Sunday, January 28, 2018

Authority Issues

   Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time   B 
Who are some of the authority figures you encounter in your ordinary, day-to-day life?  Police, judges, teachers, doctors, parents, spouse—the list could go on and on.  From where do they get their authority?  Some from the law or an election, some from their superior knowledge, some from a “higher power.”  But none of them have authority on their own; it’s borrowed, if you will, from another.

Such was the case among the rabbis and scribes of Jesus’ day.  When preaching and teaching, they would always make an appeal to the authorities.  “My mentor, Rabbi Frank, used to say…”  “Rabbi Bob, at the next synagogue over, has always taught…”  Of course, beyond citing other scholars, they would also invoke the authority of the Sacred Scriptures—the Law and the Prophets—with especial reverence for the words of Moses.  The people in the synagogue that Sabbath were astonished because “he taught them as one having authority.”  We don’t know the details of that particular sermon, but on a number of other occasions we hear Jesus say, “You have heard it said…but I say to you….”  His authority was all his own.

When someone speaks with that sort of authority, you sit up straight and pay attention.

Does Jesus still have that same authority?  Yes.  Is he still speaking?  Yes.  But are we paying attention?

When was the last time you heard the voice of the Lord?  (You might be thinking, “I’d better be careful how I answer this question or I’ll end up in therapy!”)

There are some usual, dependable, recognized places where we can always hear the Lord speaking. 

One of them is through the Scriptures.  We don’t believe that the Bible is just ink on a page, preserving dead words from the distant past; instead, we believe it is the living word of God, which still has plenty to say to you and me today.  That’s why, as a parish priest, one of the most distressing things I regularly see is people reading their bulletins during the first part of the Mass—preferring to browse the announcements rather than give their full attention to God as he’s speaking.  When God speaks, we should sit up straight and listen.

Another dependable place to hear the Lord’s voice is in the teaching of the Church.  The Church is not merely a human institution, but is in fact the Body of Christ, guided by the Holy Spirit.  Now, I’m not referring here to mere offhanded comments or the personal opinions of the clergy—whether it’s a deacon, a priest, a bishop, or even the pope.  But when the Church officially teaches on matters of faith and morals, she does so with an authority given her by Jesus Christ.  With Jesus’ own authority the Church applies what the Lord has said in the past to our lives today.  And so when the Church teaches, we ought to really pay attention.

Yet another place we can expect to regularly hear the voice of the Lord is in the lives and writings of the saints.  The friends of God, who have given flesh and blood to the words of Scripture and the teaching of the Church, are a loud and clear message to you and me of the holiness to which we have all been called.  Get to know the saints and you’ll come to recognize the sounds of God’s voice.

But God also can—and often does—speak to us in some unexpected, unusual ways.  Maybe it’s through the words of the book you’re reading or a song that comes over the radio; maybe it’s in conversation with a stranger or while gazing upon a sunset; maybe it’s in silence or in the sound of a baby’s cry (which is why I think we ought to let the children speak, even if it’s loudly and in the middle of the homily).

But we won’t ever hear the voice of the Lord if we aren’t listening for it.  And what we hear won’t matter a bit if we don’t take his authority seriously.

Who in that synagogue in Capernaum takes the authority of Jesus most seriously?  The demon!  The unclean spirit knows who Jesus really is and fully recognizes his absolute authority.  The spirit hates to do it, but he can’t resist.  For the forces of evil, this is a losing battle.  They must obey.

But we have a choice when we stand before Jesus, when we hear his word.  Jesus came to destroy the sway of the devil and his minions.  But us?  Jesus came to save us.  Yet we can only be saved if we’re willing: willing to acknowledge Jesus identity; willing to recognize his authority; willing to follow him; willing to obey.

Jesus is still speaking.  Listen carefully, and you’ll be amazed.

* * *
After Holy Communion:
Jesus is just as present to us here and now as he was on another Sabbath long ago in that synagogue in Capernaum—present to us today in the Sacrament of his Body and Blood.  And Jesus is still speaking, Jesus is still teaching.  During these few moments of silence, let us still our hearts and minds so we can give our full attention to the voice of the Lord as he speaks to us again.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Have You Heard the News?

   Third Sunday in Ordinary Time   B 

The news these days often has you shaking you head, doesn’t it?  But sometimes, news has an even greater power: to make us drop everything and stop us in our tracks.

I think of the evening last July when I got a phone call telling me my family’s farm was on fire.  Within ten minutes I was in the car and heading fast for home.  And it only took me ten whole minutes because I needed some time to get my head wrapped around what I’d heard and to tell Fr. Scott I probably wouldn’t be back until very, very late.

But it’s not only bad news that can make you drop everything.  In 2015, not long after Pope John Paul II had died, I was in Washington visiting a priest friend who was studying there.  He was dropping me off to spend the afternoon at the Smithsonian as he headed off to class at Catholic University.  I literally had one foot already out of the car when we heard coming over the radio: “Breaking news from Rome—there’s white smoke at the Vatican!”

“Shut the door!” my friend shouted as he hit the gas.  “Where are we going?” I asked. “I don’t know,” he said, “but we’ve got to find a television fast!”  We ended up at a bar (sounds like a joke doesn’t it?—“two priests walk into a bar…”), waiting for the good news of just who the Cardinals had elected as our new Pope.

In the gospel reading this Sunday, St. Mark tells us that Jesus came “proclaiming the gospel of God.”  But what does that word, “gospel,” mean?  And where does it come from?

Literally, the word “gospel” means “good news” or “glad tidings.”  In Greek—the language of the New Testament—the word is euangelion.  In Old English, that became good spiel, which then became godspell (remember that musical from the ’70’s?), and eventually gospel.

The word euangelion existed before Christians began to use it in relation to Jesus—and it didn’t point to just any ol’ happy message.  In the first century, it was specifically connected to good news in connection with the Roman emperor.  (Even way back then most of the news was political.)  If Caesar had a son, if an heir was born, that was shared throughout the empire as an euangelion, as good news.  When a new emperor ascended to the throne, it was an euangelion.  When the emperor won a military victory, it too was an euangelion.  And since Caesar couldn’t tweet his good news to the four corners of his vast realm, he sent our flesh-and-blood messengers known as “evangelists” to start spreading the news.

So consider how that word sounded when it was used by the first Christians.  Think back a month to Christmas.  What was the message of the angel?  “Do not be afraid, for I bring you good news of great joy—euangelion—for all the people!”  This was an announcement that didn’t come from Rome, but straight from heaven.  And it hailed the birth, not of Caesar’s son, but of the Son of God.  Now that’s good news!

Then think a couple of months ahead to Easter.  The apostles—some of whom we begin to meet this Sunday—will go forth from Jerusalem to spread a joyful message—an euangelion: that this Son of God took upon himself what we deserved—he died for our sins on the Cross—and has risen from the dead.  The emperor may have had the power to take life, but Jesus had the power to give it anew.  Caesar might have been victorious on the battlefield, but Christ has conquered even greater enemies: no less than the devil, death, and hell.   Now that’s good news!

How ought we respond to such news from the Lord?

In our first reading, the prophet Jonah is sent to the city of Nineveh with a less-than-cheery announcement: “Forty days, and your city will be wiped out!”  What do the people do when they hear this news?  They stop in their tracks.  They drop everything.  They repent of their evil ways and their city is spared.

In our reading from the Gospel of Mark, Jesus encounters Simon and Andrew, James and John, along the shores of the Sea of Galilee.  He proclaims the gospel, the good news, to them, and how do they respond?  They drop their nets.  They walk away from their families.  They leave everything behind to follow Jesus.

Now, we can wonder about the motivation of these four men when they walk away so quickly from their boats.  Given how many times we hear about these fishermen coming in with empty nets, we could get the impression that they were poor and simple country bumpkins.  Following this wandering preacher surely would have seemed like a more interesting venture—and might even be their meal ticket.  Why, they didn’t have anything to loose!  But did you catch that detail at the end of the reading?  When the sons of Zebedee walk away, they leave their father in the boat  “along with the hired men.”  We’re talking about successful businessmen here.  Following Jesus would entail some real and serious sacrifice.

When was the last time you dropped everything for Jesus?  When was the last time you dropped anything for Jesus?

Maybe there’s a sin that has plagued you for far too long.  Is Jesus calling you to stop in your tracks and leave it behind, so it will no longer be an obstacle in your relationship with him?  Maybe what you’re called to drop isn’t something wicked, but something good.  As St. Paul reminds us, we Christians must relate to the things of this passing world in a very different way than do all the rest.  Is Jesus calling you to make some sacrifice—big or small—in order to follow him more closely than before?

Of course, if we’re going to be motivated to drop anything or everything, then we must be struck deeply by the good news.  Most of us have little trouble recognizing the gospel as good; but after two thousand years, we do struggle to receive it as news.  But let this sink in again: God became man for you; God died on a Cross for you; God rose from the dead for you.  Whoa!  Can anything really be more consistently newsworthy than that?  We mustn’t allow ourselves to ever take the gospel for granted.

Ask Jesus for the grace to hear his gospel again as if for the first time.  Let is stop you in your tracks.  Drop your nets, and follow him.

* * *
After Holy Communion:
Jesus is as really and truly present to us here and now as he was to Simon and Andrew, James and John, when walking along the shores of the Sea of Galilee.  He’s really present to us in his precious Body and precious Blood—present before us in the tabernacle, present within us in Holy Communion.  He’s still announcing the gospel: that God is with us, that God loves us, that God will stop at nothing to save us.  And he’s still calling, now as then.  Ask the Lord in these few silent moments to open your eyes to recognize any sin from which you still need to repent—and to give you the strength to walk away from it.  Ask Jesus to make it clear if there’s any sacrifice he wants you to make for the sake of your relationship with him—and to give you the courage to drop your nets and follow.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

You Called?

   Second Sunday in Ordinary Time   B 

It was just about 75 degrees colder when I left for the early Mass this morning than it was when I went out to get groceries on Friday afternoon.  Brrr!

But let’s talk about something other than the frosty weather for a few minutes…

Fifteen years or so ago, when I was still a recently ordained priest, I was appointed as an assistant vocations director.  That basically meant that Sr. Rose and I went around to the Catholic schools in the diocese to speak to the classes about vocations.  To be blunt: we were looking for new recruits!  And as we talked with the kids about our lives as a priest and a nun, we told the story of the call of young Samuel that we heard in our first reading today.  As a matter of fact, we’d have the students help us tell it by acting it out.  We’d dress up one boy as Samuel, another as Eli, the priest, and then one of the girls as Hannah, Samuel’s mother.  And then we’d try to convince the rest of the kids that we’d saved the most important role for them: to be the voice of God.  Whenever we gave the signal, they’d all whisper together, “Samuel…   Samuel…,” and then they’d giggle as Samuel got up and ran to Eli again and again and again.

This familiar story from the First Book of Samuel is frequently used to speak to both children and adults about vocations.  I want to take some time with you today to explore a bit of that story’s wider context so that we can see how it speaks to vocations in a broader, more fundamental sense that just about priests and nuns.

Let’s begin by considering why a young boy like Samuel is having a sleepover in the temple in the first place.  Samuel’s mother, Hannah, was the second wife of her husband.  His first wife bore him children, but Hannah had not.  While her husband did everything he could to make sure Hannah would know just how much he loved her, his first wife couldn’t resist rubbing Hannah’s nose in her barrenness. 

When the whole family made it’s annual trip together to worship at the temple, Hannah had reached the breaking point.  She went off by herself before the Lord to pray, and poured out her hurt and her shame with such passion that Eli, the priest, thought she was drunk.  In fact Eli—not exactly known for his stellar people skills, but more about that in a minute—told Hannah just as much and tried to shoo her out of the temple for making such a spectacle of herself.  But through her sobs and her tears, Hannah made a promise to the Lord: if he looked with favor on her sorrow and granted her a son, she’d give the boy over to the Lord’s service his whole life long.

Hannah headed home, and soon afterward she and her husband conceived.  (In fact, she’d go on to have five other children—three boys and two girls.  Now who’s taunting who?!?)  When the boy, Samuel, had been weaned, Hannah brought him to the temple to serve before the Lord, and she sang a hymn of praise to the faithful God who raises up the lowly.

At the temple, Samuel is under the direction of Eli, the priest.  When it comes to priests, Eli isn’t the sharpest tool in the shed.  In fact, whenever we hear about him, he’s either sitting down or fast asleep—as he is in today’s reading.  This isn’t an indicator that he’s feeble or overworked; it’s the biblical way of telling us that he’s lazy and lax about his duties—literally “lying down on the job.”  A priest’s role was to stand before the Lord on behalf of the people, but Eli was always taking a seat.  His two sons were worse yet: not only slackers, but swindlers who took advantage of those who came to offer sacrifice and thus stealing from the Lord.

Between Hannah and Eli, we have Samuel: a key figure of the Old Testament who will go on to anoint Israel’s first kings.  Samuel is attentive and hard working.  In time, he will become quite expert in recognizing and responding to the voice of the Lord.  So where does this young man learn how to stand before the Lord?  Certainly not from Eli or his sons!  It’s not from the “professionally” religious, but from the example of his mother whose devout prayer was heard and who kept her promise to the Lord.

That big picture of the call of Samuel tells us something crucial about vocations!  While we focus a lot of time and attention on recruiting priests and nuns—and God knows, we need them!—we must not neglect those vocations which serve as their foundation.  I, for one, can attest that I wouldn’t be preaching to you here today if my parents and grandparents hadn’t heeded their own call from God in handing on the Catholic faith to me.

Our gospel reading this Sunday widens the circle a bit further yet.  We find John the Baptist pointing out his cousin, Jesus, to some of his own followers and friends: “Behold the Lamb of God!  This is the one I’ve been telling you about all along!”  So Andrew and a companion begin following Jesus.  And after spending only one afternoon with Jesus, what’s Andrew’s immediate reaction?  To go and get his brother, Simon: “Let me tell you about this guy I just met.  You have to come and meet him, too!”  As it is with mothers and fathers, so too is there a vocation for brothers and sisters and friends.

It should be noted that, like any call from God, these vocations are not insignificant, nor can we simply presume someone else will pick up the slack.  If Andrew hadn’t gone to get his brother, there’d have been no Peter, no Rock, no Pope, no Church as we know it.  And if Hannah hadn’t taught Samuel how to stand before the Lord, he would have never anointed King David, which means there would have been no Son of David, no Messiah, no Christ.  God still has plans to do great things, and—as much as we depend on him for everything—he’s also depending on us.

I invite you to ponder this Sunday: who taught you to stand before the Lord?  Clearly somebody did, and did it well, or you wouldn’t have ventured out to Mass when it’s 15 below!  Thank God today for their good example.

And then ponder: as a mother or father, brother or sister, friend or classmate or coworker, who in my life right now needs me to introduce them to Jesus?  Pray for those people, and ask for the courage to bring them to Christ.

As we stand before the Lord today, the Lord is still speaking.  Let’s make sure we, his servants, are still listening, still ready to do his will, still answering his call.

* * *

After Holy Communion:
We have indeed just beheld the Lamb of God in the Most Blessed Sacrament, just as really and truly as when John the Baptist pointed Jesus out to Andrew and the first Apostles.  And now as then, Jesus asks us, “What are you looking for?”  In a few silent moments, as we remain with Jesus and Jesus remains with us—before us in the tabernacle and even within us in Holy Communion—let us consider that probing question.  We cannot begin to lead others to Jesus if we’re not clear ourselves about what we seek.  In your heart now, answer that question of Jesus: “What are you looking for?”

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Seekers Sought

   The Epiphany of the Lord   

Have you ever tried to size up a stranger from a distance?  When the police do it these days we call it “profiling”…but we all do it from time to time.  Someone catches your eye—maybe it’s mere curiosity, or maybe there’s a sudden romantic attraction—and you begin to look for clues, to read the signs, attempting to figure this person out.  You look at what he’s wearing, how she carries herself, and even begin asking questions of others, using a combination of observation and intuition to formulate an idea of just what sort of person he or she might be. 

Sometimes we read the signs rightly, but other times we get them all wrong.  You might assume the ring on her finger means she’s spoken for, and so decide not to approach and engage her in conversation…which means you’ll never find out that the ring is a keepsake from her grandmother that she pulled out of her jewelry box this morning.

There’s only one way to really get to know another person, and that is if the other person speaks and opens his or her mind and heart to you.  We may try our best to gain knowledge from the outside, but the inside must be revealed to us.  And when that person reveals him- or herself, then we must adjust or initial perceptions—confirming what we got right and correcting what we got wrong.

That little insight from everyday experience can shed some necessary light on the life of the soul.

We live at a time (although we’ve seen it before in history) when people want to divide spirituality from religion.  We’ve all heard it: “I’m spiritual, just not religious.”  There are any number of reasons for this.  Some people are just asserting their independence, and don’t wish to be considered a member of any particular faith.  Others believe it would be insensitive, or arrogant, or downright undemocratic, to make any specifically religious claim on knowledge of the absolute.  Some think that differing religions only serve to divide the human race and disturb the peace.  Others are convinced that all spiritual paths are equal and lead to the same conclusion.  Many claim they can encounter the divine just fine in their family, in their work, or out in nature, and so they don’t need any outside help or interference—thank you very much!

And so we end up with a lot of folks who are spiritual, but not exactly religious; who are comfortable with vague intuitions of the holy, with the basic, common wisdom shared among many traditions, but not with specific, definitive claims to the truth; who are seekers, but not quite believers.

The thing is, when we settle for spirituality alone, God becomes something for us to discover—as if the Almighty has gone and gotten himself lost, and it’s up to us to bring him out of hiding.  It makes us the active party, and God pretty passive.  Even more, it tends to make God a vague presence, a distant and disinterested power, an abstract force.  And such a God makes no concrete demands of us—and we rather like discovering a God on our own terms and based on our own expectations, which might even be able to manipulate.

The God of Christianity, however, is not like this at all.  The God of the Bible isn’t an abstract force, but living and personal.  The Lord isn’t standing far off, waiting for us to figure him out all on our own; rather, he has spoken to us, opening his heart and mind, revealing himself.  In fact, God is the seeker—pursuing man.  It’s earth that’s shrouded in darkness and clouds, and glorious light from heaven that dispels them—not the other way around.  It’s God self-revelation that gives order, focus, and direction to the vague notions and longings of the human spirit—both confirming what we got right and correcting what we got wrong.

The magi help us to see how this applies to each of our lives.  Who are these magi?  We don’t really know.  They’re likely from Babylon or Persia.  And they’re clearly star-gazers: a cross between astronomers and astrologers, who not only study and record the movements of the heavenly bodies, but who also attempt to find meaning in them.  In other words, they’re seekers—and they represent the spiritual seekers of all times and places.  But despite their great intelligence and keen intuition, they still don’t really know where they’re going as they follow that star…that is, until they come to the Holy Land and encounter the Jewish people.  By way of King Herod, they come in contact with the chief priests and scholars of Israel: the experts in God’s revelation.

The Israelites were a people specially chosen by God.  But while distinct and unique, they weren’t chosen for themselves, as if they were somehow better than everybody else; they were chosen for the sake of all people, of all seekers.  Israel is not just one nation among many, pursuing a spiritual path equal to all the rest.  To this particular people God has spoken his mind and opened his heart, gradually revealing himself, forming and preparing them for the crowning moment of his revelation: when he sends the Messiah, his Son.

Now the magi can find what they were always looking for!  It’s no longer a vague search, and ambiguous quest, but something very, very specific: in this town, in this house, resting on this young mother’s knee, is the One that all people always and everywhere seek.

We should learn all we can from science and philosophy and literature.  We should study the world’s great spiritual traditions to soak up their wisdom.  But we must also realize that this will never be enough—that such knowledge and insight must yield to something far deeper.  We Christians have become stewards of the mystery made known by revelation.  All spiritual seeking remains incomplete unless it draws us to the God of Israel, to that swaddled infant lying in a Bethlehem manger, who is himself God’s great Epiphany: the manifestation of his mercy in our human flesh, the revelation of his love for the whole world to see.

We thought we were seeking God.  It turns out we’re the ones being sought. 

In an age that so often settles for spirituality alone, we must not be afraid or ashamed to share our religious convictions.  Revelation is our inheritance as Christians, but it’s one that all people need.  Share what we believe and help the seekers of our day to find what they’ve been unknowingly looking for all along.