Gaudate! "Are You the One?"

Gaudate!  "Are You the One?"
Third Sunday of Advent, "Gaudate" Sunday, Year A, December 12, 2010.
[Is 35:1–6a.  Ps 146:6–7, 8–9, 9–10.  Jas 5:7–10.  Mt 11:2–11.]

Alexander Andrejewitsch Iwanow: Head of John the Baptist
Today is “Gaudate Sunday” The Sunday of joy! When you take purple and lighten it, you get the color of rose. We show this lightening, this breaking through of joy in the midst of Advent waiting by the color of Rose in the candle that we light, and even in the color of our vestments.

That term “Gaudate”: rejoice—be joyful over and over again—is from the entrance antiphon for today’s Mass.

We almost never say it, because it is not said when an entrance hymn is sung.  But it sums up the day. It is this:

“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice! The Lord is near.”

Isn’t that great? The Lord is near!

We need to hear this today!

It was certainly great news to those who were looking for and waiting for the Messiah to come.  This was a time of longing for the Jews, a wait that spanned lifetimes: the Jews were calling to the Lord for centuries!

And God has been calling back!

God has always called all people to return to him since the time of the fall from Eden; and man has called up to God to be with him. Listen to this from the prophet Isaiah:

"Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, with the mountains quaking before you" (Is 63:19b).

That was some 700 years before the birth of Jesus.  And from that same Prophet Isaiah, we hear good news that we heard in the first reading today:

"The desert and the parched land will exult;  will rejoice, will bloom! " 

Just imagine that kind of joy: Joy so great that it sets a desert into blooming!

Joy so great that even the plants smile back!

And then these amazing words:
     "say to those whose hearts are frightened: Be strong, fear not!  Here is your God, he comes with  
      vindication; with divine recompense
      he comes to save you."

He comes to Save us!

And then, from our Gospel reading, there is John the Baptist, alone and in prison. And from that dark cell, where he can see very little daylight, and certainly not the stars, He calls to his disciples and he tells them
to go and ask Jesus:

“Are you the one who is to come?....

This question, from the man who was making straight the path of Jesus!

This: from the man who even before he was born, leapt in the womb of his mother at the voice of Mary,
the mother of his savior.

When Jesus came to be baptized by John, it is certain that John knew Jesus, because he said:

“I need to be baptized by you, and yet you are coming to me?"
Jesus insisted, though to “fulfill all righteousness." (Mt 3:14–15).

And now, on this day of rejoicing comes the one little sad question. It should kind of bother us a little bit:

"Are you the one?" 

Maybe John’s prison time brought him into doubt, but I think that John was a good teacher, a good messenger, to the end.  So in that process of him decreasing and Jesus increasing, the time had come to send his disciples to Jesus.

And as a good rabbi, he sends them with a question.:  "Are you the one?"

John’s disciples need to ask for themselves.

And listen to this amazing response from Jesus:

Jesus replies that the blind see, the lame walk,  lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, even the dead are raised!

These are amazing signs of the messiah!

So, in true rabbinic fashion, Jesus tells these people to look and see what is going on – look what he is doing: these are signs of the messiah.

And Jesus adds this very important statement:

     “And blessed is the one who takes no offense at me.”

Jesus offers this beatitude, this blessing on those who are not offended, not disappointed that Jesus is not a warrior with sword and dagger.

Instead, he brings love.  And I would think that there is no person so strong as one who puts on love above all else. There is no person so strong or so free

As one who is drawn by cords of love. Not by cords of hatred or violence.

In Jesus’ poetic way, he is really telling John, in words of today: “John, today, if you’re looking at me, what you see is what you get.”

But, remember John is in prison. He doesn’t see.  Can we excuse him that?

After all, maybe you and I, in a certain manner, are in prison, too: Maybe we are being held captive by whatever it is of the world that keeps us from seeing the stars…, or for that matter, anything that interferes with our ability to see.. not with physical eyes, but with the eyes of the heart.

Maybe the bars of our prisons stand in the way of the stars that pinpoint in so many uncounted numbers
the light should give us great hope.

Could it be that we don’t truly understand Jesus?

Could it be that Jesus is not fulfilling our expectations about who and what a Messiah should be?

He does not slay our enemies.

We still have all kinds of illnesses and disabilities. Injustice, abuse of power, oppression, they are all still with us.

So, if Jesus didn’t bring an end to all these things—just what did He bring us?

There is a simple answer: Jesus brings us God!

God who walks with us! God who sweats and eats and drinks with us..

God who smiles at us… who is cold and tired and hungry with us…

He shares our human condition. And he blesses those who take no offense at Him.

And then we have John back at the prison.  John is straining to see the stars through the prison bars.

And, on that subject of the stars…

We are encouraged, even though today is a solemnity of the Lord, to call to mind that December 12 is usually celebrated as the feast of the most Blessed Mother under her title of “Our Lady of Guadalupe.”

She is the patroness of all the Americas.

And I want to call your attention to this particular image of her manifestation, because there is a particular “star significance” about her mantle.
Scientists who have investigated the original miraculous image of Our Lady of Guadalupe discovered this magnificent fact among many others:

When they took the pattern of the stars on Our Lady’s mantle, and laid it out over a construction of the position of the stars in December 1531, there is an exact match of the position of the constellations as seen in Mexico on Dec. 12th and the stars that adorn the mantle of our Lady of Guadalupe.

Another miraculous sign.

And just as John the Baptist pointed his disciples to Jesus, so we know the Blessed Mother also points always to Jesus.

That is even more reason to rejoice today! Because these two great “pointings” intersect in the liturgical calendar this year!

And yet, back at the Gospel scene, there is John in prison, and Jesus tells us that even the “least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he!

Poor John! Less than the least in the kingdom?

There is something new going on with Jesus – and while John is the messenger—the last man in a long line of prophets—the man who points to Jesus, the ones whose hearts are changed as well as their minds, are the ones who follow Jesus

They are what is called ontologically changed – changed at the very root of their being—their hearts and minds and very bodies are walking with Jesus!

These are the ones who are of the kingdom of heaven!

This doesn’t mean that John is eternally doomed. No, that is certainbly not it.

It should tell us that while John points to the promise, Jesus transforms those who follow them.

Jesus makes all things new!

You and I, transformed by our Baptism:  We all become co-workers in his vineyard of redemption.

Jesus offers us a share in it even today.
And every day – he offers us a sharing of his divine life in the Eucharist!

He helps us to be born again, over and over…recreated in his image.

Today, and throughout the year, God smiles at us!

How about that? How many of us have taken the time to understand that in all of the hustle and bustle of our lives, God smiles at us!


And so let’s take that with us today: let us Rejoice because he calls out to us and to all creation…

Jesus’ great promise of salvation is like all heaven looking down in the darkness with one huge, cosmic smile!

Today we rejoice because God calls out to us in our poverty!

So on this Sunday of Rose, this Sunday of “Gladness”, let us simply: Rejoice in the Lord always!

And blessed will we all be, if we take no offense at Him!

Finding the Center

Giotto: The Kiss of Judas
Finding the Center
Thirty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C, November 14, 2010
[Mal 3:19–20a.  Ps 98:5–6, 7–8, 9.  2 Thes 3:7–12.  Lk 21:5–19.]   

The great Bible scholar William Barkley once wrote,

“There are two great days in a person's life - the day we are born and the day we discover why.”

That’s a beautiful thought to help us begin to try and understand what Jesus is telling the people we encounter in today’s Gospel: people who are standing before the magnificence of the Second Jerusalem Temple.

It was the center of all worship to God.

And yet the true Temple is there, too – right in their midst – right in the center of things.

That Temple is Jesus.

The Gospel that we hear today is good news wrapped in the prophetic voice of Jesus who tells us about the signs of the times.

Every time I hear this Gospel, I worry for those who hear it with me, and I wonder how many people greet this Gospel with fear and anxiety. How many hear only the doom and gloom of Jesus’ prophetic message and fail to hear the joy and the hope and the call to continuing conversion.

Jesus speaks here in what we call “apocalyptic” terms. We hear that word, and naturally think about the end of the world.

The word apocalypse refers really not to the end, but to the “lifting of the veil” It is a combination of the word apo – “off” and kalyptein – “to cover.”

So Jesus’ words are an unveiling, a revelation of something – and here, it is a great truth.

The Gospel writer Luke is not so much revealing only the events of the end times, but also really telling us all about the time of crisis in which his community finds themselves.

After all, they are also seeing wars, earthquakes, and famines. They who hear the Gospel in the early days are being handed over - some of them by their own family members – and they are being persecuted even to death.

Jesus’ prediction of the destruction of the Temple – well, that happened in 70 A.D., when the Romans laid siege to Jerusalem.

What is most difficult for us to determine in this Gospel is how the apocalyptic material and the descriptions of real history of the Gospel writer’s time are being interwoven so that the message is for us as well.

We don’t want to be scared into submission to God. That’s not God’s style.

A people who follow God because they are slaves to fear are not a people who are free.

A people who follow God because he is the bright morning sun of justice are the freest people of all.

God doesn’t call us into fear. He draws us with cords of love.  He calls us into a kingdom that is characterized by His justice, love, and peace. Remember that!

Hold that in your hearts today – do not be afraid.

We see or hear all too often that one or another doomsayer is predicting the end of the world – we see it in the proclamations of self-appointed prophets, or we are scared out of our wits by some movie or TV show.
There have been over 220 major predictions that the end of the world was immanent even to the date and time – the world is still here!

Two of those first gloom and doom predictors and messiah pretenders are even named in the Book of Acts (5:36–37).

Jesus tells his followers and us: don’t be deceived – don’t follow them!

I’ll let you in on a secret: No one knows about the end of time!

Jesus tells us, “But of that day or hour, no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” (Mark 13:32. Also Matt 24:36).

What Jesus tells us in today’s Gospel is: Don’t let yourselves be duped! Don’t be unprepared….

And we have heard that message time and again over the past year.

There are stories about the servant who begins to misbehave when his master is delayed; About waiting for the bridegroom who comes at an unexpected time; About masters of the house who don’t know when the house is going to be broken into.

But we still don’t know the time.

And we’ve heard about a shepherd who goes in search of his lost sheep and a father who welcomes back his prodigal son.

These stories tell us something about who God is!

And so, even in all the stuff of persecution and suffering that the world was subject to, and is subject to,

and will be subject to, we are not to be afraid.

We need to find our center, and we need to know that the center is God.

Fr. Robert Barron, who is a renown preacher, reminds us in a recent column about the beautiful Rose Windows and the “wheel of fortune” that are focal points in the Gothic cathedrals.

The middle point of these windows and wheels is Christ.

On all of the spokes – at the outer rim – are depictions of saints or scripture stories.

On the “wheel of fortune” at the top, is a king and the inscription “I am reigning.” At the three o’clock position and falling downward is another man with the inscription “I have reigned.” At the bottom is a poor man with the inscription “I am without power.” At the nine o’clock position and rising up is a man who looks toward the king: “I will reign.”

Four points: Man at his finest, man falling, man at his most powerless, and man ascending.

A wheel of fortune and misfortune.

Man at his best… Man at his worst…

But in the center of it all – there is Christ.

You know, there is a theoretical point in the center of any wheel that is static, is still, is unmoved.

And from that center point, everything makes sense, everything has order, everything has beauty.

The center – that’s the point we need to move toward.

Sometimes we need to be reminded that we are not the center.

We need to realize that we are often too far away from God because we have tried to make God in our image instead of trying to make ourselves conform to what God wants for us!

And God tells us again and again that He wants us to have a share in the divine life – in His divine life!

Will we try to be conformed to that?

God wants us to become holy as our father in heaven is holy.

And then, the hour? the day? the signs of the times? They will hold no fear.

We will be ever closer to finding out that second great day that William Barclay spoke about – the day when we discover the why we were born.

In the center, my dear friends, is that vision of hope and glory – a glimpse of the righteousness and life that we hope and yearn for without fear or terror.

Several verses later on in this Gospel, words we do not hear in today's reading, Jesus finishes his discourse, and he tells us this: 
"But when these signs begin to happen, stand erect and raise your heads because your redemption is at     hand."

That second great day that William Barclay spoke about is there – the day when we find out why we were born – to be redeemed!

To be brought back, to be healed, to be welcomed in from our exile.

On that day, we will see what the prophet Malachi told us: we will see the glorious rising of the “sun of justice with its healing rays.”

Getting it right

Getting it right
Twenty-Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C. October 10, 2010
[2 Kgs 5:14–17. Ps 98:1, 2–3, 3–4. 2 Tm 2:8–13. Lk 17:11–19.]

“They stood at a distance”… Well, yeah, of course they stood at a distance! They were lepers!

Cleansing of Ten Lepers Codex Aureus Epternacensis. Artist unknown

Nobody wants to get next to a leper.  Just the mention of leprosy sends shivers up and down the spines of many people.  It did back them, it still does today.

Leprosy is an awful disease – nowadays, you’ll hear it referred to as “Hansen’s Disease” after Gerhard Hansen, who identified the bacteria that causes the disease.

This disease has been around for thousands of years, and Sacred Scripture has an awful lot to say about it. If you have a few minutes, take a look at Leviticus chapters 13 and 14. It is a veritable diagnostic and statistical manual of leprosy.

Just the word “leprosy” brings the images of patches and sores on the skin; boils and red marks; and numbness in the arms and legs. The nerves die, and as these things progress, it is a very public deterioration of the body.

It causes great suffering. Searing pain.  But even now, we know it is not as contagious as we might have thought. Yet, most people will still go out of their way to avoid the leper - or anyone who they think might be one.

Listen to this, from Leviticus - listen to how isolating Leprosy was even back then:

     "The one who bears the sore of leprosy shall keep his garments rent and his head bare, and shall muffle his beard; he shall cry out, 'Unclean, unclean!'
As long as the sore is on him he shall declare himself unclean, since he is in fact unclean.
He shall dwell apart, making his abode outside the camp.” (Lev 13:45–46).

So there they are, these ten people with leprosy, who raise their voices to Jesus, but probably not their eyes.
They ask only for pity.  

They are so far along in this disease that they could scarcely hope for anything else.

They are brought down low, not only in body, but also in mind and in spirit.

And what makes all of this the worse and so deeply sad for them, and for us to even hear it: is that these ten people are really only sick because they had the great misfortune to come into contact with the bacteria.  That’s all.

But the belief of the time was that the sickness they had was punishment for sinfulness.

If that were so, the disease of leprosy was a particularly awful punishment – an observable deterioration of the body in payment for the disease of the soul. Or so they thought.

How awful that must have been for these ten people! Not only did they have to put up with the pain and the ache and the isolation of this disease:  they had to cope with a lot of people who never knew them, but still judged them as sinners.  Unclean not only in body, but in soul and in spirit.
Imagine how they must have felt.

And so, it is no real surprise that there was even a Samaritan among them. Jews had hated Samaritans for centuries, because they thought the Samaritans were half-breeds and heretics.

They did share a common bloodline, but through pagan intermarriage, they came to believe a lot of different things from the Jews in the Southern Kingdom. You can read all about it: while you're looking at Leviticus, check out the Second Book of Kings, Chapter 17.

But leprosy is a great equalizer, so why not have a Samaritan among them?  All are equally sick, all are equally isolated, equally hopeless, equally regarded as sinners. Why not befriend a Samaritan in the process?

But Jesus knows better. He looked at those ten people and he read their hearts.  

And the miracle that happens - and I think this is an especially great part of the story - is not an immediate one.  In response to this cry for pity, for mercy, Jesus says just this one line: 

     “Go, show yourselves to the priests.”

That's not really a remarkable statement, given the lives of these lepers, and the laws about them.
The priests, after all can verify if there is a cure - they can also verify if there is a disease.

So on the surface to these ten lepers, it is just Jesus reciting the law; nothing more.  Kind of a disappointment.
Everybody knew at that time: No human being could cure true leprosy!

The miracle that occurs, though, occurs not in Jesus' direct presence, but "on the way"  - ant this reminds us of the things that occur "on the way" in our lives!  I think that is a beautiful part of this story! 
Imagine you are one of those lepers:
     hopeless for all your days.
     You have literally nothing to lose.
You hear that there is this Rabbi named Jesus, who has a reputation as a miracle worker;
and so you stand “outside the camp” of the town.

Jesus passes by, and in just that one moment of hope that can summon up - hope that you thought was dead in your body, your mind, your spirit forever, you look, and you raise your voice, and you cry out:

     Jesus: have pity on me!  .... have pity on me....
That's all you can say.  That must have stuck in your throat like the last gasp of a dying man.

And you hear those words of the law pronounced: "Go show yourselves to the priest..."   How disappointing. 

And then as you go off, you begin to feel some subtle differences in your body with each step you take. You feel better... and finally you look down at those arms that used to be filled with boils sores... and what do you see?...

New, supple skin!

You straighten up and look around you, and you see that the other nine who are with you - they know too.  They're not covered with sores either!

Smiles form – joy breaks out! - shrieks of  laughter, shrieks joy that come from lips that for all too long were silent – except to call out “unclean, unclean.”

And you think that since Jesus told you to go show yourself to the priest, you’d better go do that.

You go there, and show yourself to the priest - and then you go where your heart is.
Maybe you haven’t seen your family in over 20 years.
You want to kiss your wife, kiss your children. You say, "After I go to the priest, I’m going to my house!”

Maybe you know that your father is close to death and you haven’t been near him in years. You say, “I’m going to go kiss my father!" 

All these things are good things.  There is nothing wrong with them. These are nine people who followed the law. They did what Jesus told them to do.

And then there's that Samaritan in the group. He is still alone, still hated, still in a foreign land, still very much “outside the camp” and outside the law.

But he begins to think about retracing his steps.
He thinks, “Where and how did this happen to me? Because I woke up this morning with no hope, and now I’m cured!”

Little by little he puts the pieces together, And he comes to that very recent memory of Jesus the rabbi who actually smiled at him as he told him to go and see the priest.

And so he doesn’t go where Jesus commanded him to go.
Instead, he turns right around and he goes where he knows he has to go! Where his heart tells him to go.

He goes right back to Jesus, he praises God, and throws himself right at the feet of Jesus.

It is important to see what might otherwise pass us by in this little action:  because Jesus says:
     “Has none but this foreigner returned to give thanks to God?”
Jesus didn’t say “to me.”

Only this foreigner comes back to give thanks to God!

What is being said there? Is thanks to Jesus a thanks to God?  Yes! It is - we know that,
but the Samaritan didn’t know that.

He thought Jesus was a good man, a rabbi, a healer.

And yet, in going back to Jesus, the Samaritan got it right!

The Samaritan somehow, in the darkness of his memory, knew that the healing of leprosy was a sign of the messiah!

A great and glorious sign – and it happened to him – a Samaritan!

All he knows is that in the morning when the sun broke over him, it might as well , it might as well have not have broken over him at all, because he was a man with no hope.
And by evening, he had within himself a light that would never, ever be put out.

When he went back to Jesus, Jesus looked down and told him something even more beautiful: Jesus looked at him and he said: “Your faith has saved you!”

That Samaritan knew that God doesn’t really need our thanks. God knows who he is. 

God is the one person in all of creation who doesn't have an identity crisis! 

But we need to know who God is, and how God acts in our lives. And we need to thank God just so we keep it straight in our minds where the good comes from. 

And that's where the Samaritan got it right – he realized the gift was from God!

That Samaritan has no more to wake up in the morning and think that he is outside the camp... that he's unclean, that he's hated, that he's without hope.   
That's the Good News of today's Gospel. 
That gift to the Samaritan is also a gift to us. 

We can do this...

We can retrace our steps, too, and realize that Jesus has also offered us the gift of salvation!

Saint Paul tells us: “the kingdom of God is not a matter of food and drink, but of righteousness, peace, and joy” (Rom 14:17–18).

And we, who try to follow the example of the Samaritan,
if we do it well...

My dear friends, we will never have to sit outside the camp.  

Life-giving Love: Loving First, Loving Well - Redux

Prodigal Son by Pompeo Batoni (1773)

Life-giving Love
Loving First, Loving Well - Redux
Twenty-Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C
[Ex 32:7–11, 13–14.  Ps 51:3–4, 12–13, 17, 19.  1 Tm 1:12–17.  Lk 15:1–32.]   

The Gospel today is a long one, but it is necessary to hear it in its entirety if we are to hear the message well.

And one of the first things we have to keep in mind is that all three stories: lost sheep, lost coin, lost son, are preceded by this very important line, said by the Pharisees and scribes who were complaining:

"This man welcomes sinners and eats with them." 

In the original Greek of Luke’s Gospel, the word used for “welcome” is a very positive word: prosdechomai (pros DECH om aye), and it means welcome in this sense: to wait for anxiously, to cherish. 

This man welcomes sinners - he actually cherishes them - and he even eats with them! 

Jesus cherishes and waits anxiously for the sinners who come to Him – both then and now! (Imagine that!)  These sinners, these unclean ones, were becoming a part of Jesus’ following. How that must have put off the Pharisees and scribes!

The three “Parables of Lost and Found” that Jesus tells are His response to the grumbling Pharisees. And to understand just how these sounded to the Jews of Jesus' day, we have to understand a bit about the cultural context.

The shepherd that we hear about is so concerned about one lost sheep that he leaves ninety-nine sheep in the desert – unprotected!  The woman who loses one coin – then finds it and throws a party that probably costs ten times the worth of the coin!

Jesus actually puts these as hypothetical questions. He isn't really looking for a response: "What man among you?.... or What woman?....  These questions are metaphorical, to help us consider the abundant love of God.

What we do need to note is the joy of the shepherd and the woman. "Rejoice with me,"  they say. 
And then there is the prodigal son – Jesus changes his tone here to tell us a story. We all know this as a story of wandering away and being welcomed back.

But this story is really much, much more to the people who heard it from Jesus– it was even perhaps outrageous to the people who heard it from Jesus!

It is about possessions and power; anger, shame, and repentance; death, and new life. This is about radical behavior.

Listen carefully to what the son asks of the father:
     “give me the share of your estate that should come to me.”

When are estates divided up? At the death of the father!

The son isn’t saying, “Hey, Dad: I’m headed out for an adventure.”

He is saying, in essence, “Father, I am disowning you, you are as good as dead to me. Give me what is mine under the Law, and I’m out of here.”

Those are tough words! In the culture of the time, no child would dare to say such things to his father. They are words that could literally cost him his neck! He could have been taken to the gate and stoned for such disrespect. That is by Mosaic Law: we read it in Deuteronomy.
But there is no punishment. Instead, there is probably just the father’s heartbreak – and he goes ahead and distributes the wealth.  He must distribute it according to the Law, so the matter becomes public knowledge. The whole village knows that the son has challenged the father; they know about this fracture in the family’s life.

Imagine what that father must have overheard – the buzz of the neighbors, the whispered conversations at the gate. 

And yet, it is not the father who is the dead man, but rather the prodigal son. He goes off on the wide road to dissipation – to the excesses of a different life that are literally going to scatter him.

And we see where the son ends up – in a distant country, and in dire need. He is so badly in need that he ends up hired out to feed pigs!

Here is the Prodigal: he has squandered all his assets, he no longer has any heritage on the land, he is in a foreign land, among the unclean; and while he feeds the swine, he isn’t even permitted to eat what he feeds them!

And yet, he “comes to himself” –he recovers his senses. He begins a process of healing, because he can never be happy unless he comes to really understand who he is and just where he stands.

He decides to go back to his father –he knows that he doesn’t deserve to be called his father’s son; that in these outrageous circumstances there is no way he could even hope to reclaim his sonship.

But he still wants something: to be treated as one of his father’s slaves – that, at least, will give him some kind of security.

He also knows that going back will be a painfully public act. The community will see him and mock him, and maybe even beat him up or kill him!

And the father – his love for his son has never ended, despite being so thoroughly dishonored by his son. He waits, he hopes with anxious anticipation. He cherishes his son, even through all this!

And when the son comes into view, the father runs to him!

This broken-hearted father is filled with joy, he welcomes the son.

And what is scandalous about that?

He does this without any kind of an intermediary: back then, a “reconciler” would have acted as an agent so that the injured party doesn’t lose face.

And if the father had seen the son from a distance, you can bet that others in the village had seen him, too.

But before there can be any kind of confrontation, the father races past the villagers and offers his son protection, compassion, understanding, and affection beyond what the son might ever have imagined.
And the father's love takes all of the son’s bartering power away from the son by loving him well.
The father interrupts his son before the son can even ask, to be a slave.  The father reclaims him as his son - he transforms the son! That is a self-empting love at work here!

Open arms! Robe on his shoulders, ring on his finger, sandals on his feet! Slaughter the fattened calf – have a feast!

And the father says: “This son of mine was dead, and has come to life again.”  He has come to new life as a son!

A feast commences. Certainly it is not a feast to honor the son’s return. It is a feast of the father’s joy!
"Let us celebrate," says the father.

But then there is the older brother out in the field, who learns about all this from a servant. And anger flares. Probably this anger has been simmering since the day that the prodigal son rebelled.

Now his anger boils over: the older son refuses to enter the house, and the father is thrown into another situation of public humiliation.

Now it is the older son who is publically disrespectful of the father. And in his anger, this older brother has disowned his brother: it is no longer his brother, it is “this son of yours…”

Can you imagine what the older brother might have said about his father next? Maybe he turned to the people and said something like,
     “This man, my father, welcomes sinners, and even eats with them!”

And the father’s answer? Put away your anger: "You are with me always. Everything that I have is yours!"

How that must have rung inside the minds and hearts of the people gathered around Jesus for this story! How the Pharisees probably craned their necks and said:
     “What? No Law? No punishment?”
No: mercy instead – radical, life-giving, and all-embracing love!

Imagine a father whose love is greater than death. Imagine a love that actually brings back to life!  Imagine a love that loves first, loves always,  loves best!

And yet, there is the thought that the parable hasn’t resolved. It has just stopped.

We don’t know what the older son did. Did he swallow his anger? Did he allow himself to accept his father’s love? Did he go in to the feast?

Or maybe he is still outside, where the darkness now gathers? Is he still out of touch and still very much a slave of his own pride, his own anger, his own sense of injustice?

Has it dawned on him that his father’s love transcends all brokenness, all emptiness, all anger?

If there is one thing that we might well think about and pray about, it is this: If you were the older brother, would you go in?

These three parables: lost sheep, lost coin, lost son have one thing in common. It is in one phrase for the shepherd, the woman, and the father:

Rejoice with me! I have found what is lost! What was dead has come to life again!

And what does Jesus say at the end of each but just this:

“there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need of repentance."

This Jesus – God’s Son – he welcomes sinners, and even eats with them!

So, will we go in to the feast with God our Father? Everything he has, he has offered to us!

Loving First, Loving Well

Loving First, Loving Well
Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time,
Year C

[Dt 30:10-14. Ps 69:14, 17, 30-31, 33-34, 36, 37. Col 1:15-20. Lk 10:25-37.]

“What must I do to inherit eternal life?” The question that the scholar of the Law asks Jesus is one that the scholar thought would “test” Jesus.

Jesus asks him back, “What is written in the Law?” Remember, Jesus tells us that he has not come to abolish the Law. And so he looks to the Law. The scholar gives the correct answer according to the law of Moses: love God; love your neighbor.

But that love for God is a whole and first and immediate kind of love: whole heart, whole being, whole strength, whole mind.

It is a love that puts God first.

And in that kind of love for God, anyone can love anyone else better because he loves God first!

But then, the scholar drops what he thinks is the big bomb of the test. He asks, “Who is my neighbor?” What he means by that is, “Just who are God’s people?”

And Jesus turns the tables. Jesus answers a basic and elemental question for us about relationships. About who we are and how we are to be and act in the world.

And Jesus tells the man the story – the Parable – of the Good Samaritan.

Parables are stories that allow us to put things “side by side” so to speak. They help us to see a truth by way of example in the story.

So, we have a man going down the 23-mile long steep and dangerous road from Jerusalem to Jericho. That’s no easy trip, and the road was notoriously dangerous. Robbers used to hide and attack unsuspecting travelers.

We know nothing at all about the man who gets beat up and left for dead.

He has no specific identity. He stripped and beaten, and “half dead.” He is no particular man – and so he can be any man.

The priest and the Levite who pass the victim and do nothing probably had their reasons to avoid him. Let’s not judge them – except to see that neither one of them was a "neighbor" to the beaten man. Maybe they are so concerned with their own observance of the laws of cleanliness that they simply pass the beaten man by.  Maybe they think he is already dead! 

But look who stops and helps: a Samaritan!

To most Jews, the Samaritans were outcasts, half-breeds, and heretics. And the ill feelings were mutual.
The Samaritan was probably the last person a Jew would we would expect to stop.

But he does stop. And he binds up the victim’s wounds and takes him to an inn, stays with him overnight, and even pays for the victim’s care and offers to go further into debt for him!

It is important that we go back to the Scholar’s question: “Who is my neighbor?”

Now the answer becomes clearer. Don’t look to see if the victim is a friend or an enemy, someone close  or a total unknown. See only that it is someone who is really one of us – a sister or brother in the image of God - who needs help.

And if we love God first and best, we know His love; His compassion, and we can extend that.

I have a friend who has it in her heart to go to minister to the poor in Uganda.

She made plans, got herself connected with an ecumenical medical mission, and took off from Philadelphia for Uganda a few weeks ago on what was her second trip to Africa.

She sent us a photo of her assisting at surgery in Uganda – standing in a makeshift operating room.

This week, a Philadelphia Police Detective heard the call for help in the wake of the Duck boat accident. He ran to the pier, tossed his gun and wallet aside, and jumped in to save four of the survivors. He said, “I was just doing the same thing that anybody would have done.”

My friend is home from Africa now, and back in the routine of being a wife and mom. The police detective was back on duty the day after the accident.

And back at the parable: After all of his good work, the Samaritan is still a Samaritan; still the same outcast to the Jews, the same object of scorn.

Everything, it seems, has returned to “normal” as the world looks at it.

Yet, somewhere in Judea, a man lived once, because the most unlikely person saw him as a neighbor.

Somewhere in Africa, one woman now lives because a nameless women from America loved her enough to visit her village and assist at her surgery.

And right across the river, four people live because a cop loved enough to put his life at risk for the good of others.

And somewhere, in God’s big storehouse, where all the good deeds of the world are stored, the store has gotten a bit more full.

The world is just a little bit better.

These people have shown us how to love well. Because they have loved God first!

There is an old saying that we all have to watch out for: It is inspired by the way of the world. It says:

“No good deed goes unpunished.”

Mother Teresa has answered that. Here is something from lines that are written on the wall of her home for children in Calcutta:

     People are often unreasonable, irrational, and self-centered.
          Love them anyway.
     If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives.
          Be kind anyway.
     The good you do today, will often be forgotten.
          Do good anyway.
     Give the world the best you have, and it will never be enough.
          Give your best anyway.
     In the final analysis, it is between you and God.
     It was never between you and them anyway.

If we can do this, I think we will begin to see and to experience the love that God has for us. We might even see that God Himself in Jesus has become a good Samaritan: the stranger who took on human flesh and walked among us, and healed us, and gave us the promise of eternal life without asking first if we were friend or foe.

God bends down to us all with love.

The great lesson of today’s parable is that we can share God’s viewpoint in a love that looks beyond who people are, to see what they can become.

Moses tells us: this is not mysterious, not far away. It is “…already in your mouths and in your hearts; you have only to carry it out.”

The Jar of Precious Treasure

The Jar of Precious Treasure
Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C
[2 Sm 12:7-10, 13. Ps 32:1-2, 5, 7, 11. Gal 2:16, 19-21. Lk 7:36-8:3.]

Today we hear Luke’s beautiful story of the power of forgiveness and love,  and the story has actually been prepared for us today by all of the readings:

In Second Samuel, King David is brought to see his sinfulness, and when he declares that sinfulness, he is told that God has forgiven him.

The Responsorial Psalm sings of the joy of the person who confesses fault to the Lord and receives forgiveness.

And Paul tells us in the reading from Galatians of the power of faith in God – a justification that comes to the believer apart from works of the Mosaic law.

Justification that is God’s gracious gift.

All of these prepare and help us to understand something of Luke’s beautiful Gospel story.

In all four Gospels there is a story about a woman who anoints Jesus with oil. Each time someone rebukes the woman. And in all four gospels, the woman says nothing;  she never speaks back – she is an “object”—people talk about her, and they judge her.

But Luke’s report tells us more – he tells us what she accomplishes in silence – without words.

And that silence calls to us over the centuries. It yells at us: see what power there is in a pure heart – see what Jesus can do with those who come to Him in freedom.

So, what about this woman in the Gospel?  “She is a sinner,” they say. Luke's Gospel specifically calls her a “sinful woman,” and that brings to mind all kinds of speculation – what was her sin?

We are never told, but it is one of those things that invites us to “fill in the blanks,” so to speak.

Yet, it is important for us today – it is imperative for us today, not to fill in those blanks – not to judge this women beyond what Luke tells us.

We simply don’t know what she has done. But whatever that was, it was something that was known: The Pharisee who was Jesus’ host at dinner knew about it. Listen to what he says to himself:

     “If this man were a prophet, he would know who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him,
     that she is a sinner.”

And did Jesus know? I think: of course! We have so many instances in the Gospels where Jesus touches sinners young and old, rich or poor, man or woman. Jesus never hinders them from coming to Him.

Too often, I think, we hear this story and gospel stories like it, and we only think about the moment of the gospel encounter. But maybe we should wonder a few things:

Who was this woman?

What was her life like?

Who or what caused the occasion – or occasions – of sin?

Was she a victim of circumstance? A victim of her own powerlessness in a society that hardly upheld the rights and dignity of women?  Women were considered as property back then. 

Maybe….  And maybe it was just this kind of background that led the woman to think that she had to come to Jesus that night. That He would understand. That He was her last hope. 

Had this woman seen Jesus before? Perhaps… Jesus was very much in the public eye by the time of this dinner.

She could well have been in the crowd when he gave the beatitudes:
     How blessed are the poor in spirit.
     How blessed are you who are weeping…. Jesus says.

The poor, the sick, the sinner, the misunderstood and the marginalized… Jesus had turned the world upside down in favor of the lowly!

Had this woman heard these words? Had Jesus brought her hope?

Had His eyes met hers somewhere on the road? Had his glance – just a moment’s meeting of the eyes, told her:  “You don’t have to live like this.”

Had Jesus spoken heart to heart to her in silence?

We don’t know.

We do know that she wasn’t invited to the party, it is safe to say.  We don’t even know how she got into the dinner.

But something must have told her, something must have drawn her to seek out the Lord in that time and place.

And she came with gifts.

The gifts of precious treasure in that alabaster jar.

That alabaster jar – we all have one – a vessel that we use to store up our precious treasures. And I don’t mean material treasures.

I mean the treasures of hearts that beat not alone, but in relationship to all those we encounter: hearts that beat like parents; like sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, friends – and enemies.

Hearts that beat right along with those things and persons who have hurt us, and who we have hurt. With those who cause us sadness – and who we have caused sadness.

This treasure in our alabaster jars is the oil of our lives.

And now this sinful woman comes and she reaches out to Jesus.

And the weight of her sin, the weight of her sorrow, the weight of her shame – all these weigh her down.

She is so far down, that when she reaches up for Jesus, she reaches up only to His feet!

And yet she works within her reach.

And what does she offer Jesus? The gift of her tears – tears from eyes that stream the sorrow of a humble heart.

The gift of her hair – she dries his feet with her own hair.

And her costly perfumed oil – the treasure of her very life she pours out at Jesus’ feet in silence.

Jesus turns, and speaks to her. He tells her that her sin is forgiven – that her faith has saved her.

Faith – that is what has saved her!...

And now she rises and walks in the new dignity of a daughter of God.

Maybe she sang softly to herself as she went from the Psalms: “You are my shelter; from distress you will preserve me; with glad cries of freedom you will ring me round.”

But we don't know that, either.  The Gospel never tells us that. It only gives us the silence of her action.

We hear at the end of today’s Gospel that Jesus continues on His journey from one town to another, and that his disciples accompany him.

And also, the Gospel is certain to tell us that some women are with Him. Luke even names three of them:
Mary Magdeline, Joanna, and Susanna….

and, this is important for us today: “many others…”

Could this now forgiven silent woman one be one of the nameless ones in the group that travelled with Jesus? Or did she simply go in the peace that Jesus had granted her and try to make new life where she was?

We don’t know, but part of our prayer in meditating on this Gospel can be in wondering about this woman – and the life that brought her to Jesus’ feet.

The life that was transformed in her encounter. And the new life that Jesus has granted her – that gracious gift he may grant to us, too.

The Gospel today teaches us that we don’t necessarily need words…

It tells us that the treasures we have are nothing if they are not poured out in love.

It tells us that the powers and the oppressions of the world are as nothing before the mercy and love of Jesus, who loved us first.

It tells us not to be fearful, even if we are so bogged down that when we reach up to Jesus, we can only reach for His feet.

Today’s Gospel tells us to come to Him. We can bring him our faith, our sorrow, our humble contrition.

We all in need to know that we, too, can cry at the feet of Jesus.

And when we look up, we, too, can hope to see Him smiling at us and hope to hear His words – words that I am certain gave such great joy to the silent woman’s heart:

“Your faith has saved you.”

The Madonna of the Street's Empowering Gift of Peace

The Madonna of the Street's
Empowering Gift of Peace
Sixth Sunday of Easter, Year C
Mother's Day
[Acts 15:1-2, 22-29. Ps 67: 2-3, 5, 6, 8. Rev 21:10-14, 22-23. Jn 14:23-29.]

This is a powerful Gospel that we are privileged to hear today; that we are privileged to be a part of; because in the proclaimed word we are present to what happens—to what is  is going on in today's Gospel.

Jesus gives His disciples—and us—His peace.

And that’s not just any kind of peace.  No, it is the peace that is given Not as the world gives.

The world can never match the totality of Jesus’ kind of peace.

It is a special peace: it comes to us so as to not let our hearts be troubled.

What a beautiful kind of peace that is!

In His great generosity, God not only offers us this great peace; but I think He also and everywhere gives us examples of His peace—examples of what this peace must be like – a peace that is almost beyond our imaginations.  Peace of encouraging and empowering presence.

And one of those examples of Jesus' peace that he gives, I think, is found in the examples of our mothers.

Today, we celebrate Mothers Day.  Today we honor and recognize all mothers, stepmothers, adoptive mothers, grandmothers, godmothers, and all of those beautiful women who have been like mothers to us.

Some even say that the name “momma” is the first name for God on the lips of little children!

That is because mothers mirror the presence and the peace that Jesus offers!

All of us owe our very existence to our mothers. They loved us first: They loved us sight unseen even before we were born! Our mothers literally loved us into life.  We have that in common. 

We also have another thing in common, because we are all here in this Church, whether you are close by or back at the door:  we are gathered around this light - this Easter candle, which represents the light of Christ - light from the new fire at the Vigil of Easter.

This light burns every time a baptism takes place. 
Our mothers, who have loved us into life,  bring us to this Church, and they ask baptism for us.  Another birth for us through water and the Spirit.  They will our eternal good even before we're aware of it! 

Too frequently, I think, the world tells us that we should look on peace as satisfaction—sort of a "lack of being bothered"—and that’s not really peace.

No amount of satisfaction can ease our pain or console us if—or when—we are faced with  real challenges or tragedies in our lives!

In fact, the world’s peace is often an absence of someone—as if we would have peace if, maybe people would let us alone!

That kind of peace...that's not peace. 

The peace that Jesus offers us in this Gospel of today is the peace of  presence.  The peace of His presence with us to empower us.  

Think for a minute about how God uses mothers signs of empowering peace for us:

Do yo remember that story of Jesus and His mother at the wedding feast in Cana?

His mother simply says to Jesus: “They have no wine.”  And Jesus asks her how this concerns them.

We can only imagine what their eyes, their faces, their body language said to each other in that short moment.  We don’t know, of course – the Gospel doesn’t tell us all these little nuances.  But they were there. 

We must know that they were there, because you and I, no matter how young or how old we are:
we are all children!

We all know about those little subtle expressions, those communications between a mother and her child—little glances, tones of voice that mean so much to us. 

Back at Cana, we hear Mary’s statement of belief in her Son, empowerment of her Son, when she simply turns and says to the servants— “Do whatever he tells you.”

And we know what happens: That great abundance of wine, that first sign of Jesus’ messianic mission that leads to the gift of salvation and eternal life for all of us!  A miracle!  Done at the bidding of His mother. 

And somehow, at least to me, with that first sign, might be the occasion to think of Jesus and Mary, who might have even been standing together with their hands joined for all we know.  Well, maybe with this sign, their hands parted as if to take gentle leave of each other. 

Every mother knows that this kind of love and peace leads eventually to some kind of parting.

But that’s okay – because mothers’ gifts help us to walk in the world with assurance; in much the same way as our mothers encouraged us to take our first steps.  Most times those first steps were away from their open and loving arms.

They helped us to walk away from them.  Mothers love in ways and at such depths of soul that we can hardly imagine.

I have heard some amazing stories of mothers’ love over the past few days, miraculous stories about mothers.

But what we don’t usually hear about are the stories of mothers in crisis, who are at great risk.  Mothers who say "Yes" to the gift of life and decide that no matter what... no matter what kind of obstacles they face, they going to give birth to their children. 
Because they won't buy in to the culture of death. 

I know about mothers who are true Madonnas of the Street in the most holy sense.  These are women who have spent their entire day looking for a safe place to spend the night.  I have heard the story of a mother who gave birth alone in a deserted place.  The whole world, it seemed to her, had turned its back on her.  But she wouldn't turn her back on her baby. 

I know that there are people who help mothers in crisis, whose wish for the peace and welfare of their children bring them to hope against the tides of their lives.

For years, there has been an agency just a few miles from here that has been helping poor mothers with clothing, food, and medical help to assist these women to get young lives started.

And now, Good Counsel is on the verge of opening its first home in South Jersey to welcome young mothers and give them counseling and educational opportunities as well as a loving setting in which to live and nurture their babies.

In just two weeks, Good Counsel will hold its local Walk-A-Thon to raise money for their house. 

Why not make a Mothers Day resolution to join us and walk whatever distance that you like.

Walk for yourself; or walk in memory of or in honor of your own mother.

Walk for the life of a baby whose mother depends on your own empowering gift of peace.

Please, pray about this: Pray as if all depends upon God, and work as if all depends upon you.

Jesus tells us today: “Whoever loves me will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our dwelling with him.”

Let me share with you a thought about moms, from the pen of an anonymous author:

     Your mother is always with you...
     She's the whisper of the leaves
        as you walk down the street.
     She's the smell of bleach
        in your freshly laundered clothes.

     She's the cool hand on your brow
        when you're not well.

     Your mother lives inside your laughter.
     She's crystallized in every tear drop.

     She's the place you came from,
        your first home...
     She's the map you follow
        with every step that you take.

     She's your first love
        and your first heart break...
     and nothing on earth can separate you.

     Not time, Not space...
     Not even death...
        will ever separate you
     from your mother...

You carry her inside of you...

Beautiful words....

I think every child knows this, but it’s nice to hear it spoken out loud on this day.

And so, to moms everywhere, and in every time and every circumstance:

Love, and thanks from grateful children who today with Jesus in the Gospel wish you Peace.

The Right Little Thing

"The Right Little Thing"
Fifth Sunday in Lent, Year C
[Is 43:16-21. Ps 126: 1-2, 2-3, 4-5, 6. Phil 3:8-14. Jn 8:1-11.]

There was an English professor at Glassboro State College, now Rowan University, who was a real stickler for clear thinking and clear speech.
His name was Richard Mitchell, and he was one of the most incredible minds of his time.  For many years he put out a publication titled The Underground Grammarian.
He skewered his fellow professors and others for their awful linguistic gaffes – mistakes that betrayed them as people who really don’t think too clearly!

Many feared him; but near the end, he was so admired and respected even by those he took to task – that many of his colleagues took offense if he neglected to chastise them for lapses in writing and speech!

Well, to many of us, Richard Mitchell was a hero! We, who aspired to be teachers – probably most of us without having read the Letter of James chapter 3 – tried to learn from this genius.

For Richard Mitchell, today’s Gospel was a beautiful lesson in education.

We have the Scribes and Pharisees bringing a woman before Jesus who was caught in adultery. It is important that we see what is going on here.
They bring the woman before Jesus, and they tell him what Moses has prescribed in the law – death by stoning for this act!

Well, these Scribes and Pharisees are right – in a way; and they are wrong in a way!
They don’t seem to care about that, though. We hear this in the gospel: “They said this to test him – to tempt him.”

And Jesus knew, it!
Jesus knows the Law – after all, from our standpoint, we know that he is indeed God!
But the Scribes and Pharisees don’t know this.

Let’s look at what the law says about this, and the Law is actually elegant!
It says that when adultery is committed, both the adulterer and the adulteress are to be put to death.
And the stoning?
Well, that is only in the case of a betrothed maiden, not one who is fully married (Dt. 22:24).
There is another problem:
The guilt of a party is to be established on the testimony of at least two witnesses, and we have this directly from the Law:
“At the execution, the witnesses are to be the first to raise their hands against him; afterward all the people are to join in.” (Dt. 17:7).

So who here in this Gospel are the actual witnesses? No one specifically is named.

And Jesus, who has bent down to write in the dirt straightens up and gives a beautiful and elegant little sentence of direction – so unique, so evident of the law.
Here it is in all its simplicity:

“Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”

Jesus bends down again to write in the sand.

What he wrote is really unimportant. We are never told by the Gospel writer what this may have been.
But what is truly important is that Jesus bends down. He turns away from them.
He doesn’t gaze upon them.

Jesus bends down to give the accurers time to think about his elegant little sentence:

“Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”

Now, do the accusers really want to take up that challenge? Do the sinful accusers really want to show that they are hypocrites and worse by taking up the first stones?

Did Jesus change the law? No. He upheld the law.

But Jesus did something so very elegant that it might pass us by here.

It didn’t pass by the attention of Richard Mitchell, the Underground Grammarian. Mitchell uses this elegant phrase of Jesus as a prime example of how a master teacher can say what Mitchell calls
“The right little thing.”

"The right little thing" – nothing changed in the law – there is no new spin on Torah here. If you want, you can check in out in the books of Deuteronomy and Leviticus.

But the “right little thing” has penetrated bone and marrow and sinew and gone both to the mind and the heart of the matter.
Jesus is teaching them to think!

And yet, we can see that the “they,” the group – doesn’t really think – there is no “groupthink” here. Individual persons think.
Each one hears the “right little thing.”
Each one begins to mind his own business.
Mitchell would tell us that each one begins to seek his own betterment.
And each one finds it.

Mother Angelica of EWTN fame has another take on this, and not with specific reference to this gospel. She has said: “Mind your own business. If you really minded your own business, you’d be surprised at how little business you really have.”

Now back to the gospel: One by one – the oldest first, the gospel tells us – each went away.
One by one, each one becomes better because of the “right little thing” said by Jesus.

Here is kind of a legalistic interpretation of what Jesus told them: If you do not have equal guilt in this case, you can begin the execution. That’s the law!

Yes, there was a conspiracy here – they were doing this to “test him.”
So there was a bit of complicity in all of them. All were guilty in this particular case in one way or another, because they don’t really have a case about adultery here without bringing both the man and the woman before Jesus.

And the one who could truly be said to be without sin – Jesus Himself – even he couldn’t participate. According to the Law, he was not an accuser, not an eyewitness, and under the law, he is simply unable to prosecute her, so to speak.

And yet there is something more here: Jesus doesn’t accept any apology from the woman – she doesn’t offer one!
He doesn’t tell her she isn’t responsible – he tells her to sin no more from now on.

He does say “Neither do I condemn you.”
And what does that mean? It means that Jesus issues divine forgiveness.

How can he do this? Does this fly in the face of all of the law we’ve just heard about?

In a way, we are all like the woman in today’s gospel – caught up in our own sinfulness. And we are all hoping for forgiveness.

As our Lenten journey continues, we will come to hear that Jesus pays the penalty for her sins – and for ours. We will hear about this on Palm Sunday and on Good Friday.
Look at the tree of life: Jesus Himself becomes a curse for us!

And for us – we need to hear the “right little thing” that Jesus says to the accusers.
We need to hear the “right little thing” that Jesus says as he hangs between life and death on the cross. On Good Friday, that “right little thing” is Jesus’’ last sentence: “It is finished.”

The price is paid.

My friends, he calls all of us to respond in the right little way. Accept His invitation.

Blessed Are the Married

Blessed are the married...
6th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C (World Marriage Day)
[Jer 17:5-8. Ps 1:1-2, 3, 4 and 6. 1 Cor 15:12, 16-20. Lk 6:17, 20-26]

Today we celebrate World Marriage Day. As I read these readings over and over, I was thinking to myself, What do these readings say about marriage?  Where would I get my theme?  Hmmm...

Take the first reading: “Cursed is the one who trusts in human beings,
who seeks his strength in flesh, whose heart turns away from the LORD."  (I'm thinkin, no, not a good marriage theme.)

And the Responsorial Psalm: “Blessed the man who follows not the counsel of the wicked." (And let's not go there for marriage, either!) 

I heard a story about a deacon who told a very nervous bride at her wedding rehearsal that she needed to keep only three things in mind: He said, "Remember three things tomorrow at your wedding: 
First, remember the aisle, because that is what is going to bring you into the Church and into the sanctuary. Concentrate on that aisle.  

“Second, remenmber the altar, because when the time comes for you to exchange your promises, you will be standing before the altar. So just concentrate on that altar.

"Third, when you make those promises, remember that you are making them to your man only, so lock eyes with your man. Just concentrate on him.  That’s all you have to do.”

Well, on the day of the wedding, the bride was even more nervous. She was five shades of pale - but that was nothing compared to the groom—he saw the bride walking toward him – her eyes were locked fast on him, and as she walked in he could have sworn he heard her singing softly as she took his arm,
“I’ll alter him!”

(Now, I gotta tell you that that joke was really a lot funnier at home, so tell it to yourself at home and you'l really laugh!) 
I’m sure we can all think of some jokes about marriage there! But let’s not laugh too quickly!
In marriage we have to consider not how one will alter another, but in a very real sense how the sacrament of marriage will transform both of them.

Marriage is no laughing matter.
But it is a matter of great joy.

Marriage has been called the “primordial sacrament,” and it goes right back to the first “not good” of creation: God looks around and says “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a suitable partner for him.”

When the man and woman see each other, they exchange that “look of recognition” and they see that they were literally made for each other!

That’s why a man or a woman can say, “Honey, I haven’t seen every girl (or guy) in the world, but I can stop right here with you, because God has shown me that you—in your unique and unrepeatable self—are for me—out of all the people in the world!”

That look – that intimate exchange—why, that’s part of recognizing that the couple is not alone – it is a recognition of God in the mix:
God entwining their two lives.

They see in each other the one person that are called to serve—the one person that they are called to be Christ to!

And so we know what comes next, we can probably all repeat it from memory:

"That is why a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and the two of them become one body."  One flesh.

Marriage is a concrete sign of that divine promise of God’s love and his call to unity, just as Jesus says in John's Gospel, “that they may be one, as we, Father, are one, And “that they may be brought to perfection as one” (Jn 17:23).

This is written in our bodies.

And, hey, if it were that easy, marriage would be a walk in the park, as easy as pie.

But no, it is certainly not so easy.

A sacramental marriage is more than a legal contract.
It is a covenant, and covenant establishes eternal bonds of sacred kinship and unconditional exchange.

When a man and a woman stand together at God's altar, they promise each other:

For better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and health;
to be each other's all the days of their lives.

These promises say: “I am yours and you are mine. And we are both in God!”

Yes: freely, totally, faithfully, and fruitfully.

And if you are called to be Christ to each other, you are called to be completely poured out for each other… To die to self so that you will be brought to new and abundant life together!

You are called to a transformation!

And as we honor the good and lasting marriages, we have to at least consider that marriage is being undermined these days:
 According to statistics half of all marriages will end in divorce, and an even higher percentage of second marriages will end in divorce.
Attacks on the sanctity of marriage and the traditional definition of a one-man and one-woman partnership are commonplace.
The traditional notions of family are being undermined.

Society places tremendous burdens on married life and family, and there are pressures that strain at the very foundation of the promises that bind two people together.

And what is the world’s message?
     Get what you can get while you can get it!
     Me first, all others out of the way!

But with love comes responsibility.

People owe it to themselves and to each other to know that love calls us all out of our sense of self and into the good of the other.

Love calls us in an extreme and in a radical sense to lay down our very lives for the good of our partners.

Love has responsibility!

Love – true lovealways wills the good of the other. As Paul writes, love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. And true love: true love? Why, it never fails!

In today’s gospel of the Beatitides, Jesus comes down and stands on level ground. He knows that he has to meet us where we are – on the ground. He bends down to bless us in our poverty.

“Blessed are the poor,” he says.

Jesus knows that we all have the potential within each of us for great good. He also knows that we can make decisions that lead us toward devastating and irreparable consequences.

We are weak and imperfect people.

We have to let God into our lives. We have to let Him walk with us—especially in the bond of marriages. We need Him to show us His example.

That, I think, is the secret to the success of marriage. I have seen it lived out in the beautiful lives of what the world might call “ordinary people” doing the ordinary stuff of everyday lives.

In the Gospel, Jesus’ first words, “blessed are you” also mean “how happy are you.” The Greek word that the gospel writer uses is makarios – it means “divine joy” the highest joy.

It is the happiness that God intends for us.

It is a joy that is rooted in Christ – as marriage is rooted in Christ.

And that is no joke!

And so, dear friends, maybe the Lord wouldn’t mind if we add another beatitude to His just for today:

How blessed are you who are married! For your very lives wear the sign of His love.

The Voice Is for Us

The Voice Is For Us
The Baptism of the Lord - Year C
[Is 42:1-4, 6-7 or Is 40:1-5, 9-11. Ps 29:1-2, 3-4, 3, 9-10. Acts 10:34-38 or
Ti 2:11-14; 3:4-7. Lk 3:15-16, 21-22 .]

Today we celebrate the Baptism of Jesus.
It is a powerful, and joyful, and even a transformative event!
This is Jesus’ “anointing” with the Holy Spirit and power. Empowerment for ministry.
It is, in fact, like last week, another “Epiphany” in itself!

From ancient times the baptism of Jesus was
the original theme of the Epiphany.

So, what does this word “Epiphany” mean? Quite simply, it is a Greek word meaning “a sudden appearance.”

Last week, we heard about the Magi who journeyed and who found the newborn King of the Jews. To them, who sought and searched, that was a “sudden appearance”: it was a fundamental recognition right there at the crib that the babe that they gazed on in the manger was indeed the Holy One, the Son of God!

This week, we listen in as a 30-year-old mature Jesus presents himself to be baptized in John’s baptism for the forgiveness of sins.

And what about this Baptism of John’s?
This is really important, because it tells us volumes.

There were ritual washings according to Jewish law for centuries, for many things: to purify a woman after she gave birth, to purify a man after he handled certain unclean things. These washings were to make clean again.

Never before in history were Jews—other than converts to Judaism—submitting to be baptized for the forgiveness of sins.
Why? They were the people of the promise!
Children of Abraham!
They were bound in a covenant with God!
So they didn’t really need this, they thought.

They had a kind of “corporate” idea of what sin was, an idea of sin as a nation.
But now, at this time of Jesus, the Jews as never before were becoming aware that they as individuals needed forgiveness for their individual faults.

They needed to “get right” with God on a one-to-one basis.
They needed to “Repent” —to turn again – to change their way of thinking,
their way of seeing,
of knowing,
of grasping reality!
That resonates now, as Jesus comes on the scene.

But just a quick aside: I love that Scripture verse about that from the letter to the
born of a woman, born under the law,
to ransom those under the law, so that we might receive
As proof that you are children,* God sent the spirit of
his Son into our hearts, crying out, "Abba, Father!"
So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child
then also an heir, through God."

That’s exactly what is going on here. The fullness of time has come!
That new consciousness is in the air, and Jesus at 30 years of age—the age when Rabbis are thought to be fully mature in faith to be teachers—Jesus appears on the scene and presents himself for Baptism. Epiphany!

The Jews have longed for this for ages. Nearly 800 years before Jesus’ baptism, Isaiah prays:

“Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down” (Is 63:19b).
That is exactly what God does here!
The heavens are rent! Torn open – and God comes down!

Here is the Holy Trinity: The voice of the Father,
The Son now standing in the waters of the Jordan,
The Spirit in the form of a Dove.

The Trinity suddenly manifests itself in history. Epiphany!
To proclaim Jesus’ identity and His mission!

Some scholars say that the voice of God here was
What the Jews call the bat qôl,
That is, the “daughter of a voice”—the whisper, the very echo of God to Jesus.

And yet, we, too, who hear this Gospel hear it this very day for all of us, for all time—because Luke reports it to us!
Yes – we, too, hear it!
And the voice is for you and me – the voice of God is for us!

That voice calls out to us over the centuries through the Gospel,
because we need to see who he is
We need to follow Jesus.

And so, the sinless one submits to the washing for sinners.
Jesus submits for us!
Jesus is baptized—the Greater by the lesser—the Creator by the creature. God submits to the ministry of a man! For us!
Because as always – Jesus leads!
Always, He turns to us and says, follow me…follow me!

And so we follow Jesus right through the waters of our baptism—which is not John’s baptism, which was only for the forgiveness of sins..

We follow Jesus through that Baptism that John the Baptist talked about: the Baptism with the Holy Spirit and fire!

When we go down into the waters of baptism, even symbolically by having water poured over our heads at the font,
We go down into death and we come up to walk in the newness of the promise of eternal life as new creatures!

We receive that indelible mark - that ontological change - and we become beloved sons and daughters of God—strengthened by a share in the Holy Spirit.

Baptism empowers us to use these spiritual gifts according to our own state in life as members of the Body of Christ;
to live out that call to live as a holy and priestly people.

What would you have done if you were there at that baptism – the baptism of Jesus?
Would you have heard God’s voice?

Think about that!
Throughout Scripture, God’s voice has often been mistaken for thunder or for the wind.

Listen to this from another place: from John’s Gospel as Jesus prays to the Father:
Jesus says:
"Father, glorify your name." Then a voice came from
heaven, "I have glorified it and will glorify it again."
The crowd there heard it and said it was thunder…" (Jn 12:28-30)

Now, imagine yourselves there on Jordan’s bank, when all this happens. Go there in your mind, and try to picture what it must have been like.
A man, who appears to be like any other man, comes
and whispers a few words to John the Baptist,
and John baptizes him.
When he comes up out of the water, what do you see and hear?
The Spirit, in the form of a dove?
God’s voice, saying:
“This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”?

....Or is it only thunder?
Or maybe, it was the sound of the wind through the low trees and the rushes along the banks of the river?

Any maybe that bird flying by – maybe it was just a coincidence?

Well, that manifestation, and our failure to think about it, and our failure to act on it…
Is part of our hardness of heart.

God doesn’t call to us only at our Baptism –
He calls to each and every one of us
because of our Baptism!
He calls over and over again to us!

He calls through the Scriptures at the Table of the word.
He calls to us when we receive His sacred body and blood from the Table of the Sacrifice.

He calls to us in the day, and in the silence of the night.
He calls to us especially when we reach, and we yearn, and we moan, and we struggle… and when we ache for Him.
He calls to us.

That voice is for us—for our sakes!

An Epiphany—a sudden appearance—is not an Epiphany unless there is someone around to experience it!

So the question of the day is: Are we up to it?
Are we up to answering that call?
Are we up to hearing – to being quiet enough within ourselves to hear God’s voice?
What does God whisper in your ear today?

Does He bring you joy, and strength? Encouragement and empowerment?

God is present here today among us.
Or is it -- only just the thunder, only just the wind?

God also said to Isaiah, that same prophet we spoke about earlier:
“I said: Here I am! To a nation that did not call upon my name."

And now, today, God Himself says:
"Behold ,my beloved son!"

We need to call upon the name of the Beloved Son!
We need to hear and answer!
We need to look for Him, to see Him in the faces of each other, in the stranger, the oppressed, the least of our brothers and sisters.

The anointing –that Baptism of the Lord – is for us!

He knew who he was!
The Spirit of the Lord is now upon Him.
The voice is for us, and it speaks Truth, because Jesus is Truth incarnate!

Epiphany! God NOW is suddenly among us!
Not for His sake!
For our sakes!

My dear friends: Don’t let the world, don’t let anyone,
tell you that it was only thunder!