Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Memorial of Saint John Bosco, priest

(Hebrews 12:1-4; Mark 5:21-43)

Are the “Hebrews” of today’s first reading undergoing persecution?  Or are they just tired from waiting for Christ’s coming?  The text speaks of a “struggle against sin,” but it does not specify what kind of sin.  Perhaps it is referring to the Roman Empire’s banning Christianity which pressured some to give up the faith.  It is  also possible that some Hebrew Christians were still expecting an imminent return while others were beginning to believe the whole idea preposterous.

In any case the reading reminds the people that great men and women of the past.  This “cloud of witnesses” endured more persecution and had to wait longer that they have had.  These are the saints of the Old Testament: Noah, Abraham, and Moses.  They kept the faith, and in the end were rewarded beyond their dreams.

We too enjoy a “cloud of witnesses” to assure us that our faith is not in vain.  Most of us have vibrant memory of Saints Mother Theresa and John Paul II.  We also can take note of St. John Bosco whose feast we celebrate today.  He was, Americans might say, the Fr. Flanagan original.  He believed that there is no such thing as a bad child.  He urged his followers to show patience and love for children.  He should encourage especially parents and teachers to endure the trials which children often bring.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Monday of the Fourth Week in Ordinary Time

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

The man possessed by a devil in today’s gospel shows two characteristics of evil.  He is demonstratively violent, and he is frighteningly alone.  The man pulls apart the shackles and chains meant to bind him and apparently uses them to intimidate others.  He seems to have no feeling for anyone which makes the tombs a fitting dwelling.

But he cannot bully Jesus.  The Lord speaks directly to the source of the man’s outrage.  “’Unclean spirit, come out of the man!’” he commands.   The demon cannot help but obey.  It leaves the man as tranquil as a sleeping child.  Importantly, he is able to return home although he prefers to sing Jesus praises in the public square. 

Jesus gives us a lesson on how to face evil in our lives.  First, we should trust in him by prayer.  He will assist us as surely as he did the possessed man.  Second, if we cannot avoid the evil, we need to confront it with courage.  We respect an evil person like we do everyone else.  We need not shake or shrink.  Finally, although addressing a command to the evil may be fruitless, we might firmly offer a word of peace.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Friday of the Third Week in Ordinary Time

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

Peter Maurin co-founded the Catholic Worker newspaper along with Dorothy Day.  He had a genius for reducing the formal language of Catholic social doctrine into pithy statements exuding common sense.  He called these reductions “easy essays” which readers of the newspaper cherished.  A typical essay reads,

The world would be better off
if people tried to become better.
And people would become better
if they stopped trying to become better off.

Maurin’s Easy Essays are much like Jesus’ parables in today’s gospel.  Mark the Evangelist tells us that Jesus uses parables so that ordinary people might grasp his teaching.  For example, Jesus describes God’s kingdom as seeds growing in a field and a mustard seed – common realities in the Palestinian countryside.  To be sure, the dynamic of God’s kingdom is more complicated so Jesus gives a fuller explanation to his disciples in private.

We have a problem in appreciating Jesus’ parables because we do not live in first-century Palestine.  But we have an advantage over the people who heard Jesus preach.  We have been taught to see Jesus himself as a kind of parable.  We recognize him as a man who reveals to us all the love of a transcendent God.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Memorial of St. Timothy and St. Titus, bishops

(II Timothy 1:1-8; Mark 4:21-25)

The light of which Jesus speaks in today’s gospel is himself.  He did not come to bask in his own light but to shine his light on others that they might see clearly.  He asks his disciples to listen carefully to his lesson.  He tells them that they will be rewarded on the basis of how much of his light they reflect on others. 

Saints Timothy and Titus provide such light.  They work first along with St. Paul to shine Christ throughout western Asia and into Europe.  Then they shoulder responsibility for their respective churches in Ephesus and in Crete.  Paul remains their mentor. As he tells Timothy later in this letter, his protégés are to preach Christ in season and out of season.

We too are to reflect the light of Christ in the world.  Our care for the sick and the depressed especially, the poor and the disabled bathes the world in the gentle hue of Christ’s love.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Feast of Conversion of Saint Paul the Apostle

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

A Catholic man tells of his experience praying with Bill Ivie, a Pentecostal with whom he worked.  He says that Bill was bold in witnessing to the Lord.  One day, he relates, Bill invited him to pray in the hospital for a five year old boy who had inoperable tumors behind his eyeballs.  They held hands and prayed.  Two days later the tumors disappeared.  The story witnesses to the fulfilment of Jesus’ promise made in today’s gospel.  It also testifies to the reconciliation which the Week of Christian Unity culminating today should bring.

Throughout the gospels Jesus heals many persons.  Yet not all who came to him with illnesses are cured (Mark 6:1).  Be it for lack of faith or some other reason some sick people leave him disappointed.  Prayer does make a difference as Jesus indicates at one point (Mark 9:29).   Those who pray to him with faith should expect to witness miracles.  But they must be patient and not expect their wishes to be fulfilled in every case or even most cases.  They should find, however, that prayer inevitably changes the situation. 

We should seek opportunities to pray with people of different faith traditions.  Praying for peace or for mercy with Protestants fortifies the bonds that already exist because of a common Baptism.  We will respect them more for their reliance on God.  And they will understand better that we Catholics too live by faith.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Memorial of Saint Francis de Sales, bishop and doctor of the Church

(Hebrews 10:1-10; Mark 3:31-35)

Some commentators see Jesus rejecting Mary and his relatives in this gospel passage.  But it seems fairer to say that he is only declaring God the priority of his life.  Francis de Sales did much the same as a young man.

Francis came from an aristocratic family.  After sending him to study law, his father expected him to serve as a local magistrate.  He even picked out a noblewoman to be Francis’ wife.  Francis, however, wanted to serve the Lord as a priest.  Through the intervention of the bishop of Geneva, he was ordained.  In time he became a marvel – converting Calvinists and sharing his possessions with the poor.  He served as bishop and wrote a much acclaimed treatise on spirituality.  Two centuries later he was declared a doctor of the Church. 

We all have preferences – baseball rather than football, CBS news rather than ABC, tea rather than coffee.  What Jesus asks of us is that we make God our first choice.  We place him above family, friends, even our own life.  He promises that we will never be disappointed when we do so.  We will find that we can become a better relative, friend, and person by making God our priority.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Day of Prayer for the Legal Protection of Abortion

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

Abortion is a grave crime.  It is the intentional taking of a human life in its most vulnerable stage.  The extent that the crime is committed is even more egregious.  Every year more or less one million abortions are performed in the United States alone.  Around the world there must be tens of millions.  Despite the atrocities Jesus in today’s gospel indicates readiness to forgive all these sins.

The passage is famous for Jesus’ observation that accusing him of being in league with the devil is like saying that a house is divided against itself.  Also noted many times is Jesus’ prescription of an unpardonable sin.  But what should interest people most is his statement, “…all sins and all blasphemies that people utter will be forgiven them.”  He does not mean that they will be forgiven without repentance, but he assures that God is quite ready to forgive even heinous crimes.

Today we pray for abortion victims and its perpetrators.  We make a communal act of penance for the unborn who will never see the light of day.  We beseech the Lord to change the minds and hearts of those who seek, perform, and allow abortion.  Finally, we ask the Lord to stop this slaughter of innocents.  

Friday, January 20, 2017

Friday of the Second Week in Ordinary Time

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

Some have tried to provoke an argument by saying that Jesus did not found the Church.  They propose Paul as the more logical founder.  Of course, Jesus did not create the orders of bishops and priests.  And he certainly never established the Roman bureaucracy.  But the four gospels do indicate that he had an organizational structure in mind.  Today’s gospel pictures him acting quite intentionally to build a basis for his mission of preaching.

The passage notes that Jesus climbs a mountain evidently alone.  There, like the President-elect selecting his cabinet, he calls up twelve disciples to join him.  These are to become not just an inner group of advisors but are to prepare themselves to go out and preach.  The twelve are named in order of prominence.  Peter with a gift for proclamation is the first mentioned.  Second, James and John, who also are recognized for their locutions, are noted.  Then the others are named.  The last, of course, is Judas Iscariot, who does not lack ability but who will do the mission irreparable harm.

Perhaps the people who want to sell Jesus short on an organizational plan have difficulty appreciating how capable he is.  They see him with limitations like the rest of us.  But the four gospels indicate that he is a man like no other.  He does everything well – preach, organize, give of himself freely.  We are grateful to have been called to be his followers.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Thursday of the Second Week in Ordinary Time

(Hebrews 7:25-8:6; Mark 3:7-12)

A marvelous book written by theologian Jaroslav Pelikan describes eighteen models for considering Jesus. Jesus through the Centuries pictures Jesus as rabbi, king, liberator, and in fifteen other ways.  Tellingly, however, it does not see him as priest.  Although people may be hesitant about seeing Jesus with this image, it is a central focus of the Letter to the Hebrews.  Today’s passage from the letter gives several reasons for thinking of Jesus as a priest like no other.

The Letter asserts that Jesus lives forever.  Whether one is an early Christian suffering persecution or a twenty-first century American facing religious indifference, Jesus always pleads to the Father on his or her behalf.  The Letter also hints here, and states elsewhere, that Jesus has experienced pain and will make known to the Father how humans feel.  Also, the Letter emphasizes that Jesus’ perfection carries two advantages.   First, his sacrifice of self has no blemish so that it pleases the Father like no other.  Second, he can focus on others’ needs without having to worry about his own sins.  Finally, Jesus occupies a sanctuary so close to the Almighty Father that his intercessions cannot be ignored.

The difficulty we have in seeing Christ as priest may be the idea that his sacrifice paid the debt of human sin.  We do not like to think of God as a magistrate who demands payment for our crimes.  Let us recall, however, that if God is the judge demanding payment, He is also the one who pays our debt. Out of love He took human form and then died on a cross to satisfy the injury to creation caused by our sin.  Because of this satisfaction we can live with justice.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Wednesday of the Second Week in Ordinary Time

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

The word tithe originally meant just a tenth part. Today, however, it is considered exclusively as a tenth of what one earns. Pastors like to think of the tithe as the appropriate amount for a church member’s donation.  In the reading from Hebrews today we find a biblical antecedent for that understanding.

The purpose of the passage is not to counsel churchgoers about their offerings.  Rather it establishes Jesus’ foundation as the eternal high priest.  Like the mysterious Melchizedek, Jesus’ origins are eternal.  What is more, as the father of faith Abraham honors the priest Melchizedek so we are to worship Jesus for his sacrifice of self on the cross.  Finally, as the name Melchizedek means “King of Peace” and the person comes and goes amicably, Jesus is called “the Prince of Peace” in the gospels and preaches nonviolence.

We can count on Jesus for everything that is good.  He is wiser than the ages, and his words will guide us to happiness.  More importantly, he not only died to free us from sin, but his resurrection has assured us of an eternal destiny.  More than anything else in life, we should endeavor to be faithful to him.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Memorial of Saint Anthony, abbot

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

When Fr. Dan gave retreats for priests, he insisted that they take seriously the “Sabbath.”  He explained that God designated one day of the week for complete rest.  Jewish Law designates the seventh day – Saturday – as the Sabbath.  In this way it conforms the practice of the people to the Book of Genesis where God rests after six days of creation.  Christians have transferred the Sabbath to the eighth day -- Sunday – on which Christ’s resurrection recreated the universe.  Fr. Dan recognized that priests work on Sunday in performing their ministry.  So he told them to find and stick to another day for rest.  He was applying the same kind of flexibility that Jesus shows in today’s gospel passage.

The Pharisees perform an invaluable service when they promote fulfillment of the Sabbath Law.  Too often people abuse their own good and do not give God His due by foregoing Sabbath ritual.  But the Pharisees were too strict in their interpretation.  They were unable to see exceptions even in the case of extreme need.  Jesus is more flexible.  He admits that in the case of hunger one might pick grain to eat: “’The Sabbath,” he says, “’was made for man.’”  He makes another crucial point when he says, “’…the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.’”  This indicates his divinity.  Since God instituted the Sabbath law, only He might alter it.

The Sabbath principle, as observing one day of worship and rest each week is sometimes called, causes difficulty today.  We want to take weekends off with no concern about attending mass.  We also have work obligations every day, including Sundays. We should follow Jesus’ pointers in today’s gospel.  Some slack may be given for work because the Sabbath is made for human good.  But we should make a reasonable attempt to attend mass as a way to give due praise to “’the lord of the Sabbath.’” 

Monday, January 16, 2017

Monday of the Second Week in Ordinary Time

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

When the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. and companions called the bus strike in Montgomery, Alabama, many African-Americans there walked to work.  It was no small sacrifice since the walkers often stood on their feet all day at their jobs.  Yet they were willing to make it because the strike showed their children and anyone else who cared to notice that they had dignity.  One elderly lady who had participated in the strike expressed her satisfaction at day’s end. “My feet are tired,” she said, “but my soul’s at rest.”  The gospel today hints at a similar satisfaction from knowing Jesus.

Fasting is a penitential practice.  People fast to express sorrow for their sins.  Jesus’ disciples cannot fast because he brings them joy.  To fast when Jesus is present would be like sleeping when the president comes to visit.  His care for all expels sorrow.  His clarity provides sure direction.  A time will come when Jesus’ personal presence will be missing.  Then noting their shortcomings, his disciples will do penance.

Today the United States honors one of its greatest statesmen. It is not a time for regret over the sins of slavery and racism.  Rather, like the disciples with Jesus at hand, we want to rejoice for having had Dr. King in our midst.  In Jesus’ name he preached hope not just for African-Americans but for the world.  He articulated and practiced a vision of all races, creeds, and nationalities living together in peace.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Friday of the First Week in Ordinary Time

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

Time magazine once interviewed the celebrated atheist Richard Dawkins.  The interviewer posed the possibility of an ultimate being that gave rise to the forces producing the universe.  Dawkins admitted that the question intrigued him but quickly distanced himself from belief in a personal God.  In today’s gospel Mark gives glimpses of Jesus who does precisely what Dawkins finds incredible. 

In the Old Testament God is said not to judge by appearances because He knows the human heart.  Jesus in today’s passage shows himself with such knowledge.  He reads the hearts of the scribes who silently accuse him of blasphemy.  More than that, Jesus shows that he indeed can forgive sins, which is also said to be attributed to God alone.  He pronounces the sins of the paralytic forgiven.  Then he takes away the paralysis to verify the legitimacy of his pronouncement. It may be added that the four men who carry the paralytic show the same faith in Jesus as was reserved for God in the Old Testament.

Lots of things today interfere with faith.  People seek gratification of desire.  Scientists often scoff at the idea.  Christians fail to give witness.  We must not allow these or any other condition interfere with our faith in the Lord.  Staying close to him, our sins will be forgiven, our lives will be worthy, and we will enter into eternal life.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Thursday of the First Week in Ordinary Time

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

Kent Brantley is the American missionary-doctor who contracted the Ebola virus while treating patients in Africa. He survived but had to spend almost three weeks in isolation to treat the disease.  Much like Jesus in today’s gospel, Dr. Brantley became an untouchable in caring for untouchables.

The passage reflects dramatically the Christian message. Jesus, the Son of God, became human to humans from deadly sinfulness.  In the process he delivers himself up to death.  This trajectory is anticipated in the gospel reading.  Jesus cures a leper by touching him.  Whether or not he contracts the disease, he goes into isolation as commanded by the Mosaic Law.  But this retreat does not stop people from flocking to him with their problems.

 We need not hesitate to go to Jesus as well.  He is here to help us.  Countless testimonies have been given of how he has cured diseases.  His teaching guides us to a just and honorable life. Most significantly, Jesus has won for us the Father’s favor.  He has gained special privileges so that we have access to eternal life.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Wednesday of the First Week in Ordinary Time

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

Theologians often think of suffering as a test.  In this way they avoid liking God to a harsh judge much less to a capricious ogre.  If God tests humans through suffering, He arouses their natural desire to do well.  Eternal life then becomes a prize for which humans are proved worthy.  The gifted theologian who composed the Letter to the Hebrews certainly considered suffering in this way.

What is truly remarkable about the Letter to the Hebrews, however, is its balanced way of seeing Christ.  He is both human and divine who comes to help his siblings in need.  He realizes that some will struggle mightily to endure suffering. So he prays his Father God will show them mercy.

We also should consider Jesus as one of us.  He knows our pain and is ready to respond to our call for help.  We need to follow his example so that we never forget that he loves us. 

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Tuesday of the First Week in Ordinary Time

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

Karl Rahner was one of the greatest theologians of the twentieth century.  His ideas provided a synthesis of Thomas Aquinas and contemporary philosophers like Martin Heidegger.  Interestingly, Rahner’s books contain few footnotes.  Evidently he did not feel the need to validate his ideas by referring to his sources.  They were accepted on his own authority.  In today’s gospel Jesus is likewise credited for this kind of teaching.

The passage compares Jesus’ teaching with that of the scribes.  Where the scribes have to cite many passages to make their case, Jesus’ commentary on Scripture is simple and clear.  It impresses the people who can judge authentic wisdom from mere sophistry.  Jesus’ outstanding ability is indicated by the passage’s stating twice that he teaches with “authority.”

But we accept Jesus’ teaching for more reason than the fact that he speaks with authority.  After all charlatans can move people by their conviction.  Jesus’ teaching rings true in the recesses of the human heart.  We know deep down that we must love even those who hate us if we are to come close to God.  In the Eucharist Jesus draws so close to us that we not only have his truth but feel his strength.  He enables us to live with complete integrity.

Monday, January 9. 2017

Feast of the Baptism of the Lord

(Isaiah 42:1-4.6-7; Matthew 3:13-17)

In Martin Scorsese new film Silence Japanese Christians are pictured being crucified.  They willingly allow themselves to suffer and die in imitation of Christ.  They become the heroes of the story which features three European Jesuits who deny Christ in the face of suffering.  The meaning of the Lord’s baptism is precisely the same gaining of favor for his readiness to suffer.

Jesus tells John that he must submit to John’s baptism “to fulfill all righteousness.”  It would be a hollow expression if it did not mean making the ultimate sacrifice.  Jesus’ baptism should be taken as a prefiguring of his death on the cross and his resurrection.  Water, of course, has this dual quality of taking and giving life.  Because of his willingness to accept death for others, the Father says of him, "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased."

The Christmas season ends today with Jesus’ baptism.  Its purpose has been to present Jesus as the savior of humanity.  He was worshipped first by the Jewish shepherds.  The Magi then came from a faraway place to recognize his majesty.  We too join this train of adoration.  Anticipating the narrative of his ministry, especially the fateful events of the Passover in Jerusalem, we raise a final tribute to him for coming.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Friday of the Second Week of Christmas

(I John 5:5-13; Luke 3:23-38)

Today’s gospel presents the Lucan version of Jesus’ genealogy.  We should not be too surprised to hear that it differs in many respects from the more familiar version in St. Matthew.  For one thing, it starts with Jesus and goes backwards all the way to Adam.  Matthew’s genealogy works the other way around beginning with Abraham and proceeding down to Jesus. As expected then, Luke’s version is longer.  It names seventy-six generations where Matthew’s has only forty-two.

A striking difference between the genealogies comes in the listing between David and Joseph.  Matthew follows the line of kings where Luke uses a more obscure route to Joseph.  Some theologians have postulated that Luke actually records the genealogy through Mary with Heli being the father-in-law of Joseph.  However, this harmonizing theory presumes that the genealogies are to be understood as having historical accuracy.

As in the case of the infancy narratives, we should pay more attention to the similarities than to the differences.  They both claim that Jesus is a Jew, a descendant of Abraham.  They both indicate that he was of Davidic lineage with a claim on Jewish royalty.  And they both show that he was the adopted, not the physical, son of Joseph.  We believe in Jesus because of the apostles’ testimony that his death and resurrection unleashed a bounty of graces.  Nothing of his origins or his life conflicts with this assertion. Indeed, all we know about him falls quite in line to what the apostles testified.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Memorial of Saint John Neumann, bishop

(I John 3:11-22; John 1:43-51)

Wisdom teaches that there are many ways of doing good and relatively few ways of doing evil.  Therefore, we have to choose among the ways to do good but avoid all the ways to do evil.  Saints like John Neumann stand out as examples in this twofold task.

John came to the United States in 1836 as a theological student wanting to be ordained.  The bishop of New York granted his desire and assigned him to a rural territory.  John travelled his huge parish on horseback to visit the sick, teach catechism and train catechists.  After joining the Redemptorist Order, John continued to serve as a parish priest.  In 1852 he was named bishop of Philadelphia where he stood out as a defender and promoter of various immigrant communities – Germans, Irish, and Italian among others.  He also oversaw the founding of two hundred parochial schools.

In today’s gospel Jesus tells Nathaniel that they will see “angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”  He means that they will witness Jesus perform many mighty deeds.  The marvel has never subsided.  In the name of the same Jesus saints have continued to tirelessly and thoughtfully work wonders.  Our deeds will not likely be as prodigious as those of John Neumann.  Nevertheless, we should always ask what we may do on behalf of others and then do what seems reasonable.  

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Memorial of Saint Elizabeth Ann Seaton, religious

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

Last year's hit movie Brooklyn tells a simple story but delivers a powerful message.  A young woman feels trapped in her native Ireland.  She decides to emigrate to the United States where she falls in love and marries.  Then she returns to her native country to bury her sister.  She becomes nostalgic about Ireland’s charms and considers remaining there.  Then she is jolted by the threat of a small minded meddler who learns of her marriage.  The movie exhibits the import of today’s first reading.

The passage may be confusing at first.  It seems to indicate that Christians never sin.  This proposition conflicts with our experience.  The passage intends to say that sin cannot become Christians’ way of life.  A true child of God will not trade in pornography, kill for hire, or complacently practice other vices.  The last verse of the reading arrests attention.  Christians not only have to avoid sin but also must love one another. 

Our care for others should move us to seek their improvement and not their shame.  Brooklyn has the high-minded meddler willing to ruin the young woman’s reputation when she should have reminded her of the marriage vows that she took.  We need to take note that our quest to live as God’s children is more than not breaking commandments but includes caring for others as sisters and brothers.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Tuesday of the Second Week of Christmas

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

In 2007 when Barry Bonds surpassed Hank Aaron’s career homerun record, the latter made a statement of humility.  He said that he was proud to have held the record for thirty-three years but now would move over.  In the gospel today John the Baptist says something similar.

Evidently John the Baptist was celebrated as a major religious personage in first century Israel.  The gospels record people going from Jerusalem to the desert to hear him preach.  After two thousand years there remains a small group of people that regard the Baptist as God’s most eminent prophet.  But in all the gospels John recognizes Jesus as his superior.  The fourth gospel is the most emphatic.  In it John recognizes Jesus as the “’Son of God.’”

As much as we would celebrate ourselves or another, we like John the Baptist should always give priority to Jesus.  We need to remember as well that he can never be surpassed.  He is God’s definitive revelation because he is God.  Indeed, we measure all human achievement in the light of his.  “Yesterday, today, and forever,” writes the author of the Letter to the Hebrews. In this new year we want to keep our sights on him.