The Thomas in us all

Thomas

Some things — like telling time or tying your shoes — you learn once, but we know Jesus Christ gradually, day by day. Human and divine, he makes himself known to us as he promises and as we are ready to receive him.

That’s why Thomas, the apostle, whose feast is today, is such an important figure. Far from being a lonely skeptic, an isolated dissenter, he represents the slowness of heart and mind, the recurrent skepticism, that affects us all.

Yet, Thomas is a sign of hope. He reminds us that the Risen Jesus offers, even to the most unconvinced, the power to believe.

Lord Jesus,
the Thomas in us all
needs the wounds in your hands and side,
to call us to believe
you are our Lord and God.

Risen, present everywhere,
bless those who have not seen,
blind with doubts
or weakened faith, or no faith at all.

Bless us, Lord,
from your wounded hands and side,
strengthen our faith
to believe in you.

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Abraham and Isaac

Roman catacombs, 3rd century

Roman catacombs, 3rd century

For the last week or so at Mass we’ve listened to some beautiful readings about Abraham “our father in faith” from the Book of Genesis. Abraham teaches us what it means to believe.

First perhaps, we learn from him that faith is a gift of God, who approaches us. “The Lord said to Abram: ‘Go forth from the land of your kinsfolk and from your father’s house to a land I will show you.’”

It’s God who gives us the power to believe and calls us to go from what we know to the unknown, to a blessed land God will show us. It’s not a land we find, but a land God shows us. To get to that blessed land, we have to leave the land of our kinsfolk and our father’s house. Faith is God’s gift, a blessing and a challenge.

Today’s reading (Genesis 22,1-19) is about the challenge of faith. “God put Abraham to the test,” it begins. In the greatest test of his faith, Abraham must take his son, Isaac, “your only one, whom you love,” and go up a high mountain and “offer him up as a burnt offering.”

We see intimations of the Passion of Jesus in the story: “the high mountain… the only son, whom you love.” Approaching the mountain, Abraham takes “the wood for the burnt offering and laid it on his son Isaac’s shoulders.” “God will provide the sheep.” Abraham tells Isaac. He builds an altar and arranges the wood. “Next he ties up his son Isaac, and put him on top of the wood on the altar.” All suggests the Passion of Jesus.

But when he takes his knife, God stops him. “I know how devoted you are. You did not withhold from me your beloved son.” And God blesses him. “I will bless you abundantly and make your descendants as the stars of the sky and the sands of the sea.”

The Letter to the Hebrews says, “By faith Abraham, when put to the test, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was ready to offer his only son of whom it was said, ‘Through Isaac descendants shall bear your name.’ He reasoned that God was able to raise even from the dead and he received Isaac back as a symbol.” (Hebrews 11,18-19)

“He reasoned that God was able to raise even from the dead.” Certainly Abraham was weighed down by sadness and the cruelty of it all; he was not a dumb executioner, immune to what he was to do, but “he reasoned,” he believed deep within that God was a God of life. Like Jesus, Abraham was afraid and sad even to death, but he believed in God, a God of love and promise. Like Jesus, he would say “Not my will, but yours be done.”

We ask for that kind of faith.

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The Precious Blood

durer crucifixion

July 1 is the Feast of the Precious Blood of Jesus in the Passionist calendar. On this feast, I think of St. Vincent Strambi, an Italian Passionist who lived as the 19th succeeded the 18th century. Strambi had great devotion to the Precious Blood of Jesus and often preached about it.

He lived in a world convulsed by Napoleon’s dreams of world conquest. Some say over 4 million people, military and civilian, were killed in the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars that stretched on for decades afterwards. Napoleon, bent on victory, saw war and blood shed in mass warfare as the price of empire. Blood was expendable so his own dreams of conquest could be fulfilled.

Strambi, as a priest and bishop involved in his church and time saw the blood of human life as precious. It was being shed in a new crucifixion, not only in fierce battles raging through Europe, but in the suffering, sickness, and hunger that war brought with it. He saw it mingled with the blood that Jesus shed, a precious blood that God mourned and held holy. The Precious Blood gave him a way to appreciate the suffering he witnessed.

The Feast of the Precious Blood not only turns our eyes to the blood flowing from Jesus’ side as he died on the cross, but it calls us to count precious the blood shed in today’s wars, persecutions, capital punishment, and the sufferings of the poor.

Painters like Durer (above) pictured angels holding cups catching blood from Jesus’ wounds. Don’t let his blood fall to the ground unnoticed, he tells us. It’s precious. All human life is precious.

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The First Martyrs of Rome

June 30th, the day after the feast of Saints Peter and Paul, we remember the Christians  martyred with them in Nero’s persecution in the mid 60s, a persecution that shook the early  church of Rome.

It began with an early morning fire that broke out on July 19, 64 in a small shop by the Circus Maximus and spread rapidly to other parts of the city, raging nine days through Rome’s narrow street and alleyways where more than a million people lived in apartment blocks of flimsy wooden construction.

Only two areas escaped the fire; one of them, Trastevere, across the Tiber River, had a large Jewish population.

Nero, at his seaside villa in Anzio when the blaze began, delayed returning to the city. Not a good move for a politician, even an emperor. Angered by his absence,  people began believing that he  set the fire himself so he could rebuild the city on grand plans of his own.

To stop the rumors, Nero looked for someone to blame. He chose a group of renegade Jews called Christians, whose reputation was tarnished by incidents years earlier when the Emperor Claudius banished some of them from Rome after rioting occurred in the synagogues over Jesus Christ.

“Nero was the first to rage with Caesar’s sword against this sect,” the early-Christian writer Tertullian wrote. “To suppress the rumor,” the Roman historian Tacitus says, “Nero created scapegoats. He punished with every kind of cruelty the notoriously depraved group known as Christians.”

We don’t know their names,  how long the process went on or how many were killed: the Roman historians do not say. Possibly  60,000 Jewish merchants and slaves lived in the Rome then; some followed Jesus, even before Peter and Paul arrived in the city. Before the great fire these Christians had broken with the Jewish community.

Following usual procedure, the Roman  authorities seized some of them and forced them by torture to give the names of others. “First, Nero had some of the members of this sect arrested. Then, on their information, large numbers were condemned — not so much for arson, but for their hatred of the human race. Their deaths were made a farce.” (Tacitus)

The Christians were killed with exceptional cruelty in Nero’s gardens and in public places like the race course on Vatican Hill. “Mockery of every sort accompanied their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired.” (Tacitus)

Nero went too far, even for Romans used to barbaric cruelty. “There arose in the people a sense of pity. For it was felt that they (the Christians) were being sacrificed for one man’s brutality rather than to the public interest.” (Tacitus)

You can imagine how those Roman Christians reacted as victims of this absurd, unjust tragedy. Did they ask where God was, why this happened, why didn’t God stop it?  Fellow believers  turned them in.

The Gospel of Mark, written shortly after this tragedy in Rome, was likely written to answer these questions.  Jesus, innocent and good, experienced death at the hands of wicked men, that gospel insists. He suffered a brutal, absurd death. Mark’s gospel gives  no answer to the question of suffering except to say that God saved his Son from death.

The Gospel of Mark also presents an unsparing account of Peter’s denial of Jesus in his Passion. It offers no excusing words for the failure of a church’s leader. Was it calling the Roman church experiencing betrayals to forgive as God forgave his fallen apostle?

Finally, the Christians of Rome would surely ask: should they stay in this city, this Babylon, a city where they found so much evil? Should they go to a safer, better place?

In spite of it all, they stayed in the city to work for its good.

May God strengthen us through the prayers of the martyrs of Rome to understand the evil we face in the light of the Passion of Jesus. Grant through them too, the patience to do God’s will where we are.

There’s a  video about the persecution at the beginning of this blog.

Here’s a video about Peter’s encounter with Jesus as he flees from the city during this same persecution: “Quo Vadis?”

Here are Stations of the Cross in  the gardens of Ss.Giovanni e Paolo in Rome, once the gardens of the Emperor Nero. Were some of the early Roman martyrs put to death here?

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The Feast of Peter and Paul

The church of Rome considers Peter and Paul her founders. By God’s will they came to the city and preached and died  there during the persecution by Nero in the early 60s. Their burial places, marked by great churches, St. Peter at the Vatican and St. Paul Outside the Walls, are among the treasures of the city.

They could not be more unlike: Paul, the educated Pharisee from Tarsus, who came late to Christianity and like a runner raced from place to place in the Roman world to plant the faith. In the end, he believed God would give him “a crown of righteousness”  for his mighty efforts.

Peter,  the fisherman from Galilee, was named by Jesus  the Rock on whom he would build his church. He denied Jesus three times and then was called by Jesus  three times  to shepherd the flock. Warily, he went to Caesarea to baptize a Roman soldier, Cornelius. Then, he went to the gentile cities of Antioch and Rome to tell the story of the One he had seen with his own eyes.

We ask for Paul’s zealous faith to bring the gospel to the world before us, and Peter’s deep love for Jesus Christ which he voiced at the Sea of Galilee and at his preaching and death.

St. Augustine commented on this feast and on the threefold call Jesus made to Peter. Jesus called three times to conquer the apostle’s “self-assurance.”

“Quite rightly, too, did the Lord after his resurrection entrust his sheep to Peter to be fed. Not that he alone  was fit to feed the Lord’s sheep, but when Christ speaks to one, he calls us to be one. And he first speaks to Peter, because Peter is the first among the apostles.

“Do not be sad, Peter. Answer once, answer again, answer a third time. Let confession conquer three times with love, because your self-assurance was conquered three times by fear. What you had bound three times must be loosed three times. Loose through love what you had bound through fear. And for all that, the Lord once, and again, and a third time, entrusted his sheep to Peter.”

“Today we celebrate the  the passion of two apostles. These two  were as one; although they suffered on different days, they were as one. Peter went first, Paul followed. We are celebrating a feast day consecrated for us by the blood of the apostles. Let us love their faith, their lives, their labors, their sufferings, their confession of faith, their preaching.”

“May your church in all things

follow the teaching of those

through whom she has received

the beginning of right religion.”

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The Daughters of Jesus

 

To listen to today’s homily, please select the audio file below:

In this Sunday’s gospel, the evangelist Mark runs two stories together. A synagogue official, Jairus is his name, goes to Jesus pleading that he come and cure his little daughter who’ s dying. Jairus is obviously an important figure in that area; people know him and immediately a crowd gathers to follow the synagogue official and Jesus to the house.

That story is interrupted by the story of a woman– we don’t know her name– who has had hemorrhages for twelve years and spent all her money on doctors. Obviously she’s poor, broke and stressed out. She pushes through the crowd on the way to Jairus’ house and touches Jesus cloak and is cured. Jesus recognizes her and calls her. “In fear and trembling” she approaches him. “Daughter,” Jesus says to her, “ your faith has saved you. Go in peace and be cured of your affliction.” To Jesus the woman is his “daughter,” like the daughter of Jairus, someone who is dear to him.

Then the gospel returns to the first story. Jesus reaches Jairus’ house, the little girl is dead. They’re all mourning loudly. He raises the little girl up to life and tells them to give her something to eat.

It’s easy to say which of those two stories would make the 6 o’clock news tonight or the Daily News headlines tomorrow. Daughter of Synagogue Official Saved from Death.

You wonder why Mark’s Gospel runs those stories together the way it does? The unknown woman’s story seems to interrupt the far more dramatic story about the synagogue official’s little girl who dies and is brought back to life. Yet, Mark’s gospel puts the two stories together, seemingly to indicate that both them must be told and are somehow interconnected.

I’m thinking of these stories in the light of Pope Francis’ new encyclical, Laudato Si, on the environment, which was published last week. That encyclical has a lot of interconnected stories too. You can concentrate on one of its dramatic highlights, like it’s urgent call to do something about climate change and either agree or disagree with the pope and pass over all the rest. But the pope’s encyclical is many sided. There’s a great deal in it. It’s about more than climate change or carbon credits or the impact it may have on our American political scene.

The pope is asking us to examine the way we look at things, the way we look at life, the way we look at nature, our common home. He wants us to examine ourselves in the light of our faith, but also in the view of the realities of life today. The encyclical is addressed primarily to Catholics, but he’s asking all people to look at what it means to live together on this planet now.

Encyclicals are long letters, densely constructed, and this one is too, 184 pages. But if you take your time and go through it slowly, and that’s hard because so many of us like our news in sound bites, you will find it’s stimulating and challenging. I’m sure we are going to be exposed to the “stories” in this encyclical in the months and years to come. I don’t think it’s going to go away.

The encyclical is on the internet. You can get it on the Vatican website, and I’m sure you’ll find it in print very shortly.

The pope’s language is strong, but remember the pope’s a preacher, and they say a preacher is supposed to “Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”

It’s not just governments, or corporations and communities and systems he’s challenging. It’s all of us. We “have grown up in a milieu of extreme consumerism that makes it difficult to see the world as it is, particularly the world of the poor.” He’s asking us to see the world as it’s interconnected.

For the pope, the environment is not just nature, but nature and human society together. He’s calling, not just for awareness, but an awareness that translates into new habits. (209) He’s asking for an “ecological conversion. It’s not enough to think about these things; we need to change our ways.

And changing our ways and our lives is always hard. We get used to the way we live, the ways we think and the way we are.

On final thing to remember about this encyclical: the pope wants us to look at things with an eye on the poor, the poor that are close by and the global poor who live in places we never see or hear about. In his letter, the pope sometimes refers to poor as the “excluded,” they don’t enter into our world or our planning or our thinking. But they should.

And maybe that’s why this Sunday’s gospel is so pertinent. The two stories in it are about two worlds. Jairus the synagogue official is someone people know. He has a name, and Jesus goes to his house and raises his daughter to life. The poor woman who comes up to Jesus in the crowd has no name. She lives in fear and trembling. But Jesus calls her “daughter,” she’s his daughter too, and she will not be turned away.

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Laudato Si and the Passion of Jesus Christ

Lent 1
The temptation when reading Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si, on our common home, is to limit it to a series of political or economic or social recommendations. It goes deeper than that.

Early on in his encyclical Laudato Si, the pope says that “Our goal is not to amass information or to satisfy curiosity, but rather to become painfully aware, to dare to turn what is happening to the world into our own personal suffering and thus to discover what each of us can do about it. (19) He’s asking for a change in the way we see things and do things.

A painful seeing and a painful doing. The pope seems to me to be recommending we take the traditional form of Christian prayer, meditation on the Passion of Christ, and extend it to a meditation on the pains of creation and the pains of the poor. We are to make their pain our own and then “discover what each of us can do about it.”

Mystics are usually the people who see the connection of things. Is the pope calling for a passion mysticism, prompted by the Passion of Jesus, that hears “both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor?” (49)

I like his quotation of the Sufi spiritual writer Ali al-Khawas who “stresses that we not put too much distance between creatures of the world and the interior experience of God.”

“Prejudice should not have us criticize those who seek ecstasy in music or poetry. There is a subtle mystery in each of the movements and sounds of this world. The initiate will capture what is being said when the wind blows, the trees sway, water flows, flies buzz, doors creak, birds sing, or in the sound of strings or flutes, the sighs of the sick, the groans of the afflicted…” (EVA DE VITRAY-MEYEROVITCH [ed.], Anthologie du soufisme, Paris 1978, 200).

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