Monday, March 3, 2014

(Optional) Memorial of St. Katharine Drexel, virgin

(I Peter 1:3-9; Mark 10:17-27)

Disciples are, it might be said, drafted by Jesus.  They receive a calling and are expected to present themselves promptly.  Jesus himself distinguishes this summons from the military draft.  He provides the companionship which is of far greater value then gold.  Unfortunately, the man in the gospel reading today fails to recognize this fact and retreats at Jesus’ beckoning.

St. Katharine Drexel, whose feast day is celebrated today, eagerly responded to a similar call.  Born into a wealthy family in the nineteenth century, Katharine entered the convent when she was thirty.  Eventually, she founded her own congregation dedicated to assisting native- and African-Americans.  She used her substantial inheritance for this purpose.

Most of us want to live normal lives.  We hope to have a family, a house and a car, plus some expendable income for McDonald’s or maybe Olive Garden.  Few, in the United States at least, would call these expectations ambitious.  But Jesus may be summoning us to something else.  Like the man in the gospel and St. Katharine Drexel, he might be calling us to follow him in a radical way.  If we take up the offer, we may not sleep quite as comfortably as others, but we are more likely to thank God when day is done.

Friday, February 28, 2014

Friday of the Seventh Week in Ordinary Time

(James 5:9-12; Mark 10:1-12)

Divorce occurs more frequently than anyone likes.  The couple may have married without knowing each other well or without knowing themselves.  Their individual lives may have been on completely different trajectories that they were unable to harmonize.  Whatever its reason, divorce leaves behind wreckage.  One of the partners is usually devastated with the sense of betrayal.  Children rightly feel the loss of love and often enough are relegated to poverty.  But it is not precisely for these reasons that Jesus condemns divorce in the gospel today.

Jesus denounces divorce because it violates God’s plan for the world.  In creating men and women as complimentary beings whose coming together transmits life to others, God constructs the basic cell of human society.  Its full realization, however, is not a momentary achievement but requires continual attention and sacrifice -- qualities that virtually define love. Only with healthy cells replicated a billion times around the world, will there be a civilization implicitly worthy of the name.

In the first reading the Letter of James tells us that our “Yes” must mean “Yes.”  This admonition is hardly ever more important than in marriage.  Yet it is not enough for marriages to succeed.  Beyond fidelity, we must give of ourselves significantly so that others as well as ourselves may thrive.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Thursday of the Seventh Week in Ordinary Time

(James 5:16; Mark 9:41-50)

Pope Francis seems to make headlines every day.  This past weekend in his meeting with the cardinals of the Church he reminded the elite group that their purpose is to serve not to set up court.  They, like all of Christ's disciples, are called to poverty, regardless of the popular conception that they are "princes of the Church."  In today's gospel Jesus reviews the rewards and the risks of being his disciple.

A noted Catholic biblical theologian has shown how the call to discipleship does not apply to all of Jesus' followers, at least in the same manner.  In the gospels Jesus calls his disciples specifically.  They are not to dally but to respond immediately.  They must face the rough road ahead without looking back.  In short, the physical contours of a disciple’s life are formidable.  But not everything on the agenda will challenge their mettle. In today's passage Jesus assures his disciples that they might expect a cup of water from some good people. At the same time, however, he also warns them to take special care not to sin or give scandal.  He calls their desire to follow him salt flavoring fish.  It will appeal to others.  But let it wane and, like salt losing acridity, they could serve only the most menial of purposes.

Are we Jesus' hard-core disciples?  It is not a matter of being a priest or religious but of our relationship to the Lord.  If we live for him, striving both to know him better and to follow his commands, we belong to the chosen group.  If we live more for ourselves, then we should pray for help to change our ways.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Wednesday of the Seventh Week in Ordinary Time

(James 4:13-17; Mark 9:38-40)

Last week Pope Francis again made a gesture that caught the attention of international news.  As many know, Pope Francis has good relations with evangelical Protestants.  Once he knelt before a number of evangelical ministers asking sat their blessing.  Last week he asked a convention of evangelicals to pray for him as he works for Christian unity.  Some worry that in appealing to Protestants Pope Francis might compromise Catholic doctrine, but he sees himself following Jesus’ mandate in today's gospel.

The situation recorded in the gospel sounds more like the period of the early church than Jesus' time.  Christianity is a growing movement.  Many Greek-speaking pagans and some Jews are being baptized.  But, as inevitably happens within established churches, not all are satisfied with institutional leaders.  They leave their communities to form new ones professing faith in Jesus but not following the directives of his apostles or their designated successors.  Foreseeing the development, Jesus warns his disciples not to persecute the upstarts.

Pope Francis may be telling us that we should not only pray for church unity but pray for it with Christians who do not come to our parishes.  The prayer may be offered in homes and in workplaces.  Pastors may organize special prayer meetings with counterparts from other Christian communities that could take place in a Catholic church or in a Protestant one.

Tuesday, February 25, 2013

Tuesday of the Seventh Week in Ordinary Time

(James 4:1-10; Mark 9:30-37)

Aldous Huxley published Brave New World in 1932 as a warning for the future.  He predicted the hedonism of gratuitous sex and drugs that has become reality.  At the end of the novel the main character is seen whipping himself in an effort to beat back desires of the flesh.  The passage from the Letter of James that we hear today relates a similar message as Brave New World. 

The writer is intensely aware of the power of carnal desires to overwhelm wisdom and even rationality.  Quite shockingly, after addressing his readers as “beloved” at the beginning, he calls them “adulterers” in this passage to impress on them the urgency of the situation.  He cuts no slack for delay or tolerance.  Rather he admonishes, Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you of two minds.” 

If we are to preserve ourselves for the coming of Jesus Christ, we must act as James exhorts his readers.  Whipping ourselves is unnecessary, but occasional fasting and constant vigilance over what we look at should become norms.  Beyond individual discipline, we need to inculcate a culture of human dignity and respect.  Such a culture would ban the death penalty as well as abortion.  It would also encourage everyone to strive for the common good.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Monday of the Seventh Week in Ordinary Time

(James 3:13-18; Mark 9:14-29)

A glioblastoma is a malignant brain tumor for which there is no known cure.  It is the cancer that caused the death of Senator Ted Kennedy.  Victims of glioblastomas often feel so desperate that they will try anything.  The man whose son is possessed in the gospel today is driven by such a sense of powerlessness when he comes to Jesus.

However, he first meets Jesus’ disciples.  They have cast out devils on their apostolic journeys, but evidently they have limited power to do so.  Jesus tells them at the end of the gospel that some cases require “prayer” by which he probably means the most intense of kinds like takes place between him and the Father.  Jesus responds to man’s request for help even though the man admits a lack of belief.  He casts out the devil to everyone’s edification. 

What disturbs us about the passage is Jesus’ impatience over people’s lack of faith.  We might ask if unbelief is not understandable after the attempted genocides of the last century.  Perhaps it is, but maybe the same atrocities give even more reason to cling to Jesus.  By his death he liberated his disciples from false hopes.  His care has been forwarded to us so that we might assist others.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Friday of the Sixth Week in Ordinary Time

(James 2:14-24.26; Mark 8:34-9:1)

Most people today would say that great non-Christian humanists like Socrates and Maimonides have a place in eternal life.  Yet  a century ago Christians would have despaired of their salvation because they were never baptized.  Of course, who’s in and who’s out of heaven is up to God, but ever since Vatican II Catholics are eager to give people such as these the benefit of the doubt.  The first reading today may be employed for argumentation.

Of course, James is not making a case for salvation of non-Christians.  He is merely saying that a professed faith alone is not enough to gain eternal life.  One must animate that faith by works of charity.  James is actually refuting radical interpretations of St. Paul’s doctrine of justification.  But even Paul would admit that belief without love is as sterile as reading a book in an unknown language.  Today the opposite claim is made: that good works are all that is required for salvation.  How does this come about?  Works of charity imply faith in God who commands love of neighbor.

We should not presume salvation because one performs random acts of kindness just as we cannot exclude it because another lacks a profession of faith.  We are wise to look for coherency and consistency.  When one practices charity regularly, he or she likely does so from a system of values that approximates faith in Jesus.  

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Thursday of the Sixth Week in Ordinary Time

(James 2:1-9; Mark 8:27-33)

In a disturbing book published a few years ago sociologist Charles Murray wrote that the rich are more likely to have Christian values than the poor.  That is, they are more likely to go to church, to get married, and to work than their poor counterparts.  The report raises the question about how to respond to James’ assertion in today’s first reading that the poor, not the rich, deserve praise.

James is making a sweeping but not inherently unfair generalization that the poor are often ignored while the rich receive most people’s favor.  As everyone knows, the rich have fluid resources (money) that might be employed for any cause.  The poor on the other hand  have problems that are hard to deal with.  Yet the poor are not only created in the image of God, but they also represent Christ who walked the earth as a poor man.  James urges that Christians concern themselves with their needs at least as much as they court the rich for possible favors.

For decades faith based community organizing linked church-goers from well-to-do areas with the inner-city faithful in alliances working for the common good.  The results were both tangible and spiritual.  Laws were passed that improved community life, and people of all stripes knew one another as colleagues.  Sadly many of these coalitions fell apart from the lack of a coherent political vision.  Somehow the spirit of the community organizations must be revived to allow the poor to thrive along with the rich in the sight of God.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Wednesday of the Sixth Week in Ordinary Time

(James 1:19-27; Mark 8:22-26)

Faith is said to be a new way of seeing.  One sees through the empty promises of sin to the care which Jesus exemplifies.  Today’s gospel demonstrates faith taking shape in two stages.  In the first, preliminary stage Jesus rubs spittle on a blind man’s eyes.   He sees, but weirdly.  Then Jesus touches the man’s eyes again causing him to distinguish clearly.  The first stage of the cure represents the insufficient way Jesus’ disciples accept him as Messiah.  They see him as a warrior who will somehow ignite a revolution to liberate Israel from foreign rule.  In the second stage the disciples see Jesus for whom he really is – the suffering servant who will sacrifice himself to free humanity from enslavement to sin.

The coming to a deeper, truer faith in Jesus is replicated in many persons’ lives.  One woman lived what today is a rather common life.  She had sexual relations with her boyfriend, whom she eventually married, and submitted herself to the man’s whims.  Then, taking her baptismal faith seriously, she repented of the reckless life she had and became an exemplary Christian, wife, and mother. 

We too want to move to a deeper relation of faith in Jesus.  Our avenue is prayer – speaking to Jesus from the heart and listening to him in the gospel.  Such faith allows us to put everything in proper perspective.  It enables us, like the man Jesus cures in the gospel, to see clearly. 

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Tuesday of the Sixth Week in Ordinary Time

(James 1:12-18; Mark 8:14-21)

The Letter of James is often said to counterbalance the Letters of St. Paul where the latter emphasizes faith as the sole criteria for salvation.  James says in distinction that unless faith is lived in charity, it is useless.  In today’s passage James corrects another frequently misunderstood dictum in Scripture.

In the “Our Father” Jesus teaches his disciples to pray, “’Lead us not into temptation…’” Is he implying that God might tempt people to sin as a lustful young man might tempt his date into his apartment?  That cannot happen, and James intends to chase the idea from people’s mind lest they make excuses for their sins.

Nevertheless, Jesus’ prayer has real meaning.  God seems to permit that humans be tried until their faith is about to break.  Parents suffer the loss of children, and the lonely feel drawn to ruinous pleasures.  At these junctures we should cling to James’ advice.  He says that God created us in love and will provide the means to overcome all threats to our salvation.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Monday of the Sixth Week in Ordinary Time

(James 1:12-18; Mark 8:14-21)

Jesus’ statement in the gospel that no sign will be given to the people of his generation sounds odd.  He has already worked many marvelous deeds in Mark’s story, which John’s gospel name as “signs.”  What Jesus may be saying is that nothing will be done that the Pharisees will recognize as signs.  This is so because the Pharisees brashly demand a special demonstration of divine authority as if they were immigration officers checking travel documents.  But it is God’s prerogative, not man’s, to seek verification of another’s authenticity.

People today also challenge God to work a wonder so that they might believe.  They confess that they no longer believe because God took their child or because God did not come to assist them in need.  It seems that they also forget who is who.  God has the sovereign right to demand faith from human beings or at least openness to belief.  He does not take orders from human beings although He wants subjects to come to Him plaintively and confidently as a child might approach her father with the request for lunch money.

We should not hesitate to go to God with our needs, even the small ones.  But let our request for help always be framed on one side by the willingness to accept His will and on the other by the assurance that He will never abandon us.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Memorial of Saints Cyril, monk, and Methodius, bishop

 (I Kings 11:29-32.12:19; Mark 7:31-37)

Although today, Valentine’s Day, is commonly associated with erotic love, the feast has saintly origins.  There are several versions of the story of the ancient martyr, St. Valentine, and probably for this reason the Church has dropped the feast from its calendar and has reassigned the day to the less primitive Saints Cyril and Methodius.  In Latin countries the day is frequently called Día de Amistad, or Day of Friendship, celebrating the love between friends as much as the love between sweethearts.  Here we may see a link between the legendary martyr(s) of old and the two official saints of the day.

 Cyril and Methodius were brothers who ventured from their native Greece to the Slavic nations of the Ukraine and Moravia in the ninth century.  They had positions in teaching and government before becoming missionaries.  Why did they leave their careers to preach the gospel in foreign lands?  Could it have been anything other than love of Christ?  Sure missionaries have a sense of adventure, but they make a new home in a new place among new people because they sense Jesus urging them on.  As any good friend, he inspires them, invigorates them, and cares for them.

 Jesus is our friend as well.  He might be whispering in our ear to become foreign missionaries, but more likely he wants us to preach to those who surround us today.  Of course, he does not want us to harangue anyone, quite the contrary.  He asks us to share his joy, his peace, and his love.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Thursday of the Fifth Week in Ordinary Time

(I Kings 11:4-13; Mark 7:24-30)

Inhabitants of the Northern Hemisphere are beginning to think about their summer vacation.  Spending two to three of recreation in another locale has become so much part of the contemporary way of life that months of planning and sizeable resources are given to the project.  In the gospel Jesus seems to be taking a vacation which explains part of his reluctance to assist the Greek woman.

Mark writes that Jesus hopes to escape notice when he enters a house in in the foreign city of Tyre.  He is probably worn out from intensive preaching and the never ending stream of sick persons seeking his cures.  Although he is not inclined to see more people now, he has a better reason for not going to the woman’s bedeviled daughter. He can honestly tell the woman that his mission is to Israel, not for the moment to the world.  But the woman refuses rejection.  She calls Jesus “Lord” and indicates that she would accept any assistance that he might give.  Ever merciful, Jesus acknowledges her faith by granting her daughter deliverance.

Faith proves to be a critical element in experiencing the Kingdom of God.  Faith tells us not to dictate completely what Jesus is to do for us although there is nothing wrong with some specificity regarding our needs.  More importantly, we are to trust implicitly in his love for us.  Almost certainly then we will experience wonders. 

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Wednesday of the Fifth Week in Ordinary Time

(I Kings 10:1010; Mark 7:14-23)

Abraham Lincoln was born two hundred and five years ago today.  Of all the American presidents he is regarded as the wisest.  In his second inaugural address he displays a depth of wisdom that few political leaders anywhere have matched.  Rather than tout the righteousness of his victorious side in the great civil war, Lincoln recognized the whole nation’s complexity in evil and appealed to God for mercy.  Promising “charity toward all and malice toward none,” Lincoln gave direction to the enormous healing needed of all the wounds the war inflicted.  Lincoln capably followed in the path of righteousness that Solomon sets in today’s first reading.

The Bible Solomon the personification of wisdom.  Not only does the Queen of Sheba make the paean to his wisdom as the reading records, but he is associated with almost every wisdom book in the Old Testament.  Solomon’s wisdom begins with the essentials—one must fear the Lord and follow in His ways.  In time love for the Lord will replace fear and the need for law will be diminished, but for the unruly majority of human beings, fear and law remain foundational.

The Bible almost implores us to seek wisdom.  Unfortunately, many would rather be rich or wealthy or young.  Wisdom, however, brings us happiness at every stage of life.  Because it is such a favorable companion, it is well characterized as one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Tuesday of the Fifth Week in Ordinary Time

(I Kings 8:22-23.27-30; Mark 7:1-13)

The woman was upset with the Church when her son was told that he could not have his wedding at a garden ceremony.  She reasoned that if the Church allows mass to be celebrated in a home, it could permit weddings wherever the couple wished.  But the Church insists that weddings be done in a sacred space to underscore the sacred covenant of marriage.  In his prayer that comprises the first reading today Solomon asks a question pertinent to the issue.

The king prays: “’Can it indeed be that God dwells among men on earth?  If the heavens cannot contain you, how much less this temple which I have built!’”  Solomon realizes that God is not confined to the holy place that he has constructed.  Yet he knows that the temple raises minds and hearts to God with its lofty walls and arched ceiling.  He would say that when the temple reminds people of God’s closeness, it fulfills his purpose.

Everything on earth may be a sacrament connecting us with God, but there are also many elements that distract us from considering Him.  Temples and churches generally avoid the ambiguity.  We are wise to follow Solomon’s lead of praying that God watch over our churches so that people will always raise prayers within their walls that He can answer. 

Monday, February 10, 2014

Memorial of Saint Scholastica, virgin

(I Kings 8:1-7.9-13; Mark 6:53-56)

One noted literary critic considered Wallace Stevens the best American poet of his generation.  But Stevens hardly appeared to be a poet to most of the people in his daily life.  He lived in Hartford, Connecticut, where, like many, Stevens worked for an insurance company.  Even after being awarded a Pulitzer Prize and offered a faculty position at Harvard University, Stevens chose to remain in Hartford as an insurance executive.  As much as Stevens wanted to hide the identity that has made him famous, he appears like Jesus in the Gospel of Mark.

In today’s passage people come to Jesus looking to be cured of their illnesses.  The text indicates that none were disappointed.  But, of course, Jesus’ benefit only begins with physical healing.  He comes to save them from the folly of sin.  He not only teaches them by thought and deed, but in confronting and defeating the triumvirate of sin – Jewish pride, Roman cruelty, his follower’s cowardice – Jesus has won for those who believe in him freedom from the effects of sin.

We too often look to Jesus to help us in our need.  We ask him to cure our illnesses and to assist us in the turmoil of life.  Like a true friend, he helps us in these situations.  But even when we cannot feel his hand on our shoulder guiding us, we know that he is there taking us beyond the limitations of our sin into the realm of his eternal love.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Friday of the Fourth Week in Ordinary Time

(Sirach 47:2-11; Mark 6:14-29)

The word enigma comes from a Greek word meaning riddle.  An enigma is more than what meets the eye.  Or, we might say, an enigma confounds the eye.  To some Senator Ted Kennedy was an enigma.  He seemed legitimately concerned about the poor and defenseless – immigrants, the uninsured, and children in substandard schools, for example.  But he refused to defend the unborn, certainly among the most vulnerable of all human beings.  In the first half of the narratives of Mark’s gospel, Jesus also appears to observers as enigmatic. 

In the first seven chapters of the gospel Jesus works wonders and confronts hypocrites like the prophet Elijah.  He announces the coming God’s kingdom like John the Baptist.  Demons know his true identity, but it is elusive to other humans.  Haunted by guilt, Herod Antipas supposes that Jesus must be the reincarnation of the Baptist whose head he had chopped off. 

In the second half of the gospel Peter correctly names Jesus as the Messiah, but no one understands what that term means until he dies on the cross.  Then the Roman centurion, observing his innocence and faithfulness lived out to the last breath, proclaims Jesus the “son of God”.  On the third day Jesus rises from the dead clearing away all doubts about his identity, at least among his followers.  Jesus is no longer an enigma but, indeed, sterling truth whose hand leads us to both dignity and joy. 

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Memorial of Saint Paul Miki and companions, martyrs

 (I Kings 2:1-4.10-12; Mark 6:7-13)

 A famous theologian of the second century (Tertullian) wrote, “The blood of martyrs is the seed of Christians.”  But perhaps it would be more poetically justified to say that the blood of martyrs waters the seed sown by missionaries who are sent forth as Jesus commissions his apostles in today’s gospel.  The preachers assure their hearers of what their hearts are afraid to believe: that the creator loves them so much that he has worked out a way for them to share his eternal life.  This message is then verified by martyrs like St. Paul Miki and his twenty-five companions in Japan at the end of the sixteenth century.  These saints testified to God’s love by choosing death at the hands of the shogun rather than recant their belief in so gracious a creator.  Japanese Christians could not publicly practice their faith in Japan for the next two hundred and fifty years as the country closed itself to the rest of the world.  But when Japan finally welcomed foreigners in the nineteenth century, Christians there numbered more than two hundred thousand! 

 We would be incorrect to think that the age of martyrdom is ended.  Hundreds if not thousands of Christian martyrdoms are documented every year.  These occur largely in Africa and the Middle East.  As always, the victims do not die in vain.  First, they experience eternal life.  Second, their stories germinate the faith in others to accept that same message of God’s efficacious love.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Memorial of Saint Agatha, virgin and martyr

(II Samuel 24:2.9-17; Mark 6:1-6)

By most people’s standards the most challenging moral teaching of the Church in recent times has been its condemnation of artificial contraception.  Married couples find it difficult to see how using one pill to prevent conception violates the natural law while using another to relieve a headache accords with it.  The Church’s response to this apparent paradox looks to the functioning of the body.  In the first case the pill interrupts normal functioning of the body while in the second it enables it.  With such a desirable goal as sexual gratification at stake, the Church’s position does not convince all people.  Perhaps many will have similar trouble recognizing David’s sin in the first reading today.

David wants to take a census of his people.  Primarily, he wants to know the number of men available to fight in his army.  God would be offended because knowing the number of available troops, David will likely become more belligerent.  Also, God recognizes that David no longer looks to Him for strength but to the size of his army.

Trusting in the Lord does not mean abandoning prudence which moves us to act in just ways to accomplish our purpose.  Prudence also inspires prayer for God’s assistance.  Thus, whether we are an army’s general staff preparing for battle or a family planning a family, we should proceed in three ways.  First, we want to pray for help.  Second, we will determine the best way to achieve our goal within the limits of justice.  And finally, we will move to carry out our objective trusting that in the Lord’s favor.   

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Tuesday of the Fourth Week in Ordinary Time

(II Samuel 18:9-10.14b.24-25a.30-19:3; Mark 5:21-43)

The old man was pleased with himself.  He had caught the doctor billing him for treatments that he did not render.  The man saved thousands of dollars by just examining his bills.  Today’s gospel tells the story of a woman who was not so fortunate.  Her doctors had taken all the money she had without giving her any satisfaction.  She now turns to Jesus in her desperation.

Faith in Jesus moves the woman with hemorrhages to touch his garment.  She knows that it is wrong for her to do so because she is unclean according to Jewish law and touching Jesus sullies him as well.  So, when Jesus’ divine power is demonstrated first by being the source of her healing and then by realizing that his healing power was utilized, the woman trembles with fear.  Yet she manages to respond to Jesus’ call, “’Who has touched me?’”  Her courage wins for her a second, deeper blessing.  Jesus grants her salvation.  “’Daughter,’” he says, “’your faith has saved you.’”

We should not be afraid to come to Jesus when we, like the woman with hemorrhages, have done wrong.  We pray to him for strength and we encounter him forthrightly in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.  His words to us will not be different, “Daughter (or son), your faith has saved you.”