FIFTH SUNDAY OF LENT (March 18, 2018)

The connection between the first reading and the third reading is not hard to discover today. God tells Jeremiah that the upcoming, New Covenant will not be like the Sinai covenant with Moses. The new covenant will be one written on the hearts of his people. Relationship. Our Gospel tells of Jesus’ revealing that covenant.

John tells us of two Greek gentiles who have a request: “Sir, we would like to see Jesus.” Philip, one of the apostles with a Greek name receives the request and tells his fellow, ethnic apostle, Andrew. Together they convey the request. As often happens, Jesus does not address the situation directly; he uses this occasion to reveal a positive change in the way that his followers are to relate to God, one another, and to creation. The passage also prefigures the church’s future mission to the Gentiles.

Jesus says, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will preserve it for eternal life.” Jesus, of course, is speaking of his personal death and resurrection as the proto-example to his followers. He generalizes; he extends the teaching to us with “whoever hates [loves less] his life.”

This “life” that is to be lost can take different forms. For alcoholics and those addicted to drugs, it means to trade their non-lives of addiction for sobriety, being clean. For us not addicted, the genius that articulated “life” by naming life’s principal components; time, talent and treasure have surely served us well. If we serve ourselves and not serve others with our time, our talent, and our treasure, we fail this challenge of dying to self and bringing life to others.

When couples become parents, they seem to learn this lesson of life very quickly. With a child who is the expression of their love, they unhesitatingly give their time, their talent, and their treasure to their child. Fortunately, it is still “news” when a parent serves oneself, fails miserably, and neglects a newborn.

Serious students and serious new-hires know the wisdom of the denial of self that is required for graduating or holding a job.

Did you notice the difference in Jesus’ attitude in john’s gospel from the synoptic gospels [Matthew, Mark, and Luke] where Jesus prays that the cup of suffering will pass, that he will not have to drink it? Today’s Gospel from john admits that he is troubled, but does not struggle with the agony of suffering. He says, “It was for this purpose that I came to this hour.” This is another example of John viewing Jesus as more divine than human. It is in the Synoptic Gospels we see Jesus as more human than divine.

Jesus’ issue is the urgency of “his hour.” The tone is set by the image of the “grain of wheat.” There is no “cheap grace.” Jesus must die to produce the “fruit” of the community of believers who will be united with him and form what Paul will call “the body of Christ.” Jesus’ prayer is quickly affirmed by his Father.

As we move downhill toward the conclusion of Lent, we need to determine if there is any part of ourselves as grains of wheat that must die to produce the fruit of metanoia, the change of heart/mind that will allow us, as believers, to live Jesus more deeply at our celebration of Resurrection on Easter and our union with our God and our fellow believers both here and hereafter.

FOURTH SUNDAY OF LENT (March 11, 2018)

Regardless of make or model -- be it a clunker or a Lamborghini -- your automobile needs a periodic check-up beyond its regular oil changes. A check-up is preventive maintenance. The examination tells you what part is wearing, what needs to be replaced. It also brings you good news: your tires are in good shape; so are your brakes.

The Church has us do the same thing for our spiritual maintenance. The time for this is called lent. For the last three and a half weeks we have had the opportunity to look hard at ourselves. We may have seen that our patience is not working smoothly, and we take steps to improve it. We may have seen that out prayer life needs some adjustment, so we take steps to improve our timing.

Today is Laetare Sunday. Laetare Sunday is the time when we get to hear the good news from our church in our annual check-up. We hear some especially good news: the most popular verse in the entire bible, words that have been hung on banners in recent years in front of the seats on stadium walls: John 3: 16. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish, but might have eternal life.”

You and I are part of that “loved world.” It is to you and me that those words are addressed.

Please note that those words do not say that God was so angry at the world, so furious with the world, so disappointed with the world. No, it says God so loved the world.

Those are the words that provide the reason for naming this Sunday “Laetare Sunday.” Laetare means “rejoice,“ have joy at the good news. Out of curiosity, I looked up the word “joy “ in the newest, catholic theological dictionary. It was not listed. There was no entry between “Jesus” and “Judaism.” Joy is a fruit of the Holy Spirit, but it is not listed in the scholarly, catholic dictionary. I think that that is sad.

Joy is natural in our lives as Christians. St. Francis de Sales said it well: A sad saint is a sorry saint.” Christian joy is based on what Jesus did for us. Surely, joy in us is necessary to attract others toward appreciating what is the source of our joy. “See the Christians; see how they have love for one another.” Observed love is joyful.

I like the story of “spotted tail.” Spotted Tail was a chief in the Sioux Nation. He resisted all attempts of Christian missionaries who came to his reservation. In fact, he would throw a bucket of water on any missionary who approached him -- mocking the baptism they preached. One day in the autumn of 1876, a Roman Catholic nun was visiting the home of the commanding officer of the Indian Agency. Both she and Spotted Tail were invited to a reception hosted by the officer’s wife. Lemonade, not firewater was probably served. The nun, who seems to have had a wonderful, whimsical streak, stood up and raised her glass toward spotted tail. The chief immediately responded by standing and raising his glass towards her. She began to dance joyfully. Glass raised, and laughing aloud, she approached the chief, who did the same. The two met in the center of the room laughing together and toasting each other. This moment of joy changed spotted tale’s image of Christianity to the degree that he sent one of his daughters to the nun’s convent-school in Kansas City.

Dour faces neither reflect the face of God nor draw people toward RCIA. Think of all the “holy cards” and religious paintings [sacred art] that you have ever seen: how many of the faces are smiling? How many reflect the joy of receiving the gift in today’s Gospel? The next time you receive an absolutely delightful gift -- try opening it with a dour face. We can’t. It should not happen with our Lord’s gift of life -- here and hereafter.

When we “Live Jesus,” when we “put on Christ” may we not forget to absorb and reflect his joyful smile.

THIRD SUNDAY OF LENT (March 4, 2018)

For Jews, the temple in Jerusalem was the center of Jewish belief and worship. The holy of holies was the most sacred part of the temple for it contained the Ark of the Covenant. The ark held the tablets of the Ten Commandments, a most important message from God and understood to be the presence of God.

All four Gospels relate the temple cleansing, so, obviously, it held great significance in the first generations of Christianity.

The incident is treated differently in the synoptic Gospels [Matthew, Mark and Luke] than in the “different” Gospel, John. In the Synoptics, the cleansing occurred during Jesus’ only visit to Jerusalem as an adult, near the very end of his ministry -- celebrated at the beginning of “Holy Week.” The three Synoptic Gospels see this event as the final straw, the motive, for the Jewish hierarchy to seek the execution order for Jesus.

In the Gospel of John, the event occurred at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry [ch 2]. The difference in placing the time of the event is significant.

We learn at least two lessons from this episode: first, a shift in the locus of God’s presence. The temple was the most tangible place of the presence of God in the Jewish faith. It was the destination point of sacred pilgrimage and the place of ritual-worship along with the sordid businesses that preceded that worship and riled Jesus.

By the time John wrote his gospel - about the year 100 - the Romans had destroyed the temple. The Jews then saw the presence of God in the synagogues where the torah was studied. By that time, John tells us that the presence of God in the Christian era is neither in the temple of Jerusalem nor in the synagogue. The Jewish system had failed to fulfill its mission. From the Christian perspective the Jewish buildings were replaced with a new “place”: Jesus, forming what we now call the “mystical body of Christ.”

Jesus said today: “Destroy this temple [his body] and in 3 days I will raise it up.” Jesus will later tell the Samaritan woman about the appropriate place for worship: neither Mt. Gerizim in Samaria nor the temple mount in Judea will be the place for worship; divine presence is the person of Jesus himself.

But, there is more. We remember after the events of Holy Week; Saul, the Jewish persecutor out to capture Christians, was knocked on his humility, and Jesus asked him the soul-searching question: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” This is revelation: Jesus identifies the Christian community with himself. He, together with his body, the community, replaces the temple and becomes the locus of the presence of god in the new era. Mega change.

The second lesson of today is the powerful insight that relationship is now the key category in Christianity. In John’s Gospel, Jesus said, “I have called you friends,” a relational word; “When you pray, say ‘our father...’” a relational word whereby we also hold Jesus to be our brother - a relational word.

The holy of holies housed the tablets of the Ten Commandments that we heard about in the First Reading. Of the ten, eight are stated negatively: “Thou shalt not.” Only two are stated positively: “Keep holy the Sabbath” and “Honor your mother and father.” The one speaks of honoring God; the second speaks of honoring our first neighbors, our parents, and our first community.

Curiously, many centuries later, when Jesus was asked the question: “What is the greatest commandment?” He answered that the greatest is love God; the second is like it: love your neighbor. Jesus expanded our very first community of parent-neighbors to include everyone . . . Even enemies. Love is the ultimate relationship.

The advantage of negatively phrased commandments is that we can be fairly sure that we have obeyed them completely. Positively phrased commands keep holy the Lord’s day or honor your father and mother in the Old Testament, love god and love your neighbor in the New Testament have no specified lids that empower us to say. “i have kept the commandment; I have sufficiently loved; I can put the lid on. Lack of clarity always remains. Who of us can ever say, “I have loved enough?”

Focus on the things of religion parallels the sad situation of a spouse or other loved one who would attempt to substitute “things” like gifts for presence, conversation, affection, the accoutrements of relationship.

As we approach the midpoint of Lent, we are reminded: “Rend your hearts [the seat of relationship] and not your garments, ‘things’.”

SECOND SUNDAY OF LENT (February 25, 2018)

This story of Abraham is scary. In the first reading, Abraham did not know as he climbed Mt. Moriah that his son would be spared at the last second. He came from the land of Ur where child sacrifice was common. Some years before, Abraham and his wife, Sarah, had been sent into a spasm of laughter when God told them at their advanced age that they would have a child. Sarah stopped laughing when she found she was pregnant with the future Isaac. Isaac comes from the Hebrew verb, “to laugh.”

Isaac was growing nicely and loved dearly when the Lord told Abraham that he must go to mount Moriah and sacrifice his only son, knowing that that would end his dream of being the founding father of the nation the Lord had promised.

Abraham’s heart was heavier than the wood he carried on his back; the pain of grief was sharper in his heart than the knife in his belt as he and Isaac trudged up Mt. Moriah.

Abraham is called in our Eucharistic Prayer “Our father in faith.” Today’s first reading tells us why. His faith, that is, his trust in God’s promise, was as high as the mountain he was climbing.

Like Abraham and everyone else, each of us carries a vision of the life ahead of us. We do not know for sure whether that vision will be future reality. But, many of us take our vision as pretty much a given reality-- until something happens. More mature men and women know that totally unforeseen events can upend that vision. A spouse or a child has an accident; our lives will never be the same. A child is born with Downs Syndrome or is severely handicapped; the family will never be the same. A family home is destroyed in a Florida hurricane, a California earthquake or mudslide, a Louisiana flood; the family will never be the same.

Peter, James, and John were all fishermen. We can be sure that they, like us, had a vision of where their lives were going. They would probably inherit the business and the boats from their father Zebedee. Peter, we know was married -- no mention of children. Surely each had to reconstruct his vision of life when Jesus invited, “Come, and follow me.” A new vision was formed.

At first, James and John missed the message; we have heard them arguing about who would be sitting next to Jesus when the earthly kingdom - as they envisioned it - would come. Their second vision of life had to be reconstructed; Jesus would not be the conquering Messiah who would drive out the Romans and restore Israel to glory on earth.

Mark sandwiched the story of the transfiguration between Jesus’ predictions of his passion and death. That is the event that puts in perspective Jesus’ suffering and death. The cloud of glory is meant to evaporate the cloud of gloom that came with realization of suffering, rejection, and inevitable murder.

In today’s Gospel we read of Peter, James, and John who experienced what has come to be called “The Transfiguration.” We hear that Peter who could so regularly put his foot in his mouth, “hardly knew what to say.” That had to be a low voltage transfiguration for Peter.

In our most difficult times, when our vision of the direction of our life is shattered by illness, death, loss of job, loss of a relationship, financial nose-dive. We need to remember our peak moments - times when God was present to us, was walking beside us -- sometimes dramatically, more often not dramatically.

And God has been present. If we cannot remember any times, we may need to be more introspective. As the author of “Footprints” recalled: when there was only one set of footprints in the sand, those were the times when the Lord was doing the carrying -- and we were not even aware. These recollections give us courage for the times when we have to pick up and go on.

We also know the fact that at the end of our journey we too will be in the presence of the great light at the end of the tunnel - our transfiguration for all eternity.

FIRST SUNDAY OF LENT (February 18, 2018)

Today’s Gospel depicts a personal battleground for one’s soul, one’s spirit. Jesus went into the desert, a place of death, where people went to learn about life. They went to learn in the place where there were no distractions of sight or sound, or smell, or taste. In the desert, stripped of creature comforts and the usual supports one has. One’s only companion to oneself: one’s God.

Jesus spent forty days there. “Forty” connotes a long time in Jewish thought. Reminiscent of Moses’ forty days on the mountain of the commandments and Israel’s forty years in the desert where the Jews battled hunger, thirst, fear -- and were tempted to give up on their dream of the promised land and go back to Egypt. “Going back” can be a serious temptation.

Mark does not recount Jesus’ battle in detail as Matthew and Luke do, but simply says that Satan put Jesus to the test.

When we demythologize Satan, we understand Satan as the internal, devious forces of individuals, groups of people, and the structures they conceive that cause suffering to others. These forces alienate people from God and one another – forces diametrically opposed to God. Jesus’ purpose is to bring the Kingdom of God to God’s people.

Lent is surely not simply a time for “getting ashes” and not being able to eat meat on Fridays and fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. It is not a time for simply “giving up something” to lose a few pounds for cosmetic reasons to make yourself and the world a more beautiful place. From the spiritual standpoint such practices are senseless -- even harmful. If we were to limit ourselves to these externals, we would be on the right side for the wrong reason -- which T.S. Eliot calls “the greatest treason.”

Lent is well called a “desert experience.” We do not leave our homes and jobs and travel to a desert. We make time to create a desert atmosphere in our hearts, in our spirits. We strip away some of the good things in our lives and provide a quiet place, a “venue” where we look back at the world and into our own lives.

Or, should I say we have the opportunity to do that. Whether we do that or not is our choice. Whether lent is spiritually profitable is largely in our hands. Jesus brought the kingdom of god to us. “Bringing” is only half the story. The other half is that the Kingdom of God needs to be accepted by us.

Some insights and a question that John Shea raised and answered are very helpful: why were Jesus and the Kingdom of God he preached, and the love of the father he lived and spread not more broadly accepted? Why have these not been more broadly accepted in the two millennia since?

Many of us heard the words last Wednesday, “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.” I suspect that the reason that I am not more deeply living Jesus and, perhaps, that you are not lies in the competing values in life. We tend to hold on to more tangible values like money and power. Turning away from sin has a second part – turning toward Jesus in metanoia and belief.

Money and power may be reduced to money alone – as Scripture says elsewhere: “ The love of money is the root of all evil.” Money begets power and obtains more power as we have so sadly learned in the national economy. So many believe that they are identified by their money and by power in many forms: personal appearance by expensive beauty aids and wardrobes; education by attending the “right schools” and prestigious, higher institutions; and more. The worse new is that we are not aware of it.

Repentance is gained, first, by recognizing our values. “Values clarification” exercises of some years ago are still helpful; if my house was on fire and I could make one trip out, what would I carry? Who are my closest friends – and why? Also, our knee-jerk and repetitive responses unveil our hidden values: “Gotta take care of number one – I owe it to myself – you only go around once in this life.“

We own values that are the mindless internalization of cultural assumptions that are alien to Living Jesus. Growth in the spiritual life is cultivating the consciousness of Jesus, “Living Jesus.”

Repentance is done, secondly, by letting go of those values that conflict with or opposes the Good News of Jesus, however difficult that may be and replacing them with Jesus-like values.

Jesus proclaimed, “The time is fulfilled; the Kingdom of God has drawn near.” So it is with us. Our life in time needs to be permeated with eternity; therefore, time is fulfilled in Living Jesus.

May the desert experience that began last Wednesday be eternally profitable to us all.

SIXTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME (February 11, 2018)

A curious thread runs through the readings today: community.

The first reading regards what is destructive of community: isolating someone. We heard the plight of lepers. Leprosy included many skin disorders in a more primitive medical era. Those called lepers were ostracized. In our day, Hansen’s disease is treated. But, many contemporary groups suffer the fate of ostracism: physical reasons like being HIV positive, obesity; racial reasons like being Hispanic or Black; political reasons, like being a member of the “other” party; theological reasons like being conservative or progressive; sexual reasons like a different orientation.

Too often we read of the violent reaction of an ostracized, lonely student. We have other lepers: the annoying person at work, the demanding in-law, and the difficult neighbor. A current term for shunning is “NIMBY,” not in my back yard.

The leper must have heard of Jesus’ healing. He, against the rules, approaches Jesus. Jesus, against the rules, reaches out and touches the leper. Healed. He may now rejoin the community with unimaginable joy.

In our Gospel, Jesus teaches that instead of ostracizing those different from us, we are to “do community” by being always inclusive, letting community happen.

Jesus exhibited his ever-present compassion. John Shea wrote so well: “When the consciousness of sameness and connection replaces the consciousness of separation, compassion arises. Compassion is a felt perception of sharing a common world that drives us toward action.” Jesus showed us that real cleanliness is a matter of the heart. Compassion engenders community. Community engenders compassion in wonderfully non-vicious cycle.

Less than two decades after this incident, Paul will write to the Galatians [4:27-29]: “All of you who have been baptized into Christ have clothed your-selves with him. There does not exist among you Jew or Greek, slave or freeman, male or female. All are one in Christ Jesus.” We are one community. In Christ no one is an outsider except the self-righteous who really believes others to be unworthy and therefore shuns them.

We see Jesus takes three steps in today’s Gospel. First, he feels compassion for the suffering and he sees the outreach of the leper. Second, he stretches out his hand and touches a man known to be “unclean”-- thereby making himself ritually “unclean.” Finally, he wills the healing to happen. He does something.

Jesus‘ three-step process teaches us to do as he did. We need to begin with compassion, daring to connect with people whose situation or condition turns us off or inclines us to avoid them. This calls us to deal with our own prejudice and insecurity. We may not want to “go there.” But, we need to go there. We have to be willing to touch lepers. We need to visit the sick, look the homeless person in the eye, and be faithful to members who reveal what we do not want to see. We need to develop respectful relationships - not stances with folks - regardless of what makes them “different.” We have to will to challenge any attitude, behavior, or structure that keeps people outside our circle. We have to will that no one be considered unclean or unworthy.

The Lord Jesus lavishes us with countless favors through the gift of his sacramental touch at the sign of peace and sharing Eucharist as we build community. May we realize that we have great value and dignity, so we can always reach out and show the same for others.

FIFTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME (February 4, 2018)

February is a difficult month. We are between the festive seasons of Christmas and Easter. We walk on the frozen tundra in relative darkness, trying to avoid the flu and the “Febs” bundled in our warmest clothing. Today, the Church presents us with the Book of Job as a beacon of light that leads us toward the light in an atmosphere of gloom.

The book of job is part of “wisdom literature.” Job was the perfect man, honest and true, and he experienced unlimited prosperity. It is the story that the human author weaves about a fictional man from the Land of Uz who never existed, but will always enlighten us as a guide into the mystery of why the innocent suffer. It also teaches the place of possessions in our lives. The Book of Job raises our question: why does God allow the innocent to suffer? Rabbi Harold Kushner used Job’s plight for his classic book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People.

God leads job toward an attitude of humility. God does not have to justify to job or to us either his actions or his non-interventions in our lives. God is mystery; we cannot comprehend all the whys and wherefores of god. Job ceased questioning when he came face to face with god’s immensity and turned instead to simple faith and trust. Job finally said to God: “I am of little account; what can I answer you? I put my hand over my mouth.” Wisdom! God contents Job with his power and mystery.

Today we are blessed with more than Job’s story, more than what Rabbi Kushner can provide from his Jewish faith-insights in his attempt to answer the question. We Christians recognize Jesus as our Savior. Jesus does not give a final answer to Job’s questions, but does reveal deeper truth to us, and he corrects a faulty perception of gifts.

Jesus also broadens our understanding of suffering. Job’s conclusion, and the conclusion of many even today is that the world’s goods give indication of God’s favor; their absence, a sign of God’s disfavor. Jesus advances this understanding when he tells us that his father allows rain to fall on the good and the bad without discrimination. “Bad things” are not punishment for what we have done. Let us also remember that Jesus did not heal everyone who was sick or raise every dead person to life in his lifetime.

St. Francis de Sales sheds additional spiritual insight in asking, “What goods have we which we have not received; and if we have received, why should we take pride in it? [Intro. Iii, 5]

God will not answer all our requests as we might wish. There is some small consolation when we see Jesus’ undeserved suffering. Even after agonizing prayer to his father asking him to take the cup away, Jesus recognizes and accepts suffering, we hear him speak: “Let it be done to me according to your word.”

How can we expect that all our prayers will be answered as we wish? God’s plan is beyond us. Jesus tells us: “I will be with you all days . . .” He will remain with us in the midst of our trials and pain. He promises to send his Spirit, the Consoler. We can count on no more; we can count on no less.

Our anxious moments can be alleviated by a deeper awareness of God’s power, loving presence, and wisdom in our effort to humbly “Live Jesus.” Who of us has not gone through pain and in hindsight not seen personal growth? We are transformed into a more faith-filled, trusting and humble person in our relationship with our Father.

4th SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME (January 28, 2018)

Jesus was asked several times: “By whose authority do you say these things?” – or in today’s Gospel – “What is this? A new teaching with authority.”

The old, authoritative, teaching from scribal wisdom, was passed on from older scribes and founded on avoidance, no-no’s: people, like lepers and tax-collectors and sinners; things: like, like pork, unwashed whatevers – persons, places, and things to be avoided.

Our idea of authority is two-fold:

1. There is, first, authority from outside. Someone else confers this authority - like being appointed a cabinet member, a CEO, a bishop. It is usually accompanied by an oath of office.

2. There is also the authority that comes from inside, from within a person. It is the authority that comes from experience, education, it is being “an authority,” for example, on Benjamin Franklin, on diamonds, on astrophysics.

Actually, inner authority is the root of the word ”authority” itself. The “auth” in authority comes from two Greek words: autos and epha: “He himself says so.”

It is the ideal to have both kinds of authority. The authority, which Jesus emphasizes in today’s Gospel, is inner authority. Jesus possessed no conferred, Jewish, earthly, authority. It takes an act of faith to accept that his authority came from his father. Repeated incidents like this convinced many that that was true.

The scribes would quote famous rabbis when asked a question. Jesus did not; he spoke boldly for himself. He held people spellbound, hanging on his every word because he possessed a profound inner authority. Jesus held complete authority both the authority conferred by his father and a life of openness to learning truth. It freed him to challenge the status quo. It ultimately got him killed.

A lot of folks with external authority do not see the difference between external authority and internal authority, and, in their frustration at not being recognized as “the authority,” get aggressive, even violent. It happened to Jesus . . .

Outside of military service, external authority is never sufficient by itself. The scribes rested on the laurels of their external authority. They lost respect among those who listened to and compared the scribes’ and Jesus’ teaching.

This raises the question of church authority. We believe 100% of the important church teachings in the apostles’ and Nicene creeds concerning doctrine. Main line Protestants agree 100% with us.

What about the moral decisions about which the church invokes its authority over us? Does the church always speak god’s will? Historically, the answer is no. Slavery and usury are two easy examples.

Most times, directives make good sense. Sometimes, however, they do not. “Discernment” is the traditional word for learning God’s will for oneself. We are to listen carefully to church directives; that is the literal meaning of “obedience.” ob + audire means to “listen carefully.” When we do not agree, we pray for the Holy Spirit’s guidance, examine the issue, our motives and the circumstances of the situation, and prudently make our decision. A habitual, good relationship with God is necessary.

Jesus trusted his God-given, Spirit-inspired gifts and powers; we are called to do the same. Like JESUS, we need to have the courage of our convictions.

When we are reflectively in tune with God, we, like Jesus, will do courageous and marvelous deeds in breaking scribal, fearsome boundaries - with authority, as did Jesus.

3rd SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME (January 21, 2018)

I’ve never been to mainland Europe, but I have been told that some cathedrals from the 17th century have pulpits built in the shape of the mouth of a great fish. The preacher speaks to the people, standing as the prophet Jonah recently emerged from the mouth of the whale.

You remember the story; Jonah was sent to the east by God to Nineveh, the capital of Assyria -- modern day Iran. Assyria was the nation that earlier held the Jews in cruel captivity. Jonah, instead, headed west to the Mediterranean Sea and shipped out to go further west. Where, of course, he comes face-to-face with the whale.

This is a story loved by children, but it is primarily an adult story. Let us not get distracted by the story of how a man could be swallowed whole by a fish and live. This is not ichthyology, but theology. It is a comedic story more about what goes on inside a person than about what goes on inside a whale.

The Assyrians had done the Jews dirt; Jonah had been raised to hate the Assyrians. Jonah could not stand facing the truth that his own personal enemies were not God’s enemies.

God was threatening Jonah’s learned bigotry, threatening that puffed-up feeling of moral superiority. According to the scripture scholars, the Jonah story targets Jonah and fellow, narrow-minded Jews who were wrongly secure in being the “chosen people.“

There is good news: God brought about the single, most-sweeping renewal movement recorded in Scripture through the preaching of a man who was far from perfect. It proves again that God can write straight with crooked lines.

Who are our Ninevites? Terrorists, child-molesters, people of different national origin, different social standing, different racial background or sexual orientation? Could it be that God is sending us to bring his love to them?

In the beginning of Mark’ s Gospel, Jesus speaks to four Jewish fishermen. Each, like the Ninevites, responds promptly with his “yes” to Jesus. These, also, would stand out in sharp contrast to the many Jews who refused to accept Jesus.

So, the connecting link between the two readings is: God’s call & our response. The church, in placing these readings together, encourages a prompt, non-judgmental response, like the Ninevites and the four apostles.

How do we respond?

Perhaps we are like Jonah. Do we spend a good part of our life avoiding God by distracting ourselves with television or something else, so we don’t have to face our god?

Perhaps we are like the ancient Jews. We live out our personal exiles, bruised in heart with real or imagined hurts that we hold onto and stew over endlessly.

Perhaps we are like the apostles who quickly said “yes.” Peter and Andrew say “yes.” Jesus comes before business; James and john say “yes.” Jesus comes before family.

For both the apostles and for us, the journey may later get rough, and we need to remember that just as the apostles fell and got up, so must we. Our “yes” is not a once and for all decision. We, like them need to get up when we fall and begin again to live our ongoing “yes.”

2nd SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME (January 14, 2018)

In the synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus simply invites four fishermen to follow him, and they do it. In John, the first disciples were followers of John the Baptizer. John the Baptizer hails Jesus as the “Lamb of God,” and two of his followers go off with Jesus.

Jesus asks them, “What are you looking for.” Could there have been a more penetrating question? Were they legalists looking for answers to hard questions in the law, like Scribes and Pharisees? Were they revolutionaries looking to overthrow roman authority, like the zealots? Were they looking for power, like the Sadducees? Or, were they simply poor, sinful, quizzical, Jewish men, looking for light? Simple souls. “What are you looking for” is the key question for any would-be disciple. Is it money, power, prestige, or service?

Their answer seems, at first, off point: they answer his question with a question: “teacher, where do you live?” They are respectful towards the one whom john the baptizer showed the greatest respect; they call him, “teacher.” They ask by their question that they do not want a superficial, roadside, fleeting few words with him. It is not a “let’s do lunch” situation. They want to know him; they want to be friends, visiting with him in his own home.

He answers in the Jewish, rabbinic tradition “come and see.” which means, “come and we will talk together, find truth, and you will experience truth that I alone can open up to you.”

Two disciples followed Jesus. One was named, Andrew. Andrew then went to his brother, Peter, and did what Andrew is famous for: not trying to be famous. Andrew was a first-chosen apostle, but he was not chosen to be in the inner circle of Peter, James, and John. Also, he was very content in doing what he seemed to do best, bringing others to Jesus. He did it here, bringing his brother, Peter. Peter was the one chosen to lead. Andrew was fine with that. Andrew appears three times, each time introducing others to Jesus. Later, he appears in chapter 6 bringing the boy with the 5 loaves and 2 small fish to Jesus before the multiplication event. Later still, he appears in chapter 12 when he brings the non-Jewish, Greek inquirers to Jesus.

The other of the two disciples who joined Jesus this day is not named. Scholars suggest that it was the beloved disciple, John. Why? John wrote this Gospel. The author notes that this incident occurred “about 4 o’clock in the afternoon.” Is it not true that we remember the place and time of our most significant events, where and when we were at an earthshaking moment. This may well have been this common experience that led the author to note the time. If he was there, John would never forget this event and never be the same as long as he lived.

I would suggest that the most relevant line for us in today’s gospel is the question of Jesus, “what are you looking for?” What is the bottom line for you in coming to me? What are you looking for? Is it for relief from guilt because of the fear of punishment for past sins or indiscretions? Is it for a need for eternal security? Is it for some kind of career opportunity that could come from doing Jesus’ work? Is it to achieve some form of peace when anxiety is an ongoing probability with all the concerns of living today.

All the foregoing questions may play some role in the drama of our lives. Absolute purity of intention is an ideal seldom realized. But – and it is a large but – should not the right answer to “what are you looking for?” be: I recognize the centrality of relationship in life. I am looking for the perfect relationship. I recognize you, my lord, to be the other person that makes the perfect relationship. I recognize your revelation to me as love. I want my prime, love involvement with you, my lord. I want to be your disciple in my life with you and in all my relationships

I believe that that is the answer that Jesus was looking for from these first two disciples on this day . . . At four o’clock.

Epiphany of the Lord (January 7, 2018)

The journey is a profound vehicle for a story: as old as the Iliad and Odyssey of Homer and the exodus of the Jews - as new as the story of you and me. The first reading told of a journey of kings to Jerusalem with gifts of gold and frankincense.

The Gospel reading from Matthew is the writing of a Jew to fellow Jews - about another Jew who is the fulfillment of their promised Messiah. Matthew tells the story with wonderful images and great drama. Like every good storyteller, Matthew weaves tempting previews and the possibility of danger.

King Herod had a terrible affliction, paranoia; he killed his wife and three of his sons and later would kill the Holy Innocents. Herod was not interested in showing homage to the newborn king. He got information from the scribes, then lied, then used it in an attempt to maintain power. For some unknown reason, the scribes did not follow up on it themselves: “and you Bethlehem of the tribe of Judah, a savior will arise from you,”

The scene at the Bethlehem stable has more participants. We know how Mary and Joseph got there. The shepherds came - and had it easy. The journey was short; the directions were excellent; the light was bright; the music was great!

The magi had it tougher. There was much confusion. The magi followed a mysterious star; they sought help from Herod, who introduced them to the Jewish scriptures that were explained to them by experts, scribes. The starlight may have been poor, especially by day, but it was enough to get them there; they found Jesus.

Today, we celebrate their arrival and the meaning of it. “Epiphany comes from the Greek word for ”“appearance,” “manifestation.” Until the fourth century the western church celebrated three principal feasts: Epiphany, Easter, and Pentecost. Christmas, narrated by Luke, was not a big feast. The significance of epiphany, narrated by Matthew, is the celebration of Jesus’ first contact with gentiles.

Closer to the birth of Jesus, the shepherds came to the stable. Christianity in the west sees shepherds held in higher esteem than middle-easterners. God, characterized as a shepherd, spans both testaments. Numerous major figures were shepherds: Abel, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and David. Hear the words from Psalm 23: “The Lord is my shepherd.” In Matthew [2:6:] “From you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.” Jesus is the consummate good shepherd. Shepherds’ love for sheep is not dependent on sheep being well behaved.

In the middle- east, shepherds with their 24/7 jobs were unable to keep Jewish precepts regarding eating and washing. Also, they allowed sheep to nibble in others’ pastures; they were therefore looked upon as thieves. Their inclusion by Luke is significant. It was they came down from the hills to the stable. They were not turned away, not rejected.

Matthew includes the magi, the wise men. They came from the other end of the economic spectrum. They were wealthy enough to make the long journey and to bring precious gifts. They were smart enough to ask directions when they were in doubt. Although they may have enjoyed great prestige in their homeland, but to the Jews they were gentiles, foreigners. They did not enjoy the divine election of Jews. They, also, came to the stable. They were not turned away, not rejected.

We remember that one of the first major problems with the young, Christian church was to decide whether new, gentile Christians had to first become Jews before being accepted. The belief in divine election of Jews was an ongoing, powerful force.

The Epiphany celebrates the fact that regardless of position on the economic continuum or religious opinion, all are welcome to the table in Christianity.

It challenges us as individuals and as institutional church to be inclusive: always. This wonderful parish, in my opinion, has no problem with this individual challenge and cannot change an institution, but . . . It is the lesson for today in the scriptures.

MARY - MOTHER OF GOD (January 1, 2018)

Mary is celebrated in surprising places; she is the person who has been on the cover of Time Magazine more than any other.

Mary is honored with many, many titles. Today we celebrate her under the most basic of all her titles: Mary the Mother of God. This is the one title from which all others flow - and my personal, only title. For me, all other titles are redundant. All other titles derive from this one. She, a young, unknown Jewish girl from a relatively obscure village, was chosen to bear in her body the Messiah.

Little is known about her. Matthew and Luke are the only two authors in the New Testament that include any description of events before Jesus began his public ministry. Nothing at all is known about Mary prior to the angel’s arrival.

Devotion to her approached adoration by the beginning of Vatican II in 1962, there was a proposal to publish a separate document on Mary. The council fathers decided against it. They noted that many of the faithful were honoring Mary more than Jesus. So, the council fathers decided to speak of Mary in the context of the church. Why? She was present at its foundation; she was the mother of Jesus and she was one of his first disciples.

There is a dubious Latin inscription in many churches: Ad Jesum per Mariam - to Jesus thru Mary. We cannot ever forget that Jesus/God is the end point of our prayer and worship. We need no intermediary when we speak to our Lord – his door is always open; there is no gatekeeper.

The primary place of Jesus is brought out in today’s Gospel. When we carefully read it, we recognize that the focus is not on Mary but on Jesus and what his coming into the world means. This highlights the difference between how peter reacted so differently, decades later, at Jesus’ transfiguration from the way Mary reacted, here. Peter experienced a marvel and said: let’s do something – let’s build three tents here. Mary’s reaction to her experience of angels and shepherds is not to do, but to treasure, to reflect, to ponder.

Reflection follows observing and listening carefully. She took the experience to heart. She quietly went over the words, interacted with the experience, allowed it to saturate her memory of it. Mary’s attitude of treasuring and pondering brings us back to the very heart of Christianity: Jesus - the one whom she treasures and ponders.

Besides forming Jesus body during her pregnancy, Mary would later help Jesus form his human personality as he grew. We need to remember that Jesus was like you and me in all things but sin. His mother influenced his personality as our mothers influenced us. For us, there were traits we took on from our mother and perhaps others we did not take. Jesus’ personality traits can also be traced to his mother: his gentleness, his compassion for people who were hurting, his kind and respectful treatment of women in an historical period that treated women as things, mere possessions. These gifts were part of her motherhood; these were the qualities she passed on to Jesus.

Standing at the threshold of a new year, we are invited to honor Mary both for teaching us the need for reflection on our experience and for her helping to form Jesus’ personality. More profoundly, we honor Jesus who came to show us the way to his father, the way into the kingdom of God.

Our treasuring and pondering prepare us to be ready for the mysteries of what this New Year will hold for us.

Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph (December 31, 2017)

Today we celebrate the feast of the holy family. I recall when I was a very young priest, preaching that the holy family was the model family. Now that I am not so young, I have to smile recalling some of those homilies. The mother of the family is a virgin wife and mother, full of grace. The father is one who does not seem to have a problem with that. Ah, that would be after he had a miraculous dream – as all fathers many not have: a son who is 100% God and 100% man -- at the same time. It may be called a model family, but it is not the family next door?

Christian models are supposed to be imitated, replicated somehow. Yet, it is impossible to replicate the holy family. Is that to say that there is nothing to be learned on this feast of the holy family?

Ours is an era when we hear much negativity: stories of children out of control, spouse abuse, child abuse, children calling 9-1-1 after being appropriately disciplined, destructive relationships, drug-afflicted families and/or disputes resolved by violence.

Today’s feast says that the holy family does have something to say to us in the readings we just heard. Our reading from Sirach teaches us that every marriage and family requires a basic respect by each member for all the others. Respect comes from the Latin verb respicio, meaning “to look again” – not simply “look, “ but look a second time. Lack of respect makes the atmosphere both unhealthy and unhappy – and, ultimately, destructive.

From Paul we learn that we need to cultivate all the virtues characteristic of a Christian, but above all. Love. Life in the Christian family is rooted in compassionate love.

The gospel teaches that no matter who we are - even Jesus – obedience must be a part of life. “Obedience,” we know comes from the Latin verb obaudire, meaning, “to listen carefully. “ There is military obedience that calls for following orders without question – tending toward blind obedience. Christian obedience is, on the other hand, is closer to the Latin; it means to listen attentively. [There are two credits in classical language for listening to this homily.]

All of us - children and parents - need to listen attentively. When we are compassionately loved and respected, we listen more easily to the other. Love and respect are the foundation of authentic obedience, real listening.

Jesus freely chose to submit himself in obedience to his parents. Jesus’ respect, love, and obedience are based on his respect, love, and obedience toward his father in heaven, which he showed throughout his life.

We hear so much about dysfunctional families these days. But, really, how many cleaver families have we ever known? No one, nothing is perfect. Every family is somehow dysfunctional, and concentrating on negatives depresses us.

Today, let’s look at the bright side. Let’s look at all the good things that happened on Christmas: the laughing, the caring, the helping, and the generosity, the being there for one another. Let’s concentrate on the positives as we celebrate the feast of the holy family.

As Christians, we have something very important to offer the present family situation in America. The example and message of Jesus and the values expressed in today’s readings: respect [looking again] - compassionate love – obedience [listening attentively]. All are lights that we can bring to a world that desperately needs light.

Nativity of the Lord (December 25, 2017)

Verbal communication may be our most precious gift. We have all been successful with it. We have all failed miserably with it. Sometimes, we are inspired; other times we put our foot in our mouths up to our knee: spouse to spouse, friend to friend, parent to children, children to parent. All, at times, become exasperated – and that is only within the circle of those closest to us. Imagine God’s problem in communicating with many diverse people in many, diverse cultures!

Communication depends upon the common experience of the two involved. Our God wanted to communicate with all of us so much more deeply than through Jewish prophets. Christmas celebrates a divine breakthrough in communication through a universal, common experience. Everyone loves a newborn baby. God, in his infinite genius, employed childbirth, a universal, celebratory experience to touch every one of us, to speak to every heart.

Today, we celebrate this miracle of Emmanuel, God-with-us. Our Father’s Son came to us. God became one of us. Our God inspired the writer John to call Jesus “the Word.” The word became flesh. Both God and we know that words are mere tools to communicate, to express ideas. Some word-tools have temporary use. Some last or change meaning. But, our greatest words achieve clarity and permanence when they are embodied in persons.

The word “justice,” when it is embodied, takes on flesh in a Moses who stood up to pharaoh in Egypt. Justice, when it is embodied, takes on flesh in a Lincoln when he published his Emancipation Proclamation. Justice, when it is embodied, takes on flesh in a martin Luther King when he delivered his “I have a dream” speech and marched in Montgomery. In those instances, the word “justice” took on flesh in the persons who embodied justice.

When a wise wordsmith was asked to define “prudence,” he paused thoughtfully and gave a definitive answer: “prudence is what the prudent man does.” The important words take on flesh and live in persons.

Love is surely a “many splendored” word. It has many meanings in the mouths of many, diverse people. John the evangelist told us in one of his letters, “God is love.” God’s love is the highest form of love. God/love is concerned totally with the other. It is completely unselfish. It is unconditional; God loves us no matter what we do. God’s love cannot be earned; it is freely given to us. Love took on flesh in the person who embodied love.

In John’s Gospel, we hear: “In the beginning was the word and the word was with god, and the word was God…The word became flesh and lived among us.” Love took on flesh, became incarnated when love became enfleshed in Jesus. Jesus lived a life that always modeled, enfleshed love.

Today we celebrate the one we have been given by our God. His generosity moves us to give gifts from our hearts as tokens of the love we have for him and for one another in a wonderful ripple effect of love of our neighbor.

In the same passage, John goes on to write the sad words, “He came to his own and his own did not receive him.” May each of us have the courage to accept Jesus in our hearts and follow the way of love he modeled for us.

May Jesus’ love be enfleshed in us. May we live Jesus this and every day of our lives with joy and gratitude.

Fourth Sunday of Advent (December 24, 2017)

The connection between the first reading and the Gospel is a question for every Sunday. The answer reveals the theme for the Mass. In today’s readings, the church has put David, the shepherd-king, and Mary, Jesus’ mother together. Why? Let’s look.

In the scene of the first reading we see David, alone and musing. He has conquered Jerusalem, built a safe wall around the city, built for himself a house of cedar - an upscale building material in Palestine. Now he thinks of the box that holds the tablets of stone, the Ten Commandments. Jews held the arc and stone tablets to be the place of the presence of God. David wishes to build a magnificent temple for God’s presence.

The prophet Nathan encouraged him in this. But, that night, god corrected Nathan [it is rare to have God correct a prophet]. Nathan returned to David and reminded him of blessings past: the victory over Goliath and many enemy armies, his becoming king . . . And a future blessing: God will establish a “house” for David. This works in English; we have the house of Dior, the house of Windsor. House denotes dynasty; here, the dynasty of David

God pointedly asks: “Do you build me a house?” In other words, “You have a lot to learn. Remember, you were the runt of the litter of your brothers. I made you the shepherd-king. Whose choice determines where I live - yours or mine?”

God - not humans - has the last word. It is wisely said: “Man proposes, but God disposes. David heard God and understood; he would later write in his Psalm 65, verse 5: “Happy the man you choose and bring to dwell in your courts.” David “got” it - finally. David wanted control; God did not allow that to happen.

Remember, this Gospel episode took place nine months before the nativity, Christmas. It is related today to make a point. The angel announced that Mary was God’s chosen one for a temporary dwelling place on earth. The angel told Mary that the reign of king David would likewise run right through her body in the conception of a child whose kingdom would have no end. Mary let God be God. She remained open - open to surprise -- and here she is called “blessed” among women, unlike David who tried to control.

In John’s Gospel, when Andrew met Jesus, he asked, “Where do you live?” Jesus answered: “Come and see.” Andrew went and learned that the “son of man has nowhere to lay his head.” No mailing address. Andrew would come to understand that Jesus’ dwelling place was within the hearts of his followers.

Also in John’s Gospel, the Samaritan woman says that the Samaritans worshipped God on Mount Gerizim, while Jews worship on Mount Sinai. Jesus replies that neither mountain will be the place for future worship. Worship will take place in one’s heart. The heart is where Jesus is found -- in “a house not built by human hands.”

The point? The theme? Jesus dwells within us. David and Mary are presented to us here as persons who said, “Yes” to Jesus’ call: David, with a detour; Mary, directly. She stands on the ledge of jeopardy and courageously leaps. Each came independently to deeper understanding about God. David tried to control, but eventually came to accept. Mary simply listened, accepted and committed.

St. Augustine thought that Mary conceived through her ear. This powerful image emphasizes the word that came through the ear, enters her heart and grows in her belly.

If we accept God into our hearts, God becomes incorporated within us, we then become more than someone with a personal life and a social life. We have a third dimension and share in the divine life. Theology has a name for this spiritual phenomenon “sanctifying grace.” We are also thereby equipped for a life of eternity -- a reality that begins now, not later.

In the still busy days between now and Christmas, let’s make the time to quiet ourselves and acknowledge that Emmanuel, God-with-us, is actually God within us - and listen and talk to him in an ongoing conversation that begins here and now and goes on forever. We may need to remind ourselves that eternity is already in place. A forever kingdom in God’s presence is much richer than merely the promise of a future time when we meet God face to face.

Third Sunday of Advent (December 17, 2017)

“Rejoice” is the high frequency word in today’s Mass. Today is Gaudete Sunday; the pink candle of our advent wreaths is lit. By God’s grace we do not have pink vestments, which I prefer not to wear - for reasons that have nothing to do with liturgy.

We hear “rejoice” in church, but when we walk in the mall, we see few smiling faces. Shoppers seem to be intent and tense.

As William Sloane Coffin remarked: “So why are Christians so often joyless? It is, I think, because too often Christians have only enough religion to make themselves miserable. Guilt, they know, but not forgiveness. Nietzsche correctly noted, ‘Christians should look more redeemed.’”

Perhaps we are experiencing increased stress, painful family memories, broken relationships, shattered dreams, unrealistic expectations - to name a few experiences that impact us in this season.

Does it not seem inappropriate, incongruous to hear about rejoicing? Not at all!! The reason for rejoicing is not finding the perfect gift for someone you really love or finding the adequate gift for someone you really don’t. The reason for rejoicing is not a shallow, temporary change from emotional “business as usual.”

Where is joy to be found? Today’s scripture readings teach us our source of rejoicing. Isaiah, in the first reading, speaks to the children of Israel who suffered so much for so long: “rejoice in the lord.”

In the responsorial psalm, we answered: “My soul rejoices in my God.”

Paul was shipwrecked, flogged to within an inch of his life several times, publicly mocked, run out of town. He said to those who were waiting for the second coming of Christ: “Rejoice always, render constant thanks.” This was surely more than urging a positive attitude toward life, more than a first-century, pop psychology of positive thinking.

Paul also says, “render constant thanks” for the forgiveness Jesus brought.” He deeply believes that real joy abides in the soul of the one who has absorbed this and has entrusted himself totally to the hands of God. It is anchored in something more stable than the shifting sands of life’s fortunes. It is rooted in god himself.

Joy is a resilient choice no matter what happens to us. Joy arises out of a contented heart where the contentment is based on the lasting presence of God.

Joy is a fundamental stance of the heart: a conviction, a gift of God. It is rooted in our enduring relationship with god, remembered during advent as we recall the coming of Jesus who made our relationship a reality.

Joy is a constant glimpse of eternity. It is a whisper in the night of difficulties that will become a resounding chorus of the full presence of God.

Jesus’ gift of joy is recalled in the holy card that portrays him in the scene described in the book of revelation: standing outside a door knocking. The door has no handle on his side; it has to be opened by you, by me on our side.

In the morning, preferably, before the day begins to roll like a snowball downhill, gathering chaos, we take the time to enter within ourselves. We picture our lord vividly before us. We look at the expression in his eyes. We “waste” time with him - first in total silence -- just looking at him with his loving eyes that encompasses forgiveness, acceptance, and value.

I acknowledge my total reliance on him.

The experience that follows is joy.

Second Sunday of Advent (December 10, 2017)

For some - to a tragic degree - and for most, to some degree, there is a let down when Christmas finally arrives.

There is a psychological explanation for this. Most of us, consciously or unconsciously, have the image of Christmas as a Norman Rockwell painting: a happy family surrounded by loving friends trimming a flawless tree, eating cookies and drinking our favorite beverage: a roaring fire in the hearth with snow seen through the window falling gently and piling in the corners of the windowpanes.

Well, the reality for most - there is more than the snow that is missing.

Spiritually, Christmas is also frequently a letdown. We hear the Advent imperatives urging us. We remember past Christmases and may recall little spiritual progress during our advents.

But, there is light at the end of this tunnel. Our readings this morning suggest some ways of being in the world. Advent is often long on the doing, but short on the being. That leads to the inevitable frustration. Of spiritually empty spirits on Christmas morning,

Perhaps this advent we might concentrate on why john the baptizer is chosen for this time of year. Isaiah, in the first reading, cries out to prepare the way of the lord. John the baptizer proclaims and lives the truth that preparing the way is not in doing, but in being, not in filling, but emptying our lives. He seems to tell us that the desert is the only place bare enough and quiet enough to mirror our lives, our motives, and our disguises.

We need quiet time in Advent, in the beginning of the church year. To get quiet time, we need to reschedule, to reprioritize, and to enable us to get inside ourselves for being with our Lord. That desert, quiet time gives us the opportunity for getting insight in our hearts. John got the insight to “decrease,” to allow Jesus to “increase” in his life. John got the insight to point to Jesus, not to himself. John got the insight to free himself from the system besides getting free from himself.

John called the Jews to the desert wilderness where God could find them. The desert is the perfect place to prepare. In desert isolation, we have no distractions of job, parenting, grand-parenting, even mindless religious practices that maintain our usual routine. When our minds are full of “stuff,” not even god himself can break in to us. John, in his stark lifestyle always had one foot in the desert.

To make this quiet time real for us [it is real without us!!] It helps some to picture Jesus, present, in front of us or present within our heart of hearts, Others use deep-breathing exercises to settle themselves.

We need to be with him . . . and pause to listen to what he has to say to us - what thoughts he plants in our minds. This even helps us to discover God’s presence in the people and events around us. We can see in others that presence/ manifestation of the holy. We can see their underlying goodness

Wonder of wonders!! The more attentive we are to God’s presence, the more we become God’s presence for others.

Finally, when we bask in the presence of God, we feel a quiet joy. We do not have to wait for Christmas there is already a residual joy within us.

What a relief! We do not have to be in a Norman Rockwell painting; we just smile at all that. All we need to do is live in the meantime - cultivating his presence.

We do not have to come to the night before Christmas and try to look like a perfect person who is perfectly ready to greet the Lord when he comes. He has already arrived. Our God loves us as we are - and comes to us in our opening the door when he knocks.

Oh . . . Did I mention that Norman Rockwell was married three times?

First Sunday of Advent (December 3, 2017)

Mark, within a brief five verses, uses the injunction “watch” three times. Watch means that we are called to be alert, to wake up…and smell the incense.

Remember Jesus’ words: “Watch therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.” [MT 24:42] Remember Jesus’ words when he took Peter, James, and John to Gethsemane on the night before he died? “Remain here and watch with me.” Remember Jesus’ words to Peter when he returned from that prayer: “Could you not watch for even an hour?”

Today I would like to reflect on how to watch. I am going to talk about a topic rarely mentioned: hope, as in faith, hope and love.

I find that Christian hope is best defined as “being open to surprise,” a definition provided by the Benedictine brother, David Steindl-Rast. Hope is a virtue that can exist only when supported like a hammock at its two ends: faith in Abba at the one end and Abba’s unconditional love for us at the other. If you trust God and bask in God’s love, you can be open to surprise in life: hope.

We can be open to surprises that will come our way. Hope is not optimism sprinkled with holy water, as some would have it. Hope is often misunderstood and mistaken for hopes - with an “s”. A proportion with faith may be helpful. Faith is to the beliefs that we hold as hope is to hopes that we have. That is, just as saving-faith, trust, is the important underpinning to creedal-faith / beliefs [“I believe in one God, etc.}, so hope, openness to surprise, is the important underpinning for hopes we have. Both beliefs and hopes are distracting look-alikes for faith and hope.

Examples of hopes would be: that our team will win, that everyone will be healthy, that everyone in the family will get along. Hopes are always the direct object of a sentence that begins: “I hope that…” The common denominator for hopes is something I can imagine. Hope is far more profound than hopes

So, what is the relationship of hope to hopes? Question: when our hopes are shattered, what is left? Answer: hope! If a person has hopes without hope underpinning his hopes - and then has his hopes shattered, the person is shattered.

Hope is the seedbed of hopes; when one’s hopes are shattered, a new crop of hopes will spring up overnight, expressed, for example, “Wait ‘til next year.”

Dag Hamersjold said it so well about two important virtues, gratitude and hope: “For all that has been, thanks, lord, thanks [gratitude]; for all that will be, yes, lord, yes.” [Hope – openness to surprise].

Advent is the season for becoming more aware of hope and practicing hope, a season to arouse our watchfulness for the surprises that we experience daily, so that hope becomes an active attitude, like faith (trust), and unconditional love. Hope, with practice, can become as natural as breathing.

How do we “practice”? Faith in God or in another is deepened by trusting, isn’t it? Love for god or for another is deepened by loving, isn’t it? Being open . . . To surprise deepens hope in God or in another.

Hope provides a wonderful, God-given coping dynamic: in practical terms: we say, “Yes, lord, yes” before we say, “Oh, no.” This is key! Remember, hope can happen only when supported by faith and by love. It does not stand on its own. It has the needed support of faith and love.

We can learn something about hope from its opposite; the opposite of hope is not hopelessness, for hope thrives on hopelessness; the opposite of hope is despair - being shattered. Despair comes from giving God or another an ultimatum: “I’ve got it all figured out; there is no other solution than mine.” No possibilities for surprise.

We believe the Lord Jesus has already come; the kingdom of God is already in our midst! We also believe that the Lord will come again. There is tension in this notion of the “already, and the not yet.” In the now, the in-between time, God’s enduring grace and unending presence is always with us.

Advent reminds us that we need to be aware of this and to be open to the God of unimaginable surprises - in hope.

Christ the King (November 26, 2017)

On this last Sunday of the liturgical year, the church uses kingship as a metaphor to celebrate Christ’s universal lordship - a more elegant way of saying god must be absolutely our number one, overarching, priority - with no equal on earth.

What can we know about that final moment of judgment before God? This parable of sheep and goats sheds some light. I would like to make three points.

First, Jesus tells us that our decisions in life do matter. We have responsibility, and this parable warns us to accept it. Some think that all people will be eternally reconciled with God, that God’s love will over-power any human resistance. Wishful thinking in the light of today’s Gospel!

If God’s love is non-coercive, and it is, then we cannot be sure that some will not resist that love after a lifetime of rejecting god’s offer of love.

The Scriptures teach that it is not God’s desire that anyone should perish. Today’s Gospel makes clear that our daily decisions have lasting consequences.

Experience has shown us that our decisions in this life both unite and separate us from each another. The sum total of our decisions effectively unites or separates us from God.

Second, God, not by us, sets the criterion for judgment. Jesus suggests that when the sun sets on human history, God will separate us on the basis of our hearts. He gave us two commandments. We did not hear that his judgment will be based on the ten commandments on which so many folks base their sacramental confessions, but on the extent to which we listen to Jesus’ articulation of the love of God / neighbor spelled-out in today’s Gospel.

He looks to both our decisions and the motivations for our decisions in our care for the least powerful in society with whom he identifies himself. Doing or failing to do for them is doing or failing to do for him. If we have been motivated by personal recognition, we heard in another place, “They have already received their reward.” The one required motive is love.

It is significant that both the sheep and the goats were surprised at the criterion for judgment. Whether the sheep fed and clothed the poor, or the goats ignored them, they acted or failed to act from their loving or unloving hearts. Jesus is advocating genuine selflessness here. The “goats” ignored the poor, the “sheep’ cared for the poor, not knowing that they would receive any reward for their service. It was that attitude of loving concern that god rewarded.

Third, Jesus, like those who preceded him, offers this parable to help prevent a sad judgment. We heard in the first reading from Ezekiel: “I myself will look after you and tend my sheep.” Our responsorial was a prayer praising the tenderness of the divine shepherd toward us. Examples abound.

Through Moses, God warned pharaoh of the coming plagues - trying to help pharaoh avoid those plagues. Through Jonah, god threatened judgment on the wicked city of Nineveh - as a last effort to help the city avoid destruction. Through Jesus’ teaching on sheep and goats he tries to help us comprehend the consequences of our heart’s attitude.

Today’s Gospel is as if God is offering us a copy of the final exam early. He does this because it is his will that we should be with him forever.

If God gives us even the example of Jesus to model the way, how can any of us refuse to listen?

We do like closure, don’t we? We have all left a movie or finished a book with a sense of frustration because it did not end adequately. Perhaps, it just stopped without really ending, or left some scenes hanging. Scripture agrees with our frustration. It tells us that as surely as god called human history into being, God will bring it to conclusion. Time ends at the feet of Christ the king of our hearts.

Thirty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time (November 16, 2014)

At this time of the church year, we hear Jesus’ stories about the end of time. Today, we hear about a giver of talents, who is about to become an absentee landlord.

The parable employs “the format of three.” We are familiar with it in jokes and in stories: “There was the Catholic, the Protestant and the Jew.” “There was the German, the Irishman, and the Italian.” Almost always, the first two set up the third for the punch line or the lesson line. It ends on a good note. But, today’s parable reverses the format; the first two are good news; the third is bad news, but a good lesson.

A “talent”, we are told, was originally an amount equal to 15 years’ wages for a laborer. Today, it means “giftedness.” The English word “talent” originated from this parable, as in “time, talent, and treasure”.

In the story, the first two imaged the master positively. They accepted the confidence the master had in them and doubled the talents.

Then, there was the third man. He was the fearful servant who calls his master “a hard man” and focuses on that negative label. Fear enters and does what fear does best, whether it is Peter walking on the water or a deer in your headlights: fear paralyzes. The man tried to “play it safe - be cool” -- so he thinks. He used the safety deposit box of his time: he buried it

“Hard man” is not an appropriate title for Jesus, but the label does have value in insofar as we come to acknowledge that we will have to account for our stewardship of our talents. Not using our talents renders us “worthless servants.”

Some, like the fearful servant, focus on “playing it safe”. Matthew’s Gospel is famous for its fearsome stories about those who do not respond appropriately to Jesus’ invitation to follow him: being tied hand and foot and thrown outside into darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, or handed over to torturers until they pay off the entire debt, or they can be put to the sword, or can burn with unquenchable fire.

Does this sound like the God of unconditional love? How do we come to terms with God’s unconditional love and a state of fear of punishment? We have read: “Fear of the lord is the beginning of wisdom.” Just the beginning. And we also hear Paul say: “Perfect love drives out all fear.” The book God First Loved Us by Antony f. Campbell, SJ, offers some helpful observations on this subject.

Campbell says that the “widely held approach” is the “level playing field” theory. The images for god as fearsome judge on one side and god as unconditional lover on the other side are given equal value, but they actually cancel each other out, resulting in indifference about god. How can you deeply love another whom you deeply fear? The tension forms a mystery. Mystery is not “chickening out; “ it is facing fact. Let’s do what we always do when we face mystery: try to somewhat penetrate the mystery, remembering that it is mystery.

The “tilted playing field” gives priority to god as unconditional lover. Fear is subordinated. A loving God invites personal relationship and involvement. I firmly believe that and think it appropriate to take on much more in life than keeping my eyes on the rules. Hopefully, most of the time, our loving God’s will - as we understand it - and “the rules” rules are identical. I will constantly look to our Lord rather than rules. What matters more is how much we love, not what the rules dictate.

Does the unconditional lover image adequately reflect the Judeo-Christian tradition? I want to say it doesn’t. The teaching church, as far as I can see, does nothing to address this issue of love vs. fear at the institutional, teaching level. It leaves us with a conflicted, level playing field. In the tilted playing field, as I view the situation, if there is a little more fearing than loving or a little more loving than fearing, I see no big problem. People’s consciences and priorities are theirs, not mine. It is mystery. If there is a lot of fearing and little loving in someone, we have someone in the same boat as the fearful man in today’s Gospel. But, if there is a lot of loving and very little fearing in someone, I find a kindred spirit.

As our relationship with God grows toward mutual unconditional love, I hope that the God-the-judge image may disappear altogether. When unconditional love is the context for our living, we can be sure that appropriate behavior will be its hallmark.