Monday, June 17, 2024

Monday of the Eleventh Week in Ordinary Time

Readings: 1 Kings 21:1-6; Ps 5:2-7; Matthew 5:38-42

Jesus, Ahab, or Jezebel? This is the question posed to us by our readings. What do you do when life doesn’t go your way because of someone else? Do you mope about, lamenting loudly about that person? Do you, in the words of the Foo Fighters song “Monkey Wrench,” waste another night planning [your] revenge?” Or, do you recognize that things aren’t going well and practice benevolent detachment, giving that and everything else that worries you to the Lord?

Our Gospel reading for this evening is one of those very challenging passages from Saint Matthew’s Gospel. One temptation that must resisted when dealing with a passage like this is to water it down, attempting to make it less convicting. Let’s be clear, in this passage, the Lord doesn’t only tell us not to seek revenge. As his follower, he teaches you to turn the other cheek, to go out of your way for the one whom you perceive has wronged you.

In his letter to the Romans, Saint Paul summarizes the response of a Christian disciple well: “Do not be conquered by evil but conquer evil with good.”1​ This isn’t just a slogan. The passage begins with “Vengeance is mine, I will repay says the Lord.”2 By conquering evil with good, the apostle tells us that by doing what Jesus instructs in today’s Gospel, “you will heap burning coals” on the head of one does you evil.3

God is a God of justice. Like there is no love without truth, there is no mercy without justice. In his encyclical letter on hope, Pope Benedict XVI insisted: “Only God can create justice.”4 “The image of the Last Judgement is not primarily an image of terror,” Pope Benedict continued, “but an image of hope; for us it may even be the decisive image of hope.”5 Mercy does not cancel out justice.

Jesus at Bethany, by James Tissot 186-1894

Among fallen and sinful human beings, justice easily becomes revenge. Revenge is to justice what indifference is to mercy. Mercy is only genuine when extended with the recognition that a true wrong has been committed. An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth is known as the lex talionis. The lex talionis is the law of retribution.

Early Christians explicitly rejected retributive justice, choosing restorative justice instead. Concerning judicial punishment, the Catechism teaches that “in addition to preserving public order and the safety of persons, has a medicinal scope: as far as possible it should contribute to the correction of the offender.”6 In this regard, the Church views capital punishment as retributive, a punishment that leaves no possibility for the offender to correct.

In the musical Fiddler on the Roof, in a meeting of the men of the village, fearing another pogrom, one man says that rather than leaving, “We should defend ourselves!” Another man yells, “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.” To which Tevye, the main character replies: “Very good. That way the whole world will be blind and toothless.” Finally, the village leader says, “Rabbi, we’ve been waiting for the messiah all our lives. Wouldn’t this be a good time for him to come?” The old rabbi responds: “We’ll have to wait for him someplace else.”

My friends, Jesus came to make the blind see, the deaf hear, the lame walk, the toothless chew. We are his disciples only insofar as we join his messianic mission. As we sang in our Responsory: “Lord, it is good to give thanks to you.”

1 Romans 12:21.
2 Romans 12:19.
3 Romans 12:20.
4 Pope Benedict XVI. Encyclical Letter Spe Salvi [On Christian Hope], sec. 44.
5 Ibid.
6 Catechism of the Catholic Church, sec. 2266.

Saturday, June 15, 2024

Year B Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Ezk 17:22-24; Ps 92:2-3.13-16; 2 Cor 5:6-10; Mark 4:26-34

As indicated in our reading today from 2 Corinthians, as Christians, “we walk by faith, not by sight.”1 What this means in practical terms is that we don’t always, or even usually, see the fruit of our spiritual endeavors. We’re used to living by the law of exchange, which, in our society, threatens to make all relationships quid pro quo, characterized by “You do something for me, and I will do something of less or equal value for you.” As Bob Hope once quipped about his comedy partner Bing Crosby: “There's nothing I wouldn't do for Bing, and there's nothing he wouldn't do for me. And that's the way we go through life—doing nothing for each other!”

As Jesus shows, divine life is not ordered that way. Rather than the law of exchange, the divine economy adheres to the law of gift. This means rather than this-for-that it is simply this, given the impossibility of giving something equal in return.

Think about how Christian life would be if for everything God gives you, God explicitly expected something in return to the point that if you did not return what was expected, God would take away what he gave you. But it isn’t that we don’t owe God anything. We owe God everything. It’s just that, having given us his only Son, God isn’t interested in collecting debts. God is gracious. Rather than take back what he gives, God leaves it to us whether to accept his gift, which is nothing other than himself. A gift not received is a gift forefeited.

What do you owe God? You owe God praise and thanksgiving! Among the reasons it is important to attend Mass each Sunday is to thank God, to praise him for the gift of his only begotten Son. Another reason is to offer yourself, again, as a living sacrifice to the Father, through Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit.2 As you have no doubt heard- in the Eucharist, Christ gives himself to us body, blood, soul, and divinity.

“Eucharist,” as you are likely aware, means thanksgiving. Coming as it does from the Greek verb eucharisteō, more specifically it means simply to “give thanks.” As the suffix -urgy indicates, liturgy refers first and foremost to something we do. It’s easy to lose sight of the reality that the Eucharist is an exchange of gifts but not a quid pro quo.

Each Eucharistic Prayer starts with the priest saying, “The Lord be with you,” to which we instinctively reply: “And with your spirit.” He then exhorts us “Lift up your hearts.” We reply by saying what we should also be doing: “We lift them up to the Lord.” The priest then invites us to “give thanks to the Lord our God,” to which we respond, “It is right and just.”3

That this praise and thanksgiving is what we owe and should freely desire to give God is further indicated by the beginning of the Preface to the Eucharistic Prayer:
It is truly right and just, our duty and our salvation,
always and everywhere to give you thanks,
Lord, holy Father, almighty and eternal God4
In what does the Eucharistic exchange consist? In the bread and wine transformed into his body and blood by the power of the Holy Spirit, Christ gives us himself whole and entire and in doing so, refills us with divine life, which is infinite, eternal, and inexhaustible.

What do we offer God? In our humble gifts of bread and wine, along with the collection, which is not some new-fangled invention but part of the liturgy from the beginning, which are presented to the priest at the foot of the altar, we offer ourselves, whole and complete. This ritual act is deeply symbolic. Hence, those who bring forth the gifts should be members of the faithful through baptism who represent the rest of the gathered baptized.

What we see is a ritual act, one that always runs the risk of becoming ho-hum, just one of those things we do at Mass for some reason. What we believe is the reality to which the ritual symbolically points: through our humble gifts of bread, wine, and collection, the offering of ourselves to God, through Christ, by the Spirit’s power. By means of these gifts, we offer ourselves body, blood, soul, and humanity. While this is visible to all, one needs to understand the symbol that underlies the ritual to make the offering. In other words, it is not intuitively obvious to the casual observer, too often even to the Catholic observer, what is happening.

In Eucharistic Prayer III, with now consecrated bread and wine on the altar, the priest prays: “May he [Christ] make of us an eternal offering to you [the Father].”5 Like the tender shoot taken from the top of the mighty cedar tree in our reading from Ezekiel and the mustard seed from our Gospel, nourished by the Eucharist, we grow ever more into the image of Christ, becoming not just the ekklesia, the assembly, the Church, but the veritable Body of Christ.6 God takes our gifts, makes them himself, and then gives us back something infinitely greater than what we offered, gathering us to himself and uniting us to one another.

Spiritual growth is usually imperceptible to the ones experiencing it. But whether you see it, feel it, or in some other way sense it, walking by faith and not by sight, continue trusting “that the one who began a good work in you will continue to complete it until the day of Christ Jesus.”7 And “as we await the blessed hope and the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ,” do not take God for granted and do not be presumptuous, using God’s patience to exempt yourself from the demands of discipleship.8 Above all, do not neglect the Eucharist, which is an indispensable means through which God accomplishes his good work: the redemption of the world.

As we sang in our Responsory: “Lord, it is good to give thanks to you.”

1 2 Corinthians 5:7.
2 Romans 12:1-2.
3 Roman Missal, The Order of Mass, Eucharistic Prayer III, sec. 107.
4 Roman Missal, The Order of Mass, Preface VI of the Sundays in Ordinary Time, sec. 57.
5 Roman Missal, The Order of Mass, Eucharistic Prayer III, sec. 113.
6 Ezekiel 17:24; Mark 4:30-32.
7 Philippians 1:6.
8 Roman Missal, The Order of Mass, sec. 125.

Friday, March 29, 2024

Triduum- Good Friday

The Crucifixion, by Giotto (b. 1267 or 1277 - d. 1337 CE). Part of a cycle of frescoes showing the life of the Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ. Scrovegni Chapel (aka Arena Chapel) in Padua, northern Italy. From c. 1304 to c. 1315

"He mounted the Cross to free us from the fascination with nothingness, to free us from the fascination with appearances, with the ephemeral."

Servant of God Msgr. Luigi Giussani

Thursday, March 28, 2024

Triduum- Holy Thursday

Christ Washing the Disciples' Feet, by Jacopo Tintoretto (1519-1594)

“Unless I wash you, you will have no inheritance with me.” (John 13:8)

"In his person, the deacon makes it clear that the liturgy must have concrete consequences in the world with all its needs, and that work in the world that is done in the spirit of charity has a spiritual dimension" Herbert Vorgrimler, Sacramental Theology, 270.

Monday, March 25, 2024

Monday of Holy Week

Readings: Isaiah 42:1-7; Psalm 27:1-3.13-14; John 12:1-11

Being nine months to the day before Christmas, normally today we would mark the observance of the Solemnity of the Annunciation. Because this year it falls during Holy Week, it is transferred to Monday, 8 April. The reason is transferred to 8 April instead of 1 April is that just as nothing, not even a Solemnity, trumps the days of Holy Week, nothing trumps the days of the Easter Octave.

Our Gospel for today occurs subsequent to the final Gospel for our celebration of the Scrutiny of the Elect. We find Jesus again at Bethany in the house of his dear friends, the siblings Martha, Mary, and Lazarus. As you might imagine, Lazarus gained notoriety because Jesus raised him after he was dead for four days. As you might imagine, many people were eager to get a glimpse of this man as well as the One who raised him.

Something easy to miss in the Church’s Gospel for the final Scrutiny is that when Jesus sets out for Bethany, which is in Judea, as opposed to his native Galilee, he does so over the strong objection of his disciples. Their objection was that many in Judea wanted to stone Jesus to death.

Overriding their objection and, no doubt, their fear, Jesus set out for Bethany. This is when Thomas, who we know as “Doubting Thomas” because of his refusal to believe the testimony of the other disciples that Jesus had risen from the dead, “said to his fellow disciples, ‘Let us also go to die with him.’”1 This kind of upends the familiar view of Thomas as a skeptic, prone to disbelief.

It seems that not just Thomas, but all the disciples had some idea of what it might mean to die with Jesus. What they could understandably not understand was what it could mean for him to rise from the dead. Even now, it is very difficult to comprehend the meaning of Christ’s rising from the dead, let alone what it means to die and rise with him. As it pertains to the new life Christ seeks to give us, our failure to understand hampers us. While we still fear death, we don’t fear sin, which is deadly.

In our Gospel today, death hovers in the air. In response to Mary anointing him with costly oil, Jesus points to his own burial and tells his disciples “you do not always have me.”2 This passage ends on a kind of ominous note, telling us that not only were the chief priests planning to kill Jesus, they were also planning to kill Lazarus because his coming back to life the cause of many to believe in Jesus.

Jesus' words “you do not always have me,” are illuminated by what Jesus says a few chapters later in Saint John’s Gospel, during the Last Supper Discourse. Here, he tells his disciples, “I tell you the truth, it is better for you that I go. For if I do not go, the Advocate will not come to you.”3 Let’s not forget, that the Holy Spirit, the Advocate, is the mode of Christ’s resurrection presence in, among, and through us until he returns.

In the context of the Eucharist and, indeed, all the Church’s sacraments, the Holy Spirit is the active agent. For instance, it is by the Spirit’s power that the bread and wine become for us Christ’s body and blood. These, in turn, make us Christ’s Verum Corpus, his True Body.

The Eucharist, the Mass, is not just our memorial of Jesus’ passion and death but our Spirit-given way of participating in it. This is made explicit in the Memorial Acclamation: “We proclaim your Death, O Lord, and profess your Resurrection, until you come again.”4 This is what Holy Week, which culminates in the Sacred Triduum, our Christian High Holy Days, is all about.

1 John 11:7-16.
2 John 12:8.
3 John 16:7.
4 See Roman Missal. Order of Mass. Eucharistic Prayer I, sec. 91.

Sunday, March 24, 2024

Passion Sunday

Readings: Mark 11:1-10; Is 50:4-7; Ps 22:8-9.17-20.23-24; Phil 2:6-11; Mark 14:1-15-47

“Rather, he emptied himself.”1 The Greek verb meaning “to empty” is kenosis. Using the words of an ancient Christian hymn, which we call “the Kenotic Hymn,” Saint Paul takes us into the very nature of God. In my view, the mistake made in a lot of contemporary preaching is that rather than unpack God’s word, we look for diversions around it, for ways to make it entertaining, which often has the effect of watering it down.

Maybe this is done out of concern that people find the theo-drama of creation and redemption boring in and of itself. But why employ a story, a poem, a song, an anecdote when scripture gives you a song, the words of which convey simply and beautifully God’s deepest nature? The words of this hymn were inspired, which is why they made it into the scriptures.

What the Kenotic Hymn reveals is that it is the very nature of God to empty himself. Creation itself is kenotic, a divine emptying. Creation can be described as the love of God- Father, Son, and Spirit- overflowing, emptying out but never empty. This, in turn, shows us that the Son did not act contrary to his divine nature when he emptied himself by becoming human in the form of a slave and finally submitting himself, in obedience to the Father, to an unjust, painful, and let’s not forget in the context of his time and culture, a very shameful death.

Contemplating the Lord’s passion, one question that arises is “could it have been otherwise?” Indeed, there was long-lasting a debate between Dominican and Jesuit theologians on this very point. It stands to reason that God could redeem creation in any way he chose. God could have made a world that did not need to be redeemed. We know these are true observations because they provoke more questions about the deepest mysteries of existence.

Suffice it to say, by subjecting himself to his passion and death, Jesus showed us the deepest nature of God. This is why our epistle reading constitutes the heart of our readings for Passion Sunday. This ancient hymn that Paul, under inspiration from the Holy Spirit, pulled into his letter to the Church in ancient Philippi, provides us with a key to help unlock the mystery of the Lord’s passion and death.

Another question the Lord’s passion and death prompts is, who killed Jesus? A true Christian can only answer- “I did.” Reflecting on Christ’s crucifixion, one of the great Cappadocian Fathers, Saint Gregory Nazianzen, echoed and then riffed on a note from the Kenotic Hymn: “For your sake, and because of your sin, Christ himself was regarded as a sinner… Worship him who was hung on the cross because of you.”2 Let there be no anti-Semitic understanding of Jesus’ death. Theologically, to say “the Jews” killed Jesus is not only dangerous but sheer nonsense that mocks our crucified Lord to the point of blasphemy.

The Passion of Jesus found in Mark is reckoned to be the oldest part of that Gospel. At the center of this account is not Jesus’ death but his institution of the Holy Eucharist, which we will commemorate profoundly on Holy Thursday. We make this connection in each Mass when we sing the Memorial Acclamation: “Save us Savior of the world/For by your cross and resurrection/You have set us free.”3

In Mark’s account, of necessity, the Lord institutes the Eucharist before his death and resurrection whereas we celebrate it in the wake of these things having occurred. The Lord’s passion and death, along with his resurrection are very different from discreet historical events, even really significant ones. The Greek word anamnesis best describes what happens in the Mass. It means more than merely remembering, it is something like a participation in the events of our salvation across space and time through liturgy. In this respect, it anticipates a quantum understanding of reality.

Anamnesis plays a big role in Plato’s philosophy. This is perhaps best demonstrated in his dialogue with Meno.4 To prove his point that all learning is recollection (i.e., anamnesis), Socrates gives Meno’s unlearned slave a geometry problem and, by employing what we have come to call the “Socratic method,” which means engaging this unlearned man in dialogue, shows that even an unlearned slave, in an important sense, “knows” geometry.

Since liturgy is first theology, the most effective Christian catechesis is mystagogical. This means starting from someone’s experience and helping them connect their life to the liturgical celebration of the mystery of Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection (i.e., the Paschal Mystery) through interaction and dialogue. Sadly, most of our catechesis remains merely didactic.

Even our liturgy for today, which requires us to stand not only for one but two Gospel readings, to process, short as it may be, along with all the regular parts of Mass can make you a little tired and maybe challenges your attention span, is mystagogical. In some small, liturgical, way, however, it brings us into the grueling nature of the Lord’s passion, which started and sundown and lasted until 3:00 pm the next day.

This is not to say that this in some way brings you into what Jesus himself experienced. Rather, by means of anamnesis, it is to hear him say what he said to Peter who, along with James and John, slept as he agonized in the garden:
[Scott], are you asleep? Could you not keep watch for one hour? Watch and pray that you may not undergo the test. The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak5
This gets to something else Nazianzen pointed to in his sermon, in recognition and acceptance of the fact that Christ died because of you, “you must cease to sin.”6 Indeed, the flesh is weak, as those who have endeavored to keep a holy Lent have no doubt mystagogically (i.e., experientially) rediscovered!

Circling back to Jesus’ crucifixion as viewed through the lens of the Kenotic Hymn, it is vital to grasp that no one took the Lord’s life from him, not Judas, not the mob, not Pilate, not those who nailed him to the cross. He willingly laid it down and took it back up for you (and for me, and for those who nailed him to the cross, and for Pontius Pilate, and for the mob who clamored for his death, and for Barabbas, whose release was something, I am quite certain, with which Jesus concurred- perhaps even for Judas).

Just as it is easy to love humanity and hard to love that jackass over there, it is easy to believe in a very abstract way that Jesus died for the sins of the world. What I must grasp is that Jesus died for me out of love for me. Maybe this is something for each of us to reflect on between now and Good Friday when we venerate the Holy Cross after proclaiming together the Lord’s passion and death yet again. Perhaps, along with the Roman centurion who stood facing the cross on which Jesus hung, you too can say, as you face the cross, either again or perhaps for the first time, “Truly this man [is] the Son of God!”7

1 Philippians 2:7.
2 Liturgy of the Hours. Office of Readings. Second Reading for Saturday of the Fifth Week of Lent.
3 Roman Missal. Order of Mass. Eucharistic Prayer I, sec. 91.
4 See Plato, Meno.
5 Mark 14:37-38.
6 Liturgy of the Hours. Office of Readings. Second Reading for Saturday of the Fifth Week of Lent.
7 Mark 15:39.

Monday, March 18, 2024

Monday of the Fifth Week of Lent

Readings: Daniel 13:1-9.15-1719-30.33-62; Psalm 23:1-6; John 8:1-11

Whenever I hear Jesus’ encounter with the woman caught in adultery, my first question inevitably is, where is her partner? After all, you can’t commit adultery by yourself. He would be just as guilty and, depending on circumstances, if the episode of Susanna is any guide, maybe even more so.

I think our Psalm this evening, the beautiful and well-known Psalm twenty-three, provides us with a key to our readings for today. This is one of those Psalms that is often slightly off in many English translations. In the revised edition of the New American Bible, which is our American Catholic Bible, the first verse is translated quite accurately: “The LORD is my shepherd, there is nothing I lack.”1

The first part of the last verse of Psalm 23, also needs a corrective translation. Often it is translated as “Only goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life.” A better translation is in the revised New American Bible: “Indeed, goodness and mercy will pursue me all the days of my life” (italics mine).2

The better translation is important because it gives us a more accurate insight into God’s very nature. God, who is Goodness and who is Mercy, doesn’t just passively follow you. God actively pursues you! This is what a good shepherd does: seek out the lost sheep.

Tonight, we hear about two women. One, Susanna, is innocent, the unwitting victim of wicked men, while the other, who remains nameless, is by all indications guilty, caught in the very act of adultery.

The good news we can take away from this is that God not only vindicates the innocent. Through Jesus Christ, even the guilty can be vindicated. God pursues you with no less gentleness, kindness, and mercy than he pursued the woman caught in adultery, arriving on the scene just in time.

While apostolic credentials of the pericope of Jesus' encounter with the woman taken in adultery is not in question, it was not clear to the Church for some time in which Gospel it belonged. It fits well in John’s Gospel because, like the three Gospels we proclaim for the Scrutiny of the Elect, you can put yourself in the place of the Samaritan woman whom Jesus knew everything about and desired to save all the more, of the blind to whom the Lord gave sight, and Lazarus, who he raised from the dead, it is easy to be the woman caught in adultery.

Of course, this is not to accuse everyone of adultery. It is merely to point out that we’re all sinners in need of God’s forgiveness. As we read in 1 John: “If we say, ‘We are without sin,’ we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.”3 Through Jesus Christ, by the Holy Spirit’s power, God is eager to forgive you. This is what the woman’s adulterous partner ran away from.

What is amazing is that is precisely through our lack that Christ gives us everything. He makes our fall the source of redemption. This may be his greatest miracle of all!

So badly does God want to forgive you that the first gift the Risen Lord gave to his Church after his resurrection was the Sacrament of Penance.4 It is through this sacrament you are reconciled to God and to the Church. It is through this sacrament that Christ says, “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on do not sin any more.”5

Jesus is always eager to meet you wherever you are. But he is not content to leave you where he found you. The Good Shepherd pursues you through the dark valley, accompanies you through (if you let him), sets a table before you, anoints your head with oil, and fills your cup to overflowing. Jesus+nothing=everything.

1 Psalm 23:1.
2 Psalm 23:6.
3 1 John 1:8.
4 John 8:11.
5 John 20:19-23.

Monday of the Eleventh Week in Ordinary Time

Readings: 1 Kings 21:1-6; Ps 5:2-7; Matthew 5:38-42 Jesus, Ahab, or Jezebel? This is the question posed to us by our readings. What do yo...