Saturday, August 23, 2008

You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God

(21st Sunday in Ordinary Time, A)

The Gospel we hear today has always been very important to us Catholics, for it contains the scriptural origin of the Petrine ministry: the ministry of St. Peter of teaching and unity for all the churches, which we believe has continued through the years in the bishops of Rome down to our Holy Father Benedict XVI. In this famous exchange, Peter makes his great confession of faith, proclaiming his belief that Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

In response to his confession of faith, Jesus gives this Simon, son of Jonah, a new name: Petros in Matthew’s Greek, a play on the word for rock, petra. Jesus then proclaims that Peter will be the Rock on which the Church will be built. But in what does this foundation consist? In other words, what is the “rockiness” of this man on which this church will be founded? It sure isn’t Peter’s leadership qualities or understanding; in the very next passage of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus calls Peter a skandalon, a “stumbling block” or hindrance, because he does not understand the prediction of the Passion. And we all we know the shame of Peter’s denial, the night before Jesus’ suffering and death, that he even knew Jesus.

No, Peter does not become the Rock on which the Church is built because he is a great leader or theologian, but because of his confession of faith. It is the confession that this Jesus of Nazareth is “the Christ, the Son of the living God” that is the Rock, the foundation of the Church.

But what does it mean for us, we who have inherited the apostolic faith that has been passed down to us? We confess that this man, this one human life, this Jesus of Nazareth, a Jew of the first century, is the Christ. By Christ we mean the anointed of God, elected by God to be priest like Melchizedek, prophet like Elijah, and king like his father David. In addition to all that, we confess that Jesus is the Son of the living God. Our faith and belief is that the Eternal Word or Wisdom of God, which is such a perfect reflection and self-expression of God that it is also God, became this human life, this Jesus of Nazareth.

Thus, we believe that Jesus is the perfect Revealer of God. In the preaching, teaching, and interactions of Jesus with people, we see, on our terms, the nature and the personality of the otherwise unknowable Source from which all existence comes, that Mystery that we perceive obscurely somehow behind and beneath everything that is. In his patient suffering, humble death, and glorious Resurrection we see the Eternity towards which we are all traveling as we make our way through this life.

This is the basic “good news” of Christianity; that this obscure reality we call “God,” this Mystery of existence that we only kind of perceive through or experiences of wonder or love, has been perfectly revealed. Even better, God has been revealed on our terms, in a way that is perfectly available to our human understanding. This is what it means to say that God became man, and that Jesus is the Son of the living God.

This is our confession of faith. And it is God’s desire to continue building his church on the solid rock of this confession in each Christian life. God will do this! In Christ, God is saving, reconciling, and sanctifying the world. If we allow this faith to be the foundation of our lives, God will make us part of the work. In our families, and workplaces and communities, we will truly be Christians, “other christs” through whom God is reconciling and sanctifying the world.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

The Faith

(20th Sunday in Ordinary Time, A)

The Sacred Scriptures we hear today invite us to reflect on faith. We have in them an opportunity to notice the miracle and blessing of having faith in the living God. To know and believe in the one true God is indeed a miracle for us human beings, because we are so prone to following false gods on the one hand, and the other we so easily allow true religion to devolve into magic and superstition.

There was a time when knowledge and worship of the true God was limited to just one family on earth: God called Abraham and Sarah and promised to make of them of a great nation. That was perhaps four thousand years ago, when only one family on earth knew about the living God. Consider, then, how amazing it is that today the majority of people on earth adhere to the faith of Abraham. That’s the Jews, whom John Paul II called our “older brother,” us Christians, and all the Muslims of the world, together with whom, in the words of Vatican II, we “adore the one, merciful God.” The gift of God of knowing the true God, given to one family, has taken over the world.

It was a slow process. Through his grandson Jacob, the family of Abraham became a nation unto God, the people of Israel. God settled them in the Land and they became God’s special possession. Over time, the prophets of Israel who knew the living God with such passion began to reflect on what faith in the one true God meant. See, in the ancient world, each people had their own god or a set of gods. What made Israel different is that they knew that their God was the only true God. But if this God of theirs was the only true God, then he must be the God not only of Israel but of the whole world, right?

This is what is going on in the first reading from the prophet Isaiah. The prophet imagines a time when the Temple of the Jews will become a “house of prayer for all peoples,” and that “foreigners” will “join themselves to the Lord, ministering to him, loving the name of the Lord, and becoming his servants.”

The foreigners are us, friends. Through the Church, which is the Body of Christ in the world, we have been brought into the faith of God’s chosen people Israel. This is the great miracle of the Holy Spirit. From the one family of Abraham to the little nation of the Israelites, there is now an entire third of the world that is Christian. And half of us are Catholics. To use St. Paul’s language, in Christ we are “grafted” onto the chosen people and adopted into the family of Abraham.

This ought to keep us humble and grateful, for in this four thousand year old story, we have only arrived lately and towards the end of the story. For those of us with roots in northern Europe, some of our peoples have known the God of Abraham for less than a thousand years. If you’re Irish that extends to fifteen or sixteen hundred years, but that’s still squarely in the latter half of the history of salvation. And we who have been introduced to faith in the living God only in these last days, we have received just as much if not more in blessing and grace.

We are newcomers, and we ought not to forget it. Our attitude should always be a little bit like the woman in the Gospel who knows that, though she believes, the faith is not hers. Like her we have brought into the faith and blessing of God’s chosen people by the generosity of God in Christ.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Walking On Water

(19th Sunday in Ordinary Time, A)

There’s an anti-drug campaign going around on TV and internet these days with the slogan, “above the influence.” I like it; it’s definitely better than the fried egg thing they were doing when I was a teenager. The slogan, “above the influence” is a play on the phrase, “under the influence.” When someone is intoxicated with drugs or alcohol, we say that they are “under the influence,” but this campaign urges us not to be under, but above the influence.

I appreciate this because I think a lot of our spiritual work and religious effort needs to be about keeping ourselves above the influences that are useless or harmful. Many of these are on the outside: the false promises of advertising, the hubris of scientism, the lies and destruction of the cultures of death and violence. Harmful influences are on the inside too; self-hate, patterns of self-punishment, useless anxiety, and the voices of low self-esteem. To work ourselves above these influences and to replace them with the sole influence of God is a blessed but difficult spiritual work. It’s what in Christianity we call ascesis, from which we have the word asceticism. Mutatis mutandis, it’s what our Muslim brothers and sisters call jihad, right effort in bringing ourselves and the world around to God.

The work can be overwhelming. Many times we feel like the boat in the Gospel today, thrown every which way by the storm. Surrounded as we are by the importunity of advertising, the easy problems of people on television, and the false promises of consumerism, our minds become distracted and confused. Bad “tapes” play within our minds, telling us the wrong thing and inciting us to the wrong strategy in trying to feel better.

But here’s the good news. Jesus comes to us, walking on the water in the midst of the storm. The craziness of the influences of this world doesn’t bother him. Jesus can walk peacefully in the midst of the storm because his divine humanity is perfect; this is part of what we mean when we say he is “like us in all things but sin.”

The good news of our faith is that in Jesus, God wants to share with us freedom from sin and anxiety. God wants to grace us with the ability to walk peacefully in the midst of the both the storms of this life and the ones in our heads. But we have to seek it! We have to say with Peter, “command me to come to you on the water.” We have to make this our prayer. We have to ask God, “Make me free from all these useless and harmful influences and voices that bat me around in the course of the day, wearing out my heart and getting me to do what I know I don’t really want.”

If we make this our prayer, like Peter did, we will find that Lord’s power, his perfect humanity joined to ours, will empower us to take our first peaceful and confident steps in the midst of the storm of this life. This is our spiritual work. To rise above the sea the false promises, tiring lusts, and pointless ambitions that our Christian tradition calls the world, and to walk in the midst of the storm in peace, depending only on God. That’s holiness, and that’s what it means to be a saint.

At times we will falter and fall in our journey. Even after beginning on our path of walking confidently on the chaotic water, just like Peter we will occasionally become overwhelmed again and begin to fall. Jesus is there to catch us, to keep us from ruin, and to receive our prayer again: “Lord, command that I come to you walking on the water, putting one foot ahead of the other, above and free from the influences that seek to harm me."

Saturday, August 2, 2008

The Big Party

(18th Sunday in Ordinary Time, A)

The prophet Isaiah is inviting us to a party, and not just any party but the best one that will ever be. It’s the greatest party ever because the host is the richest, most generous host ever, and has more friends than anyone in the world. The host is God himself, and Isaiah promises that we shall “drink wine,” and “eat well,” and best of all, we shall “have life.” This isn’t just life is the sense of being alive; it’s Life, eternal life, the living force behind, underneath, and ahead of everything that is—this Life that we clumsily call “God.”

What the prophet is describing is a common theme in the Sacred Scriptures, and it’s called the ‘Messianic Banquet.’ It’s the idea that, when the Messiah comes to bring judgment at the end of time, he will host for the just a festive banquet. It’s not just in the Old Testament prophets that we hear this theme. Think of Jesus’ parables and how many of them revolve around dinner parties, banquets, and wedding receptions. In all of these our hope for the Messianic Banquet at the end of time is invoked. This is not a small part of Jesus’ own message: if we want to know what the destiny of the world is at the end of time, look at a wedding reception, for the end of time and the destiny of creation is the final fulfillment of the marriage of heaven and earth.

But here’s the kicker: this banquet that celebrates the end of time and the destiny of the world, it has already started. Not to worry though; it’s still going on and we can still join in the celebration. This is one way we can read the account of the feeding of the five thousand that we hear from St. Matthew today. This miraculous meal is evidence that the final purpose and destiny of creation has appeared within our human history with all of its saving and nourishing force. And just like it was when Jesus took, blessed, broke, and gave that bread and fish to his disciples to give to the people, so through the apostolic authority of his church, Jesus takes, blesses, breaks, and gives us the bread of this Eucharist. This language is important and it helps us understand that since the time of the early Church, we have seen the Eucharist as a continuation of the miracle we hear in the Gospel today.

Let us see the miracle present in the Eucharist we celebrate! Here, in this assembly that the Holy Spirit has brought together, we become the Messianic Banquet that Isaiah looked forward to, and we attend the wedding reception for the marriage of heaven and earth. This is the joy of the final end and purpose of all creation, and we have been invited.

This is a very freeing thing! The judgment has come and the party has begun. God will not be stopped in fulfilling the unconditional covenant he made with David, and insists on saving the world. All we have to do is consent to it and we’re free from all worry and anxiety. Since we’re made free in this way, and don’t have to waste our energy on useless worry, we can devote ourselves to each other. When we see the world around us suffering and struggling, starving spiritually because of its ignorance or even hostility to God, we can respond freely to the Lord’s command: “give them some food yourselves.”