Saturday, September 26, 2009


(26th Sunday in Ordinary Time, B)

In the first reading today we hear the interesting account of the spirit of prophecy being given to the seventy elders of Israel. As we heard, two of these elders missed the prayer gathering, but even though they were absent the spirit of prophecy descended on them as well. As it was then, so it is now—there are always people who begrudge God for his generosity, and when Eldad and Medad are seen prophesying without having shown up for the service or whatever it was, Joshua entreats Moses to put a stop to it. So Moses, in rebuke, utters one of his greatest lines in the Sacred Scriptures: “Would that all the people of the LORD were prophets! Would that the LORD might bestow his spirit on them all!” The only Christian rock act I have ever been able to abide, a wacky garage band called the Knights of the New Crusade, sometimes ends songs or sets with this cry, “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets!”

There is a little irony here; perhaps he doesn’t know it, but Moses is proclaiming the principal prophetic word of the passage. ‘Would that all the people of the LORD were prophets! Would that the LORD might bestow his spirit on them all!” The good news for us is that in Jesus Christ, God has indeed bestowed his spirit on all of his people and made us into prophets. Recall for a moment the scene of Jesus’ baptism, and how in every version we are told of the Holy Spirit that descended upon him at that moment. Now just as God took some of the spirit that was on Moses and gave it to the seventy elders, so by our baptism into the death and Resurrection of Christ, God has taken some that Holy Spirit that descended upon Jesus and given it to each of us. The Holy Spirit is given to each baptized Christian, is nourished by our sharing in the Holy Eucharist, and sealed and strengthened in each of us in the sacrament of Confirmation.

This is a big deal. As individuals and as the universal Church of Jesus Christ, we are the fulfillment of Moses’ cry, ‘Would that all the people of the LORD were prophets! Would that the LORD might bestow his spirit on them all!’ We have been given a prophetic vocation, that is, the call to be those who speak the Truth in the world.

You only have to take a brief look at our society to see how confused and vague we have become about the Truth. In college I was taught that there was no such thing as the Truth of human life, but only ‘truths in life’ that one might find for oneself. This is the grave situation of relativism which our Holy Father Benedict has warned us about so many times. We can see the rotten fruit of a world in which is there is no right and wrong—only ‘right for me’—all around us, and this is why it is so important for us to embrace our prophetic vocation as those who are called to tell the Truth. We who are baptized are given the privilege, joy, and duty of sharing in the ministry of Christ the Prophet. Maybe we don’t always think of ourselves as prophets, but that’s what we are. And the role of a prophet is to tell the Truth.

This is a big deal, and it is important to God. Through Jesus Christ, God has placed his prophetic Spirit on us, that we ourselves might be the truth-telling presence of Christ in the world. This matters so much, that, as we heard in the gospel, if someone should interfere with one of Jesus’ little ones becoming this kind of disciple, it would be better for him to be drowned in the sea. And for ourselves, our vocation as those who have become prophets for the sake of the world is so precious that anything at all within us that keeps us from it is to be cut off and thrown away.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Humility Against Fear

(25th Sunday in Ordinary Time, B)

The gospel we hear today continues the section of St. Mark we read last Sunday. Recall how we heard St. Peter make his great confession of faith, “You are the Christ.” But when Jesus explained what it will mean be to the Christ of God—that he will have to be rejected, suffer, be killed, and rise after three days, Peter did not understand and even tried to rebuke Jesus. At that point Jesus turned it around and rebuked Peter instead, identifying him with the tempter himself, saying “Get behind me, Satan. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.”

After this, as we hear today, Jesus and the disciples then begin a journey. While they are on the way, Jesus continues to try to teach them what it means that he is the Christ: “The Son of man is to be handed over to men and they will kill him, and three days after his death the Son of Man will rise.”

But the disciples still don’t get it, and, as St. Mark tells us, they are afraid to ask. In fact, the gospel reveals in a subtle way the confused spiritual condition of the disciples. On the one hand, they discuss on the way the question of “who is the greatest.” But on the other hand, these alleged candidates for greatness are afraid to even ask Jesus a question! If they’re so great, what are they afraid of? A very human truth is revealed here. So many times when people are full of themselves, think that they’re great, are stuck up, bossy, or conceited, the truth inside is that they are insecure and afraid.

By even concerning themselves with ‘who is the greatest’ the disciples are indulging themselves in a spiritual dead end. But by his act of placing the child in the midst of them, by his embrace of the child and his words, Jesus cuts through the fear and arrogance of the disciples in two ways.

First, Jesus teaches us that if we love God, if we desire the presence of God in Jesus Christ in our lives, then we must receive him in those who are vulnerable and powerless in this world. “Whoever receives one child such as this in my name, receives me; and whoever receives me, receives not me but the One who sent me.” This is the self-denial that we as disciples of the Lord are called to; this is what it means to take up our own cross. We must forget about ourselves, sometimes even about how religious and holy we are, and cast our attention on receiving the poor and vulnerable around us. It is in these that the Presence of Christ is hidden.

The second teaching is the other side of the first. Each of us has ways in which we are poor, needy, and vulnerable, at least on the spiritual level. Thus, each of us, like the child Jesus embraces—a powerless nobody in society at that time—can be a bearer of the Presence of Christ to other people in our lives. But this only works if we are willing to accept and embrace our spiritual poverty, to admit our brokenness, to confess that we are all more or less at fault for the fallen state of the world. If we try to cover up our fears, anxieties, and other spiritual poverties by pretending to be great, we prevent the Presence of Christ from shining through our weakness and poverty, and deny that Presence to the people around us.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

The Scandal of the Cross

(24th Sunday in Ordinary Time, B)

Today we arrive at Mark the Evangelist’s account of St. Peter’s great confession: “You are the Christ,” the basic and fundamental confession of faith of Christianity. Peter’s confession, which is recorded by the gospels of Matthew and Luke as well, is important for us on many levels. First of all, as we know from St. Matthew’s version, Peter’s faith is the Rock on which Jesus builds his Church, and this faith is kept for us in an unbroken handing-on, a “tradition” down to St. Peter’s successor in our own day, our Holy Father Benedict XVI.

Along with that, Peter’s confession, “You are the Christ,” is important for us on a personal level. We’ve all had that moment or moments of the interior realization of faith, of confession that Jesus is the Christ, or else we wouldn’t be here at Sunday Mass. And our confession of faith has consequences that are not easy, as Peter learns the hard way.

As soon as Peter expresses his faith that Jesus is the Christ, Jesus goes on to tell him what this means: that the Christ will be rejected and killed, but will rise on the third day. Peter is scandalized; he is offended. To be the Christ is to be a great person, indeed the greatest of people; he should be like the powerful of this world who sit and dispense benefits on their friends and trouble on their enemies. That’s what the Christ should be like, Peter thinks, perhaps. Jesus regards this as a temptation, and rebukes Peter in turn, identifying him with the tempter himself, Satan. “Get behind me…you are thinking not as God does, but as humans do.”

This is the scandal of the Cross, and it is the heart of Christianity. In Jesus the almightiness and the power of God are revealed not in a lording over the world or a need to control, but in a perfect self-sacrifice. Our God is not a god who sits above us like a worldly ruler, doing good for his friends and condemning his enemies. No, our God is a god who places himself below us as a “suffering servant,” offering salvation and grace to all, deserving or not, grateful or not, good and bad.

As if this isn’t hard enough to swallow, Jesus goes on to say that if we wish to follow him, the Cross is our destiny as well. So when we have the realization, the grace of making the confession of faith in Jesus Christ as Lord, we know that the Cross awaits us. “Whoever wishes to come after me, must deny himself.” That goes against everything the world teaches. For the world teaches us to take care of ourselves, to get for ourselves what we need and want, and to protect our security once we have it.

Where has the worldly doctrine of self-service gotten us? What has it done to the world? Well, the evidence is all around us. The world teaches us to seek comfort, pleasure, convenience, wealth, and security, but it is a cult of values that do not exist, and it has left us with a world plagued by divisions and injustice. It is has left the conscience of the public so seared and confused that we can even entertain the question of killing our unborn children or of destroying God’s earth in the name of our extravagant and indulgent lifestyles, for example.

But we must not be discouraged, for Jesus has demonstrated for us the way that this world can leave this selfish self-destruction behind and find salvation instead. We are to follow him by taking up the Cross, by imitating him as suffering servant, as the self-emptying and self-sacrificing savior. If we care about the world and its well-being—as God does so passionately as to turn over his own Son into our violent hands—may we let go of our cult of comfort, convenience, and security, forget about ourselves and offer ourselves in sacrifice for each other. Anybody who has ever done direct service to the poor, cared for their own or someone else’s child, or even prayed for a friend knows that self-sacrifice in imitation of Christ is the path to true freedom and happiness. Let us follow that joy, for it is the taste of the Passion and passionate Love with which God longs to save the world through the Christ.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Speech Impediments

(23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, B)

I’ve been here with you over two years now, and so I’ve fallen into various regular patterns of life, like what I might do on a day off, for example. Sometimes on a day off I like to take a walk down to St. Mary’s. I like that church very much, and I can make a visit to the Blessed Sacrament, or maybe go to confession or attend the midday Mass. Then I walk back down the Square, have a couple of tacos, and then get on the #2 or the #6 bus and come home. I know; I lead a pretty boring life.

So one day a couple of months ago I was walking down Park Avenue on my way to St. Mary’s. I had just crossed Lake Avenue when I noticed a funeral procession emerging from Whalen & Ball. That’s when I remembered there was to be a funeral here at Sacred Heart morning, so I paused in my walk there on the corner of Park and Lake to pray for the deceased and the mourners as the procession passed. Now I don’t know what happened, but something went wrong in the intersection: somebody got cut off; I wasn’t sure. But whatever happened, one of the mourners, with his car windows down no less, started cursing another driver pretty forcefully. I mean, it was pretty bad—the sort of thing you might expect to hear hanging out with drunken merchant marines, but not from someone on his way to Holy Mass. As I stood there, and as I continued my walk, I began to reflect on how there was a good chance that this man would soon be receiving Holy Communion with that same foul and cursing tongue.

Now, it’s sad, and it reveals something of the terrible sickness of irreverence for the Sacraments that afflicts us as a Catholic culture, but it also reveals something about God. Jesus is willing to be received by sinners; he allows himself to be placed on the same tongue that indulged such useless and self-destructive passion as that man displayed that morning. In this, and in the Holy Communion we receive, Jesus is the fulfillment of the promise we hear today in the prophet Isaiah, “Here is your God…he comes to save you.”

Are we so different from the foul-mouthed, angry man I encountered that morning on the corner of Park and Lake? I know I’m not. In fact, it seems to me that a very large proportion of our day-to-day sinning we do with our voices and our tongues. Gossip, bochinche, detraction, calumny, foul or unchaste words—all of these sins flourish in our workplaces and our neighborhoods. When we commit them, we aren’t much different either from the man with the speech impediment in the gospel today, because whenever we fail to use our voices for the prayer, praise, and “good things people need to hear” as Ephesians 4:29 puts it, we impede the grace of God in the world. That we have these voices by which we speak is an aspect of our creation in the image and likeness of God, who from all eternity speaks the Eternal Word Who becomes flesh for our salvation in Jesus Christ. We are created to imitate our Creator, and our voices are no exception. They are meant to be voices that speak God’s words and breathe forth God’s kindness and gentleness in the world.

As Jesus gave his healing touch to the man in the gospel and healed his speech impediment, so he also touches our tongues today in Holy Communion. Let us hear the prayer of the Lord for us: “Be opened!” Let us allow the healing touch of Christ open our voices to let go of whatever sin we commit with them, and become channels for the Word of God to enter the world, voices of prayer, praise, and the “good things people need to hear.”