inflicted on Coptic Christians in Egypt. Pakistani Christians are also constantly harassed. Lest we think discrimination against Christians is exclusively the work of Muslims, in India the Hindu majority can show prejudice toward to both Christians and Muslims which has erupted into violence.

Throughout the whole world then the admonition of the reading from the Letter to the Hebrews today is relevant. We must hold fast to belief in Christ, as hard as it sometimes is. It is a sure road to personal peace as Jesus provides spiritual companionship that cannot be taken away. More significantly, he is the only way to eternal life. In our liturgy today we remember a model of religious endurance under persecution. St. Hilary was exiled from his native France for defending Christ’s divinity against the compromising assertions of the Arians. In exile he did not stop proclaiming the truth of Christ, and when returned to his diocese of Poitiers, he proclaimed Christ as the eternal God until his death.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Wednesday of the First Week in Ordinary Time

(Hebrews 2:14-18; Mark 1:29-39)

For centuries the Church believed that St. Paul wrote the Letter to the Hebrews. There were a few dissenters in early times, but only in the sixteenth century did the great Erasmus begin to persuade the majority of scholars that Paul could not have authored the document. As an enlightened theologian of the third century put it, “Everyone who is able to discern differences in style” would know that the letter did not come directly from the pen of Paul. The actual identity of the author, however, remains unknown.

Determining authorship is only one of the difficulties in studying the Letter to the Hebrews. It is also full of obscure terms and ideas that challenge the modern mind. In today’s passage, for example, we may scratch our heads wondering how humans “through fear of death had been subject to slavery all their life.” Is the letter trying to say that humans are coerced into being good by the fear of death?

No, that is not the case. Although such a servile fear falls short of the freedom of God’s children, it at least encourages us to do what is right. The fear to which the letter refers is a deeper anxiety that would paralyze us from doing any good at all. It is a fear that would so preoccupy us with the terror of death that we could not love God or assist our neighbor. The letter tells us, however, that Christ has eliminated this kind of fear by his resurrection from the dead. Now we can, in the words of Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, “befriend death” because it only unites us securely with Christ in eternal life.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Tuesday of the First Week in Ordinary Time

(Hebrews 2:5-12; Mark 1:21-28)

Once in a while we see criticism of humanism from Christian groups. According to them humanism is the archenemy of faith because it seeks to replace the primacy of God with that of humans. But certainly this criticism is both wrong-headed and short-sighted. There are great saints like Thomas More who were humanists. Even Pope John Paul II was considered a Christian humanist. Calling humanism anti-Christian is like calling an athlete anti-intellectual. Such a label does not account for humanism’s possibilities.

Humanism endeavors to promote all men and women, not just the rich or the educated, but the poor and simple as well. It says that the value of the individual human must not be ignored. It is true that some humanists get carried away with these ideas. Secular humanists try to exalt humanity by denying the existence of God. Indeed, they attempt to turn humans into gods with the authority to make laws that are contrary to nature.

In the gospel Jesus shows himself to be a humanist. When a man who is possessed by an unclean spirit comes before him on the sabbath, he takes pity. Right away, he casts out the demon so the man may have his life back. The Pharisees consider the sabbath so holy that all regular activity must stop to give praise to God. But Jesus’ expelling the demon on the sabbath indicates that God is honored more by restoring humans to their full senses than by compliance with a narrow interpretation of the Law.

Monday, January 10, 2010

Monday of the First Week in Ordinary Time

(Hebrews 1:1-6; Mark 1:14-20)

In a tribute to Frank Lloyd Wright song-writer Paul Simon wrote, “Architects may come and architects may go and never change your point of view.” Wright, of course, was different. His lines and spaces lift people from the drudgery of daily life to a celestial height engaging their freedom and nobility. Attending to Jesus’ words and actions in the gospel today, we are likewise called out of slumber to a new spirit.

John has been arrested. His prophetic message warned listeners of the need to repent or face the wrath of God. Jesus employs the same words as John, “The Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent…” but with him warning has given way to hope. Now God has come to look after people’s needs. First Simon and Andrew and then James and John have only to hear Jesus’ call to adopt a wholly new lifestyle.

For some after so many centuries and so many readings, Jesus’ message seems stale. It is a plausible criticism since many people who profess faith in him hardly exhibit a renewed spirit. However, for both those who are tired of reading the gospel as well as those who only give it lip service, there remains the challenge of taking Jesus up on the call. When people leave behind their boats – their little worlds of cynicism and prejudice – and their nets – their fortunes and pleasures – to follow him, they will find a refreshing and fulfilling way of life.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Christmas Weekday

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

Bishop Leroy Matthiesen of Amarillo became a national sensation after he told a deacon in his diocese working at the Pantex Nuclear Plant that he should follow his conscience and leave his job. When Bishop Matthiesen was offered a contract for his autobiography, he was warned that he had to write soon because interest in his story would not last long.

In the gospel people similarly come in search of Jesus after he heals a leper. The passage indicates that they not only want him to cure their illnesses but also to listen to him teach. Interestingly, Jesus does not seem to change his routine to maximize popularity but continues to withdraw in prayer. He obviously knows intuitively what most of us forget in face of public admiration -- the source of lasting power is not in human strength but in communion with the Father.

Whether we are famous or whether our virtue is known only by our loved ones, we are wise to imitate Jesus in prayer. Daily conversation with God offers us the opportunity to declare our love and our hope. God’s gracious response empowers us to live up to the ideals we profess.

Thursdsay, January 6, 2011

Christmas Weekday

(I John 4:19-5:4; Luke 4:14-22)

Fifty years ago John Kennedy delivered one of the most inspiring speeches in history. “The torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans,” the young president said in his inaugural address, “born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage....” We may note a similar cadence to Jesus’ words in the gospel today.

Jesus returns to his home town to deliver his first public address in Luke’s gospel. He enters the synagogue, takes the scroll with a passage from Isaiah, and reads: “’The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor…to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind…” Then he announces, “’Today this prophecy is fulfilled in your hearing.’” The world should sigh in relief. Like President Kennedy Jesus has youth and capability to carry out his project. Infinitely more than the thirty-fifth President, his divine origins assure its accomplishment.

Kennedy was not a great man because he was Catholic. However, we can assert that his faith contributed to his sense of care for the oppressed, to his need to be strong in the face of evil, and to his loyalty to the sacred tradition of his predecessors. History has shown that he was not perfect. Nevertheless, to the extent that he followed Jesus’ program of renewal put forth in today’s gospel, we should aspire to be like him.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Memorial of Saint John Neumann, bishop

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

Americans on the average gain a pound of body weight over the holiday season. That may not sound like much, but a real problem emerges when in many cases the added pound accumulates over the years. Yet as great a threat as obesity presents to health, there is still a greater danger in holiday feasting. Like the disciples in the gospel today, we may not understand the meaning of the abundance of food.

We share our food during Christmas as a means of anticipating the eternal feast in heaven. At the Incarnation we behold in our midst the same Christ who will have the place of honor at the Father’s table at the end of time. Of course, this image of a heavenly banquet is largely speculative. We do not know what exactly eternity is like so we think of it in terms of our most wonderful communal experience – a banquet with the most delightful of company as well as the most delicious of foods. Scripture likewise conjures the image of a banquet table for the fulfillment of God’s plan. St. Paul, however, is more discreet in describing heaven when, citing Isaiah, he writes, ‘“…eye has not seen, and ear has not heard…what God has prepared for those who love him.’”

Feasting, of course, does not continue throughout the year. Most days we exert ourselves carrying out the mandates Christ has given us. On some days we also fast as a way to show our live for God. In these ways we also guard against the threat of obesity.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Memorial of Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton, religious

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

“The one who loves much, does much,” the mother told her son. Reinforced by the mother’s example of unselfishness, the proverb echoed in the child’s mind throughout his life. Perhaps St. Elizabeth Ann Seton gave a similar lesson to her five children. She certainly practiced its wisdom. Her accomplishments are almost exhausting to name, much less to realize. St. Elizabeth founded a religious congregation, set Catholic education on firm footing by training teachers and writing textbooks, visited the sick, established orphanages, and wrote spiritual reflections.

The First Letter of John reminds us that love in action is not found naturally in humans but comes from God. The love of the Trinity overflows into creation and has reached its pinnacle in the Incarnation when God the Father’s only-begotten Son came to earth. The Son not only shows us how to help our neighbor but frees us from the glamor of evil. Now we can turn to God with gratitude and to our neighbor with love.