Lessons From A Sword

Today’s first reading from the Book of Jonah[1] shows Jonah entering Nineveh and heralding a warning from God – repent or be doomed.  Jonah had finally stopped fighting against God’s plan for him; he went into a pagan city with only the truth and trust in God.  It started me wondering more about how that happens.  It also happens that today, January 25th, when it doesn’t fall on a Sunday is the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul – another example of absolute trust in God and tireless proclamation of Truth.

Cardinal Ratzinger, back in the 1980s wrote a small reflection[2] for the feast of the conversion of St. Paul.  In it he used the sword (which St. Paul traditionally holds in artwork) as his reflective vehicle. At one point he wrote: ‘suffering and truth belong together.[3] This comment came about as Cardinal Ratzinger explained the sword as representing truth, God’s truth; and the sword as suffering, martyrdom (and humility).

Sword as Truth
In the letter to Hebrews the author writes an oft quoted and very powerful line ‘For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.[4]  God’s word, His truth is that powerful.  His truth, if we allow it to enter our hearts and minds, will reveal to us things we never knew and some we never want to know.  This sword reveals us to ourselves; it opens us, but not as a weapon in the hands of a conqueror, but rather as a scalpel in the hands of a healer.  God’s truth is our salvation and healing.  God’s truth, His Word, is Christ.

Sword as Suffering and Humility
But the sword also symbolizes suffering (indeed martyrdom), and humility.  St. Paul’s apostolic journeys, are full of suffering. At one point in his 2nd letter to the Corinthians he gives us a summary of sorts: ‘Five times I have received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I have been beaten with rods; once I was stoned. Three times I have been shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brethren; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure.[5]

He listed these sufferings not to brag (St. Paul never brags about himself); but in this case, to make the Corinthians aware of what it means to be a true witness to God; as opposed to the imposters who were in Corinth.  The sufferings he endured weren’t endured because of any message of his own; he endured these sufferings for the Truth, for the Word, for Jesus Christ.  St. Paul allowed himself to be a servant, a ‘slave’ in his words, to the truth – Christ his master.  He knows that God’s Word will set us free – it is the only way and so as a humble servant he endures for God. St. Paul says it so much better: ‘I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.[6]

Our part – embracing the sword
So brothers and sisters, St. Paul stands in many images and statues with a sword – not as symbol of power that the world would recognize but, among other things, as a symbol of how to live our lives.  As witnesses to the good news of God’s salvific plan we know that God has revealed to us the truth that will set us free, words that will bring us salvation, the Word in Christ Jesus.  But words that people don’t want to hear – because they reveal too much for their comfort. As bearers of this good news, and because of this news, we know that we will meet with sufferings.  But, as servants of this Word, we need to endure these sufferings for God and the sake of the people who are inflicting these sufferings.

In today’s Gospel reading we hear Christ proclaim the good news and invite others to do the same. ‘Follow me and I will make you become fishers of men.[7] He tells some fishermen and He is telling us now.

St. Paul’s actions in Christ’s name shows us the way of our ministry: humble bravery in living and proclaiming the Truth tirelessly. St. Paul pray for us as we continue your ministry as witnesses to the Truth.  May we embrace the sword as Christ embraces us – with love.

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[1] Jon 3:1-5; 10
[2] The Warrior and the Sufferer Reflection on the Feast of the Conversion of the Apostle Paul  – ‘Images of Hope, Feast Day Reflections’ by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger 1997
[3] ibid
[4] Heb 4:12 (RSV)
[5] 2 Cor 11:24-27 (RSV)
[6] Gal 2:20 (RSV)
[7] Mk 1:17 (RSV)

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Eli & Athanasius

2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time
1/18/15

The Christmas season is complete; Christ is now in the flesh. Last weekend we celebrated His baptism.  This weekend He is walking among us and people are starting to be aware. St. John the Baptist is aware, we hear him today proclaim ‘Behold, the Lamb of God![1] He recognizes Christ; the eyes of his heart are open and aware.

This past Monday we entered the season of Ordinary time. I always look at Ordinary time as ‘the school of discipleship’; when Holy Mother Church brings to our attention what it means to be a disciple and gives us help in attaining it. We learn about how to be faithful and fruitful.

This transition between Christmastide and Ordinary time always brings to my mind a quote from St. Athanasius who lived in the fourth century. St. Athanasius wrote: ‘For the Son of God became man so that we might become God.’[2] Christmas allowed us to reflect and more fully understand the first part of his words ‘For the Son of God became man…[3] Now, as we enter Ordinary Time we try to come to terms with the second part ‘so that we might become God.[4]

It almost sounds heretical: to try and become God. St. Athanasius wasn’t saying that we actually become God – he was pointing out that by Christ uniting Himself with man, man can now live a life with Him – become partakers in the divine life through grace (gift).

Today’s second reading from St Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians affirms St. Athanasius’ quote.  St. Paul told the Corinthians: ‘The body is not for immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord is for the body; God raised the Lord and will also raise us by his power.[5]  This statement is built on the incarnation. God viewed not only our souls but our bodies as special, so special that He came and became one; and so should we.  St. Paul reinforces this by closing with ‘For you have been purchased at a price. Therefore, glorify God in your body.[6]  It is, or should be, our desire to live in Christ; to be with Him.  When we have accepted this desire then our journey now involves us in trying to live a holy life.

But How?

We look to find Christ in our lives, and our ability to find Him is directly related to our desire to find Him – because He is always there.  However, sometimes our vision is clouded, and we react to His call awkwardly. Like Samuel, we hear but search in the wrong place – at times we don’t know any better – or our ‘divine pointer’ is broken. But each one of us has people in our lives that have helped us on this journey – whether we know or it or not.  Like Samuel we should be able to point to our own Eli who has taken us by the hand and led us past confusion to clarity about God.  We all have ‘Elis’ in our journey.

Brothers and sisters, we can’t do this journey without others, it is impossible.  Even with God calling us we need community to help us on this journey. Because faith by ourselves, without guidance, produces within us a God made in our own imagination – a God that is hostage to our ideas and likings.  We don’t come to know and love who God truly is – we stagnate and isolate ourselves from He who made us.

This is why God has given us His family the Church. We journey together and Church guides us and introduces us to her bride.  Holy Mother Church is our primary Eli.  But we have others as well; those who correct us, and teach us and move us from error into truth. We need to seek them out listen to them and follow their guidance; in this way we can be assured that we are not living a faith that is of our own making – and ultimately our own undoing.

Faith isn’t passive it is active – we need to participate. We need to be on alert for, and seek out, our Elis and John the Baptists; but (and this is an integral but) we need to be more – because in God’s plan for us we are.  We need to realize that we are Eli to others.  What we learn, and how we grow isn’t just to bring us that much closer to Christ; but it is also to be able to help those around us to do the same.  One thing disciples are, are selfless; we pass forward what has been given to us and that means guidance and help.

As important as it is to allow God’s family to help us in our journey, keep us on the correct path, lead us to peace; it is just as important that we do the same to those around us.  And there are so many opportunities to be Eli to others.  As disciples we have many occasions to point Christ out to others, as St. John the Baptist did.  Just this coming week we can watch hundreds of thousands pointing to Christ in the annual ‘March For Life’ in Washington DC and San Francisco.  There are so many things that can be done here at our parish to point to Christ; so many ministries that are either undermanned or never started because of the lack of disciples wanting to point to Christ.

Here, at the start of Ordinary Time, at the beginning of the school of discipleship as we strive to find our Elis, let’s take a look at what we are giving to those around us.  Let’s ask the Holy Spirit for insight in how we can be Eli to others and help those who don’t know Christ say ‘Here I am Lord.[7]

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[1] Jn 1:36
[2] St. Athanasius, De inc. 54, 3: PG 25, 192B.
[3] ibid
[4] ibid
[5] 1 Cor 6:13-14
[6] 1 Cor 6:20
[7] 1 Sm 3:3-10

God’s Gift

Fifty-seven years ago, on the Feast of St. Bruno, (founder of the Carthusians) I was offered by my family into another, the family of Christ. October 6th, 1957 I was baptized and from that time forward, whether I knew it or not I was now surrounded by the eternal family of God.  Not that God’s family didn’t care for me prior, they did – but on that day I became a member. Today’s Gospel gives us a powerful vision of what happened on that day, for what happened to Jesus happened to each of us. ‘And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens opened and the Spirit descending upon him like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, “Thou art my beloved Son; with thee I am well pleased.”[1]  Not that we saw the physical manifestation of the sky opening and the Holy Spirit descending but it happen that way nonetheless.  God, and along with Him His family, rejoiced as I became a member.

But in addition, God didn’t just take notice of me at my baptism; He has forever known and loved me, or as Pope Francis puts it: ‘we were personally chosen even before the creation of the world…[2] Wow! I was important prior to the creation of the world. The first line of Genesis could be rewritten: ‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth, [but before that He chose me]’[3]

And so with each of you.

This inclusion into the Family of God should bring great joy and peace.  Knowing that we are never alone and that our brothers and sisters are watching out for us is a great blessing. It should, but it doesn’t always; life and our shortcomings have a way of clouding our vision to what is really important – we need reminders.

So, here we are on the last day of the Season of Christmas, it winds down after Vespers; and how does Holy Mother Church finish the season of the Nativity of the Lord? With a celebration about being part of Christ’s family.  For me this Feast of the Baptism of Lord is a perfect closing to Christmas; it takes all that we have celebrated and reflected on and launches us into the rest of the year by reminding us that we are not alone – we belong.  Not only did Christ come down to us and enter our existence within a family; but He allows us to become part of His eternal family.

St. Paul, in his beautiful opening to his letter to the Ephesians puts it poetically: ‘He destined us in love to be his sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace which he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.[4]

God gives great Christmas gifts!

Merry Christmas!!

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[1] Mk 1:10-11 (RSV)
[2] Pope Francis – Homily October 6, 2014 at Domus Sanctae Marthae
[3] Genesis 1:1 adapted  (RSV)
[4] Ephesians 1: 5-6 (RSV)

Allow Yourself To Be Surprised

Epiphany 2015

Today, we witness the story of the Magi and their epiphany. These Magi, who were not Jewish (most likely from Babylon), were searchers for the truth and they would not stop until they found it.  We hear in the Gospel that they followed the star; but we can see that they also allowed their own expectations and assumptions to influence them. What they found was not what they expected, it was not in their realm of possibility.  They were surprised.

In searching for the ‘King of the Jews[1] they followed the guiding star but stopped in Jerusalem expecting to find him there; after all, wouldn’t a king be found in the King’s city? ‘Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East, and have come to worship him[2] they asked the inhabitants of Jerusalem and they quickly realized that their assumption was wrong. What they found was not a well-positioned family with a royal child – but confusion and intrigue; so they looked up to the heavens again and the star reappeared and led them further – out of the royal city and to a little town of shepherds and villagers. Their expectations were off; but still, they were searching for the truth, the ‘King of Jews’, and so their hearts were open to how God revealed Himself. ‘…and they fell down and worshiped him[3]

We have the advantage of growing up with the Bible – we didn’t have to go into foreign and dangerous lands following a star.  We have heard time and time again the story of the Nativity and the Magi – and it seems comfortable; however it is nonetheless a surprising story in the eyes of human expectation. But why should this be a surprise? Why should we expect to understand and anticipate what God does? ‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts…[4] we hear Him tell us through the prophet Isaiah.

God, makes it clear throughout the history of salvation that His plans and ideas are beyond our expectations and comprehension.  ‘The ox knows its owner, and the ass its master’s crib; but Israel does not know, my people does not understand…[5] He announces through Isaiah.  Christ will go on to baffle the wise and educated, the good-willed, His enemies, even the faithful.  Those around Him will continually be surprised as He reveals Himself and His Father. Mary, surprised from the moment of Gabriel’s greeting; Joseph, surprised from the moment of Mary’s pregnancy; the shepherds surprised by the heavenly hosts.  Satan’s howl of delight at the crucifixion turning into howls of rage when he realizes God’s designs.

God reveals Himself as He wills and His message will strike our hearts at unexpected times.  Our lives will be jolted by the promptings of the Holy Spirit when least expected.  God will affect us to change us – on His terms.  What His arrival in our hearts will mean to us will be different for each, but it will be the same in its surprising suddenness.  Epiphanies are by their very nature surprising because they are awakenings; they are life altering.

The very last line of today’s Gospel tells us what happens when we encounter God with open hearts in these sudden moments: ‘they departed to their own country by another way.[6]  The Magi, finding the truth, the messiah, were changed; what was previously important – now was not.  They couldn’t live as they had after seeing God enter their lives. We should not expect to be the same after God inserts Himself into our journey.  We should be prepared to view our lives differently after the Holy Spirit prompts us.  But most importantly; we should desire this change – we should desire surprises from God.

Brothers and sisters search for God everywhere and all the time. Be as the Magi who searched for the truth and allow yourself to be guided by God; the Magi had the guiding star, we have God’s Son. Search for God everywhere but know he will appear as He wills it. Don’t cloud the eyes for your heart with your preconceived ideas because you leave an opening for the king of half-truths. Again, keep your hearts open as the Magi did and you will be rewarded. We see with the Magi that when their expectations failed them, their desire for truth didn’t, and when their hearts were opened again they ‘they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy[7]

This year the feast of the Epiphany and the whole season of Christmas speaks to my heart with one single phrase: ‘Allow yourself to be surprised’; I pray the same for all of you!

Merry Christmas

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[1] Matthew 2:2 (RSV)
[2] ibid
[3] Matthew 2:11 (RSV)
[4] Isaiah 55:8-9 (RSV)
[5] Isaiah 1:3 (RSV)
[6] Matthew 2:12 (RSV)
[7] Matthew 2:10 (RSV)

Mother of God – Mother of Us

Today, the beginning of the year, Holy Mother Church looks to Our Blessed Mother. As all children look to their mother to see how they are doing the Church is no different. Mary is our ‘protectress’, her concern for those her Son loves is unfathomable and unlimited. This was evidenced by her fiat; because with her yes she opened the door of time to eternity; and by doing this allowed Love to enter our hearts in its fullness. Her yes wasn’t just in obedience to God but also in concern for mankind. Her actions throughout her life show her loving concern for people – from going in haste to help Elizabeth her cousin to urging her Son to fix a wrong at the wedding feast in Cana. From the social buffeting she took being pregnant and unwed in Nazareth; to escaping to Egypt; to standing below the Cross she gave witness to her concern for God’s people. She is a mother to Jesus and to us.

It is very, very important as Catholics to understand the nature of Mary’s motherhood, because it is the nature of the Church. Holy Mother Church is not a political action group she is a mother! The then Cardinal Ratzinger summed it up very well in a 1985 interview:

To use the very formulations of Vatican II, Mary is ‘figure,’ ‘image’ and ‘model’ of the Church. Beholding her the Church is shielded against the … masculinized models that views her as an   instrument for a program of social-political action. In Mary, as figure and archetype, the Church again finds her own visage as Mother and cannot degenerate into the
complexity of a party, an organization or a pressure group in the service of human interests, even the noblest. If Mary no longer finds a place in many theologies and ecclesiologies,
the reason is obvious: they have reduced faith to an abstraction. And an abstraction does not need a Mother.

An abstraction does not need a Mother!’ Wow!

My prayer for all of us is that we remember this small yet profound line. When we are in danger of passing judgment; when we are at the point of taking action (or not); when we are trying to witness to our faith; when we expect the Church do those same things – let’s remember this line and look to our Blessed Mother and not an idea – no matter how good because ideas don’t love – her Son does.