Saturday, January 26, 2008

The Kingdom of God

(3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, A)

Over the last couple of Sundays we have been hearing about the end of the ministry of John the Baptist and the beginning of the ministry of Jesus, and now the transition is complete. John is arrested, Jesus establishes his “home base” in Capernaum and he begins to preach. As Matthew tells us, “Jesus began to preach and say, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’”

This proclamation of the kingdom of God and the good news that this kingdom is “at hand” is the central message and teaching of Jesus Christ. So for us, as his disciples, as those who call themselves Christians, it would be good for us to have a full, robust, compelling idea of what is meant by the “kingdom of God.”

What is the kingdom of God? The United States Catholic Catechism for Adults puts it this way:

The Kingdom of God is Jesus’ presence among human beings calling them to a new way of life as individuals and as a community. This is a kingdom of salvation from sin and a sharing in divine life. It is the Good News that results in love, justice, and mercy for the whole world. The Kingdom is realized partially on earth and permanently in heaven. We enter this Kingdom through faith in Christ, baptismal initiation into the Church, and life in communion with all her members.

In this description of the kingdom of God we hear about what it is, where it’s going, and how we can join in. The kingdom is first of all the presence of Jesus among us, calling us to a new way of life. In the recovery movement they define insanity as ‘doing the same thing over and over, expecting different results.’ That’s what our world is like, suffering from war and poverty, from oppression and violence. And yet we keep doing the same old thing, thinking maybe it will get better. No! The answer is a new way of life, the life of the gospel, the life of Holy Communion with God and each other that comes to birth in this Eucharist. The same goes for our individual lives. We need someone to free us from the cycles of sin and maladaptive behaviors that we fall into over and over, even though we know thy make us miserable. This is what the kingdom of God is for us: the presence of Jesus calling and empowering us to live in a new, different, happy and constructive way.

This peace and joy, this happiness and freedom from misery, anxiety, depression and sin is the final destiny of the world. Final peace and joy in God is where everything is going in the permanent fullness of the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God which is present now in the mysteries of the sacraments and of Christian love will one day come to be all in all. And so we may as well jump in now!

So how do we join in with this revolution that God is working in history and in our lives, in this growing kingdom of God? First of all we enter the kingdom through faith, for faith acknowledges that Jesus Christ is Lord, that it is he who is the king of all, and that all of the idols and false gods around us are worthless. When we acknowledge Christ the King, we are members of his kingdom. Secondly, we enter into the mystery of the kingdom of God by entering into the mystery of the Church. Now the Church is not the same thing as the kingdom of God, but the Church is part of the mysterious presence of the kingdom of God in history and in our individual lives. That’s why our initiation into the Church through Baptism, Confirmation, and the Eucharist is important. We who are baptized come to the Eucharist each week to renew ourselves, to be initiated anew into the communion of Jesus Christ with the Father. That’s the ultimate Holy Communion, the communion of Jesus with the Ultimate Mystery we call the Father. And by our communion with the Body and Blood of Christ in this Mass, we tag along gratefully.

By the Holy Communion we celebrate and receive in this Eucharist we enter into the perfect love and relationship that is the Holy Trinity of God. And for us and for human history, that’s what we call the Kingdom of God.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Rise and Shine

(2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, A)

I remember once when I was a little kid our neighborhood lost power because of a storm or something, and for the first time I saw moonlight. I grew up with all of the ambient light of a city, so I didn’t know that the moon shed light. But I remember thinking that the moonlight on the trees and the roofs of houses was beautiful in its softness, its silvery shine, its peacefulness. I told some adult about it and it was explained to me that the moon doesn’t even have any light, but the moonlight we see is the light of the sun reflecting off the moon onto the earth.

I mention this because I think it’s a helpful image in getting at what the Scriptures are saying to us today. If we think of God, the Source of life and light, as something like the Sun, then we are meant to be something like the moon. We are to receive and accept the love of God and reflect it peacefully to each other.

Consider the beginning of our first reading from the prophet Isaiah: “the Lord said to me: You are my servant, Israel, through whom I show my glory.” This is the vocation of the people of God in the Old Testament. They were to be those who received and knew the glorious light of God’s love, and they were to be a shining beacon announcing this one true God. And that brings us right back to the Baptism of the Lord we celebrated last week and that is announced again in the Gospel today. The Holy Spirit descends upon Jesus and the glory of God shines upon him. This makes the person Jesus Christ into the New Israel, the one spoken of by Isaiah, through whom God shines his glory to the world.

Thus we come to our vocation as the body of Christ we receive and become in this Eucharist. Just as the glory of God shone on Christ at his Baptism, so it is the same with us as the Body of Christ gathered here. We are to let the glory of God shine up us, warming our hearts and enlightening our minds. And then we are to reflect that love and glory to each other. It’s like our heart and soul is a little mirror that captures the love of God and shines it out again on the people and situations of our lives. That’s why we make an effort to let go of sins and distractions, so that our little mirror might be clean and be able to reflect God more fully.

That’s our call and our job in this world. As God goes on to say through the prophet, “I will make you a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.” The glorious light of God has no way to shine on the earth but through our words, our acts of kindness, our humor, and our smiles. That’s the mystery of the Word made flesh, of the incarnate God. So let’s polish the dust off our hearts, clean out our eyes, and quiet our minds, that we might be able to more fully reflect the love of God that shines upon is in this Eucharist.

Let’s “rise and shine” and become little mirrors of the gentle and glorious love of God.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

The Baptism of the Lord

(Baptism of the Lord, A)

John the Baptist preached the coming judgment and called for repentance. He offered people a sign of repentance in the baptism he gave for the forgiveness of sins. And so, when it comes to the baptism of Jesus, perhaps we share some of John’s reticence. Why should Jesus Christ, like us in all things but sin, need to be baptized? What need for repentance did he have?

It is us who need repentance and healing, not the Lord. In his baptism he is baptized not because he needs forgiveness, but because we do. He is entering into our spiritual condition, joining himself to us sinners. That’s why we celebrate the baptism of the Lord as the conclusion of the Christmas season. In his birth the Son enters into our vulnerability and contingent existence. Now in his baptism he joins himself to our hurt and mixed-up spiritual condition. This process of God meeting us in our vulnerability and suffering will culminate on the Cross, when Jesus feels the deep, searing suffering of being totally alienated from God: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”

The Lord meets us in the suffering we bring upon ourselves and our world with our sins. That’s the message of having himself baptized for repentance. It’s not Jesus who is a sinner, but me. And that’s where the humanity of Christ meets my humanity in this baptism.

You know, sometimes we fall into the trap of thinking we aren’t good enough for God, that God couldn’t want us because we are so messed up and attached to our sins. But the message of today is that the truth is the opposite. It is precisely in our condition as sinners in need of healing and repentance that God comes to meet us. It is exactly in that state of noticing how depressed and miserable we make ourselves with our sins, that God comes to us in Jesus Christ.

Think of what we say right before receiving Holy Communion. Echoing the centurion from Matthew’s gospel we say, “Lord I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word, and I shall be healed.” That’s where God meets us. And this healing word that we beg for before accepting Communion has been spoken! It is the Word made flesh in Jesus Christ. He is the Word God speaks to the world, and this Word is God saying, ‘I am coming to meet where you are, in your vulnerability, in your depression, in your anxiety. And by coming down and joining my divine Life to your humanity, I will heal you of your sins and your hurt.”

That is the Word of humble and generous God of Christmas. This is the God who is baptized, entering into our need for repentance, that he himself might lift us up and heal us with the Light and Love of his divine presence.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

In Epiphania Domini

(Epiphany of the Lord)

A simple question: How do we know anything about God? How do we know to have the encouragement of faith amidst all of the evil and difficulty of this word, what the prophet Isaiah calls the “darkness” that covers the peoples like “thick clouds”?

It’s because God is a God whose goodness overflows onto the earth and into our lives. God’s glory “shines” on us, as Isaiah goes on to say. This is what is meant by divine revelation, that the Divine Mystery makes himself known to us in Jesus Christ.

This revelation of the living God is a process that has been snowballing throughout human history. It started when God called Abraham. At that time it was just Abraham and his family who knew about the true God. Then there were the covenants with Jacob, with Moses, and with the great king David. This is the whole history of the Old Testament, when the living God was known by just one nation on earth, God’s beloved Israel.

But it has always been God’s desire to be known by all the earth, that, as the prophet Isaiah says, all nations should walk by the light of the Lord. And that’s what the celebration of the Lord’s Epiphany is all about. It is one thing for the Lord to be born unknown, of young parents in an obscure place. But today, with the visit of the magi, this newborn king begins to be revealed to the entire world.

The magi are the beginning of universal religion. They are the first gentile believers, and in that sense, are our spiritual ancestors. They are the beginning of the great commission that the Risen Lord will give, to go and make disciples of all nations.

And as our spiritual ancestors, the magi are models for us of how to live our religion. First of all, they are models for us in seeking the Lord. Their journey from the East is analogous to our journey of faith. They kept their attention fixed on the star and so found the newborn Lord. In the same way, we must keep our attention fixed on Jesus Christ. His light can lead through all the darknesses of our own hearts and of the world.

The gifts of the magi are models for us too. They bring him gold to show that they believe he is royalty, that he is the king of the Jews. In the same way we are called to offer our best to God, and to recognize Jesus Christ and his grace as the true riches we are to seek in this world.

The magi bring him frankincense, recognizing that this baby is the Incarnate God. Incense, after all, is for divine worship. We too are called to bring him the incense of our prayers, to worship God alone, and to reject all of the idols and false Gods this world offers us: money, power, security, convenience, nationalism…not to speak of vulgar celebrities and the various other inanities of our culture.

And finally, the magi bring the Lord the embalming ointment myrrh. In this they recognize the self-sacrificing God. They embrace the hard truth that the newborn king of the Jews is also the man who will suffer and die on the Cross with that same charge hanging above him, “The King of the Jews.” We too must approach the Lord, fully accepting that his is the way of the Cross and we as the Body of Christ are a crucified body. We are called, like the Lord, to give up the best of ourselves for each other.