Monday, December 2, 2013

Monday of the First Week of Advent

(Isaiah 4:2-6; Matthew 8:5-11)

Why is a gospel passage glorifying faith used on the first weekday of Advent, the season of hope?  Perhaps it is to show the intimate relationship between the two virtues.  The centurion comes to Jesus believing that God has given him the power to heal his sick servant.  He does not even insist that Jesus see the sick one but only to pronounce a word of life.  Of course, he is not disappointed.

Many pilgrims come to Lourdes almost desperate – that is, almost giving up hope – but with a faith that approximates that of the centurion.  The experience of common need which the pilgrims share often transforms them.  It confirms their faith and lifts their hope to a higher level.  Being cured is no longer of paramount importance.  What they now desire is to accompany the Lord.

Faith and hope would be illusions without love.  Love for his servant brings the centurion to Jesus, the incarnation of love.  Both ask nothing for themselves but only to assist others.  We believe in Jesus because he has demonstrated his love for us.  And because we hope to encounter him, we demonstrate the same love for others. 

Friday, November 29, 2013

Friday of the Thirty-fourth Week in Ordinary Time

(Daniel &:2-14; Luke 21:29-33)

In its July issue The Atlantic magazine asked a number of experts when and how the world would end.  The answers varied from relatively soon by means of a smashing asteroid or a volcanic eruption to five billion years from now when the sun expands to take the earth and other planets into its core.  People are always curious about these things.

In today’s gospel Jesus hints that the end will take place before his generation ends.  It sounds then like Jesus is wrong in his prediction as everyone else who has foretold an imminent end.  However, his term “generation” is really indefinite.  A generation may be as long as an epoch or as short as a score and ten years.  The point is of lesser importance to Jesus than the assurance that his words will be remembered forever.

We, Jesus’ followers, must concur with his promise.  Whether the world ends before our life’s candle burns down or, more likely, we die before the earth falls apart, we must keep faithful to Jesus’ words.  When we meditate upon them and put them into practice, we are assumed into eternal life where queries about the world’s end fade before the more real concern of how to make the world a better place for all.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Thanksgiving Day

(Sirach 50:22-24; I Corinthians 1:3-9; Luke 17:11-19)

A number of years ago University of Texas quarterback gave a stellar performance in the Rose Bowl.  He scored a number of touchdowns and was chosen as the game’s most valuable player.  In a post-game interview, the young player did not brag of his accomplishment. Rather, he gave credit for his success to others.  He praised his teammates for their cooperation and thanked his family for their role in making him into the player he was.  In displaying such gratitude Vince Young emulates the Samaritan who returns to Jesus giving thanks.

The gospel passage is unique to Luke.  Jesus heals ten lepers and sends them off to the priest for inspection so that they may once again participate in society.  One of those healed, however, on noticing that he has indeed been cleansed of the dreaded disease returns to thank Jesus.  When he expresses gratitude for full health, Jesus bestows on him the richer blessing of salvation.

Today Americans and all living in the United States have the opportunity to thank God for the blessings bestowed on this great country.  When we do so from the heart – that is, not just by gathering to eat turkey or by even sitting in prayer around the table – but by a change of course as dramatic as the Samaritan’s who returns to Jesus, we also can count on his blessing of salvation.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Wednesday of the Thirty-fourth Week in Ordinary Time

(Daniel 5:1-6.13-14.16-17.23-28; Luke 21:12-19)

Franz Jägerstätter was an Austrian conscientious objector during World War II.  Taking cues from his Catholic faith, he refused to fight for the Nazis.  Indeed, he wanted nothing to do with the Third Reich.  In a plebiscite calling for Austrian unification with Germany, Jägerstätter was the only person in his village to vote against the resolution.  He was finally tried and summarily executed for his stand.  Not too many years ago Pope Benedict XVI declared him a martyr of the Church.  How can his story be understood in the light of today’s gospel?

Jesus tells the people that when they are persecuted, he will give them words to refute their detractors.  He is descriptive enough to say that “not a hair on your head will be destroyed.”  Taken at face value, his words seem betrayed by the stories of martyrs throughout the centuries.  But the life that he promises to secure is not natural life but eternal life.  The indestructible hair eluded to must be body parts that will be enhanced not diminished as a saint is inducted into glory.

This may sound surreal.  Persecution and death are no small matters to be marginalized by anticipating future gain.  They necessitate a deep commitment to the truth which is Christ.  He opens us to God’s love which alone can make a hero of any of us. 

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Tuesday of the Thirty-fourth Week in Ordinary Time

(Daniel 2:31-45; Luke 21:5-11)

The United States, as powerful a nation as it is, cannot control the course of history.  It has had a most difficult time trying to stop Iran from building a nuclear weapon.  Efforts at negotiation have been hampered by the distrust Iran has felt since 1953 when America and England orchestrated the murder of Iran’s democratically-elected prime minister.   After the traumas in Iraq and Afghanistan along with the setback in Iran, the United States must reassess its purposes as the prophet Daniel proposes in today’s first reading.

The Book of the Prophet Daniel is more historical novel than Israelite prophecy.  Yet there is real truth in its message.  In today’s reading the book’s protagonist warns the king of Babylonia that his rule is soon to come to its end.  However, the author (whoever he may be) has all the rulers of the earth in mind.  His message is that they should not strive to conquer more lands but to establish justice where they rule.  Such statesmanship is necessary because in the end God will judge the nations.  In the author’s prophetic imagination, God’s kingdom is the stone that becomes a mountain filling the whole earth.

Americans have cause to be grateful for the blessings heaped upon their country.  In its best days the United States has responded graciously by contributing to a better world.  Certainly standing up to the tyranny in the Soviet Union benefited all humanity.  But Americans should not think that their country’s every initiative is just.  Its leaders have spawned injustice in certain times and places for which they are subject to God’s judgment. 

Monday, November 25, 2013

Monday of the Thirty-fourth Week in Ordinary Time

(Daniel 1:1-6.8-20; Luke 21:1-4)

The Book of the Prophet Daniel is misplaced alongside of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel.  Where the latter exhort the people of Israel to change their ways or suffer God’s wrath, Daniel tells the story of a Jewish man’s faithfulness and God’s ultimate destruction of his persecutors.  Daniel was written centuries after the events it relates in order to shore up the flagging hopes of Jews under persecution by the Hellenist tyrant Antipas IV Epiphanes.  It is rightly regarded as historical fiction.

Today’s reading from Daniel introduces the main character and his companions.  The moral is self-evident – it is not a superior diet that makes one excel but attention to God’s law. 

Most people today do not suffer the religious persecution of Daniel and friends.  Yet there is a cultural imperialism promoting casual sex and the marginalization of religion to be dealt with.  Daniel serves us also an example of faithfulness to God in an age that would just as soon forget His presence.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Memorial of Saint Cecilia, martyr

(I Maccabees 4:36-37.52-59; Luke 19:45-48)

Today’s first reading from I Maccabees gives the biblical reference for the contemporary Jewish celebration of Hanukkah.   The passage tells of how the Jews burnt offerings and sang hymns of praise for eight days to celebrate the rededication of the Temple 165 years or so before Jesus’ birth.  According to one tradition after plans for the festivity were decreed, the people discovered that there was only enough consecrated oil left to burn for one day.  Undeterred, they went ahead with the celebration as planned and to their amazement found the oil burning for the full eight days.  For this reason Hanukkah is sometimes called the “Feast of Lights.”  As a testimony to the miracle of the oil, Jews today will eat fried foods throughout the eight-day celebration of Hanukkah.

Jesus not only celebrated the Feast of the Dedication of the Temple, as Hanukkah is more traditionally named, he had a great sensibility for the Temple as the meeting place of God and humanity.  For this reason he chases the money changers from its confines as today’s gospel relates.  His followers later noted how Jesus himself is the prime referent for the human encounter with God and in this sense has replaced the Temple.  Nevertheless, Christians still need places to pray so they construct temples, which in English at least are usually called churches.  But at the dedication of Catholic churches it is always Jesus who is glorified.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Memorial of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary

(I Maccabees 2:15-29; Luke 19:41-44)

With secure ways to imprison violent convicts most Western countries and many American states have abandoned capital punishment for most crimes.  The exception to this rule is treason which still carries the death penalty in states like Michigan, the first English-speaking jurisdiction to ban it for other felonies.  These facts provide context to understanding the two killings that shock sensitive readers in the passage from I Maccabees today.

Mattathias takes the lives of a Jew who was offering an illegitimate sacrifice and of the king’s messenger, probably not Jewish, who is promoting the abominable sacrifices.  At least the death of his first victim is mandated by the Law (Deuteronomy 13:7-10).  But both killings should be taken as legitimate execution.  Just as some contemporary jurisdictions treat treason as the only capital crime, sacrifice to idols in ancient Israel is uniquely offensive.  It violates the Covenant in a way that not only affronts the Lord but diminishes the people’s faith, which is necessary for Israel’s survival.

Although we cannot commend actions such as Mattathias’ if done today, we should be cautious about condemning the Jewish hero.  Jesus never faces such a critical situation although he does use force in cleansing the Temple.  It is his teaching, however, that inclines us to veer away from capital punishment.  He implores us to love our enemy, which does not preclude putting him to death, but certainly bids mercy.  Capital punishment, as the Church teaches, is a penalty of last resort when the common good is genuinely and severely threatened.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Wednesday of the Thirty-third Week in Ordinary Time

(II Maccabees 7:1.20-31; Luke 19:11-28)

Author Flannery O’Connor once wrote that she was a Catholic “not like someone else would be a Baptist or a Methodist, but like someone else would be an atheist.”  This is to say that she would do more than go to church on Sunday but would invest herself in her religion by defending it and showing how it makes the most sense.  Jesus’ parable in today’s gospel exhorts his followers to do something similar.

The parable is as disturbing as it is revealing.  Why is the dimwit who doesn’t invest his gold coin treated so roughly?  Why are those who did not want the noblemen as their king slaughtered?  There are no good answers to these questions because they are irrelevant.  As in many other parables Jesus is not advocating that his hearers imitate the examples he makes.  Rather he wants them to take note of the situation at hand.  The Kingdom of God is breaking into the world.  One can either seize the opportunity and be abundantly rewarded or pass it by.  There is a third option – to reject the presence of the Kingdom -- which is tantamount to self-destruction.

Catholicism has so much to offer humans not because every Catholic is perfect or even good but because the Church presents the opportunity to know Christ both physically and spiritually.  We know him through the saintliness of many fellow travelers, people like Pope Francis.  We also know him in the sacraments where he heals and nourishes us.  Of course, we know him in the gospels and also in the truths that have been handed down through his apostles and their successors.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Tuesday of the Thirty-third Week in Ordinary Time

(II Maccabees 6:18-31; Luke 19:1-10)

There is a cliché saying that old age with all its limitations is better than the alternative, meaning death.  Eleazar in the reading from II Maccabees today disproves that line.  At once he shows where true glory lies and how to attain it.

The situation is hardly impossible although it may seem far-fetched in many societies today.  Eleazar is coaxed to fake eating pork, prohibited in the Jewish diet, in order to conform to the dictates of the cultural imperialists of his time.  Made wise with his years, Eleazar realizes that old men and women are to teach youth the virtues of loyalty and devotion.  Even though it will cost him his life, he knows that he must not lead younger people astray by pretending to eat the tabooed meat.  Of course, he realizes as well that his persecutors could only spare his physical life.  They cannot bestow upon him eternal life which comes as a gift from God to those who do his will.

Too often today old people emulate youth rather than vice versa.  It is not that young people have nothing to teach the elderly.  Some demonstrate edifying toleration for different kinds of people that is worthy of imitation.  Nevertheless, as we grow old, we hopefully become wise and pass our wisdom to younger generations.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Monday of the Thirty-third Week in Ordinary Time

(I Maccabees 1:10-15.41-43.54-57.62-63; Luke 18:35-43)

Last week the bishops of the United States made another appeal to Catholics regarding religious freedom.  The bishops believe that the right of Catholics to practice their faith is being restricted by the federal government’s new health care law.  The law will obligate Catholic agencies and employers to provide insurance for such treatments as contraception, abortifacient drugs and devices, and sterilization.  The bishops feel some of the outrage of the Book of Maccabees in the first reading today.

Maccabees recounts how the Greek king Antiochus Epiphanes imposed pagan customs on the people of Israel.  Claiming the need for national unity, Antiochus violated the Temple and destroyed copies of Sacred Scripture.  According to the reading, the king ordered that Jews disregard their Law which made them God’s holy people.  The story of how good Jews defied the king’s commands will be told for the rest of the week.

Some people claim that the issues involved in the health care act do not force Catholics to give direct support to evil.  But it does mandate complicity in what the Church has judged wrong for centuries.  The bishops are making a stand on a critical principle.  As they say in their statement, they are four square in favor of genuine health care for the poor.  Nevertheless, Catholics and people of other faith traditions  must be allowed not just to go to church on Friday, Saturday, or Sunday but to practice their faith every day of the week.  

Friday, November 15, 2013

(Optional) Memorial of Saint Albert the Great, bishop

(Wisdom  13:1-9; Luke 17:26-37)

He criticized his teacher (of sorts), Aristotle, and bowed to his pupil, Aquinas.  He resigned from his position of Master of the Dominican Order and also from the bishopric of Regensburg.  He was at one time a master scientist, philosopher, and theologian.  St. Albert the Great deserves recognition in an age that thrives on scientific insight.

It is said that St. Albert is called “the Great” because he knew so much.  It could be said as well that he was great because he never allowed his learning to trivialize his quest for God.  Albert knew how to distinguish the Creator from creation as the first reading from the Book of Wisdom admonishes today.  He knew further how to find God among the many counterfeits that existed in the Middle Ages as well as today. 

Albert the Great offers to us a model of humility, of dedication to truth, and of loyalty to friends.  In an age when humility is eschewed, truth is relativized, and loyalty is often neglected Albert stands tall as a patron to be emulated.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Thursday of the Thirty-second Week in Ordinary Time

(Wisdom 7:22b-8:1; Luke 17:17-25)

The man, humbled by years in prison, declared that he took special note of Jesus saying, “The kingdom of God is within you.”  This is a possible rendering of a sentence from today’s gospel which the New American Bible renders as “…the Kingdom of God is among you.”  Self-help promoters prefer the former translation because it underlies the vast human potential available when people discipline their appetites and focus on what they wish to achieve.  But does it render completely satisfactorily what Jesus means by the presence of the Kingdom of God?

Pope Benedict in the first volume of his trilogy on Christ calls the Kingdom of God none other than God Himself.  Yes, God does lie within every righteous person but what Jesus wants to convey is that God has come to the world to arrest the forces of darkness and to bring reconcile sinners to Himself and to one another.  God has arrived precisely in his messenger-son, Jesus Christ, who dies as humanity’s servant.  Tying ourselves to Jesus by Baptism and the Eucharist, we are freed from the dominance of the ego and can submit ourselves gladly to the ways of divine love. 

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Memorial of Saint Frances Cabrini, virgin

(Wisdom 6:1-11; Luke 17:11-19)

During the Viet Nam War, President Lyndon Johnson once was handed a memo concerning the pros and cons of using tactical nuclear weapons.  According to his Secretary of State, Dean Rusk, the memo stated that use of such weapons would move China to enter the war with its own nuclear weapons starting a full-fledged nuclear war.  Rusk later reported that the words of the memo “popped out of the page” to Johnson who as President of the United States felt responsibility for not just his country but for the world. 

The reading from Wisdom tells us that princes and kings (and we can surely add to the list presidents and prime ministers) should indeed feel grave responsibility for their actions.  It emphasizes that the burdens of their offices will not exempt them from divine judgment.  Rather those responsibilities will entail God’s intensified scrutiny of their actions. 

The Church recognizes the responsibilities and difficulties of civil leaders.  Together with prayers for Church needs, the General Instructions for the Roman Missal (GIRM for short) specifies that the faithful are to pray for “public authorities and the salvation of the world” in the intercessions after the homily.  Although there are always those who think that they can do a better job, we are wise to pray for those in power rather than covet their positions.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Memorial of Saint Josaphat, bishop and martyr

(Wisdom 2:23-3:9; Luke 17:7-10)

Although some people have poor self-images, most think of themselves as better than they actually are.  Some have exalted self-images.  Not long ago The Atlantic magazine published a story on Donald Trump showing that although certainly a multimillionaire, he is not as rich and successful as he claims to be.  Jesus tells his apostles in the gospel today that they must take care not to exaggerate their importance.

Jesus sounds almost ruthless as he warns against pride.  He says that his followers should not think that they are owed even a “thank you” for performing a good deed.  Rather they are to think of themselves only as workers doing their jobs, no more.  In fact, he says that they are to be so humble that they should consider themselves “unprofitable servants,” more tolerated by their master out of good will than really valuable to him.

Such self-effacement provides a needed corrective to most of our egos.  But we should not think of Jesus as a hard master.  In an earlier passage of this same gospel Jesus described himself as one day returning from a banquet and finding his servants at their posts.  He said that he will do what no other master would even think of: “’Amen, I say to you, he (really, I) will gird himself (myself), have them recline at table, and proceed to wait on them'” (12:37).

Monday, November 11, 2013

Memorial of Saint Martin of Tours, bishop

(Wisdom 1:1-7; Luke 17:1-6)

It seems ironic that the memorial of St. Martin of Tours, the icon of pacifist saints, is celebrated on the day given to remember war veterans.  Yet the juxtaposition of events for November 11 was not done cynically, but by coincidence.  Martin’s traditional feast day happened to be the day World War I ended.  Perhaps, though, the two remembrances are not as incongruous as they appear.

Martin was once a soldier as was his pagan father.  When he became a Christian, he thought his profession incompatible with the faith and resigned from the army.  Whether it was because of the possibility of entering mortal combat or because of other behaviors characteristic of military life, history appears silent.  It should be said, however, that often the most valiant soldiers eschew killing.  They will fight only out of love for justice as the reading from the Book of Wisdom today recommends.

Martin too loved justice.  He did not want to see the heretic Priscillian executed for his false teaching as the emperor demanded.  Rather, he thought that the state should stay out of the Church’s business.  He was at once a man of great capacity and humble aspirations.  He is rightly celebrated as one of the holiest men of the Patristic Age.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Friday of the Thirty-first Week in Ordinary Time

(Romans 15:14-21; Luke 16:1-8)

When baseball player Grant Desme gave up the very real possibility of joining the Oakland Athletics to study for the priesthood, some probably said that he was following a “higher calling.”  Priesthood has traditionally been considered a way to serve God in a noble way.  Even in St. Paul’s time this was true as he intimates in the reading from his Letter to the Romans today.

Paul writes that in preaching the gospel he is performing a “priestly service.”  He doesn’t mean that he is acting like an ordained priest in the contemporary sense but that in facilitating the self-sacrifice of the pagans to Christ, he is serving like an Old Testament priest.  The fact that Paul mentions it at the culmination of his letter indicates that he too considers the work a “higher calling.”

The same calling is available to all of us.  In responding to the challenge of the New Evangelization, we help others find their way to Christ.  This priestly ministry is not foreign or out of character to laypersons.  Rather as baptized members of Christ’s body we share in his priestly office.  

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Thursday of the Thirty-first Week in Ordinary Time

(Romans 14:7-12; Luke 15:1-10)

St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans ends with what is called a paraclesis.  This Greek word means exhortation.  What we know as chapters 12 to 15 of Romans provides a moral exhortation on how to live the faith so vibrantly expressed in chapters 1 to 11.  In no way does Paul mean to separate morality from faith in Jesus.  Quite the contrary, he wants to show how the former flows from the latter.

In today’s first reading Paul shows how Christians do not live for themselves but for one another.  They all belong to Christ’s body and, therefore, should be wary of making superficial judgments of one another.  They are further reminded that the Lord will judge them on the basis of their fairness in judging others.

Often Catholics view Church moral teachings like the prohibition of artificial contraception as rules imposed arbitrarily by bishops to protect the people from flirting with evil.  This is not true.  Of course, pastors do not want their people to court sinfulness, but Church moral teaching flows from its understanding of what God has ordained for His people.  Once again, it is a matter of morality flowing from faith.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Wednesday of the Thirty-first Week in Ordinary Time

(Romans 13:8-10; Luke 14:25-33)

Gospel commentators call Jesus’ saying that his followers are to hate their families a Semiticism.”  This term means the way Jesus’ contemporaries expressed themselves in their own language.  Evidently the Aramaic language, which Jesus spoke, did not use comparatives.  For Jesus to mean that his disciples had to love him more than their families, he had to say that they were to love him and to hate their families.  Of course, he never intended that they were to scorn their loved ones.  After all, how could Jesus -- who taught about the primacy of love long before St. Paul wrote about it to the Romans – want us, his followers, to literally hate those who mean the most to us? 

But still some of us may have trouble with the idea of loving Jesus more than our children and our parents, to say nothing of our spouses.  “How could we do that?” we might ask.  The answer is both simple and hopeful.  First, we can and should love Jesus above all because he is so good – really perfect.  Then, by loving Jesus above all, we actually love our children, our parents, and our spouses not less but better.  Primary allegiance to Jesus means doing what is truly good for all.  We will not confuse indulgence with care and give in to the whims of our children.  We will not accept the prejudices that lived in our parents’ home but treat all people with respect.  We will not allow communication with our spouses to shrivel but make a continued effort to express our thoughts and feelings. 

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Tuesday of the Thirty-first Week in Ordinary Time

(Romans 12:5-16ab; Luke 14:15-24)

In Seven Habits for Highly Effective People management guru Stephen Covey sets keeping the end in mind as one of the highest priorities.  Effective people know where they are going and organize their resources to get there.  Jesus gives a similar rule of success in the gospel today.

The passage begins with a pious comment, “Blessed is the one who will dine in the kingdom of God.”  A place at the table in God’s house is the goal of every Christian at least as a Christian.  Unfortunately, she or he often lets other concerns obstruct the way to that table.  Jesus tells a parable of people invited to a dinner party who allow business and family interests get in their way of accepting the invitation.  Just as they lose their chance of enjoying the feast, those who put work or relatives ahead of doing God’s will are not to share in salvation.

Usually we have little trouble honoring God and attending to business.  God often blesses those who abide by His will with success in their work and happiness in their homes.  Still at times there may be a conflict of interests; for example, a man grapples with the option of padding his expense account to provide more income for his family and being strictly honest.  This is really no dilemma for the one who has set his sights squarely on the Kingdom of God.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Memorial of Saint Charles Borromeo, bishop

(Romans 11:29-36; 14:12-14)

When Pope Francis tells bishops to refrain from trips abroad to be with their people, he is echoing an abuse prevalent in the Renaissance church.  Bishops of remote dioceses would live in the great cities of the time spending the money of the people they left behind.  This kind of abuse triggered the Protestant reformation and the vigorous Catholic reform from within directed by the Council of Trent.  St. Charles Borromeo, whom we remember today, was one of the leaders of the latter movement.

In some ways Charles was not a likely candidate for leading reform.  Born into a prominent Italian family, he was chosen by his uncle, Pope Pius IV, to be a cardinal and the administrator of the diocese of Milan at twenty-two years of age – a clear case of nepotism.  However, Charles not only took part in the Tridentine Council but vigorously instituted its reforms by establishing seminaries and religious education for children.  When the plague ravished Milan, he personally saw to the care of the sick-poor.

St. Paul writes in the first reading “how unsearchable are (God’s) ways!”  We should recognize that God often works beyond the norms that we impose on reality to produce good where it is unexpected.  This is not to say that we shouldn’t have norms like “no more nepotism” but to caution us from judging any situation differing with our norms as inherently bad.