Friday, July 31, 2009

Making An Easy Thing Hard

(18th Sunday in Ordinary Time, B)

The crowd asks Jesus, “What can we do to accomplish the works of God?” Anyone who believes in God asks this question at some level. If there is a God, what does it mean for me? What does God ask of me? What is God’s will? It’s a really big question, so it’s very good news to hear in the gospel today that the answer is so simple! What does God want from us? “To believe in the one he sent,” Jesus says. That’s it! It’s like that advertising slogan, ‘that was easy.’ “This is the work of God, that you believe in the one he sent.” When we do that with all our heart and mind, everything else will fall into place.

But notice how the people in the gospel respond. Rather than accept the good news of this easy answer, they make it hard. They ask, “What sign can you do, that we may see and believe in you?” What sign? Are they kidding? This gospel passage follows upon the one we heard last Sunday, when Jesus fed five thousand people with five loaves of bread. What sign can you do? Are these folks that forgetful?

But aren’t we like that all the time? Take this very morning for example. We wake up, open our eyes and begin to see this miraculous and beautiful creation. The sun rises on both the bad and the good, a symbol of God’s generous blessing to each of his creatures. If we have a family, perhaps we are greeted by people we love in the morning, revealing the grace of God as it has come to dwell in our lives through the love that is God’s Spirit among us. If we are aware of all this, we arrive at Mass filled with gratitude and bursting with the desire to thank God for his goodness to us. But if you’re anything like me, this isn’t what usually happens. Perhaps I’m preoccupied with some difficult relationship, or missing the miracle of the present moment by worrying about something I have to deal with later.

We do this kind of thing a lot. We miss the miracles and beauties of the moment because we are worrying about the future or living in the past. We miss a lot of the gentle acts of God when we live not in the reality of the now, but in futures that don’t yet exist. Or maybe we miss the presence of God in the present because we are living in the past. Look at the people in the first reading. They complained to Moses about being led into the desert, and want the ‘good old days’ in Egypt when they had better food and bread to eat. They were conveniently forgetting that in Egypt they were slaves and victims of hard, forced labor! People always do this. When thinking back to the past, we imagine that things were better because we’re only remembering the things that were in fact better, while sometimes ignoring that the ‘good old days’ weren’t always so good.

God is eternal, so there is no before or after with God. God lives in the eternal Now, what the medievals called the nunc stans. So if we want to notice, appreciate, and live in the wonders and blessings God gives us, we have to notice the now. We have to work against the twofold distraction illustrated by the two readings today: not forgetting the miraculous signs God does at each moment, like the crowd in the gospel, and not selectively remembering the past like the Israelites in the first reading. Let us make it our spiritual practice to pay attention to the goodness of God that comes to us at each moment of the day, for it is the pouring out of the divine life on the world in the Son. When we see it we will believe in the One God sends, and this is the work of God.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

The Example of the Shepherd

(16th Sunday, B)

When Jesus “saw the vast crowd, his heart was moved with pity for them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd.” And isn’t it still true? Our troubled world rolls along day after day, year after year, confused and suffering, and not quite knowing how to really move forward. Turn on one of the TV news channels. Politicians and ‘experts’ argue all day about the fine plans that will get us out of war, protect us from terrorism, fix the economy, and put and end to poverty, racism, hopelessness, and every other social evil. But it doesn’t seem to happen. What’s wrong with us? Why do we have so much trouble trying to make a better world?

The world has not yet succeeded in hearing the voice of the true Shepherd. So often the shepherds of this world fail us. The constant news of political scandals—and Church scandals too!—makes the lament of the prophet Jeremiah just as current for us: “Woe to the shepherds, who mislead and scatter the flock of my pasture, says the LORD.”

Yes, both in the Church and in the political world, we can understand Jeremiah’s harsh words against those who were supposed to be good shepherds of the people. But we are also heirs to Jeremiah’s promise: the true King and Son of David, the “LORD our Justice” has indeed appeared, and he is the Lord Jesus Christ. He is the Good Shepherd who shows us the true and successful way to be human beings.

This is part of God’s purpose in the Incarnation of the Son; God gives us our Lord and our Lady to show us how to be human beings. Jesus and Mary reveal humanity as God sees it and was God would have it. The divine humanity of Jesus Christ is for our imitation, as is the perfect discipleship of Christ we see in his Blessed Mother.

Jesus is the Good Shepherd not just in what he teaches, but also by example. Again, in Jesus we see God’s idea of what a human being is—someone who announces the Kingdom of God, meets others with gentleness and peace, heals the sick and suffering, and ultimately offers his life for others. That’s the Jesus we meet here at Sunday Mass.

It’s no accident that the very next passage in St. Mark’s gospel after the one we hear today is the feeding of the five thousand. In this great prefiguring of the holy Eucharist, Jesus acts out his concern for the vast crowd by nourishing them with the bread that only he can give. And so it is with us here at holy Mass. Jesus offers his own divine humanity as our nourishment, so that God’s own idea of perfect and flourishing humanity might find a home in our lives through our Holy Communion.

It is in this sense that as Catholic Christians, we can say that the Eucharist is our social and political agenda. It is the Mass that the divine humanity of the Good Shepherd, the one who can lead us to a safer world of justice and peace, becomes present for us. Let us listen to his voice, rejoice in his Presence come to live within us through Holy Communion, and may we help the world to follow the true Shepherd, the only one who can lead us out of all the self-inflicted misery of this world.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

The Spirit of Adoption

(15th Sunday in Ordinary Time, B)

The second reading today is the beginning of the letter to the Ephesians. This passage occurs in the Church’s liturgy ever single week, as the New Testament canticle for Evening Prayer, or Vespers, on Mondays. So, if we believe ourselves as Catholic Christians when we say the liturgy expresses our deepest identity, we realize that this is a very important passage of Sacred Scripture for us. And indeed it is, because the letter to the Ephesians contains a deep and beautiful explanation of a key concept for us Christians, namely the “adoption” we enjoy in Jesus Christ.

To begin to understand the wondrous gift of divine adoption we have in Christ, we have to back up a little. Let’s recall what we believe about the Blessed Trinity. God is Love, and anybody who has been in love knows that love—by its nature—wants to overflow; love is superabundant. So, from all eternity, God overflows into a perfect image of God and there is Lover and Beloved in God, the relations we call the Father and the Son. This is what we mean in the Creed when we say that the Son was “begotten, not made,” and “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God.” Our belief in the Blessed Trinity is nothing more than the confession that God is Love, and thus God is not a static “supreme being” but a dynamic, relational, Force.

God is a dynamic, perfect, divine Love. Now it’s the nature of love to want to share itself with others. We all know this from our ordinary experience. It’s why people invite friends and families to their weddings. It’s why people want to show us pictures of their children. They have had an experience of love, and want to share it. So it is with the divine Love Who is God. God desires to share himself with someone. And so what happens? Creation. The creation comes to exist so that God might have someone with whom share his Love.

Now we can get back to the grace of adoption. For us creatures endowed with a spiritual and rational soul, God delights to draw us into the divine Love that is between Father and Son, the Love we call the Holy Spirit. God wants to “adopt” us into the filial relationship of God the Father and God the Son. So how is God going to do this? The Son of God will become flesh; this is the mystery of the Incarnation. The Son of God will become flesh so that divine Love will be united to our humanity. Thus our humanity—yours and mine—has a chance to be united to God through the humanity of Christ, “adopted” into the Love of the Lover and Beloved in God and made a sharer in the Holy Spirit which is the bond between Father and Son.

You know, sometimes we have this idea that the Incarnation of the Son was like “plan B” for God. God made the world, our first parents messed it up for everybody, and so then God had to think again and send his Son as man to fix it. But this idea of things doesn’t really stand up to Sacred Scripture. As we heard in the reading, God “chose us in him, before the foundation of the world...for adoption to himself through Jesus Christ.” It’s quite the other way around; creation happens so that the Son of God might become incarnate in it, in order to lift our lives into the original blessing of the Blessed Trinity.

When the Body of Christ is broken on the Cross, the Life of heaven pours out. In our Holy Communion, we climb into the divine Love through the open wounds of that same broken body—the Body of Christ we receive here at Mass. Entering the life of God through our communion with the humanity of Christ, we become daughters and sons in the Son, adopted into the dynamic and eternal Love we call the Blessed Trinity.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Thorns in the Flesh

(14th Sunday in Ordinary Time, B)

Today we hear one of St. Paul’s most famous passages, in which he talks about the “thorn in the flesh,” the “angel of Satan” sent to “beat” him and keep him from being too proud or “elated.”

We can all relate to this. Here we are at Sunday Mass, and our presence here alone reveals that we are people who, to one degree or another, desire a devout life, a life of faithful response to the benevolent initiative of God. Each of us is here because at some level, we want to be good Christians. Now, as we well know, as soon as someone resolves to follow God faithfully, all kinds of obstacles appear. Some of these are internal: perhaps we feel called to pray but are distracted by useless thoughts or temptations to sin. Other obstacles are external: if we resolve, for example, to be patient and kind during our day, we may be eventually worn down by all the tiresome or annoying people we have to deal with.

In our shallowness, we tend to look at such things as preventing us from having the devout life we think we want. But in fact, troubles that appear on the surface as obstacles to our spiritual life are opportunities. We don’t know what Paul was referring to when he talks about the “thorn” in his flesh; perhaps it was a recurring temptation or a physical disability. Maybe it was a human adversary or a particularly annoying co-worker. But whatever his trouble was, the point is that Paul did not see his “thorn in the flesh” as something keeping him from sanctity, but as something that helped him. And we can do the same thing with our own distractions, with our temptations, and with everything that threatens to take away our peace in the course of our day.

Here’s a simple, almost trite example to bring out the point. Our parish secretary is a sweet lady, and in her sweetness she keeps a big jar of jelly beans on her desk. I really like jelly beans. But in truth I don’t really want to eat them. First of all, once I start I can’t stop. I’m already too heavy, and refined sugar plays with my emotions. If I eat the jelly beans, an hour later I feel depressed for no reason. In the course of a day, I pass by the jelly bean jar many times, and I have to deal with the little temptation. In this situation I have a spiritual choice. I can indulge a kind the pious self-pity that says, ‘If only the jelly beans weren’t there, I wouldn’t have to deal with this temptation and I could go through my day in prayerful peace.’ Or, I can use the little temptation as an opportunity to turn to God and hear from him, with Paul, the assurance that God’s grace is sufficient for the salvation of even a sinner like me. Thus I can turn what seems like a temptation and a spiritual obstacle to my advantage, as a reminder that I need to turn to God and depend on God’s power to help me live the healthy and joyful life that I really want.

Now this is a light and silly example. But the point is the form of the spiritual choice. And we can do this with everything negative, from bad thoughts to misfortunes, and even with the annoying and unreasonable people we have to deal with. Instead of pitying ourselves because some temptation or problem has taken away our peace, we can use the trouble as an opportunity to turn and entrust ourselves to God.

So, whatever the “thorn in the flesh” is for each of us, let us see that we have a choice in how we use it spiritually. Let us not lament it in self-pity, but give thanks to God for it. When our particular “angel of Satan” comes to tempt and beat us in the course of our day, let us use our trouble well and let it turn us to God. And let us pray, ‘I know Lord, that your grace is sufficient for my salvation. Thank you for these troubles and temptations, because they remind me that all my strength comes from you. Thank you for yet another chance to turn to you, who are my God.”