Saturday, January 31, 2009

The Prophet Like Moses

(4th Sunday in Ordinary Time, B)

All of the gospels make significant use of the literary device of irony, but the ironies of St. Mark can seem like the starkest. Today we hear one of those very ironic passages. As Jesus teaches and heals in the synagogue at Caparnaum, we notice that the only one who gets what is going on is the unclean spirit. The people are “astonished” at this “new teaching with authority,” but they are still asking, “What is this?” They don’t really know who Jesus is, but the demon, the unclean spirit, knows right away when it cries out, “I know who you are—the Holy One of God!” This ironic pattern will continue in our reading of St. Mark’s gospel; the spiritual forces of evil recognize the identity and the import of the person of Jesus right away, while the human beings—including Jesus’ own disciples—continue to fail to get it. This human failure to recognize Jesus for who he really is goes on until the moment of his death on the cross. Then, finally, someone gets it when the centurion keeping watch over the execution proclaims, “Truly this man was the Son of God.”

Mark’s almost brutal portrayal of Jesus’ disciples’ failure to truly recognize him places an intense burden on us who call ourselves Christians. Each of us must have an answer to the question, “Who is Jesus, and what does he mean?” Do an experiment if you wish. Hang out at the bus stop or at the Palisades Mall and ask people who Jesus is. They will tell you a lot of different things. They might say, “The Son of God,” “My personal Savior,” “One of the prophets of Allah,” or “a prophet of the Second Temple period,” and who knows what else. And all of these answers are more or less true, but they aren’t the whole story of who Jesus is. In fact, we can never know the whole and full significance and meaning of Jesus Christ, because he is a reflection of the infinite meaning and significance of God the Father. Who Jesus is for us is not then another piece of knowledge that we can get to know and perhaps comprehend, but an infinite mystery to be walked into and lived.

So where to begin our journey of getting to know and stepping into the mystery of Jesus Christ? Well, there’s no better place than the Sacred Scriptures themselves. In this regard, the first reading we hear today from the book of Deuteronomy is particularly significant. In his great farewell speech to the Israelites, Moses promises that God will raise up for them a prophet like himself. This promise of the “prophet like Moses” is one of the great themes of the Old Testament; the people of the Old Covenant looked forward, and continue to look forward, the appearance of this new Moses. We Christians know that this prophet like Moses has appeared in the Incarnation of the Word, in the life of Jesus of Nazareth. This means that taking a look at Moses is one of the primary ways we come to understand Jesus.

So what did Moses do? First of all, as their leader, he connected the people to God. He went up the mountain to converse with God and returned to the people with God’s blessings and instructions for them. And so it is with Jesus; Jesus ascends the Cross for us to bring about, in his own blood, a new and indestructible connection between our limited humanity and God’s infinite and blessed divinity. Moses was a teacher; he gave the people God’s commandments and the gift of the Law that they might imitate the holiness of their God. And so it is with Jesus; he reveals the Kingdom of God and teaches us how we are to live as its holy citizens. But most of all, it was Moses who freed the people from their slavery in Egypt, and, bringing them safely through the waters of the Red Sea, set them on their way to the Promised Land. In this aspect Moses is a type of Jesus in the Lord’s most precious work, by which he frees us from sin, leads us through the waters of baptism, and sets us confidently on the journey through the wilderness of this life toward the Promised Land of heaven.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

A Taste of Easter

(Conversion of Paul, Apostle)

This feast of the Conversion of Paul is like a little bit of Easter that intrudes upon us in the middle of winter. It’s like a taste of Easter because today is about the Resurrection of the Lord, and the power of his Risen Presence to re-form and trans-form human lives, indeed to recreate the world anew. In this case we are talking about the transformation of one human life, that of the devout Jew Saul of Tarsus who becomes for us St. Paul the Apostle. His conversion is a big deal for us Christians; the writings of St. Paul make up almost a fifth of our specifically Christian Scriptures, commonly called the New Testament. In fact, if we add those books written by Paul’s co-workers and disciples, we’re up to about a quarter of the New Testament. Paul himself is the second most represented author in the New Testament, after St. Luke.

Because of all this, Paul’s influence upon us and our understanding of the faith is almost incalculable. As a preacher he is adamant that the Passion and Resurrection of Jesus Christ have forever changed the situation of the human person in the world. As a founder of churches he has left us with a missionary model and legacy employed by Christians to this day. And all this because of one encounter with Jesus Christ risen from the dead, while on his way to Damascus.

Now here’s the kicker, brothers and sisters. The Resurrection is a matter of eternity; the Lord risen from the dead enters into his eternal existence at the right hand of the Father. Now notice what this means for us: the Resurrection is just as much a matter of right now as it was on that first Easter morning, and as it was for Paul when his journey was interrupted by grace. This means that the experience of the Resurrection is available to us. Indeed, that is the deepest meaning of our gathering here for the holy Eucharist. Drawn together by the Holy Spirit, we are lifted up and made into the Body of Christ risen from the dead. His risen Presence is here in the Word we hear and in the Holy Communion we share.

To experience the Resurrection is to avail ourselves of the opportunity for transformation, to have our lives reformed and renovated by the presence of Christ, who is God united to our humanity. Listen to how St. Mark describes the transformation of those who encounter and believe in Christ: They will drive out demons and they will speak new languages. And so it can be for us. With our hearts renovated and our thoughts transformed in Christ, we will be empowered to drive from ourselves the demons of selfishness, despair, anxiety, and depression. And then we will be free to drive from our society the demons of violence, poverty, and the ‘culture of death.’ We will speak new languages. Instead of the tired excuses for sin and the toleration of structures of injustice in our society, we will be empowered to speak the word of peace and of God’s desire for the flourishing and salvation of all people. The power flowing from Christ’s Resurrection can do this for us, as it does for Paul. Let us pray for our conversion, for our transformation in Christ, that we too might become the missionaries God desires to send for the renewal of the world.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Meeting Jesus

(2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, B)

The Gospel we hear today has a clear and fascinating structure, and one in which we can discern a plan and a pattern for our own Christian life. Notice the structure of the passage: John the Baptist points Jesus out to Andrew and the other, unnamed disciple. They follow Jesus. Jesus then asks them, “What are you looking for?” and invites them to say with him. Andrew, in turn, then points Jesus out to Simon his brother, and brings him to Jesus. Jesus then gives Simon a mission, embedded in his new name: Peter, the Rock.

So, Jesus is pointed out, Jesus is encountered, and Jesus gives an invitation and a mission. And this same pattern in the lives of John the Baptist and the apostles Andrew and Peter applies to our lives as well.

No one is born a Christian. You might have been born a democrat, or born a Giant fan (sorry), but nobody is born a Christian. Christians are made, and that means that each of us is here today, gifted with faithfulness to the Lord, because somebody pointed him out to us. Maybe it was the parent or grandparent who first taught us to pray, or a priest or religious brother or sister who made an early impression. For those of us who came to the faith as adults, it could have been a friend or one of the saints. But for each of us it was somebody; we only know Jesus today because we were introduced to Him. And for this we must be forever grateful. We should be always praying for the folks who did this for us, whether they remain with us on earth or if they have gone before us into eternal life.

Being introduced to Jesus is only the beginning, however. We must also learn to hear his voice, to become aware of his desire to encounter us. This is why we must be people of prayer; if we want to hear what the Lord has to say to us, we must make the time and space to enter into the silence of our hearts and minds, and listen for him there. It’s not an easy or a quick process. Just look at poor Samuel in the first reading today! He was only able to hear God on God’s fourth try, and for that he needed the advice of someone else, more experienced with the Lord. And so it will be with our prayer life and our listening for what Jesus has to say; there will be false starts and misunderstandings. We will require the advice of others in our discernment. So if your experience of trying to pray is obscure and distracted and tedious, congratulations! This means that we are close to being able to hear the authentic communication of God to our hearts and minds, the particular revelation God wants to give to each of us.

And the word that Jesus speaks to each of us is the same as he spoke to Andrew and Peter. First of all, Jesus invites. He calls to come and stay with him today. This is to say that invites us into the life of perfect grace that he enjoys as the Son of God. By staying with him, he invites us to enjoy the same perfect relationship with the Father that he does. This means salvation for us: freedom from anxiety and sin, freedom from the addictions and distractions of the culture of death all around us.

But just to enjoy the beauty and blessing of the peace and salvation we are offered in Christ is not the end either. Having found ourselves in Christ, we are called to go back to the beginning of the process and to become those who point him out to others. This is what Andrew does in the Gospel today. Once Jesus was pointed out to him, and after he stayed with Jesus for the day, he goes and points Jesus out to his brother. And so it is with us, brothers and sisters. The crown and completion of our Christian life comes when we are able to lead others to the Lord. Perhaps we do this best with our example; when those who are ignorant or hostile to God meet us, they should come away at least a little bit uncomfortable because they will be wondering, “What’s her secret? Where does she get such a spirit of peace and joy?” And perhaps, what we have in Christ will be attractive to others, and the Lord will use us to invite others into his grace.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Jesus Rises and the World with Him

(Baptism of the Lord, B)

Today, the last day of the Christmas season, we make the transition from the mysteries of the Lord’s infancy to the good news of his ministry and preaching. Jesus is baptized, and the truth of his identity and mission are voiced by the Father and confirmed by the presence of the Spirit.

The adult Jesus comes on the scene in the midst of the disciples of John the Baptist. Here is our Lord associating himself with those who looked forward to the renewal of the world, to the age to come, to a baptism not just with water, but of the Holy Spirit. But the truth is that Jesus himself will be revealed as this hope; he himself is the new and renewed creation making its appearance among us.

A funny thing happens when Jesus is baptized. Do you think the water makes Jesus holy? On the contrary! It is Jesus’ descent into the water that makes the waters of baptism holy! We may have been baptized with water from the tap in Yonkers, New York or wherever, but that water was made holy by a spiritual connection with the waters of Jesus’ own baptism. By being baptized himself, Jesus forever sanctifies all baptismal water and establishes the path to the new life of Baptism for all of us.

In the Liturgy of the Hours for today there is a beautiful sermon on the Lord’s baptism by St. Gregory Nazianzus. With perfect and simple clarity he points to the good news of this day when he says, “Jesus rises from the water; the world rises with him.” Jesus himself passes through baptism so that our baptism might be sanctified and given the power to lift us up to a new life of grace and freedom.

This gives us the victory over the world that the first letter of John speaks of in the first reading. And what is this “world” which has been defeated? It is the futile anxiety and depression of the violent, unbelieving, and hopeless culture all around us, brothers and sisters. It is the world of those who, in the words of Isaiah, spend what they have for “what fails to satisfy,” and for what is not the living bread that our hearts really want. We’ve all been there. Maybe we have indulged one or the other of our disordered appetites, or perhaps we have wasted our time with television or the internet. And afterwards we realize that what we thought we wanted wasn’t what our hearts really wanted at all. What John calls the world is the mass of those who live like this all the time, without noticing that there is anything more. And this is more than just sad; the anxious self-indulgence of the world breaks out from individuals and turns into the wars and oppression that scar all of human history.

To be free from all this futility, and to become agents of healing for the world, is the gift of our baptism. We receive the baptism that the Lord himself has made powerful and holy by his own descent into the waters of the Jordan. This is our initiation into the grace of Christ, an initiation we renew each week in the Mass we celebrate and the Communion with him that we share.

Here, as the risen body of Christ assembled as one, Jesus rises from the waters of his baptism and we rise with him. The Spirit descends upon us to renew us and free us from the world’s cycles of violence and sin. And the quiet voice of the Father speaks among us, ‘You are my beloved daughters and sons, with you I am well pleased.”

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Light to the Nations

(Epiphany of the Lord)

The Christmas season is a very dense set of celebrations. In less than three weeks, we observe five big days: The Nativity of the Lord, the feast of the Holy Family, The Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, the Epiphany of the Lord today, and the Baptism of the Lord next weekend. These days represent for us the Christmas mystery in increasing revelation. The Incarnation of the Word, the Son of God, the good news of “God with us” becomes more and more public over the course of the season. We are especially aware of this on this day of Epiphany, because in the magoi who visit the infant Jesus, the good news is revealed to us, the people of the nations. The word epiphany is derived from the Greek word that means, ‘coming to light,’ or ‘appearing.’

This step by step revelation of the appearance of the Son of God began at Midnight Mass, when angels announced the good news to the shepherds. These shepherds living in the fields were the first to know the joy of Christmas, because it’s always the poor who understand the mystery of God most freely and easily.

The next step came last Sunday when we celebrated the feast of the Holy Family. As Jesus’ parents went to present him in the Temple, he was recognized by Simeon and Anna. This elderly pair represents the faithfulness of the Israel of history and they rejoice to see the fulfillment of God’s promises in the newborn Lord. Anna becomes the first evangelist, as she goes off and speaks “about the child to all who were awaiting the redemption of Jerusalem.” Simeon takes the child Jesus in his arms and proclaims his great canticle, which the Church sings every single night in the Liturgy of the Hours. He sees in the child the “glory” of God’s people Israel, who will become “a light for revelation to the Gentiles.” This is the fulfillment of the promise made through the prophet Isaiah in the first reading today: the Light has come and will be the “shining radiance” by which the nations of the world will walk.

That’s us, brothers and sisters. I suspect that few of us are biological descendants of Abraham, but through the manifestation of Jesus Christ as the Light of the nations we have become heirs of the promise made to Abraham through adoption. As we pray in the Eucharistic Prayer, “Abraham, our father in faith.”

This is the good news of the visit of the Magi. Their knowledge and their worship of the Son of God, these wise men from far away reveal how, in Christ, the blessing and promises made to the little nation of Israel become available to the whole world.

Notice what a miracle this whole process is! The Son of God was born away from home in poverty and obscurity. His birth—and indeed his life—were important by no conventional human standard. And yet today we, along with our Christian brothers and sisters all over the world, know him as the perfect and complete revelation of God. The process of this public revelation of the Incarnate Word is what we celebrate today.

But let us not forget that the gift of this knowledge of God makes demands of us. That the wise men were able to discern the appearance of the eternal and universal King meant that they had to bring him gifts. And they brought the best things there were: riches, worship, and reverence for the death he would eventually suffer for our salvation. We too, to whom the knowledge of salvation has been given, are called to offer to Jesus the best of ourselves.