Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Ash Wednesday

(Joel 2:12-18; II Corinthians 5:2—6:2; Matthew 6:1-16.16-18)

“Margaret, are you weeping…” Gerard Manley Hopkins begins one of his famous poems.  The author is about to contemplate death.  “It is the blight of man,” he says.  It is also our starting point in Lent.

Signs of deaths become evident as we grow old.  We lose our vigor, our beauty, and our memory.  The ashes put on our foreheads today confirm what seniors know with increasing alarm.  Our bodies will turn into dust.  We need to ask ourselves, “Am I living in accord with the hope I have for salvation from non-existence?”

The Church proposes the season of Lent to realign ourselves. Now is the time to make every effort to live so that we might share in Jesus’ resurrection from the dead.  We pray to God for help.  We let go of distractions from our purpose.  And we assist the needy as our sure way of overcoming death’s blight.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Tuesday of the Eighth Week in Ordinary Time

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

What Americans call “Mardi Gras” is known as “Carnival” in other countries.  The words refer to an extended period of reverie just prior to the beginning of Lent.  People consume quantities of alcohol, pastries, and meats (from which “Carnival” is derived)—foods from which many will soon abstain.  They often wear masks to promote a sense of solidarity by hiding individual identities.  Although it is sometimes celebrated to excess, Mardi Gras does underscore the seriousness of what is to follow.  Likewise, today’s gospel also anticipates Lenten commitment.

Peter tells Jesus that he and the other disciples have left everything for Jesus.  Only Jesus is worth such a sacrifice.  He brings peace to the world by providing not just a rule of life but the spiritual energy to carry it out.  As he implies at the end of the passage, following him means giving up all pretensions of personal importance.  At the same time it delivers all that is of eternal importance.

By now we should have a firm resolve to take advantage of the forty days of repentance and sacrifice beginning tomorrow.  In accord with the tradition we might have in mind a favorite food from which we will abstain.  We also might have promised to seek the Lord in a project among the poor or disabled. 

Monday, February 27, 2017

Monday of the Eighth Week in Ordinary Time

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

Jesus sounds contentious in today’s gospel as he challenges the man from the beginning.  True, God alone is completely good, but humans do share in God’s goodness.  Evidently Jesus wants to shake the man out of any kind of complacency.  This is certainly his impact on the disciples when Jesus tells them that it is harder for the wealthy to enter heaven than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle.  In both instances Jesus’ frankness sounds like Ernest Hemingway’s when asked how one can become a great writer.  It is said that Hemingway responded, “You got to have a built-in, 100 percent fool-proof crap detector.”

But Jesus does not mean to spurn the man who wants to inherit heaven.  Indeed, the passage is very clear.  He loves the man which moves him to revise his one-size-fits-all response to give a tailor-made answer.  This man with such a great thirst for eternal life needs dispossess himself of his riches for the sake of the poor and join Jesus’ disciples.

It is not that rich people must impoverish themselves to inherit eternal life.  It is not even that all people must walk with Jesus.  But we must discern what God is asking of us and do it.  Sirach is on the mark when he writes, “…pray to the Lord, and make your offenses few.”

Friday, February 24, 2017

Friday of the Seventh Week in Ordinary Time

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

In today’s gospel Jesus both takes away the male prerogative to divorce and aligns marriage with the original intent of creation.  He also reverses the consequence of original sin.  At their judgment God tells Eve that she will be dominated by Adam.  Now by forbidding divorce, Jesus returns at least some of the equality between the two.  He seems to have a twofold purpose in this bold move: to save women from the ignominy of divorce and to urge husband and wife to become the best of friends.

The reading from Sirach indicates the value of such a relationship.  A “best friend” listens to one’s venting to help the person figure out the meaning of life’s vagaries.  A friend also protects one from the consequences of rash action by proffering wisdom when the person is angry or confused.  Many friendships are only as deep as water on a tabletop.  They coax the partners to avoid responsibility and then offer platitudes when the situation turns stressful.

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

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Thursday of the Seventh Week in Ordinary Time

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

Along with the comfortable images we use for God, today’s Scripture readings offer a couple that are not appealing.  Sirach mentions God’s anger and Mark’s Jesus speaks of punishment for sin as eternal fire.  How are we to reconcile these very different characterizations of God?

We have to avoid thinking of God as a human person like ourselves.  He is not friendly one day and distempered another.  He remains always as Jesus describes Him – loving.  Indeed, because of His love for us, He wants us to become more loving ourselves.  His “anger” is not an emotion, which is attributable only to humans.  Rather it is a way of projecting human frustration when a son or daughter disappoints a father. “Eternal fire” also need not be taken literally.  It is the absence of God when all is said and done.  It is never knowing peace but always being subject to the vagaries of the here and now. 

God offers us a way to Himself in Jesus.  The Savior’s words give us a roadmap to eternal life.  His death and resurrection provide us the wherewithal to follow it.  Becoming loving like the Father we will also be happier, kinder, and gentler.  We will have become the kind of people God has always intended.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Feast of the Chair of St. Peter, apostle

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

St. Peter is depicted with different images in the gospels.  At his call as a disciple, he is first seen as a fisherman.  Indeed, Jesus tells him that he will become a “fisher of men.”  Especially in John’s gospel, Peter is given a very different profession – that of a shepherd.  Jesus will tell him to feed his sheep.  In today’s gospel Jesus uses another image for Peter; he is the rock on which Jesus will establish his Church.

We could ask, how is Peter like a rock?  After all, he appears more like sand when he vacillates in his commitment to Jesus.  The answer lies not in any quality that Peter has displayed, but in what God is doing to him.  As Peter is inspired by the Holy Spirit to correctly identify Jesus as “the Christ, the Son of the living God,” he will be strengthened to oversee direct the mission of the Church.  Certainly Peter has some potential, but he will require special graces to fulfill the tasks of Jesus’ chief steward.

Today we remember Peter precisely as pope.  So we also pray for his current successor, Francis.  He evidently sees his mission not just as calling attention to the poor but also restoring the credibility of the Church.  Many people have turned away from the Church because of priests acting at the same time scandalously and sanctimoniously.  Francis has to model and encourage authentic action.  At the same time he should convince the world that fulfillment is not found in material prosperity but in loving relationships.  Such relationships, of course, find their source and sustenance in knowing Christ.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Tuesday of the Seventh Week in Ordinary Time

(Sirach 2:1-11; Mark 9:30-37)

The Book of Sirach is named after its Jewish writer who lived in the second century before Christ.  It is also called the “Book of Ecclesiasticus,” which means the Church’s book, because it has been regularly used for moral instruction.  Today’s reading shows how well the book fulfills this purpose.

As Jesus indicates in the gospel, to follow him entails serving everyone especially the most vulnerable of people.  Those who give of themselves to this end should take to heart what Sirach recommends about listening to the word of God for support.  What is more, they can expect to receive God’s mercy when they call upon Him, again as Sirach testifies.

Often following Christ is a joy.  We may find ourselves among the best of people and experience the treasure of the Holy Spirit.  But why kid ourselves?  At times following Jesus means sacrifice not just of pleasure but of stability.  When this happens, we are wise to take Sirach’s advice.  We need to maintain hope that God will sustain us in trial.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Monday of the Seventh Week in Ordinary Time

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

More than eighty years ago T. S. Eliot’s asked: "Where is the Life we have lost in living? Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?"  Even then, before the Information Age, it seemed that humans were becoming lost in a sea of facts.  However, the quest for wisdom is a perennial effort as today’s first reading attests.

The Book of Sirach was written almost two hundred years before Christ.  It signals the word of God as the fount of wisdom.  By means of this word humans learn to live well which is whole purpose of wisdom.  Christians see Jesus as the consummate word of God.  He provides not only a modicum of happiness in physical life but its fullness in the resurrection of the dead.  In today’s gospel he indicates how to achieve wisdom.  People become wise by standing before God in prayer.  There they not only ask God to provide their needs but listen to God telling them what to do.

It is difficult for us to wait on the Lord in prayer.  Not only in the Information Age but throughout the ages we have wanted instant remedies to our problems.  If we were given these remedies, however, we would never become wise, never achieve happiness, and never know God.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Friday of the Sixth Week in Ordinary Time

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

Today’s first reading is filled with irony.  It tells of how people congregate in a city to improve their lot.  Their working together, however, leads to downfall.  Inclined to evil, they arrogantly try to build a tower so tall that it will reach into the heavens.  They probably think that they then will be able to see God.  But they do not even come close to reaching their objective.  God has to come down to frustrate their efforts before they kill themselves.  The gospel today prescribes the only path to God.

Jesus tells his disciples that people have to carry their individual crosses after himself.  The crosses are made of suffering and emptiness.  They involve a letting go of self to serve others.  A woman gives up his career to attend to her dying mother.  A reporter returns to Syria after being captured and released to chronicle the lot of the people there.  These Christians cling to the hope that God will provide for them. Arriving where Jesus is, they will know God face-to-face.  But sometimes they wonder as day after day they find no relief.    

We achieve nothing by wondering if there is another way to God.  God is love which gives of itself for the other.  We thank God for saving us time and again from our folly.  Even more, we praise him for coming to us in Jesus.  Here he suffered horrendously for us.  As his cross led to glory, so following him, we will be saved saved.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Thursday of the Sixth Week in Ordinary Time

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

When Osama bin Laden was killed by U.S. Navy Seals, there was no outcry from Catholic hierarchy.  Pope Benedict must have recognized the legitimacy of the execution even though there was never a trial.  Taking alive bin Laden, whose guilt for mass murder was widely recognized, and putting him on trial would have surely resulted in violent outbursts around the world.  The incident provides the exception that proves the rule for the Church’s opposition to capital punishment.

Following today’s passage from Genesis, the Church does not deny the validity of capital punishment when a life has been unjustly taken.  It also notes, however, that there are an inordinate number of innocent lives taken today, especially by procured abortions.  To bolster its affirmation of life, then, Pope St. John Paul II and his two successors have taught that the state should never execute a human being except in extraordinary situations like bin Laden’s arrest.

We need to constantly reassert our support of life.  We should be participating in the campaigns abortion, capital punishment, and euthanasia.  We might also check our appetite for violence in entertainment.  If we relish viewing wanton slaughter, we are abetting the culture of death which will inevitably hurt those whom we love.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Wednesday of the Sixth Week in Ordinary Time

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

The dove in the Baptism of Jesus represents the Holy Spirit.  Its whiteness indicates God’s purity.  Its being a bird of flight suggests presence anywhere and everywhere.  As in today’s passage from Genesis, the dove guides humans to salvation.  It is absolutely necessary since, according to the passage, the human heart has been always set on evil.

Yet God still loves humans.  Indeed, He will gradually incline their hearts toward goodness.  First, related in tomorrow’s reading, He will make a covenant with them.  He will give them sovereignty over the earth and require from them mutual respect.  Then He will train a specific nation to be His showcase of justice.  Finally, He will send His Son to complete the project with all the peoples of the earth. The gradual nature of God’s work is depicted in today’s gospel as Jesus gives sight to the blind man.  With Jesus’ first imposition of hands the man cannot see clearly.  But when he lays his hands on him again, he sees everything distinctly.

We have to keep our eyes open.  The inclination toward evil is still prevalent in many places.  As we recall how Jesus has transformed us with the Holy Spirit, we should act to transform evil.  Considerate words may relieve some of the tension in hearts set on evil.  Caring actions may turn those hearts to God.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

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

(Genesis 6:5-8.7:1-5.10; Mark 8:14-21)

Today, as lovers present their beloveds Valentine chocolate, the gospel hints at a more precious gift.  It suggests that Jesus is God’s gift of life to the world.  He is the “one loaf” of bread, the basic nutrition of Palestinian as well as most western societies.  Unable to grasp this meaning, the disciples misunderstand Jesus’ association of the Pharisees with leaven as a reference to bread.  They do not realize that he is warning them about puffed up egos that make people think of themselves as better than others.

In contrast Jesus expects his disciples to serve one another.  They are to give themselves as, if you will, Valentines of care.  Jesus indicates his own abundant love when he points to all the leftover bread which he produced.  The disciples will not be able to appreciate all that Jesus means until he sends them forth to preach after his death and resurrection.

Rather than St. Valentine, a Roman martyr about whom little is definitely known, the Church today celebrates Saints Cyril and Methodius.  These two brothers preached Jesus’ love and his call to people to serve one another in the Ukraine and Moravia.  They were so diligent and successful that Pope St. John Paul II proclaimed them among the patrons of all Europe.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Monday of the Sixth Week in Ordinary Time

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

The story of Cain and Abel has been noted as an anthropological explanation of the enmity between farmers and herders.  It can also be seen as a model for sibling rivalry.  Although we expect brothers and sisters to be the best of friends, they often compete with one another.  Reasons for the competition are not hard to imagine.  Each desires the parents’ utmost attention but often cannot achieve it.  Perhaps the last-born child receives inordinate affection because the parents are tired of disciplining.  Or perhaps the eldest through constant parental prodding becomes an overachiever whose accomplishments the parents cannot cease praising.

In the fourth preface for weekday masses, the priest prays that God has no need of our sacrifice.  Indeed, God does not ask sacrifices from Cain and Abel.  Responding to an instinctual impulse, the elder brother makes his harvest offering.  Possibly out of imitation, Abel serves up a lamb.  The text does not explain why Cain’s gift is rejected, but it is also not hard to suggest a reason here.  Too often sacrifices to God are half-hearted like the feeble Lenten penances that are abandoned before the end of the first week.  Also, as the old critique of Friday abstinence maintained, some people give up steak only to dine on lobster!

Cain reacts to God’s preference of Abel’s sacrifice by murdering him.  It is no impetuous act but methodically arranged to indicate the depth of the elder brother’s hatred.  As the Lord takes notice of the act, we discover what God most expects of us.  Beyond our sacrifices we must strive ever harder to live in peace with all our brothers and sisters.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Memorial of Saint Scholastica, virgin

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

Although the serpent in the first reading is traditionally considered the devil, Genesis does not say it.  It may profitably be considered as the complex of desires which often clouds human reason.  People fall into sin after debating in their minds proposals that counter the principles by which they live.  Human desires conjure these proposals which often appear reasonable but whose half-truths are misleading. 

Nothing that the serpent tells the woman in the garden proves to be completely false.  God did prohibit the pair from eating of at least one of the trees.  When they eat of the forbidden fruit, they do not die immediately.  And their action does end in new knowledge making them less innocent and experienced.  These half-truths, however, masquerade the enormity of the offense which their desires for autonomy, immortality, and knowledge induce.

It is really an old story that has been refurbished many times.  Alice McDermott’s Child of My Heart gives a version of it. The novel tells of a teenage girl who lives with her parents near the beach.  When a sick cousin comes to spend the summer, the girl enjoys doting on the child so much that she refuses to tell anyone that her cousin has begun to hemorrhage.  The story, like that of the first humans in the garden, ends tragically.  The cousin dies prematurely because the girl allows her desires to get the better of her reason.  

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Thursday of the Fifth Week in Ordinary Time

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

Genesis states that God seeks a “suitable partner” for the man.  We should not think of a creature which possesses a brain, or one with two legs, or even one with the ability to talk.  Rather a suitable partner is one that will help him to grow as a person.  We can learn from animals; they even may occasion some development in our awareness.  But real growth comes from taking up the challenge of reconciling ourselves with a person of the opposite sex.  We can find in today’s gospel a mild example of this growth.

Of course, the Syrophoenician woman is not Jesus’ partner, but her femininity does affect him.  She loves her daughter so much that she persists in beseeching Jesus to cast out the demon.  His initial refusal, which is an apparent putdown of her nationality, is deflected as if it were expected.  Jesus is deeply moved by the woman’s determination and grants her request.  He begins to see that his mission is not just to the Jews but to all the peoples of the world.

We cannot say that it is necessary to be married to live a full life.  Jesus himself was not.  But exchange between men and women is essential to human growth.  We begin to develop aspects of ourselves that are hidden when men and women relate to one another.  Without assigning social roles, we can say that men and women complement each other to the benefit of both.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Wednesday of the Fifth Week in Ordinary Time

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

Today’s first reading is taken from the so-called second account of creation.  Genesis has already given an ordered account of how the universe and everything in it came to be.  Now it provides a personal story to assist humans in knowing the glories and pitfalls of life.

The gospel today seemingly moves in a direction opposite to that of the first reading.  Where it relays how Jesus “declared all things clean,” the first reading shows the Lord God prohibiting a specific food.  The human is not to eat of the “tree of knowledge of good and evil.”  People have speculated on what kind of food the tree bears for millennia. 

To the best of our understanding the food of the forbidden tree does not provide true knowledge of good and evil.  Rather it gives us only a semblance of it.  True knowledge of good and evil – what we know as wisdom -- comes mostly from listening to what God tells us.  By contrast, eating of the tree of knowledge is to think of oneself as wise without God.  It is to say, “I don’t need God to know what is good for me and what is bad for me; I can determine that for myself.”  This, of course, is the essence of pride.  In the gospel Jesus tells his disciples what is truly good and bad.  Eating any of the food that God provides – prudently, for sure – is good.  Evil comes from a heart set on self-satisfaction. 

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Tuesday of the Fifth Week in Ordinary Time

(Genesis 1:20-2:4a; Mark 7:1-13)

In the movie “Jurassic Park” humans try their hand at creation.  Actually they attempt to recreate an idyllic island where children may see the wonders of dinosaurs.  The enterprise fails, however, because of human miscalculation and vice.  Genesis reports today part of the story of God’s creation.  It works marvelously, at least to the extent that the same humans do not interfere.

Today’s reading relates the fifth and sixth days of creation and the seventh day of rest.  God first makes the creatures of the sea which include birds.  Then He turns His attention to land animals making domestic stock before populating forest with wild beats.  Of course, God reserves for last the pinnacle of His creation – human beings.  They are made in the image of God with a mind and will.  They also are given dominance over the rest of the earth.  But they are forbidden from abusing anything.  This command is implied in God’s first words to humankind.  Men and women are to eat seed-bearing plants and fruits from trees.  But forgetting the command, they will soon bring about discord in creation. 

The issue of eating only vegetables and fruits has been resolved in accord with most people’s liking.  But God’s mandate to live in harmony with the rest of creation is still in force.  We are to care for the earth and to treat our co-creatures humanely.  These tasks entail the curtailing of greed and the cultivating of respect.  When we do so, we do not oppose our nature as evidenced in today’s reading.  We only improve defective elements of our culture.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Memorial of Saint Paul Mike and Companions, martyrs

(Genesis 1:1-19; Mark 6:53-56)

The recent motion picture Silence infuses some drama into today’s commemoration of saints.  The movie shows lay Japanese Christians giving their lives as martyrs of Christ.  Meanwhile European missionaries agonize over whether they should collude with the executioners to stop the torture.  Those who died for Christ are the real heroes of the story.  They are virtually the same as Paul Miki and Companions.

Today’s gospel indicates why people sacrifice their very lives for Christ.  It shows him tirelessly blessing and healing the sick who come to him.  Especially Mark’s gospel relates Jesus as God’s emissary capable of curing the most traumatic of diseases.

We are all sick in one way or another.  Some of us deal with serious ailments.  They turn to Jesus for spiritual support as well as physical healing.  They need him to trust in God’s Providence, to follow their doctors’ prescriptions, and to mend broken relations.  Others among us are in more dire need although they do not suffer acute physical distress.  They are sick with self-absorption.  They and the rest of us should look to Jesus as a model of living – humble, helpful, and thankful.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Friday of the Fourth Week in Ordinary Time

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

Charlie and Pauline Sullivan have been working for reform in prisons for forty years.  They founded an organization with the acronym CURE to unite people with the same concern.  The involvement of many hands and the tireless work of Pauline and Charlie have moved legislators to implement some of their ideas.  Charlie and Pauline exemplify what the Letter to the Hebrews today exhorts: “Be mindful of prisoners as if sharing their imprisonment…”

As in other New Testament epistles, the Letter to the Hebrews ends with an exhortation.  After describing Jesus as exemplary in every way, the letter urges readers to act like him.  As Jesus entertained guests in his home, so too must Christians welcome strangers.  As he relieved the burden of the oppressed, so too much Christians share their load.  As he was faithful and free, so too must Christians uphold the sanctity of marriage and not get obsessed with making money.

Today many Catholics, especially here in the United States, come to church to have their throats blessed.  They seek not only to protect themselves from disease but also to connect themselves with the traditions of their ancestors.  We might understand the custom in an additional way in light of today’s exhortation.  We have our throats blessed so that we might encourage others to lead lives worthy of Jesus Christ. 

Thursday, February 2, 2017

The Presentation of the Lord

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

The world as just witnessed a great transition of power.  Donald Trump has moved into the White House as the forty-fifth president of the United States.  There has been no shortage of fanfare.  For better or worse, President Trump is now recognized by people around the globe.  Today’s first reading hints that Jesus’ coming into the temple would attract similar attention.  The reality, however, was something subdued, much like how he rules the world now.

The prophet Malachi speaks of the day of the Lord as one of reckoning.  God’s messenger will occupy the Jewish temple like a field general moves his headquarters into a well-situated building.  From it he will direct the campaign vindicating those who have lived righteously.  But when Jesus, God’s definitive emissary, comes into the temple, hardly anyone notices.  He is only an infant; however two elders recognize in his countenance the long-awaited Messiah.  Jesus will live and die for others without great masses of people taking notice.  But after his resurrection from the dead his disciples will tell the world of his legacy.  He will become, as one of the elders predicts, “’a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and glory for … Israel.’”

We wonder why God does not reveal Himself with power.  We think that if Christ would come now to defeat evil, then all would turn to him in faith.  But, of course, that is not faith only instinct for survival by siding with the strong.  God desires to purify our wills by teaching us trust and love.  When we use our energy to care for others trusting that God will reward us, we become like Christ.  We need not worry about losing our lives because to become like Christ is what life is all about.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Wednesday of the Fourth Week in Ordinary Time

(Hebrews 12:4-7.11-15; Mark 6:1-6)

Disciplinary action is not necessarily punitive.  Parents should inculcate discipline by insisting that children do their chores and arrive at appointments on time.  The author of the Letter to the Hebrews sees God acting in this way when He allows His people to undergo trial. 

Throughout the letter the author has urged his readers not to give up on Christ.  He has assured them that Christ is in the perfect position to help them.  In today’s passage he asserts that if they experience trials, they should consider their suffering a discipline.  He would say that Christ does not mean to punish them and much less is he unable to help them.  In the author’s estimation Christ only intends to make his people stronger for having experienced hardship.

Trials often give us pause to think.  “Why must I suffer?” we may ask.  We are wise to look at the cross when faced with such a challenge.  Jesus suffered much more than we.  He did it patiently, humbly, and willingly, not because he deserved it but for our sake.  He suffered that we might be freed of the self-absorption that grips us.  Now we should be ready to suffer with him for the sake of others.