The Passion of John the Baptist

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Venerable Bede has a thoughtful homily on the death of John the Baptist, whose head was cut off by order of Herod, at the prompting of his wife Herodias. The story told in Mark 6 is a dramatic tale of revenge and loyalty, and we celebrate it today as a feast of the church. The Church calls it “The Passion of John the Baptist” because it predicts the Passion of Jesus.

Bede says John’s story was noticed by heaven, where things are judged differently than here on earth.  If John had remained silent about Herod’s conduct, perhaps he could have gained a few peaceful years of life.

“His persecutor had demanded not that he should deny Christ, but only that he should keep silent about the truth. Nevertheless, he died for Christ. Does Christ not say: I am the truth?”

 John’s death prefigured the death of Jesus Christ, Bede says; because of the values both of them valued, they were unjustly killed.

He preached the freedom of heavenly peace, yet was thrown into irons by ungodly men; he was locked away in the darkness of prison, though he came bearing witness to the Light of life.”

But heaven notices– not the span of our lives– but how we live them, speaking the truth.

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Augustine

Augustine

The Word of God, maker of time, becoming flesh was born in time.

Born today, he made all days.

Ageless with the Father, he was born of a mother, entering our years.

Man’s maker became man; the ruler of the stars sucked at a mother’s breasts,

Bread hungered,

the Fountain thirsted,

the way was wearied by the journey,

the truth stood accused by false witnesses,

the life slept,

the judge of the living and the dead was judged by a human judge,

justice was condemned by injustice,

the righteous was beaten by whips,

the cluster of grapes was crowned with thorns,

the upholder of all hung from a tree,

strength became weak,

health was stricken with wounds,

life died.

He humbled himself that we might be raised up.

He suffered evil that we might receive good,

Son of God before all days, son of man these last days,

from the mother he made, from the woman who would never be, unless he made

her.  (Augustine, Sermon 191, 1; PL 38, 1010)

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Monica

Monica augustine

We remember two saints together this week in our calendar, Monica and her son Augustine. I was thinking of a song I knew long ago, “A Mother’s Love’s a Blessing.” Augustine could have sung that song.

In his “Confessions,” he praised God for drawing him “late” to the faith he found so beautiful, but Augustine also acknowledged that his mother’s tears and prayers brought him to Jesus Christ. She was like the woman in the gospel who brought her dead son through the gates of the town of Naim to bury him and Jesus saw her tears and stopped the funeral procession and raised her son to life.

“ I was like that son,” Augustine says. ‘I was dead. My mother’s tears won me God’s life.”

Like many women of the time, we don’t know much about Monica. She married a man named Patricius, a tough husband who put her down and went out with other women. They had three kids. She felt Augustine was someone special, and she followed him, trying in her own way to get him to be the person she knew he could be. Faith was what she wanted for him above all.

He was a hard son to deal with, so smart, so well educated, so hooked on the “lovely things” about him. He was deaf to her advice, blind to the path she wanted him to take, but she kept following him anyway. Convinced God had something big for him to do, she finally got her wish.

She sounds like so many people today, doesn’t she? Loving their kids, or their husbands or their wives or their friends, but worried about them getting mixed up in the wrong things–not going to church, deaf to the gospel. But they stick by them anyway.

That’s not easy to do and so Monica’s someone to remember. Most of us have read those moving words to God Augustine wrote in his Confessions. I wonder if he ever showed them to her.

“O beauty every ancient, O beauty ever new. Late have I have loved thee. You were within me, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for you. In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created. You were with me, but I was not with you. Created things kept me from you; yet if they had not been in you they would have not been at all. You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness. You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness. You breathed your fragrance on me; I drew in breath and now I pant for you. I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more. You touched me, and I burned for your peace.”

The church rightly celebrates Monica’s feast the day before her son’s.

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God doesn’t demonize

We’re reading Paul’s Second Letter to the Thessalonians and the Gospel of Matthew this week at Mass. Paul’s letter was written around the year 55 AD, 20 years or so after the death and resurrection of Jesus. The Gospel of Matthew was written about the year 85 AD, some 40 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection.

In many ways, Paul’s letters help us to understand the gospels. That’s because the gospels reflect the church of Paul’s time as well as the time of Jesus. For example, you’ll notice in Paul’s letters the build up of antagonism between Jews and Christians. When Paul went to different places in the Roman world, he usually went into the Jewish synagogues to preach the gospel. Some accepted his message, some did not.

Still, as Christianity grew and attracted new members, Jews and Greeks, the Jews who remained faithful to the old law became more opposed to this new movement. They sharply confronted Paul himself in the places where he went, even to the point of beating him and trying to kill him. The Pharisaic element in Judaism led the opposition. Paul himself was a Pharisee who actively persecuted Christians before he was dramatically converted.

The growing Jewish opposition influenced the way Matthew pictures Jesus’ relationship with the Pharisees. Matthew’s gospel was written at a highpoint of Jewish-Christian controversy, after the destruction of the temple in 70 AD. If you read only passages from the 23rd chapter of Matthew’s gospel you would think that the Pharisees were Jesus fiercest enemies.

In reality, a number of Pharisees became his most important followers, like Nicodemus and Paul himself. The Pharisees were certainly antagonistic to him in his lifetime; Jesus was angry with them for their blindness to him and his message. But did he see them as mortal, eternal enemies? No, he didn’t.

We have to read the scriptures with an eye on the time they were written and the audience they were written for. It helps us understand the hot rhetoric we hear in Matthew’s reading for today.

But there’s another lesson to learn from readings like these. Be careful not to demonize your enemies. God doesn’t do that and neither should we.

That’s an important lesson to remember today as we look at the Muslim world and the build up of controversy between them and us. Jesus didn’t demonize people; he turned to the thief on the cross, he told the story of a prodigal son, he received back the disciples who abandoned him.,

When we bring the bread and wine to the altar at Mass, we bring all of creation, not just a part of it, for God to receive. “Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation,” we say. All creation is God’s creation. He wishes to bless it and see it at peace and harmony. God wishes us to see things as he see them.

God doesn’t demonize.

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21st Sunday of the Year: Listen to the Prayers

 

To listen to the audio for the Homily, please select the link below:

One of the most important things we do as Catholics is to come to Mass and pray. I’d like to reflect on the prayers of the Mass, in particular the Eucharistic Prayer. They’re good guides to prayer at Mass, but before reflecting on the prayers themselves I want to say something that has to be said today.

Praying at Mass begins with us being there. Praying at Mass begins with us showing up.

Someone once said “Most of life is showing up.” I don’t think we realize how much we need each other “showing up” in church. Suppose the music ministers didn’t show up, the readers, the ministers of communion, the altar servers, the ushers, the deacon, the priest didn’t show up?

We notice people at Mass week after week, year after year. We encourage each other. I often feel in awe watching someone coming into church in a wheelchair or on oxygen support, or mothers and fathers dragging their kids in. Showing up together is a key to praying at Mass.

We’re at Mass to give thanks. “Let us give thanks to the Lord our God,” the priest says at the beginning of the Eucharistic Prayer. When we celebrate Mass, the Sacrament of the Eucharist, we give thanks to God together.

What does it mean to thank God? The English writer, C.S. Lewis, has a wonderful reflection on thanking God in a little book he wrote on the psalms. (Reflections on the Psalms) Lewis turned away from God for awhile. When he returned and began to pray again he was bothered by the way our prayers urge us again and again to thank God. Why do we keep on praising God, he wondered? Was God a “prima donna” or a dictator looking for our adulation?

After thinking about it, Lewis said he realized that thanksgiving and praise are embedded in ordinary human life. To be thankful and to praise are actually signs of a healthy life. Ordinary life rings with praise and thanksgiving, he wrote:

There’s “…praise of weather, wines, dishes, actors, motors, horses, colleges, countries, historical personages, children, flowers, mountains, rare stamps, rare beetles, even sometimes politicians and scholars.”

Healthy people praised most, Lewis noticed; cranks and malcontents praise least. He came to the conclusion that praise and thanksgiving are indications of an “inner health made visible.”

That’s true, isn’t it? People who are inwardly healthful praise most; cranks and discontented people praise least. The self-absorbed see only themselves and their little world. Those who lose an appreciation of life because of hurt, loss, or disappointment can lose the ability to enjoy and give thanks and praise.

When we come to Mass, it seems to me, we’re looking for the inner health God wants us to have. It’s so easy to sink in smallmindedness, self-absorption. It’s so easy to let the hurts and sufferings of life get us down. We need to be lifted up to a higher vision of things.

That’s what happens in the mystery of the Eucharist. Do you remember the prayers at beginning of our Eucharistic prayer, the little dialogue that introduces the prayer?

“The Lord be with you.” “And with your spirit.”

“Lift up your hearts.” “We have lifted them up to the Lord.”

“Let us give thanks to the Lord, our God.” “It is right and just.”

The Lord is with us, lifting up our hearts and minds to a greater world that God wants us to see. Like the water poured into the wine, we enter the prayer and vision of Jesus Christ and are lifted up into another, higher world, the world of God’s creation. We give thanks to the Lord, our God in that world, and it’s the right thing to do.

In the Eucharistic Prayer we give thanks for the special gift of the God of Creation: Jesus Christ, who came into the world as God’s Son. Remembering the mysteries of his birth, his life, his death and resurrection, we give thanks for him. And he blesses us with the blessings of his birth, his life, his death and resurrection.

He refreshes us by these mysteries. We’re fed by them. They’re food from heaven that gives us a heavenly vision.

Listen carefully to the prayers of the Mass and make them your own

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Praying the Psalms

The psalms are great prayers that never get old. Here’s a tribute from Pius X whose feastday is August 21.

“Bless the Lord, O my soul.”

“The psalms are like a garden containing the fruits of all the other books of the Bible. Saints like Athanasius and Augustine recognized these powerful prayers. ‘The psalms seem to me to be like a mirror, in which the person using them can see himself, and the stirrings of his own heart; he can recite them against the background of his own emotions.”

Augustine says in his Confessions: “How I wept when I heard your hymns and canticles, being deeply moved by the sweet singing of your Church. Those voices flowed into my ears, truth filtered into my heart, and from my heart surged waves of devotion. Tears ran down, and I was happy in my tears. “

Pius X continues:  “Indeed, who could fail to be moved by those many passages in the psalms which set forth so profoundly the infinite majesty of God, his omnipotence, his justice and goodness and clemency, too deep for words, and all the other infinite qualities of his that deserve our praise? Who could fail to be roused to the same emotions by the prayers of thanksgiving to God for blessings received, by the petitions, so humble and confident, for blessings still awaited, by the cries of a soul in sorrow for sin committed? Who would not be fired with love as he looks on the likeness of Christ, the redeemer, here so lovingly foretold? His was the voice Augustine heard in every psalm, the voice of praise, of suffering, of joyful expectation, of present distress.”

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Water and Wine

A woman at the church where I go on weekends stopped me recently and asked for the pope’s address; she wanted to write him about something. I was curious and enquired what it was about.

 “The prayers at the offertory of the Mass are so beautiful,” she said, “and I want him to tell all the priests to recite those prayers out loud so we can hear them.”

 I’ve heard comments like hers lately; people are listening to the prayers at Mass and elsewhere and want to know more about them. There’s criticism of the present translations of our Mass texts, of course, but still the prayers and actions of the Mass remain the best ways we have to understand the mystery we celebrate.

The woman was especially touched by the mingling of water with the wine that takes place after they’re brought to the altar. As he pours a little water into the wine, the priest says:

“By the mystery of this water and wine

may we come to share in the divinity of Christ

who humbled himself to share in our humanity.”

The wine represents the humble Christ who comes into our world that we may share in his life. The water, so insignificant, represents us who become sharers in his divinity in this mystery.

A priest I know helped out in one of Mother Teresa’s missions in India for awhile and when he was leaving, he told her he was going to pray for her and her sisters. “Just remember us when you put the little drops of water into the chalice at Mass,” she told him.

We’re the water mixed with wine.

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