Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Tuesday of the Eighth Week in Ordinary Time

(Sirach 35:1-12; Mark 10:28-31)

What Jesus says is true. People who commit themselves to a vocation as a priest or religious often receive several times more than what they give up. Moving away from relatives as a young woman or man may be wrenching, but priests and religious typically find themselves in communities which becomes like a second family.

There are other blessings associated with religious life. Above all, religious and priests develop a closeness to the Lord. All Christians should pray, but those who publicly dedicate themselves to the Church have daily occasion to seek the Lord. By meditating on how God painstakingly prepared His people for His Son, how Jesus lovingly lived and died, and how the new People of God eagerly accepted him as Savior, priests and religious come to trust Christ as both Lord and brother.

Ministry for priests and religious can also be particularly meaningful. They usually assist well-intentioned people needing guidance in the quest for holiness. Speaking about Jesus brings great satisfaction as they are describing one whom they love. Finally, Jesus assures his disciples that those who serve him faithfully will receive eternal life. He means that not even death will separate them from the joy of his companionship.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Monday of the Eighth Week in Ordinary Time

(Sirach 17:20-24; Mark 10:17-27)

The reading from Sirach today may serve to remind us that Lent is approaching. Its line, “Return to him and give up sin” anticipates the alternate admonition for the distribution of ashes on Ash Wednesday, “Repent, and believe in the gospel.” Many of us, I suspect, listen to these words with all the attention of a stone-deaf person at a piano recital; that is, they just don’t register.

The problem is not that we are bad people. As a matter of fact, we are like the man in the gospel who can say to Jesus that he has kept all the commandments since his youth. We do not understand nor do we care to understand that Jesus is calling us beyond standard conventions of morality to saintliness. He means for us to stop talking about others, to stop looking with lustful eyes, to stop doing good so that others may take notice.

A very good moral theologian once compared himself to the great Reinhold Niebuhr. He said that Niebuhr was a thorough perfectionist where he just wanted to be “a little bit better.” We suffer the same pathology. We don’t care to be saints but satisfy ourselves thinking that we are “a little bit better” than most of the rest. It is no wonder that Jesus concludes today’s gospel saying that salvation is impossible for humans without God’s help.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Friday of the Seventh Week in Ordinary Time

(Sirach 6:5-17; Mark 10:1-12)

In the gospel Jesus not only crimps the male prerogative to divorce in accord with the original intent of creation, he also reverses the consequence of original sin. At their judgment God tells Eve that she will be dominated by Adam. Now, Jesus indicates, there will be equality again between the two. Behind this audacious move Jesus intends both to save women from the ignominy and poverty of being divorced and to urge husband and wife to become the best of friends.

The reading from Sirach indicates the value of such a relationship. A “best friend” listens to our venting to help us tolerate life’s vagaries. She or he also protects us from the consequences of rash action by proffering wisdom when we are angry or confused. Other friendships may be as deep as water on a tabletop. They only coax us to avoid responsibility and then offer platitudes in distress.

We want to encourage our young to look for a spouse who will be a true friend. Too often men marry women more from sexual attraction than from virtue. And women look for men for much the same reason as well as their capacity to provide life’s comforts. These values are out of line with the Kingdom Jesus preaches. If our young are to live as Jesus would have them, they will take as much care in finding a spouse as a Fortune 500 corporation in choosing a CFO. They will search for a person who is -- most of all – faithful, honest, caring, and wise.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Thursday of the Seventh Week in Ordinary Time

(Sirach 5:1-8; Mark 9:41-50)

The class was discussing the morality of masturbation. The instructor pointed out the Church’s teaching that the presence of objective evil does not necessarily imply culpability, especially in cases regarding sexuality of adolescents. Then a student, who is also a parent, rose to say, “Remember the Scripture, ‘Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.’” The man was only giving an echo to what the book of Sirach teaches us today.

The name Sirach comes from the book’s author, Eleazar ben Sira, who lived in Jerusalem during the third and second centuries before Christ. Ben Sira wrote in Hebrew although only Greek translations of his work remain. It is not accepted as canonically inspired by Jews and Protestants. Yet it was considered as Sacred Scripture by many rabbis through the centuries as well as the Catholic Church since her foundation. Who would disagree with the present lesson that humans only fool themselves when they think they might escape the consequences of their sins?

Questions of subjective culpability for sin are difficult to judge. Human freedom is always under constraint so that it is virtually impossible for us to say with complete certitude that we, much less others, are guilty of mortal sin. This fact, however, should not give us excuse not to repent of and confess our involvement in evil acts as sins. Jesus exaggerates in the gospel today when he tells us to cut off our hands and pluck out our eyes if we find them causing us to sin. Yet obviously he, like ben Sira, wants to warn us about wrong-doing. We must take care to distance ourselves from participating in evil and to teach our young people to do likewise.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Memorial of St. Polycarp, bishop and martyr

(Sirach 4:11-19; Mark 9:38-40)

In Robert Duvall’s movie “The Apostle” an evangelical preacher from Texas observes a Catholic priest in Louisiana blessing a fishing fleet. He does not betray any anger or envy. He merely reaffirms his own mission saying something like: “They do things their way; and I do things my way.” Jesus shows this same kind of tolerance in the gospel passage today.

The Acts of the Apostles records another incident of men trying to exorcize demons in Jesus’ name without authorization from the apostolic community. It may have happened just as frequently then as free-lance preachers tell of Jesus today. Like John in the passage today we want to shut them up or, at least, turn them off. Such actions, however, would not only short-circuit a speaker’s right to free expression, but they may also violate Jesus’ principle of toleration.

It is perfectly legitimate and may even be a duty for priests to warn the faithful of imposters who give the impression of speaking for the Church. But generally when we hear non-Catholic preachers talk of Jesus, we could listen a bit to what they are saying. They probably are not speaking against the Church and quite possibly have insights that may help us better appreciate the Lord.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Feast of the Chair of St. Peter, apostle

(I Peter 5:1-4; Matthew 16:13-19)

It was reported recently that the card Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger carried in his wallet authorizing the transplanting of his organs was no longer valid. The reason is not a change in the Church’s acceptance of organ donation, but the fact that when a man becomes pope his body is no longer his own to dispose of as he sees fit. Rather, it belongs to the Church. This is a small sacrifice in comparison with the others that modern popes are called to make.

The reading from the First Letter of Peter today underscores the pope’s and, indeed, all priests’ need of humility. It expressly says that they are not to lord it over the faithful as this would give counter-testimony to Christ who humbled himself to the point of undergoing unjust execution. Nor are they to seek favors for their work as this would undermine their credibility. More positively, they are to look after and encourage the faithful with eagerness. After all, only joyful care will win the hearts of more and more people to Christ. Especially the Vicar of Christ, for whom there is no retirement plan, will necessarily wear himself out under such responsibilities. His consolation, of course, is eternal glory upon the Lord’s return.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Monday of the Seventh Week in Ordinary Time

(Sirach 1:1-10; Mark 9:14-29)

The story is told of President Abraham Lincoln taking a walk in the woods one night weighing a difficult decision. A group of Union soldiers were to be executed for falling asleep on duty unless he gave them a pardon. Along the path Lincoln met an adolescent on the ground crying. The lad had run away from home after his father in a rage killed his dog. The father had learnt that his other son was to be executed for cowardice and couldn’t control his anger. Lincoln counseled the boy to go home and forgive his father; meanwhile, he said, he would do some forgiving himself. The President also gave the boy his card with a note saying that he might visit him at the White House anytime. The boy went home and made up with his father. When he found out that his brother’s crime was falling asleep on duty, he went straight to the White House and took a seat outside President Lincoln’s office. At the end of the day, the boy gave the President’s secretary the card he had received and told him he had an important matter to discuss with Mr. Lincoln. The boy was shown in, told Lincoln what happened to his brother, and heard the President promise to add his brother’s name to the list of those soldiers who would be receiving Presidential pardons.

Just like the boy sitting in the shadow of the President, the man in the gospel whose son has an epileptic spirit does not recognize Jesus for whom he is. He sees Jesus as a human healer, not the son of God whose prayer to his heavenly Father is invariably answered. When Jesus questions the man’s faith, he responds with the cry that has echoed in every Christian’s heart, “’I do believe, help my unbelief.’” Jesus demands no more than that painful request and, indeed, does help the man to believe in him by driving the demon from his son. We likewise should bring to Jesus all our needs. He will help us if we can honestly say with the epileptic’s father, “I do believe, help…”

Friday, February 18, 2011

Friday of the Sixth Week in Ordinary Time

(Genesis 11:1-9; Mark 8:34-9:1)

Not only athletes but quite regular men and women look to artificial sources for self-enhancement. After all, if steroids could turn an average hitter into superstar, might they not make any body everyone’s desire or envy by adding proportion? The reading from Genesis today teaches us that the use of technology to boost oneself is really almost as old as the human species itself.

The inhabitants of Babel live not long after Noah who was the first born human after the death of Adam. God told Noah and his sons to “multiply and fill the earth.” Yet some of his descendants come together to build the city of Babel! By their own admission their purpose is egotistical. They want “to make a name for themselves” by means of technology -- molding bricks and hardening them with fire. They seem to think that they might rival God by constructing a tower so high that it reaches heaven. The idea is ludicrous, of course. God has to go down to stop the folly before the people destroy themselves.

What Genesis is critiquing is not the desire of humans to improve themselves but the hubris or pride that drives them to win the adulation of others. People want to become idols – to be considered gods among their peers. God is not jealous. He knows quite well that whatever humans make of and by themselves, they will never be even cockroaches in comparison to Him. But God wants His noblest creatures to do better than that. He confuses their languages and resends them throughout the world to open their eyes as it were. God wants us to respect and admire the richness of different individuals and cultures so that we might turn back to him in awe and gratitude.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Thursday of the Sixth Week in Ordinary Time

(Genesis 9:1-13; Mark 8:27-33)

The woman had an inoperable brain tumor. The doctor had just told her that he could do nothing more for her. Most likely, he said, she would die soon. Of course, the news troubled the woman and her family. They wondered how the doctor could be so sure. “Should he not have held out some hope?” they asked themselves. Disbelieving the doctor’s prognosis, the family resembled Peter in the gospel today. The chief apostle refuses to accept Jesus’ prediction of the suffering he faces.

We can imagine the thoughts racing through Peter’s mind when he refutes Jesus. He may be thinking that Jesus has power to lay his enemies in the dust. Or possibly that he and the other disciples will defend Jesus if anyone lifts a finger against him. Or even that all the Jews will soon come to recognize Jesus as the Christ. If, as Jesus says, Peter thinks as human beings do and not like God, then Jesus knows all too well how human beings think. He realizes that when push comes to shove, his disciples will fold like a house of cards. Likewise, he perceives the Jewish religious establishment in Jerusalem as too settled to acknowledge a preacher and healer from Galilee as God’s chosen one. Most of all, Jesus knows that human thoughts concentrate on the bread that lasts but a day without considering seriously the eternal banquet which God has promised.

“Human kind cannot bear very much reality,” T.S. Eliot once wrote. By “reality” he was referring to both the trauma of death and the stiff price Jesus paid to remedy that affliction. And so, like Peter we think that we might circumvent tragedy by good genes or right living. Added to that, we fail to grasp the intense and unremitting love that moves Jesus to die for us. Like Peter, we must be shaken out of our fantasies in order to follow Jesus.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Wednesday of the Sixth Week in Ordinary Time

(Genesis 8:6-13.20-22; Mark 8:22-26)

In the reading from Genesis Noah, after saving all types of animals, abruptly kills some for sacrifice. For this reason God pronounces the judgment, “…the desires of man’s heart are evil from the start.” However, if killing and eating animal flesh indicates human wickedness (it was not done before Adam and Eve’s sin), it at least will be controlled. Noah does not slaughter animals wholesale to make a sacrifice ever more pleasing to God.

When God establishes His covenant with Noah, about which we will read tomorrow at Mass, He will allow humans to eat the flesh of other animals, but always within limits. Humans will not be allowed to eat the blood of animals. Noah here is seeking a new relationship with the Lord through sacrifice as a sign of dependence while the justice ordained by the law will be God’s terms for a new relationship with humans.

Despite their sacrifices humans will have difficulty bowing their spirits to the Lord. They may even keep the law in practice, but they will deny its intent. Finally, however, the sacrifice of Jesus, the God-human, will gain for humans a lasting relationship with God. And the new law, which he gives as nothing less than the Holy Spirit working in human hearts, will produce true justice.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Tuesday of the Sixth Week in Ordinary Time

(Genesis 5:5-8.7:1-5.10; Mark 8:14-21)

We should view Genesis as telling the human story from a philosophical and theological, not a historical, point of view if we are to garner its wisdom. Where today’s passage speaks of human wickedness, it means to decry the state of life without laws to guide people. We might wonder why God, who is supposedly omniscient, did not know beforehand that humans would turn out corrupted, but that is not allowing the story to unfold in its artistic way.

There is one man, however, who does not perpetrate evil. Noah finds favor with the Lord because, as is soon shown, he does exactly what the Lord commands him. He is unlike all the other men and women of his age. Because of him God will try again. But the next time humans are allowed to flourish they will have covenantal laws for guidance. More than one covenant, however, will be necessary to finally put humans firmly on the path of righteousness.

Some have belittled Genesis’ flood story as a mere retelling of part of the Mesopotamian Gilgamesh epic. Although it is more than likely that some borrowing went on, there are still critical distinctions between the two which highlight the biblical conception of life. Succinctly put, these differences amount to God being in complete control of the reestablishment of human society. The ark only preserves life which God will reshape. It does not attempt, as the ship in the Gilgamesh epic, to save a vestige of human civilization which has proved to be entirely wanting.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Memorial of Saint Cyril, monk, and Saint Methodius, bishop

(Genesis 4:1-15.25; Mark 8:11-13)

What is wrong with Cain’s offering that God does not look favorably upon it? Genesis does not specify. We might have heard as children that Cain presented rotten vegetables, but that is not likely. More in line with the biblical tradition is that nothing is wrong with the sacrifice per se, but with the presenter. Through the prophets the Lord frequently tells the people that their sacrifices are wanting because they are not made sincerely. A sacrifice should symbolize the person’s dedication of self to God, but in the case of Cain he is not ready to give himself over. It is like the unfaithful husband who tries to appease his wife with a diamond.

But how does God know that Cain is up to no good? After all, the reading does not tell us that he has done anything wrong until he murders Abel. Another axiom of Scripture, however, is that God does not judge by appearances; He knows the hearts of people. For this reason He can say to Cain, “…sin is lurking at your door.” Of course, Cain is free not to sin. God even tells him that he may overcome any malicious desire. Obviously, though, that is not Cain’s will.

The passage also intimates God’s everlasting mercy. Even without repenting of his sin but only for bewailing his punishment, God is ready to act on Cain’s behalf. Of what exactly God’s “mark on Cain” consists the Scripture does not say. However, we can be assured, precisely becomes it comes from the Almighty, that it does protect Cain, like a Red Cross flag, from enemy attack.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Memorial of Our Lady of Lourdes

(Genesis 3:1-8; Mark 7:31-37)

The surgeon came to see the patient with a broken femur. He brusquely maneuvered the injured leg and asked if the patient felt any pain. There wasn’t any. The doctor knew his craft. His colleague would mend the bone with a metal plate. The patient would be told that he would never have to look at the scar to determine which leg had been broken, but that did not turn out to be the case. Within two years he could feel no difference between his two legs.

Jesus acts like the surgeon in the gospel reading. He fingers the deaf man’s ears and spits on his hampered tongue as a kind of therapy. Perhaps he entreats his Father when he looks up to heaven, but there is a sense that he has mastered the art of healing. In any event, the man’s defects are corrected; he can hear Jesus’ voice and thank him for the act of mercy.

Because of the many cures witnessed at Lourdes over the last century and a half, sick Catholics flock there for healing around the anniversary of the first appearance of our Lady. It is said that a communal faith is felt among the pilgrims that overshadows personal desire for relief. Most people return home with their ailments unassuaged but at the same time supremely uplifted. Jesus has touched them. They can now endure the pains of illness and even face the terror of death. He has made them all right.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Memorial of Saint Scholastica, virgin

(Genesis 2:18-25; Mark 7:24-30)

A welcome change in Christian theology is the recognition that women are not morally weaker than men. Theologians as illustrious as Augustine and Aquinas opined that the Devil could seduce Eve into sinning since (according to Aquinas) in her “the gift of the light of reason shone with lesser brilliance.” We would search the Catechism of the Catholic Church in vain for such a jibe.

Actually a case can be made for the superiority of women in Genesis. The reading today shows how the woman is created from the flesh of Adam and not from dust as he is. Then, the woman is evidently made whole where Adam is missing the part of his anatomy that God used to form the woman. Finally, Adam seems to recognize a priority about the woman as he names her (in Hebrew) “’ishah” before he names himself “’ish.”

The great theologians of antiquity never said that women are not created in God’s image thereby lacking human dignity. We must go farther than that, however, without tipping toward a chauvinist view in favor of women. Men and women are equal in dignity and complementary in makeup and, to some extent, function. With their talents, both shared and distinctive, they can together make the world a satisfying place to live.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Wednesday of the Fifth Week in Ordinary Time

(Genesis 2:4b-9.15-17; Mark 7:14-23)

When television was still very young, a weekly series of dramas once told the story of the man who left his hometown to learn everything there is. He comes back to report to his townspeople the fruit of his efforts. When all gather to hear what he has to say, the man divulges the wisdom gained in ten simple lessons. “I am the Lord, your God;” he proclaims, “You shall not have strange gods before me.” Today’s reading from Genesis tells us as much.

We may wonder why God forbids eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. After all, we wonder, can knowledge be bad for us? The answer that Scripture provides sounds blasphemous to the modern way of thinking. “Yes,” it says, “if knowledge is divorced from obedience to God’s commands, it leads to folly.” Anticipating knowledge of atomic weapons and human cloning, Genesis reminds us that God’s law is given not to obstruct human progress but to abet it. Only in conjunction with divine rule can humans advance in harmony and justice.

Contemporary wisdom tells us to take nothing for granted; everything -- even dogmas of faith -- must be challenged. Such an attitude will only lead to the loss of the basis of human dignity. It is not that we are forbidden to question what we have been taught. But our questions should be framed so that they lead us to greater appreciation of the faith we cherish, not to its demise. Universal skepticism does not lead to wisdom but to confusion. Only through abiding by God’s revelation will we advance on the road of understanding.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Tuesday of the Fifth Week in Ordinary Time

(Genesis 1:20-2:4a; Mark 7:1-3)

The section from Genesis read today at mass today places land animals in the center of the animal kingdom. They are made after the birds and the fish and before humans. For this reason, they have been called God’s “middle children” with the chore of resolving the controversies which arise among fish and fowl -- their tougher siblings – and the more spoiled peoples of the earth with their parent, God.

Yet humans who, created in the image of God, should know better too often mistreat animals. It is not that we eat their flesh that cries for attention but that we demean them in the process. Chickens (which, of course, are fowl) often do not see the light of day. Cattle are not allowed to pasture as evolution (we might say, “God”) designed them. Then the numerous accounts of animal abuse from training them to mutilate one another to pure cruelty from not feeding call into question humans’ elevated status.

God gave us animals to use, not to abuse. Indeed, He also gave us the Sabbath so that we might contemplate His bounty and respond with gratitude. Animal activists for all the blabber about “rights” have, at least, made us aware of our rapaciousness. Treating not only dogs and cats but cows and chickens with more care should enhance our appreciation for God.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Monday of the Fifth Week in Ordinary Time

(Genesis 1:1-19; Mark 5:53-56)

Theologian Scott Hahn finds God as humans’ benefactor in the story of creation. Hahn notes that on each of the first three days God creates an essential element of life and sustenance. On the first day God creates time with the separation of day and night. As Einstein observed, time is indispensable so that everything would not happen at once. On the second day God creates space with the separation of the waters above from the waters below. And on the third day God creates life and sustenance with vegetation.

The second three days are filled with no less ambitious activity. Corresponding to the creation of time, God makes the sun and other stars as governors of day and night. On the fifth day He will make the birds of the air as rulers of the space he created on the second day and, as well, the fish to inhabit the waters below. On the sixth day the Lord will produce land animals and, finally, humans who will not only be sovereigns of the land but the prime beneficiaries of all God’s efforts.

The Church understands creation as by no means necessary, but rather God’s gratuitous gift. It springs from the love of the Trinity that flows over to bless everything else with temporal existence and humans with, eventually, the grace of eternal life.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Friday of the Fourth Week in Ordinary Time

(Hebrews 13:1-8; Mark 6:14-29)

The exceptionally beautiful exhortation from the Letter to the Hebrews today typically comes at the end of a New Testament epistle. After expressing the basis of his faith in Jesus, the author describes several actions consonant with such belief. The exhortation is thus called paraclesis from the Greek language meaning a strengthening of mind as well as heart to what has been taught.

The first part of the paraclesis in Hebrews considers practices to be followed. Christians are to offer hospitality freely because one never knows who the guest is. The last verse of the passage today recalls that Jesus is always the same, always ready to be our guest. A table prayer attributed to Benedictine monks joins the two ideas in verse:

O thou…
Who hast multiplied loaves and fishes
And converted water into wine;
Do thou come to our table
As guest and giver to dine.

It cannot be wrong to have private dinner parties. Couples, families, and associates need occasions to share exclusively over a meal. But such instances should not blind us to the evangelical call to share our sustenance with others. Especially the poor, as the last judgment parable in St. Matthew’s Gospel indicates, have a claim on our ample resources. In breaking bread with them, Jesus tells us, we entertain him at table.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Thursday of the Fourth Week in Ordinary Time

(Hebrews 12:18-19.21-24; Mark 6:17-13)

The woman came to the Sacrament of Reconciliation trembling. She wanted to confess a sin which was very embarrassing. She had never the courage to tell it to anyone before, even in confession. After acknowledging the deed, she left the confessional with a free heart.

The author of the Letter to the Hebrews in our reading today exhorts his readers to come to the Lord. He says that just as the woman trembling in confession, they will find not harshness but mercy. God is supremely good, but His goodness should not cause us to feel humiliated as if it meant to put us down. Rather it is best described as “mercy within mercy” which, like our kindergarten teacher, only means to help us overcome our weaknesses.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Feast of the Presentation of the Lord

(Malachi 3:1-4; Hebrews 2:14-18; Luke 2:22-32)

We call today’s feast the “Presentation of the Lord,” but traditionally it has been known as “Candlemas Day.” For centuries on this day churches blessed all the candles that they would use in the course of the year. The inspiration for this grand dedication is Simeon’s declaration in today’s gospel that the baby Jesus is “a light for revelation to the Gentiles.” He is the Israelite through whom Isaiah’s vision of world unity and peace will be fulfilled.

Jesus is the flame – light and heat in a cold, dark world, but he is not the whole candle. The trunk of the candle, its wax, is humanity. Like wax humans have fat -- their pride, greed, hatred, and lust -- to be burned away. Jesus, the consuming fire, rids us of these vices as he allows us to participate in his illumination. With our lives so chastened, we are rendered sincere – a word coming from two Latin words meaning “without wax.”