Monday, January 22, 2018

(see below for a reflection on the readings of the day)

Day of Prayer for the Legal Protection of Unborn Children

Last Monday the United States celebrated a significant social achievement.  In honoring Dr. Luther King, Jr., the nation recalled with pride its revocation of unjust laws that rendered African-Americans inferior.  Social equality among the races in this land is not perfect, but denying that great progress has been made toward that goal is the rhetoric of fools or of revolutionaries.

As advancements in racial equality were being made, the United States slipped into another kind of moral pitfall. Forty-five years ago today its Supreme Court struck down virtually all laws prohibiting abortion.  The decision has led to the wanton taking of human life at its most defenseless stage – over sixty million human beings!  It has also accelerated sexual promiscuity as most abortions involve unmarried women.  Why else would men and women conspire to allow such a horrific amount of killing if not to assure sexual libertinism?

Since its beginnings, the Church has opposed abortion.  But only in more recent years has it commented on abortion at length.  St. John Paul II was especially articulate in describing the evil.  Our former pope saw the right to life as basic to all other rights.  He said that when a society allows the taking of life at any stage it denies equal protection before the law.  This, of course, is what the African-American quest for racial equality sought.  That project has not yet been completed, but it has even farther to go now than fifty years ago.  Legalized abortion has statistically jeopardized the lives of African-American babies more than of others.

Today we pray for an end to the tragedy of abortion.  We ask God to open the eyes of all to its evil.  We also might resolve to support the right-to-life cause politically, financially, and morally.  It too has extremists with whom we may not wish to associate.  But it also has, in far greater numbers, sainted men and women to whom we owe our allegiance.

Monday of the Third Week in Ordinary Time

(II Samuel 5:1-7.10; Mark 3:22-30)

Last month President Donald Trump announced that the United States recognizes Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.  The declaration caused much criticism since rights over Jerusalem are contested by Israelis and Palestinians.  The beginnings of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital city are found in today’s first reading.

Israel was never a well united nation.  Before David the various tribes claimed different parts of the land.  The united kingdom did not outlive the reign of David’s son Solomon.  But for almost seventy years the southern and northern tribes thrived under these monarchs.  The reading indicates David’s capital from Hebron to Jerusalem corresponded to the unification of the nation.  Jerusalem is farther north and thus closer to the lands of the northern tribes.

We should see Jerusalem as a symbol as much among peoples of different religions as among Jews.  Palestinians with its Muslim majority sees the city as its center.  They still have hopes, as did the United Nations at the time of Israel’s founding, of making Jerusalem an international city.  The United States’ recent recognition of Jerusalem may have been just accepting the de facto reality.  But still the goal, which certainly is our prayer today, is that the city – whose very name is associated with shalom or peace – may become a place where Jews, Muslims, and Christians live peacefully together. 

Friday, January 19, 2018

Friday of the Second Week in Ordinary Time

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

Today’s first reading establishes David as worthy of being Israel’s king.  He has shown military prowess when he slew Goliath.  Now he is pictured as piously refusing to harm the Lord’s anointed one.  Eventually David will falter, but he begins with all the promise of Michelangelo chiseling the “Pieta” in St. Peter’s Basilica.

The disciples whom Jesus chooses as his apostles in today’s gospel similarly have an auspicious start.  They are all Jews but from various backgrounds.  Like young men drafted into the U.S. Army during World War II, they will be molded into a victorious evangelizing force.  But not all of them will make the grade; indeed, they all stumble on the way.  First, Judas will remove himself from the company of apostles by betraying Jesus.  The others will abandon Jesus in the garden with Peter acting especially ignobly afterwards by denying discipleship. 

We have been chosen for glory like David and for evangelizing like the apostles.  Though we may not have been able to give personal assent to this choice at Baptism, we have accepted the Lord into our lives.  We too may falter in carrying out some duties, perhaps grievously like Peter.  But Jesus is ever willing to forgive us.  Then all the more we can proclaim God’s eternal love.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Thursday of the Second Week in Ordinary Time

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

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

Certainly Saul’s son Jonathan better fits the profile of a wise person.  As wisdom seeks the harmony of right order, Jonathan takes pains to reconcile the king with his best warrior.  He reasons with Saul that David is no threat to him.  He also protects David until father promises to do him no harm.  Unfortunately, Saul will allow his envy to reassert itself in a self-defeating manner.  David will once more flee for his life, and Saul and Jonathan will be killed in battle. 

We can locate the virtue that Saul lacks and that which Jonathan exhibits in the Lord Jesus.  In today’s gospel he refuses to have his divine origin in part to avoid misunderstanding.  And he never ceases to cure people of their ailments.  Wise persons will imitate Jesus’ virtue.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Memorial of Saint Anthony, Abbot

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

Aristotle taught that a soldier best exemplifies the virtue of courage.  He saw the warrior’s overcoming the fear of death to fight for the homeland as the essence of bravery.  In today’s readings his ideal would be realized in David who takes up the challenge of Goliath to defend the honor of Israel.  Thomas Aquinas gave the model of courage a different flavor.  Since he understood union with God as the ultimate goal in life, martyrdom became the highest way to practice courage.  In today’s gospel Jesus demonstrates such courage as he heals the invalid on the Sabbath despite the vicious contempt the cure will draw from the Pharisees.

Anthony of the Desert, today’s patron saint, exemplifies another kind of courage.  He gave up everything he had to live most of his life in solitude.  This meant overcoming the fear not of death but of living an unfulfilled life.  He forsook the commonly satisfying experiences of family, comforts, and human accompaniment to deepen his spiritual relationship with the Lord.  In doing so, Anthony provided Christianity a model of holiness.

To be true Christians we also need to pursue a close relationship with the Lord.  He is very near to us -- in our hearts where we can share with him our most intimate thoughts and desires.  He will assist us to bravely face the trials which inevitably come to those who are true to him.  Best of all, he will lead us to fulfillment of our deepest desire – the happiness of eternal bliss.

Tuesday, January 18, 2018

Tuesday of the Second Week in Ordinary Time

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

Samuel is an old man in today’s first reading.  He grieves for Saul or, better, on account of Saul.  Samuel believed that Saul would lead Israel to greatness as a nation.  He no doubt hoped that Saul would not only unite the nation and defeat its enemies, but also bring about a divine righteousness.  Reality has proven otherwise.  Saul himself has been disobedient to the Lord’s commands.  Samuel probably wonders if all his efforts were for nothing, if human endeavor could ever bring forth social progress.  However, God is more patient with people than Samuel.  He does not give up on humanity but constantly renews its hope.  He sends Samuel on a mission to find the man who might fulfill the destiny that Samuel once envisioned. 

The tale is reminiscent of a recent book that has been published regarding the education of today’s youth.  The author laments that young people today are not being prepared for the responsibilities of adulthood.  Rather than being challenged and duly criticized as in previous generations, the author finds the young being continually coddled.  The author seems much like Samuel in his lament over Saul.  But it should be remembered that old men and women have always fretted over younger generations.  They have perennially considered the young as lacking basic preparation to meet life’s challenges.  Although education for the future is always a legitimate concern, people often lack the perspicacity to evaluate its potential.

We believe that God has revealed what He expects of humans in Jesus.  In a very real sense, humans have reached their pinnacle in him.  Even more than Shakespeare in drama or Beethoven in music, Jesus shows us how we should live.  We are wise to evaluate our progress of virtue not so much in comparison to past generations but mostly to him.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Monday of the Second Week in Ordinary Time

(I Samuel 15:16-23; Mark 2:18-22)

Jesus brings Israel a new holiness.  Seeing saw how many practitioners of the law have become hard-hearted, he provides a fresh interpretation.  He extends some precepts like love to include one’s enemies.  He also accentuates what the law has taught for centuries with uncommon vigor.  He compares this new holiness to “new wine” and warns that it requires “fresh wineskins.” By this he means that the people need to change the way they live.   They must move from an obsession with personal righteousness to a heart-felt care for others.

Today is the ninetieth birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  In a very significant way his ministry resembles that of the Lord Jesus.  He too strove to change people’s minds and hearts.  Where many people thought that laws were fair because they were “on the books,” he showed that some were patently unjust.  More importantly, he always preached respect, even love, for others.  Dr. King is not only an American hero exemplifying both courage and racial justice.  He is also a Christian saint dying, like Christ, for selfless love.

We can test ourselves as being “fresh wineskins” by asking how we see people of different skin color.  If we judge them inferior mentally or morally for that reason, we are old wineskins.  We will fall apart trying to accommodate Jesus’ teaching.  But if we respect them for their differences, then we should be able to follow Jesus to the end.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Friday of the First Week in Ordinary Time

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

Jesus’ enigmatic question, “Which is easier…?” may be applied to today’s first reading as well as the gospel.  Is it easier for God to create a conquering nation or a holy people? Most will respond unreflectively, “a conquering nation,” but the simple truth is that it is much harder to make a people holy.  Yet this is precisely Jesus’ purpose.

Jesus builds on already present faith.  The reading says, “Jesus saw their faith.” It may be referring to the faith of all present, not just to that of the paralytic’s porters. That is, Jesus may be responding to the faith of all who are coming to believe in him as God’s “favored one.”  Through Jesus’ teaching they begin to see that a nation’s true greatness consists not in having a victorious army but in being a loving people.  The people’s care will extend especially to those most in need – paralytics and the poor.

Pope Francis is making every effort to extend this concept of greatness through compassion.  He is sometimes criticized for insufficient concern about orthodoxy.  By all means preserving the apostolic faith is one of the prime responsibilities of the Bishop of Rome.  For this reason Francis continually asks prayers that he does not fail in his duties.  It might be added, however, that the pope is above all the head of apostles.  His primary task is to carry out Jesus’ mission of forming a holy people who will imitate God’s love for all.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Thursday of the First Week in Ordinary Time

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

After every human tragedy – earthquake, hurricane, tsunami – humans ask themselves why it happened.  They wonder whether God is capricious, whether they did not respond properly to His initiatives, or whether He exists at all.  Such questions echo the elders of Israel in today’s first reading.

 “’Why has the Lord permitted us to be defeated today by the Philistines?’” the men ask themselves. Apparently assuming that the problem lies with God’s lack of attention, they summon the Ark of the Covenant to be brought to the battlefront.  “Surely the Lord will wake up,” the elders seem to say, “when He sees His people’s need.”  Of course, the tactic fails.  God knows quite well what their situation, yet chooses not to support the Israelites. 

God has His reasons which will always, to some degree at least, remain obscure to humankind.  We might speculate in the case under consideration that God is changing the center of human authority from judges to a king as well as the center of cultic worship from Shiloh to Jerusalem. Or it may be that God is chastening his people for thinking that the mere presence of holy things, not their becoming wholly dedicated to God, is what is most important.  Still, God’s ways are often inscrutable.  If we could figure them out, we would sit on an equal level with God.  But this does not mean that God caresses and despises humans at whim.  No, He has definitively shown favor toward all of us in Jesus Christ.  Like the leper Jesus cures in today’s gospel, God loves us despite our not always heeding His commands.  

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Wednesday of the First Week in Ordinary Time

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

The reference in today’s gospel that Peter had a mother-in-law is the only indication that he was married.  Ironically, the Roman Catholic tradition, which looks to Peter as the key figure in its theology of Church, has insisted on celibacy for a clerical norm.  In contrast, Protestant traditions find in Paul, the attested bachelor, its ecclesiastical model.  Of course, Jesus too was a committed celibate and defended that state of life as summoned by God on behalf of His kingdom.  At least one prominent biblical theologian thinks it necessary that celibacy be maintained as a discipline to preserve this insight of Jesus.

Still the argument for relaxing the discipline within the Catholic Church is cogent.  In both countries with a long Christian heritage and those where the Church is still getting started there is a need for more priests.  Most people think that ordaining married men would result in a spike of vocations to the priesthood.  But counterarguments to ordaining married men to the priesthood also have considerable force.  There are the traditional problems of patrimony to the offspring of the priest.  More critical is celibacy’s concrete testimony of the priority of God in a world obsessed with sexual curiosity.

We should be wary of simplistic ideas on either side of the argument for a married clergy.  Certainly many married men can perform the duties of a priest.  On the other hand, most married men will not want to live in extremely deprived areas where the gospel needs to be preached.  What is paramount is that we continue to ask the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into the field.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Tuesday of the Second Week in Ordinary Time

(I Samuel 1:9-20; Mark 1:21-28)

The people of Capernaum are impressed with Jesus because he speaks “with authority.”  That is, unlike the scribes who constantly defer to the Scriptures, Jesus speaks with confidence and conviction.  They hear him as the people of England heard their Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, announce opposition to Adolph Hitler.  The English steeled up for the long fight ahead because they believed that Churchill had the courage and prudence to win the war.

Jesus shows that his authority is more than bravado when the evil spirit obeys his command.  He tells it to leave the man it possesses so that the man can live in peace.  The spirit attempts to create difficulty by revealing Jesus’ identity as God’s Son.  In the end, however, it fully submits.  The people at this point are not sure what to make of Jesus other than he speaks with authority.

Sometimes we feel out of control.  Perhaps we are in the midst of a heated discussion or being tempted by a sensual desire.  In such moments it behooves us to call out to Jesus for assistance.  He will unfailingly help us regain equilibrium.

Monday, January 8, 2018

Feast of the Baptism of the Lord

(Isaiah 42:1-4.6-7; Mark 1: 7-11)

After the Revolutionary War the United States were floundering.  States’ representatives could not agree.  The nation’s currency failed to win confidence.  Something had to be done.  The Federalists devised a workable government order, but there was still need for leadership.  The people looked to George Washington to make the critical difference.  However trivial the comparison may seem, today’s gospel looks to Jesus in a similar way.

John tells the people that his baptism is but a shadow of that of the mightier one who is to come.  John’s baptism forgives sins, but the mightier one’s will bestow the Holy Spirit.  The Spirit, John implies, will remake the entire nation in righteousness and power.  Israel will then whip the world into shape.  The rest of the passage pictures this prophecy being fulfilled with Jesus.  He receives the Holy Spirit from on high along with recognition of being God’s Son.  He will now lead the nation to glory.

Jesus goes about his work in an unconventional way.  He does indeed create a righteous nation but not a political entity.  He stirs up a revolution within the hearts of those who hear his voice.  It moves them to set aside a narrow self-love to see the graciousness of God’s love and to respond to it in kind.  The result has been the saints who lead the rest of us to a renewed humanity.

Friday, January 5, 2018

Memorial of St. John Neumann, bishop

(I John 3:11-21; John 1:43-51)

“How do I love thee? Let me count the ways,” writes poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning.  She continues to name manifold ways from childhood faith to eternal joy in which her love thrives.  There is a similar concentration on the glory of love in the First Letter of John.  Because Christmas is, above all, a testament to God’s love for us, the first reading these days is taken from this work.

John has testified that God is love.  In order to please God then, John indicates that Christians must imitate His loving.  This means that love flows from words into action.  If not, he would say, then it is counterfeit.  The test comes when one sees a member of the community in need.  Just as Jesus gave his life for his followers, one has to assist the needy brother or sister.

Love, like all virtue, is not a habit in the sense that it is performed in a rote way.  It calls for creativity at times, along with care.  This may be why John Neumann is declared a saint.  He came to the New World because the bishop of his native land did not need more priests.  In the United States he first worked in rural areas – offering sacraments, preaching, and training catechists so that the faith might grow.  As bishop of Philadelphia, Neumann founded the nation’s first diocesan school system.  Speaking several languages, he was also able to meet the spiritual needs of the various immigrant populations.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Memorial of Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton, religious

(I John 3:7-10; John 1:35-42)

There is an old saying as remarkable for its simplicity as for its truth: “The one who loves much, does much.”  Certainly today’s patron, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, demonstrates this proverb as well as anyone.  She raised a family as a widow before she became a religious.  Then her works multiply like visible stars as evening turns into night.  Elizabeth Ann Seton founded a religious congregation and a school, wrote textbooks and spiritual reflections, trained teachers, and established orphanages.  She demonstrates what the two Scriptural readings of today’s mass teach.

The First Letter of John reads like a child’s textbook, but its meaning is still profound.  Christians show themselves to be true children of God by living righteously.  As children of God, we have to love others, especially the poor, as sisters and brothers.  In the gospel John testifies that Jesus is the Lamb of God.  He means this in two senses.  Like a lamb is thought to be innocent because of its white wool, Jesus never sinned.  Also, as a lamb was slaughtered in old Jewish rites to atone for sins, Jesus will be crucified to redeem sinners.

Heeding John’s testimony, two of his disciples begin to follow Jesus.  So did Elizabeth Ann Seton, and so should we.  It entails more than going to mass on Sunday even though this practice is indispensable.  It includes being ready to sacrifice ourselves for God to help the needy.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Wednesday, Christmas Weekday

(I John 2:29-3:6; John 1:29-34)

It is not uncommon in Shakespearean drama to have the main character talked about before he is presented on stage.  This happens in Hamlet when the main character’s friends flirt with his father’s silent ghost and then say that Hamlet will make it speak.  In the Gospel of John, the most dramatic of the four, Jesus is likewise not present in the initial scene but is referenced by John the Baptist.  Today’s passage relates this opening scene.

John the Baptist first describes Jesus as “’…the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.’” He means that Jesus’ sacrificial death will free humanity from the bondage of sin.  Then John refers to the younger Jesus as “’(A) man … who ranks ahead of me because he existed before me.’” The peculiar statement refers to Jesus’ preexistence as God’s eternal Son.  Finally, the Baptist relates how he saw the Holy Spirit descend upon Jesus like a dove.  This incident is meant to indicate that Jesus has the definitive power to bestow full life on a diseased people.  It is a very brief scene that telescopes all that Jesus will accomplish in the rest of the gospel.

As Christmas carols worthy of the name remind us, Jesus came to save us from the folly of our sins and the annihilation of death.  John the Baptist gives the same message here at the beginning of John’s gospel but without the soothing images of a babe at his mother’s side.  Yet our response should always resemble the song of the angels over Bethlehem: “Glory to God in the highest…” 

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Memorial of Saint Basil the Great and Saint Gregory Nazianzen, bishops and doctors of the Church

(I John 2:22-28; John 1: 19-28)

Today the Church recognizes two theologians, Basil (called “the Great”) and Gregory Nazianzen.  It honors them together not just because they were contemporaries but, more importantly, because they were close friends.  It seems as if the Church wants us to begin the New Year with a reflection on friendship.

Gregory Nazianzen once preached about his friendship with Basil.  He said that both came to Athens as students where they competed with one another to learn as much as possible.  But, he went on, their rivalry never resulted in envy over each other’s achievements; rather, out of love, each gladly yielded highest honors to the other.

Aristotle sees various levels of friendship.  We like some people because they are useful for business purposes.  We enjoy others for their good humor or interesting viewpoints.  But we reserve our deepest love for virtuous people in whom we see reflections of ourselves.  They possess the goodness that we wish to attain.  More than that, they help us achieve virtue by their honesty and care.

At the end of the Gospel According to John, Jesus tells his disciples that they are his friends.  He loves them deeply and wants them to share in the unity which he enjoys with God.  One worthwhile resolution for the New Year is to strive to better friends to our acquaintances and to seek a closer friendship with Jesus.