Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Praying for the Jewish People

On Good Friday the Church uses a an ancient form of the intercessions in which there is a brief introduction, silence and a prayer. In the intercessions we pray for absolutely from the Church and its leaders to atheists. One group we pray for in a special way are the Jews.The text of the prayer is as follows:

Almighty ever-living God,
who bestowed your promises on Abraham and his descendants, 

graciously hear the prayers of your Church,
that the people you fi
rst made your own
may attain the fullness of redemption.

I mention this because today's first reading has at certain times been misused by Christians.  Peter's words
“Let the whole house of Israel know for certain
that God has made him both Lord and Christ,
this Jesus whom you crucified.”

sadly have been used as an excuse for a blanket condemnation of all Jews at all time.

We must remember that Peter would have been speaking to the specific Jews in Jerusalem who would have in fact been the crowds yelling "Crucify Him". He was also using a common rhetorical style of the period.

The Second Vatican Council's declaration on relations with non-Christians states our position clearly.

True, the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ;(13) still, what happened in His passion cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today. Although the Church is the new people of God, the Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God, as if this followed from the Holy Scriptures. All should see to it, then, that in catechetical work or in the preaching of the word of God they do not teach anything that does not conform to the truth of the Gospel and the spirit of Christ. 

Monday, March 28, 2016

The other miracle

In today's gospel we read St. Matthew's account of Mary and the other woman's encounter with Jesus. It is easy for us to focus on the few select sightings. But what about the rest.

While most congregations heard the story of the women finding the empty tomb yesterday. If mass is celebrated on Easter Sunday in the evening, a different gospel is assigned, the disciples on the road to Emmaus from chapter 24 of St. Luke.

We tend to think of Easter as a happy time, and while it should be for us, for most of Jesus's disciples it was anything but happy.  The two disciples (not apostles) on the road are described by Jesus as looking (skuthropos) sad, sullen, mournful.   And this would have been the face of almost all of those who had gotten their hopes up, believing that Jesus was the Messiah. In the eyes of most of the world including most of his disciples Jesus's mission was an abject failure. Not only had he died without setting the people of Israel free, he had died the shameful death reserved for foreigners and insurrectionists.

When we think of Easter and miracles we think of the resurrection, and rightly so. But there was another miracle.  While vast crowds saw the crucifixion only a very few saw the resurrected Jesus. On top of that today's reading tells us that the chief priests and the elders paid the guards to say that the disciples had come and stolen the body in the middle of the night, a much more credible story.
Which was easier for people to believe a stolen body or a resurrection?

And yet, the Christian faith survived and grew. That is a miracle. There is no human explanation for the spread of Christianity given how it started out.  Were it a merely human endeavor, it would have died right then. The Church grew over the centuries into a truly Catholic body, with believers all over the world.  While the human beings who make up the Church have at times defiled it by their actions, there is no greater force for good in the world.

It is good for us to remember how close to extinction Christianity appeared after the crucifixion. It reminds us that the Church is not our work. It was, is, and always will be the work of God.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Easter and Baptism

Last night in Churches around the world thousands were baptized at Easter Vigils. Today in many churches the blessing and sprinkling with water will replace the penitential rite, as a reminder of baptism which we never repeat. 

This gives us a chance to reflect on the connection. To understand it we have to go back to last night's first reading, Genesis 1. It tells us that man and woman were created with two unique gifts: the image and likeness to God. We often hear this phrase without much thought.

The image is what gives the sacredness to all human life. From conception to natural death it remains in every human being. The image can never be lost or destroyed even by sin. 

The likeness is different. When the first man and woman sinned they destroyed the likeness. From that moment on we are born with image but not likeness. 

But God so loved us that he wished to restore the likeness. He became visible, the visible image of the invisible God and he suffered and died to undo what Adam had done, to restore the likeness, to make us whole again. 

St. Paul tells the Romans
For if we have grown into union with him through a death like his, we shall also be united with him in the resurrection.

How do we experience a death like his?  In baptism. 

We know that our old self was crucified with him, so that our sinful body might be done away with, that we might no longer be in slavery to sin

Christ who was like us in all things but sin, through the Holy Spirit, shares with us his likeness, the divine likeness. We are once again both the image and likeness of God. 

Today we recall not just the resurrection of Jesus but how it transformed humanity. Let us take time to appreciate the precious and delicate gift we received in baptism. Let us guard it like the treasure that it is. To borrow from the prayer in the rite of baptism say, May we walk always as Children of the Light. 

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Sheol to Hell

The gospel accounts tell us that Jesus died at 3 PM on Friday and that on Sunday morning the women found the empty tomb. What they don't say is when he rose or what happen during the approximately 40 hrs.  
 Scripture says repeatedly he was "raised from the dead". The phrase implies from among the dead, the dead being a group not a state. The oldest of our creeds say he "descended into hell". Hell here is not the post resurrection hell, the place of the damned, the evil.  We must remember that before  Christ's resurrection no human ever entered heaven. Heaven was God and Angels. The place of the dead, Sheol in Hebrew contained all the dead, good and bad. Imagine the soul of every dead person from Adam and Eve to the two thieves crucified with Jesus. 

After his death Jesus descends to Sheol and raises with him all souls worthy of a place in Heaven. He is the just judge. Much of the ancient art work depicts Jesus rising grasping people with each hand. Jesus opens the gates of heaven. 

He destroyed the power of “him who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and [delivered] all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage. Surely he did not help angels but rather the descendants of Abraham;” Heb 2:14-16

He changed the universe. Sheol could no longer hold prisoner people who die in a state of grace. Sheol became Hell.

Friday, March 25, 2016

The final hour

While we on the east coast sip our coffee, in Jerusalem it is already fast approaching three pm. Jesus would hav by now been in the last minutes of excruciating agony, struggling to push himself up just a little just to breathe. As best we know they have all run off but four according to St John: his Mother, her sister, Mary Magdalene and John. (Jn 19:25). Mary experiences the worst pain any parent can ever experience, the death of a child. John is caught between his own sorrow and trying to comfort Mary whose care has been entrusted to him. 

Did God bless really do all of this for me? For Us? And the answer is YES. 

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son... (John 3:16) 

The last night

As I sit here in the last few minutes of Holy Thursday I cannot help but try and imagine what that last night of Jesus's earthly life must have been like for him and for his followers. Jesus has been arrested. The final trial and condemnation will have to waist until daylight. Jesus has prayed that the cup be taken away but now knows that the answer from the Father is "No." Judas has betrayed him and Peter has denied him and most of the rest have abandoned him. How long and dark this night must have seemed to Jesus and to all those who followed him. Where did they go? How did they pass this night?
All the pain. All the suffering and sadness. And tomorrow there is even more to come. 

Two millennia later, we sleep comfortably in our beds the beneficiaries of a that suffering, that sacrifice. Tomorrow around the world Christians will walk the way of the Cross, we wil read St. John's account of the passion. We will venerate the cross on which he died. 

How fully are we willing to embrace that passion?

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Holding to our faith

On this last full day of Lent, we all struggle to hold on to our Christian values.  In the wake of the terrorist attacks in Belgium, our natural human reaction is to attack back hard and fast.  Terrorism is called terrorism precisely because of its ability to engender fear. In the last 24 hrs we have heard that fear given voice from the cries of the people of Belgium to our own politicians.  Today all our hearts turn to our Belgian brothers and sisters who morn.

As we prepare to move into the holiest days of the year, whatever our emotional reaction, we must hold fast to our Christian values.  As Catholics we believe in the right of self defense, but we do not believe that end justifies the means.  We cannot allow fear to cause us to throw aside our Christian principles and values in the misguided believe that it is the only way to defeat terrorism. 

As Christians, we are always people of hope, and we are also people who believe that when we are fighting true evil we are not alone. As the psalmist reminds us

A king is not saved by a great army, nor a warrior delivered by great strength.

The only way terrorists can truly win is if they get us to abandon our Christian values and imitate them. We can simultaneously remain Christian and win.

Over the next four days we will celebrate the greatest victory in the history of the world. Why should be fear? Why should we doubt? Why should we wavier at all from the core values of the gospel? 

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Where is he now?

Today's gospel is perhaps one of the strongest possible warning against judging others. After all, how many of us would be rather certain in our condemnation of Judas for his betrayal of Jesus? Any yet, this year in particular we may have to rethink that condemnation.

If we read St. Mark or St. Matthew, we may well feel justified in our condemnation of Judas. But this year we read St. Luke on Sunday and today we read St. John.  Both St. Luke and St. John

Then Satan entered into Judas the one surnamed Iscariot, who was counted among the Twelve (Lk. 22:3)

The devil had already induced Judas, son of Simon the Iscariot, to hand him over. (Jn 13:2)

So which was it. Was the betrayal of Jesus a mortal sin, evil freely chosen by Judas? Or was it the actions of a man possessed? The simple fact is we don't know. We cannot know. Only God knows the truth of the heart of Judas. 

But is that not the reality of every human being.  God alone can know the heart.  The best we can do is struggle to understand our own hearts, our own actions.  

In these last few days of Lent, on this one question, let us turn away from others, and look deeply into our own heart.   The first step in Reconciliation with God and the Church is contrition, genuine sorrow for the wrong we have done.  In this area of life it is good to be self-centered. The only heart I can know is my own and the only conscience I can examine is my own.  

It is so easy for any of us to judge others. We can do it in an instant, at work, or even while driving the car. It is much harder for us to engage in a true examination of conscience.

Now is the time.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

The voice of the people

Each year on this Sunday we read the story of the passion from one of the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark or Luke). Our tendency is to run them all together and to loose the unique way in which each tells the story. This year we read St. Luke. And perhaps one of the best things we can all do this week is spend some real time re-reading chapters 22 and 23 of St. Luke's gospel.

As I was praying with this gospel this weekend one word keep jumping out at me, "laos" (people). As Americans we love the phrase "We, the people" and yet St. Luke turns the notion on its head. When neither Pilate nor Herod can find Jesus guilty of any crime, it is "the people" who insist on his crucifixion.  It is "the people" who march him out to the place of his crucifixion and watch an innocent man die.

There are those who like to quote the saying "vox populi, vox dei" (the voice of the people is the voice of God). Perhaps they need to recall the full sentence from which it is taken.

"And those people should not be listened to who keep saying the voice of the people is the voice of God, since the riotousness of the crowd is always very close to madness"

While most of us  can agree that ours is the best form of government human beings have yet to devise, St. Luke's Passion calls us to a sobering reflection on the limitations of "the people."  In the New Testament there are "the people" and those who are "called apart" (ekklesia), the Church. This week above all weeks we called apart to reflect on what makes us as Christians different, unique, even when that uniqueness will cause us suffering.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Preparing for Holy Week

It seems almost impossible to believe that in just a few hours, with Evening Prayer tonight, Holy Week begins.  Today we need to pause and ask ourselves the annual question:

How will we make this week holy? How will this week be lived differently from the other 51 weeks of the year?

In many countries people have some cultural assistance, schools are closed and the entire week is a kind of national holiday.  Here in the US we must take personal responsibility for observing the holiness of the week.  Today is a chance to look at each day make some choices about how we will spend our time differently.

Tomorrow the Church celebrates the combined Palm/Passion Sunday. We begin by marking Jesus's entry into Jerusalem and this year we will read the Passion according to St. Luke.

Monday here in the Diocese of Richmond we will celebrate the Chrism Mass at our Cathedral at 6 PM. This is the mass at which the priests renew the promises made at their ordination, and the Bishop blesses/consecrates the oils that are used for sacraments throughout the following year.

Tuesday and Wednesday there are no unique celebrations but it is still important for each of us to look for ways of living our faith more deeply. Perhaps instead of television or internet we spend more time on each of these days reading the scriptures and praying, meditating on what those days leading up to his crucifixion must have been like for Jesus. Perhaps daily mass is not part of your routine, but should be for Holy Week. And even if you can't make it to daily mass, perhaps it would at least be good to stop by Church on these days and pray.

Holy Thursday we gather in our parishes to celebrate the Mass of the Lord's Supper.

Good Friday we recall The Passion of the Lord. On this day we always read the Passion according to St. John.

Holy Saturday we spend the day in quiet reflection, recalling the time our savior spent in the tomb. And after dark we come together for The Great Easter Vigil.

Easter Sunday we conclude our Holy Week celebrating that day when Jesus rose from the dead.

One week out of 52 each year the Church asks us to step back from the ordinary, the mundane, the routine and concentrate on the Holy.  God became incarnate, suffered and died on a cross to free us and give us eternal life. It seems to me the least we can do, is stop and choose how we will dedicate this week to HIM.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Hear and Now

Today we read a long portion of perhaps the most difficult gospel, St. John.  Even those of us who are Christians have a hard time grasping the theology in St. John's writing. How many of us think of eternal life as something in the future? When  a person dies, we say they "passed."  But take a close look at Jn 5:24

whoever hears my word and believes in the one who sent me 
has eternal life and will not come to condemnation, but 
has passed from death to life.

So according to John those who hear and believe 
Have (present tense, already, now) eternal life, and
have passed (past tense, already finished) from death to life. 

If John is right, for those who listen and believe, passing from death to life is not off in the future. By the grace of God we live the new, eternal life here and now. True, we don't have it in its fullness yet, but we have it. 

The hard part it seems is the hearing and believing. That is the constant struggle. Sometimes we either don't hear or don't even want to hear. Other times we hear but don't believe. We choose to either believe the culture or believe ourselves. We hear the truth of the gospel but choose to believe what we like. In doing so we risk throwing away the gift of eternal life. 

Hearing and believing are ongoing challenges. We must immerse ourself in the words of Jesus and believe. Then, according to St. John's gospel, we can live in the new life Jesus offers, right now. 

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

The Fullfillment

In today's gospel we hear Jesus say that he has come not to abolish the law but to fulfill it. As Christians we recognize that the OT and its associated covenant were a first step in a process that God began we he created the first human being.  We were created to be in relationship to one another and to God.  By misusing the very freedom God gave us we disrupted those relationships and yet God did not abandon us.

He forged a covenant with Abraham and through Moses he gave the Law. The centerpiece of the Old Testament Law are the Ten Commandments. And if we know nothing else from the Old Testament, we should know these.

Then God took another step forging a New and Eternal Covenant in Jesus Christ.  The new covenant is captured in the New Testament. But where is it's "ten commandments", its centerpiece? For Christians the very heart of the teaching of Christ is captured in the Sermon on the Mount, chapters 5-7 of Matthew's gospel.  Here we have the law of God in its fullest form.  In these three chapters of the Bible Jesus provides us with the most clear and concise explanation of what it means to be Christian.

We all know the phrase Sermon on the Mount, but when was the last time you sat down and really read it, mediated on it, prayed about it?  In this season of Lent, as we prepare to celebrate the great events that brought about the salvation of the world, perhaps now is the time to take out the Bible. Open it to Chapter 5 of Matthew's gospel, and read. Read these three chapters as if for the first time. Allow the words to sink into the depths of our hearts. Use them as an examination of conscience.

Beyond the Beatitudes how much of the Sermon do we really know, and more importantly how much of it do we really live.