Saturday, January 30, 2010

A Danger of Religion

(4th Sunday in Ordinary Time, C)

In the Scriptures today we encounter some hard teachings, and they ought to be very challenging for us. To prepare him for his prophetic vocation, the word of the LORD comes to Jeremiah: God will make him a “fortified city,” a “pillar of iron,” and a “wall of brass” against kings and princes, against the priests and the people. But why should God have to do this for Jeremiah? If to be a prophet means to speak God’s Truth to the world, why should the prophet be in an adversarial relationship with the people and priests of God? In this we begin to see the hard truth at hand: sometimes it is devout folk—and the official and professional stewards of religion especially—who are exactly the people who don’t want to hear a prophet’s word.

We see this in the gospel today. After one sermon in his hometown synagogue, Jesus’ fellow Nazoreans drive him out of town and then try to throw him off a cliff. In interpreting this rejection of Jesus, we have to be careful. We’re accustomed to praying through the condemnation of Jesus; his Passion and Cross are at the center of our faith. Jesus is executed for his messianic claims—so the charge against him reads on his cross: “The King of the Jews.” We heard the beginning of Jesus’ claim to be the Messiah in the first part of the Nazareth sermon last Sunday, and today’s gospel repeats it: after reading from the prophet Isaiah, Jesus proclaims “Today this scripture passage is fulfilled your hearing.” The people don’t seem to have a problem with that. In fact, St. Luke reports, “all spoke highly of him.”

The people’s problem isn’t that Jesus claims to be the Messiah, but for whom he suggests he is savior. By recalling two scriptural incidents of God working for the salvation of people who were not part of Israel, Jesus suggests that he is to be savior also for those who are outside the in-group of God’s people. Neither the poor and humble widow helped by Elijah or the powerful Naaman cured by Elisha were Jews. Neither were members of God’s people, but it was to these outsiders that God also sent his good news.

It’s not that being a member of God’s people doesn’t matter; as we say in the third Eucharistic Prayer, “From age to age you gather a people to yourself.” Just as God chose his people Israel to be his special possession, he has built us into “a people set apart” as we pray in the first Preface for Sundays in Ordinary Time. But this never means that God doesn’t reserve the right to work, act, and save outside of the people of God as we are visibly constituted. Too many times religious people get this idea, and become jealous for God. They are the chosen ones, and outsiders do not have the same—if any—access to God. This is what is going on in the gospel today. The people in the synagogue were happy to hear that Jesus was the Messiah; they just couldn’t bear the idea that he might be savior for anyone but themselves. Otherwise devout religious people have made this error down through the ages, and have sometimes caused a lot of suffering.

Nevertheless, it’s a delicate distinction. We have been called into the people of God and should be glad to have the Truth. But we can’t limit God to what he has revealed to us. We can see this distinction, for example, in our own doctrine of the sacrament of baptism. God has revealed the necessity of baptism for salvation (e.g. Mark 16:16), but this doesn’t mean that God can’t save someone in another way. As the Catechism puts it, “God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, but he himself is not bound by his sacraments.” (§ 1257) Baptism is the way to salvation as far as God has revealed it, but this doesn’t mean that God can’t save in other ways as well. So we always proclaim the necessity of baptism for salvation—as Jesus has revealed—but we are careful to remain humble in this assertion, knowing that God’s work is not limited to what he has publicly revealed.

So let us rejoice today in the knowledge that God has revealed to us the way to salvation, but let’s not make the mistake of thinking that we know everything about what God is up to in the world.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Renovated and Missioned

(3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, C)

In the first reading today we hear from the book of Nehemiah, in which we meet Ezra the priest. Ezra and Nehemiah were two important figures in the return of the people of God from the Babylonian Exile. Towards the end of the sixth century BC, after two generations in exile, King Cyrus the Persian ended their Captivity and allowed the people to return to Jerusalem. The city, of course, had to be rebuilt, and Nehemiah is famous for some of this work. The faith had to be reestablished as well, and this is what is going on in the reading. Ezra is reading out the Law to the people and restoring familiarity with God’s word and commandments. Though the people are weeping—perhaps from having to stand there all morning or because the newly rediscovered demands of the Law seemed overwhelming—Ezra invites them to celebrate. Jerusalem is being rebuilt, the covenants are being renewed, and it’s time, as Ezra says, for “rich foods and sweet drinks.”

The good news for us today is that Jesus, in the announcement and inauguration of his mission which we hear in the gospel, is about the same work for us. Nehemiah rebuilding the walls and gates of Jerusalem can be an image for us of what we are about here at the Sunday Eucharist. As the Catechism teaches, “The Eucharist makes the Church.” (§1396) In Holy Communion we are addressed by the minister with our deepest name, our enduring and eternal identity—the Body of Christ. We gather here to be made together into the New Jerusalem, which, as we hear in the book of Revelation, is the new City which comes out of heaven and joins herself to earth as the ultimate destiny of creation. We, in our human lives united to the humanity of Christ in our baptism, are the living stones that provide for that joining of heaven and earth. Here at Mass we are built into that New Jerusalem. “The Eucharist makes the Church.”

As the Church we are the heirs and custodians of the mission of Jesus Christ. His mission is put into our hands and entrusted to us. This is part of what it means when Jesus says that the prophecy of Isaiah is “fulfilled in your hearing.” When we gather each Sunday to hear God’s Word, the mission of Jesus is handed over anew and fulfilled in our acceptance.

What is the mission of Jesus Christ? It is to be anointed to “bring glad tidings to the poor,” “liberty to captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.” To offer our time, praise, personal sacrifices and indeed our whole selves on this altar each Sunday is to be willing to be transformed into the Body of Christ and become the bearers of this mission. As the Catechism also teaches, the “Eucharist commits us to the poor.” “To receive in truth the Body and Blood of Christ given up for us, we must recognize Christ in the poorest, his brethren.” (§1397)

In our Holy Communion today, may we know that we are fulfilling the command of Ezra to make our rejoicing in the Lord our strength as we eat the rich food of the Body of Christ and share in the sweet drink of his Precious Blood. Let us rejoice to be built into the New Jerusalem, and let us accept anew the mission of Jesus to bring good news to the poor.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Being Invited and Saving the Party

(2nd Sunday, C)

We arrive, brothers and sisters, at the start of another cycle of Sundays in Ordinary Time, and for this beginning we hear from St. John the beginning of Jesus’ “signs.” The account of the wedding at Cana is so full of spiritual truth and good news for us that a preacher might hardly know where to begin. The story speaks not only of the gospel of Jesus’ compassion and humility, but also of the exciting news of the possibility of transformation and new destiny that all creatures have in Christ. So for fear of preaching forever, I’ll limit myself to two points of good news for us today.

First, we shouldn’t miss the simple truth that Jesus accepts invitations. Jesus was invited to the wedding, and he showed up. That’s good news for all of us, because we can be confident that if we invite the presence of God in Christ into our lives, our prayer, and our troubles, we can be assured that Jesus will be there. Jesus accepts invitations. His disciples accept invitations too; they too were at the wedding. So if we wish to be disciples of the Lord we have to be ready to accept the invitations we receive to enter into the joys, griefs, and chaos of others. To be unmoved by the suffering of others or unable to rejoice in the joy of another is an almost certain sign of sin.

Second, Jesus saves the party. Why didn’t his hapless couple have enough wine? Poverty? Poor planning? Too many wedding crashers? We don’t know, and it doesn’t matter. What does matter is that Jesus (at the invitation of his mother we might add) saves the party by providing new wine. Jesus saves the party so that the newlyweds and their guests may rejoice on this most special occasion. Jesus makes up for their lack, whatever it was, so that their joy could be full.

So it is with us, brothers and sisters. We must never fear our own lacking in what we need to be faithful to God or to flourish in the vocations God has given us. The sign Jesus works today shows us that if we seek the presence of Jesus Christ and the intercession of his mother, whatever way we lack can be an opportunity for the revelation of the glory of God through Christ. So if we ever feel that we don’t have what we need, let us turn to Jesus through Mary and we will soon find that our lack is changed into the glorious and superabundant grace of God. The water not only became wine, but the best wine. If we invite Jesus into our lives we can be assured that our souls too will blush into the new wine that gives joy to the heart. May the same transforming grace come upon every place in our hearts and lives where we feel dull, tired, and plain, so that the joy and delight of God himself might shine through us, making each of us into revealers of the Father’s glory.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

The Grace of God

(Baptism of the Lord, C)

In the second reading from the letter of Paul to Titus we hear a simple proclamation of Christmas: “The grace of God has appeared.” This is also the second reading from the Mass of Christmas night, and so this announcement of grace brackets the whole Christmas season. Today’s feast of the Baptism of the Lord is a great revelation of this grace and the good news of how we can come to live in it.

First, let us remind ourselves what we mean by ‘grace.’ In our Christian life we talk about the grace of God all the time, so it’s good to review what we mean by the term. The Catechism of the Catholic Church gives this definition: “Grace is a participation in the life of God.” (§1997) Grace is our sharing in the divine life of God; grace is the name we give to the work and presence of God when it comes to dwell in us. Most simply, grace is God when God is with us and in us.

Jesus Christ is ‘God with us.’ As we sang all through Advent: O Come, O Come, Emmanuel—‘Emmanuel,’ ‘God with us.’ In the coming of Jesus this plaintive prayer has been answered. God is with us and the “grace of God has appeared.” Jesus is grace; he is God’s sharing of the divine life with us through the humanity of Christ; he is the participation of our human nature with the delight, joy, and creativity of the divine life of God himself. During the Christmas season we celebrate Christ as the wondrous means by which God has accomplished for us this participation in himself.

From the overshadowing of Mary by the Holy Spirit to the human birth of the Son of God to the revelation of the Father’s voice we hear at the Lord’s baptism today, the Christmas season is a feast of the Blessed Trinity. The doctrine of the Trinity teaches us that God is not some static and unmoving reality sitting quietly on some throne in heaven, but a set of dynamic and creative relationships. Christmas celebrates our wonder at the great gift that the Holy Spirit has bent the mutual and creative love of God the Father and God the Son into our world through the motherhood of Mary. The perfect Love at the heart of the Blessed Trinity has been stretched into this world and into our human condition by the conception of Jesus. This opens up the life of the Blessed Trinity just enough so that you and I can step into Him. Jesus is God giving us the opportunity to be ourselves spiritually included in the eternal goodness, delight, and creativity which is the life of God.

In a particular way we celebrate today how it is that this grace, this “participation in the life of God” is accomplished and begun in each of us. It is through the sacrament of Baptism. By going down into the water we are joined to the death of Christ, the death which destroys the power of sin within us. By our rising from the water we are joined to the new life of Christ’s Resurrection. It is, in the words of the second reading, “the bath of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit.”

Jesus’ baptism gives this cleansing bath of rebirth to the humanity he shares with us. It’s not that the water cleanses him, but that he sanctifies the waters of baptism for all of us. Let us pray today that all of our catechumens might desire their coming baptism all the more, and for renewal of the grace of baptism for each of us who are baptized, that our lives may become ever more graced participations in the Life of the Blessed Trinity.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Lights and Ladders


“Rise up in splendor,” comes the call from the prophet Isaiah, “Your light has come…the glory of the Lord shines upon you.” Though our world may seem at times to be in darkness and gloom, we rejoice today in the revelation of Christ, the true Light.

The theme of light pervades the whole Christmas season. Lights are one of the primary ways we decorate in celebration of the Lord’s Nativity, as we see here in church and in our neighborhoods. This theme begins with the gospel proclamation of the Mass of Christmas Day, “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.” (John 1:9) For us who live in the northern hemisphere, the cycle of the seasons reinforces our spiritual recollection; from now on the daylight will increase each day until we arrive at the Nativity of John the Baptist on the other side of the astronomical year when we celebrate the birth of him who “must decrease.”

On this feast of the Epiphany we are given the image of the magi following the star to the infant Jesus. They are models for our imitation. The magi show us that the created world of nature, properly interpreted, leads us to Jesus Christ. As they followed the star to the newborn Jesus, so we too can follow the beauty and light of creation to the presence of God among us. In some ways, this is something that we as modern people have forgotten. Sometimes our theism, in practical terms at least, is of the type that separates God from nature; God is in charge of spiritual stuff, while we have science to explain the natural world. This is the classic “God of the gaps” theology. As Christians, we must resist this kind of thinking. Why? Because we believe that God created the world through His Word: ‘God said…and so it happened’ goes the refrain of the first biblical account of the creation. What we celebrate at Christmas is that this same Word of God becomes flesh in the human person Jesus Christ. Putting these two articles of faith together we realize that the created world should speak of the Christ through Whom it was created, and that Jesus Christ Himself should be the interpretive key to understanding the created world.

The truth is that we are all aware of this in our day to day lives. When we encounter beauty or mystery in the natural world, whether in the creation around us or especially in our experience of ourselves through these wonderful and mysterious minds we have, we know that this speaks to the goodness, beauty, and immensity of our Creator. The great theologian of the Franciscan Order, St. Bonaventure, writes about this in his famous spiritual treatise, The Journey of the Soul into God. St. Bonaventure teaches that we can see the whole created universe as a scala ad ascendendum in Deum, a ladder or stairway by which we might ascend into the contemplation of God. (I:2)

This is the spiritual work, privilege, and joy that the magi put before us today. Let us notice and contemplate the natural light of creation, the beauty and mystery of everything God has made through his only-begotten Word. Let us follow these lights and contemplations to the Light Itself, Jesus Christ.